July 26 2005


Fatally flawed

Much as I favour the dualling of the A40 from St Clears to Haverfordwest, especially when stuck behind a slow-moving lorry all the way from Canaston Bridge to Haverfordwest, my enthusiasm is not sufficient to overcome my aversion to duff arguments.
So, when I read in the Western Telegraph that Stephen Crabb MP was quoting figures on road safety to justify dualling the road, I reached for the pencil and paper.
According to Mr Crabb, over the past 20 years ". . . there have been only 286 accidents on that part of the A40 compared to 630 accidents on the single carriageway section."
It occurred to Old Grumpy that these figures weren't quite as dramatic as they appeared because the dualled section between Carmarthen and St Clears is considerably shorter than that between St Clears and Haverfordwest.
Indeed, according to the AA, from Salutation Square to the roundabout at St Clears is 20.58 miles, while the dual carriageway from St Clears to the roundabout at Carmarthen is 9.08 miles.
Doing the long division, you get 30.6 accidents per mile on the dualled section compared to 31.49 on the other bit.
Averaging over the 20 year period leaves you with a difference of just under four-hundredths of an accident per mile/year.
Hardly statistically significant!
Where fatalities are concerned, the road safety case is even less impressive .
According to the Western Telegraph, the number of road deaths is 35% greater on the single than the dual.
But, as the single is more than twice as long, they should be over 100% greater, which means that, on a mile-for-mile basis, you are three-times less likely to be killed on the what is claimed to be the less safe route.
As a former newspaperman, I know that editors are constantly bombarded with press releases from politicians eager to see their names in print.
When I was at the Mercury, such communications were always subject to a truth test.
Unfortunately, for the vast majority, it was destination-dustbin after that.

What the papers didn't say

Even more interesting is what isn't in the Western Telegraph.
Last week the Mercury published details of county councillors' allowances and expenses.
As the Mercury and the Western Telegraph share the same editor, we can presume that the same information was available to the latter.
However, there is no mention of it in this week's edition.
The usual excuse for these omissions is that the Telegraph doesn't repeat stories already published in the Mercury, but, as the Telegraph's circulation is four-times greater, that policy deprives three-quarters of the county's readers of this most interesting information.
For instance, following publication of the list of expenses in this columnar territory, several people have emailed me to ask how it is that Cllr Brian Hall manages to claim almost twice as much mileage allowance as the Leader of the council and three times more than the bronze medal winner, Cllr Bill Hitchings.
The answer is that travelling expenses may only be claimed for "approved duties" and Cllr Hall seems to use a more generous definition of this term than everyone else.
I will return to this topic in greater detail next week.
In the meantime, I notice that the Telegraph has published the corresponding figures for the National Park Authority.
Helpfully, the National Park also provides details of members' attendance records.
These show that two of the nominees from the county council's ruling Independent Political Group, Cllrs John Allen-Mirehouse and John Thomas, only narrowly beat the 50% mark.
Perhaps they should move over and let somebody else have a go.
In Squirehouse's case it can hardly be said that he needs the £2,000 basic allowance because, in the year in question, he was also entitled to £24,800 as deputy leader of the county council and another £6,500 as one of the county council's nominees to the Milford Haven Port Authority board.

