10 June 2002



Last week the County Council announced the make up of the four committees that will scrutinise the decisions of the cabinet.
As I have pointed out previously, these committees have all the usefulness of a chocolate toasting fork because they have virtually no powers and, in any case, their chairmen, who exercise these powers on behalf of the committees, are all Independent Group stooges selected by the cabinet itself.
What is interesting about the membership of these bodies is that six members of the Independent Group sit on two committees while seven are excluded altogether.
When the committee lists were announced there was one vacancy on the children and families scrutiny committee, which was retained as bait to entice Cllr Islwyn Howells, the recently elected member for Rudbaxton, into the Independent Group's web.
This bait has, I understand, now been taken
So, adding these not-so-magnificent seven to two Lib Dems; two Plaid Cymru; and four Labour, leaves 15 members with no influence on the county's affairs beyond the narrow confines of planning and licensing.
The question the electorate should be asking is how these semi-redundant 15 are to put in the 90 hours a month on which was based the recent increase in their salaries from £5,800 to £9,907 (almost £200 a week) if their only function is to attend a monthly planning meeting and five Council meetings a year?
Perhaps, we are due a refund.
And why should we turn out to vote if 25% of those elected are mere spectators?


Planned redundancy

As for the planning committee meetings, the new arrangements mean that these will be a mere shadow of their former selves.
A mole tells Old Grumpy that it has finally dawned on the good ol' boys on the County Council that the new constitution, which they enthusiastically endorsed just a few short weeks ago, has virtually robbed them of their powers to meddle in planning matters, because, as was explained previously almost all decisions have now been delegated to the officers.
My mole tells me that this unpalatable truth was brought home to the members when they received the papers for the first planning committee meeting under the new regime and found only eight items on the agenda instead of the normal 30.
Under the old system, applications had to be determined by the committee whenever there were objections, either from a statutory consultee or a member of the public. That provision has been swept away leaving the planning officers as judge and jury.
So, if someone is proposing to build something unpleasant near you, don't bother approaching your local member because they will have no influence whatsoever.
Also gone under the new rules is the right of elected members to override the officers' delegated powers to determine applications by insisting that they came before the committee.
On the face of it, the determination of planning applications by the officers on the basis of the law, rather than the number of friends the applicant has on the planning committee is rather a good thing, but Old Grumpy is delaying popping the champagne cork until I have seen how the system works out.
My fear is that the members will find a way to peddle their influence behind closed doors rather than, as in the past, in open committee, where at least we could all see what they were up to.


Democracy's hidden benefits

An e-mailer from Fishguard has taken me to task over last week's article entitled "Democracy or delivery?"
Surely, my correspondent says, Old Grumpy would be the first to complain if the County Council squandered our taxes through incompetence and inefficiency.
"So, are you saying that democracy is inherently inefficient?" he writes.
Well, yes and no.
I think our difference boils down to the fact that government has two entirely separate roles: the making of decisions (the democratic function) and putting those decisions into effect (the executive function).
Clearly, once the decision has been taken, it is essential that it be carried out in the most cost-effective manner.
My recent excursion to the Isle of Man provides an example of what I mean.
Over there, every household is provided with a wheelie bin, which is emptied every other week.
Over here we are provided with bin bags that are collected weekly.
Not being an expert on waste collection, though I do occasionally help Old Grumpette to put the bags out on a Friday morning, I have no idea which of these two systems is the most efficient.
However, it doesn't require a degree in economics to appreciate how the debate might develop.
The Manx system is obviously more efficient in terms of vehicles, fuel and manpower, while the Pembrokeshire method avoids the capital costs of all those wheelie bins.
There are, no doubt, public health issues involved in having household waste uncollected for fourteen days at a time, though these may be counterbalanced by the fact that wheelie bins are fox and bird-proof, while black bin bags are patently not.
The point is that any decision by the authorities in either jurisdiction to change their refuse collection practices is a political (democratic) decision.
The role of council officers in such a situation is to provide an objective appraisal of the pros and cons of the competing systems so that the public and its elected members can debate the issue.
It would, undoubtedly, be more efficient, in purely managerial terms, if these decisions were taken by the experts rather than through a long-winded democratic process.
But the efficiencies of democracy do not flow from mere bean counting.
Democracies outperform dictatorships for the simple reason that people are better-motivated and less bolshie if they believe they have a meaningful input into the decisions that affect them.
Quite simply, we do not like being bossed around.
As the Soviet worker commented, when asked about the low productivity in the state controlled tractor factory where he was employed: "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us".



Leading trades unionist Sir Ken Jackson made one of his regular appearances on the Today programme this morning to sing the praises of the Euro.
According to Sir Ken, the issue was "jobs", a word he used eight times in a two-minute interview.
What he failed to explain was how the single currency can be said to be good for jobs when Euroland unemployment is double that of the UK.
However, he did get full marks for consistency for repeating the claim he always makes on these occasions: that 3 million UK jobs depend on our membership of the EU.
In fact, the 3 million jobs depend on our trade with Euroland, an altogether different proposition unless it is suggested that the EU would refuse to do business with us if we were no longer members.
Hardly likely, considering that they export more to us than we export to them i.e. more than 3 million European jobs depend on their trade with the UK.
Not surprisingly, the pro-EU interviewer, James Naughtie, made no attempt to challenge Sir Ken's blatant distortion of the facts.

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