24 March 2009

Cabinet puddings

Last week, the Local Government Association sent out a circular calling on councils to jettison jargon.
Expressions such as stakeholder, step-change and blue skies thinking are to give way to plain English, or Welsh.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Christopher Howse says that "council jargon betrays delusions of grandeur in half-dead brains."
"Perhaps the most telling symptom of the delusions to which councils have become prey is the word Cabinet. Councillors no longer feel that a committee is grand enough. They must have a Cabinet, and give themselves Portfolios."
he writes, before concluding: "Even now that they, like us, are wallowing in the recessionary slough, the last thing to go will be the expensively appointed cabinet, sitting with all its rosewood veneer in the council scrapyard of core developments, best-practice governance and bad Icelandic investments."
Given the Code of Conduct's requirement that I should show respect for my fellow councillors, I couldn't possibly comment.
Though I think I am allowed to say that the Cabinet costs us some £150,000 a year in Special Responsibility Allowances, alone.


Puffed up


Mr Howse also has a go at the taxpayer-funded publicity material, some would say propaganda, that drops on our doormats with monotonous regularity.
"With money that we pay as council tax on pain of imprisonment, they print colour brochures to shove through our letter-boxes puffing their doings in the most foolish language." he says.
As it happens, one of these propaganda sheets has just accompanied our council tax bill through the letter-box.
I have a long-standing aversion to this annual exercise in boosterism (Propaganda on the rates and Stealth taxes) though I am pleased to say that, as a result of my exposure of the mendacity of a previous edition (Propaganda on the rates), the blurb on housing now makes it clear that council housing is wholly funded by rents.
What troubles me is that this document seems to cross the line between information and party-political propaganda.
The heading itself: "VALUE for your money" is an expression of opinion, not fact.
Ditto the statement by the Leader: "We have kept the increase as small as we can", because it could have been even smaller had the council adopted my proposal to use £1 million out of the reserves to reduce the increase from 4.2% to 1%.
Similarly, the Leader's claim that ". . . we are totally committed to keeping up the high standards of service which the people of Pembrokeshire demand and deserve." is a political puff for the ruling Independent Political Party.
Not surprisingly, there are rules about using public money for party-political purposes and I'm not sure that this sort of thing falls on the right side of the line.
I know it's sad, but I keep back copies of these brochures in my shed.
Last year's was green, this year it is blue, otherwise they have exactly the same layout and, with minor modifications, much the same guff.
One significant change is that last year's education budget (£104.1 million) is now included in children's services (£122.2 million), while social services (£56.8 million last year) has become adult social services (£44.6 million) reflecting the growing trend for our schools to move away from being educational establishments to become part of what Prof Frank Furedi has labelled 'The Therapy Culture'.

