July 24 2007

Polish lessons

Grumpette and I have just returned from a few days in Krakow.
Krakow is a most beautiful city - only two hours flight from Bristol - but don't go in July or August, when it can get very hot.
Indeed, on one or two afternoons, with the temperature hovering near the 90 degree F mark, I came to appreciate the joys of the British summer - floods and all.
The icy blast that met us when we stepped off the plane at Bristol was pure delight.
A couple of years ago we spent a week in Prague, which is also very impressive, architecturally.
However, the elegance of the buildings and the richness of the culture cannot disguise the fact that these great European cities have borne witness to some of the most unspeakable acts of barbarity ever perpetrated by mankind.
As I walk down these peaceful streets I find it difficult to comprehend that, even in my lifetime, people here were being rounded up like cattle by the Gestapo for transportation to the gas chambers at Auschwitch less that 30 miles away.
There is talk that the "A" level history curriculum should concentrate less on Nazi Germany.
I believe this is misconceived: not because I think children should be taught to be anti-German, but because everyone should understand how swift the descent into the pit can be once a people loses its faith in democracy.
As Thomas Jefferson said: "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."
And it is much easier to be vigilant if you know what to look out for.

Never wrong

The recent meeting of the county council debated two Notices of Motion submitted by Cllrs Kate Becton and Tony Brinsden which were designed to give applicants and objectors the right to address the planning committee.
This is Cllr Becton's second attempt to bring in this reform - the first having been blocked by a typical piece of chicanery by the Leader (see All power . . . ).
The ruling Independent Political Group opposed this reform on two main grounds.
Firstly that it would be unfair because some people are better at putting across their point of view in public than others.
As was pointed out, some people are better at writing letters than others so why not use the same argument to outlaw written representations.
The second reason was that the committee's decision might be influence by a an unverifiable statement by an objector/applicant leaving the council open to legal action.
The difficulty with this argument is that the IPG has six members who sit on the National Park committee where public participation is allowed.
Surely, if they honestly believe that this leaves the National Park open to legal challenge, they have a duty to campaign to have the system changed.
After all, they must all be aware of the risk of running up huge legal bills - witness the £170,000 it cost Pembrokeshire County Council after a planning inspector found that there was no justification for the IPG-dominated planning committee's decision to refuse the Uzmaston Tetra mast.
These two entirely spurious arguments having been downed, the IPG's case was further undermined when Cllr Becton was able to quote from a document produced by the Society of Planning Officers which said that allowing members of the public to speak at planning meetings was "best practice".
But the most interesting intervention came from Cllr Michael Evans - one of the few members of the ruling party who understands the meaning of 'independent' - who had been surfing the Internet to find out more about the council's newly appointed Monitoring Officer, Mr L J Harding, who currently works for the Forest of Dean District Council.
Cllr Evans had discovered a report by Mr Harding on the recent introduction of the public's right to speak at his present council.
Apparently, what Mr Harding had to say was that, initially, he was sceptical about the policy, but having seen it in operation he had come round to the belief that it was generally a good thing.
Faced with this overwhelming evidence, and the prospect of losing on a recorded vote, the Leader promised a review of the situation within 12 months - later whittled down to six months under further opposition pressure.
While this small concession is to welcomed, it would have been better if, just for once, the Leader could have brought himself to admit that the opposition had the better case.

