March 15 2012

Tunnel vision

The Internet is an unforgiving place, where, experts tell me, everything that has ever been posted can be retrieved even if the originator has removed it from their website.
For postings that have not been taken down it's even easier.
You just enter key words into the search engine and up pops the link.
It was while using this method to search for something on my own site that I came across the following headline in the Western Mail 5 December 2005.

Irish propose £7.5 billion high speed rail tunnel to Wales.

A spokesman for the Welsh Assembly poured cold water on the idea, telling the WM that: "It is difficult to imagine this would ever be an economically viable proposal."
But the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland were extremely bullish, its chief executive John Dunne telling the newspaper: ""We should commence now planning for the design, commissioning and completion of a Tuskar Tunnel, linking Ireland to continental Europe via Wales by 2025."
Another who had no doubt about the benefits of the scheme was Pembrokeshire County Council's, then, transport supremo Cllr Brian Hall . He told the WM: "To hear this tunnel being talked about like this is very encouraging, because if the Irish are talking about doing something, they don't just sit around talking about it, they get on with things. They've shown that in the last 10 or 15 years with the growth of their economy."
He added, "It's an extremely important issue for Ireland, but it's also extremely important for South Wales and, in particular, Pembrokeshire. Although an exact location for a terminal here has not been decided, it would seem somewhere like Trecwn or Letterston would be the best places."
Well, history has proved the Welsh Assembly right.
Irish economic growth has been shown to be nothing but a gigantic debt-fuelled bubble.
Indeed, I often wonder if that big cat that makes periodic appearances on the front page of the Western Telegraph isn't a Celtic Tiger seeking refuge in Pembrokeshire from its creditors.
Not that foreknowledge of Ireland's recent economic history was necessary to work out that this tunnel was a non-starter.
If the Channel Tunnel, which connects the 60 million people in the UK to a couple of hundred million on the continent, can't be made to pay, what chance a tunnel twice as long linking to the five million in Ireland.?

Tunnel of love

 

PCC's love affair with Ireland, which has been extensively chronicles in this column, goes back way before 2005.
It dates from at least 2000, when former Dublin policeman Dr Michael Ryan was appointed as economic development consultant, and probably way before that.
Long-standing readers will know all about Dr Ryan and his dubious business relationship with Cllr Brian Hall, details of which can be found at Hall-Ryan and Whitewash)
The great mystery about Dr Ryan is why his employment continued for so long after it became clear that he was not someone to be trusted.
Dr Ryan was taken on on 1 August 2000,
On 3 September 2000 he sent a letter to his line manager at PCC, head of communications David Thomas, informing him that he intended to set up a UK company but "to avoid any conflict of interest it wouldn't trade in Pembrokeshire."
On 16 October 2000 he dispatched a fax to Cllr Hall which began: "I have at last completed the first draft of the business plan".
The business plan set out their extensive plans to trade in Pembrokeshire in direct contradiction to his promise to Mr Thomas just six week's earlier not to do so.
The words "I have at last etc" would seem to indicate that these plans had been in train for some considerable time; perhaps even before the letter to Mr Thomas.
But nothing much depends on that because what the fax clearly shows is that he was not a man to be trusted.
Why the council allowed this contract with someone who so easily broke his word to run for a further 11 years - it was terminated in August 2011 - is a matter for speculation.
However, as the declared purpose of these arrangements was for Dr Ryan to seek inward investment from Ireland, its continuation after 2008, when the Irish economy went down the tubes, was a triumph of hope over experience.
Cllr Michael Williams constantly asked for details of Dr Ryan's achievements, including the major project in Pembrokeshire trumpeted on the good doctor's website, but the best anyone could come up with was that, before he was taken on by PCC, he had been involved as a consultant in the production by another firm of consultants, DTZ Pieda, of a document entitled "Pembrokeshire economic strategy and framework" (Time warp) (Strange goings on)(First blood)(ORA story)

