November 14 2006

Sauce for the goose . . .

Old Grumpy notes that the county council's Cabinet has voted unanimously for a 60% hike in charges for trade waste collection.
This increase, it appears, is being imposed because the service is being run at a loss.
No doubt business people will be wondering just what it is they get for the £26 million the council received in business rates this year.
Defending this massively-above-inflation increase, county council Leader, Cllr John Davies, is quoted in the papers as saying that the council shouldn't be seen to be subsidising the private sector.
Whether farmer-John is a suitable person to be lecturing us on the undesirability of subsidies is another question.
After all, last year, his company, Cwmbetws Ltd, received over £12,000 in subsidies from the government, while his deputy, the other farmer-John [Allen-Mirehouse], did even better by pulling in £39,594.
And, to add little piquancy to the debate, could I point out that farms, though they are undoubtedly part of the private sector, are indirectly subsidised by being excused any obligation to pay business rates.

And for the gander

Things seem to have gone a bit quiet regarding the sale of the Mine Depot at Blackbridge Milford Haven.
However, Old Grumpy has been working away behind the scenes trying to find out what really went on.
One thing that interests me is the series of events that took place between 31 August 2005, the closing date for the first tender exercise, and 18 September 2005 when all the interested parties were sent a letter informing them that the first tender exercise had been abandoned and the council was now seeking offers for a smaller area of land.
One of the bidders who didn't have to wait until September 18 to be told that the site was to be retendered was Mr Peter Scott of Haven Facilities Ltd who faxed Bryn's [Chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones] office fax number at 7.45 am on 8 September seeking an urgent meeting (see Minefield).
A meeting was arranged for that same afternoon, when, according to the file note (see Minefield), the reason for the change of plan was explained to Mr Scott and his business partner Anthony Elletson.
Why Mr Scott had to travel all the way from Porthcawl, and Mr Elletson from Crickhowell, just to be told that, is one of life's abiding mysteries.
However, as I said above, the council wrote to all the interested parties on 18 September inviting them to participate in a second tender exercise with a closing date of October 7.
As an elected member, Old Grumpy was allowed to see the file and what immediately struck me was that all the letters were identical, bar one.
That was, of course, the one to Mr Scott which began: "Further to our recent meeting in County Hall and subsequent correspondence . . .".
Unfortunately, before I was allowed to inspect the file, this "subsequent correspondence" together with several other documents had been removed, so I submitted a request to the council under the Freedom of Information Act.
This was refused, as was my subsequent appeal, on the grounds that the information is "commercially confidential".
Naturally, I am curious to know how, at such a delicate stage in the bidding, it is possible, without undermining the integrity of the tender process, for commercially confidential information to be passing between the council and one of the interested parties, .
It will be interesting, in due course, to see what the Information Commissioner makes of my appeal.

