May 23 2006
Mine depot minefield
So, the fiasco surrounding the county council's sale of the Mine Depot goes on, and on, and on.
At last Monday's meeting of Cabinet, the issue had to be abandoned when a last minute offer was received from Cleddau Enterprises Ltd which trumped that of the current leader, Milford Haven Port Authority.
As the sale has been in train since last June, it is quite possible that this saga could still be running come the next pantomime season.
It is not easy to know where to start with this story.
However, to keep things simple, we will start on 17 May 2005 when, according to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the councils head of property and asset management, Neville Henstridge, wrote: "Dear Peter, Thank you for your letter dated 12 May 2005 which is receiving consideration."
Peter is Peter Scott who, as we shall see later, was to set up a company Haven Facilities Ltd with Mr Anthony Elletson as the vehicle for buying the site.
Unfortunately, Peters letter of 12 May, is not, for some reason, among the documents released under the Act.
Things seem to have moved swiftly because, on 26 May, Peter and Anthony were in county hall to meet Director of Development Mr Roger Barrett-Evans and Mr Henstredge.
And the following day, just 15 days after this, apparently, initial contact, Mr Henstredge was e-mailing Peter to tell him that "We will be taking a report to Cabinet next month to seek approval for the proposed transaction."
As Cabinet was on 27 June and reports had to be ready by 10 June, Mr Henstredge asked Peter if he could provide the council with a brief synopsis of their proposals for the site.
On 9 June Peter Scott e-mailed Mr Henstredge outlining their plans.
These included the construction of a camp for 500 LNG workers; to include licensed premises, leisure facilities, a 600 place car park and, in addition, the possibility of 100 owner-occupied caravans.
In the long term Mr Scott promised "To explore the economic viability of the provision of a container port."
It is interesting to compare these proposals with what was in the director of development's report that went before Cabinet on June 27.
It said that the site was to be used to house LNG workers, though, in order not to frighten the horses, no numbers were mentioned, and, crucially: "In the longer term the proposals for the site include the establishment of a container port facility."
Not even Pembrokeshire County Council could argue that "exploring the economic viability" and the "establishment" of a container port are the same thing.
However, the Cabinet, which is little more than a rubber stamp, asked no questions and gave consent for the site to be sold to the unnamed "property consultant" "on terms acceptable to the director of development [Roger Barrett-Evans]".
The documents released under the Freedom of Information Act do not reveal the terms of this sweetheart deal, but they had clearly been agreed (See "proposed transaction" above) and it would have been open to any member of the Cabinet to ask.
Would any member of the Cabinet, when selling their own house, be happy to say to the estate agent: "I'll leave it to you to get what you can for it"?
Well, when they are selling our assets, they have an even higher duty of care; not unlike that of a trustee who is required to apply the standards of "a prudent man of business" when dealing with trust property.
Unsurprisingly, as these people are paid £15,000 a year to be yes-men, none of them took even the most elementary steps to assure themselves either that what they were being told the about Mr Scott's plans was accurate(see above), or that the price he was being asked to pay was adequate.
However, help was to hand because news of this "proposed transaction" was leaked to the Mercury; and a local property tycoon, Gary Phillips, decided to become involved.
He threw a bid into the arena and, because of Section 123 of the Local Government Act 1972, which obliges local authorities to sell publicly-owned land "for the best consideration [price] that can reasonably be obtained", the council had no option but to consider his offer.
There was a bit of toing and froing that neednt concern us here; the upshot being that the council decided to put the whole of the site out to tender.
An advert was placed in the Western Telegraph inviting offers - closing date 31 August 2005.
This advert seems to have ruffled the elegant feathers of Ted Sangster, chief executive of Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA), who wrote to Mr Barrett-Evans on 22 August 2005 reminding him of the deal they had made "some 12 months or so ago".
This takes us back to the summer of 2004, hence my difficulty; referred to in the opening paragraph, in knowing where to start.
According to Mr Sangster, the county council and MHPA had a joint policy that the Mine Depot should be reserved for developments that required access to the waterway.
And, Mr Sangster wrote: "We also agreed that whilst this might be currently accepted by both parties, there was perhaps some risk in it remaining in the ownership of the County Council whilst appropriate developments were sought as there could be a change of policy within Pembrokeshire County Council, whereas this was much less likely if the ownership, with whatever covenants were appropriate, was with the Port Authority."
I can only assume that this fear of a change of policy was something to do with a possible change of political control at the local elections of June 2004 and what MHPA/PCC had in mind was an attempt to pre-empt the democratic process.
Paradoxically, though the ruling Independent Political Group junta suffered something of a rout at those elections, it managed to engineer a return to power with its majority intact (see Night of the long faces), so they could all go back to sleep.
