November 19 2009


Story telling

Old Grumpy's interest was aroused by the rare excursion into the land of political controversy in the Western Telegraph's front page story.
This involves the £67,000 paid by Pembrokeshire County Council to consultants Buchanan for a review of parking charges across the county - expenditure described by former county councillor, now Assembly Member, Joyce Watson as a waste of money.
Leader of the Independent Political (sic) Group, Cllr John Davies, counters that the consultants were engaged "following a recommendation from a scrutiny committee" and that, as Mrs Watson was leader of the county council's Labour Group at the time the report was commissioned "She could have voiced her opposition then and even called-in the decision, but didn't do so."
In its editorial the Western Telegraph is broadly supportive of Mrs Watson's stance; pointing out that the £67,000 could have been put to some more useful purpose than "paying consultants to come up with a spectacularly unpopular and unviable scheme to extend charges for car parking across the county."
However, the editorial refers to the leader's criticism that Mrs Watson should have spoken out at the time, adding "and he has a point."
Would it be churlish to suggest that the county's premier newspaper might also have had something to say on the matter "at the time"?
After all, if it is now worthy of a front page splash it was surely worth at least a mention when it actually happened.
Even more worrying is that this juicy little story might have passed beneath my own radar.
But my researches in the council's minutes seem to indicate that neither Mrs Watson, the WT, or Old Grumpy "missed the boat", as the paper's editorial puts it, with regard to this issue, and that the account given by the leader, involving scrutiny committees and opportunities to call-in the decision to appoint consultants, is largely a product of his own imagination.
The story begins at the June 2006 Cabinet meeting when members voted unanimously to approve a recommendation by the director of highways that parking charges should be imposed across the county.
This decision raised a storm of protest and it was called in by the environmental scrutiny committee at the request of four of its members (Cllrs Tom Tudor (Lab) Rhys Sinnett (Plaid) , Bill Philpin (Lib Dem) and Ken Rowlands (then Labour, now IPG and a member of the Cabinet which is pressing for the charges to be introduced).
The scrutiny committee endorsed the Cabinet decision by six votes to five.
Nowhere in the scrutiny committee minutes, it should be said, is there any mention of a recommendation that consultants should be employed.
Having been given the green light by the scrutiny committee the cabinet was free to press ahead with the imposition of the charges.
But by now, with Milford Haven Chamber of Trade to the forefront, opposition to the proposals was building up a considerable head of steam and the Cabinet decided to have another look at the matter.
This was dressed up as "addressing people's concerns", but cynics like myself suspected it was a ploy to kick the issue into the long grass until after the elections which were just over a year away.
In any event, at its meeting on 5 February 2007 the cabinet resolved: "That a twelve month review of off-street and on-street parking usage levels together with retail activity in town centres be undertaken . . . and that a further report be submitted to Cabinet on completion of the prescribed work."
Nowhere in the report on which that resolution is based, is there any mention of employing consultants or that it would cost £67,000.
So what grounds were there for the, then, Cllr Joyce Watson to have the decision "called-in"?
However, given the leader's claim that Mrs Watson was "Labour Group Leader on the council at the time the report was commissioned" it occurred to me that I might have missed something.
The council's standing orders require that all contracts over £40,000 in value are reported to Cabinet on a six-monthly basis.
Between 5 February 2007, when the Cabinet agreed to the review, and Mrs Watson leaving office in May 2008, there were two such reports to Cabinet (June 2007 and December 2007) and in neither case is the contract with consultants Buchanan reported.
Just to be sure that there was no boat to miss, I have also trawled though all the minutes between February 2007 and the end of Mrs Watson's term as a county councillor (how I suffer for my art) to make sure that the Cabinet hadn't separately resolved to employ these consultants.
No luck there either.



Tarnished halos

Do Green Products Make Us Better People?
Not according to psychology researchers Nina Mazar, and Chen-Bo Zhong of Toronto University who found that, while thinking about green products improved our behaviour, actually buying them made us more likely to lie, cheat and steal.
Mazar and Zhong conducted an experiment involving 56 student volunteers half of whom were shown pictures of an organic food store and the other half a conventional store.
In a subsequent sharing game those given the green experience were found to behave much more altruistically than their counterparts.
In another experiment 90 student volunteers were randomly assigned to either a conventional or organic food store, given 25 dollars each and asked to make purchases via a computer screen.
Then, in an apparently unrelated test, they were shown 20 dots on a screen and asked to decide which side of a diagonal line contained the most dots.
Participants were paid 0.5 cent for each trial identified as having more dots on the left and 5 cents for each trial identified as having more dots on the right.
The dots were always arranged such that one side clearly had more dots than the other side
Thus it was fairly easy to identify the correct answer. It was emphasised that it was important to be as accurate as possible because the results would help design future experiments.
An earlier dry run had established that the rewards would be paid regardless of whether the answer was correct.
The experiment was set up to give 40% right and 60% left and when the results were analysed it was found that the conventional shoppers had selected in the ratio 42.5 : 57.5 while the greens had filled their boots to the tune of 51.4 : 48.6.
Even worse, when participants were invited to take their winnings, displayed on the computer screen, from an envelope, apparently unsupervised, the greens stole 48 cents more than the conventionals.
The theory is that, having done the ethically "good" thing by buying green products, the participants felt this gave them licence to behave badly in other directions.
As my grandma used to say: there's nowt so queer as folk.
And, if you have any of your eco-enthusiastic friends round for dinner, be sure to count the spoons.

All wind

I notice three letters in the WT extolling the virtues of wind power and supporting the proposal to build four "state-of-the-art wind turbines" between Milford Haven and Neyland.
Two of these letters give addresses in the Newport area, but when I typed "Pro-wind farm campaign - Newport (Pembs)" into Google, predictably the search engine came up with "no results".
Indeed, I seem to recall a huge row in Newport recently when someone built a house a couple of feet higher than was shown on the plans.
Yet windmills with a maximum height of 105 metres are OK for us down here.

Egg roll

You now the theory that eggs are shaped like they are to prevent them rolling off ledges.
Well, Grumpette has just demonstrated that this doesn't hold for kitchen worktops and, as I write, she is busy cleaning the yolk off the floor.
As this was the last egg in the box it'll have to be bacon and . . . for breakfast.
This reminds me of the old saying that tries to see the bright side of poverty.
"If we had some ham, we could have some ham and eggs, if we had some eggs."

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