17 May 2005



Power games

Monday witnessed a rare event in County Hall when the economic development scrutiny committee called in the decision of Cabinet to issue a compulsory purchase order (CPO) in respect of some land at Withybush.
This is only the second Cabinet decision to be scrutinised in the three years since the new arrangements came into effect which indicates either that the Cabinet is virtually infallible or the scrutiny committees are, as one academic researcher into the subject has put it, "toothless tigers".
As an old-fashioned liberal, I have some difficulty with the idea of the state confiscating people's land even when adequate compensation is paid.
However, I must concede that there are occasions when the clear public interest requires the compulsory acquisition of land.
Whether providing a home for Pembrokeshire's motor traders is one of those occasions, I will leave you to decide.
This is an interesting case because of a conflict of evidence between the landowner's family, who say they have not engaged an agent, and an agent who purports to act for them.
This goes back to July last year when the WDA were negotiating with the "agent" for the purchase of the land.
Those negotiations ran into the sand and were then taken over by the county council.
At Monday's meeting, Roger Barrett-Evans read from copies of correspondence between the agent and the WDA.
Quite reasonably, when he took over, Mr Barrett-Evans assumed that the agent with whom the WDA had been dealing was in fact the agent for the landowner.
However, at Monday's meeting a letter from the landowner's son was read out which said, quite unequivocally, that there was no agent and never had been.
Now, these two contradictory propositions can't both be right.
That brings us to the resolution passed by the Cabinet.
It reads: "That in the event of discussions for the purchase of land agreement not being concluded by May 31 2005, that the Director of Development be authorised..." to seek a Compulsory Purchase Order.
Clearly, this resolution is predicated on the assumption that there have been negotiations with the owner (through her agent); that these negotiations have failed to produce agreement; and, as a last resort, the Council needs a CPO.
However, according to the landowner's account, these assumptions are false.
Old Grumpy would have thought that the best way to proceed was to have sent the matter back to the June meeting of Cabinet by which time it would be possible to resolve the conflicting evidence from the family and the agent.
If it transpires that the Council/WDA have been negotiating, unsuccessfully, with the owner's accredited agent since July 2004 then the Cabinet decision could be allowed to stand, intact.
If it turns out that the family's version of events is correct, then it would seem that democratic decency would require the council to open negotiations and set a new deadline for triggering the CPO process.
Unfortunately, where the county council is concerned, democratic decency always runs a poor second to brute power and the committee voted 6-5 to let the Cabinet decision stand.
Interestingly, the five who voted against this decision included the Chairman Tom Richards (Independent).
Numbered among those who voted the Independent Party ticket was the vice-Chairman, Ken Edwards (Labour).

Unasked questions


Another peculiar thing about the Cabinet's deliberations on the CPO is that the report before it contained no information as to the likely cost to the Council Tax payers.
However, it was revealed at Monday's meeting that this was to be what is known as a "back to back" transaction, a sort of pass the parcel whereby the council buys the land and immediately conveys it to a developer.
The developer then constructs the roads, sewers, etc and sells off individual plots to the end-users.
That way the cost to the council is either nil or negligible.
Strangely, none of this appeared in the original report to the Cabinet.
Even stranger, nobody thought to ask.
Still, I suppose it's a bit much to expect a rubber stamp to have an enquiring mind.

Comrades at arms

Old Grumpy hears that, following Sue Hayman's defeat at the recent election, brotherly and sisterly love is in rather short supply among the comrades of the Preseli Labour party.
The protagonists appear to be divided into three camps.
Firstly those who believe that had they had a local candidate - Joyce Watson, for instance - they would have had a much better chance.
This faction have their knives out for Tamsin Dunwoody-Kneafsey AM who is widely regarded as the architect of Sue Hayman's successful campaign to get herself selected as the candidate.
Then, there is another group that lays the blame at the feet of all-women short-lists. They say that with a wider field to choose from they could have dealt themselves a winning hand.
And finally, there are those who say that the election could have been won had everyone pulled their weight, particularly some of the male members who spent the duration sulking in their tents because of the wimmin only policy.
I also hear that, if, next time around, the list of candidates is widened to include men, County Councillor Tom Tudor is likely to be a strong contender.

