June 27 2006

email: oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

Could be worse!

Regular readers of this website will have gained the impression that Pembrokeshire County Council is reluctant to accept any authority higher than itself (see Nameless wonders).
However, from what I read in the Ombudsman's annual report, it would seem that, compared with some other parts of Wales, PCC is a candidate for the constitutional sainthood.
The Ombudsman records: 'In September 2005, I reported to Conwy County Borough Council on my investigation of a complaint about the Council’s treatment of a homeless family, referred to as Mr and Mrs White.
I found that there had been maladministration by the Council, and in particular, that aspects of the Council’s housing allocations policy were unlawful.
This had caused injustice to Mr and Mrs White. I recommended that the Council should make suitable redress to Mr and Mrs White, and I further recommended that the Council should revise its housing allocations policy to comply with the requirements of the law and take account of the relevant statutory guidance.
The Council considered my report at its meeting on 15 December 2005. The minute of the meeting recorded that the Council resolved in part
“… That the Council does not accept the recommendations within the Ombudsman’s report because the Council does not agree with the legislation as it has a detrimental affect on local people.”'

Fortunately, the Cabinet decided at its meeting on 20 December 2005 to bring the council's housing allocation policy within the law, but refused to remedy the injustice to Mr and Mrs White by paying them the £1,500 that the Ombudsman had recommended.
That prompted the Ombudsman to issue a second report - the first time since local government reorganisation in 1996 that such a step had been found necessary - in which he reminded the members of their obligations under both the law and the code of conduct and on 2 March 2006 the council finally relented.

Private eye

Understandably, the county council is becoming concerned by the recent leaks of Cabinet papers to the press .
At May's Cabinet, the Leader Cllr John Davies warned that, if things didn't improve, he would have to reconsider the way in which he shared information with members.
So serious has the situation become that Brian "Clouseau" Hall has decided to take a hand.
Rumour has it that Clouseau has carried out checks on the telephone in the members' room in an attempt to pin the blame on Old Grumpy.
No luck there because it wasn't me, though I am told that didn't stop him preparing a statement claiming he had evidence that it was.
Of course, this is not the first time that Hall has played the private dick.
Back in 2000, after he secretly taped a meeting of SPARC, he was so pleased with himself that he wrote to the organisation's chairman to tell him (See Bugged).
With that well-documented case on his record, it is not surprising that, despite any hard evidence to link him to the incident, he was the prime suspect when, some years ago, a tape recorder that was found hidden in the bookshelves close to the telephone in the members' room.
Old Grumpy would point out, however, that no evidence was ever uncovered that linked Clouseau to that particular piece of skullduggery.


