February 26 2008


Reputational wreckage


It seems I may have been less than fair to National Park chief executive Nic Wheeler when I suggested that, in September 2006, when he first learned of Gary Meopham's involvement in the purchase of the East Blockhouse site, he merely shrugged his shoulders and let the matter go (Whitewash).
I now understand that he instructed Mr Meopham's line manager to investigate the matter.
Surprise, surprise the manager gave Mr Meopham a completely clean bill of health.
As we now know, this was not the conclusion reached by either the authority's monitoring officer or NP director Peter Hoardley when they were asked to look into the matter more than a year later.
Unfortunately, National Park members have seen neither the report of the line manager, or that of Mr Hoardley.
Given their deep unease at the way this matter has been handled (Whitewash) , Old Grumpy assumes the members will be taking steps to remedy this gap in their knowledge.
Perhaps, they will even go so far as to insist that the results of these two investigations are made public.
After all, the monitoring officer's report was published so a precedent has already been set.
Meanwhile, I see that the Park has set up a "special investigation and reputation committee" in an attempt to repair the damage, though you may think that, if another committee is the answer, it must be a rather strange question.
As usual in these cases, the talk is now of putting the affair behind them and looking to the future with the aim of restoring the Park's battered reputation.
If the views of the rolling focus group that I meet in Tesco are anything to go by, they will have their work cut out.


Russian enigma


In an article in the Sunday Times on his recent trip to Russia, Jonathan Dimbleby mourns the fact that, under Putin: "The essential principles of democracy have been systematically dismantled with hardly a murmur of protest."
He continues: "Russia's malaise goes far deeper than the corruption of the electoral process. The politicians who sit in the Duma never challenge the Kremlin on any issue of substance. They form a sham parliament, a supine shell, of a debating chamber. Anyone who holds any position of power or influence . . . depends on the patronage of the Kremlin. Nor is there anything left of what briefly passed for the "fourth estate" in Russia."
I have written to Mr Dimbleby informing him that there was no need to fly all the way to Moscow to experience this sort of political system.
A short(ish) train ride to the Kremlin on Cleddau would have sufficed.
In his article Dimbleby says that during his time in Russia he was frequently tempted to use the term 'fascism' to describe the essence of Putinism, though he held back because of the offence it might cause to the Russian people, whose huge sacrifices played such a crucial part in the defeat of Hitler.
However, it is a serious error to conflate fascism and the Nazis.
True, Hitler led a fascist movement that was pure evil but there were plenty of other fascist governments which, while no doubt extremely unpleasant, didn't descend into the pit.
The problem, as Dimbleby says is that fascist has become a general term of abuse to be aimed at one's political opponents - a sort of swear word.
The difficulty is compounded by the lack of consensus among political philosophers about what the term means.
Most agree it involves authoritarianism; contempt for the rule of law; and the concept that the state is more important than the individual, but after that you pays your money and you takes your choice.
I'm with George Orwell who said that, for him, the word "bully" is definition enough.
And, I would add, there's quite a lot of it about.

