January 24 2006


Tender goodbye

Back in November, I was able to report a minor concession to open accountable government when the county council agreed that I could see its tender register.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite as straightforward as I first thought because, the second time I went to county hall to take advantage of this new-found right, I was handed a document informing me that my access to the tender register was based on a councillor’s "need to know" at Common Law, and not the "right to know" enshrined in the Freedom of Information Act.
This distinction has interesting consequences because information provided under the FoI is published to the whole world, while that obtained under the Common Law is not.
So, information under "need to know" is subject to the rules regarding confidentiality, and unauthorised publication could lead to a member being hauled before the standards committee charged with breaching the Code of Conduct.
My interest in the register arose from the sale by tender of the Guildhall and Glendower House; adjoining buildings on a plum site overlooking Tenby's north beach.
On inspecting the register, I found that the council had received eight tenders for the building, the highest of which was for £1.755 million.
On 7 November 2005 it was reported to Cabinet that the site had been sold to a company called Anglodefine Ltd for £1.755 million.
Nothing remarkable about that you might think!
Except that isn't what happened because the site has actually been sold to another company altogether.
I wasn't the only person taking an interest in the sale, and I now learn that a member of the public submitted a request under the FoI for details of these tenders.
These have now been sent to him, but with the names of the tenderers redacted (blacked out) for reasons of commercial confidentiality.
However, from the list of numbers provided it can be seen that the highest tenderer (£1.755 million) put a much greater value on the site than the next two (both £1.25 million).
Because I obtained the information under "need to know", I am not in a position to divulge the identities of these various bidders, though, as the figure reported to the Cabinet, as being the price Anglodefine Ltd had paid for the site (£1.755 million), is exactly the same as the top bid, it wouldn't need a genius to work out the identity of the highest tenderer.
What is rather more difficult to understand is why the building wasn't sold to them as reported.
While I am not free to say who the original tenderers were, I can tell you that the company (Macob (Tenby) Ltd), which now seems to have bought the site for £2,010 million, was not one of the eight.
Indeed, Macob (Tenby) Ltd was the only bidder when, for whatever reason, the site was put out to tender for a second time, and one must wonder if the other interested parties were even invited to participate.
Of course, I am delighted that the council has managed to squeeze an extra £250,000 out of the deal, but you have to be concerned about the original tender exercise and the erroneous report to Cabinet.

Verging on the ridiculous

When Cllr Bill Philpin suggested that the county council was providing "a lousy service" for vulnerable children during a debate on a critical inspection report, Cabinet members went on the attack by accusing him of undermining morale among social work staff.
When I asked questions about elected members putting pressure on officers in the planning department at December's meeting of council, the Leader accused me of questioning the competence and integrity of the officers concerned.
Unfortunately, the Independent Political Group, not having mastered the art of logical argument, often falls back on this sort of smear.
Their other tactic owes much to what is known in American political circles as "boosterism" - the practice of stoking up the bonfire to such a degree that it almost seems impolite to pee on it even if it is threatening to burn down your house.
So when the Mercury asked the Leader whether he should remove Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse from the National Park committee until such time as the issues in the recent Ombudsman's report are resolved, he went boldly over the top.
"I see no reason whatsoever why Cllr Allen-Mirehouse should not continue with all his public duties, which he has carried out with distinction for many years with the highest standard of probity and effectiveness", the Leader told the newspaper.
The judgment on "distinction" and "effectiveness" is for others to make, but, thanks to the vast archive in my shed, I am able to provide some useful evidence on the issue of probity.
In fact, this is not the first time Cllr Allen-Mirehouse has been in trouble over a breach of the Code of Conduct.
In 1999 he was censured by the National Park's monitoring officer over a letter he sent to his colleagues in an attempt to influence the consideration of a planning application on his land.
Ostensibly, this letter merely asked for a site visit and, if that was as far as it had gone, it would have been a relatively trivial matter.
However, also in this letter, Cllr Allen-Mirehouse accused the National Park's head of planning, Cathy Milner, of "mis-representing (sic)" the situation on the site and of making "ridiculous" and "absurd" (twice) claims about the application.
So much for calling the integrity and competence of officers into question!
I have posted this letter on to my website (see JAM letter).
I would draw your attention, in particular, to the absurd and ridiculous misrepresentation by the Cabinet member with responsibility for econonomic development that he had a non-pecuniary interest in a piece of land that he owned.

