July 25 2006


More ways to skin a cat . . .

As we are constantly being told, Pembrokeshire County Council sets the lowest council tax in Wales.
And, as I have frequently pointed out, there are possible reasons for this other than the sheer brilliance of our masters in the Pembrokeshire Independent Group.
Those other reasons include the size of the grant provided by the Welsh Assembly; the level of charges for council services; and the amount spent compared to other authorities.
Clearly, the more you charge people for services the less you need to raise by way of the council tax.
It seems that even the Western Telegraph has cottoned on because a couple of weeks ago it published a hard-hitting editorial condemning the increase/introduction of parking charges across the county as a money raising ramp.
And figures recently published by the council give some idea of the effect that penny-pinching on services can have on council tax.
In answer to questions from Cllr Bill Philpin, Cabinet member David Wildman revealed that spending per capita on social services in Pembrokeshire was £264 compared to the all-Wales average of £290.
As there are roughly 115,000 people resident in Pembrokeshire, that equates to £2.99 million (115,000 x £26) which divided by the tax base of 50,000 (band D equivalents) works out to a band D tax rate of approximately £60 less than it would be if PCC's expenditure was equal to the all-Wales average.
The council will argue that it is unfair to compare social services spending in rural Pembrokeshire with that in deprived areas such as Blaina Gwent and Rhondda Cynon Taff though it doesn't hesitate to use these same comparisons when it sends out its propaganda sheet boasting of the lowest council tax in Wales.


Only obeying orders

As I reported last week, a notice of motion that would have given all elected members the opportunity to have a say on top people's pay foundered on the rock of the Independent Political Group's block vote See Blockheads).
I must say, I was rather surprised by this because it is difficult to see the point of standing for election unless you want to influence what goes on.
Prior to its appearance at full council, the notice of motion came before the corporate governance committee - a body dominated by the Leader and his place men - where it also went down to a heavy defeat.
At that meeting one of the IPG's leading thinkers, Cllr Don Evans, argued that the senior staff committee - another body dominated by the Leader and his place men - which decides senior officers' pay, needed plenary powers to ensure "streamlined decision making".
As I pointed out at full council, this argument is entirely without merit because these pay rises are invariably backdated to the previous January 1st so a few weeks delay would make no difference whatsoever.
I also pointed out that what the IPG means by streamlined decision making is that they should get their own way with the minimum of democratic debate.
But all to no avail because the members of the IPG had been told how to vote at the previous day's secret party meeting and nothing I, or anybody else, might say was going to persuade them to disobey orders.
Interestingly, I heard the term "streamlined decision making" on the Today programme recently, when energy minister Alastair Darling was explaining how he intended to shortcut the present system of public inquiries with regard to planning applications for new nuclear power stations.
This coincided with a speculative piece in the Western Telegraph about the possibility of such a development being sited on the shores of the Haven.
If such a proposal were to be brought forward, can we expect the IPG to roll over, in the name of streamlined decision making, and let the government have its way?
Clearly, when a public inquiry into a new terminal at Heathrow takes longer than it did to build a new airport in Hong Kong, there is over-larding of the democratic bread.
But, by the same token, there must also come a point where decision making becomes streamlined to the point where it is inconsistent with democracy.
After all, the most streamlined decision making is to be found in dictatorships.

Mobile goalposts


The county council's attempt to sell the Mine Depot at Blackbridge has now entered its second year.
For most of that period, the bidding war between Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA) and Cleddau Enterprises Ltd (CEL) has been on the basis of best consideration [price].
So, when CEL offered £550,000 and MHPA responded with a bid of £600,000 MHPA Chief Executive Ted Sangster thought he'd landed the site.
However, Roger Barrett-Evans (director of development) and Neville Henstredge (head of asset management) came to the conclusion that, because MHPA was planning to pay for the site in two instalments, the lost interest on the second, delayed payment meant that in value terms £550,000 up-front was worth more that £600,000 in two lumps.
It seems there were protracted negotiations between MHPA and PCC over a period of several weeks before Mr Sangster reluctantly yielded to the council's "intransigence" and threw another £20,000 into the pot (see MHPAdocs).
The reason for Mr Sangster's reluctance to up the ante seems to have been his belief that he had a promise from "the Chief Executive and others" that MHPA's bid would be accepted on the grounds of general economic benefit regardless of price (see MHPAdocs).
I should explain that, until recently, when selling publicly owned land, local authorities were obliged to obtain best consideration [price] by virtue of S123 Local Government Act 1972.
In 2003 the Welsh Assembly passed the General Disposal Consent Order which allows the sale to an underbidder if the authority considers that it is likely that the purpose for which the land is to be used is for the economic, environmental or social benefit of the residents of the area.
Presumably, this was the procedure that Mr Sangster thought was going to be invoked.
However Messrs Barrett-Evans and Henstredge were clearly proceeding on the basis of the 1972 Act - hence the insistence that MHPA's bid be topped up.
And it is on the basis of best price that the two parties have been trying to outbid each other for the past four months.
At some point it became obvious that CEL had more financial firepower than MHPA - after all the Port Authority can't be that flush otherwise why would it need to buy the site on the never-never - and a new strategy was devised which involved sending the two sets of proposals to the Welsh Assembly for an "independent" appraisal of their respective economic benefits.
And I am now reliably informed that, far from price being the crucial issue, the information sent to the Welsh Assembly makes no mention, whatsoever, of the value of the two competing bids.
I suppose the theory is that, if they move the goalposts often enough, Mr Sangster is bound, eventually, to find the net.


