February 13 2007

 

Mystery tour

 

For those of you still baffled by Cllr Brian Hall's unorthodox mileage claims (see Brian the bus, Duty bound and And with a bound) I offer another, even more intriguing, mystery.
This involves his trip to Manchester on 1 November 2005 to attend a fire service conference in his official capacity as chairman of the Mid and West Wales Fire Authority. (MWWFA).


Although his expense claim allocates only 1 November to the fire conference, the programme shows it went on until 3 November and cost the taxpayer a £425 fee (not including two nights accommodation which set the taxpayer back a further £127) for each of the six MWWFA delegates.
Strangely, the other five delegates travelled together in a fire authority vehicle, and didn't claim expenses.
For some reason, which the fire authority seems reluctant to expand upon, Cllr Hall went solo, claiming 420 miles at 40p - £168.
The conference proper started at 9.30 am on 2 November 2005 and the first session went on to 1.10 pm when lunch was provided as part of the £425 conference fee.
It seems that lunch can't have been up to much because, according to receipts submitted by Cllr Hall, he also made a visit to the Tai Wu restaurant, where, at 3.20 pm, he paid £16.20 (reduced to £7.73 - the maximum lunch allowance) for Wontun Soup and Oriental Beef helped down by bean sprouts and fried noodles.
Not only were the taxpayers paying twice for his lunch but, while he was munching on his bean sprouts, he was mitching off from the afternoon session, including what must have been a fascinating one-and-a-half hour lecture on "Recruiting, developing and managing our people", which, dividing the conference fee pro rata, the taxpayer had paid £100 for him to attend.
But it is on the 3 November that things get really interesting.
On that day the conference closed at 3.45 pm, presumably to allow those delegates facing a four or five hour drive to far flung places such as Pembrokeshire to to slip into their pyjamas at a decent time of night.
But Cllr Hall had another engagement that day - the pre-AGM dinner (7.30 for 8pm) of the Consortium of Local Authorities in Wales (CLAW) at the Parkway Hotel in Cwmbran
On 3 November, as can be seen from the extract from his county council claim reproduced below, Cllr Hall drove all the way from Pembroke Dock to Cwmbran to attend this bash, claiming 226 miles at 50p for the return journey, though it would surely have been more carbon-efficient to have called in at Cwmbran on the way back from Manchester.

After an overnight stay in the hotel at the taxpayers' expense, Cllr Hall attended a talk on the regeneration of Blaenavon (10.30 - 11.30 am), but this seems to have exhausted his attention-span because the minutes of the CLAW AGM (kick off 11.30 am) - the reason for his presence in Cwmbran - record that he tendered his apologies and, presumably, headed back to county hall to deal with some urgent matter involving fly tipping.
But that can't quite be right, either, because, if he'd gone directly to Haverfordwest, there would have been no justification for claiming the 20 miles for the return journey from his home in Pembroke Dock to county hall, and two bridge crossings.
If you detect a repetition of deja vu all over again, be assured your imagination isn't playing tricks by clicking on The Time Lord.
Correction: A couple of weeks ago (see On approval) I said that Cllr Hall had claimed 179 miles from the fire authority for a trip to the Royal Welsh Show at Builth Wells on 28 July 2005 and that he also claimed 170 miles from the county council for the same journey.
This was inaccurate, and I apologise for any distress and inconvenience caused.
In fact, the correct figures are: county council 179, fire authority 170.

Time to go

Old Grumpy hears that, in an attempt to keep up the pressure, the opposition parties have submitted a joint notice of no confidence in Cllr Hall; calling on the Leader to remove him from both the fire authority and the Cabinet.
I also hear that there are elements within the Independent Political Group (IPG) who would support this proposition if there was a secret ballot.
How wimpish is that?
If Old Grumpy could borrow from the famous Pinta advert: Notta Lotta Bottle.
Surely, from the opposition's point of view, the best tactic is to call for a recorded vote so the public can see which of their elected representatives think it is OK for a cabinet member to bring himself into disrepute by issuing threats of violence against a BBC journalist.
After all, members of the IPG are happy to accept the benefits that come from belonging to the ruling party - all those lucrative special responsibility allowances and self-importance-boosting, grandly-titled jobs - so they will just have to face up to the fact that shouldering responsibility for the activities of their party and its leadership is the price they have to pay.

