May 16 2006
Up the garden path
Last Thursday's meeting of the county council turned out to be more interesting than I had anticipated because, judging from the demeanor of some members of the Independent Party, the Leadership had not had it all its own way at the previous day's secret get-together.
Indeed, my moles tell me that reservations were expressed about the Leadership's line on several issues.
So, instead of the usual handing down of voting instructions, a fairly lively debate ensued.
Perhaps some of them are beginning to realise that, with the election now less than two years away, it is time to show some of the independence for which they were elected.
In addition to the routine council meeting, there was an extraordinary meeting called by members of the opposition to discuss the Ombundsman's report into a controversial planning consent at Prospect Place, Pembroke Dock.
During this debate, the Leader, Cllr John Davies, accused me of always being on the lookout for reasons to criticise the council.
I don't know which planet Cllr Davies is living on, but here on earth that's what opposition members do.
And, having read my column in the Mercury over many years, that is what the voters of Hakin elected me to do.
During the last election the most FAQ on the doorstep was: "If I vote for you will it help to get rid of that (wide range of expletives deleted) Maurice Hughes?"
I had to explain that only the voters of Merlins Bridge could do that, but voting for me would at least help to get rid of one of his henchmen.
In the event, I polled well over twice as many votes as the Independent Political Group's candidate, George Max.
The reason I criticise the county council is because, like many of my constituents, I don't like many of its undemocratic practices.
Take the Prospect Place affair, for instance, where I consider a grave injustice has been done to the complainant.
The case involves a planning consent for a dwelling in the rear garden of 37/38 Prospect Place.
The complainant lives at number 39 and the reason for his concern is that this new development will overshadow his garden.
Way back in 1990, someone successfully appealed against the, then, South Pembs D C's refusal to allow a dwelling in the rear garden of number 17.
That inspired the district council to work up a "Development Brief" in an attempt to keep some sort of control over the anticipated flood of applications.
The gardens to the rear of Prospect Place taper, with the lowest numbers having the longest gardens.
So, in order to keep an appropriate separation distance between any new developments and the existing dwellings it was decide that the development brief would be restricted to Nos 2 - 32.
In the event, as the development brief was never formally adopted by the council, or its successor (Pembs C C), it has no legal standing, whatsoever.
Subsequently, Prospect Place was incorporated into the Pembroke Dock conservation area, so, even if the original development brief had been adopted, it would have had to be modified to take account of this new status.
The matter came before the planning committee with an officer's report recommending approval.
Much of the evaluation section of this report consisted of quotations from the inspector's decision of 1990.
The Ombudsman says that, while a planning Inspector's decision on a planning application is a material consideration in determining a similar application in similar circumstances "I am not convinced that it is reasonable to consider it a binding precedent some fourteen years later in considering an application to which it bears some similarities but from which it differs in some material respects"
The Ombundsman is particularly critical of the inclusion of a quotation from the the Inspector's report on No 17 to the effect that there was a 35 metre separation between the facing elevations in these garden developments when in fact the separation distance at No 37/38 was only 20 metres.
The Council denied that it had relied too heavily on the Inspector's report.
The Ombudsman records: "43. In its written comments on the complaint the council denied that the purpose of referring to the 1990 appeal decision was to draw a direct comparison with the application site. I find that statement difficult to reconcile with the prominence given to the Inspector's words, which make up almost the whole of the evaluation section of the officer's report to committee. The effect of such a lengthy quotation cannot have been other than to draw just such a comparison."
In short, the Ombudsman didn't believe what the council had told him.
Neither was the Ombudsman impressed with the council's claim that the Development Brief had been presented to the planning committee as "informal guidance".
He writes: "This was not made clear to members in the officer's report, the wording of which, on the contrary, suggests that compliance with the document [Development Brief] guaranteed the acceptability of the application."
And "I also consider the references in the officers' report to committee to the application as meeting the criteria of the design brief as to be misleading and maladministration"..
In any case, the application didn't comply with the Brief because the gardens in the vicinity of No 37/38 were not long enough to accommodate the specified separation distance between facing elevations.
