7 February 2006

Heal thyself

Most of you will have read in the local papers about my failed attempt to have the planning consent for the Leader's 2,800 sq ft herdsman's cottage judicially reviewed.
Much of the Western Telegraph's coverage consisted of a savage attack on my conduct by the chairman of the planning committee Cllr Bill Hitchings.
I must say that Cllr Hitchings is the last man to be lecturing anyone on standards in public life, as I have several times had to draw attention to his practice of claiming 24 miles for the return journey from Ashdale Lane to Haverfordwest station (actual distance 12 miles).
(See also Thanks a bunch).
According to the Mercury, Cllr Hitchings ended his diatribe: "How much longer will the people of Pembrokeshire have to put up with his [Old Grumpy's] activities."
Well, at least until the next election and, if the number of people who come up to me with words of encouragement and support is any guide, a good time after that.
Perhaps I could remind Cllr Hitchings that the people of Hakin, having over many years read my Old Grumpy column in the Mercury, knew exactly what I stood for.
And secure in the knowledge that, when I said I would be independent I meant it, they were kind enough to give me well over twice as many votes as Cllr Hitchings' Independent Political (sic(k)) Group colleague George Max.
I also promise the electors of Hakin that, should anyone ever produce the merest shred of evidence that I have fiddled my expenses, I will do the honourable thing and resign.


Politically neutral?

Events surrounding Cllr Hitchings' appearance in the local press persuaded Old Grumpy to put on his Inspector Cloussau hat.
To briefly recap: on Monday morning I was telephoned by a reporter from the Western Telegraph asking for my comments on "the Judicial Review".
Suspecting, correctly as it turned out, that a hatchet job was underway, I telephone the Mercury late on Tuesday morning to put my side of the story only to find that they knew nothing about it.
When the Western Telegraph came out on Tuesday night I was not surprised to find that, consistent with its standards of journalistic impartiality, not a word of what I had told its reporter was anywhere to be seen.
Thursday morning's Mercury carried a more balanced report but what was striking was that Cllr Hitchings quotes were, except for the omission of the the bit about "How much longer . . ." (see above) from the WT's offering, identical in both papers.
It struck me as rather strange that Cllr Hitchings had spoken to the papers on two separate days and used precisely the same language to both.
When I rang the WT on Friday afternoon to complain about their unbalanced coverage, I discovered that Cllr Hitchings' contribution had been in the form of a press release.
So I asked the council for a copy, which is now to hand.
Imagine my surprise to find that this press release had been issued by the council's Marketing and Communications Department (press office).
Now, within the constraints imposed by the defamation laws, Cllr Hitchings can say anything about me that he likes, and vice versa.
But, when the remarks emanate from the taxpayer-funded press office, we are in altogether different territory.
According to the Code of Conduct, officers of the council have a duty to be politically neutral.
Sure, the press office can put out a statement welcoming the judge's decision and all the rest, but remarks such as "How much longer are the people of Pembrokeshire going to have to put up with his [Old Grumpy's] activities" i.e. clear encouragement to people not to vote for me at the next election, are as politically partisan as it is possible to get.
It seems to me that, in its eagerness to put the boot in, the council may have shot itself in the foot.



Among Cllr Hitchings/Marketing and Communication Dept's criticisms was that my application for Judicial review was "wholly inappropriate and wasteful" and "without merit".
When I saw a long word like "inappropriate", I should have known that he didn't write it himself.
Old Grumpy is never sure whether these people are too dim to argue consistently, or whether they are so drunk with their own power that double-think just comes naturally to them.
But if you really want to see wastefulness in full flow you could hardly better Cllr Hitchings' committee's handling of the MMO2 Tetra mast application in Uzmaston.
Regular readers will remember that the people of Uzmaston were uniformly opposed to this development and their elected representative, Cabinet member Cllr Islwyn Howells, turned up at the planning committee and made an impassioned speech in front of a gallery packed with his electors (see Playing for time).
And playing to the gallery was exactly what this was about because, as the planning officer explained, the High Court had twice held that the perceived (as opposed to the proven) health effects of radiation from these masts could not be used as grounds for refusing such developments, and MMO2 were, therefore, almost guaranteed to win any appeal.
However, Cllr Howells' oratory overcame the planning officer's logic and the application was refused.
Last week it was reported that, as expected, MMO2's appeal had been successful and that the council had been ordered to pay both its own and MMO2's costs.
It is rumoured in County Hall that this could cost local taxpayers as much as £40,000.
I have put down a question to the next meeting of council on 2 March when we will learn the exact size of the bill for Cllr Howells' electioneering activities.
PS. 20 Nov 2006 - We now know that the legal costs for this fiasco came to £173,000

