May 24 2005

 

Bungalow farmers ride again

 

Since the advent of the county council's new constitution, which delegated most planning decisions to the officers, the planning committee has become rather a dull place.
However, the odd gem, such as the application by Cwmbetws Ltd for an agricultural dwelling at Cwmbetws farm, near Eglwswrw, still crops up.
Normally this would have been dealt with by officers under delegated powers but, as the blurb at the top of the first page of the report explains: "This application is held for committee consideration as the director of the farm business is a member of the council."
And not just any old member but the Leader, Cllr John Davies, himself.
Old Grumpy has sat through many of these agricultural applications.
Indeed it was this species that led former planning director Roger Anderson to to coin the term "bungalow farmers" to describe the group of members who were constantly seeking to use this loophole to allow their chums to build on greenfield sites.
It seems that old habits die hard!
What I learned from those meetings is that the acid test is whether it is absolutely necessary for the worker to live on the farm.
The basic principle being that, if the worker's duties are such that they can be carried out by commuting a short distance from the nearest village, the application should be refused.
In the case of Cwmbetws, there is already one farmhouse on the site and, in the absence of any change in farming practice, or scale, it is difficult to justify the need for another.
In addition to consideration of need the other matter of interest is the sheer size of the dwelling which covers 2,800 sq ft..
By way of comparison, my own humble abode; a fairly substantial, three bedroom, former farmhouse, weighs in at about 2,000 sq ft.
For those who have difficulty with sums, the difference is equivalent to four rooms of 15' x 13' each.
According to the report to members, this rather grand residence is required to house a "full time herdsman" at Cwmbetws farm.
He will surely be the best-housed herdsman this side of the Suez.
But it is the way that the various tests are finessed to guide the argument towards the desired conclusion that will stick in the throat of anyone who values objective truth and intellectual honesty - not that you'd expect these two commodities to be too highly regarded by people who are unable to understand that Independent Political Group is an oxymoron.
Explaining the reasons for approving such a large house the report reads: "Although the proposed dwelling is only a 3 bedroom unit it has a gross external floor space of 260 square metres (2,800 square feet) and consideration needs to be given to a financial test to establish the size of the dwelling the agricultural unit can sustain. An assessment has been made of the farm accounts over the past three years and there is evidence of a healthy profit sufficient to fund the size of dwelling proposed. As such the farming enterprise is considered economically viable and capable of of sustaining the the size of the dwelling proposed.

Reading that, you could be forgiven for thinking that, so long as the farmer can afford it, he can build a house of any size he likes.
However TAN 6, the Welsh Assembly Government's guidance on this subject, shows that affordability is only half the story.

At paragraph 47 it reads: Agricultural dwellings should be of a size commensurate with the established functional requirement. Dwellings which are unusually large in relation to the agricultural needs of the unit, or unusually expensive to construct in relation to the income it can sustain in the long-term, should not normally be permitted. It is the requirements of the enterprise rather than of the owner or occupier which are relevant to determining the size of dwelling that is appropriate to a particular holding.

So there are two bridges to cross, affordability and "size commensurate with the established functional requirement".
In this case, "the established functional requirement" is to house a full-time herdsman and you don't need to be a trained lawyer to work out that a house of 2,800 sq ft (almost three times the size of a typical council house) is "unusually large in relation to the the agricultural needs of the unit".
It seems rather strange that the committee was not given this crucial information.
The final sentence of TAN 6 para 47 (above) will also repay careful reading.
As this application seeks to use the agricultural exception to the rule against building in the open countryside, it will carry an agricultural occupancy condition.
However, that condition makes no mention of a herdsman, but merely requires that the occupier must be someone who is employed full time in agriculture, or whose last full-time job was in agriculture.
That could include a retired farmer and all manner of other people.
No wonder local government is held in such contempt!

No contest

 

