May 30 2013

 

Information blackout

As anticipated, my request under the Freedom of Information Act for copies of documents concerning property grants in Pembroke and Pembroke Dock has been turned down by PCC.
The council informs me that the information requested is exempt under "Section 43 (2) Commercial interests" because "its disclosure under the Act would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of any person (including the public authority holding it)"
Therefore: "Having considered the public interest, the Authority's decision is to withhold the information".
Why the public should be denied knowledge of how more that £900,000 of taxpayers' money is being spent it not altogether clear to me though it should be said that public bodies tend to have a different idea of the public interest than we ordinary folk.
I have lodged an appeal which will, in due course, be determined by the council's own review panel.
I have passed this way several times before and you will not be surprised to hear that the review panel has invariably upheld the original decision.
If, as expected, the council persists in its refusal disclose the information, I will have to lodge a complaint with the Information Commissioner.
The problem is that with a month to determine the initial request and another month for the review panel to reach its decision and several more months while the Information Commissioner considers the matter, it is likely to be Christmas before it is finally resolved one way or the other.
However, the council did provide me with the minutes of the two meetings of the Commercial Property Grants Panel which met on 7 and 8 August last year and agreed to recommend to the Cabinet that these grants should be approved.
What these minutes seem to indicate is that the Panel shared many of the same concerns that I highlighted some weeks ago.(Taken for granted).
The first item in the minutes refers to professional fees.
It reads: Discussion about the use of Kinver Kreations architects by Cathal McCosker. As the fee payment is under 5k in all applications there is no need to go out to competitive tender. The applicant is paying the additional fee which in terms of the Grant Scheme is ensuring excellent value for money. The only down side is that this investment is not being recognized even through it is actually ‘induced investment’.
According to the council's procedure manual, professional fees are usually charged at 8 - 10%of the contract price. If professional fees exceed £5,000, the applicant is required to obtain quotes from at least three architects. As we can see from the minutes the fees in the grant applications were in each case less than £5,000 so, provided he paid the bill for the extra, Mr McCosker was free to use Kinver Kreations without needing to obtain quotations.
Fees are only payable on that part of the work which is eligible for grant aid which in the case of the five McCosker/Kinver Kreations/G & G builders contracts listed at (Taken for granted) comes to £674,771 or at 8-10% = £53,981 - £67,477.
The grant aid claimable on these fees at the going rate of 60% is between £32,388 and £40,486.
The grant aid claimed by Mr McCosker is £15,000 (60% of 5 x 5,000 (£25,000).
So, by employing Kinver Kreations, he gave up somewhere between £17,388 and £25,486.
All other things being equal, that doesn't strike me as a very good deal.
As the minutes say, it is good deal for the taxpayer though "the only down side" is that the expenditure Mr McCosker is apparently funding from his own pocket doesn't get recognized as "induced investment", or match funding as it is sometimes known.
The panel also seems to have shared my concerns about the ubiquity of G & G builders in these Kinver Kreations/McCosker grant applications because item 2 of the minutes reads: The Panel agreed that it would be good practice to request that an internal PCC QS check one of the Tenders from G&G Builders.
I have put in an FoI request for a copy of this report by the council's quantity surveyor.
As it is an internal council document, I am assuming commercial confidentiality won't be an issue.
And the panel seems to have anticipated that questions might be asked about these grants because item 3 records:
SJ [Dr Steven Jones Director of development]highlighted the importance of keeping minutes from the Grant Panel meetings and justifications for decisions, should the information be requested from Cabinet/ Councillors.
And item 4 calls for the development of a matrix "to summarise previously approved applications to ensure consistency".
This is a wise precaution because the only consistency I have been able to detect is that grants involving the McCosker/Kinver Kreations/G & G builders axis are, on average, treble those for other combinations of client/architect/builder.
One of the issues I raised in (Taken for granted) was the large amount of ineligible (private) work included in the M/KK/G&G tenders.
This seems to fly in the face of the council's own procedure which requires that: "The specification should be agreed prior to the applicant obtaining quotations . . ." and ". . . the specification should be agreed and approved prior to going out to tender."
Of course, if the specification was agreed and approved before tenders were obtained the private work element wouldn't be there at all.
But in the case of the five M/KK/G&G applications listed at (Taken for granted) the private work, which had nothing whatsoever to do with the grant application, totals £460,000.
Rather than seeing this as a problem the panel presents it as a virtue.
This additional "induced investment" the minutes say: ". . . needs to be highlighted to GVA [Grant Validation Auditor, or some such] who need to take it into consideration whilst undertaking their evaluation; as ERDF is being used to lever in significant investment in the area."
I'm not sure this is a valid argument because the work is a purely private matter between the client and the builder and the council has no way of knowing the it is ever carried out.
Interestingly, a couple of weeks ago the Today Programme had a feature on residents in the high value areas of Kensington and Chelsea, where you don't get much for less than a couple of million, who were extending their living space by excavating large basements underneath their homes.
As you can imagine, this is an costly business and it was reported that that such subterranean extensions can cost as much as £500 per sq ft (£112,500 for a modest fifteen-foot square living room).
Contrast that with a run down town like Pembroke Dock where the lowest tender for refurbishing 35 sq m (350 sq ft) of retail space at 25 Dimond Street was £227,000 which as the mathematicians among you will already have worked out comes to close to £650 a sq ft.
It is worth noting that the highest bid in this "competitive tendering" exercise was £277,000, or, give or take a few solid gold sanitary fittings, £800 per sq ft.
Being blessed with an inquiring mind, and having spent a good part of my life in the construction industry, I am eager to learn how this all works.
Consequently, I have put in an FoI request for an unpriced copy of the specification - no question of commercial confidentiality, there, I hope - and I will let you know how I get on.
And, in respect of consistency, it is worth noting that, under the same grant scheme, just up the street at No 31 Dimond Street (former HSBC bank) 98 sq m (980 sq ft) of retail space is being refurbished for £66,485, or £67 per sq ft, which works out at roughly one-tenth of the cost of its near neighbour at No 25.
Makes you wonder!!

Age concern

 

There has been a good deal of less than complimentary comment on the Western Telegraph's website about the Labour party's decision to adopt Neyland councillor Paul Miller as its candidate for the next General Election.
Some of these criticisms have homed in on Cllr Miller's youthfulness - he is a mere stripling of 25.
None of this should concern Cllr Miller.
He might point out to his critics that William Pitt the Younger was only 24 when he became Prime Minister in 1783, though, as Pitt was a Tory, he might not wish to push the comparison too far.
Furthermore Pitt snuffed it when he was just 46 so that might be another reason for downplaying the connection between youth and political success.
Cllr Miller might prefer to cite the example of Adam Smith who was brought up by a single mum - his father having died just a few months after birth - who went to study moral philosophy at Glasgow University at the tender age of 14.
Though, as Smith's writings were the antithesis of socialist economic planning, Cllr Miller might not want to hold him up as an example of youthful success.
However, Smith was a severe critic of the Combination Acts, which outlawed trades unions, on the basis that, if the bosses could combine to set wage rates, it was only right that the workers should be allowed to combine to resist.
I can't, offhand, think of a socialist who rose through the ranks at a very early age, though they do probably exist.
If not, Cllr Miller will have to rely on that old sporting adage - if you're good enough you're old enough.
And judging by his bowling figures (2 for 45) in last Saturday's match between the Haverfordwest and Neyland seconds, I wouldn't be surprised if he can rely on the support of the vast majority of the county's batsmen.
Though his match winning innings of 5 (not out) may not endear him to the bowlers.

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