Pot and kettle

Last week, I wrote about the county council seminar on global warming (see Overheated).
There was the, now, obligatory power point presentation and the first words flashed up on the screen were:"Global warming is now the most serious threat to our civilisation" (Tony Blair).
I think we were supposed to take this as the major premise from which all else followed, but anyone with a sceptical bone in his/her body can be excused for reacting to anything containing the word "threat" and uttered by Mr Blair, by carefully counting the spoons.
Another piece of Holy Writ was the Stern report which concluded that by spending 1% of GDP for the next 30 years we would, be able to head off a predicted 30% fall in GDP caused by a 5 degree rise in temperatures..
As several commentators have pointed out, Sir Nicholas' conclusions depend on combining the most starry-eyed costings for tackling global warming with the worst possible temperature increase predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) .
There were worthy presentations from various people about the county council's efforts to make sure people switch of lights etc in order to to meet our Kyoto commitments.
From my conversations afterwards, I gathered that some of my colleagues were mightily impressed by what they heard, however it is generally agreed that, even if the Kyoto targets are met in full, it will make hardly any difference to global warming.
That is because, even if the UK ceased burning fossil fuels tomorrow morning, it would take China (not a Kyoto signatory), which is opening a new coal fired power station on a weekly basis, a little over 12 months to make up the shortfall.
When I mentioned this, a member of the Labour group, who shall be nameless, piped up to say that our enthusiasm for cheap Chinese underpants was to blame for China's burgeoning energy use.
Send them back to the paddy fields, say I.
The young lady from the Energy Saving Trust, who was running the show, referred to me as "a global warming detractor", which is mild compared to some commentators in the USA who have likened sceptics to Holocaust deniers.
And, according to the Sunday Telegraph, Margaret Beckett has said they are the equivalent of Islamic terrorists and should be denied access to he media.
So much for freedom of expression!
Undeterred, I also pointed out that, in America, there was a good deal of scepticism about global warming.
Had I been asked, the names of Richard Lindzen, professor of atmospheric sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; professor Patrick Michaels, professor of environmental sciences University of Virginia; and Dr Roy Spencer, formerly of NASA and now with the University of Alabama, would have been prayed in aid.
Instead a lady environmental officer from the county council challenged me to say who was paying for these US scientists' research, because she understood they were funded by the oil industry.
I admitted I had no idea; adding that all I knew for certain was that Sir Nicholas Stern's report had been commissioned by Gordon Brown.
But what was most interesting was that, twelve or so years ago, I had met my interrogator in an entirely different guise.
At that time, she was in the pay of National Power as the PR person charged with running the campaign to burn Orimulsion - branded by local environmentalists as "the world's filthiest fuel" - at Pembroke Power Station.
As they say, there is no zealot like a convert.
PS If you are looking forward to sunbathing on Broadhaven beach on 1 January 2050, be warned; a Russian astronomer with the unlikely name of Khabibullo Abdustmator is predicting that, around 2012, the sun is due to enter a period known as a Maunder minimum, and that this will lead to a another Little Ice Age like the one we experienced in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Tricky business this weather forecasting!
In an attempt to put the facts about global warming as fairly as possible, I have posted a brief, very brief, account of the main issues at (Global warming).
There is a wealth of material on this fascinating subject on the Internet for anyone who is interested in familiarising themselves with the issues.

England's glory

As my nom de plume suggests, I have been around long enough to remember the last time the England rugby team won an international match.
And, to make matters worse, while the World Cup holders - let us not forget - struggle, the Welsh team goes from strength to strength.
After a very creditable draw against Australia, what amounted to Welsh second team completely outplayed the combined talents of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.
Just think, it wasn't too long ago that I could stop the conversation with the quip: "Just as well the whole of Samoa didn't turn up."
And, of course, after last Saturday's debacle, the list that follows the words "At least we've never been beaten by" will have to be shortened to: Canada, Romania, Italy and, in case anyone needs reminding, Western Samoa.
Good job England meet Italy at Twickers this season.
That said, in the 40 years that I have been away, my fellow countrymen seem to have lost the ability to lose gracefully.
The Daily Telegraph is full of articles by former internationals - some no great shakes, themselves - calling for Robbo's head.
Now, I know that rugby is a professional game, but that's no excuse for behaving like soccer fans.
To put matters in perspective, it should be pointed out that the All Blacks' thrashing of France was even more comprehensive than that handed out to England the previous week.
As for Argentina, they have beaten France in their last four meetings.
However, should Wales beat New Zealand in two weeks time, the dark glasses and the false beard might be due another outing.

