November 22 2005

Compound interest

Last Thursday, I toddled along to County Hall to observe the proceedings of the county council's standards committee.
You might think this an unlikely spectator sport but, for an anorak like Old Grumpy, it made compelling viewing.
I have a longstanding interest in this committee because, last year, I put forward a notice of motion calling for the two members of the Independent (in the dishonourable sense of the word) Political (sic) Group on the committee to be replaced by independents (in the honourable sense of the word).
Currently the committee is made up of three independent members; one community council representative; and two from the ruling group.
The presence of these last two seems to me to offend against the principle of Natural Justice that holds that a man shouldn't be the judge in his own cause.
How on earth do you convince the public that justice is not only done but manifestly seen to be done when two members of the tribunal are sitting in judgment on their own party colleagues, or, for that matter, their political opponents.
Unfortunately, the Independent Political Group (IPG) didn't see it that way and my notice of motion was rejected.
Before Thursday's standards committee was a report by the monitoring officer into the activities of former IPG member and Fishguard town councillor Brian Howells.
According to the monitoring officer Mr Howells had breached the Code of Conduct by failing to declare an interest and then speaking and voting when an application for planning permission by the county council was debated at Fishguard Town Council.
The monitoring officer recommended that, before making a final ruling, the standards committee should give ex-Cllr Howells the opportunity to come before it and offer an explanation.
That didn't suit one of the committee's IPG members, Cllr Robin Evans.
"I feel very uneasy with the crucial [Fishguard] town council meeting and whether he declared an interest. I find it extraordinary if he didn't. He was an experienced councillor, and a cabinet member and former policeman, " he told the committee.
And, he might have added, until ex-Cllr Howells' demise at the 2004 elections, one of the IPG's representatives on the standards committee.
This "I find it hard to believe" line of reasoning (the Ken Rowlands' defence) as in: "I find it hard to believe that someone as rich as Conrad Black would risk 30 years in jail by systematically looting their own company for the sake a few extra million quid" is popular among my colleagues on the county council, though it has absolutely no basis in logic (See Misconceived).
During the investigation, former Cllr Howells told the monitoring officer that he was sure he had declared his interest and, according to Cllr Evans, the fact that it wasn't recorded in the minutes was because "The clerk was very negligent in his note taking" which meant that "whether or not he(Cllr Howells) declared an interest is open to debate."
What this shows is that members of the IPG have an almost infinite capacity to believe what they want to believe, whatever the facts.
Surely, if ex-Cllr Howells did declare an interest which the clerk had neglected to record, he should have asked that this deficiency be remedied when the minutes came up for approval at the next meeting.
And, if he had found time to read the monitoring officer's report, Cllr Evans would have known that whether or not ex-Cllr Howells declared an interest was largely beside the point.
In the particular circumstances of the case, the Code of Conduct requires the member to declare his interest, whereupon he can speak on the issue, but not vote.
The monitoring officer reports: "He [ex-Cllr Howells] has confirmed to me that he spoke on the matter and also voted upon it".
And, as the monitoring officer points out at paragraph 110 of his report: "Even if he had declared his interest, whilst he would have been entitled to speak upon the matter, he would not have been entitled to vote upon it."

Party animals

Old Grumpy rarely misses a chance to wind up the members of the IPG, whenever I come across them in the council tea room.
"How can you stand as an independent and then sign up for membership of a political party within a few days of the election?" is how I usually phrase it.
Invariably, they take exception to the words "sign" and "political party".
So when I put this question to one of them last week, he immediately denied signing anything other than the attendance register at the secret meeting following the election .
Fortunately, despite the efforts of the members of the IPG to deny the fact, there is such a thing as objective truth and Old Grumpy can provide documentary proof that all 38 of them signed on the dotted line, literally (see Party membership).
As for the "party" bit, they have something, but not much, of a point.
The correct statutory title is "Independent Political Group" (see Party membership) but when a group of people meet before every important council meeting to agree a collective view and then all vote the same way, it looks like a party to me.
If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck etc.


Free press?


Last week's Western Telegraph was something of a rarity in that it carried an interesting story.
This concerned £2,600 the cash-strapped local health trust had splashed out on an away-day at the Beggars Reach hotel.
Indeed, the WT has been giving the trust a right old going over of late, not only because of the recently-announced budget-balancing cuts but also over the fears expressed by senior hospital staff that Welsh Assembly plans for the reorganisation of health services in Wales could lead to Withybush becoming a glorified cottage hospital.
Old Grumpy has no complaints about that because it is surely the duty of a local newspaper to highlight these issues with a view to encouraging public debate.
What I find hard to stomach is the WT's apparent unwillingness to subject the county council to the same intense scrutiny.
Back in January, the Ombudsman published a report into the way the council's social services department had dealt with the family of Mrs Price [Stephanie Lawrence] in which he found no fewer than 15 cases of maladministration in a report littered with words such as injustice, incompetence, grossly insensitive, lamentable, unfair, clumsy and ham fisted.
He concludes his report: " I find that there was repeated, prolonged and serious maladministration on the part of the council in its dealings with Mrs Price over the registration of her children and that this maladministration caused her, and them, injustice."
This story was the subject of Wales this Week on ITV and was featured in the Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times and Western Mail, yet the best the Western Telegraph could do with it was tuck it away on page 27 (See - Don't hold the front page).
Two months ago, the Social Services Inspectorate for Wales (SSIW) produced a highly critical report on its investigations into the county council's children's services operations, particularly its dealings with at-risk children.
It was not a happy story, with six out of seven key indicators rated as inconsistent [unsatisfactory].
The Labour group called an extraordinary meeting of the council to discuss the report.
All that appeared in the Western Telegraph was an account of a spat between Cllr Bill Philpin and the leader, Cllr John Davies, but not a word about what the report actually said.
Previously, the WT had published a press release from Plaid Cymru leader Cllr Michael Williams calling for heads to roll over the failings in the social services department identified in the same report.
All that was missing was any information on the report's conclusions that might have helped readers to form a judgment as to whether Cllr William's demands had any merit.
That can be found at (Wake up call and Designer label).
Interestingly, the SSIW report identified lack of resources as a key factor in the council's underperformance.
As it happens, Old Grumpy has a number of invoices from the Wolfscastle Country Club; collected during my annual trawls through the council's accounts, for expensive social services' get-togethers of a similar nature to the Beggars Reach bash.
Also in my possession are invoices running to tens of thousands of pounds for the staff "bonding sessions" held at the Fourcroft Hotel in Tenby.
And bills for similar amounts for the photographs of Cabinet members that regularly accompany the press releases published in the WT.
I am not the least bit proprietorial about these items and, if the editor of the Western Telegraph wants to run a campaign to highlight the amount of money wasted, on these and other boondoggles, that should be spent on front line services, I am only a phone call away.