Last Thursday's county council AGM was graced by the presence of the Lord Lieutenant of Dyfed, Lord Morris of Aberavon.
For those who take no interest in matters political, Lord Morris was one of the most distinguished constitutional lawyers of his generation.
As John Morris QC he was Secretary of State for Wales during the Wilson/Callaghan government of 1974-79.
And, as Lord Morris of Aberavon QC, he held the post of Attorney General in the early part (1997-99) of Tony Blair's first government.
Just what Lord Morris made of last Friday's proceedings, I wouldn't venture to guess.
The council's AGM is a strange, hybrid beast - part ceremony, part political event.
The ceremonial part is ensured by the fact that the current vice-chairman is automatically elevated to the chair and, this year, was enhanced by the fact that there was only one nomination for vice-chairman.
So, the handing over of chains and baskets of flowers could be carefully choreographed.
The second half of the event is taken up by the election of the chairs of various committees who have to be nominated from the floor.
Personally, I doubt it would make the least bit of difference to the lives of my constituents if the names were drawn out of a hat but elections are elections.
There are four scrutiny committees and the Leader stood up and read out a list of eight names for chairman of this and vice-chairman of that.
"Are we all agreed on that" asked the newly-installed Chairman, Cllr Clive Collins, and the hands of the Independent Group shot up as if under the influence of a single controlling mind.
At that point, I felt compelled to rise on a point of order to suggest to the Chairman that proper procedure required him to ask if there were any other nominations before proceeding to a vote.
The Chairman jumped up, as a signal for me to sit down and shut up, so I was forced to point out that, under "the rules of procedure" in the council's constitution, he was obliged give a ruling on a member's point of order.
Cllr Collins made as if to stand his ground but after a quick whisper in his ear from the Chief Executive, he conceded the point.
"Are there any other nominations?" the chairman asked.
"No", I replied, "but it is nice to be asked."
Someone else rose to suggest that the "elections" to these posts should be taken singly and not as a block.
After a bit of argy-bargy that point, too, was conceded.
Not that it made much difference because the Leader's list of nominees was nodded through, though some of us did take the opportunity to have it recorded that we had voted against certain candidates, Cllr Alwyn Luke in particular.
But it could all have been so different.
A couple of weeks ago, I understood that the opposition groups were united in their intention to force a series of secret ballots by nominating candidates for at least some of these positions.
Then news filtered back to me that some of the greybeards in the Labour Group thought this "was not a good idea".
Elections in a democracy, not a good idea, whatever next?
I often wonder if the main objection some in the Labour Group have to what goes on in county hall is that it is the Independent Political (sic) Group that is using its majority to ride roughshod over the opposition rather than, as in most of the rest of Wales, themselves.


Dodging the column

 

I don't think I'd need to guess what Lord Morris would have thought about the independent political Group's antics had he been present at the previous day's council meeting.
On the agenda was a Notice of Motion signed by four opposition members, including myself, which called for the removal of Cllr John Griffiths from his position as vice-Chairman of the children and young persons scrutiny committee.
Our NoM was prompted by a remarks made by Cllr Griffiths during a special meeting in February called to discuss the Ombudsman's report into the Stephanie Lawrence affair.
The contents of Cllr Griffith's speech need not detain us, except to say that he appeared to be condoning the corporal punishment of children.
The original NoM came before the regular February meeting of council when it was remitted to Cabinet for further consideration.
Once there, it was "discovered" that, as Cllr Griffiths had been appointed to the vice-chairmanship by full council, only full council could sack him.
So the NoM was sent back to last Thursday's full council.
Cynics might think that the object of all this toing and froing was to kick the issue into the long grass and, whether by accident or design, that was the certainly the effect.
In the meantime Cllr Griffiths' case had been the subject of letters to the Western Telegraph including one from yours truly which ended: "It will be interesting to see how many members of the Independent Political (sic) Group agree with us when the matter is put to the vote."
Quite a few it seems, because the Leader decided that a vote on the issue was to be avoided at all costs.
He first proposed an amendment that the NoM should be withdrawn.
But when the Chief Executive summed up he used the word "deferred".
Even an untrained lawyer like Old Grumpy knows that there is a world of difference between withdrawal and deferral, so I asked for clarification.
Needless to say, none was forthcoming though what was clear to everyone was that, whatever the exact wording of the Leader's amendment, there would be no vote on the substantive issue of Cllr Griffiths' removal.
I am told that the precise words that will appear in the records are: "Resolved: that the issues referred to in the Notice of Motion be not considered at this time in view of the fact that the appointments to the various offices will be considered at the Annual Meeting of Council to be held on 20 May 2005 [the next day]."
This is rather neat because it encapsulates both withdrawal (be not considered at this time) and deferral (will be considered etc).
As someone once said: "I don't care who is in the majority as long as I get to write the minutes."
But, of course, this bit of verbal trickery conceals a straightforward deception because what was being "considered" on Thursday (the removal of Cllr Griffiths) was entirely different from what was "considered" on Friday (the appointment of committee chairs and vice-chairs).
In the event, Cllr Griffiths' suitability as vice-chair of the children's committee was never "considered" at all, because, at Friday's meeting, the Leader appointed him vice-chair of the environment committee.
This is not the first time that the Independent Political (sic) Group has resorted to these sort of tactics in order to stifle debate.
At last December's meeting, I was shouted down as I tried to make the case for the release of the Director of Finance's statement to the police in respect of Cllr Brian Hall's high speed dash from Magor to Pembroke Dock.
On that occasion the party resorted to using its majority to force through a motion that "the motion be now put" before I could even finish making my case for disclosure.
Having now obtained a copy via the Freedom of Information Act, I can see why the Independents wanted to conceal the facts from the public.
What should be understood is that, when the majority chooses to use its power to trample on the constitutional rights of the minority, they are treading dangerously close to the borderline that divides robust democratic debate from fascist bullying.
There are encouraging signs that some of the more thoughtful members of the IPG realise this, as witnessed by the fact that, before the debate was curtailed, two of them (Cllrs Stephen Watkins and Robin Evans) spoke out in favour of our NoM and when the withdrawal/deferral motion was put to the vote they were joined by four other dissenters (Cllrs Wynne Evans, Don Evans, Martin Davies and Henry Jones).
Six is a substantial rebellion in the synchronised voting ranks of the IPG.
Could it be they have taken the trouble to look up "independent" in the dictionary?

