January 9 2007


Opposing desires

Several readers have e-mailed to complain about the absence of Old Grumpy's Rewards for Excellent Service (OGRES) in this year's Christmas column.
I apologise for that and promise to do better next year.
Indeed, I have already started to select likely candidates, starting with what will surely be a strong contender for Services to Logic come 2008.
This concerns remarks made by county councillor Peter Stock during a consideration of a grant application at Monday's meeting of Cabinet.
According to Cllr Stock, there had been an article in a local newspaper containing details of a grant awarded to the same applicant by Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority.
He was concerned that the National Park was getting all the credit.
"Wouldn't it be nice if the county council could also get a mention" he said.
Sadly he will have to be disappointed because, less than two minutes before he uttered this remark, Cllr Stock and his cabinet colleagues had voted unanimously to exclude the public and press on the grounds that discussion of the grant application would reveal exempt information under Section 100 if the Local Government Act 1972 and any councillor bold enough to "mention" the details of what was discussed would risk being hauled up before the Ombudsman for a breach of confidentiality.

On yer bike

With 2007 less than two weeks old, Cllr Rob Lewis the cabinet minister for leisure and culture has already staked a claim for bore-of-the-year in my 2008 New Year's OGRES.
It fell to Cllr Lewis to inform Cabinet about the council's 37-page tourism strategy; produced, he told us, by a firm of consultants who specialised in "econometric analysis".
According to Cllr Rob, tourism is "a cross-cutting" activity that requires "mechanisms for an integrated approach to destination management."
He droned on and on in this vein for fully 15 minutes before finally running out of stream and concluding: "There is a lot of useful information in the strategy which members will find interesting to read through."
Always eager to learn something new, I decided to take Cllr Rob at his word and was pleasantly surprised to find, under the heading "Social factors", the econometric analysts had reported that "The change in age related identities is exemplified by the emergence of a new market segment: Grey Panthers; older people participating in activities normally undertaken by younger people. Increasing motorbike ownership amongst the over 50's (sic) typifies this."
Enthused by this prospect of a new lease of life, I climbed into bed last night and put my mouth close to Grumpette's ear and went grrrrrrrr.
What ARE you doing?" she asked.
"Its your Grey Panther revving up his Harley Davidson", I replied.
"Well you can just throttle back and go to sleep" was the crushing response.

Where's the truth?

In an attempt to discover the truth about who knew what regarding Cllr John Allen Mirehouse's appointment to the Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA) board (see Last Hurrah), I e-mailed the authority's chief executive Ted Sangster.
In a rather tetchy reply, Mr Sangster says MHPA's interview panel was aware of Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's problem with the Ombudsman but didn't think it was relevant.
After Squirehouse's appointment had been recommended to the Department for Transport, it appears that Mr Sangster ". . . picked up that this Ombudsman issue was being raised in certain quarters and briefed the department [of transport] on this".
The department, of course, deny ever being told.
Amazingly, Mr Sangster claims there is no contradiction in any of this, though, to to my mind, one party saying something happened and another saying it didn't, is about as contradictory as it gets.
Unfortunately, as my own MP seems unable, or unwilling, to get to the bottom of the matter, I have enlisted the help of Cllr Michael Williams the Plaid Cymru leader on the council and he has persuaded Adam Price, his party's estimable MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefor, to take it up..
He has written to the DfT seeking answers and I hope to report more fully in due course.

Budget time

Monday's meeting of the Cabinet agreed next year's draft budget.
This document will now travel around the scrutiny committees before returning to February's Cabinet and then to full council for final approval.
This is largely window dressing because for at least the past five years the draft budget has emerged unchanged from this apparently democratic process.
One feature of next year's budget, and the year after that, is the £30 million the council intends to spend on returning Haverfordwest to its former glory.
According to the Leader, Cllr John Davies, Haverfordwest has been neglected over the years to the "benefit of other areas".
He can't have been referring to Milford Haven which has been starved of capital spending for as long as anyone can remember.
Indeed, the only Milford-specific capital project in next year's budget is a paltry £160,000 for a "vehicle wash facility" at the council's Thornton depot.
The Leader expressed the hope that everyone would support the budget and "not try to play political ping-pong in the coming months."
Sadly, he may be disappointed.
The budget, whatever Cllr Davies may think, is the big political event of the year.
It is the time when your elected representatives decide how to deploy some £300 million of your money to produce what they believe to be the best overall outcome for you.
Naturally, different members will have different ideas about how this is to be achieved and it is simply unacceptable that anyone who disagrees with Cllr Davies should be branded a political opportunist.
I know Cllr Davies' party, with control over 39 of the 60 votes, can do more or less as it pleases, but that doesn't mean the opposition don't have the right to make their views known.
It's called democratic debate.

Taxing times

The Cabinet also agreed to a 3.95% increase in the band D rate of council tax - above inflation, but not by much.
However, as I usually point out at this time of year, the increase in the band D rate is only part of the story (See Tax facts).
Old Grumpy has been doing some historical research into this matter and finds that next year will be something of a watershed because the amount of council tax to be taken from the people of Pembrokeshire is set at £30.9 million - almost exactly double the £15.3 million collected in 1996-1997 when the resurrected county council came into existence.
This 100% increase in tax, during a period when compound inflation has been roughly 30%, is hardly consistent with the image of prudence that the council likes to present.
As I have said previously, the amount of tax collected depends on two factors: the band D rate and the tax base.
Over the period 1996/97 to 2007/08 the band D rate has risen from £373 to £614 an increase of 65%.
Over the same period the tax base has gone up from 41,100 to 50,417 an increase of 23%.
The biggest single uplift resulted from the rebanding exercise which came into effect in April 2005 when the tax base went up by 8% (See Brass tax).
That increase is now locked into to the calculation in perpetuity and is worth a cool £2.4 million this year alone.

Sweet revenge

My cunning ploy to prevent the Independent Political Group from gaining an extra seat on the National Park Committee (see Ugly rumours) has produced an unexpected bonus because I hear that the IPG yes-man lined up by the Leader to occupy the £2,000 per annum position was none other than Cllr Bill Roberts.
And, you may remember, Cllr Roberts was one of those who shouted me down during the meeting where I tried, and failed, to get the council to agree to the publication of the Director of Finance's statement to the police in respect of Cllr Brian Hall's dodgy expense claims (see Shouted down).
That was more than two years ago, but some dishes are best eaten cold.
Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, I obtained a copy, anyway, and hope to return to the subject in the near future (see Double entry).
Another benefit of my link up with the Lib Dems is that I am now entitled to a place on the economic development overview and scrutiny committee where my academic qualifications in economics can be put to use for the benefit of the people of Pembrokeshire.
OK, so its only an 'A' level, but I did get an A* and, as they say, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King.

Last gasp

My boyhood hero was Gus Risman, one of the finest rugby players to come out of Wales.
In 1929, aged seventeen, Risman was signed by rugby league club Salford and went on three Lions' tours, once as captain.
He joined the newly-formed Workington Town as player-manager in 1946 and led them to success in both the Championship and the Cup Final.
Risman captained Salford to victory in the 1938 Cup Final at Wembley, a photo of which can be found at Gus Risman.
Clearly the pressure had got to some of his team mates, five of whom are pictured celebrating with a quick post-match fag.
How times have changed!

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