January 2 2007

 

Last hurrah!

Sadly, the Mercury's news editor Richard Harris has decided to quit and take up a job in PR.
This is a great loss because Richard was one of the few journalists in Pembrokeshire who saw it as his duty to tell readers the things those in power would prefer them not to know rather than spreading establishment propaganda in the form of recycled press releases.
Before hanging up his eye-shade, Richard was able to winkle out some interesting information about Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse's appointment to the Milford Haven Port Authority board.
This is something that has been bothering Old Grumpy ever since I read his report in the Mercury in which JA-M was described by Port Authority chairman Bob Clarke as "head and shoulders above the other candidates."
Richard, ever alert, asked Mr Clarke whether Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's forthcoming appearance before the Adjudication Panel for Wales to answer the Ombudsman's finding that he breached the Code of Conduct by failing to declare a pecuniary interest at a meeting of the National Park committee, had been taken into account.
Mr Clarke told him: "The authority was aware of the Ombudsman issue in respect of his role as a member of the National Park and was content that this had no bearing on our considering him for the port authority board position."
The situation regarding these appointments is that MHPA makes a recommendation but the final decision is down to the Minister for Transport.
That being the case, it seemed to me that MHPA had an obligation to disclose this information to the DfT.
After all, the DfT's document "Modernising Trust Ports" requires that board members should uphold the principles of ". . . truth, honesty, integrity, loyalty and acting within their powers."
Should the Adjudication Panel accept the Ombudsman's findings, not too many of those boxes will be ticked.
I emailed the DfT in October asking if the minister had been aware of the "Ombudsman issue" when he endorsed Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's appointment.
When no reply was forthcoming, I decided to seek the assistance of my MP, Stephen Crabb.
He e-mailed to say that he had received an assurance from MHPA's chief executive Ted Sangster that the DfT had been told about the Ombudsman's investigation.
I replied that I, too, had received assurances from Mr Sangster (see Recovered memory) but they had proved not to be worth the paper they were written on and asked him to check it out with the DfT.
Getting answers from a government department seems to have proved too difficult for Mr Crabb though, fortunately, in the best journalistic tradition, Richard had put in an FoI request and last Wednesday - his last day in the editor's chair - he finally received a reply to the question: "Did MHPA, either in the letter of recommendation or at any other time, make the DfT aware of the Ombudsman's findings against Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse, or of his forthcoming appearance before the Adjudication Panel for Wales?"
And, as you've already guessed, the DfT's answer was a curt "No".
.

One rule for them . .

Old Grumpy was greatly heartened to read in the local press that the magistrates had overturned Pembrokeshire County Council's decision to strip Milford taxi driver Nicky Roach of his licence and his livelihood.
Mr Roach's offence was to fail to inform the council of a series of convictions for not having an excise licence on his own private car.
It is interesting to note that, when members of the ruling Junta are involved (see above), different rules seem to apply to the non-disclosure of unfavourable information.
While this column doesn't approve of tax disc dodgers , it must be said that such crimes have no bearing on the safety of someone's driving.
Had he failed to report a breathaliser offence, or a conviction for dangerous driving, that would be a different matter, but not having a valid tax disc is essentially a revenue offence and you wouldn't expect someone to be banned from driving a taxi for failing to send in his tax return.
What was interesting about the newspaper reports was that they concentrated on the evidence given by the police licensing officer Tony Davies who told the magistrates that Mr Roach was not a fit and proper person to drive a taxi because, after the decision to suspend his licence was announced, he had stood up and directed a string of obscenities at the committee
Now, as Mr Roach was appealing to the magistrates against the committee's decision to ban him from driving taxis, anything that happened after that decision was taken can have no bearing on the issue.
Of course, the committee might decide to call him back to answer charges that his behaviour made him unfit to hold a taxi licence, though I suppose that Mr Roach might argue that when he uttered the offending words he had already lost his licence and was therefore acting in his private capacity and not as a taxi driver.
After all, he wouldn't be the first to employ that defence.
Full marks to the magistrates who decided that revocation of Mr Roach's licence was much too draconian for what were basically technical offences.
It has not escaped Old Grumpy's notice that the chairman of the council's hard line licensing committee is Cllr Rosemary Hayes (see Time Lord).