Sea change

Those of us attending Monday's secret Cabinet meeting to discuss the sale of the Mine Depot at Blackbridge, witnessed a political earthquake.
Well, a slight tremor, at least.
And the cause of this movement of the tectonic plates? A mutiny, led by Cllr David Simpson, supported by Cllr Sian James, and half supported by Cllr Peter Stock who declared that he was not happy with what was going on but maintained his position on the fence by abstaining.
And Cllrs Islwyn Howells and David Wildman sought reassurance that the council was acting fairly.
Sadly, this rebellion was put down by the loyalists but Old Grumpy has a feeling in his water that there could be more to come.
I suppose it was always a risky strategy to promote someone like Cllr Simpson: an outsider, unfamiliar with Pembrokeshire's political culture, to the Cabinet where he shows worrying signs of having a mind of his own.
If he carries on like this he'll have Bill Hitchings pretending to say nasty things about him in the paper.
So, what was it about the Mine Depot sale that provoked this uprising?
I have to very careful what I say about this because the Cabinet meeting was held in secret because of the confidentiality of some of the information under discussion.
And I wouldn't want to keeping the sort of company that appears before the standards committee these days (see Playing for laughs).
However, what I can say is that, last summer, the council was close to doing a quiet deal for the sale of the site.
Unfortunately, after news of this was leaked to the Mercury, other potential bidders began to take an interest.
So the council instituted a tender process for the whole site.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, the council decided to retain part of the site and this original tender exercise was abandoned and a new one instituted.
Five tenders were received, the highest of which was from a consortium of local businessmen sailing under the flag of Cleddau Enterprises Ltd.
You might think that would be the end of the matter but, unbeknown to Cleddau Enterprises, the council entered into negotiations with the Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA) - not one of the original five bidders.
Not unreasonably, Cleddau Enterprises felt they had been taken for a ride, especially as the tender process involved the expensive and time-consuming requirement that they produce a business plan detailing their intentions for the site.
It seems that MHPA was given preference because its stated intention is to build a container port.
Apparently, this will involve building out into the Haven in order to reach deep water.
Critics of this plan say that there is no guarantee that the container port will ever be built.
The site is an SSSI so the environmentalists will have plenty to say about it.
There are also issues of navigational safety because of its close proximity to the LNG terminal at the former Gulf site.
Poor road communications will make the movement of large numbers of containers on and off the site near impossible.
And the remoteness of Pembrokeshire from large centres of population, will mean any containers imported/exported from the Mine Depot will face a long and expensive journey overland.
In short, this sweetheart deal with MHPA is being done on the back of a container port that may never be built.
And, of course, if it isn't built, the reason for preferring MHPA's bid goes out of the window, though they will still have the property.
Perhaps the council will make it a term of the lease that if a container facility is not up and running within, say, five years, the site will revert to the council?
What was rather surprising is that there was no mention in the report to Cabinet of the price MHPA is paying for this piece of publicly-owned property.
Even more surprising is that none of our highly-paid Cabinet members thought to ask.
The deal also includes the area of land previously taken out of the tender process which is to be conveyed to MHPA on a 999 year lease on "terms acceptable to the Director of Development."
Presumably, when members of the Cabinet sell their own houses they tell the estate agent "just get what you can for it."
However, we may not have heard the last of this matter because, with two members of the Cabinet opposed, and another saying he is not happy with what has gone on, it would seem like an ideal candidate for examination by the scrutiny committee.
The interesting question, now, is whether Cllr Tom Richards, Chairman of the economic development scrutiny committee, will use his powers to call-in the decision for further examination.
Or will he add weight to Old Grumpy's theory that, so long as they are chaired by the Leader's stooges, these scrutiny committees will never do the job for which they were intended.
Alternatively, five members of the committee can request a call-in.
But they'd better get their skates on because I notice that the council seems to be in something of a hurry.
Not only did the Cabinet resolve that MHPA "be granted an immediate licence to occupy the whole site" but the minutes of the Cabinet, which are usually posted on the council's website at 5.00pm the day after the meeting, have put in an appearance a day earlier than usual.
The significance of this is that the three-day deadline for call-in now expires on Thursday rather than Friday and, in the absence of a call-in, the resolutions of the Cabinet take immediate effect from midnight on that day (see also Tender goodbye and Quick sale)

Silence is golden

I know you're all dying to share my thoughts on last Saturday's dramatic events at Twickenham.
However, much as I value freedom of expression, I have to agree with Jack Straw that it doesn't include an obligation to cause gratuitous offence to people's deepest religious feelings.
So, I'll maintain a dignified and diplomatic silence on the subject.

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