February 14 2006

Misunderstood

According to the county council's deputy leader, Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse, speaking on Radio Pembrokeshire, the fuss about the Cabinet's decision to sell the Mine Depot to Milford Haven Port Authority is all down to a misunderstanding of the meaning of "tender".
It appears that what opponents of the sale refer to as a tender was in fact a bidding process (for a more comprehensive account of the tender process see Tender spot).
How fortunate we are to have someone as academically gifted as Squirehouse (Eton and up-market cow college) to steer us through this minefield of linguistic confusion.
Anyway, the economic development scrutiny committee has now called in the Cabinet's decision for a second look.
At this point I should apologise for a double error in last week's column where I said that either the chairman or five members had three clear days from the date the minutes were posted on the internet in which to call a decision in.
That should have been four members and two days.
It was whispered that the Chairman, Cllr Tom Richards, was going to use his powers to have the decision scrutinised but, in the event, all attempts to telephone him during the two-day window went unanswered.
Several explanations have been advanced for Cllr Richards' disappearance, though suggestions of his removal to a safe house under the council's Chairman's Protection Programme are thought to be somewhat far-fetched.
Nor does Old Grumpy give much credence the scurrilous rumour-mongers who allege that he was keeping his head down in order to avoid giving offence to the Leader who will decide whether he retains his £7,000 special responsibility allowance, when it comes up for renewal at the AGM in May.
As it was, after much scurrying around the county, the necessary four signatures were collected and the scrutiny committee will now consider the matter on Monday.
Last week, I pointed out that the Cabinet minutes had been posted a day earlier than usual, which meant that any notice of call in had to be at County Hall by 5.00 pm Wednesday rather than the normal Thursday.
I have now had time to do some empirical research on the timing of the publication of these minutes and what I find is that, of the 36 meetings of the Cabinet held so far, 30 have been published on the Tuesday; three have appeared on Wednesday, or later; and three - including this latest episode - have been posted on the internet on the Monday of the meeting.
It is interesting to note that, on the other two occasions when the minutes put in an early appearance, the Cabinet had passed resolutions on the controversial and highly unpopular measures to cut expenditure on children's play areas.
Makes you wonder!
Old Grumpy also learns that another cabinet decision - the lease of the Barbecue building in Saundersfoot to the community council - has also been called in.
My moles tell me that, in spite of coming under pressure from the ruling elite (no names, no pack drill) two members of the IPG signed the form.
Indeed, I am told that one member said that the attempt to strong-arm him had made him even more determined to put his name to the call-in request.
I know that one swallow doesn't make a summer but, taken together with last week's Cabinet revolt, there are encouraging signs that the worms may have finally begun to turn.
Perhaps, someone has looked up "independent" in the dictionary!

Fifteen year fiasco

The current row about the Mine Depot gave Old Grumpy that feeling of deja vu all over again because one of the first major investigations I did at the Mercury concerned the initial purchase by Preseli Pembrokeshire District Council from the MoD.
By coincidence that also involved the Milford Haven Port Authority who were prospective bidders for the site.
However, a secret deal between MHPA, PPDC and WDA led to the Port Authority's withdrawal, leaving the field open for Preseli DC.
The deal was that, using the WDA's money, PPDC would acquire the site on the cheap; the WDA having impressed upon the MoD that the price should reflect the lack of competition [engineered by themselves] and in exchange MHPA would be allowed to buy the railway line from the Mine Depot and through Milford Docks to the station at a discount.
What this amounted to was one public body (the WDA) organising a cartel against another public body (the MoD).
When I put this to the WDA they naturally denied all knowledge of this secret deal and claimed that all its correspondence with MHPA had taken place after the sale to PPDC had been finalised in December 1990.
They had to rapidly backtrack when I produced the minutes of a secret meeting of the Milford Haven Implementation Group held on 11 October 1990 in which it was recorded that the WDA officer present had stated that "The General Manager of MHPA would be happy for PPDC to make the bid provided the railway land was made available for development at the Docks."
But that was not the end of the matter because the council's officers who had agreed this deal couldn't implement it without the approval of the elected members, of whom I was one.
Several members from Milford opposed the sale on the grounds that a railway link might be crucial for some future developer.
The matter eventually came before the council when we were told that the WDA had threatened to ask for its grant money back unless the line was sold to MHPA.
However, when I toddled into Cambria House the day before the meeting and asked to see a copy of the WDA's letter it was nowhere to be found, and, at the following day's meeting, the sale proposal was pulled.
In due course, with the help of a large sports council grant, the main building on the site was turned into a sports hall which proved quite popular for a while until in 1997 the extremely well-connected Hon Rhodri Phillipps turned up with a proposal to manufacture stainless steel bars on the site under the name of Crownridge Steel Ltd..
At that point it was discovered that the high-level windows in the sports hall were unsafe and the facility was closed and £50,000 (I think) paid back to the sports council.
There was another bidder on this occasion, and they attempted to have the council's decision to sell to Crownridge Steel judicially reviewed but Rhodri managed to convince the court that he was the next Lakshmi Mittal and the case was thrown out.
The Hon Rhodri installed some machinery and the production of stainless steel got underway.
By now the, then, Cllr Eddie Setterfield had become Rhodri's bestest friend, following him round the site like a dog.
An amusing piece appeared in the Western Telegraph recording that Eddie and sister Barbara had accompanied the Hon Rhodri and his father Viscount St Davids to a polo match on the lawns of Cardiff Castle.
As the Telegraph doesn't have a polo correspondent, it can only be assumed that this story was planted by some shameless name-dropper, but who can blame the Viscount and his son for wanting it to be known they were rubbing shoulders with the county's top brass.
Not long after, much to nobody's surprise, Crownridge Steel went belly up owing the council £25,000.
Also among the creditors was one Edward George Setterfield, who had, unwisely as it turned out, lent Rhodri a caravan worth £800 which had now been seized by the receivers.
That prompted me to write the following Limerick.

