December 4 2007

Shifting the blame

I, along with all other councillors in Wales, have just received a letter from the Leader of the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) Cllr Derek Vaughan in which he complains about the small increase in local government funding by the Welsh Assembly.
"I am writing to every councillor in Wales", he begins, "to highlight the dire predicament for Welsh councils following the announcement of the local government settlement in Wales by the Assembly."
Cllr Vaughan has two complaints.
Firstly, that the Assembly has restricted the increase in local government funding for next year to 2.2%, and 2.6% and 2.9% for the following two years.
Secondly, that there is an imbalance between these figures and the increases of 3.5%, 4.7% and 5.3% in the Assembly's own spending over the same three years.
To highlight this lack of parity between local and national government, Cllr Vaughan points out that since 2000 Assembly spending has risen by 81% compared to a mere 49% for local government.
Those figures are worth a second look because over the same period compounded inflation has been less than 20% and, as the WLGA leader has the decency to admit, local government has benefited from the huge increases in public spending over the past few years.
That said, it is a bit much to be pleading poverty just because, while your income has gone up by almost three times the rate of inflation, someone else has done even better.
A similar tune is being sung by the county council's director of finance in his recent report to Cabinet.
The director says that the increase in Pembrokeshire's government grant is just 2% compared to the Welsh average of 2.2% and that this "will be extremely challenging . . . with consequential impacts on service provision and council tax levels"
So, whereas modest increases in council tax are all down to the brilliant financial management of the ruling IPG, big increases, which seem to be in prospect for the coming year, are all the Assembly's fault.


What a drag


While crossing the Cleddau Bridge last Monday evening, against a constant stream of traffic stretching back to Sentry Cross roundabout, Old Grumpy turned to thinking about fiscal drag.
Yes, I know it's sad, but it wouldn't do for everyone to spend their idle moments wondering who will be next to be thrown out of Strictly Come Dancing.
Fiscal drag, for Strictly Come Dancing fans, is the phenomena whereby the amount of revenue collected increases without any corresponding increase in the rate.
The county council is forever boasting that it hasn't raised the tolls on the Cleddau Bridge since whenever, but it doesn't need to because the increase in the amount of traffic brings in enough dosh on its own.
Other examples of fiscal drag are raising tax thresholds at less than wage inflation and the large amount of money that flows into the Treasury when rises in petrol prices lead to corresponding increases in the fixed rate tax collected.
Because it operates automatically, fiscal drag is the ultimate stealth tax.
A classic example is the county council's tax base for the purposes of calculating the band D rate of council tax.
Back in 1996/97 Pembrokeshire's tax base (the number of band D equivalent properties) was 41,100.
For next year it has been calculated to be 51,070 an increase of 24% over the period..
In the meantime, the county's population has remained roughly the same.
At the current year's band D rate (£614) this increase in the tax base is worth a cool £6.1 million a year.
Comparing the current year with next year we find the tax base has gone up from 50,417 to 51,100 which means the council can rake in an extra £400,000 even before any increase in the band D rate.

Half a tale


Old Grumpy can never be quite sure whether the Western Telegraph's inability to get to the bottom of things is due to inertia or ineptitude.
Last week it reported that the controversial planning application for East Blockhouse Angle had been taken out of the hands of the National Park and sent to the National Assembly for determination.
The Telegraph reports that "The applicant is the partner of a member of the national park staff, who the Western Telegraph understands is a member of the Asset Management Group.
It is understood that the group considered purchasing the land for the authority's own use last year and it was later bought by the officer's partner."
The officer concerned, who the WT seems reluctant to name, is Gary Meopham the National Park's head of asset management.
As such, Mr Meopham would have played a leading role in the National Park's decision not to purchase the site.
Nor is it entirely true that "the site was later bought by the officer's partner."
According to the Land Registry website the site was bought from QinetiQ by Mark Edward Meopham, Helen Marie Meopham, Gary Charles Meopham and Lisa Jane Bowden of 24 Longmead Gardens, Havant, Hampshire PO9 1RR - Ms Bowden being Gary Meopham's partner.
And, according to the land registry, they bought the site, which comprises some 48 acres and the buildings, for £235,000
The question the Telegraph should be asking is why the planning application is in Ms Bowden's sole name.
I know from my e-mails that staff at the Western Telegraph read this column so it would be surprising if they didn't know the full story, which appeared here on October 30 (Inside track?).


