June 24 2008

The price is right.

At its meeting on Wednesday, the National Park Committee is due to discuss a report by chief executive Nic Wheeler on the purchase of East Blockhouse Angle.
As I reported two weeks ago (Stop press), the Meopham family has now put the site on the market at £450,000 and, as the National Park didn't think it was worth £250,000 -£300,000 back in May 2006 in October, it is hardly surprising that Mr Wheeler is advising against a purchase.
Indeed, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that he is simply going through the motions in response to recent adverse press coverage.
A copy of Mr Wheeler's full report can be read at (East Blockhouse) but it is what he has to say about cost that is most interesting.

vi) Cost: the previous assessment concluded that a significant 6 figure sum to acquire the property was not justified through an assessment of the criteria (see above); and there were unlikely to be any significant funding or grant aid opportunities open to the Authority. Even if any funding opportunities, e.g. structural funds, were available, it would still leave the Authority with a significant balance to find. There were also considered to be more important actual or potential opportunities and demands on the Authority's budget. The position has been reviewed (even given the fact that the asking price has increased) and it is considered that financially the position has not changed. Indeed the Authority, like all public services, is now facing an indeterminate period of increased financial constraint and needs to retain its current level of reserves and avoid any non-essential expenditure of a significant nature.

I rather liked the vague reference to "a significant 6-figure sum".
£100,000 is a significant 6-figure sum while £999,999 is an even more significant 6-figure sum.
Why not "the £250,000 - £300,000 to acquire the property was not justified"?

A full account of what went on can be found at (Whitewash) but what was not disputed was that PCNPA's asset management group, of which Mr Gary Meopham, as the Park's head of asset management was the lead member, made the decision not to purchase the site on 4 May and on the 8th May Mr Meopham's brother Mark wrote to Qinetiq (Q) offering £200,000 for the land and buildings.
According to Q's estates officer, he had received an earlier telephone call from Gary Meopham's brother Mark between 1-4 May with an offer of £165,000.
As the asking price to PCNPA was £250,000-£300,000, Q's estates officer told Mark Meopham that this offer was too low to merit consideration.
This version of events, though corroborated by a memo the Q's estates manager sent to his boss, is, not surprisingly, contested by the Meophams.
Q's estates officer says that, on the 5th May (the day after the the asset management group decided not to purchase), he received another call from MM offering £200,000 and he asked him to put the offer in writing so that he could present it to his superiors.
This MM did in a letter dated 8 May and the deal was done.
Clearly, Mr Mark Meopham had got the idea from somewhere that the site could be purchased for considerably less than the asking price.
The question National Park members should be asking is whether Gary Meopham made the same efforts to drive down the price when acting for the authority as his brother did when acting for the family.
After all, £200,000 is a significantly smaller 6-figure sum that £250,000-£300,000 and had the asset management group known that the site was available at a discount its decision might well have been different.

Up front

SF has alerted me to a news item about a former Cardiff City councillor's threat to sue his Plaid Cymru opponent for £50,000 over untrue statements in an election address (http://www.walesonline..co.uk/news/politics-news/2008/06/23/ex-councillor-issues-50-000-libel-claim-91466-21135441/ ).
Old Grumpy is well aware that the libel laws are very strict with regard to election material.
And with good reason because it is important that, when people cast their votes, they do so on the basis of the truth.
At the recent election, I had a difficult decision to make.
Should I just wing it on the basis that sufficient people would think of me as a good ol' boy or should I explain clearly to the electorate what I was about?
In the end, I decided I would feel more comfortable if I sought a clear mandate to carry on my campaign against the Independent Political Group and all its works.
So this is what I pushed through the letter boxes.

Dear voter,
As readers of my Old Grumpy column, either in the Mercury or, more recently, on the Internet, will know, I have grave concerns about the way business is conducted in county hall.
Firstly the council is ruled by something called the Independent Political Group (IPG) who go around at election times saying that there is no place for politics in local government.
Then, once the votes are safely in the bag, they convene a secret meeting in county hall where they all sign up for what is, to all intents and purposes a political party which holds secret group get-togethers prior to meetings of the council where the 'party line' is agreed.
It is worth noting that, proportionally, Labour councillors go against the party whip more often than the synchronised voters of the IPG.
With 12 members of the IPG already elected unopposed it seems likely that this non-political, political party will again rule the roost in county hall.
That being the case, it is even more important that there is a strong opposition to hold them to account.
I believe I am well qualified to fulfill that role.
If I am re-elected, I promise to continue to speak out fearlessly against the abuses of power that are a routine feature of IPG rule.

Openness at county hall

Among the issues I have bought to light was the granting of planning consent for a 2,800 sq ft (more than three times the size of a three-bed council house) "herdsman's cottage" to the Leader of the council, Cllr John Davies, even though, well before the meeting of the planning committee where the decision was made, Cllr Davies had sold the dairy cattle on which the need for an extra worker was based.
For whatever reason, Cllr Davies failed to inform the planning department of this change in circumstances.
My attempt to have the planning consent rescinded on the grounds that the decision was based on false information was voted down by the IPG block vote.

Exposing cover-ups

Exposure of the dubious expense claiming practices of Cllr Brian Hall and the way they were swept under the carpet.
Cllr Hall was cleared by the council's standards committee of bringing the office of councillor into disrepute by making threats of violence against a BBC journalist after his solicitor argued, successfully, that he was acting in his private capacity at the function in St Davids, where the threats were made. This despite the fact that I produced evidence that he had claimed travelling expenses for the journey to St Davids.
In answer to my written question to full council the Leader confirmed that he had nominated Cllr Hall to be his representative at the function, though he failed to make this known to the standards committee.

Leaking of papers

The leaking by a senior council officer of confidential Cabinet papers to assist Milford Haven Port Authority during what was supposed to be a competitive bidding process for the site of the former Mine Depot at Blackbridge.
When questioned, the Leader claimed that these papers had been provided in order to clarify the terms and conditions of any sale, though examination of the documents shows that, other than the duration of the lease, there were no terms and conditions mentioned.

To date, I have not received a single solicitor's letter, never mind a writ.
Can I take this as an indication that nobody wants to risk having the truth of these potentially libelous statements tested in the courts?

Wind power

An Eco-warrior came on the radio on Monday morning to call for the government to subsidise what she called "climate-friendly" school meals.
As methane is the most powerful of the common greenhouse gases, that presumably rules out peas, beans and pulses in general.
Indeed, I'm begining to wonder if the growth of vegetarianism, not fossil fuel use, is the cause of all the planet's problems.
While not buying into global warming alarmism, the Grumpy family have an impeccable record on CO2 emissions because having an expert gardener on tap means we calculate in food yards rather than miles.
Though, in view of the above, it may be that what we save on the roundabouts we lose on the swings.

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