Failed schemes

One of Dr Ryan's "successes" was to attract Irish developers to the Withybush motor retail park and the Commodore/Port Hotel in Pembroke Dock.
The full story of just how this was done can be found at (Insider trading).
But, briefly, in January and April 2005 the Cabinet resolved to give compulsory purchase powers regarding these two sites to the director of development.
In the case of the Port Hotel the reason given for the decision was: "To fulfil the objectives of the Townscape Heritage Initiative, secure the future of the building and help bring forward the physical and economic regeneration of Pembroke Dock."
The compulsory purchase order was to be implemented as part of what is known as a "back to back" agreement with a developer.
This involves the council purchasing the property and immediately conveying it to the developer who has previously entered into a building agreement setting out the nature of the proposed development.
This has the advantage of costing the council nothing while allowing it to retain control over what is to be built and the timescale of its construction.
The council seems to have been in no hurry to achieve these objectives because more than two years slipped by before an Irish company, Pem Developments, introduced by Dr Ryan, snapped up the Port Hotel, with the result that the council had no control over the site.
I seem to remember a big splash setting out the company's ambitious plans, including an interview with the firm's representative, in the Western Telegraph, but four years later the hotel remains boarded up with its contribution to "the physical and economic regeneration of Pembroke Dock" somewhere between zero and vanishing point.
When I put down a question at the council meeting in October 2010 I was told that the company was waiting for market conditions to improve.
Judging from the economic situation in Ireland, it could be a long wait.
The Withybush motor retail park followed almost exactly the same course.
The reason for the compulsory purchase order in that case was "to promote economic development."
According to the report to Cabinet, this was based on a 2003 study by consultants GVA Grimley which found the need for a motor retail park at Withybush "to meet the requirements of existing car retailers in and around Haverfordwest currently operating on constrained sites and to meet the demand of car dealerships not currently represented in Pembrokeshire which are actively looking for premises in the locality."
Two years after the Cabinet decision, Pem Developments stepped in and bought the site before the compulsory purchase order was activated.
The result was that the council lost any control over the site, and, with the well of cheap credit in Ireland running dry, nothing was done.
Consequently, the motor retailers lost patience and built their new premises elsewhere and the potential for economic development fell by the wayside.
In answer to my question in October 2010 I was told that the "dynamics" had changed and "The development as originally envisaged was, therefore, unlikely to happen".
This is a pity, because this must rank as one of the county council's better ideas given that there is evidence that clusters of car dealerships act as a magnet for prospective buyers and, if all existing dealerships had agreed to participate, it would have freed up some valuable development sites in, or near, the town centre.

No laughing matter

Last week's lighthearted piece on Toby Mugs has generated quite a few emails.
Glad you all had a good laugh.
Unfortunately Manorbier Community Council (MCC) seems to have had a collective sense-of-humour bypass and can't see the joke.
I have now obtained two letters sent to Mr and Mrs Rees by MCC.
The first dated 30 November 2011 begins "I Chairman of Manorbier Community Council . . ." is from Cllr Ray Hughes who goes on to say: "I was shocked and appalled to discover Toby Rees aged 4 was a dog", and, after a bit of typical bluster, concludes "Would you therefore be kind enough to forward a cheque for the sum of £5 payable to Manorbier Community Council . . .".
Old Grumpy has come up against Cllr Hughes before (Out of the wood) and I can't say I'm a fan, and I would guess that readers may be "shocked and appalled" to learn that he remains as chairman of MCC despite the fact that during my enforced absence from the Web he has, for a second time, been found in breach of the Code of Conduct by the Ombudsman for failing to withdraw from a meeting where matters in which he had a prejudicial interest were discussed. In both cases the county council's standards committee upheld the Ombudsman's findings. But a more detailed account of that will have to wait for another day day.
The second letter dated 30 January 2012, from MCC's clerk was accompanied by an invoice for £5.
After the usual stuff about the council being "accountable for its expenditure" and having a duty to "ensure that its funds are used appropriately" it goes on to demand that "payment of the enclosed invoice must be made by 1st February 2012 in full to MCC,"
Failure to do so will result in the council taking steps to recover the sum outstanding by whichever steps are deemed appropriate following the taking of legal advice"
Fortunately wiser counsels prevailed after someone realised that spending £50 seeking advice from a solicitor over an unproven debt of £5 might not be be the best way to "ensure that its funds are used appropriately" and the debt was written off.
And I should add that this involves a couple in their seventies who have always denied any part in this hoax.
Furthermore, MCC, by its own admission has no evidence to link them to the "crime".

No Thanks!

When I opened my inbox on Monday morning, I expected a flood of emails thanking England for ensuring that, barring some highly improbable results this Saturday, Wales have the Six Nations championship in the bag.
I even thought there might be some thanks for assisting Wales' bid for a Grand Slam by softening up the French ahead of this weekend's clash.
But not a word.
There's gratitude for you!.
Next time one of my Welsh friends asks, echoing Monty Python: "What have the English ever done for us?" I will remind them of these events.
In the past I have answered this question by asking "Where would Pembrokeshire's tourism industry be if we hadn't come down here and built all those castles?"
They respond that they were built by the Normans, but I quickly point out that by the time the castles were constructed William had qualified to play for England under the three year residency rule.
Though I have to admit that his previous appearances for Normandy might rule him out.

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