Indeed, whoever drew up the brief was aware of this because the original range of compliant dwellings was Nos 2-32.
As the Ombudsman records: "The Brief is typed but the "8" in "38" is a manual amendment. Closer inspection of the document indicates that the original typed digit was 2."
That manual amendment, which certainly didn't occur by accident, enabled the officers to tell the committee: "With regard to the current application the site lies within the identified area [2-38] and meets the criteria of the design brief."
Of course, what actually happened here is that someone decided that the development should be allowed and the facts were manipulated in order to obtain the committee's agreement.
If you want to read about an even more blatant corruption of the planning process go to Enfield.
If there is a funny side to this, it concerns Cllr Henry Jones the semi-detached, Independent member for Fishguard.
Cllr Jones is a civil engineer by training, so he is not fazed by drawings and dimensions.
He smelt a rat and decided to make some enquiries of his own.
What he discovered was that the application didn't comply with the Brief.
As the Ombudsman says: "He took the matter up with planning officers and told them that unless they could assure members that the application met the intent of the brief he would openly object to it at the next committee meeting and point out the ways in which it differed from the Brief."
However, when, following a site inspection, the matter came back before the committee, he accepted the assurance of the planning officer that the application had been revised to meet his concerns.
But what is funny is that, at that committee, Cllr Brian Hall accused him, in the Ombudsman's words, of "behaving unacceptably by 'browbeating' officers."
I had thought that the Independent Political Group had plumbed the depths of hypocrisy when I was accused of being a liar by its former leader Maurice Hughes, but being accused of bullying by Brian Hall surely takes the palm.
Now you might think that having a house built at the end of your garden, on the basis of highly misleading information to the planning committee, is injustice enough.
But it gets much worse because the really serious injustice has been committed by the Ombudsman himself.
The Ombudsman concludes: "However, there is no clear evidence that the application would have been rejected had the maladministration, identified above, in the officer's report not occurred. I am not in a position to say what weight members would have accorded to the Inspector's decision if a more balanced and informative report been presented to them or no mention made of the development guide. I cannot therefore conclude that the council's maladministration led to the substantive injustice Mr James [Evans] claims although he has suffered the less intangible injustice of stress and anxiety."
Here, I think, the Ombudsman uses the wrong test because, short of telepathy, it is never possible to know what the members might have decided had they been given accurate information.
However what legal principle tells us is that a verdict reached on the basis of false evidence can never be considered safe.
The fact is that Mr Evans will now have his garden overlooked, in perpetuity, by a house that was given consent by a seriously flawed process.
The Ombudsman awarded him a paltry £200 as a "modest consolatory payment".
Of course, this a relatively minor matter involving a single dwelling in Pembroke Dock.
But the question you should ask yourself is: how would I like it if this had happened to me?
What is truly shocking is that most members of the Independent Political Group, including the Leader, seem to see nothing wrong in any of this.
The Leader, of course, knows a bit about inaccurate information in reports to planning committee; his company, Cwmbetws Ltd, having been granted consent for a 2,800 sq ft "herdsman's cottage" on the strength of 165 non-existent dairy cows (see No udder conclusion).
Old Grumpy also came under attack from junior/assistant Cabinet members, Cllrs Jamie Adams and Mike Evans over my attempt to have them removed from the scrutiny committees on the grounds that it is against general democratic principles to have someone scrutinising their own decisions.
Up they both jumped to accuse me of impugning their integrity.
All I can say is that I am not at all impressed by these puerile attempts at emotional blackmail.
It rather reminds me of the schoolchildren who, whenever they are disciplined, respond by whining "You're picking on me, Sir!"
In fact, it is nothing whatsoever to do with their integrity, or otherwise.
It is simply that being members of both cabinet and scrutiny committee means they have a conflict of interest.
The guiding light when considering these matters is the case of Lord Hoffman and the Pinochet extradition case.
After Lord Hoffman had participated in the House of Lords' determination of the case, it emerged that he had connections with Amnesty International.