The Blueshirts


Several people have drawn my attention to the large Steven Crabb poster that spent the campaign poking its head over the garden wall of No. 1 Merlins Avenue, Merlins Bridge.
This is, of course the residence of ex-Cllr Maurice Hughes; the former leader of the so-called Independent Political (sic) Group on Pembrokeshire county council.
"Showing his true colours" as one of my informants put it (see Back-door Tories).
Speaking of true colours, when I was in County Hall the other day, I couldn't help but notice the preponderance of blue shirts among the Independents in the members tea room.
This started me off hypothesising that this might be a way of spotting Tory wolves masquerading as Independent sheep.
Testing out my theory, I first noticed that the known Tories: Mark Edwards and David Bryan, were both sporting blue shirts.
As was the highly-suspected Cllr Jamie Adams from Camrose.
But the theory didn't reign long before it came up against what Huxley called the tragedy of science; "The slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by a ugly fact" in the shape of Cllr Michael Evans of Tenby who was attired in a natty blue check job.
And, as I know from reading Cllr Evans' election manifesto, he has "...no political alliance."
At first I thought I might be able to save my hypothesis from the knacker's yard by stipulating that only self-coloured shirts should count.
But, when I noticed that Cllr Ken Edwards (Labour, Neyland) was wearing a blue shirt, I thought the game was up.
However, on reflection, I'm not so sure.
After all, Ken votes with the Independents (Tories) almost as often as he supports his own side.

Election arithmetic


Yesterday in Parliament, Tony Blair chided poor old Michael Howard on the Tories' poor showing in the General Election where they won just 196 seats.
As Mr Blair pointed out, even when Labour was at its lowest point; in the 1983 election under the leadership of Michael Foot, it managed to win 208 seats.
Drawing comparisons between these two elections is an interesting exercise because, as I said a few weeks ago, it highlights the fact that the election was to a large part decided in the committee rooms of the Boundary Commission.
In 1983 the Tories won 46% of the vote in England to Labour's 27%.
That gave them 362 seats (66%) to Labour's 148 (27%).
That represented a serious imbalance between seats an votes but nothing like as serious as in 2005, when the division between Labour and Conservative was almost even with the Tories having a small advantage of about 60,000 votes.
But, when it came to seats won, Labour had a lead of 93.
Clearly, this sort of disparity does nothing to increase public confidence in the first-past-the-post system.
Much has been made of the fact that New Labour has a comfortable overall majority of 66 on the strength of the votes of just over 20% of the electorate.
Why this should be an issue now, when at the 2001 election they had a 167 majority on the back of just 25%, I am not sure.
These figures, I think, explode the myth of the mandate.
This myth is based on the idea that the party with an overall majority has received a public endorsement for its manifesto which it has an absolute right to implement and anyone who opposes it is somehow disregarding the wishes of the people.
When only one in four, or one in five, of the electorate have positively supported the manifesto, that is a difficult claim to sustain.
Even more difficult when you consider that those voting for a particular party are hardly likely to approve of its programme down to every last dot and comma.
So, this claim, that it is somehow undemocratic to oppose measures foreshadowed in the manifesto, is patently false.
Naturally, the winning party wants to implement its programme but it has no divine right to do so.
That is because the UK's constitution safeguards against an elective dictatorship after the election.
The revising and delaying powers of the second chamber being the mainstay of this process.
Of course, we could put the safeguards in place prior to the election by introducing some form of proportional representation.
However, on present electoral arithmetic, that would mean that the Lib Dems would always have the final say over which of the two bigger parties formed the Government.
An example of the tail wagging the dog which can hardly be considered an improvement on the present, admittedly imperfect, system.

Votes trump logic


Last week, I appeared in front of the Corporate Governance Committee to put the case for my notice of motion calling for responses to Welsh Assembly consultation documents to formulated by full council rather than the Cabinet.
The report of the Head of Legal Services reads: "In view of the need to ensure that consultation documents are considered and responses provided within the required time scales and as the way the Council currently deals with these matters is not out of step with the way in which other local authorities deal with them, there is no justification for changing the way the Council currently deals with consultation documents."
As I pointed out to the committee, the consultation document that prompted my notice of motion, was sent out by the Welsh Assembly on 15 November 2004.
When it failed to appear on the agenda for both the December and January meetings of Cabinet, I emailed the Leader asking him what was going on.
It was eventually placed on the agenda for Cabinet meeting of 7 February, but only after the Council had written to the Assembly seeking permission to extend the 3 February deadline for replies.
So much for responses being "provided within the required time scales."
I suspect that had I not raised the matter with the Leader the consultation reply would have been sent by the Chief Officers Management Board withou any reference to the members at all.
I always knew that this attempt to widen democracy wouldn't find favour with the 12-member committee, especially as nine of them are on the Leader's payroll.
As I've said before, when you've got the votes in your pocket you don't have to worry too much about the logic of your case.

Back to home page