6 December 2005

 

 

Councillors' burden

Over the weekend, Old Grumpy amused himself by spending a couple of hours on the website of the Standards Board for England - the body that deals with complaints that councillors have breached the Code of Conduct.
The first judgment I happened upon concerned Cllr Wendy Meikle from Stockport.
It reads:
"It was alleged that Councillor Wendy Meikle was thrown out of a pub for swearing and throwing glasses on 5 November 2004. It was also alleged that she produced her council ID card while she was being ejected and told the pub landlord that his drinks licence would be taken away.
Councillor Meikle said she was at home with her family on the night in question. She said she had never been asked to leave a pub, had never threatened to have a landlord’s drinks licence revoked and did not have a council ID card.
The Ethical Standards Officer was unable to determine whether Councillor Meikle failed to comply with the Code of Conduct because there were no independent witnesses to the alleged incident."
Can't have been a very busy pub!
Another, rather more serious, case concerned Cllr Leslie Wilcox of High Peak Borough Council who was accused of sending emails to council officers containing abusive and insulting language such as "Sweet Fanny Adams" and "Complete Bollix (sic)"
Well, Old Grumpy wouldn't even start to defend that sort of thing, but another of Cllr Wilcox's emails to which the Standards Board took exception contained the words "The majority of this authority is a bloody joke" and "The basic culture of this authority makes my skin crawl".
Whatever happened to free speech?
The adjudication also records: "The Tribunal also decided that the allegations in the emails - especially in relation to the conduct of officers, members and the council in the planning process - brought the authority into disrepute."
Although it doesn't say so, Old Grumpy can only assume that the allegations were untrue because, if whatever allegations Cllr Wilcox made were true, I would have thought it was those whose conduct was under fire who had brought the council into disrepute.
But, things might not be as simple as that, because, the report says: "In addition, the tribunal considered that Cllr Wilcox breached guidance provided by the Chief Executive on the proper way to raise concerns about the conduct of officers."
That raises the possibility that, even if what the member said was true, he could be found guilty merely for failing to abide by the Chief Executive's rules.
As Cllr Wilcox was disqualified from being a councillor for two years, I must learn to watch my Ps and Qs.


Second thoughts

I suppose a problem might arise if a member like Cllr Wilcox came to the conclusion that the official procedure was the likely to end up with a whitewash.
My own experience, prior to becoming a councillor, would seem to suggest that that is a possibility.
I refer to the occasion when the council's Head of Marketing and Communications had me removed from cyberspace by threatening my ISP with legal action if they persisted in publishing the "overtly defamatory and factually inaccurate" material that appeared on my website (see Private and confidential).
I wrote to the council's Monitoring Officer suggesting that this action was a breach of my rights to freedom of expression under the recently enacted Human Rights Act.
He replied, poo-pooing the idea, though counsel's opinion which I had obtained took the opposite view.
The barrister advised that I should set a trap for the council by opening a new website in the hope they would take it off again.
This was done, but, though it contained exactly the same "overtly defamatory and factually inaccurate" material as before, nobody from the council thought, or dared, to complain.

One-man rule

Last week's Sunday Times business section carried the eye-catching front-page headline: "Top public sector pay soars by five times the inflation rate" and on page three there was a list of the top thirty mandarins and their salaries down to the nearest pound.
You might wonder why you never read about this sort of thing in your local paper.
The reason is the pathological secrecy of the county council allied to the way these things are now managed.
As I pointed out a few weeks ago, top pay in the county council is set by a six member Senior Staff Committee.
The six are the Leader, Cllr John Davies, and three of his Cabinet cronies, together with two members from the opposition parties.
As the three cabinet members hold their positions, and the juicy special responsibilities that go with them, entirely at the whim of the Leader, the reality is that Cllr Davies has total control over this committee.
The other thing about this committee is that it has absolute powers to set the pay of the Chief Executive, Directors and Heads of Departments.
And it doesn't even have to report its decisions to the council.
In an attempt to inject a little democracy and openness into the system, I put down a notice of motion calling for a modest change in the constitution that would allow the Senior Staff committee to make recommendations regarding top people's pay that full council would have to endorse before they came into effect.
When this came before the Corporate Governance Committee (CGC) it was rejected.
This is hardly surprising because the 12-member CGC is made up of the Leader and three of his Cabinet cronies, plus the four scrutiny committee chairman, all effectively appointed by the Leader, and four others.
Strangely, two weeks ago the people of Kenya voted by a margin of 57-43 to reject a draft constitution because they considered it gave too much power to the President.
It is hard to believe that we, the people of the world's second oldest continuous democracy (after the Isle of Man) have forgotten that one of the functions of democratic government is is to ensure that power is not concentrated in too few hands.

Preoccupied

In his submission to the Ombudsman regarding my complaint about his bungalow farming activities, Cllr John Davies said: "The fact is, if the functional needs of the business are not sustained the house will not be built. Hardly any point in building a house that cannot be occupied."
This, I have to say, is a non sequitur.
The Welsh Assembly Government's Technical Advice Note (TAN) 6, which governs these matters, advises that applications for agricultural consents should "Scrutinised by the local planning authority with a view to detecting abuse of the concession ...".
The reason the system is open to abuse is the poor fit between the justification for the consent (the need to house a herdsman etc) and the occupancy condition that appears on the planning consent (that occupation is restricted to someone who works full time in agriculture or whose last full time job was in agriculture or the widow or dependents of such a person).
So, it is simply untrue to say that, unless the functional needs of the business are sustained, the house "cannot be occupied".
As I understand the situation, now that consent has been given, Cllr Davies could sell the farm and, provided his last full time job was in agriculture, build the house and move in.
Alternately, he could build the house and sell it to a retired farmer.
That is precisely the abuse that TAN 6 is designed to prevent.
It is perfectly understandable that a professional politician like Cllr Davies should spout this rubbish about "cannot be occupied" but it is rather disturbing that the Ombudsman should swallow it apparently without question.

The innumerates

It is also of concern that the Ombudsman seems to have accepted county council's claim that planning permission would have been granted, even if it had been known that Cllr Davies' company had sold the dairy cattle on which the consent was predicated (see Watchdog or lapdog) even though the mathematics on which this claim is based wouldn't get you to a z at GCSE.(see New Maths?)
I have now had time to analyse the council's "calculations" in more detail, and the result can be found at (Fantasy figures)
On reading this, you may conclude that a z is a serious case of grade-inflation!

In praise of Adam

Poor old Adam Smith is often criticised for being the prophet of greed and materialism that is said to be the hallmark of Thatcherism.
But if you read Smith's works, particularly his "Theory of Moral Sentiments", you will discover that his idea that men (and women) strive to better themselves is not entirely about the pursuit of money and possessions.
Smith's theory was that human beings have certain qualities that make them particularly fit to live together in harmony.
Of course, he doesn't deny that we human beings want to improve our material circumstances, but he also allows that we might find personal satisfaction by acting unselfishly - what we might call altruistically.
I give as evidence the opening words of the Theory:

"How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it."

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