June 6 2006

oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

No yes-man

Last week, I said that all the members of the Independent Political Group (IPG) had voted against my notice of motion (NoM) to remove the assistant Cabinet members from the scrutiny committees (see Mainstream maverick).
However, it would seem that Cllr Martin Davies is not quite the yes-man that Old Grumpy suggested, because he has been in touch to say that he definitely broke ranks and voted against the IPG party line.
At the same meeting, Cllr Davies also defied the party whip by voting for my proposal that would have allowed written questions and NoMs to be submitted by e-mail (see Seeing sense).
So, relative to most of his party colleagues, who invariably vote the party ticket, Cllr Davies is something of a serial rebel.
If he keeps on like this he will be receiving a call from the party's chief whip.
In the meantime, he would be well advised to steer clear of Ireland.
Cllr Davies tells me that, when he joined the IPG shortly after the 2004 election, he was assured that he would not be forced to vote against his principles.
Which raises the question: why form a political group if there is no intention to vote as a block?
And why does the group congregate in secret session on the day before council meetings if it is not to decide how its block vote should be deployed.
And how is it that people with such widely different "principles" as Cllr Steve Watkins - a self-proclaimed "lifelong socialist" - and Cllrs Peter Stock and David Wildman - both card-carrying Tories - always vote the same way?

Double standards

Among the documents on the Mine Depot saga released under FoI is a detailed record of a phone conversation I had with a senior council officer on January 6 this year.
Old Grumpy is flattered that what I had to say was thought to be so interesting as to be worthy of being taken down verbatim.
Contrast that with what might be considered to be the rather more important matter of the meeting between head of property services Neville Henstredge, director of development Roger Barrett-Evans and the chief executive when it was decided to abandon the first tender exercise (closing date 31 August 2005) and go out for bids on a smaller area of land (see Mine Depot minefield).
For some as yet unexplained reason, these first set of tenders were opened but not entered in the tender register and all the council can tell me about the tripartite meeting is that it was held during the first week in September and no notes were kept.

Open sesame

My socialist friend has e-mailed me a very interesting decision notice issued by the Information Commissioner in respect of an appeal against Corby Borough Council's refusal to disclose the salary and perks paid to a senior council officer.
Part of it reads: "There is a public interest in disclosing details of salaries and expenses paid to senior staff to increase accountability and transparency within public authorities.
In this instance the Commissioner is satisfied that disclosing the information would not be unwarranted by reason of prejudice to Mr Moss’rights and freedoms or legitimate interests.
The Commissioner is further satisfied that the disclosure of this information would not breach any of the other data protection principles and therefore the exemption in section 40 (2) has been inappropriately applied.
Action Required
In view of the matters referred to above the Commissioner hereby gives notice that in exercise of his powers under section 50 of the Act he requires that:
The Council shall, within 30 days of the date of this Decision Notice, provide the complainant with a record of the total figure paid to Mr Moss as requested on 1st January in accordance with section 1 (1) of the Act. This figure will combine total gross salary and travel, subsistence and accommodation costs."
Watch this space!

Auntie lets her hair down

Old Grumpy's moles tell me that this evening's Western Telegraph is about to break new ground with the paper's first ever report based on data released under the Freedom of Information Act.
And, I am told, it is not just any run of the mill story but the complete lowdown on the chief executive's recent pay rise.
Although the WT has been rather slow off the mark (the Freedom of Information Act will be 18 months old at the end of June) it is refreshing to see it extending its range beyond the council's press releases (free) and public notices (paid for).
Nothing I said, I hope!
While surfing this site for something else, I came across a piece I wrote about the way in which the chief executive's salary was originally calculated (See Creative counting).
Amazing what can be achieved with a little imagination.

 

Super-subs

Old Grumpy was unable to get to last Friday's environmental scrutiny committee meeting; convened following the call-in of the Cabinet';s decision to sell the Shire Hall to Red Dragon Developments.
From what I read on pembrokeshiretv.com, I missed a rather lively meeting.
According to agenda, the sponsors of the call-in (Cllrs Robin Evans (IPG) Rhys Sinnett (Plaid), Bill Philpin (Lib Dem) and Ken Rowlands (Lab)) wanted the sale to be postponed in order to give the Shire Hall Trust "time to obtain funding and to develop their proposals and examine alternatives."
Pembrokeshiretv reports that director of development Roger Barrett-Evans advised the committee that the building was falling into disrepair and delaying the sale would only make matters worse.
It seems that he reinforced this message by producing photographs showing Acrow props supporting the ceiling.
Cllr Henry Jones pointed out that, as owners, the county council was responsible for maintenance, and it was, therefore, a bit rich to use the building's poor state of repair to bounce the committee into accepting the Cabinet's decision.
In the fullness of time, Cllr Jones will come to realise that bringing this sort of logic bear is not the way to get on in the IPG.
Anyway, at that point Cllr Don Evans (IPG) decided that things were becoming overheated and his proposal that the committee go into secret session was eagerly accepted by the IPG members present.
Incidentally, in a later report, pembrokeshiretv.com quotes Cllr David Bryan (IPG) as justifying the decision to exclude the public on the grounds that “Once figures [the value of tenders] are being discussed we have to ask the public to leave”.
This is a misstatement of the legal position.
What the relevant Act of Parliament says is that the committee "may by resolution" decide to exclude the public.
Equally, they may decide not to exclude the public - "have to" doesn't come into it.
In the end, the committee voted 7-4 to uphold the Cabinet decision.
Another interesting aspect of this meeting was the use of Cllrs David Bryan, Don Evans and Pearl Llewellyn as substitutes for members who, presumably, were unable to attend.
Apparently, party leaders can substitute members by the simple expedient of giving written notice to the committee clerk.
Clearly this is a potent weapon in the hands of the leader of the IPG, which hold eight of the twelve seats, because not only do leaders have the power to substitute for absentees they also have the power to replace members at will (see Unseated).
This gives rise to the possibility that, if it was anticipated that a Cabinet decision might be overturned by rebels from his own party, the Leader could boot them off the committee and replace them with loyalists.
Of course, the other party leaders have the same powers but with many fewer seats to play with they have much less chance of influencing the outcome.
It is not as if the Leader is slow to use his dictatorial powers for his own party's ends: witness the boosting of his payroll vote by the introduction of assistant Cabinet members (see Ins and outs) and the increases in the IPG's representation on the scrutiny committees, themselves (see Fiddling the figures).
As democratic constitutions set limits on the exercise power, they are generally unpopular with majority ruling groups.
Clearly, when those in power can change the constitution at the drop of a hat, democracy goes out of the window.