At the most recent meeting of council the leader was unable to provide me with the total cost of the Uzmaston Tetra mast planning appeal.
You will recall that MMO2 won its appeal and, because the Inspector decided that the council had acted unreasonably in refusing the application, he ordered it to pay MMO2's costs as well as its own.
When I asked this same question at the February meeting I was told that council's bill for its own lawyers was £27,000 but that MMO2's bill had not been received.
Now I am told MMO2's bill has been received but, because the council is disputing the amount, not finalised.
However, a mole tells Old Grumpy that MMO2's claim is for more than £70,000 taking the total cost into six figures.
M'learned friends must be extremely grateful to those members who refused this application despite the clearest advice from the planning officers that there were no grounds for doing so.
Not so grateful will be the council taxpayers as £100,000 equates to a £2 charge on a band D property.


Voluntary tax


Last week's Any Questions panel discussed Labour's latest energy saving scheme - the individual carbon allowance.
Broadly speaking, this would give every citizen of the UK a carbon ration which would be freely tradeable so that anyone who used less than their allowance could sell their surplus allocation to anyone who desired to use more.
Lord Morris, formerly Sir Bill Morris general secretary of the TGWU, thought this was a bad idea because it would favour the rich, who would be able to buy up all the surplus for their own use.
In fact, the result would be the exact opposite because, under the new arrangements, the rich would have to pay for something that had hitherto been free and the poor would have a saleable asset which had hitherto been worthless.
To give a concrete example: suppose the scheme was applied to motor cars with everyone given enough tokens to entitle them to buy a Vauxhall Astra.
Anyone wanting to swan around looking down on the rest of us from behind the wheel of a Land Rover Discovery (three times as many coupons as an Astra, say) would need to buy the extra from someone who didn't need his full quota - a Ford Fiesta driver, or someone who didn't have a car at all, for instance.
There would, therefore, be a transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor, and, as nobody needs to go about in a Land Rover Discovery, the transfer would be essentially voluntary.
Sounds like a wonderful scheme to me.

Unrepentent sinners

Speaking of Land Rover Discoveries and other varieties of gas guzzling "Chelsea tractors", I notice that the Bishop of London, Rt Rev Richard Chatres, has declared that their drivers are "sinful" because their carbon-emitting activities are causing global warming.
This is further proof, if any were needed, that environmentalism is the new religion.
It's easier for a Ford Fiesta to pass though the eye of a needle, than for a Chelsea tractor to pass through the gates of heaven, and all that.
That said, I wonder what the good Bishop would think if he made a visit to County Hall and saw two Discoveries parked in the special places reserved for the nomenclatura at the left hand end of the building.
I am told these belong to the Chief Executive and the deputy Leader Cllr John S Allen Mirehouse (the S stands for Seymour, in case you were wondering).
My SF tells me that these tank-like vehicles cost almost thirty grand a throw, which, as he points out, is roughly equivalent to both the cheque Squirehouse received from the taxpayer last year under the single farm payment scheme, and the amount the taxpayer will have to fork out to fund the Chief Executive's recent pay rise.
It seems rather silly that the taxpayer should be subsidising the use of these gas guzzlers at the same time as Mr Blair is encouraging us to cut down on carbon emissions in order to meet our Kyoto targets.
Hardly what I would call joined-up government.

Ill-gotten gains

Spare a thought for another double-barrelled Welsh toff, whose one great achievement in life seems to have been avoiding choking on the silver spoon at birth.
I refer to Mr William Williams-Wynne of Tywyn, a member, so the Daily Telegraph claims, of the oldest family in Wales.
According to the DT, Mr W W-W's family have occupied the Peniarth estate in north Wales since1414 when one of his ancestors won it from Henry V during a game of cards.
Now, just eight years short of 600th anniversary of the family's tenure, poor old Mr W W-W is, in his own words, "bust" after his ex-wife took him to the cleaners during an acrimonious divorce.
In order to comply with the court's order that he must keep the good lady in the manner to which she has grown accustomed, he is now faced with selling not only the estate but his light aircraft, microlight, motorbike and art collection, and even then he will be left to get by on an income of only £15,000 a year.
Just goes to show that, as my dear old maternal grandmother - a closet Quaker - used to say: "Lasting happiness never came from money won through gambling."

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