Planning politics

At last week's meeting of the county council Old Grumpy found himself in novel territory when I voted the same way as the entire Cabinet during a recorded vote on the controversial planning application for a farrier's house and buildings near Clarbeston.
This application had been passed by the planning committee, but, because it was outside policy, it had to come before full council for final determination.
Not entirely by accident, I suspect, this meeting coincided with the publication of a long report by the council's new monitoring officer on the legal duties of the planning committee and its members.
I am heartened by the fact that this report is on all fours with what I have been preaching in this column and its previous incarnation in the Mercury for the best part of 20 years.
The first green shoots of true democracy, perhaps.
The key principle is that the determination of planning applications is a matter of law [planning policy] and not opinion, and that members are expected to act judicially, as opposed to politically, when reaching decisions.
That means keeping an open mind until you've heard all the evidence, much as would be expected of a juror in a court case.
These strictures only apply to members of the decision making body (planning committee), non-members can be as biased as they like.
So, the local member, if he is not a member of the planning committee, can turn up at the meeting and, effectively, act as the applicant's advocate.
In practice members of the planning committee can prejudge the issue provided they don't make their views known i.e. it is the perception of bias, rather than bias itself, that is to be avoided.
In other words, the whole thing is a sham made necessary by politicians being allowed to meddle in judicial matters in direct conflict with the hallowed principle of separation of powers.
This fakery is exposed when, as happened last Thursday, an application is referred to full council on the grounds that the planning committee's decision contravenes policy.
At that point all members of the council become part of the decision making body, including the local member who has made his views known at the earlier planning committee.
Indeed, it could be argued that, on the grounds of prejudgement, all members of the planning committee should be disqualified from taking part.
And, in this particular case, on a strict interpretation of the rules, most of the IPG should have been disqualified because, I understand, the matter was the subject of a long and sometimes heated debate at their secret group get-together the day before the council meeting.
In the end the establishment came down in favour of refusal, not because of any considerations of principle, but because of two other similar applications which were passed by full council have been called in by the Welsh Assembly (Bending the rules).
A planning inspector's report is expected soon and, judging from what was said at last Thursday's meeting, it is not anticipated that the outcome will reflect favourably on either the planning committee or the council.
As Cllr Steve Watkins (yes, him again) (Whitewash) told the council it would be better to wait the outcome of these two cases before giving another dodgy planning consent.
"We wouldn't want to be having an avalanche of these sort of cases" he observed.
True, but planning applications should be determined on planning grounds and not because a particular outcome would look bad for the ruling party.

More politics


That rapidly diminishing band who still buy the Mercury will have noticed that the ladies of Liddeston/Havens Head had barricaded the road to prevent earth moving vehicles leaving a controversial housing development which has cut a huge gash through the woodland at Havens Head.
I have kept a close watch on this development's progress through the planning system, though, as it is quite close to Grumpy Mansions, I avoided becoming involved because of my obvious interest in the matter.
I did attend the planning committee when permission was granted and was amazed that a request by a member of the opposition for a site inspection was refused.
As I understand it, the criteria for holding a site inspection is that such a visit to see conditions on the ground would assist members to better appreciate the planning issues involved.
The planning officer said that, in his opinion, a site visit would be of help to the members but despite that the IPG majority voted against.
Contrast that with the two cases referred to above where a request for a site visit was granted even though the officer said it would be of no value.Of course, the IPG voted for that because it was one of their own.
The IPG's unique selling point no room for politics in local government.
But the truth is that almost everything they do is political in the worst sense of the word.

Tory boys


I notice yet another joint appearance in Wales' biggest selling weekly snoozepaper by Haverfordwest's Tory twins: Cllrs Peter Stock and David Bryan.
The other two, for those with short memories, were the erection of some railings in Scarrowscant Lane and a one-way sign in Priory Avenue.
This latest bit of publicity seeking shows the two of them inspecting some vandalised trees in Tom Parry Way.
Cllr Stock is quoted as saying: ". . . if anyone knows anything about this I'd ask them to contact me and I will ensure they are prosecuted to the fullest degree."
Old Grumpy assumes he means the vandals.
Of course, Cllr Stock has no power to ensure that anyone is prosecuted - that being the province of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service - though nobody would disagree with him that the perpetrators of mindless acts of vandalism should be swiftly brought to book.
However, Old Grumpy wonders if this might be the same Peter Stock who voted against my attempts to discover the truth about Cllr Brian Hall's expense fiddles. (Shouted down).
Following last week's piece on Stock's role as recruiting sergeant for the Tory and/or Independent Political Group (Janus faced), I have received phone calls from various parts of the county detailing his activities.
Unfortunately, because of the need to protect my moles' identities, I am not at liberty to reveal the exact locations, but what I can say is that one case involves an attempt to oust a long-standing pillar of the IPG establishment, so we must assume he is acting for the Tories in that instance.
I hear that the Leader is not well pleased, and, whatever the election results, the smart money says that Cllr Stock will become an ex-cabinet member shortly after the 1st May.
Even less pleased, I am told, is Cllr Henry Jones who the IPG is keen to replace with someone more compliant..
Unfortunately, Cllr Jones has never mastered the art of synchronised voting and is seen as a troublemaker by the Independent Political Group's leading lights.
A mole tells me that Henry warned a recent secret meeting of the IPG that, if these attemps to undermine him didn't cease, he would show them what real troublemaking looked like.

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