28 January 2003

Money down the drain


Last week I popped into Milford Haven library where they keep beautifully bound copies of the Mercury going right back to its launch in October 1992.
The purpose of my visit was to look up something I wrote about the Water Gardens on the Rath in 1995 when two young ladies in the town spearheaded a campaign to "Bring back our pool".
The pool in question was, of course, the open-air swimming pool on the site of what is now the Water Gardens.
With a few changes of name and number, the tale I had to tell could have applied to any one of a dozen local authority projects over the years: the Charles Street "improvements"; the Muppet Centre in Goodwick; the Watersports facility in Pembroke Dock and the Blackbridge Sports Hall, to name but a few of the white elephants, whose promoters have gone on to the sort of fame and fortune that only a juicy, taxpayer-funded, index-linked pension can provide.
The Water Gardens came into being because the swimming pool had sprung a leak, which, our elected representatives were told, would cost £84,000 to repair.
However, for a mere £70,000, they could have a Water Garden; described by ex-councillor Joe Maine as "an asset for the town".
None of our elected representative questioned these figures because, not being the sharpest knives in the drawer, they were afraid of making a fool of themselves.
Anyway, consultants were engaged (W S Atkins of Charles Street "improvements" fame) with a brief to devise a scheme costing no more than £70,000.
However, as you've probably already guessed, when the tenders came in the lowest was £170,000.
So the job was given to the Council's Direct Labour Organisation (DLO), on a cost-plus basis, with the proviso that the cost would not exceed the lowest tender (£170,000).
Needless to say, this condition was breached and the final account came to £216,647 including £14,161 for plants and trees and £11,958 for electrical work, neither of which had been included in the original contract.
As I wrote at the time, while it was just about excusable to overlook the cost of electrics, it is hard to understand why some provision for the cost of plants was not included in a tender for a Water Garden.
In addition to the £216,647 for the works, there was a bill for fees from W S Atkins of £46,831, which, because they were calculated as a percentage of the cost of the job, were three times what they would have been if they had kept within the £70,000 originally agreed.
And people still believe that Governments can solve their problems!

Kubla Bryn

In the same edition of the Mercury the front page headline read: "£10 million plan for new County Hall" and in the following week's paper there was a piece headed "Charles Street market could start in the spring".
Seven years on we still await the market but at least County Hall got built.

Soon after the decision to go ahead with the new County Hall was taken, the Mercury received an anonymous poem which is printed below.

In Harfat town did Parry-Jones,
A stately office block decree,
Where the mighty Cleddau ran
Past fat cats numberless to man,
To Milford's jobless sea.

'Twill only cost 10 million pound
A pity to spread that around.
To give to schools and roads a bit,
When it can build a palace fit
For Bryn's bureaucracy.

The members cried: what wisdom
Hath this saviour of the nation,
To build our Council Chamber,
By the sewage pumping station.

For Cambria House is old and grey,
An ugly shell of yesterday
And shades of Preseli.

The bad old order's had its hour,
Now rises from the golden fire,
That symbol of untrammelled power,
The County Hall of Pembrokeshire.


Double take

Last week the BNP caused a stir by winning a seat on Calderdale County Borough Council.
Having read in the Daily Telegraph that one of the victorious candidate's less unpalatable policies was a pledge to try to reverse the huge rise in allowances (from £4,800 to £8,400 a year) the councillors had recently awarded themselves, I visited the authority's website at www.calderdale.gov.uk.
There I discovered that Calderdale County Borough Council serves a population of 190,000 (Pembrokeshire 110,000) and has 54 councillors (Pembrokeshire 60) and,
while the elected members in Calderdale receive a basic allowance of £8,400 a year, our lot get £9,907.
If you do the sums, you will find that the cost per head of population is more than double in Pembrokeshire.
I also notice that Calderdale manages with a Cabinet of just seven members (Pembrokeshire 10) and that all three main parties are included in this ruling body - Tories three; Labour and Liberal Democrats two each, in contrast to Pembrokeshire where the 10 top jobs - and the £150,000 in special responsibility allowances - are reserved exclusively for members of the ruling Independent Party.
What also struck me was the sheer amount of information on the website including Cabinet minutes giving details of debates and not just, as in Pembrokeshire, a bare record of the decisions taken.
I doubt if the election of a single official fascist will do much to alter what appears to be a shining example of open accountable democracy.


Toothless watchdogs

Last week I reported how Cllr Clive Collins (Ind) had been unceremoniously booted off the Environment Scrutiny Committee to make way for his Independent Party colleague Cllr Brinley Griffiths.
While I can see the funny side of this, especially the fact that His Leadership, Cllr Maurice Hughes, hadn't bothered to inform Cllr Collins that he had been sacked, there is also a serious constitutional issue involved.
These Overview Scrutiny Committees, to give them their full title, are supposed to act as a check on the Cabinet.
To this end they have the power to call in Cabinet decisions for further consideration.
The power of call in can be exercised either by the Chairman (a Cabinet stooge) or four members acting together.
The O and S Committees are each made up of ten members - seven Independents and three from the minority parties.
So, before the minority members can call in a Cabinet decision, they have to recruit a member of the Independent Party to the cause.
But, the Leader can summarily dismiss any Independent member who dares to make things awkward for the Cabinet by siding with the minorities.
And they call this democracy.

German woes


When the Euro was launched just over three years ago there was much talk of the new currency having the strength to rival the Dollar.
What actually happened was that the Euro headed rapidly south, losing 20% of its value against the mighty greenback and almost as much against the Pound.
This devaluation made British exports to Euroland uncompetitive and led to cries of pain from manufacturing industry.
Euro-enthusiasts queued up to tell the Today programme that unless we joined the single currency our manufacturing industry would be wiped out.
What was never mentioned was that what was bad for British industry should be good for industry in Euroland - the weak currency allowing manufacturers on the continent to undercut British and American goods both at home and abroad..
Indeed, economic theory dictates that the devalued Euro must have made Euroland goods more competitive but not competitive enough to prevent German rates of unemployment more than double those in the UK and USA.
Recently, there has been a remarkable realignment of currency parities with the Euro regaining much of its lost value.
That, of course, means that German goods are now less attractively priced than they were six months ago.
If they couldn't score playing down the slope with the wind behind what chance they will find the net when facing the gale?
Already German unemployment has risen to 4.5 million and, as the Euro continues to appreciate, the figure of 5 million is being mentioned.
As I predicted last September, Germany is set to become the next Japan, where economic growth has been zero or negative for the past ten years.


back to home page.