Hot air

Last week's meeting of the county council's Policy and Resources Committee was mainly concerned with a debate on the growing of GM crops at Mathry.

The fact that members were advised at the outset by their top lawyer, Huw James, that they had "no jurisdiction" in the matter, didn't prevent them from banging on for almost an hour.

First up was Plaid Cymru's Mike Williams who said he was "horrified" by the proposals.

I may have dozed off during Cllr Williams' oration but I'm sure I heard him call for a "ban on orgasms on council property" - not much fun for council house tenants, who already have to put with high rents and long waits for repairs, I thought.

After the laughter had died down, it transpired that what had meant to say was organisms - just shows the dangers of reading from a prepared script

This idea was quickly stamped on by chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones who pointed out that the occupants of council-owned farms had tenancy agreements and it was not within the authority's powers to unilaterally vary these contracts.

Cllr Phil Llewellyn (Tory) had obviously been thinking deeply about the issue. He claimed that a Scottish local authority had decided that growing GM crops was not the same as farming and that the landowners needed planning permission for change of use.

He urged the issuing of a stop notice pending an application for change of use from farming to chemical experiment.

Again, Mr Parry-Jones was ready with the bucket of cold water, pointing out that Cllr Llewellyn's "novel proposition" could have legal consequences which might land the council with a large bill for compensation.

I should point out that judgments in the Law Reports are peppered with the term "novel proposition" which is polite judicial-speak for twaddle.

I have often used the term myself, most recently in respect of Mr Roger Barrett-Evans' interpretation of planning law during the Enfield fiasco.

Before that I had cause to use the phrase after Mr Parry-Jones persuaded members to go into secret session by advising that discussing directors' pay in public could lead to the council being sued for breach of an implied term in the directors' contracts.

As I pointed out at the time, councillors are given an absolute discretion to discuss matters in public by section 100 of the local government act 1972.

"Mr Parry-Jones was putting forward the 'novel proposition' that a statute can be displaced by an implied contract term", I wrote.

It would seem, therefore, that when it comes to "novel propositions" their effectiveness depends on who is promoting them.

Old Grumpy also notice that, a few minutes earlier, two planning consents - the beekeeper's house at Wiston and a large shed in a residential garden in Johnston - both supported by Cllr Llewellyn - were nodded through despite clear advice from officers that they were against policy.

Ignoring the law where it does apply, and attempting to stretch it to fit cases where it manifestly doesn't, smacks of petty tyranny to me.

But at least Cllrs Williams and Llewellyn made some attempt to find a legal solution to the problem, however far-fetched. Not so Labour leader Joyce Watson who launched into a politically motivated denunciation of all things Conservative.

According to Cllr Watson, GM crops at Mathry were all the fault of the wicked Tories who had signed up for some European Directive way back in 1994 leaving the present government with no option but to allow the trials to go ahead.

And, to make matters worse, the landowner, she whined, "is a former Tory MP, an anti-European, who wants to make as much money as possible without any consideration for anyone else."

"I don't expect anything better from an ex-Tory MP". She added for good measure.

Or an ex-Labour Paymaster General, I suppose.

Her solution was to put pressure on the landowners by writing a letter "respectfully requesting" that they don't go ahead.

Why anyone should desist from doing something perfectly lawful at the behest of an ethically-bankrupt county council which can't even obey its own planning rules, she didn't explain.

The quality of the debate was aptly summed up by Cllr Rev Emyr Jones (Ind) who asserted that if Cllr Watson "is trying to make the issue into a political football, she's on a losing wicket".

It was left to Cllr Bill Philpin (Lib Dem) to bring some semblance of common sense to the proceedings.

"I've never known so many people clutching at straws as this morning," he said.

The idea of using planning law was "ridiculous" he said, and it was "absurd" to spend an hour discussing something over which the council had no jurisdiction.

"Please keep out of issues where we have no jurisdiction, otherwise we will make fools of ourselves," he concluded.

Too late Bill! You should have spoken first.

Independent or what?

The other matter to exercise the members' collective intellect was the composition of the soon-to-be-established Standards Committee.

It is more than 12 months since members last discussed this issue when they decided to set up a five-person committee comprising an outside chairman, three from the ruling Independent Political (sic) Group and one Labour member.

The Welsh Assembly, seeking to head off this in-built ruling group majority, has now sent out a consultation paper, suggesting that at least half the members of the committee should be independent of the council.

Inevitably, there was some confusion between independents (outsiders) and Independents (insiders from the ruling group).

During the debate, the Leader, Maurice Hughes, suggested that they should stick to the previous arrangement ie. a 3:2 Independent Political (sic) Group majority.

Labour argued that, as the chief objective was to restore public confidence in local government, the majority should be independents (outsiders).

Surprisingly, when the matter was put to the vote, the Labour resolution was carried by 15-0, leaving Old Grumpy to wonder, not for the first time, whether some of the Independents fully understood what was going on.


Last post

As Tony Blair prepares to call a general election, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook is in Berlin, trying to keep the lid on the row which has blown up over Chancellor Schroder's plans for a European Government.

Meanwhile, Gordon Brown is in Brussels, asserting the UK's right to run its own economy in the face to calls from our European partners for him to curb public spending.

Much of this is posturing designed to reassure a largely eurosceptic public ahead of the forthcoming poll.

Once safely reinstalled, expect Mr Blair to drive on relentlessly towards the single currency and political union..

So enjoy the upcoming General Election - it may be the last meaningful one we ever see.


Monkey business?

A friend has drawn Old Grumpy's attention to an article in last week's Mercury in which Gloria Walters of the Federation of Small Businesses is reported complaining that top County Council officers declined to attend a recent forum on 'Barriers to Growth' in Pembrokeshire, to explain the authority's economic development policies.

Instead, the Federation had to make do with the Council's Deputy Leader John Allen-Mirehouse and Chairman of Highways Brian Hall.

My friend says this is like someone, given access to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, grumbling that they would have preferred the Head of the Civil Service.

Surely, my friend says, the Council's economic development policies are those devised by our elected politicians i.e. Cllrs Allen-Mirehouse, Hall and the rest of the ruling Independent Group.

Sadly, this is not true.

During all the hundreds of hours I have spent observing Council meetings I cannot recall a single occasion when a policy initiative has been put forward by a member of the ruling group.

So, Mrs Walters was quite right to be disappointed that the organ grinders stayed away.

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