12 June 2007

Closet Tories

Buoyed up by their success in the Assembly elections, local Tories are gearing up for a full-frontal assault on next year's local government polls.
A Tory mole has sent me a copy of an e-mail from Barrie Harding (Deputy Chairman (Political) Welsh Conservative Party) in which he tells members " Our next known objective will be the Local Government Elections in 2008 and one thing that associations and branches can do straight away is to talent-spot for possible council candidates- personalities who have emerged during the Assembly campaign may only be waiting to be asked to stand for the Party.
We really ought to capitalise on our recent success by preparing during the summer to start our campaigns after the holiday season, before we lose touch with our workers and, even worse, mislay those priceless canvass returns!
Old Grumpy has e-mailed Mr Harding welcoming the Tories' new-found enthusiasm for local politics and pointing out that, despite being Pembrokeshire's No 1 political party, they only managed to field one candidate at the 2004 local government elections.
That was Frank Elliott in Johnston and he was opposed by a Tory party member (Steven Cole) running for the Independent Political Group.
I was also able to help out with a bit of talent-spotting by suggesting that party members Cllrs Peter Stock, David Wildman, David Bryan, Mark Edwards and Elwyn Morse would form a solid nucleus for Pembrokeshire's Team-Tory.
In addition there are Cllrs Clive Collins and Robert Lewis (who both appeared in Angela Burns' election leaflet) together with known Tory sympathisers such as Cllrs Brian Hall, John Davies and Jamie Adams.
In all that makes six past or present Cabinet members and a former Chairman.
Quite an impressive line-up of people who "may only be waiting to be asked to stand for the party."
However, those "priceless canvas returns" may provide a stumbling block because what I suspect they will show is that many of these so-called independents hold their seats with the support of people who wouldn't vote Tory even if hell froze over.

Bridge of sighs

The campaign to have the tolls lifted on the Cleddau Bridge is gathering pace with Andrew Lye's Downing Street petition attracting over 1000 signatures, and counting.
Unfortunately, the bridge finances are the local equivalent of the Schleswig-Holstein question about which Lord Palmerston is reputed to have said: "Only three men in Europe have ever understood it and, of these, the Prince Consort is dead, a Danish statesman, whose name eludes me, is in an asylum, and I myself have forgotten."
Given the complexity of the bridge finances, and my own rather shaky understanding of the mechanics of Best Value accounting practices, I offer the following facts.
The county council's budget for 2006-2007 estimates toll income of £3.1 million and expenditure at £1.1 million, leaving an apparent surplus of £2 million.
The statement of Cleddau Bridge accounts for 2005-2006 shows income from the bridge as £2.7 million with expenditure of £1.21 million (staff £470,000, maintenance £740,000) which amounts to a surplus of £1.5 million..
These were the figures used by the Western Telegraph when it splashed the story on its front page about six weeks ago.
In the following week's paper, Cabinet member for highways Cllr Jamie Adams responded that, in 2005-2006, the bridge actually cost the council tax payer £600,000.
The mathematicians among you will already have worked out that the difference between a surplus of £1.5 million and a deficit of £600,000 comes to £2.1 million.
So where has all the money gone?
Well, according to an e-mail I have received from the director of finance (DoF), the £2.1 million difference is made up of something known as "capital charges" and the £600,000 deficit is charged to the Consolidated Revenue Account.
The DoF tells me these capital charges "reflect the depreciation and capital financing costs of using a fixed asset" and that the accumulated deficit at 31 March 2006, which is recorded in the Memorandum Account, stands at £37.3 million.
I am still trying to get to the bottom of this but I suspect that some, if not most, of this deficit is down to what used to appear in the estimates as "asset rental".
This is the notional sum the council charges itself for the use of its own capital assets.
Interestingly, these asset rentals seem to lead a double life because when they produce an adverse picture on a loss making activity such as Withybush airfield they are dismissed as mere paper transactions (see Opportunity knocks) but when they are required to show that an apparently profitable enterprise is actually making a loss they become all too real.

Never-never land

Tonight's File on Four (Radio 4, 8.00 pm Tuesday) promises an interesting insight into another rather complex area of public spending: the private finance initiative (PFI).
This is a device by which governments and local authorities build schools and hospitals on the never-never.
This system has two great advantages.
Firstly, it allows ministers and local councillors to take the credit for opening new facilities while leaving later generations to pick up the tab, and, secondly, by virtue of the marvels of government accounting, the estimated £100 billion borrowed to finance the deals does not appear in the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement (PSBR), which allows Gordon Brown to keep the National Debt within its target range.
Pembrokeshire County Council has entered into one of these schemes: the £8 million school; codenamed Project Phoenix, in Pembroke Dock for which, in 1999, it contracted to pay the PFI provider more than £1 million a year for 30 years.
If, as most of your county councillors seemed to believe at the time, this was such a good idea, why hasn't it been repeated?
Details of how this massive financial commitment was nodded through with minimal debate can be found at (Live now pay later) (Bottom line).

For anyone interested in how the planning system is supposed to work click on.


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