June 21 2005

 

Equality before the law

 

Since raising the issue of Cwmbetws Ltd's dodgy planning consent, I have had several emails from farmers across the county reporting what they see as unequal treatment.
I have not yet had time to inspect the files to see if these complaints have any merit, but one case that has been brought to my attention - not by the applicant, I should add - and which I have had time to study in depth, is that at Ffos-y-ficer near Boncath.
The situation at Ffos-y-ficer is that one of the farm workers is coming up for retirement after 47 years on the farm.
His employer; being reluctant to evict his long-serving worker from his tied cottage, applied for an agricultural consent for another cottage to house the retiree's replacement.
The surveyor from the council's estates department inspected the holding and certified that there was a "functional need" for someone to live on the spot sufficient to justify an extra dwelling.
However, when the matter came before the planning officer, who had the final say under delegated powers, the application was refused.
As the planning officer wrote in his evaluation of the case ". . . planning policy concerns itself with the needs of the agricultural unit not the personal preferences or circumstances of the individuals involved."
So the employer is faced with a difficult choice.
He can either leave the retiree in place and find a replacement who is willing to commute to work, or he can evict his ancient retainer and install the new man in the vacated cottage.
Turning to Cwmbetws, we have an almost identical situation.
Here the farmer/farm worker is retiring, not through age, but because he has found more congenial employment as leader of Pembrokeshire County Council.
If the same rules were to be applied he would face the same choice: whether to vacate the farmhouse in favour of the herdsman, or find a herdsman who was prepared to travel to work.
These two applications were submitted at roughly the same time; are in the same area; and were dealt with by the same planning officer.
The only distinctions I can see are, firstly, that one of the applications didn't involve a company which had the leader of the county council as one of its two directors and, secondly, the farmer at Ffos-y-ficer still owns the cows on which the application was originally based.
Can it be only six months since the Chief Executive, who has overall control of the authority, had the brass-necked effrontery to stand up in a council meeting and lecture me on the principles of fairness and due process?


All peeing in the same pot

The most disappointing aspect of this affair is the Welsh Assembly's refusal to call the application in for determination by an independent inspector.
According to a letter informing me of this decision, the Assembly considers that these matters are ". . . generally best determined locally by planning authorities that know their area, its needs and sensitivities."
As these planning authorities are made up of our elected representatives it must be assumed that the Assembly believes that the general public approve of this sort of caper.
After consulting the rolling focus group that I bump into on my frequent visits to Tesco, my advice to our rulers in Cardiff is to get out more.
But, even if the public was fully behind the decision, that wouldn't be the end of the matter because the determination of planning applications is a matter of law, not opinion.
The relevant law is to be found in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 S 70(2) "In dealing with such an application the authority shall have regard to the provisions of the development plan, so far as material to the application, and to any other material considerations."
Although "other material considerations" is not defined we can be pretty confident that it doesn't include the fact that the applicant company has the council's leader as on of its directors.
In any event, the committee couldn't have had regard to the development plan because crucial evidence about the number of cattle on the farm and the rules regarding the size of the dwelling were either misrepresented or withheld.
At today's meeting of the planning committee, Cllr Malcolm Caller asked what steps were now open to the council following the revelation that the dairy herd on which the application was predicated had been sold before the committee made its decision.
From what I could gather, the legal officer present said that once the decision had been taken it was final.
I'm not sure that is correct but the council can be sure that I will not let this matter rest because what has happened in this case spits in the face of my most cherished political conviction: that everyone stands equal before the law.
Indeed, I would go so far as to say that any system of government that fails to meet that basic standard of justice doesn't deserve to be called a democracy e.g Zimbabwe and Putin's Russia.
And all those chapel-goers in the Independent political (sic) Group might care to consider the words of that even more famous Baptist, Martin Luther King, who famously said: "Injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere".