Shutting the stable door


Old Grumpy notices that the Welsh Assembly has moved to block the loophole created by Mr Justice Collins' ruling in the Ken Livingston case.
The Standards Board for England found that Mr Livingston had breached the paragraph 4 of Code of Conduct by bringing the office of councillor into disrepute when he made offensive remarks to an Evening Standard reporter.
Paragraph 4 provides that: A member must not in his official capacity, or any other circumstance, conduct himself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringing his office or authority into disrepute.
Mr Livinston appealed to the High Court where Mr Justice Collins found that the “any other circumstance” is limited to situations where a member is performing his functions as a member of the authority.
In this case, Mr Justice Collins found that Mr Livingston was off-duty and not performing his functions as mayor, and so paragraph 4 of the Code of Conduct did not apply to his behaviour.
This was the same argument used, successfully, by Cllr Brian Hall's solicitor when the county councillor came before the county council's standards committee to answer an Ombudsman's finding that he had brought the office of councillor into disrepute by making verbal threats against a BBC journalist at a function in St Davids (February 6 2007).
In Wales, the wording of paragraph 4 is slightly different: the words "or otherwise" being substituted for "or any other circumstances."
However, until Mr Justice Collins' ruling, everyone, including the Ombudsman, believed that both formulas encompassed disreputable behaviour in whatever capacity.
In Cllr Hall's case, despite the fact that it was in possession of his travel expense claim for the journey to St Davids, the standards committee decided there was no evidence that he had attended the function in his official capacity.
Well, other than the expenses claim, there was no evidence before the committee.
However, the committee didn't hear the full story because, according to the answer given to my written question to the council, the leader, Cllr John Davies, had nominated Cllr Hall to represent him at the function and, for expense claiming purposes, his attendance was certified by the chief executive as being for the proper discharge of the functions of the authority (It's official).
For whatever reason, neither the leader, or the chief executive, seems to have considered that the interests of justice might be best served by making these facts known to the standards committee.
Now, to avoid any doubt as to what the Code means, the assembly is proposing to amend the wording to read "At all times and in any capacity, in respect of all conduct identified in paragraph 6(1)(a) . . ." which provides "6(1)You must: (a) not conduct yourself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringing the office of member or your authority into disrepute."

Pass the sick bag, Alice

Old Grumpy's attention has been drawn to the following press release put out by Cllr Joyce Watson AM (yes she still finds time to do both jobs)...

"Joyce buys Christmas decoration and praises award winning Ceredigion company
Labour Assembly Member for Ceredigion JOYCE WATSON AM is decorating her front door with an award winning Christmas wreath from Cambrian Trees of Ystrad Meurig/ Pontrhydygroes, near Aberystwyth, Ceredigion.
She has written to congratulate them on winning a UK competition to provide the decoration for the famous front door of 10 Downing Street for the festive season.
Joyce Watson said:
“We all know that Ceredigion has some of the best small producers in the country, and Adam and Kim Lionel’s win proves it.
“Having run small businesses myself I know how hard they work all the year round to make our Christmas special.
“The Christmas Tree yard at Ysbyty Ystwyth is now open every day until Christmas and I urge people to support them. You can’t beat the smell of real fir.
“I have been delighted by the positive response I have had to my Christmas challenge to ‘make your shop a local shop’. So far I have stuck by my pledge to do all my Christmas preparations through local shops and suppliers.
“I have also written to Ceredigion Council to seek assurances about the future of the farmers’ markets in Aberaeron, Aberystwyth, and Lampeter.
“My front door may not be Downing Street, but I know Cambrian Trees will do me proud and my guests will feel very welcome, being greeted by such a lovely display.”
PS. I read in one of my Sunday papers that the names of all AMs, MSPs and MPs are automatically entered in Who's Who and that, regardless of their electoral fortunes, their inclusion is for life.
Now, that's what I call making it.

The end is nigh


We are in the finishing straight with the jigsaw (not, repeat not, jig saw) with only 40 pieces left to place.
My theory about missing pieces took another knock when the little girl's red hat turned up, so you can cease pulling up the floorboards.
I can't understand why I couldn't find it, though I haven't ruled out the possibility that, in an attempt to confuse me, Grumpette has been hiding pieces and then replacing them after I have wasted precious hours on a wild goose chase.
After all, what better way to get ahead in her childish quest to claim most of the credit than to get me to squander time by looking for pieces that aren't there.
Now that he jigsaw is almost complete, the futility of the exercise is becoming more and more clear.
There is a perfectly good picture on the front of the box, so what will be achieved by the painstaking creation of its slightly larger twin?

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