Statistical trickery


Cllr Brian Hall's successor as Cabinet member for the environment and planning, Cllr Rev Huw George, gives the impression of being permanently pleased with himself.
Which is not surprising, I suppose, given his elevation to the Cabinet less than a year after being elected to the council.
I had put down a question for Cllr George on the recent Ombudsman's report into maladministration in the planning department (see Under the carpet).
In reply, he claimed this was an isolated incident and backed this up by comparing the number of applications handled each year with the number of adverse Ombudsman's reports.
"Over the last five years, there have been 7,675 planning applications of which only three resulted in critical Ombudsman’s reports. That is 0.04%, or put in another way, one-twenty fifth of one per cent. I cannot see how he can characterise this record as “serial administrative failures”, he trumpeted.
While this is a clever (in the worst sense) answer, it is based on flawed methodology.
The error occurs because not every failing in the planning department is the subject of a complaint to the Ombudsman.
Indeed, because of the Ombudsman's terms of reference (the complainant must have suffered a personal injustice) there are large swathes of planning applications that can't be investigated by the Ombudsman, however inefficiently they are handled.
So, comparing the numbers of planning applications and adverse Ombudsman's reports is like calculating the frequency of thunderstorms by reference to the number of people killed by lightening strikes.
In this most recent case, the Ombudsman criticised the council for the failure of the case officer to keep any records of important meetings with the builder and his architect.
Because it occurred before he was elected to the council, Cllr George can be forgiven for being unaware of the previous case where the Ombudsman discovered that someone in the planning department had falsified a document in order to make it appear that an application fell within policy (see Think of a number).
However, given his position as Cabinet member with responsibility for planning, he can't be excused for failing to read this latest Ombudsman's report.
Had he done so, he would have noticed that, far from being an isolated incident, this poor record keeping was endemic.
Indeed, at paragraph 53 of the report the Ombudsman records: "The Head of Planning said that all officers were encouraged to produce site visit notes. The Case Officer has often been reminded of this as he is bad at keeping notes of this kind."
As the Ombudsman ruled that this failure to keep notes amounted to maladministration, Cllr George should put away his calculator and see to it that "encouraged" becomes "required".
Cllr Rev George was also keen to show off his mathematical abilities in answer to a question from Cllr Rhys Sinnett.
Cllr Sinnett had asked what assessment had been made of ". . . the uptake of use of the compost bins distributed to households across the county by the council."
In response, Cllr George held up a sheet of paper on which was written in large letters the formula (B-C)/A x 100 = % bins accepted.
We needn't trouble ourselves too much with the algebra except to say that this answer suffers from the same flaw as that regarding the Ombudsman because the number of bins accepted i.e not refused on delivery, or subsequently returned, is not the same as "the uptake of use".
For instance, a month or so ago, I was walking the coast path near St Annes Head when I saw one of these objects lying in the hedge.
And, on the walk back from Tesco to Liddeston, I counted three that had been neither returned to the council, nor used for composting purposes.
The classic example of this can be seen in my neighbour's garden where a large green object can periodically be seen moving, apparently unaided, across the lawn shouting "Exterminate! Exterminate!"

Biased viewpoint

Sitting in a pavement cafe enjoying a cold beer and watching the world go by, Old Grumpy formed the impression that Krakow is populated by tall, slim, blond girls between the ages of 18 and 30.
When I mentioned this to Grumpette, she said she thought there was a preponderance of tall, handsome, blond young men.
Now, give or take the 600,000, mostly male, plumbers said to be working in the UK, genetic theory tells us the numbers of boys and girls should be roughly equal.
Which only goes to show that, however objective you try to be, you can't avoid seeing the world through the prism of self-interest.

Fast breeder reactor

While on my hols the eggs in the incubator hatched out providing me with six new chicks.
Added to the four already in residence, this brings my flock up to double figures (Cllr Huw George please note - you're not the only one who can do sums).
In the meantime, my sole laying pullet has produced another ten eggs and, such is the power of the geometric progression, I calculate that at this rate I will have enough chickens to consume the world's entire grain output by late 2012.
You don't have to be a member of Greenpeace to realise that this situation is unsustainable, even in the short term.
And things are set to get worse because the grandchildren are nagging me get some ducks.
What is an environmentally responsible citizen to do in these circumstances?
Suggestions involving switching to rabbit production will be consigned to the waste-paper basket.


Horse sense

I can't remember how the subject of farting came up during Monday evening's after-dinner conversation, but I can say it was not inspired by a relevant event.
On this subject, my maternal grandfather, who new a bit about horses, used to say: "Any old nag can fart in the morning when it's had a night's rest and a scoopful of oats, but a horse that still has the energy to fart in the evening, after pulling a plough up and down a field for 12 hours, has a value beyond price."
As I have never had even the slightest interest in horses, I never did reap the benefit of his, no doubt, wise advice.

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