July 31 2007

Any answers?

Two weeks ago I described the disgraceful way that questions on the Cleddau Bridge finances had been handled at July's meeting of the county council (Democratic deficit).
As I reported, the chairman allowed the Cabinet member for transport,Cllr Jamie Adams to answer all 14 members' questions on this subject at one go, rather than, as is the usual procedure, separately.
Whether by accident or design, this mass of information, delivered at breakneck speed, left members of the opposition in a state of confusion.
So, before taking off for my holidays behind the former Iron Curtain, I put in a request for a written account of Cllr Adams' answers.
Last Tuesday the council's reply arrived through the post.
It contained the answers to the four questions that I had asked.
As for the ten submitted by other members, the council told me: ". . . whilst it has been custom and practice, for their own personal benefit and convenience, to accede to a request of the member who actually submitted the question that they be provided in writing after the meeting with the answer given, the terms of the Council's Constitution do not in actual fact allow for written answers to be provided to any member if the reply to the question has been given orally at the meeting."
So nobody is constitutionally entitled to a written answer, but as a matter of courtesy the council does provide them to the individual member who submitted the question.
As these answers are read out in an open public meeting, from a script prepared by officers, you have to wonder why the council is so reluctant to make them available to anyone who asks.
Written answers do eventually become available because, as the letter informs me: "The answers to questions do of course effectively become available in writing by virtue of the fact that there is a record of them in the minutes of the meeting."
This is scant consolation considering that the minutes of July's meeting will not be published until just before the next meeting in October.
However, I did have a trick up my sleeve because, purely by chance, I had learned that the Western Telegraph had received the full text of all the answers on the day following the meeting.
I put it to the council that it was strange that the press should be privy to information that was denied to elected members.
Even the county council couldn't talk its way out of that, and the answers to all the questions swiftly followed.
I will now be submitting a Notice of Motion designed to give members the constitutional right to written answers to all questions.
It will be interesting to see what specious arguments the Independent Political Group conjure up to support the recommendation that "This notice of motion be not adopted." (see Never wrong).


Memory test


As an example of what went on here is Cllr Adams's reply to one of my questions.
Notice how he refers to an answer he has given to a previous question.
How are old boys like me supposed to remember what he said five minutes earlier?

My question:
On 28 March 2007 the cabinet member for highways and transportation [Cllr Jamie Adams] was quoted in the Western Telegraph as saying:
[Welsh Assembly Government] came down to look at the bridge but in terms of the obligation that goes with the bridge and such an important structure, as well as the EU directive coming in, they didn’t take kindly to taking it on”.
Does the Cabinet member still stand by that statement?

Cllr Adams' answer:
I refer the Member to my earlier answer about the dialogue which took place in 2003 and the information which was supplied. It is not surprising that the Welsh Assembly Government did not know the detail of the Bridges’ construction and legal and financial arrangements. They have never been Government Bridges; they have always been Local Authority Bridges. In particular, the Cleddau Bridge is an unusual construction and there is no other similar structure in Wales.

Fortunately, I have had the advantage of reading the report on the Welsh Assembly's consultation document on trunking proposals, including the Cleddau Bridge, that went before the county council's Cabinet in November 2002.
It seems clear from that report that it was the county council that was reluctant to have the bridge taken over by the Welsh Assembly.
It is against my religion to promote the Western Telegraph, but its archive contains a contemporaneous report of that Cabinet debate which can be read at http://archive.westerntelegraph.co.uk/2002/11/13/6812.html
Unless I am missing something, the whole tone of that debate seems to suggest outright opposition from the Cabinet.
How that can be interpreted to mean that the Welsh assembly ". . . didn't take too kindly to taking it on" is a mystery.

Too early?


A recent survey of Girl Guides revealed that, rather than learning how to light a camp fire during a downpour, or put up tent in a force ten, the girls wanted to know how to practice safe sex.
Talk about being born fifty years too early!
When I was a Boy Scout, "Be Prepared" meant never venturing more than fifty yards from the house without a length of rope, whistle, dry matches, compass and the multi-purpose knife.

Hard choices


I woke up last Saturday morning to a power cut.
Being the owners of an ancient Aga that came with the house, we are less affected by lack of electricity than most people.
So out came the machined-bottomed aluminium kettle for a brew up, while the bacon and eggs were soon sizzling on the hot plate.
However, there was no radio, telephone or computer and, while it is possible to make toast on an Aga, it it nothing like as efficient as the pop-up toaster.
I am old enough (just) to remember the dreadful winter of 1947 when it was impossible to transport coal to the power stations and 'outages', as they are now called, were almost daily events.
Because we had so little electrical equipment, they were much less of a hardship than they are today.
Indeed, the only things in our flat requiring electricity were the radio, the iron and the lights.
So, as soon as the lights went out, the candles were taken from the cupboard and we were quickly back to near-normal.
There were no power points in the flat, so, even when the electricity was working normally, both the iron and the radio were fed from a 'Y' shaped fitting in the living room light.
After dark, which is most of the time in the northern winter, my mother had three choices: she could iron by touch, and listen to the radio; iron visually in silence; or read the paper while listening to the radio, and send us to school in crumpled shirts.

"Good" democracy


A journalist friend from up the line has sent me a copy of a report by consultants Arup commissioned by the Dept Local Government anc Communities.
The report entitled "Councillor involvement in planning decisions" proceeded on the hypothesis that:
1. The application of a democratic decision-making process produces a predictable planning decision, and
2.‘good’ democracy creates more predictable planning decisions, by allowing a better understanding of the process and providing opportunities to influence it?
The authors' conclusions are that their research does not strongly support either hypothesis, though they say that, "It can be argued that, where decisions are taken by elected members, or by officers based on development plans approved by elected members, the process is a "democratic" one.
Note the inverted commas around democratic.
As the report says: "The definition of ‘good’ democracy would be a separate study altogether."
I think there is a lot of confusion around the meaning of democratic.
At its simplest it means that the elected majority always prevails.
Unfortunately, if you take that definition you have to accept that Hitler's fascist government in 1930s Germany was democratic.
And, similarly for President Putin.
There is a distinction to be drawn between democratically elected and democratic, though the two terms are often used a synonyms.
To conflate democratically elected and democratic is to treat democracy as a system of power, whereas, in truth, it is a system of justice, which is why it is the best system so far devised to enable people to live together in relative peace and harmony.
Power only comes into it because someone has to have the authority to ensure that the system is run justly.
For my money, any unjust use of power cannot, by definition, be democratic.
I would argue that Arup's hypothesis that "good" democracy produces more predictable planning decisions must be true because "good" democracy involves the rule of law and decisions taken in accordance with well defined rules are bound to be more predictable than those based on the opinions and prejudices of those in the majority (bad democracy) - whoever they might be.
I would also argue that, while they should draw up the development plan, elected politicians should play no part in making decisions on individual applications.
After all, the main interest of politicians is to get re-elected and that doesn't always sit well with doing justice.

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