May 21 2009

 

 

Strange developments

 

When I logged on to Pembrokeshire Coast National Park's website and read the agenda for its meeting on Wed 13 May, I spotted the following item.

11 . To consider whether the public should be excluded from the meeting during the consideration of the following item due to the likely disclosure of exempt information, as defined in Paragraphs 12, 13 and 14 of Part 4 of Schedule 12A to the Local Government Act 1972.

12. Claim for indemnity of legal costs and expenses: To consider the report of the Monitoring Officer in relation to a claim by a Member for indemnity of legal costs and expenses incurred.

Naturally, I got to thinking who this mysterious member could be and it didn't take me long to remember my visit to Lamphey Court in July 2007 where Mr Robin Tolson QC managed to persuade the Adjudication Panel for Wales that the Ombudsman had been wrong to suggest that Cllr John Alen-Mirehouse had breached the Code of Conduct when he failed to declare an interest in the "homes for locals" policy at a meeting of the park (Tribunal findings).
Further enquiries led me to believe that my hunch was right, though, as the meeting was held in secret, details - especially the amount claimed- are hard to come by.
However, with the going rate for QCs at more than five grand a day, and solicitors from up the line at £200+ an hour, it isn't long before you're talking the price of a new Range Rover.
And, with that amount of taxpayers' money at stake, I would have thought it is at least arguable that the public interest would be best served if this was debated out in the open, if only to allow us to know which way our elected county councillors voted on the issue.
From what I can gather, the matter was deferred to a later meeting while more information is sought.
Several aspects of the Adjudication Panel's proceedings bother me, not least the fact that the Ombudsman's barrister, Mr Gwydion Hughes, was prevented from cross examining the witnesses (Whitehall farce) though he had some revealing things to say when Tolson QC tried to persuade the Panel that the Ombudsman should meet Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's costs (Two sides to every story).
The report on the Tribunal's decision can be found at (Tribunal findings) click in "No breach of the code".
Look at: 5.1.2 Mr Tolson said that it had never been disputed that Councillor Allen-Mirehouse owned land that was capable of being developed when he participated in the relevant meetings of the National Park Authority.
Had Mr Hughes been allowed to have his say he may have referred members to the preliminary hearing where according to the tribunal's report 2.4.2 Following the pre-hearing review and the receipt of additional information, the Case Tribunal issued a listing direction on 30 May 2007 in which it identified the key relevant disputed facts upon which it would need to find, namely:

a. Did Councillor Allen-Mirehouse own any land that was capable of being developed when he participated in the relevant meetings of Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority?

And after considering the evidence

4.3 The Case Tribunal found the following in respect of the disputed facts:

4.3.1 Councillor Allen-Mirehouse did own land that was capable of being developed when he participated in meetings of the Authority.

So who was disputing these facts?
Certainly not the Ombudsman whose findings that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse had breached the code depended entirely on his ownership of development land within the national park area.
And the only other party to the proceedings was um, er, Cllr Allen-Mirehouse.
Mr Hughes might also have challenged Mr Tolson's assertion by reference to the earlier police investigation into the matter.
In a letter dated 24 September 2004 the Ombudsman informed me as complainant that the case had been closed because the police had concluded that there was "insufficient evidence to pursue a criminal investigation against Cllr Allen-Mirehouse."
In that letter the Ombudsman also said: "He [Cllr Allen-Mirehouse] has stated that he has not applied for permission to develop any land and there is no evidence that he has any land which would be affected by the adoption of the [homes for locals] policy within the National Park."
After I visited the national park's offices and unearthed the evidence that the police had been unable to find, the Ombudsman reopened the case (Simple explanation).
The Ombudsman's report also deals with this issue.



It is difficult to understand why, in the light of the new evidence provided by me, the Ombudsman didn't refer the back to the police who may also have given consideration as to whether Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's earlier statement gave rise to any legal issues.
What is certain is that all this is very difficult to reconcile with Mr Tolson's statement that: . . . it had never been disputed that Councillor Allen-Mirehouse owned land that was capable of being developed when he participated in the relevant meetings of the National Park Authority.
The other aspect of this which I find difficult to swallow is the other disputed fact in the tribunal report (Tribunal findings):
4.2.2 What was the likely impact of the introduction of Policy 47 on land values in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park?
And after hearing evidence from Mr Ifor Jones, Head of Conservation, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority the tribunal concluded:

4.3.2 The likely impact of the introduction of policy 47 upon land values was:
a. that the value of existing homes would rise; but,
b. the value of new build homes would remain the same.


