29 July 2002

 

Out of the frying pan ...

Last week, I described the goings on at the meeting of full County Council with regard to two planning applications, one at Pope Hill and the other near Mathry, - both of which had been approved by the planning committee (see July 22).
The first, for a new dwelling, has an interesting history that seems to bear out Old Grumpy's view that planning decisions in Pembrokeshire have a degree of arbitrariness that would do credit to a fascist dictatorship.
This application made its debut in July 2001 when it was unanimously rejected on the basis of advice in the officer's that the application was contrary to policy and should be refused.
Less than a year later the very same application came before the planning committee and, lo and behold, it skated through by, I believe, 16 votes to 3.
Clearly, something remarkable must have occurred to alter the members' views because, in the intervening period, neither the application nor the policy had changed.
Something even stranger seems to have happened between the planning committee on 21 May and full Council on 18 July because, on a recorded vote, the planning committee's decision was reversed by 41-5.
Part of what happened was reported in last week's column but, since that was written, a mole has been on the phone to give me all the lurid details of what went on at the Independent Political (sic) Group's secret meeting.
Apparently, someone in authority, having read my views on the Mathry application (July 1) and watched the Dragon's Eye programme in which I recently featured, instructed The Leader, Cllr Maurice Hughes, to call his troops to order.
The fear, I am told, was that further adverse publicity might follow if prominent members of the Cabinet, like Hall and Stock, were to be seen trashing their own authority's planning policies.
They are right, of course, but as I will explain later they made the mistake of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.
My mole tells me that, with a view to putting the frighteners on the bungalow farmers, proceedings kicked off with a showing of a video of the Dragon's Eye programme in which our AM, Dr Richard Edwards, and Old Grumpy, among others, attacked the undemocratic nature of the new executive arrangements.
During the debate that followed the film show it emerged that Dr Edwards, who recently described the County Council as Stalinist during an Assembly debate, is even more of a hate figure in the Independent ranks than Old Grumpy.
Must pull my socks up!
A vote was taken in which the bungalow farmers, weakened by the defection of certain Cabinet members, no doubt anxious to curry favour with the Leader who holds the key to their twenty-two-and-a-half grand salaries, were soundly beaten.
At that point Cllr Alwyn "Monster Muncher" Luke turned an even darker shade of purple and stormed out, threatening to resign from the planning committee.
Old Grumpy can see why he was upset.
After all, the likes of Luke have built their whole political careers on their ability to bestow planning permissions on their favoured applicants.
As I reported last week, when the two applications came before full Council the following day, the Leader's view prevailed and the planning committee's decisions were overturned in both cases.
So, that extricated them from the frying pan, but what about the fire.
Well, it has been a constant theme in this columnar territory that decisions on planning application are quasi-judicial rather than political.
That is to say, they are matters of law, not opinion.
The rules of Natural Justice place an obligation on the members of bodies carrying out quasi-judicial functions to act fairly.
One aspect of this requirement of fairness is that members should not prejudge the issues i.e. come to a conclusion before they have heard and considered all the evidence.
In my view, this has always been the case at Common Law - witness the case of Cllr Alan Edwards, who, back in 1996, was censured by the Ombudsman for taking part in a council debate on a planning application, having already signed a petition against the development.
Recent legislation seems to settle the matter beyond doubt.
By happy coincidence, this week I have been sent a copy of a Welsh Assembly document entitled: "Draft guidance on the new ethical framework", which sets out in great detail the Assembly's views on the operation of the statutory Model Code of Conduct; adopted by Pembrokeshire County Council in the back end of last year.
Paragraph 6.33 is of particular interest because it defines the duties of members in the clearest terms imaginable.
It says: "When considering planning issues, members should take care not to express opinions which indicate that they have already made up their minds before all the information and arguments have been considered. Members who have taken a particular stance about a planning application, or other issue, before [my emphasis] it is considered at committee should declare an interest and not take part in the vote."
Clearly, voting on such an issue at a secret group meeting, on the day before the decision is to be made, falls well short of the standard demanded.
Old Grumpy also notices at Para 6.25 that: "The Code makes it clear that members have a positive obligation to report an actual or potential breach of the Code [to the Ombudsman] so that if they become aware of another member's misconduct it is not acceptable for them to turn a blind eye."
So, any member reading this had better get his skates on.

Tunes of glory

The warm, dry weather seems to have brought the moles to the surface because another was on the phone over the weekend with further information about the County Council's efforts to maximise the profiles of members of the Politburo (see Publicity seekers).
This latest story concerns a public meeting called to discuss the provision of a skateboard park in Haverfordwest.
Labour councillor Thomas Tudor has campaigned long and hard for such a facility and was, therefore, the natural choice to chair the meeting.
In addition the site of the proposed skateboard park is in Cllr Tudor's ward.
My mole tells me that arrangements were actually made for Cllr Tudor to take the chair, but the powers that be, fearing that Labour might gain some political advantage, stepped in and insisted that Politburo member, Cllr Peter Stock, should take the glory.
Pathetic, or what?

Kremlin watch

In the days before the Berlin Wall came down, when the Soviet Union together with its satellites was a closed society, so-called Kremlinologists were always on the lookout for hints about the relative strength of the various factions in the ruling Communist Party.
With information at a premium, the few crumbs that emerged into the public domain were endlessly pored over by the experts.
One item of particular interest was the photo of the Politburo standing on top of Lenin's tomb as the intercontinental ballistic missiles trundled past.
Acres of newsprint were devoted to the analysis of who was standing next to whom, with particular emphasis on the comrades' proximity to the Great Leader, together with their positions in previous years.
Old Grumpy has been searching for a similar method of discerning what is going on inside our own Politburo (aka Cabinet).
However, as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago (Publicity seekers) word has gone out from on high that photo opportunities - the opening of new loos and other significant events- must feature a member of the Politburo.
The table below is derived from information gleaned from the local press.
Telegraph = 10pts; Mercury = 5pts.

* John Allen-Mirehouse includes two appearences in the Deputy Lord Lieutenant's garb and the rules committee will meet shortly to decide if these should count.

 Name  Telegraph  Mercury  Points
 John Davies   8  ---  80
 Brian Hall   5  1  55
 Maurice Hughes  ---   50
Allen-Mirehouse   3  ---   30*
 Bill Hitchings  1   2   25
 Pat Griffiths  2  ---   20
 Peter Stock  1   1   15
 Bill Roberts   ---   3   15
 Brian Howells   1   ---   10
 Roy Folland  1   ---   10

How long before John Davies supplants Maurice as Leader? Will Folland last beyond Christmas? Look out for monthly updates of this table for the answers to these and many other questions.

Minority rights

A couple of months ago I wrote about the difference between public opinion and truth - the point being that the very fact that a large majority believes something doesn't make it true.
The other night while reading my Oxford Book of English Verse - as one does - I came across the following verse by John Dryden which makes the point rather neatly.

Nor is the people's judgement always true:
The most may err as grossly as the few.

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