And more of the same


What was even more interesting still was what wasn't in the previous week's editions of our two local papers.
Despite reporters from both being present throughout the three-and-a-half-hour county council meeting, there was no report of the debate on my notice of motion calling for the revocation of the controversial agricultural planning consent given to Cwmbetws Ltd (managing director Cllr John Davies Leader of Pembrokeshire county council)
The Telegraph's report did mention that my notice of motion had been defeated by 40 votes to 9 but most of the report, tucked away on page 41 and headlined "Herdsman's house row rumbles on", was given over to comments by the leader himself and a sermon from Cllr Ken Rowlands.
The Leader told the Telegraph: "This is all mischief making and I expect the mischief will continue. I refute the claims that I sold the dairy herd before making the application. I sold the herd well into the beginning of this year [before the planning committee met]. I have evidence of milking at the time I made the application." and "This is all the interpretation of one councillor. It is about the applicant not the application."
This is a masterpiece of the politician's art; combining a straw man, two red herrings and a non-sequitur into less than 70 words.
The straw man, so far as I am concerned, is the denial that the cattle were sold prior to the application being submitted because I have never made such an allegation.
The first red herring is the attempt to question my motives rather than explain why Cllr Davies didn't inform the council that the cattle had been sold prior to the planning committee meeting where consent was given.
And the second: Cllr Davies assertion that "It is about the applicant and not the application."
Of course it's about the applicant, who just happens to be the all-powerful Leader of the county council. How he conducts himself in that office is, surely, a matter of public interest.
And the non-seqiteur is the attempt to refute the allegation that I haven't made with the words "I have evidence of milking at the time I made the application."
Evidence of milking is, of course, not the same as evidence that all 165 cattle listed on the "Agricultural Justification Form" were on the farm when the application was made.
However, all that I have ever said is that these dairy cattle were sold sometime between October 2004 when Cllr Davies signed the "Agricultural Justification Form", which detailed the stocking levels on the farm, including 165 dairy cattle, and the planning committee meeting on 24 May 2005, which granted planning consent for an agricultural dwelling based on the same 165 dairy cattle and the "farming regime" required to look after them.
I have emailed the Leader suggesting that, in order to clear this issue up once and for all, he should make available for inspection the farm's animal movements records.
I also emailed the editor of the Western Telegraph to complain about the unbalanced nature of the paper's coverage and demanding the right to reply to which I am entitled under the Press Code.
Following this, I was allowed to have a letter published, though only after cutting it down to little more than half its original size.
The full text of my original letter is printed below.
Dear Editor,
In last week's edition, under the headline "Herdsman's house row rumbles on" you quoted county council leader Cllr John Davies as saying: "This is all mischief making and I expect the mischief making to continue" and "This is all the interpretation of one councillor. It is about the applicant not the application."
I utterly reject the implication that I am conducting some sort of personal vendetta against Cllr Davies.
Indeed, if anyone cares to go to the library and read my Old Grumpy columns in the back numbers of the Mercury, they will find the need for fairness in the planning system is a consistent thread running through my writings for almost fifteen years.
My interest in this matter stems from the belief that equality before the law is the cornerstone of true democracy and that nothing is more damaging to the image of local government than the widely-held public perception; often articulated as 'it's not what you know, but who you know', that planning decisions owe more to string-pulling and influence-peddling than to any objective consideration of the merits of the case.
This issue involves an application by Cwmbetws Ltd (managing director Cllr John Davies) for an agricultural dwelling at Cwmbetws Farm, near Eglwyswrw.
Before such applications are granted there must be proof of a "functional need" for someone to live "on the spot".
The application, which was accompanied by an "Agricultural Justification Form (AJF)", was received by the council on 1 November 2004.
The AJF, which is used to calculate the holding's labour requirements, listed 165 dairy cattle, 162 other cattle and 350 tack sheep.
These same stocking numbers appeared in the report to the planning committee of 24 May 2005, when the application was approved.
The report concluded: "Based on the size of the holding and the farming regime there is considered to be a functional need for an additional dwelling to house a full time worker . . ."
The "farming regime" referred to involves tending to 165 dairy cows.
When calculating the labour requirements of a farm, dairy cattle rate 36 hours per annum, other cattle 16.
So the presence of the dairy cattle was crucial to establishing the "functional need" for an extra worker and, therefore, the house in which they are to live.
We now know that, sometime between the submission of the application and the planning committee meeting, Cwmbetws Ltd disposed of the milking part of the herd.
Clearly, then, the planning committee's decision was founded on manifestly false information.
It is my view that a quasi-judicial decision based on flawed evidence should not be allowed to stand, hence my Notice of Motion calling for the consent to be revoked.
It came as no surprise to me that this was defeated by 40 votes to 9, but I console myself with the thought that the truth is not measured by counting heads.
Regarding Cllr Davies' conduct, I would suggest that he had at least a moral duty to inform the council of this change in the farm's stocking levels, either when he started to dispose of the herd rendering the AJF redundant, or when he received the agenda for the planning committee and saw that the information, on which the recommendation of approval was based, was out of date and inaccurate.
Whether he also had a legal duty, under the members' Code of Conduct, is a question I will leave for the Ombudsman to decide.
Even stranger than the Telegraph's cursory treatment of this topic was the total news blackout in the Mercury.
I know the Mercury was working on the story because a reporter rang me to ask for a statement about what had occurred at the meeting (see Herd Instinct).
I emailed the following:

