May 30 2006


Pot and Kettle

Last week, I wrote at length about the long-running fiasco surrounding the sale of the former Mine Depot at Blackbridge Milford Haven (see Mine Depot minefield).
An informant now tells me that MHPA chief executive Ted Sangster has complained to the county council that he finds this bid, counter-bid, counter-counter-bid, counter-counter-counter-bid situation, with no obvious conclusion, rather distasteful.
Clearly, his ethical objections must post-date October 2005 when he accepted the county council's invitation to submit a counter-bid even though MHPA had not participated in the original tender exercise.
Subsequently, MHPA trumped Cleddau Enterprises Ltd's (CEL) highest tender of £550,000 with counter-bid of £600,000 (later increased, for whatever reason, to £620,000) and, when CEL retaliated with an even higher bid, the council moved the goalposts by including extra land in the deal and MHPA came back with another, better, offer.
So it's a bit rich to find that Mr Sangster, who is head of the organisation who started this Dutch auction, is now complaining about its propriety.
Or does he consider himself subject to the same doctrine as the rest of the county's hierarchy - one rule for me and another for the rest of you?

Cross purposes

A dispute seems to have arisen regarding the role of senior county council Cabinet members in the drawing up of the two options for hospital services in Pembrokeshire by the acute services review project board (ASRPB).
What is not in question is that the Leader, Cllr John Davies, was present at the meeting of the ASRPB on 27 February 2006 and his Cabinet colleague Sian James (health and well-being) attended two meetings: on 6 February 2006 and 2 May 2006, in his stead.
The council's chief policy wonk, Phil Bevan, attended all three meetings, as the representative of the chief executive.
It was at these meetings that the final blueprint was agreed.
Since then there have been a series of well-attended public consultations where these proposals have gone down like the proverbial lead balloon.
Indeed, so far as I can ascertain, at the six public meetings, only two votes were recorded in favour of the ASRB's scheme and one of those belonged to ex-Cllr Roy Folland, who, before the electors of Haverfordwest tired of him, was Cllr Sian James' predecessor as guardian of our health and well-being.
Naturally, voters are interested to know what part their elected representatives played in the meetings where these options were selected.
After all, they were there, nominally at least, to represent the electorate's views.
What they had to say at these meetings is of particular importance because, now that public opinion has come down overwhelmingly against both the recommended schemes, Cllrs Davies and James are firmly in the anti camp.
It has been suggested that, if the Leader and Cllr James didn't voice their objections at the time, their more recent vociferous opposition is mere bandwagon-jumping.
According to the leader; quoted in last week's Mercury, they attended purely as observers.
"We were not invited to vote or advise in any way" he told the Mercury.
Our signature is not, in any way shape or form, on the Designed to Deliver document", he added.
However, Pembrokeshire Local Health Board seems to be singing from a different hymn sheet.
It website lists among the members of the Project Board:
"Leaders & CEOs – Local Authorities within the Region."

And among the functions of the Project Board members are:

"• To agree the Project Plan
• To oversee the implementation of the Project Plan by the Project Team
• To approve the proposals generated by the Project Team for public consultation."

And it records that members of the Project Board were also expected to:
"• participate in the stakeholder engagement events (see Appendix 5)
• ensure that the Boards of the organisations represented are kept appraised (sic) of the
progress of the Acute Services Review."
I can say with certainty that members of the county council have never been informed [apprised] of what was being proposed.
In the interests of clarity, I will be sending an FoI request to the Local Health Board seeking copies of the minutes of these meetings.

Mainstream maverick

A couple of weeks ago, I opened the Mercury to find one of my former colleagues describing me as a maverick.
A fine way of showing gratitude for all the cups of coffee I made for him over the years (he was thought to be allergic to kettles). However, on consulting the dictionary, I discovered that maverick (an unorthodox or independent-minded person) is not nearly as defamatory as I imagined.
After all, most of us regard independent-mindedness as a badge of honour.
I suppose it the the unorthodox bit that causes the problem because it conjures up the image of heresy or eccentricity.
The difficulty lies in the fact that what is orthodox differs in time and space.
For instance, there are primitive tribesmen who believe that eclipses of the sun can be terminated by the loud banging of drums.
This theory works because, every time the drums have sounded, the sun has emerged from the moon's shadow.
Were the Astronomer Royal to wander into the encampment while this was going on, and try to explain that the sun's reappearance was due to entirely predicable planetary motions, he would be regarded as something of a maverick.
Similarly, it had always been thought that organic chemicals could only be produced by living things (vitalism) but, in 1828, when the (maverick?) German chemist Wohler synthesised urea from inorganic materials, the old orthodoxy was overthrown.
Indeed, in the field of scientific discovery, instances where the old orthodoxy became the new heresy are legion.
What prompted the Mercury to attach the maverick tag was my attempt to have assistant Cabinet members removed from scrutiny committees.
These assistants are appointed to their special responsibility-bearing positions by the Leader, and can be disappointed by the Leader.
I also believe they attend the "informal" Cabinet gatherings where the party line is decided ahead of the official Cabinet meetings.
I would argue that, under the ancient constitutional doctrine of the Separation of Powers, and the rule of Natural Justice, which holds that a man cannot be the judge in his own cause, they are not suitable persons to undertake the role of scrutinising decisions made by the Leader and his Cabinet.
I am sure that, if you attended a convention of constitutional lawyers, you would find my views on this are mainstream.
Unfortunately, the 38 maverick members of the Independent Political Group refuse to see it that way.
I wonder how many of them still bang drums during solar eclipses?


