July 4 2006

 

A nod is as good as a wink

For an avid Kremlin-watcher like Old Grumpy, events in the few days since I revealed what I knew about the dark dealings between Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA) and Pembrokeshire County Council (PCC) over the sale of the Mine Depot at Blackbridge, have been a positive treat.
First off the mark was the internet news service www.pembrokeshire.com which reported last Wednesday that MHPA chief executive Ted Sangster had told them in the clearest possible terms that “We [MHPA] were not passed any confidential information by anyone inside the County Council.”
It seems that, the next day; having been confronted with the evidence (See MHPA docs), Mr Sangster was singing a different tune because he admitted to the Mercury that he had seen confidential Cabinet papers.
Just shows the value of having hard evidence when dealing with these people.
I have e-mailed Mr Sangster seeking an explanation for this change of mind but he has not yet favoured me with a reply.
Having failed to make his outright denial stick, Mr Sangster's latest line is that MHPA was not given information on other interested parties' bids.
Now, it is true that there was no mention of the value of either MHPA's bid or anyone else's in the report that went to Cabinet on 6 February 2006.
And it may also be true that, during MHPA's discussions with PCC, the precise value of other bids was never disclosed.
Nevertheless, if you make a bid, and you are told it will be recommended because it is the highest, you have, in effect, been told the value of other bids i.e. that they are lower than yours.
And, in a competitive bidding situation, that's all you really need to know.
Let us examine the events of early October 2005 when there was a second tender exercise - closing date October 7.
Unlike the first tender process, the bids were entered in the tender register and Old Grumpy can reveal that Cleddau Enterprises Ltd (CEL) , a consortium of local businessmen, was the highest bidder with an offer of £550,000.
I am not at liberty to link other bidders with the value of their bids, though I can say that among them was Haven Facilities Ltd - who were working in concert with MHPA.
We now know that Haven Facilities were the unnamed "property consultants" to who the Cabinet agreed to sell the property "on terms satisfactory to the director of development [Roger Barrett-Evans]" as long ago as June 2005 (see Mine Depot minefield)
The second highest bid was £360,000; the third £310,000; followed by several lesser bids.
This was not the desired outcome and, on 17 October 2005, after being "asked [by someone in PCC] to become involved", Ted Sangster attended a meeting with chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones; director of development Roger Barrett-Evans; and head of asset management Neville Henstredge.
The notes of this meeting record that "No tender figures were discussed".
Following that meeting, Mr Sangster went to the November meeting of the MHPA board and was given authority to bid £600,000 for the site.
As the mathematicians among you will have already have worked out, £600,000 is 66% greater than 360,000 (the highest of the underbids), so MHPA was now bidding at least 66% more than its partners Haven Facilities thought the site was worth.
It is not known how MHPA alighted on this greatly increased figure but it seems highly unlikely that Mr Sangster would have asked the board for £600,000 if he hadn't had been given some indication that it would be enough to do the business.
However, there was a snag because MHPA's offer involved paying for the site in two instalments - £300,000 up-front and £300,000 in two years - and, as I said last week, somebody in County Hall came to the conclusion that, while 600,000 is undoubtedly a larger number than 550,000, £600,000 paid in two instalments is not necessarily a better deal than £550,000 in your hand.
So, in order to put some clear water between MHPA and CEL's bids, it was decided to ask MHPA to cough up an extra £20,000 to ensure the Cabinet could be told, without fear of contradiction, that what was being recommended (sale to MHPA) was as a result of its bid being best consideration.
Now, armed with the knowledge that your bid (£600,000) is the highest, but not high enough to compensate for the loss of interest on the delayed payment of £300,000, you don't need to have done hard sums at university to work out with some degree of accuracy what the the value of the other bid might be.
In any case, it wasn't necessary for Mr Sangster to resort to his calculator because, it seems, Messrs Barret-Evans and Henstredge worked it for him and told him that, if he upped his offer by £20,000, they would recommend it to Cabinet (See MHPALett).
And just in case Mr Sangster had trouble persuading the board to fork out, someone provided him with documentary proof in the form of the confidential Cabinet report including the recommendation that the property be disposed of to MHPA (See MHPA docs).
And, as Mr Sangster had this report two weeks before it was issued to Cabinet and council members, that someone must have been an officer of PCC.
And whoever it was must have known that providing Mr Sangster with this report constituted a breach of the rules, otherwise why would MHPA have been "asked to treat the report in the strictest confidence."? (Ted Sangster's emphasis)
The Cabinet meeting on February 6, when the decision to sell to MHPA was taken, was held behind closed doors.
As an elected member, Old Grumpy was allowed to attend (see Sea change).
At that meeting, two Cabinet members (Cllrs David Simpson and Sian James) opposed the sale; Cllr Peter Stock accused the council of gazumping and abstained; while two others (Cllrs David Wildman and Islwyn Howells) expressed concerns that the council wasn't acting fairly.
If rumours are to be believed, most of the above have, at one time or another, presented themselves at the Leader's office to make their concerns known.
To date, the £15,000 special responsibility allowance, and the hefty boost to their sense of self-importance that comes from being a Cabinet member, have prevented their principles getting the better of them.
As some long dead philosopher must surely have said: the truth doesn't pay the mortgage.
Or, as Confucius might have observed: Man who sails on rotting hulk, shouldn't stamp his feet.