Hall of fame

Old Grumpy hears that the long-awaited Ombudsman's report into the BBC's complaint: that Cllr Brian Hall brought the county council into disrepute by issuing threats against on of its journalists, has now been sent to the authority's monitoring officer, Huw Miller.
The case will now go before the council's standards committee.
The allegations were first aired on Dragon's Eye in February last year (see Dragon's Eye) when senior BBC executive Huw Rberts claimed that, during a reception in City Hall, St Davids, Hall had threatened that should the programme's senior reporter Simon Morris go over to Ireland he wouldn't come back because Hall knew people over there "who would sort things out".
It appears Hall was annoyed about Mr Morris's contribution to a previous Dragon's Eye investigation into, among other things, his dubious relationship with Dr Michael Ryan (see Hall-Ryan).
With most of my more effective moles driven deep underground by the cold weather, reliable information about the contents of the Ombudsman's report is hard to come by, though, as you can imagine, the Kremlin is alive with rumour and speculation.
What seems certain, however, is that if the Ombudsman has ruled that Hall's behaviour brought the council into disrepute, Cllr John Davies will either have to remove him from the Cabinet, or expect howls of derision the next time he tells the one about his administration being conducted in accordance with "the highest ethical standards".


Save the whale

According to the Daily Mail, the huge outburst of emotion over the Thames whale is a healthy sign.
The paper says that 100 years ago we would have killed the whale for its oil and the fact that we made such a massive effort to save it shows that we've become more civilized.
This in the fairly typical week that a young solicitor was stabbed to death a few yards from his front door; a husband and wife were killed when someone poured petrol through their letter box and put a match to it; and four people were convicted after three youths kicked a man to death while their 14-year-old girlfriend filmed the event on her mobile phone.
Give me a break!

Band of hope

Last week's articles about the council tax have brought several emails from readers pointing out that, for a large number of Pembrokeshire residents, the council's claimed 3.8% rise in the band D rate is something of a cruel joke.
That is because, at the beginning of the financial year 2005/2006 more than a third of the county's households went up by one or more bands.
So, someone paying the band D rate (£541) in 2004/2005 and who was rebanded to E for 2005/2006 found themselves paying £695 - an increase of £154 (28%).
This coming year a band E property will attract a tax of £722, a seemingly modest increase of £27 (3.8%).
However, year on year increases can be deceiving and in this case they are, because the thumping initial rise caused by rebanding is locked into the equation, in perpetuity.
I have also received a letter from a gentleman from Lawrenny in which he quotes Sue Essex WAG's Minister of Finance and Local Government as saying "the key aim of revaluation [rebanding] was not to increase the yield but to redistribute the council tax more fairly across the population of Wales, on the basis of up to date property values."
As an arithmetical proposition that is impeccable because, if one-third pay more through rebanding, then, in order to raise the same amount of revenue, the other two-thirds need to pay less.
However, that is not what happened here in Pembrokeshire because the county council used rebanding to smuggle through a 13% increase in tax collected (yield) under cover of a 5% increase in the band D rate (see Brass tax).
With increases like that it is easy to understand why the government opted for an indefinite postponement of the rebanding exercise in England.
I wonder which way John Prescott voted when the Cabinet made its decision?

Sackcloth and ashes

My socialist friend has pointed out an inaccuracy in last week's column regarding my comments on the Western Telegraph's non-use of the Freedom of Information Act.
"If you go to Freedom of Information on the WAG website and click on 'disclosure log' you will find at least two requests from the WT", he tells me.
"They are No 294 - a question about bonuses paid to senior staff at Withybush hospital for reaching targets, and No 299 - regarding staffing/ bed ratios at the hospital."
So, it's apologies all round, I'm afraid.
Even Homer nodded.

Utility pots

I must admit that I rarely watch television.
Reading the TV reviews in the paper is more than enough to put anyone off wasting their time glued to the goggle-box.
I do make an exception for the Six-Nations, but events last year have dimmed my enthusiasm, even for that.
Occasionally, after Sunday dinner, I settle down with a glass of cheap Chilean Merlot to watch "The Antiques Roadshow" in the hope that one of the many artefacts in the Grumpy household will turn out to be worth enough to allow me to upgrade to the £4.99
Last Sunday evening, a furtive little chap pulled what he claimed to be his grandmother's ashtray out of the inside pocket of his rather scruffy anorak.
The resident expert got quite excited about this objet d'art and valued it at £1,000.
At this point, I must admit, greed got the better of me because my ashtray - confined to the kitchen because of fears about second hand smoke - bore a remarkable resemblance to the thousand quids-worth of ancient pottery displayed on the screen.
Having emptied the contents into the compost bin - fag-ends make up .0001% of all waste sent to landfill [c.f. Hall on nappies 2006] - I read with growing excitement the words "Johnston and Co" made in England and the date "since 1893".
And, it turns out, my ashtray is far superior to the £1,000 model displayed on TV because, when the expert was examining the marks on the bottom, there was no sign of the words "Dishwasher, freezer and microwave safe.!"
Who in their right senses would fork out a grand for an ashtray that can't be used for poaching eggs in the microwave?

Stone deaf?

It just goes to show how our relations with Russia have changed that my reaction, when I heard about the James Bond-like activities of British spies in a Moscow street, was to fall out of bed laughing, rather than head for the nearest fallout shelter.
Mind you, it will be the last time I hold a conversation with one of my fellow-plotters anywhere near those rocks in front of the aptly named Kremlin-on-Cleddau.

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