July 11 2007

 

Whitehall farce

Yesterday (Tuesday) I tootled along to the Lamphey Court Hotel to observe the Adjudication Panel's deliberations on the Ombudsman's conclusions on my complaint that Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse breached the Code of Conduct by failing to declare an interest at a National Park meeting where the controversial "homes for locals" policy was debated.
Never can high farce have been conducted in such agreeable surroundings.
Firstly, take a look at the rules of the game in which the Ombudsman's barrister is not allowed to cross-examine the respondent's (defence) witnesses.
This means that the defence can say anything it pleases without fear of challenge.
Even the chairman of the tribunal admitted this was an unsatisfactory state of affairs because "From an equality of arms point of view it is not good that the advocate representing the Ombudsman cannot assist the tribunal [to discover the truth] by asking questions of witnesses."
It seems that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse has now abandoned his previous claim that, at the time of the meetings of which I complained, he did not own land in the National Park which was capable of development.
I will return to this point later.
His present defence is that the "homes for locals" policy wouldn't have any effect on the price of development land.
To this end National Park officer Ifor Jones was called as an expert witness to tell the tribunal that his researches showed that the "homes for locals" policy had had no bearing on the price of development land.
As the policy was never implemented; having been kicked into touch by the planning inspector, it would have been interesting to hear from Mr Jones on what criteria this conclusion was based.
Unfortunately, Mr Hughes, the Ombudsman's barrister, was prevented from asking this question by the tribunal's rules.
However, Mr Hughes did manage to slip one under the tribunal's guard by asking for clarification of a clause in the evidence that said that, in respect of similar policies in the Lake District, officers had advised that, depending on the stringency of the conditions imposed, land values could be depressed by as much as 30%.
Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's QC was not pleased.
"Mr Hughes has no locus to ask that - it's quite wrong" he said, quickly adding that he was not being defensive.
However, the tribunal decided that it would like to have the point clarified and Mr Jones admitted that National Park officers had considered that the policy might have a potential impact on the price of development land "but that was not the driving factor".
Now, the purpose of the policy was to make homes in the National Park affordable for local people.
Ask yourself how this might be achieved except by driving down the price of building land.
This is entirely consistent with classical economic theory that says that if you restrict demand for any good its price will be depressed.
If I put my house on the market tomorrow with the stipulation that it may only be sold to a redhead over 6'6" tall, I am likely to get a lower price than if I am willing to sell to all-comers.
As the Ombudsman says in his report: "Those with potential development land thus stood to lose directly, as the value of new development land would be expected to decrease as the result of a restricted market."
After all there is nothing in the current situation to prevent locals from participating in the market for development land in the National Park so, as the proposed policy was designed to give them an advantage, it could only be by depressing the price.
Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's QC, who was making all the running, then came up with a series of nine questions which he obviously thought would help his client.
The first three were based on the inordinate length of time (five years) between the initial complaint and the tribunal hearing (see Tempus fugit).
The second of these asked: "Why was the initial investigation discontinued during 2003?"
In reply, the Ombudsman's investigating officer said the matter had been referred to the police who had reported back that there was insufficient evidence to mount a prosecution.
Insofar as it goes, this is the truth.
However, I have the letter dated 27 September 2003 in which the the Ombudsman informed me that the investigation had been closed.
It says that "He [Cllr Allen-Mirehouse] has stated that he has not applied for planning permission to develop any land and there is no evidence that he has any land which would be affected by the adoption of the policy on development within the National Park."
As the only people involved up to that time were the police, Cllr Allen-Mirehouse must have "stated" this to them.
This is borne out by the Ombudsman's report which says at Para 17 "Cllr Allen-Mirehouse told the police that had he had land designated for development in the emerging plans he would have felt compelled to declare an interest, but that had not been the case. He also said [to the police, presumably] that he never intended to develop any land and had not applied for permission to do so."
The case was reopened after I went to the National Park offices and unearthed evidence that he did indeed own land that he intended to develop.
Even then, Cllr Allen-Mirehouse persisted with the story that he had no land that could be affected by the policy.
According to the Ombudsman's report following the reopened investigation: "Cllr Allen-Mirehouse says that as at February 2002 he had no developable land 'within the village' which did not already have planning permission . . ."
However, faced with overwhelming evidence that, as the Ombudsman says: ". . . he certainly owned at least one parcel of land (Whitehall) which he considered suitable for development and had already, in June 2001, produced plans for this land and had sought to get it it identified as development land within the JUDP" he has abandoned that line of defence and fallen back on the bizarre claim that the proposed policy would have had no effect on the price of development land.
As it is now accepted by Cllr Allen-Mirehouse that he did have land that might be affected by the policy, it would seem to follow that he was less than truthful with both the Ombudsman and the police.
But perhaps the strangest aspect of yesterday's proceedings came right at the end, after Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's QC had led him through the evidence of his good works in selling off cheap houses in Angle in order to boost numbers in the local primary school
At the end of this toe-curling episode, the chairman asked Cllr Allen-Mirehouse: "Do you you know Robert Stoddart?"
I should explain that I was christened Robert Michael after my paternal grandfather.
As I never use my first name - always signing letters Mike - it is something of a mystery how the chairman came to know it.
But to return to the question, to which J A-M replied "Distantly".
"Do you know of any reason why he would make this complaint?" the chairman asked.
"Cllr Stoddart has been a constant critic of my conduct since 1995", Mirehouse replied.
"Can you tell me whether you have any views on the way the complainant has conducted this complaint?" the chairman asked.
After generously conceding that I had every right to complain, Cllr Allen-Mirehouse added: "Whether he should have complained quite so often is another matter."
Now, you might well ask what Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's opinion of my conduct had to do with with the issues before the tribunal.
The only explanation I can think of is that it was been suggested, by the chairman of all people, that I had acted out of some base motive.
While I feel no need to justify my actions to either the tribunal chairman or Cllr Allen-Mirehouse, I would point out that, as I have said on previous occasions when these sort of smear tactics have been deployed, my motives are immaterial because they have no bearing whatsoever on the facts of the case.
Cllr Allen-Mirehouse attended a meeting of the National Park committee where he spoke and voted against the 'homes for locals' policy.
He didn't declare an interest.
These facts can be found in the National Park minutes and remain constant whether the complainant is Genghis Khan or Mother Teresa.
The only issue is whether he should have declared an interest, and both the Ombudsman and myself believe that he should.
However, as the chairman has chosen to make my motives an issue, I have asked the clerk to the tribunal to request that I be given the opportunity to put my side of the story.
I will let you know how I get on.