Self-inflicted difficulties

Unfortunately, the whole business of the Mine Depot sale has become messy and confused, as these things often do.
Back in September 1998, the council's property management sub-committee discussed the difficulties involved in selling property by informal tender.
The report before that committee contained a reference to recommendations by the Ombudsmen for England which had called for councils to have proper written procedures "embracing both the legal constraints and equitable considerations in a form that is available for public scrutiny and reference purposes."
It is highly unlikely that the Welsh Ombudsman would take a different view.
As the report says, such clear written procedures are necessary because "There will inevitably be instances where disappointed purchasers will wish to be assured that the council is acting fairly, transparently and consistently in property dealings."
It is difficult to see how the underhand leaking of confidential Cabinet documents to one of the parties in a competitive bidding process, conforms with any of these three principles.
However, as the report also concedes, the situation is not quite as simple as it looks because S 123 of the Local Government Act 1972 places a legal obligation on local authorities to get the best consideration [price] reasonably obtainable, so, if a higher offer comes in before contracts have been exchanged, the council is bound to consider it.
As the report says: "The only way to minimise this difficulty is to take steps to secure an early exchange of contracts . . ."
One way of achieving this, the report says, is to minimise the time between the opening of tenders and exchange of contracts by "Instructing legal division to prepare a draft contract and initiate land searches . . ." before tenders are sent out.
But, as we have seen above, the council did the exact opposite.
Instead of seeking an speedy exchange of contracts with the highest bidder [CEIL] it "asked" MHPA - not one of the original tenderers - "to become involved" (See MHPA docs).
So the council took active steps to create the "difficulty" that its own rules were designed to avoid.
As for consistency, it is interesting to note that following the decision sell to MHPA; taken by the Cabinet on 6 February 2006, it took only 11 days for the council to send Mr Sangster a draft lease.
Unfortunately, from what I have seen and heard so far, it is highly unlikely that the council will make any great effort to discover the truth about this affair.
It will be interesting, in due course, to see what the Ombudsman makes of it all.

Useless opposition

One of the most amazing aspects of the Mine Depot fiasco is that the Cabinet decision has not been called in by the economic development scrutiny committee.
Not only might the committee have liked to scrutinise the strange goings-on outlined above, but it might also have taken the opportunity to ask why the Cabinet had bottled out (abbrogated (sic)* its responsibility, my socialist friend prefers) by passing the matter to ther Welsh Assembly.
These scrutiny committees are supposed to hold the executive to account, much like the Parliamentary Select Committees, but theory is one thing, practice another.
Either the chairman (Cllr Tom Richards) or four members can trigger a call-in.
To the best of my recollection, no chairman has ever used his/her powers, which is not altogether surprising considering they are, in effect, the Leader's stooges.
But, as the opposition have four members on the committee (Cllrs Kate Becton and Ken Edwards (both Labour), Cllr Moira Lewis (Plaid) and Cllr John Allen (Lib Dem)) it is rather surprising that they couldn't collect the required number of signatures.
Old Grumpy can only assume that either the possibility of a call-in didn't occur to them, or one or more of them refused to sign.
If, as I read recently, good government requires a strong opposition, it is no wonder we are in such a state.
* My socialist friend has e-mailed to say he actually prefers "abrogate". I think he went to one of those schools that specialised in pedantry.

 

Double standards

Meanwhile in the Kremlin itself, heads were being kept well below the parapet, while a strategy was being worked out.
The council's press office told pembrokeshiretv.com that they "were adamant that no wrongdoing has taken place."
And that: “No-one from the County Council has ever discussed the level of any offer with another bidding party.” (for the reasons why this line of argument doesn't hold water, see above).
But they also had to change tack when shown the evidence.
By Thursday the Mercury was telling its readers that a council spokesman had said: "At the present time, the council is not aware of what paper was attached to the Port Authority report. The council is therefore unable to comment."
Presumably, they were also unaware of which paper was attached to the MHPA report when earlier they were able to say they "were adamant that no wrongdoing had taken place."
It will come as a surprise to most people, I am sure, that part of their council tax goes to fund a department among whose duties is to ensure that the truth is concealed from the people.
And efforts by Cllr Michael Williams and others to get the council to initiate an inquiry into this leak have so far fallen on stony ground.
Not that the Independent Political Group are unaware of the rules on confidentiality, as was shown four years ago when one of their leading lights (ex-councillor and cabinet member for health and well-being, Roy Folland) reported Terry Mills (Labour) for leaking a social services inspection report to the Mercury.
What really annoyed Folland was that the report had some less than complimentary things to say about the department for which he was responsible.
In the event it was found that (a) the report wasn't confidential and (b) even if it had been, Terry Mills was not the source of the Mercury's information (See Self-destruction).