Panto Mine

The long running saga - some would say pantomime - concerning the sale of the Mine Depot took a new turn at Monday's meeting of Cabinet when it was agreed without debate to hand the whole thing over to the Welsh Assembly who are to be asked to conduct an economic evaluation of the two bids currently on the table, prompting the question: if the Cabinet members can't make a decision like that on their own, why are we paying them an extra £15,000 a year.
The rival bidders, for anyone who hasn't been keeping up, are Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA) and Cleddau Enterprises Ltd (CEL), a consortium of local businessmen.
A full account of the various twists in the plot can be found at Mine Depot minefield
But briefly, for those who lead busy lives, the story begins exactly one year ago when the Cabinet agreed to sell the Mine Depot to an unnamed bidder - now known to be Mr Peter Scott; later to sail under the colours of Haven Facilities Ltd (HFL)- on terms satisfactory to the director of development [Roger Barrett-Evans].
It has now emerged that Peter Scott/HFL were working in tandem with MHPA
News of this proposed sale was leaked to the press and another potential purchaser entered the fray so the council decided to conduct a tender exercise with a closing date of 31 August 2005.
This prompted Ted Sangster (chief executive MHPA) to write an angry letter to Mr Barrett-Evans in which he claimed that, by putting the site on the open market, the council was going back on its undertaking; given the previous summer (2004 - election year) to sell the site to MHPA (or its surrogates).
Seven bids were received; the highest in excess of £1 million, believed to be from Allied Land, whose main interest was in the residential development land adjoining Castle Pill.
The next highest bid was for £500,000 (known to be CEL) and there were various lesser offers the highest of which was £480,000.
Peter Scott/HFL was one of these underbidders but the value of their bid is not known.
The interesting thing about these bids is that they were never entered in the council's tender register and the suspicion is that this was nothing more than a range-finding exercise.
This suspicion is reinforced by the fact that it was agreed to scrap the first set of tenders and to offer the site, shorn of the residential element, again.
This second tender process had a closing date of 7 October 2005 and, when the bids were opened (and entered in the tender register) it must have come as something of a surprise to find that CEL's offer for the reduced area was £50,000 more than its original bid.
At that point MHPA decided to become directly involved and, on 17 October, Ted Sangster had a meeting with the chief executive, Mr Barrett-Evans and Neville Henstredge (head of property and asset management) to discuss the situation.
The file note of this meeting records that "No tender figures were disclosed" and that "MHPA would underwrite PS [Peter Scott] or make a bid in their own right".
Of course, the fact that "No tender figures were disclosed" doesn't preclude the passing of vital information.
Something along the lines "£600,000 should do the trick" would serve the purpose just as well.
And, if Ted Sangster is to be believed, that, or something like it, is what happened.
At this point I must break off and give a brief account of the statutory rules governing the sale of council property.
The principal legislation is found in S123 Local Government Act 1972 which requires local authorities to sell for the best consideration [price] that can be reasonably obtained.
Any proposal to sell at an undervalue to be approved by the Welsh Assembly.
In its wisdom the Welsh Assembly freed local authorities of the obligation to get the best price by passing the General Disposal Consent Order 2003 which allows the sale at an undervalue not greater that £2 million provided the authority [Cabinet in this case] considers it likely that the sale will serve the economic, environmental or social benefit of the residents of the area.
This is so beautifully vague as to give local authorities a virtual free hand but not so vague as to allow them to argue that carrying out a study on the economic feasibility of a container port fits the bill.
So, in order to sell it to the preferred bidder (MHPA/HFL) and remain firmly on the right side of the law it was important that MHPA/HFL could be said to have offered the best price.
The evidence is that the parties settled on £600,000 as a suitable sum and, at its November meeting, the MHPA board authorised Ted Sangster to offer that amount.
There appears to have been some confusion because Mr Sangster seems to have got the impression from his conversations with "the chief executive and others" (see MHPA docs) that, in the event that his bid was not the highest, the General Disposal Consent Order would be wheeled out to give the desired result.
On the other hand, Messrs Barrett-Evans and Henstredge were determined to achieve the best price and it seems to have occurred to them that it was not beyond argument that £600,000 paid in two instalments was better value that CEL's £550,000 paid up front.
In order to put some clear blue water between the two bids, they insisted that MHPA should cough up an extra £20,000.
Eventually Mr Sangster agreed, reluctantly it would seem, to accede to this demand and his request for board approval of this increase can be found at MHPA docs
Clearly, going cap in hand to the board for extra money was not to Mr Sangster's liking, especially as he had told the November meeting that it was a done deal at £600,000.
And that brings to the most remarkable aspect of this affair, because it appears that, having had his fingers burnt when the council went back on the initial deal, Mr Sangster needed reassurance that this time it was for real.
So someone in the council's hierarchy provided him with the comfort of a copy of a confidential report, recommending acceptance of MHPA's revised bid, that was to go before Cabinet in two-and-half weeks time (see MHPA docs).
Perhaps the Leader will institute an inquiry to ascertain how these confidential documents found their way into the hands of MHPA.
Or he could put Clouseau on the case.
I understand the council knows these documents are in circulation and i suspect somebody has worked out that such evidence of collusion could well form the basis for a legal challenge to any decision by the council to sell to MHPA.
By passing responsibility to the Welsh Assembly, the council will be able to spread their hands and claim that the decision, having been taken by an independent body, is nothing to do with them.
This is a well worn county council tactic, having last been used when independent consultants were employed to determine the chief executive's pay rise.(see also MHPAlet)

Split affinities

A few weeks ago I drew attention to the difficulties that might arise for any county councillor serving on the Milford Haven Port Authority board (see Divided loyalties).
Clearly, it is difficult to serve two masters, especially when their interests conflict.
Clearly MHPA thinks it has first call on board member's loyalty because the job description requires "An acceptance that as a Member [of the MHPA board] they will be working in the best interests of the Authority [MHPA] and not in any other capacity e.g. on behalf of a nominating or representative body, or as a defender of functional or sectional interests."
So how is a county council representative supposed to respond when, as a result of his board membership, he discovers that someone in the county council has been passing on confidential information for MHPA's benefit (see above)?
My own view is that, as a person wouldn't even be considered as a county council representative on the board unless he was elected (or Eric Harries), his first duty is to protect the interests of the voters who put him there.
No wonder I didn't get the nod! (see Foregone conclusion).

email: oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

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