Ship of fools

Having been flooded out in 1989, when the culvert leading from Goose Pill to Milford Docks became blocked with the result that the water backed up into Lower Priory filling our house to a depth of three feet, I wouldn't underestimate the distress felt by the people of Hull and other parts of south Yorkshire following the recent deluge.
However, I was struck by the reaction of one young lady interviewed on TV who was allowed to rail, unchallenged, against the government's failure to come to her aid. .
Her problem was that she wasn't insured and she was demanding that the authorities provide her with a cheque to cover the damage.
Of course, if people who don't bother to take out insurance are put in the same position as those who do, we have what is known as moral hazard.
What is the point of paying the premiums if you are no better off than those who don't?
What is the point of saving for your old age, if, when it comes to paying for care, you are actually put in a worse position than those who spend every penny that they get their hands on?
But it didn't seem to occur to this young woman that she, not the government, was ultimately responsible for the predicament in which she found herself.
Unfortunately, the welfare state, whatever its manifest benefits, is bedevilled by moral hazard, the dangers of which were neatly summed up by the 19th century philosopher Herbert Spencer when he said: "The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly, is to fill the world with fools."

Dry run

I don't usually bother with the "Public Appointments" (PA) section of the Sunday Times because of fears for my blood pressure.
However, Grumpette is regular reader, and from time to time she points me to matters of interest.
For instance, it was in this section of the paper that I learned a few weeks ago that Pembrokeshire County Council was offering £107,000 a year to Roger Barrett-Evans successor as director of development.
Assuming this was Mr Barrett-Evans salary on leaving, he will be on a pension just north of £1,000 per week, plus a lump sum payment in excess of £150,000.
But, on studying the Times' public appointments, you come to realise that this is mere bagatelle where the public sector is concerned.
The government is looking for someone to chair the "Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission" - formerly the Child Support Agency - "circa £100,000: 2 days per week".
And Peninsula Enterprise - funded by South West England Regional Development Council [i.e. the taxpayer] - is offering £110,000 - £150,000 for a chief executive who will be required ". . . to lead the change agenda in a complex stakeholder and public sector funding environment."
The person they are looking for will be ". . . a natural entrepreneur with considerable business flair, able to demonstrate high levels of gravitas."
I would have thought that a complex stakeholder and public sector funding environment wouldn't be the stamping ground of choice for the world's natural entrepreneurs.
But these inhabitants of the public sector don't have it all their own way because, according to an article in the PA section, some local authorities have banned the practice of staff nipping down the pub for a lunchtime pint.
Brighton and Hove city council is in the forefront because it has not only outlawed the lunchtime pint but when staff are at official evening functions they have to stick to soft drinks.
Just in case you were thinking this smacks of Big Brother, I should add that deputy leader Sue John told the Sunday Times: "Council staff are allowed to drink in their own time in the evenings and at the weekends."
Lucky old them!
And the other bit of good news: Ms John informed the paper: "This does not apply to elected councillors"
One rule of them and another for us - that's the style!
Trebles all round!

Pudding club

None of this would have gone down well with my old friend the late Col Dan Bruton, the finance director of Greens, who, in the swinging 70s, could be found most days, with his Daily Telegraph crossword and a pint (or two) of Worthington's best, in bar of the Penry Arms (deceased).
I remember Dan telling us how he had been approached to join Milford Haven Rotary Club.
First he was invited to attend one of their lunches in the Lord Nelson as a guest.
"The first course was a perfectly acceptable dish of roast beef washed down with a decent bottle of claret and I was half-tempted to give it a go", Dan related, "but when the waitress emerged from the kitchen and shouted: 'Hands up, who's for pud' I came to realise that it wasn't my sort of luncheon club."

Back to home page