Eddie thought it was all very pukka,
Going to Cardiff to witness a chukka,
With the Viscount St D,
And the Hon Rhodri,
Cost him 800 quid, silly fellow.

Never could get the hang of this rhyming business!
As you can see, not a happy story which ever way you look at it.
And now, as we enter a new chapter, who would be brave enough to predict a happy ending?



Own goal

Old Grumpy hears that a rather spectacular row has blown up in the northern territory of Fishguard.
The root of the trouble is a letter from county council Cabinet member for leisure, tourism and culture and sport, Rob Lewis, published in the County Echo
In this letter, Cllr Lewis has some rather harsh things to say about the Mayor of Fishguard's participation in the opening of the new Fishguard leisure centre in the grounds of the town's secondary school..
The historical background to this spat is that the Mayor, Cllr Richard Davies, was a vociferous opponent of the new route in to the school and, according to Cllr Lewis, for him to turn up at the opening ceremony, and have his photo taken with the other notables, shows breathtaking audacity.
"This is the same man who tried to strangle this much needed project at birth, who spoke out publicly against the centre at every available opportunity", the writer thundered, before concluding: "For sheer ruddy cheek Mr Mayor must take the biscuit."
Unfortunately, the county council had not done its homework because, while Cllr Davies was certainly opposed to the new road, it turns out that he had, for many years, been at the forefront of a campaign to have a new leisure centre in the town.
If that was all there was to it, it would be a bit of a storm in a teacup.
But Old Grumpy's moles tell him that Cllr Lewis didn't actually write the letter himself; it was actually written by someone in the Marketing and Communications department (press office).
Now it must be of concern to everyone that the person in charge of our cultural wellbeing lacks the literary skills to write his own letters, though I am told he signed it, which is, I suppose, a start.
But of even greater significance is that the letter was, apparently, written by paid servants of the council.
The task of the Marketing and Communications department is to put out accurate, honest information about the council's activities, not, I would suggest, to mount character-assassinations against the council's perceived enemies.
This is from the same stable, and written in the same aggressive, bullying style as the press release, purporting to come from Cllr Bill Hitchings, which ended "How much longer have the people of Pembrokeshire to put up with his [Old Grumpy's] behaviour." (see Politically neutral?)
But, it is not just his opposition to the new road that has placed Cllr Davies on the council's hit-list.
He was also the man who reported ex-Cabinet member Brian Howells to the Ombudsman, with the result that Mr Howells was found to have breached the Code of Conduct by failing to declare an interest during a meeting of Fishguard and Goodwick Town Council.
That case is due before the authority's standards committee, for final adjudication, a week on Thursday .
And, even more significant, Cllr Davies was within a dozen votes of beating Cabinet member Sian James at the last county council elections, though I would make it clear that I have no reason to believe that Cllr James had any part in these latest shenanigans.
People should try to understand how the political system works in Pembrokeshire.
As a former colleague at the Mercury once said, the Independent Political (sic(k)) group is the political wing of the Chief Officers Management Board (COMB).
If COMB is going to continue to have complete control over the running of the council it needs the IPG's 38 votes.
Anyone who, like Cllr Davies or myself, poses a threat to the IPG and, by implication, COMB's hegemony has to be eliminated.
I suppose it is infinitely better than a real dictatorship because the ruling Junta has neither gulags nor firing squads at its disposal.
However, it is difficult to see what place such behaviour has in the world's oldest democracy (after the Isle of Man, as Grumpette constantly reminds me).
How much longer will the people of Pembrokeshire have to put up [and pay for] this Stalinist behaviour?
Isn't it about time that all those professing Christians on the IPG benches stood up for the truth in preference to lies and spin.

Cabinet puddings

A meeting of the county council's standards committee has been called for 23 February.
One item that will almost certainly be on the agenda is the final stages of the case against ex-Cabinet member Brian Howells.
There is little that the committee can effectively do to Mr Howells because, in the local elections of June 2004, the good people of Fishguard gave him the boot.
Indeed, being a Cabinet member doesn't seem to be much of a vote-winner because he came a distant third in a field of three, though, despite this lack of popular support, he remains the county council's representative on the Milford Haven Port Authority board of directors (£6,500 per annum).
Other Cabinet members fared little better, with Roy Folland coming fourth in Haverfordwest Garth, Pat Griffiths being given the push in Manorbier and, most dramatic of all, His Leadership Maurice Hughes taking a nasty fall in Merlins Bridge.
One theory as to why leading members of the Independent Political (sic(k)) Group turn out to be so accident prone, whenever the voters enter the polling booth armed with a blunt pencil, is the rather large sums of money they are paid in allowances.
This could, of course, be down to our old friend the politics of envy, but my own preferred explanation is that people who know them say to themselves something along the lines: "Pay Maurice Hughes 700 quid a week - no chance", or "Roy Folland £25,000 a year - you must be joking."
They are, therefore, the victims of their own success, or apparent success.
However, Mr Howell's appearance before the standards could just be a side show depending on whether the agenda also includes the Ombudsman's report into Cllr Brian Hall's threats to leave a BBC journalist needing the services of an orthopaedic surgeon.
As the council will have had the Ombudsman's report for more than a month when the Febuary 23 meeting comes round, there seems no reason why it shouldn't appear on the agenda, but, in the murky world of county council politics, that doesn't mean it will.
My guess is that some way will be found to play for time, probably with a view to Hall completing his year as Chairman of the Fire Authority before the full truth in the Ombudsman's report is exposed to public view.



Back to home page