"The way the Chairman abused his powers to deny me the right of reply to the debate was a disgrace to democracy.
He should try to understand that he wears the chain of office on behalf of all the people of Pembrokeshire and not just the 38 members of the Independent Political Group.
I particularly wanted to speak again because most of the Independent Political Group's attempts to justify the leader's planning consent owed more to Alice in Wonderland than serious political debate.
I was also bitterly disappointed that only three of the eight Labour members present felt able to support my notice of motion.
And this is supposed to be the party of social justice!"



Easily the most fatuous contribution to the debate on this matter is that of Cllr Ken Rowlands the Labour member for Johnston.
Cllr Ken told the Telegraph: "With regard to the current application I personally cannot conceive of a situation that anyone given the honour of leading this authority would throw away the enormous goodwill of his fellow members and lose his total integrity over a controversial planning matter."
Presumably, nor can Cllr Rowlands conceive of a situation where Cabinet Ministers such as David Blunkett, Peter Mandelson and Stephen Byers would risk losing their total integrity by either lying to Parliament or abusing their ministerial powers to help out their friends with passport and visa applications.
And, for the sake of political balance, I should also mention Jonathan Aitken and Lord Archer who brought political ruin on themselves by lying under oath.
Of course, what Cllr Rowlands can and cannot conceive is entirely beside the point.
There are people who find it inconceiveable that the earth is roughly spherical.
They join the Flat Earth Society.
What is important is not what Cllr Rowlands finds conceivable but the facts, as set out above.
As Cllr Rowlands says in another part of his statement: "Each planning application should be considered on the merits and demerits of the case alone .. ."
Clearly for that to happen the planning committee must know exactly what those merits and demerits are.
In the present case, the most important merit, so far as the planning committee was concerned, was the "functional need" which rested on the presence of a 165-strong dairy herd at Cwmbetws Farm.
And one person who certainly knew that was no longer the case was the Leader of the council, Cllr John Davies.
If there is any doubt in Cllr Rowlands' mind about the planning policy issues involved, I would refer him to the Welsh Assembly's Technical Advice Notes (TAN) on this subject.
TAN 6 paragraph 41 states "New permanent dwellings should only be allowed to support existing agricultural activities on well-established agricultural units, providing:
(a) there is a clearly established existing [WAG's emphasis] functional need.
Any functional need that may have existed in October 2004 had clearly ceased to exist when the planning committee met on 24 May 2005.



The three books that have most influenced my political views are "Capitalism and Freedom" by Milton Friedman; "The Road to Serfdom" by F A Hayek; and George Orwell's "Animal Farm".
A short quote from each will help you to understand where I am coming from and why I cannot accept what presently goes on inside Pembrokeshire County Council.
First Friedman: "How can we keep the government we create from becoming a Frankenstein that will destroy the very freedom that we establish it to protect? Freedom is a rare and delicate plant. Our minds tell us, and history confirms, that the great threat to freedom is the concentration of power. Government is necessary to preserve our freedom, it is an instrument through which which we can exercise our freedom; yet by concentrating power in political hands, it is also a threat to freedom."

And Hayek on why some people are attracted to political parties that exist only for the purpose of wielding power: "The only tastes which are satisfied are the taste for power as such, the pleasure of being obeyed and of being part of a well-functioning and immensely powerful machine to which everything else must give way."

And finally Orwell's descriptions of Pembrokeshire County Council more than 50 years before the event : "After the hoisting of the flag all the animals trooped into the big barn for a general assembly known as the Meeting. Here the work of the coming week was planned out and resolutions were put forward and debated. It was always the pigs who put forward the resolutions. The other animals knew how to vote but could never think of any resolutions of their own." and: "Many meetings were held in the big barn, and the pigs occupied themselves with planning out the work of the coming season. It had come to be accepted that the pigs, who were manifestly cleverer than the other animals, should decide all questions of farm policy, though their decisions had to be ratified by a majority vote."

back to home page