June 20 2013


Getting personal!

Following on from my scribblings about the grant situation in Pembroke and Pembroke Dock, Plaid Cymru Leader Cllr Michael Williams asked that the issue should be included on the agenda of the county council's audit committee.
At its meeting last Monday, the committee agreed to defer further discussions pending receipt of a report by the council's internal auditors.
This is progress of sorts, I suppose.
Old Grumpy will be interested to see how a supposedly competitive tendering exercise led to tenders ranging from £227,000 to £277,000 for the renovation of 35 sq metres of retail space at the former Gordon's butchers shop at 25 Dimond Street Pembroke Dock. (Information blackout).
Though I may not have to wait that long because there is less than a week to go before the council determines my appeal against its refusal to supply me with copies of documents regarding these grants.
The initial refusal was based on the advice of the Monitoring Officer who claimed that the information requested may
". . . contain details which would be personal information, e.g. details of ownership; contributions to be paid by the owner; costs/specifications of work supplied by contractors engaged by the owner."
I must admit this didn't accord with my understanding of what comprised personal information under the Data Protection Act so I applied for the the documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
It is interesting to note that the reason for refusal given in response to that request makes no mention of "personal information".
It reads: "The remainder of the information you requested is exempt under S43 (2) Commercial interests - information is exempt information if its disclosure under this Act would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any person (including the public authority holding it) - and is therefore withheld."
Interestingly, the Data Protection Act has been in the news this week after the head of the Care Quality Commission, David Behan, told Tuesday's Today programme that names had been redacted from a critical report on the CQC's activities with regard to Furness Hospital because he had received legal advice that to publish them would be a breach of the DPA.
That led to an outcry in Parliament and the press and this morning we hear that Mr Behan is reviewing that legal advice.
This is just as well because the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham told this morning's edition of the programme that, in his view, the CQC "couldn't hide behind the DPA".
"What appeared to be going on yesterday", said Mr Graham, "was a sort of general duck out saying: 'Oh! data protection, sorry can't help you' - that's all too common and in this case it certainly looked as if data protection really wasn't the issue."
But what really impressed me was the contribution of Dr John Ashton the former director of public health at NHS Cumbria.
Dr Ashton told Today that, because of their tendency to mount cover-ups whenever their reputation was threatened, people had lost all faith in the institutions on which our democracy depends.
He didn't elaborate but he could have mentioned the police (Hillsborough and phone hacking) BBC (Jimmy Savile et al) and churches (paedophilia).
On the subject of the CQC affair, he stressed that this was the public's business and the public had a right to know the full story.
He said that, despite the latest scandal, he felt that the NHS was becoming more open, though he singled out local authorities as the last bastions of secrecy.
That, I suspect, is because the NHS is constantly under the gaze of the national press, whereas local authorities have only the local papers to contend with.
About five years ago the Welsh Assembly modified the law on the right of the public to attend council meetings.
Prior to the reform, the meeting could exclude the public whenever certain categories of information might be disclosed.
The law was changed to include a public interest test whereby the Proper Officer had to give an opinion as to whether "the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information".
I think I am right in saying that there has not been a single occasion when the scales came down in favour of openness.

Hidden agendas

Last week, I discussed the Western Telegraph's interview with council leader Jamie Adams and his claim that some unnamed members - the "yah-boo brigade" - pursued their own agendas regardless of the views of their constituents (Cutting remarks).
Well, I have never made any secret of my dislike of the IPPG which I regard as anti-democratic.
All three of my election addresses have made this abundantly clear and still the people have voted for me rather than the ruling group stooges who opposed me.
And for nine years before that my constituents had the benefit of reading my views on the IPG (as it was then known) in the Mercury.
So nobody ever voted for me with their eyes closed.
However, it cannot be said that Cllr Adams' IPPG colleagues have always been so open with the electorate.
I have the 2012 election address of his Cabinet colleague Cllr Huw George which is almost entirely given over to his boasts about how much tarmac laid in his constituency all the result of something called "positive politics". (The love . . .)
Last year, during the public audit inspection, I checked up on the road surfacing costs in Cllr George ward during the financial year preceding the election and was surprised to find they came to some £350,000.
When I drew attention to this when I put the case to Cabinet for an increase in the the £55,000 budget for improvements to car parking on ALL the county's council estates, I was told that this was routine maintenance work.
That being so, Cllr George was hardly being honest when he claimed credit for it in his election address.
He even made an election video (Tarmac) in which he drove round the ward showing off these acres of blackstuff, but that has now been removed from You Tube because of copyright infringements. I'm not sure if that was because of his Elvis Presley impersonation or the use of the music It's a wonderful world as background, but if the person who has the original copy should read this they might consider putting it back up.
What was missing from both the election address and the video was any mention of the IPPG, his cabinet membership, or education for which he was responsible at the time.
Another who seemed keen to conceal his connection with the ruling group and the Cabinet was "the voice of Johnston" Cllr Ken Rowlands though he did manage to sneak in the deceptive claim that £7 million had been committed to building a new school in the village (Shaky foundations).
As for Cllr Adams himself, regular readers will recall that he told the meeting of newly elected members - part of his agenda to gain control of the council - "As you know, there were nine Labour members returned, there are five Plaid, three Conservatives and one Lib Dem and the question is would it be correct to allow a group that's politically aligned to undertake the responsibility of the administration of the authority, when you consider that the largest group has nine out of 60 you do question whether they have a mandate to undertake that." (Leader's speech).
Surprisingly, nobody seems to have asked how a group with nine members could take responsibility for the administration of a council of 60.

Housing shortage

On Monday, there was a county council members' seminar on affordable housing.
Under the new planning policy, any new development will be expected to provide a certain proportion of affordable houses, either for rent or purchase.
This will be subject to viability and if a developer can convince the planners that the inclusion of affordable housing will make the scheme uneconomic the condition may be waived.
So you can expect developers to do all they can to paint as bleak a picture as possible in the hope of escaping their obligations.
This is the latest in a long line of government initiatives designed to make property developers disgorge some of their profits for the public good - betterment levy, development land tax, and Section 106 agreements to name but three.
What all these schemes fail to address is the reason houses are unaffordable in the first place.
Classical economic theory holds that scarcity drives up prices and there is a case to be made that house prices are inflated by the restrictions placed on the availability of building land by the planning system.
I bought my first building plot back in 1968 at an auction in the Broadhaven Hotel.
Grumpette and I disagree about the price - I say £600 and she £800.
So £800 it is.
The plot was at the top of the main car park in Broadhaven - uninterrupted sea views and two minutes to the beach.
The bungalow I built was valued at £8,000, so the price of the land was roughly 10% of the total.
At today's prices the plot would cost at least £80,000, though I doubt very much that the value of any house that might be built on it would come anywhere near £800,000.
The problem, of course, is that everybody's house is built on a valuable plot - whatever its original cost.
The house I now live in was built over 100 years ago and I doubt if the plot cost as much as a fiver at the time.
But the present value of the plot is factored into the price.
Consequently, if a plentiful supply of building land led to a drop in its price, everyone's property would be devalued.
Not only would that upset the owners (voters) but the banks would be up to their gills in unsecured loans.
So governments find themselves on the horns of a dilemma.
They desire a situation where less well off families can be suitably housed, but they don't want to upset the voters, or crash the financial system, by lowering house prices.
So they resort to the sort of tinkering that we see in the present planning policy.
Past evidence suggests it won't work.

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