 

Everything in the garden's lovely

A reader wonders why this website has been silent with regard to my horticultural activities.
"We had a rather nice picture of a grass snake, and a report on the vivarium in your compost heap, but nothing about the early potatoes or the broad beans." He writes.
"Have you turned the whole garden into a wildlife sanctuary by letting the nettles and brambles take over?" he asks.
Well, no, actually!
In fact, my vegetable patch is an absolute picture.
Indeed, enjoyable though the first feed of new potatoes were, it seemed a shame to spoil the perfect symmetry by digging them up.
I wonder if there might be a market for plastic replacements to fill the gaps in the rows
The reason I haven't mentioned it before is that it is difficult to adequately describe my garden without sounding as if I'm bragging.
And it's bad enough for my socialist friend that his beloved Labour party is led by a Tory without me giving him an inferiority complex about his own sad attempts to grow decent vegetables.
In fairness, I should say that he did bring me some excellent rhubarb.
I suppose he finds this particular plant - is it a fruit or a vegetable? - the perfect allegory for his own confused thinking.
No doubt he finds it attractive because, not only is it easy to grow, it is also red.
As for my own little piece of the good life, in addition to the new potatoes (first feed 27 May), Grumpette has had strawberries with her cornflakes every morning for the past fortnight.
The broad beans are in flower; the runners are half way up the poles; and the first cucumber can't be more than a week away.
All in all, very satisfactory, despite the coldest March in living memory, brought on, no doubt, by global warming.

 

Doublethink

On a visit to Milford Haven library to consult their excellent collection of Mercury back-numbers, I came across the following quotation, from just before the 2004 county council elections, by former councillor, and, then, Independent Political Group (IPG) leader, Maurice Hughes.
Asked about the unpopularity of the IPG, Cllr Hughes responded: "Everybody in recent weeks has been criticising the Independents, but they should be criticising the county council. It's the county council that makes the decisions, not whom the council is controlled by."
So, if the IPG uses its 38-22 majority to force through some duff proposal in the teeth of opposition from the other members, all 60 of us have to take the blame.
Perhaps the voters of Merlins Bridge were acting out of compassion when they threw him out..
Curiously, I came across similar sentiments during a tea room discussion of the chief executive's pay rise with Cllr Bill Philpin (Lib Dem) and a prominent member of the IPG.
This decision, you will recall, was forced through by the Leader and three of his IPG cronies, who dominate the six-member senior staff committee.
I explained what I thought the consequences of this decision would be in terms of the salary received by the chief executive by the time this latest pay deal runs its course in 2010.
"Is that what they've done?" exclaimed the IPG man.
"No, it's not what they've done", I replied, "It's what senior members of your party have done."
His response to that completely floored me.
"It is a decision of all 60 members" he replied.
This collectivist mindset is also behind the leader's recent attack on me for daring to criticise the council over the decision to grant a planning consent at Prospect Place Pembroke Dock when he said that it was "unfortunate but not surprising" that I was "fuelling my appetite to cultivate suspicion" among the people of Pembrokeshire about the way the council conducts its business.
What this amounts to is a claim that opposition to Cllr Davies' view of the world amounts to disloyalty.
Two things I will say in my own favour: Firstly, my dislike of the way the county council is run is no great secret; having been clearly set out in my election address; eight-years-worth of columns in the Mercury; and this website (see The Time Lord for the sort of thing Cllr Davies seems to find consistent with the promise he gave on becoming Leader that the council would be run to the "highest ethical standards").
Indeed, I was totally honest and up-front about my views, which is more than can be said for some of Cllr Davies' IPG colleagues (See Party animals).
And, when the people of Milford Haven were asked to vote for (now) IPG members Anne Hughes and Martin Davies, was it made clear to them that their votes were intended to be used to sustain the likes of Brian Hall, John Allen-Mirehouse and the leader, himself, in power?
Be assured, this is a question I will be asking with increasing frequency as the next election approaches.
And, secondly, in the case of Prospect Place, I take some consolation from the knowledge that my views are shared by the Ombudsman - not to mention the members of my rolling focus group who are particularly concerned about the manual alteration from 32 to 38 in order to give the impression that the application site came within the planning guidelines.
Indeed, outside the narrow confines of the IPG, I have yet to meet anyone who thinks that this is an acceptable way for the council to conduct its business.

oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

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