The House of Lords decision was subsequently overturned, not because anyone doubted Lord Hoffman's integrity, or suggested that his judgment had been affected, but because his presence on the bench might undermine public confidence in the impartiality of the judicial system.
The fact is that assistant Cabinet members hold their positions, and the special responsibility allowances that go with them, at the Leader's pleasure. In Parliamentary terms, they are part of the payroll vote.
On the Thursday prior to official Cabinet meetings all members of the cabinet, including assistants, meet to agree their line on the issues coming before Cabinet on the following Monday. They are, therefore, part of the decision making process.
Imagine the uproar there would be if Tony Blair attempted to put a couple of junior ministers on the Parliamentary Select Committees on which these scrutiny committees are modelled.
Yet another softening of the Leader's stance came over a fairly modest proposal by Cllr Kate Becton that the deadline for calling in Cabinet decisions should be extended from two days after the minutes are posted on the Web, to four.
When this was debated at the corporate governance committee two weeks earlier, the Leader and his cronies, who hold eight of the twelve seats, rejected the proposal out of hand.
However, following pressure during the secret get-together, he came to full council with a compromise that would, in effect, give members an extra day.
There was also something of a retreat over my Notice of Motion calling for more information to be given to Cabinet when publicly owned assets are to be disposed of.
Under the current situation, Cabinet authorisation is required before council-owned land and/or buildings valued at over £100,000 can be sold.
My proposal was that the Cabinet should also have control over both the method of sale and the terms and conditions.
I thought I was pushing at an open door because, at February's Cabinet, where the sale of the Mine Depot to Milford Haven Port Authority was agreed, quite a few members expressed concern that they were being asked to make a decision based on too little information.
However, when the matter came before corporate governance, it was accompanied by a recommendation that "The notice of motion be not adopted and that the present arrangements remain."
At that meeting, you will recall, Mr Parry-Jones and I had a protracted argument about what I considered to be a contradiction between what was in the report to committee and the contents of an e-mail I had received from the council .
Being of a charitable disposition, I will assume that the Leader's decision to give way on most of my Notice of Motion was based on considerations of principle and not to avoid the embarrassment of forcing the Chief Executive to make a second attempt to convince members that black was white (see Through the Looking-glass).
The third Notice of Motion; which would have allowed members to submit NoMs and questions by e-mail ended in honourable defeat, when, on a recorded vote, three members of the Independent Party (Cllrs Bill Roberts, Henry Jones and Martin Davies) voted with the opposition.
Three may not sound a lot, but, to the best of my recollection, this is the second biggest departure ever from their synchronised voting tradition.
Recorded votes are taken by calling out each members name in alphabetical order, when the member answers for or against.
It was heartening that many of those who did support the party line were so uncomfortable that they could scarcely rise above a croak when asked to indicate which way they were voting.
It would seem that the Independent Political Group's decision to give the chief executive a large pay rise is more popular in Maenclochog than in Milford Haven, where my rolling focus group are unanimously outraged by both the size of the pay award and the fact that it was pushed through by a small (4) cabal of senior members of the Independent Party.
I say this because, while Labour councillors up and down England were feeling the cold wind of Mr Blair's unpopularity, the IPG's candidate, Huw George, won last week's Maenclochog bye-election by a considerable margin.
A mole tells me that the victor was in the chief executive's office on the morning after the count to sign up.
Of course there have been occasions in the past when members of the Independent Party have tried to conceal their true intentions (see Party animals), but, as Mr George is a Baptist minister, we can be assured that he made his party affiliations clear during the campaign.
Old Grumpy was quite surprised by the reasonable showing of the Tory candidate, Richard Griffiths, who came a respectable third with 238 votes.
I suppose it must make it awkward for card-carrying Tories like Cllrs Peter Stock, David Wildman, David Bryan, Mark Edwards and Elwyn Morse who now find themselves in the same party as the man who beat their own party's official candidate.
I wonder if any of them found time to go up there and help with his campaign.
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