Cold feat

One of the great fears about global warming is that it will melt the glaciers and polar ice-caps leading to catastrophic sea level rise.
And one of the phenomena that appear to show that this process is underway is the receding snows of Kilimanjaro.
However, some recent research indicates that the diminution of the mountain's snow-cap may, to some extent at least, be due to factors other than the rise in global temperature.
Ice, together with other substances such as iodine, naphthalene and solid carbon dioxide, can undergo a process known as sublimation whereby they pass from the solid to the vapour stage without ever melting.
Hence those moth balls (naphthalene) that shrink and eventually disappear without first forming a pool on the wardrobe floor.
The rate of sublimation of ice depends on a combination of temperature and humidity and the theory regarding Kilimanjaro is that deforestation of the mountain's lower slopes has lowered humidity leading to enhanced sublimation.
You can try this out at home by creating your own glacier.
All you need do is to place a plastic bowl brimful of tap water in the freezer.
Hint. To avoid spilling water all over the kitchen floor, first place the empty bowl in the freezer and transport the water in a large jug.
Inspect the bowl after a couple of days, when, if all goes to plan, the ice should be above the brim.
Inspect again after a month and you will find the ice has shrunk.
If that sounds too much trouble, take the tray of ice cubes out of the fridge/freezer and notice that the sections are no longer full to the top.
Indeed, if they've been in there for a long time, they may be almost empty.
Sublimation is also the cause of freezer burn - almost as big an oxymoron as Independent Political Group - because the process removes the moisture from the meat making it look dry and brown, almost as if it had been under the grill.

Dream on

Something has gone seriously wrong in Iraq, where the overthrow of Saddam, and his replacement with a western-style democracy, was supposed to bring dancing in the streets and peace everlasting (see Tony's gamble).
Instead we have hundreds of killings every week in what, to many observers, looks remarkably like a full scale civil war.
So why have the people of Iraq not grabbed democracy, and the prospect of freedom and justice that come with it, in both hands?
The answer, I think, is quite simple: Blair and Bush made the error of believing that democracy is the natural state of affairs - an easy enough mistake to make if you don't know any history.
However, a quick glance at our own past should convince you that democracy is something the people have always had to fight for.
That is becuase democracy is designed to limit power and the already powerful are not usually keen on the idea.
So, if you can rule Basra through the control of an armed militia, why would you want to subject yourself to the uncertainty and accountability of the ballot box?
And, even where the ballot box holds sway, elected politicians are eager to grasp the power that elections can provide, but are not so keen to observe the rules by which a properly functioning democracy seeks to curb the exercise of power.
A large part of Michael Burleigh's book The Third Reich is given over to a section entitled "The demise of the rule of law" in which he describes how, having risen to power through the ballot box, Hitler and his gang set about dismantling the German constitution from the inside.
The Nazis passed the Enabling Laws, which allowed the inner clique to alter the constitution without recourse to the Reichstag, which was, anyway, under Hitler's complete control.
As Burleigh observes: "In democracies, constitutional amendments are especially solemn moments; here they were easier than changing the traffic regulations."
And, he writes, Hitler and cronies "... routinely flouted those parts of the constitution still technically in operation."
Another thing that caught my eye was Burleigh's observation that fascist parties don't do policy-based politics.
Indeed, during the 1933 campaign Hitler ". . . made a virtue of having no concrete policies at all."
It is my long-held view that all elected majorities have authoritarian tendencies, by which I mean that they value getting their own way above any respect for the democratic decencies.
Part of the reason for this is that they make the serious locical error of believing that because they are in the majority they must be in the right.
They usually justify this belief by claiming that they are expressing the will of the people, though in a first-past-the post electoral system, this is rarely, if ever, the case.
For instance, Mr Blair controls a large Parliamentary majority on the strength of 36% of the vote (22% of the electorate) and the Independent Political Group on Pembrokeshire County Council hold an even bigger majority, proportionally, on an even smaller share of the vote.
At least Mr Blair obtained his votes on the basis of a manifesto.
And I am not aware that any Labour MPs denied any links with the party in their election addresses (see Party animals)
Of course, in a properly functioning democracy, with regular elections, this isn't a problem because, by highlighting abuses of power, a vigorous opposition, combined with a robust free press, can hold the majority ruling group to account.
Well, a man can dream, can't he?

Back to home page