July 22 2002


It's a fix

Last week, I took time out from the broad bean harvest to attend the first meeting of the full County Council since the introduction of the Politburo (aka Cabinet)
I had been looking forward to this meeting for two reasons.
Firstly, the hope that it would provide evidence to back my theory that the new arrangements had rendered 50 of the 60 members virtually redundant , and secondly there were two rather interesting planning applications on the agenda; both of which had been approved by the planning committee in the face of strong advice by the planning officers that they were against policy and should be refused.
One of these applications was to build a house at Pope Hill near Johnston under a policy that allows infill development in rural hamlets; and the other at a site near Mathry (see July 1 2002) which sought to take advantage of policy EV18 which allows "the conversion of appropriate sound, traditional buildings for residential use," to turn a concrete block implement shed with asbestos sheet roof into a dwelling.
On these issues the council divides between the minority groups (Lab, Lib Dems and Plaid) who believe that democratic politicians should obey the law - in this case the planning policy - and the bungalow-farming wing of the ruling Independent Political (sic) Group who seem to think that the law is whatever the majority say it is.
Political philosophers dub this latter view: majoritarianism, and are unanimous in the view that the essentially totalitarian nature of such a system is not altered by the fact that the participants are elected.
After all, they argue, Hitler came to power through the ballot box!
So, last Thursday's debate on these two planning applications, despite the outcome being preordained by the Independents' 40-20 majority, promised a lively contest between two contrasting styles.
Imagine my disappointment, then, when, late on Wednesday evening, a mole telephoned to tell me that, at their secret group meeting that afternoon, the Independents had agreed to throw the game.
At that meeting, I am reliably informed, the Leader, Cllr Maurice Hughes, inspired by the less than flattering image of the authority conveyed by a recent Dragon's Eye programme on TV, instructed his troops to vote against both applications because of the further adverse publicity that would flow if members were seen to be driving a coach and horses through their own planning policies, especially at a time when the formulation of the new Unitary Development Plan was nearing completion.
After all, people might start asking what was the point of spending £500,000 a year on "strategic planning" if the members felt free to ignore the conclusions.
That left the Independents with the "Grobelaar problem" - how to fix a match without anyone noticing - even more of a problem in this case because at least one of the spectators was in the know and would be watching every move.
Another difficulty was how to explain away the sudden loss of form - the Independents having comprehensively thrashed the opposition in the warm-up games at planning committee.
My information is that the favoured tactic was to pretend that the result of this particular match wasn't important because, whatever the outcome, there would have to be a replay.
At least that was the line peddled by the Chairman of the planning committee, Cllr Lyn Davies, when he rose to propose that his committee's decision should be reversed - in itself a strange departure, because the custom is for the chairman to support resolutions passed by his committee even if he disagrees with them.
Cllr Davies told the meeting that it made no difference whether the applications were passed or refused because, in the first eventuality the application would have to be referred to the Welsh Assembly as a departure from policy, and in the second the applicant could appeal to the Assembly.
Either way, a planning inspector would be appointed to determine the final outcome.
This is, I am afraid, simply untrue because there is a vast difference between the referral of an approval in breach of policy and an appeal.
Old Grumpy was fascinated to observe what went on in the meeting itself.
In both cases the Chairman of Planning stood up and proposed that his own committee's decision should be overthrown.
That was followed by an impassioned plea from the local member (Cllr George Grey for Pope Hill and Cllr Gordon Cawood for Mathry) for consent to be given.
Again this was strange, because they both already knew that the decision at the previous day's meeting meant the applications were doomed.
Even stranger that Cllr Cawood, the chairman of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority, should be backing such an application.
Owners of redundant, concrete block milking parlours in the National Park should get their applications in now.
After the local members had had their say, the vice-chairman of planning Bryan Phillips bobbed up to second his Chairman's proposal for refusal and in each case he was followed the Cabinet Minister for small business, Brian Howell, who gave a little homily to the effect that he could not support the application because it was contrary to policy.
The actions of the two Cabinet members, Hall and Stock, who had been the principle cheerleaders for both applications at the committee stage, were particularly interesting.
Just before the planning issues came up for discussion, Hall left the chamber carrying an empty water jug.
He must have had some difficulty locating a tap, because an hour later he still hadn't returned, though when I left the meeting I noticed that the Tardis was still in the parking slot reserved for the nomenklatura by the southeast corner of the Kremlin.
At least Stock had the good manners to stay and explain his sudden about face, which, he claimed, was based on a newfound enthusiasm for the council's planning policy, though a cynic like Old Grumpy would suggest that the risk of offending the Leader and being separated from the £450 a week he gets for being a Cabinet member may have had just a teeny weenie bearing on his attitude.
Cllr Alwyn "Monster Muncher" Luke was another who didn't catch the eye.
At the planning committee, "Monster Muncher" was a voluble supporter of the Mathry plan while here he adopted an uncharacteristic silence, though he did manage to pluck up the courage to declare himself in favour when the issue was finally put to the vote.
Presumably, even he could understand that it would look a bit fishy if, two weeks after shouting his mouth off in support of the application at the planning committee,
he was to now vote against it.
However, Cllr Norman Parry, the serial breaker of the rules on declarations of interest, made one last effort to keep the bungalow farming tradition alive.
This tradition involves distorting the truth and twisting logic to arrive at whatever result is desired.
Referring to the Mathry case, Cllr Parry claimed that concrete blocks had been traditional in Pembrokeshire for 70 years and, therefore the application accorded with policy.
Unfortunately, he was interrupted before he could give us his thoughts on corrugated asbestos sheets
However, had Cllr Parry bothered to read the relevant policy - an essential prerequisite for anyone charged with adjudicating on the rights of individuals, you might think - he might have noticed the words: "Non-traditional buildings constructed of asbestos sheeting, corrugated iron or concrete blocks for example will not be considered."
And we are paying this buffoon £13,500 a year to be the vice-chairman of a scrutiny committee.

Wisdom of the week

Make sure all the ducks are in a row before you pull the trigger.(Old Cumberland wildfowlers' motto)

Next week; does your planning application have a better chance of success if you employ the right agent?

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