Now, as you may recall, Policy 47; known colloquially as the "homes for locals policy", was designed to make it easier for local people to purchase homes in the national park by making them more affordable
This was to be achieved by restricting occupancy of future developments to existing residents and essential workers.
According to the tribunal it would have had the opposite effect by making existing houses more expensive while making no difference to those newly built.
This conclusion seems to fly in the face of mainstream economic theory as set out in the Ombudsman's report.
What the Ombudsman said is: "Those with potential development land thus stood to lose directly [by the introduction of Policy 47] as the value of new development would be expected to decrease as a result of a restricted market.
And when he did manage to get a word in edgewise Mr Hughes asked for clarification of a clause in the evidence that, in respect of similar policies in the Lake District, officers had advised that, depending on the stringency of the conditions imposed, land values could be depressed by as much as 30%.

In touch

 

Nice to see that Joyce Watson AM has been successful in the ballot for the Assembly's equivalent of Private Members' Bills.

The text is printed below.Original at (JWLCO)

Proposed Hard Surfaces Legislative Competence Order

Joyce Watson

Pre-ballot Information: Outline Proposed Legislative Competence Order

Outline of proposed Order

To extend the legislative competence of the National Assembly for Wales in relation to the construction and/or replacement of hard surfaces incidental to the enjoyment of residential premises or providing vehicular or pedestrian access to and egress from new residential premises.

Pre-ballot Information: Explanatory Memorandum

Policy Objectives of the Proposed Order

The purpose of the Order is to allow the National Assembly for Wales to pass a Measure to ensure that when a hard surface is constructed and/or replaced then it is made of porous material or that provision is made to direct run-off from the hard surface to a permeable or porous area of surface

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Nothing like being in touch with the public's deepest concerns.

Silly games

Its seems that the county's Community Councils are feeling their oats, or getting above themselves, depending on how you look at these things.
Last week's Tenby Observer reported that Narberth Town Council had passed a motion of no confidence in county councillor Wyn Evans and this week it is Cllr Malcolm Calver's turn to receive a dose of the same medicine from Manorbier Community Council.
Cllr Evans earned the town council's disapproval for poor attendance at its meetings and for allegedly putting around false rumours about a supermarket locating in the town.
Old Grumpy would have been more impressed if the motion of no confidence had followed his appearance before the county council's standards committee for breaching the Code of Conduct by speaking and voting on a friend's planning application, especially with regard to his economy with the truth when interviewed by the Ombudsman about what training he had received (Overtrained).
As for Cllr Calver, he appears not to have treated the community council with the respect it seems to think it deserves.
According to the Tenby Observer (repeated word for word in the WT) his offence was to decline past requests to give an account of his activities as a county councillor so it was "included as an agenda item in the hope that he would be forthcoming with information". i.e an ambush was staged.
According to the council's clerk the voting was "four in favour, four abstentions and three choosing not to vote".
And I thought choosing not to vote was the same as abstaining.
But I must be wrong because both papers report that the motion was carried on the casting vote of the chairman Cllr R Hughes, who, incidentally ,was one of those who trailed in behind Cllr Calver at last year's county council elections.
Now, some county councillors report back to their community councils, and some don't.
It purely a matter of personal choice and there is absolutely nothing these tin-pot Torquemadas can do about it if the local member declines.
Perhaps too much time spent playing these silly political games is the reason the people of Manorbier have, over the past couple of years, been saddled with bills of some £50,000 as a result of the community council's ill-judged adventures in the legal jungle (Manorbier.com).

Flippocrite?

I know its not the done thing, but let's be fair to Stephen Crabb MP by saying that he something of a minor player in the great MP's expenses game.
He doesn't have a moat, or 50 acres of woodland to maintain, nor, as far as I am aware, does he keep ducks.
And, while he has bought various items of furniture at taxpayers' expense, he doesn't appear to be using his house as an overspill storage depot for John Lewis.
However, he is what The Sun has branded a "flippocrite" i.e someone who frequently changes the location of his second home (Flipping hell).
The significance of the first/second home split is that Additional Costs Allowance can only be claimed on the second home.
According to the Daily Telegraph, an MP's second home should be the one where he spends the least time.
Until September 2007 Mr Crabb's second home was a flat he owned in London.
He sold the flat and moved in with another Tory MP and at the same time changed the designation of his second home to his recently-purchased house in Pembrokeshire.
This allowed him to claim back £9,300 in stamp duty and mortgage payments of £1,325 per month - £22,243 for the year 2007-2008.
In August last year he flipped back to a flat in Bermondsey south London.
Now there may be some simple explanation as to why Mr Crabb decided to spend more time in London than with his family during 2007-2008.
And there may be some simple explanation as to why he reversed these priorities in August 2008.
But, unless he can come up with convincing reasons for these changing designations, the people of Pembrokeshire will be entitled to conclude that it was all done in the name of financial gain.
Telling us that it he acted on the advice of the fees office simply will not do.
After all, when someone stretches the law to its outer limits to minimise the amount of tax they pay, it doesn't cease to be tax avoidance just because it was done on the advice of an accountant.

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