When the tenders were opened, the highest offer was for a shade over £1 million (believed to be from Allied Land who were interested in the land at the western end of the site which had planning consent for residential development connected with the proposed marina in Castle Pill) the next best was for £500,000 (known to be Cleddau Enterprises Ltd: a consortium of Milford Haven businessmen assembled by the aforementioned Gary Phillips) and they were followed by a bid of £480,00 (identity unknown) and several other lesser bids.
The county council has a protocol for opening tenders.
In the good old days, they had to be opened in the presence of the chairman of council and two officers.
When, following the move to the Cabinet system, the new constitution was introduced, the chairman was quietly removed from the process..
However, in order to protect the integrity of the system, two officers are required to be present and the bids have to be opened, one at a time, and their values entered in the tender register.
The two officers then sign at the bottom of the page to certify that the procedure has been complied with.
For some reason this method was not followed with these bids because they are not recorded in the tender register.
The council's explanation for this is that there was no requirement for the tenders to be entered in the register because they had been returned to the director of development rather than, as is normally the case, the director of support and cultural services.
This seems to be a distinction without a difference.
Sometime in the first week of September (the council is unable to be more specific) Mr Parry-Jones, Mr Barrett-Evans and Mr Henstredge attended a meeting to evaluate the various tenders.
The agenda for that meeting shows that one possibility considered was to divide the site into two, negotiate with Allied Land for the residential part, while inviting the other interested parties to tender for the the industrial area.
Given the value Allied Land had placed on the site, that would seem to have been the most attractive option, if the object was to get the best deal for the council tax payer.
However, for some reason that, because no minutes were kept, is not immediately clear, it was decided to abandon that tender process, altogether, and go to a second round of bidding excluding the residential land at the western end of the site.
Not surprisingly, Allied Land, whose sole interest appears to have been in this particular piece of land, didn't participate in the second round.
At 7.45 am on 8 September 2005, Peter sent a fax to Bryn [Chief Executive, Bryn Parry Jones] seeking an urgent meeting to discuss the decision to retender, and later that same day Peter and Anthony were in Mr Parry-Jones office together with Mr Barrett-Evans and Mr Henstredge see Mine field).
The file note on this meeting is, to say the least, brief.
After listing those present, it concludes: "In Chief Executives room to explain why we needed to go to second round of offers due to reduced site. Peter Scott to speak to Ted Sangster."
Why Mr Scott (Porthcawl) and Mr Elletson (Crickhowell) needed to drive all that way to be told just that, is not immediately obvious.
The second tender exercise had a closing date of 7 October 2005.
When the bids were opened (and, this time, entered in the register) it was found, somewhat surprisingly, that CEL had bid more (£550,000) for the reduced area of land that it had for the whole site (£500,000).
The next highest bid was £360,000 followed by one for £310,000
Interestingly, according to the evaluation of the tenders, Haven Facilities short term proposals for the site was for "Provision of construction village for 100 workers initially and expansion as required" a huge reduction from their earlier proposal (see above).
However the long term plan was unaltered: "To explore the economic viability of a container port etc"
CEL coming out top in this second round of bidding was clearly not the desired outcome and it appears someone decided to invite MHPA to become directly involved and, on October 17, Mr Sangster was called to a meeting with Messrs Parry-Jones, Barrett-Evans and Henstredge, where, the file notes reveal, they discussed the availability of alternative waterfront sites and the viability of any proposed container port.
On the subject of the container port Ted Sangster said he "was not aware of any business plan".
The file-note records that "No tender figures were disclosed" and that "MHPA would underwrite PS [Peter Scott] or make a bid in their own right".
I am told that, either at that meeting, or subsequently, MHPA and the council agreed that MHPA would bid £600,000 (£50,000 more than CEL) for the site; to be paid in two instalments - £300,000 up front and the balance on the second anniversary of the signing of the lease.
This was later increased to £620,000 again in two instalments - and, though Cabinet was not told the amount, that was the offer recommended to it, and accepted, at its meeting on 6 February 2006.
What was interesting about that meeting was that, though the written report contained only a passing reference to a container port, the chief executive spent most of the debate extolling the benefits to the local economy of such a development.
It is not altogether clear why he needed to dangle this carrot in front of the Cabinet because at that time MHPA's was the highest bid.
That Cabinet decision was called in by the scrutiny committee, but, before it could be examined, CEL put in a higher bid and decision to sell to MHPA was aborted.
Since then MHPA and CEL have submitted higher bids in turn, the last, a few minutes before Monday's Cabinet, leading to yet another abandonment of the process while MHPA are given time to consider whether to respond.