Landless farmers

We already knew that the rules on agricultural planning consents were a movable feast (see No udder conclusion) but the ancient art of bungalow farming took a giant leap forward at last Tuesday's county council planning committee where members decided by 17-1, with one abstention, that an agricultural consent may be granted even if no farm exists.
The application before the committee concerned an agricultural contractor at Allt-y-Ddol near Eglwyswrw who wanted to build a second dwelling on the site in the open countryside.
According to the officer's report, for the purposes of planning policy "agriculture" includes all manner of things, but not agricultural contracting.
Indeed, the committee was informed: "The courts have concluded that the definition of agriculture does not include agricultural contracting".
You might think this would be enough to persuade a quasi-judicial body like the planning committee, which is bound by statute to determine applications with regard to the local plan, to issue a refusal.
But what price a High Court decision when faced by the combined might of the county planning committee?
What is particularly disturbing is that bungalow farming, which was formerly almost exclusively the preserve of the Independent Political Group, now seems to have infected the opposition as well.
To justify giving consent, Cllr Ken Rowlands (Lab) came up with an ingenious argument along the lines that agricultural contractors removed the need for farmers to own their own machines, or to employ the people to drive them.
So, this line of reasoning went, the single dwelling would displace the dozens of "agricultural dwellings" that, without the agricultural contractor, would be required to house the, now, redundant tractor drivers.
Pure brilliance - except that it's total rubbish because the functional test for an agricultural dwelling is that it is required to house a full-time worker who needs (my emphasis) to live on the spot.
This includes the need for someone to be on hand to supervise night time veterinary emergencies, or to carry out urgent repairs to machinery, such as ventilation or heating equipment, the failure of which might cause mortality to animals or plants.
So, it isn't even every genuine agricultural activity that qualifies.
The driver of a combine harvester, who can easily commute to work from a nearby town or village, has no more need to live on the spot than the mechanic in the local garage.
The problem is that these bungalow farmers apply the law as they think it ought to be rather than the law as it is, though I'm sure Ken Rowlands wouldn't too impressed if a magistrate, having concluded that the speed limit in Johnston ought to be 40 mph, refused to convict anyone travelling below that speed.
It was left to Cllr Malcolm Calver to bring a semblance of intellectual rigour to the debate by pointing out that, in a democracy, if you believe the law is wrong, the correct way to proceed is to campaign to have it changed rather than "finding a way round it for the benefit of a chosen few."
Basically, this is what is meant by the rule of law, as opposed to the rule of power - otherwise known, in the term coined by former Tory Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, an elective dictatorship.


And more of the same

Having tasted blood, the bungalow farmers made short work of the next application: another agricultural contractor in the same area who had the slenderest agricultural justification - 31 acres and 120 sheep.
Now you might think that anyone with more than three functioning brain cells would realise that 120 sheep don't require a full time worker who needs to live on the spot, but Cllr Henry Jones; normally one of the more cerebral members of the IPG, suggested that, as the applicant owned a smallholding, he had a right to build a house on it.
This is high-grade tosh because, if followed to its logical conclusion, it would mean that every 150 acre farm in the county could be be divided up in to five 30-acre plots complete with a residential planning permission.
Notwithstanding the officers' clear recommendation of refusal, the application went through with flying colours.
At that point, I could stomach no more and left.
However, I am told that, after I had gone, the committee granted permission for yet another out-of-policy application at Herons Brook, Narberth..
This involved the building of 10 self-catering chalets to serve visitors to the site's fishing and golfing facilities.
The council's policy on self-catering accommodation reads: "Proposals for holiday cottages, flats and other self-catering development will only be permitted where, . . . if the proposal is for new-build outside the National Park, the site is within or well related to a settlement."
According to the officer's report, Herons Brook is 400 metres from Narberth's closest boundary, so it is not easy to see how members could conclude it was well related to a settlement.
But such niceties are hardly likely to trouble the accomplished bungalow farmer and, I am told, after local member Cllr Wyn Evans informed the committee that knew the applicant well and that the development was "vital to the applicant's livelihood", it went through on the nod.
So, in three out of the four applications determined by the committee, it was decided that the officers' recommendations weren't worth the paper which they were written on.
Nor, apparently, the local plan (JUDP), which was recently adopted by these same councillors, having been drawn up at the cost of several million pounds of taxpayers' money.