Behind the scenes

A couple of years ago I wrote a series of articles on the strange tendering process employed in the sale of the former Mine Depot at Blackbridge Milford Haven (See Panto mine and related links).
There were two bidders Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA) and Cleddau Enterprises Ltd (CEL) - consortium of local businessmen.
In the initial stages the council claimed its aim was to get the best consideration (price) but throughout the tender process MHPA were consistently outbid by CEL, only for the council to find some other reason why MHPA should be given another shot.
One of the reasons for wishing to sell to MHPA was the claim that it intended to build a container port, but when Old Grumpy eventually obtained copies of the correspondence between PCC and MHPA through the Freedom of Information Act it turned out that all that had been promised was a feasibility study into a container port.
When it became clear that CEL could trump any bid by MHPA, the county council changed tack and the Cabinet was asked to endorse a plan to send the rival bidders' proposals for independent evaluation by the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG).
This evaluation was to be based on what would be for the economic benefit to the area, rather than best consideration.
Before that process could be completed, an Irish biofuels company came on the scene and both CEL and MHPA were quietly shunted into the sidings
(Oiling the wheels).
Predictably, local residents took a dim view of the prospect of a biofuels refinery on their doorsteps and their opposition, together with he realisation that biofuels were not as environmentally friendly as their advocates claimed, led to the Irish company folding its tent and leaving the scene.
That was over a year ago, and you might have thought this should have meant a return to Plan A - sale to either MHPA or CEL on the basis of WAG's evaluation.
In an attempt to find out what was going on, I put down a question to the Leader at the last meeting of full council asking for an update on negotiations/discussions between the council and Welsh Assembly and/or MHPA regarding the future use of the site.
The Leader replied: "The Blackbridge site is a strategic waterway, industrial and employment location that has a range of planning, development and access issues.
The County Council has been working closely with officials from both Welsh Assembly Government and Milford Haven Port Authority to identify these constraints and further investment potential in order to continue marketing the site effectively."
In answer to my supplementary question, the Leader confirmed that the council was still actively marketing the site.
Now, being a firm believer in Mark Twain's dictum that you should never ask a question unless you already know the answer, I have to say that the Leader's reply is, shall we say, incomplete.
According to my ever reliable mole inside MHPA, the Port Authority and PCC have been discussing rather more than the Leader is letting on.
What I am told is that there has been a meeting between MHPA chief executive Ted Sangster and chairman David Benson and PCC's chief executive and Leader at which some sort of joint venture was discussed.
My information is that MHPA's understanding of PCC's current position is that, unless the council is involved in the site's development, it is unwilling to sell to the Port Authority.
I am also told that there have been discussion between PCC and WAG based on a report prepared by MHPA which outlines the advantages of this partnership approach.
It seems the only people who aren't in the loop are the Cabinet.
No doubt, when the time is right, they will be called in to rubber stamp whatever has been decided.
So while the council is secretly negotiating a sweetheart deal with MHPA in the back office, it is actively marketing the site in the shop window.
This is a form of government known as corporatism - from the Italian word corporativismo - but no better for being carried out behind a democratic facade.
As Robert W. McChesney, author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy, has observed: "In many respects, we now live in a society that is only formally democratic, as the great mass of citizens have minimal say on the major public issues of the day, and such issues are scarcely debated at all in any meaningful sense in the electoral arena."
Or as Prof Kenneth Boulding, University of Michigan, puts it "A world of unseen dictatorship is conceivable, still using the forms of democratic government."

Clawback drawback

In a rare foray into the exciting world of investigative journalism, last week's Western Telegraph carried details of what it had discovered about the relocation of Milford Haven library through use of the Freedom of Information Act.
They should try it more often.
What the WT revealed was that MHPA and PCC had been negotiating for the lease of library's new home - the MHPA-owned Cedar Court - for almost a year before the Cabinet gave its approval to the move.
The latest development in this increasingly bizarre story is that PCC is applying to itself for planning permission for change of use of the building from call centre to public library.
Putting the horse before the cart doesn't begin to describe it.
Another interesting aspect of the move is that Cedar Court was built with EU Objective 1 money for the purpose of providing commercial premises.
As I understand the situation, use for non-commercial purposes such as a public library would be outside the Objective 1 rules and this would entitle WEFO (Wales European Funding Office) to claw back some of the original grant.
According to the draft lease any clawback is to be met by PCC.
Shouldn't the Cabinet have been told of this risk to the public purse?

Cross voters

Calling for Sir Fred Goodwin to be stripped of his massive pension, Harriet Harman said that, while he might be entitled to it in law, the court of public opinion would make sure that he had to give it up.
Sadly for Ms Harman, and happily for Sir Fred, public opinion has no bearing on the question of his pension entitlement and to date he has shown not the slightest inclination to do the decent thing.
Not so lucky is her government colleague Tony McNulty who has claimed £60,000 in 'second home' expenses for using his parents's residence for constituency business.
Perhaps government ministers should hesitate to criticise greedy bankers.
Mr McNulty claims he has broken no rules, and he might be right.
However, as an elected MP, the court of public opinion will have the final say.
And the judges can be as biased as they like; will not be required to listen to lawyerly arguments; and will not be called upon to give a reasoned decision.
All they need to do is put a cross on a piece of paper.
I fancy Mr McNulty will not much enjoy the verdict.

I'm afraid it is gone quarter-to-five and the referee is about to blow for no side so I can't devote as much time to last weekend's rugby as I would wish.
However, for the benefit of those who attention may have been distracted by the momentous events in Cardiff, I would mention that England's bunch of no-hopers managed to finish in second place in the Six Nations.
Roll on next season and that picture of WS in an England Grand Slam sweater.

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