Theoretically, there is no end to this Dutch auction, though one or other of their bank managers will surely call time at some stage.
Of course, the simplest solution would be to go out for formal tenders.
This is the process whereby the interested parties are each sent a contract which they return by a fixed closing date, signed, and with a suitable deposit.
The council opens the bids, selects the highest tender and signs it; bringing into force a binding contract.
Whatever the outcome, it is certain that the taxpayer will receive considerably more for the site than they would have done had the original deal with Peter Scott been allowed to go ahead.
The council should seek out whoever leaked the story to the Mercury, with a view to awarding them a large bonus.
Riches to riches
My socialist friend has drawn my attention to the Welsh Assembly Government's website where can be found the Single Farm Payments for 2005.
Unfortunately, the information is not in the most accessible form but I did manage to discover what was paid to Pembrokeshire's two best known graduates of the Royal College of Agriculture, Cirencester; once described as the Oxbridge of cow colleges (type Cwmbetws into Google).
It appears that both passed the form-filling part of the course with flying colours because county council deputy leader, Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse - known affectionately as Squirehouse - picked up a handy £39,500 from the CAP while the leader, Cllr John Davies' company Cwmbetws Ltd had to scrape along with £10,400.
However, Cllr Davies' makes up some of the leeway from his other sources of taxpayer-funded income: £37,000 (basic and leader's allowance from the county council) and £6,500 after using the powers vested in him by the council's constitution to appoint himself to the Police authority.
By comparison, Squirehouse, having surrendered his £6,500 stipend as non-executive director of Milford haven Port Authority, has to get by on £28,000 (basic allowance and deputy leader's salary from the county council) £2,000 (National Park) and £2,000 Fire Authority.
The mathematicians among you will already have worked out the Squirehouse (£71,500) has the advantage over the leader (£54,000).
However, the leader more than makes up lost ground once his dubious planning consent - estimated value £100,000 - is taken into account.(see Size matters).
Fear of flying
When I was young, I had the cruel misfortune to spend two years studying 'A' level maths alongside a genius.
His name was Alan Hewer, though, for some reason, which I can't recall, everyone called him Mazza.
Mazza would sit quietly in class as our maths teacher Mr Hall worked out some problem on the board.
While the rest of us struggled to follow the various steps of Mr Hall's proof, Mazza would be well ahead of the game.
"Sir." he would pipe up, "I think you went wrong on line three." followed by something along the lines: "If you divide both sides by the square root of cos theta it will come out much easier."
He was invariably right.
Mazza went off to study maths at Cambridge and, though I managed to scrape an 'A' level pass, I was left with a lifelong mathematical inferiority complex.
The last I heard of Mazza he was working in Seattle as a top man in Boeing's design team.
Now, as someone who, in his youth, spent a good deal of time trying, usually unsuccessfully, to get feather light gliders made of balsa wood, tissue paper and dope to stay airborne for more than a few seconds, I know deep in my bones that those great lumbering jumbos - half the size of a small town - cannot possibly fly.
I also know this is irrational because every day several pass directly over our house on the way to Heathrow, and I've flown in quite a few myself.
That said, I cannot rid myself of the feeling of impending doom whenever I set foot in one of the things.
Fortunately, I have found a way to conquer this fear.
As we sit on the runway - engines revving, plane shaking - waiting for takeoff, I say to myself: "If Mazza says this thing will fly, who am I to argue?"
He's always been right, so far.
If you go on the county council's website and look up the press release on the result of the Maenclochog bye-election you will find it concludes:
"The political make-up of the County Council now comprises: Independent Councillors 38; Labour 12; Plaid Cymru 5; Liberal Democrat 3; Not Affiliated to any Group: 2."
What this should say is Independent Political Group 38 (see Party animals).
The problem is that, by trying to conceal the fact that the council is controlled by a dominant group of mainly Tories masquerading as independents, the council deprives Cllr Malcolm Calver and myself; the only two truly independent (in the honourable sense of the word) councillors, of our proper title.
If the Independent Political Group was given its correct name, we could be accurately designated: "Independent, not affiliated to any group."
Take a bow
At the last meeting of full council, in answer to my written question, the Leader told us that the amount spent on advertising with Newsquest Ltd (owners of the Western Telegraph and Milford Mercury) in 2005-2006 was £187,000; reduced from £224,000 in the previous year, which was in turn down from the £245,000 spent in 2003-2004.
It could of course be that the council is publishing fewer public notices; alternatively it could be that since I first brought this eye-wateringly massive expenditure to public notice, the council has been driving a harder bargain.
I hope to provide a definitive answer once the accounts are opened up for public inspection in July.
In the meantime, I am awarding myself at least some of the credit for this almost £60,000 annual saving.
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