Rule of Law

So, how is such use of arbitrary power to be constrained?
The answer lies in the rule of law.
Firstly, if we are to limit government caprice, rule of law requires the supremacy of law as opposed to the supremacy of the government or any political party. To the noted English jurist A. V. Dicey rule of law means, "in the first place, the absolute supremacy or predominance of regular law as opposed to the influence of arbitrary power, and excludes the existence of arbitrariness, of prerogative, or even wide discretionary authority on the part of the government".
Second, if the government's exercise of discretion is to be restricted, the government has to follow legal procedures that are pre-fixed and pre-announced.
As F. A. Hayek puts it, rule of law "means that a government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand -- rules which make it possible to foresee with fair certainty how the authority will use its coercive [and enabling] powers in given circumstances, and to plan one's individual affairs on the basis of this knowledge".
For example, if you have a redundant farm building that you would like to convert to residential use, your first port of call should be the local plan where you can discover whether your individual case fits the council's policy.
If your building cannot be converted "without extensive alteration expansion or rebuilding." (Policy 60) then you may as well forget it,
unless, of course, you are a member of the council in which case the rules may be finessed to accommodate your wishes (See Barn dance).
And if your building is not constructed of traditional materials (stone and slate) there will be no point in wasting money on a planning application, unless, of course, you are the Picton grandchildren's trust, in which case a building (Lake Villa, Slebech) which is 60% concrete block will pass muster.
At its simplest the rule of law requires a set of easily understood rules that are applied equally to all.
Without such a system there can be no justice.
And, as St Augustine said: "A society without justice is just a gang of thieves."
As can be seen in Russia, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Pembrokeshire elections are no guarantee that the rule of law will prevail.
Indeed, without strong constitutional and legal safeguards against the abuse of power, elections are a danger to democracy because they give the ruling elite a false respectability and what you end up with is a form of democratically-legitimised feudalism.

In the course of duty

This seems like a convenient time to come clean about my pot smoking past.
Have I ever puffed on a joint?
Yes, I think!
Did I inhale?
Well, yes, but not very deeply, and it was all in the interests of investigative journalism.
My encounter with the weed occurred one evening about 10 years ago in a well-known Milford Haven pub, which cannot be named for legal reasons.
I was talking to a friend, who suddenly asked: "When is your paper going to do something about the drugs problem in this town?
"Which drugs problem?" I replied.
"Are you blind?" he retorted, "the stuff is available more or less on demand".
I must admit that I already had my suspicions about the permanent bluish haze that hovered in a layer about five feet above the pub's floor and the strange feeling of wellbeing that always seemed to accompany me back to the office after my lunchtime pint, but I put the first down to poor ventilation and the second to the fresh air on the walk back.
"If these drugs are as freely available as you say, where do you get them?" I asked.
"What do you want?" he said.
"Nothing too heavy, what about some cannabis" I replied, thinking I would call his bluff.
"Give me a tenner and I'll get you some" he demanded.
It was too late to back down, so I fished in my pocket and produced a brown beer voucher.
Ten minutes later, he returned with what looked like some dried lettuce leaves and in a jiffy one of the regulars had expertly rolled it into a large joint, which I was then invited to smoke.
For all I know, it may well have been dried lettuce leaves because, apart from producing a vast cloud of white smoke that made my eyes water, it had no effect whatsoever.
A second joint was rolled and smoked, but again no sensation, so I gave the rest of the stuff away.
And, I can honestly say, the urge to smoke pot never again entered my head.
However, it has often occurred to me that, if it was dried lettuce leaves, I may have missed out.
But, having concluded that beer and fags are vices enough for any man, I have decided not to let my curiosity get the better of me.

Nice work . . .

If any reader is looking for an agreeable billet, Old Grumpy would direct them to the PCC website where they will find the authority is looking for a director of development to replace Mr Roger Barrett-Evans who is retiring in April.
At a salary of up to £108,000 a year, plus £7,000 towards leasing a car, the job is quite a nice little earner.
Anyone interested will need to get their skates on because applications close on 19 February.

No flowers

There was an interesting discussion on tonight's Six O'Clock news between Glenys Kinnock and Lib Dem spokesman Norman Baker on the relative merits of buying St Valentine's day flowers from Africa or Northern Europe.
According to Mrs Kinnock, it is actually more efficient, in global warming terms, to fly flowers in from Africa than to grow them in heated greenhouses in Holland or the UK.
Indeed, the figures she quoted indicated that the airborne flowers emitted only one-fifth the CO2 of the home-grown variety.
Mr Baker countered that this rather depended on what time of year you were talking about.
In the summer, he suggested, it was more carbon-efficient to buy UK flowers, though he generously conceded that it might be the other way round in the winter.
To an eco-warrier like Old Grumpy; always looking for ways to reduce his carbon footprint, this all very confusing.
Or it would be if I was not following my 40-year-old practice of never buying flowers on St Valentine's day, or any other occasion.
Now, there will be some who say that this is mean-spirited, but to them I would reply: if everyone had followed my example the planet might not be in its present mess.

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