Information blackout

Pembrokeshire County Council has again been featured in Private Eye's "Rotten Boroughs" column.
This follows recent reports on the Leader's 2,800 sq ft herdman's cottage and Cllr Brian Hall's appearance before the council's standards committee following an Ombudsman's report into a complaint that he threatened violence against a BBC journalist who had the temerity to investigate his dodgy relationship with the council's £450 per day, Irish-based economic development consultant Dr Michael Ryan (see Ryan-Hall).
This latest episode involves another critical Ombudsman's report into the granting of planning permission at 38 Prospect Place Pembroke Dock.
Under the heading "Open government - update", Private Eye quoted the following passage from the Ombudsman's findings.

It seems that the county hall shredder must be red hot because my socialist friend tells me that his FoI request for copies of Dr Ryan's reports on his economic development activities during 2000-2002 have been met with the response that "the council no longer holds any reports by Dr Ryan for that period."
Sounds more like a destruction of information policy, to me.

Pressing duties


A few weeks ago the Western Telegraph ran a thunderous editorial on sleaze among the political classes.
Unfortunately, the whole piece was given over to the Labour Government's legion of little local difficulties.
Quite why the WT felt it necessary to travel the 240 miles to London to find evidence of this sort of thing when a one-mile trip down Freemans Way would have sufficed is not altogether clear.
For instance, unless I've missed something, readers of the WT are still waiting to be told that an Ombudsman's report into Cllr Brian Hall's alleged threats against a BBC journalist came before the council's standards committee on April 5 where it was decided that there was a case to answer and that Cllr Hall would be given the opportunity to appear before a future meeting to challenge the Ombudsman's findings that his behaviour was likely to bring the office of councillor into disrepute (see Open secret).
And they can't claim not to know about it because the WT shares an editor with the Milford Mercury which splashed the story all over its front page.
And a recent meeting of the full county council (there are only five each year) which went on for more than four hours warranted only two small articles (on page 33) in the following week's WT.
How is democracy supposed to function if the local newspapers don't fulfill their duty to inform the electorate of what is going on?
A few weeks ago I listened to a piece on the Today programme during which presenter Ed Sturton; former Government information officer Mike Granatt; and editor of the New Statesman John Kamphner discussed the role of the press in a free society.
I was so taken by what they had to say that I played it back on the Internet and made a transcript.

Ed Sturton: When you were running the office of Government Information Services, and you put out a statement, did you find yourself saying: "I wonder how long that’s going to last before people discover what the real story is behind it?

M Granatt : Yes I did.But I’m absolutely amazed that how much journalists don’t delve behind what is being said to them these days.
I think one of the problems we face as a country is that there are fewer and fewer journalists who are prepared to do proper investigations.We should treasure those journalists who spend their time digging for the facts.

John Kamphner: That is a very welcome statement from Mike. It’s natural that governments want you to know certain things, but good investigative journalists should find out things that they don’t want you to know.

Ed Sturton: When doing your press officer job, Mike Granatt, did you accept, as you seem to if I read you rightly, that leaking is a reasonably healthy thing in some circumstances?

Mike Granatt: An oft asked question in Whitehall is: "What will we do if this gets out?" and, bluntly, that’s a pretty good way of making sure people behave themselves. I think a totally leak-proof government, that had complete control over all information, would be most unwelcome.

Ed Sturton: Don’t you have any sympathy at all with government?

John Kamphner: Well, I would if there was a torrent of leaks because government would be impossible if things couldn’t be discussed behind the scenes in a confidential way. But what we have is a trickle, which is only a tiny, tiny part of what the public ought to know. It is in the public interest that journalists should unravel the deeds and, more importantly, the misdeeds of government. A head of government information services once said to me that what really surprised him was not how much journalists discover, but how little, and how much goes across minister’s desks that the public ought to know about, but don’t.

Mike Granatt: We should also welcome the fact that there are civil servants who have consciences. People who see something go across their desk and say "Crikey! I can’t let this go through without the public knowing about it."

It's one thing to have a free press, but if the press don't use that freedom to, as one commentator put it: "speak truth to power" then we may as well be living in Belarus


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