Number's game

It is forty-odd years since Old Grumpy did hard sums at university, so, while I know that the second law of thermodynamics rules out the possibility of building a perpetual motion machine, I can be forgiven for being unable to remember why.
However, even this imperfect knowledge probably makes me one of the least mathematically-challenged of the members of the county council.
So, when I received an email from the county council containing calculations supporting its assertion that the Leader's company would still have qualified for an extra agricultural dwelling at Cwmbetws Farm even if the council had known of the sale of his dairy cows, my ears pricked up.
Briefly, Cwmbetws Farm is a holding of 350 acres of which 73 acres is given over to rough woodland and growing cereals, leaving 277 for grazing cattle..
By way of a complicated calculation, the council conclude (correctly) that the current stocking rate for beef cattle on the farm is 1.44 per acre.
277 x 1.44 = 400 (as near as makes no difference).
However, the council claims that 1.7 per acre is the more normal stocking rate which means the farm could carry 595 cattle.
Now, as the mathematicians among you will have already noticed, while 595 is, as near as dammit, half as much again as 400, 1.7 is only about 15% more than 1.44 (Shum mishtake here!shurely).
The cow's in the corn, I'm afraid.
The correct number of cattle is 1.7 x 277 = 470
Without boring you with the all the detailed sums, I can say that the labour requirement with these 470 hypothetical cows is 11,208 hours/annum which divided by 2,200 (1 man/year/hours) = 5 labour units.
According to the council this means there is a functional requirement for a second dwelling "by a significant margin".
Now the beauty of numbers, as opposed to words, is that they can't be spun.
So, if 2 + 2 = 4 and 4 + 4 = 8 then 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 must equal eight.
Armed with the council's numbers we can now take a short trip down the road to Ffos-y-ficer, where, you may remember, planning permission for an extra dwelling was refused.
According to the council's calculations based on the stocking levels on this much bigger farm, there is a requirement for 15 labour units (man/years).
As there are already three dwellings on the farm, that works out neatly to five workers per dwelling, exactly the same as the situation at Cwmbetws with the 470 hypothetical cows.
However, with the building of an additional dwelling at Cwmbetws that ratio will be reduced to 1 - 2.5.
Had the extra dwelling been allowed at Ffos-y-ficer the ratio there would only have been 4/15 = 1 - 3.75.
And we're all supposed to be equal before the law!
Next week I will explain how every 150 acre dairy farm in the county is entitled to a second dwelling.

No deal

Old Grumpette has offered me a deal which will allow me to hang on to the Vectra (see Italian job ).
"Look", she said, "you can keep the car as long as you do something about the front."
This is a reference to the rather unsightly crazy-paving which she wants replaced by these fancy paviors that seem to be all the rage these days.
If she thinks I'm going to fall for that, she has another think coming.
It don't need to be Mystic Meg to work out what comes next.
Something like: "It's a shame to see the look of that nice paving spoiled by that scruffy old car."
Nice try, but no thanks!
Having spent all last week monitoring the temperature in Naples on the Daily Telegraph's weather page, Old Grumpette is feeling particularly smug at the moment.
While we were there it was in the low seventies every day, but one day last week it was two degrees C colder than Aberdeen and on several others you would have been more comfortable in her native Isle of Man.
I put this down to luck, but, as Old Grumpette was responsible for making all the arrangements, she is, naturally, claiming good judgment.
At least it should have wiped the self-satisfied look off the face of the retired environmental health officer type who was boasting to us on our day of departure that he'd negotiated an extra week for just a hundred quid.
Mind you, he looked the sort of careful fellow who would pack thermal undies for a trip to the Congo.
One thing I forgot to mention last week was that the £150 hotel bill included three meals a day with unlimited quantities of free wine, and we had the best room in the hotel - second-floor, corner location with his and hers balconies - one facing the Med and the other looking straight down the beach.
How they knew I was a county councillor, I simply don't know.
While touring Pompeii, the guide told us of a money saving scheme that might have a place here in Pembrokeshire.
Apparently, all the local notables had their statues in pride of place around the forum.
Rather than replace the whole statue when a politician fell out of favour, they simply sawed off the marble head and replaced it with a newly-sculpted likeness of whoever had usurped his position..
I'm sure it would save the county council a good few bob, if, instead of hanging a framed picture of the the new chairman on the wall, they just stuck it over that of the ex.
However, I realise there is a risk in sowing these ideas in the minds of the ruling junta, so, if you notice statues of Peter Stock, Brian Hall et al springing up along Freemans Way, remember where you read it first.


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