19 November 2002

In the Dark


I am now regretting my decision not to attend last Wednesday's public meeting, where the Welsh Assembly's less than complimentary review of the County Council's Social Services Department was unveiled.
I an reliably informed, by several of those who were present, that the Leader Maurice Hughes and Chief Executive Bryn Parry-Jones sat there looking rather sheepish as Sue Meade, the Assembly's inspector, outlined the Council's long list of failures.
One of the criticisms, I am told, was the lack of input into these important matters by our elected representatives.
This came as no surprise to Old Grumpy who has complained long and often about the tendency of the ruling Independent Political (sic) Group to supinely rubber stamp whatever the Chief Officers Management Board put in front of them.
This is especially true of the Council's budget setting process when members of the opposition who try to ask questions are routinely accused of nit picking.
On one memorable occasion the late Essex Havard stood up and announced that it was the officers who set the budget and not the members "thank goodness".
Amazingly, this abdication of responsibility was met by loud clapping and cheering from his Independent (so-called) colleagues.
The result is that the budget setting process is nothing more than the waving through of large sums of money for the officers to spend as they think fit.
So we have a situation where the head of the council's press office, Dai "Spin" Thomas can spend £25,000 a year on an economic development consultant without reference to the members, though it is difficult to see what economic development has to do with his department.
During my recent trawl through the authority's books I came across a series of massive grants to some of the county's leading tourism businesses and further research unearthed a classic example of the way in which members are kept in the dark.
Back in the summer of 2001 the Welsh Assembly gave Pembrokeshire County Council £1.2 million to distribute to non-agricultural businesses affected by the foot and mouth outbreak - agriculture being the subject of a separate scheme administered by the Assembly itself.
The Council's Policy and Resources committee met on 5 July 2001 to discuss the allocation of the funds.
One of the headings in the Director of Finance's report was;
"Tourism Marketing Campaigns
Pembrokeshire Marketing Initiative (various applicants) £290,907
Stena Line 96,600
Oakwood 50,000
Festival of Countryside 500"

And that was it. No mention of the use to which these grants were to be put or the conditions under which they were given.
During the meeting the members were told that a further bid for a £50,000 tourism marketing grant had been received from Irish Ferries and the final resolution read "That the allocation of grants to fund specified marketing campaigns (including by Irish Ferries) be agreed.
As the nature of these "specified marketing grants" was not specified in the Director's report I asked for details of the "Welsh Assembly criteria for qualifying for the above grants".
Back came the answer "General Financial Assistance. Section 2(1) Local Government Act 2000- discretionary power to do anything which is likely to promote or improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of its area", which was not the question I had asked.
Thanks to the wonders of the Internet I have been able to look up the Local Government Act 2000 and what Section 2(2) says is that a local authority has discretionary power etc.
A local authority is, of course, comprised of the members and it is difficult to see how they can exercise a discretionary power if members don't know exactly what it is they are doing to "promote or improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of their area".
My attempts to find out what this almost half a million pounds of taxpayers' money was used for have been met with a wall of silence.

Foot and Mouth Tourism Marketing grants awarded by Pembrokeshire County Council - August 2001

Stena Line .............................. £94,600
Irish Ferries, ........................... £50,000
Oakwood Leisure ................... £50,000
Coastal Cottages .................... £40,000
Folly Farm ...............................£40,000
Warpool Court Hotel................£40,000
St Brides Hotel, Saundersfoot ..£40,000
St Nons Hotel......................... £26,000
Frank B Mason....................... £26,000
Activity Wales......................... £26,000
SA Marketing......................... £13,000
PKP Leisure........................... £13,000
J and P Rees, Portfield Gate ... £13,000
Jalna Hotel, Saundersfoot ....... £13,000
Festival of the Countryside ...... £500

Why so much to so few?
For full details of foot and mouth payments see (Where the money went)


Dangerous precedent

An email has arrived from the Professor regarding last week's exposé of Cllr Bill Hitchings' dubious expense claiming practices.
Fortunately, the Prof seems to be in a much more mellow mood than the last time he got in touch.
Perhaps his doctor has given him something to ease his gout.
"In what other political system would someone with Hitchings' record be allowed to hold a highly paid, immensely influential position in the Cabinet?" he asks.
"Surely, the Leader who, I see from reading the Council's constitution on the Internet, has absolute powers in these matters, should give him the bullet".
Well Prof, the Leader has already given Hitchings the bum's rush from the Standards Committee after I threatened to highlight the obvious flaw in having someone with his previous form sitting in judgement of the conduct of others.
However, the Leader may have decided that sacking someone from the Cabinet for such transgressions might create a rather dangerous precedent.

See Pot and Kettle

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