Surprise packet

A couple of days before Christmas, Old Grumpy went out into the porch to collect the mail and was rather surprised to find a large brown envelope containing the fascinating extracts from Milford Haven Port Authority's (MHPA) minutes reproduced below.
This document casts light on the strange goings-on in late 2005 and early 2006 during the sale of the former Mine Depot at Blackbridge.
Thank you Santa!
A more detailed account these events can be found at Mine depot minefield.
Alert readers will remember that there was a tender exercise with a closing date of 7 October 2005.
The highest bid was that of a consortium of Milford businessmen Cleddau Enterprises Ltd (CEL) (£550,000) while the council's preferred bidder Haven Facilities Ltd (HFL) was in third place with £310,000.
No contest, you might think.
But the council hierarchy had other ideas and asked Ted Sangster of MHPA to become involved (see MHPAdocs).
For those who have not been paying attention, I should explain that the basic rules for selling publicly-owned land are contained in S123 Local Government Act 1972 which requires local authorities to get the "best consideration that can reasonably be obtained."
A series of cases has established that "consideration" means monetary value and benefits such as job creation cannot be taken into account.
However, in its infinite wisdom, in 2003 the Welsh Assembly enacted the General Disposal Consent (Wales) Order (GDC) which allows a local authority to override S123 and sell at an undervalue if it considers it likely that the proposed use will be to the economic, environmental or social benefit of the residents of its area.
And, as it was clear that CEL had more money than HFL, the council decided to organise things so the GDC could be used as the strategy of last resort.
So Ted Sangster was asked to become involved and on 17 October 2005 he was called to a meeting in county hall with Bryn Parry Jones and Roger Barrett-Evans to discuss the way forward.
According to Mr Sangster (paragraph 6 below), Messrs Parry-Jones and Barrett-Evans had told him it could "easily be argued" that HFL's bid provided "much greater long-term value".
If that was the case why didn't they just go ahead and sell the site to HFL?
Well, the fear of "adverse publicity and comment" it would seem.
But why should that be a problem if everything was above board and the conditions of GDC were met?
Now there's the rub, because all HFL had promised was to build a camp for 500 LNG workers and carry out a study into the economic viability of a container port.
No doubt, the council's officers could persuade the yes-men (and woman) in the Cabinet that this represented "much greater long-term value" but CEL were already threatening to call in m'learned friends and it was unlikely that a court could be convinced that a temporary work camp and a mere promise to carry out an economic feasibility study was for the economic, social or environmental benefit of local residents.
In any case, on HFL's own assessment a container port would cost £150-175 million and because it was in an SSSI, would require extensive consultations with, among others, Crown Estates, Countryside Commission for Wales and Pembrokeshire County Council.
All well beyond the capacity of a tuppenny ha'penny off-the-peg company that had only been set up six months earlier.
Clearly, such a large project would need somebody with real financial muscle and expertise - cue MHPA.
So, after discussions with the county county it was decided "that it would be beneficial if the land be sold to the Authority [MHPA] after all." (Paragraph 7 below).
Apparently, HFL welcomed this support (para 7) which is rather surprising because, on the face of it, they were being cut out of the deal.

 

However, it is never wise to take anything connected with the county council at face value because there are two county councils inhabiting parallel universes - the public version that you read about in the Western Telegraph and the council's minutes, and the underground version, the activities of which even Cabinet members are unaware.
Fast forward three months to the meeting of 6 February 2006 when the Cabinet endorsed Mr Barrett-Evans' recommendation that the site be sold to MHPA for an undisclosed sum.
I was present at that meeting which was remarkable for the fact that it was the first ever occasion that the Cabinet hadn't been unanimous (see Sea Change).
At that meeting, Cllr David Simpson, who led the rebellion, questioned the capacity of the recently-formed HFL to construct a container port.
He was assured by the chief executive that HFL was now in partnership with MHPA which gave the council confidence that they would be able to borrow the money required to finance such a project.
That was, however, all irrelevant because the Cabinet was also told that MHPA had made the highest offer and, therefore, the sale could go ahead under S123 (best consideration).
Within a few days that plan was derailed when CEL put in an even higher bid and through the spring and early summer there were bids, counter-bids and counter-counter-bids until it became clear that CEL was the odds-on favourite in any contest decided by sheer weight of cash.
So, at the June meeting of Cabinet, it was decided to ask the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) to carry out an independent assessment of MHPA and CEL's rival proposals in order to determine which was most beneficial for local residents..
As this was an assessment under GDC, the monetary value of the two bids was not included in the information sent to WAG.
But, as can be seen from the final four paragraphs of Mr Sangster's report (see below), MHPA had no plans to build a container port or anything else because it was merely the conduit through which the site was to pass from PCC to HFL.
In reality, MHPA's involvement was nothing more than a smoke screen behind which HFL could operate, unseen.
MHPA's part was to lend its good name to the proposals so they would have greater credibility with the "independent" assessors in the Welsh Assembly.
And the reference of the two bids to the Welsh Assembly for "independent" assessment nothing more than a device to sanitise the situation by distancing PCC from the decision-making process.
It is also interesting to note (para 8 below) that the deal was conditional upon the council using, or abusing, its compulsory purchase powers to assist HFL in the acquisition of the land on the northern boundary of the site.
I wonder what the neighbouring farmer will think about that little scheme.



In the event, the council was let off the hook when an Irish biofuel company turned up on the scene offering more money and more jobs than either CEL or MHPA/HFL.
However, that doesn't wipe the slate clean in respect of what went before.
It will be interesting to find out the exact nature of the proposals sent to the Welsh Assembly on behalf of MHPA/HFL.
An FoI request is already on its way to the Assembly.
I wonder if it was made clear, as as it is in HFL's own assessment (see below), that some rather large hurdles would have to be cleared before a container port could be built - including the creation of another 60 acres by quarrying into the compulsory purchased farmland and using the excavated material to backfill the Haven.

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