Verbal trickery

All this goes on under the "political leadership" of the Independent Political Group (IPG).
As you might expect from a political party that has an oxymoron for its title, there is a distinct lack of philosophical coherence among the party's top brass.
Last week I went along to the corporate governance committee where the Leader, Cllr John Davies and his deputy John Allen-Mirehouse could be heard holding forth.
One of the things that really gets up their noses is any suggestion that they are, to all intents and purposes, a highly disciplined political party.
So both were are pains to claim that there was a wide divergence of views within the IPG.
As Cllr Bill Philpin (Lib Dem) rather unhelpfully pointed out: that being the case it is difficult to understand why they always vote the same.
And the Leader again trotted out his tired old line that "The ballot box has spoken" and "the people have vested their confidence in an Independent run authority."
At least it gives me another opportunity to point out that, in at least two cases, what the ballot box had to say was tainted by deception (see Sheep's clothing) (Slippery definitions).
As for an Independent run authority, what does that mean?
If I may quote from Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's election address: "I have no political party to obey, nor am I encumbered by any political manifesto".
So where does the IPG's mandate come from.
Incidentally, Squirehouse was one of the thirteen signed-up members of the IPG who neglected to put Independent on their ballot papers.
Indeed, as I've pointed out before what the ballot box said to the IPG at the last election was: thanks, but no thanks.
Its Leader (Maurice Hughes), three of his Cabinet colleagues (Pat Griffiths, Roy Folland and Brian Howells), the chairman elect (Glyn Rees) and three loyal foot soldiers (Norman Parry, Bryan Phillips and George Max) all got the boot.
In my own ward, when faced with a choice between the two types of Independents, the electors opted for the one with the dictionary by a margin of more than 2:1.
The problem was that, contrary to what some of them had told the electorate (see Sheep's clothing) (Slippery definitions), those who replaced these IPG rejects promptly joined the party in what was in effect a post-election coup d'etat.
I doubt if the voters will fall for this trick a second time.
And where is the much vaunted political leadership while the storm over the sale of Blackbridge is raging about the council's ears?
Why! cowering in their bunker hoping that the council's spin doctors can engineer an orderly retreat.



Peed off

I have received several e-mails on the environmental benefits of peeing on your compost heap (see Pee for planet).
One, from a lady member of the county council, takes me to task for gender discrimination by drawing attention to the impracticability of both the step ladder and the watering can for the fairer sex.
This is obviously a rather delicate subject so, if you'll forgive me, I won't go there.
Another interesting e-mail came from a Lib Dem activist who claimed that I was wrong to attribute this tip to one of his party's MPs, Nick Clegg.
"I am sure it was the Tory" he wrote.
I would have thought the Lib Dems would have been keen to claim ownership of such a good idea, but, never one to give a sucker an even break, I bet him a pint he was wrong.
Unfortunately, I had picked an argument with a computer nerd who typed "Any Questions peeing compost" into Google and came up with an article from the Observer which showed quite clearly that the remarks had been made by Conservative party chairman Francis Maud.
It only goes to show that nobody, but nobody, is infallible.
Or, as the Judges in the House of Lords are fond of saying, when about to overrule one of their more highly esteemed colleagues in the lower courts: "But, even Homer nodded."
Now, if you'll excuse me, I just have to pop down the garden for a minute!

Glorious failure

What a perfect end to England's World Cup campaign - knocked out by, of all people, Portugal.
That statement will come as a bit of a surprise to those who are familiar with my periodic bouts of English nationalism; usually lasting for about a week each February or March.
However, recent events have led me to conclude that, in the 40 years since I emigrated, my fellow countrymen have forgotten how to win gracefully.
I would refer you to the hype that followed success in the rugby World Cup and last summer's Ashes series.
I know those two victories were against Australia but not even that excuses the excesses of open top bus tours of London; meetings with the PM at No 10; and mass inclusion in the Honours' List.
And it would have been ten times worse if we'd won at soccer when, I expect, the whole team would have been elevated to the House of Lords.
Can you imagine Blair; wearing his trademark cheesy grin, wallowing in the reflected glory of the magnificent triumph of "the people's footballers".
Kipling who wrote:
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
and treat those two imposters just the same.
would have been appalled.
The English, if they want to be liked, must learn that their role in the world is that of plucky losers.
Tim Henman, not Jonnie Wilkinson or Wayne Rooney, should be the role model.
That is why I described our exit from the World Cup as perfect.
Down to ten men, our brave lads battled on for over an hour only to be done down by that strange continental invention: the penalty shoot-out.
And best of all, it was all the fault of that Johnnie Foreigner who was in charge of the team for forcing our lads to play an unfamiliar 3:5:1 formation (this can't be right, unless they had two goalies. Ed) rather than the one they were used to.
Failure with honour, that's the standard to which we English should aspire.
And, if we really feel the need to win something at soccer, we should resurrect the Home Championships.


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