Paper tigers

I did submit a letter to the Western Telegraph regarding Cllr Davies' failure to disclose the sale of his dairy cows but it was clearly considered of less pressing importance than those from a lady in Swansea trying to trace a lost relative and another from Walsall looking for fellow old boys/girls of Portland college.
With news sense like that it is no wonder the only way it could counter the Mercury's threat to its monopoly was to come along waving a large cheque.
Older readers will recall that the Telegraph's first attempt to see off its upstart rival was to launch a free newspaper called the Milford Messenger.
One Mercury reader told us that, to save himself the trouble of picking up this dire rag and putting it in the bin, he had got into the habit of placing a waste paper basket under the letter box every Tuesday evening.
Another told us that, in her house, the paper had been dubbed the Messy because they had a yet-to-be-house-trained puppy - need I go on?
Various "marketing strategies" were tried like opening an office in Milford and cruising round the town in the "Telegraph bus" giving away crisps and packets of biscuits.
For a brief period they even resorted to putting news in the paper but, when that proved too onerous, they bought the title of the defunct West Wales Guardian from the liquidators for some ridiculous sum of money and relaunched it in direct competition with the Mercury.
A few months and a couple of hundred grand later, the accountants pulled the plug leaving the Telegraph and the Mercury head to head.
This should have been an unequal contest as we with our small circulation and even smaller resources took on the nationally-owned Western Telegraph - Wales' largest selling weekly snoozepaper.
Strangely, as our circulation rose theirs fell and in the end they had to buy us out.
I must admit that I regret that decision every Wednesday morning but, once I consider that the Telegraph's generosity means I have enough money to keep me in beer and fags for any reasonably foreseeable future, I usually perk up a bit.
A week last Monday morning morning, I had a call from the Western Telegraph asking for a comment on the Cwmbetws planning application.
"As far as I'm concerned," I said, "this goes against what I consider to be the cornerstone of democracy: that everyone should stand equal before the law."
"But it doesn't always work out like that" the reporter replied.
"I know," I said, "that's why we need opposition politicians and a free press."
As for my letter, it did get published in the Mercury (same editor) (see No callers)so it clearly can't have been considered defamatory.
However, it didn't rate with the Telegraph this week, or last, because they preferred to turn their fire on some hapless community councillor from St Davids rather than the the most powerful politician in the county; the Leader of the county council.
Desperate for a bit of cheap publicity, I turned my attention to the Telegraph's website where I found: "Welcome to letters extra. Here you can read both letters printed in the Western Telegraph and all [my emphasis] those letters and opinions we don't have space to print. So for the bigger picture on what Pembrokeshire thinks, go to letters extra!"
Unsurprisingly, I discovered that the Telegraph's definition of "all" is not the same as that in my dictionary.
Undaunted, I spotted another opportunity for the citizens of our open democratic society to get their views across when I read: "Remember, if you've got an issue to raise or something to get off your chest, you can also use the forum."
But when I clicked on the link all I got was the message: "Unfortunately, due to legal advice, we have had to remove our forums. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause."
Think how much worse it is in Uzbekistan where the state actually owns the newspapers!


Happy days

It has been an excellent week to be a Eurosceptic cricket fan.
Indeed it is difficult to say which has given me the greater pleasure the European summit debacle, or the spectacle of the all-conquering Aussies being made to look like a bunch of rabbits by first Bangladesh and then Kevin Peterson.
After a period of reflection, I have come down in favour of the former mainly on the grounds that the Aussies run of poor form is too good to last.
On top of that the European fiasco fits in neatly with one of my pet theories: that once you get the first brick out of the wall the rest follow easily.
The first brick was Mr Blair's ill-fated decision to allow the British people a referendum on the new constitution.
This forced President Chirac to follow suit and when the French voted non, it was more or less certain the Dutch would do the same.
Now we have Jack Straw telling us that the this backward-looking constitution should be dumped and replaced with something more suited to the competitive global trading environment in which we find ourselves.
This is, of course, exactly the same constitution that, only four short weeks ago, Messrs Blair, Straw et al were promoting as the best thing since sliced bread.
But what is truly ironic is that it was Mrs Thatcher, whose own downfall was precipitated by her opposition to grandiose European plans, who sowed the seeds of the present chaos when she introduced the maggot of "enlargement" into the European body politic.
Make no mistake, the French non was not aimed at the constitution but at the possibility of Turkey becoming part of the EU.
Meanwhile in Germany, Schroder's popularity continues to plummet, mainly because of some rather modest reforms he has introduced into that country's bloated welfare system.
Unfortunately, France and Germany want to persist with the failed European social model which has brought sluggish economic growth and 10% unemployment.
If they have their way Europe will be turned into a home for distressed gentlefolk while the rest of the world, China and India in particular, surge ahead.
What should concern everyone is the possibility that our continental neighbours will be unable to meet the overblown expectations of their citizens and that some fascist demogoue will emerge to lead his people to salvation.
Or that the Euro will come off the rails and even those not on the train will be hit by flying wreckage,.

Poets Corner

At Cwmbetws, our leader John,
A stately herdsman's home decreed.
But that turned out to be a con,
When it emerged the cows had gone,
Together with the 'functional need'.

When word got out, our leader John
The lack of cows did soon concede,
Then claimed that he'd been set upon,
By enemies with scruples none,
But no one paid him any heed.

(see No udder conclusion)

Quote

The right to freedom of speech means the right to cause offence, or it means nothing. (Anon)

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