Selective amnesia

 

In his book "The Road to Serfdom" F J Hayek writes extensively about the dangers of political propaganda.
According to Hayek, political propaganda is inevitable, even in the most liberal of democracies but, provided both sides are at it, any seriously malign effects will be cancelled out.
The danger occurs when one party gains control of the organs through which propaganda is disseminated - newspapers and the broadcast media, in particular - as inevitably happens in one-party states like Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia; the subjects of the book.
That leads to what Hayek refers to as "The end of truth" - the heading on the chapter where this issue is discussed.
At last week's county council AGM, during the Chairman's review of his year in office, we were treated (for at least the tenth time) to the story of how the Western Mail had rated Pembrokeshire County Council the top-performing local authority in Wales.
What makes this piece of propaganda so effective is that it is true and I have the article; headlined "Rural council declared the best run in Wales" in front of me as proof.
However, before swallowing this story, whole, it is as well to have a look at the methodology which led to its results.
To reach its conclusions, the Western Mail gave each of the 22 local authorities a score based on its ranking in 75 performance indicators.
This is, at best, a rough and ready guide because no attempt is made to give weight to the relative importance of each of the indicators.
For instance an authority that was top of the league in "The percentage of pupils gaining GCSEs of grade C and above" and bottom for "The percentage of street lights not working" - two of the performance indicators used by the Western Mail - would score 23 points; exactly the same as an authority which was top dog on street lighting and bottom on education, though, I would suggest, few people will consider these two activities of equal importance.
Nor is any attempt made to weight the results by reference to underlying conditions.
For example, it is well known that educational outcomes are heavily dependent on social class so you would expect children in leafy, middle class Monmouthshire and Ceredigion to get more GCSEs than those in Merthyr Tidvil.
I invite you to consider the three activities that top the list of "parameters" published in the Western Mail.
1. The speed with which councils pay their own bills.
2. The percentage of council tax collected.
3. The proportion of senior management posts held by women.
Not the kind of issues, I suspect, that keep my constituents awake into the small hours.
By happy coincidence, the day after it published details of Pembrokeshire's table-topping performance, the Western Mail carried a report on something that might cause people sleepless nights: the Ombudsman's report into the treatment meted out to Mrs Stephanie Lawrence [Mrs Price] and her family by Pembrokeshire County Council's social services department.
The full report can be read at Ombudsman.
For the benefit of those who haven't the time to wade through all forty-odd pages, I can tell you that the watchdog found no fewer than 15 instances of maladministration in a report littered with words such as injustice, incompetence, grossly insensitive, lamentable, unfair, clumsy and ham fisted.
He concludes his report: " I find that there was repeated, prolonged and serious maladministration on the part of the council in its dealings with Mrs Price over the registration of her children and that this maladministration caused her, and them, injustice."
For some reason, the outgoing Chairman didn't mention a word about that.
Selective memory syndrome, perhaps.



Point of view

You often hear supporters of an ever more restrictive planning regime accuse housebuilders and other developers of wanting "to concrete over the countryside."
It was while flying low over Liverpool on the way back from the Isle of Man that it occurred to me that this concreting over stuff was a bit overdone because, even in a major city like Liverpool, it was noticeable that the green outweighed the grey
Of course, if you look at a map you will see Liverpool represented by a black splodge, but, as I noticed from my lofty perch, the reality is somewhat different.
That got me to thinking about the extent to which maps colour our perception of the world.
Quite a bit, I think.
A road map of the UK shows an extensive network snaking all over the country.
However, if you look more closely the width of the roads is represented at scales far above those for the rest of the map.
For instance, on my 1:760,000 map the motorways are drawn 1.5 mm wide.
Multiplying that by the scale gives a road width of some 1100 metres (three-quarters of a mile, approx)
A more realistic impression can be gained by consulting a 4 cm - 1 km OS map where, except in the more urban areas, roads will be found to be very few and far between.
Another source of false perception is road travel.
Because houses tend to be built in places where road access is readily available, you get a much greater impression of the world being one continuous built up area than if you travel by rail.
Myself, I prefer to stay at home where I can look out of my kitchen window and see the earthly paradise that is my vegetable garden.
To be honest, after three weeks, my appetite for freshly-dug new spuds is beginning to wane, and Old Grumpette is losing her enthusiasm for fresh strawberries on her morning cornflakes.
Still, mustn't boast, must we!

email: oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

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