November 8 2005


Useful idiots

An emailer takes exception to my claim that the Independent Group are merely a bunch of Tories operating under an assumed name.
He informs me that one prominent south county member of the group is a New Labour sympathiser with designs on the Parliamentary seat when Nick Ainger finally retires.
Not wishing to ruin a promising political career, I will not name this member, but what I can say is that when I ran this proposition past one of my Labour friends he told me "It's news to me."
However, my claim that the Independent Political (sic) Group is the Tory wolf in sheep's clothing does not depend on all of them being card-carrying or closet Conservatives.
Some are what Lenin called "useful idiots" i.e. people who lend their support to a project, which, if they thought about it, they would abhor.
Of course some of this support is the result of intellectual laziness but not a small amount is due to the fact that membership of this group is the surest route to a self-importance-boosting position and the special responsibility allowance that comes with it.

Under the influence

Yet another emailer has been in touch to comment on last week's article regarding "The Great Tarmac Scandal".
As he points out, the justification for all this unauthorised work was that it was merely a way of escaping the suffocating bureaucracy inherent in any democratic system in order to "get things done", which he describes as "a dangerously arrogant position held for exactly the same reasons by most dictators in the opening stages of their journey to absolute corruption."
I couldn't agree more.
As we know, much of this unauthorised expenditure was illegal because it involved the use of public money for non-public purposes, but, even if that wasn't the case, it would still have been wrong.
It is a truism that all budgets are finite, so the diversion of money from democratically agreed heads of expenditure into individual members' pet projects is a subversion of the democratic process itself.
Unfortunately, this sort of behaviour by members brings electoral reward.
It would be better if they spent less time influence-peddling and more on influencing policy.

Herd instinct

I have already reported what went on following the elections in June 2004 (see Night of the long faces).
From what I was hearing from around the county, I had high hopes that a fair number of the newly-elected independents would be um, er, independents.
It was therefore something of a disappointment to learn that all bar two of us had signed up to join the political group (see The Party).
Being naturally curious, I asked quite a few of them what had prompted this decision.
Invariably, the answer was that, in the absence of the IPG, the council would be dominated by the Labour group, though none of them could explain the arithmetical principles by which a group of 12 could dominate a council of 60.
However, I have no doubt that this deliberate misrepresentation of the rules governing political balance was the IPG's unique selling point.
I'm afraid I am now going to have to bore you with the legislation itself. The Local Government (committees and political groups) regulations 1990 states:
"A 'political group' comprises two or more members who have given written notice of their wish to be treated as a group.It must have a leader and a deputy leader."
Also, the legislation states: "Members of an authority are to be treated as divided into political groups when there is at least on political group in existence . . ."
Notice that what the legislation does not say is that the existence of one political group requires all the other members to join political groups.
It would be perfectly feasible for the county council to consist of three Lib Dems, in a political group, and 57 unaffiliated independents.
What the legislation requires is that, once two or more members form a political group, the allocation of places on committees must proceed according to certain rules.
"(a) That not all the seats on the body [committee etc] to which appointments are made are allocated to the same political group.
(b) That the majority of seats on the body is allocated to a particular political group if the number of persons belonging to that group is a majority of the authority's membership
(c)Subject to (a) and (b), that the total number of seats on all the ordinary committees of a relevant authority allocated to a particular political group reflects that group's proportion of the membership of the authority
(d) Subject to (a) and (c), that the number of seats on each body allocated to a particular political group reflects that group's proportion of the membership of the authority."

It is (b) where the confusion [misrepresentation] occurs because what the Independent Political (sic) Group try to claim is that Labour, which would be the biggest group in the absence of the IPG, would be entitled to the majority of seats on every committee.
But, of course, there is a world of difference between the biggest group and the majority group.
If, for instance, the council was made up of Labour (12) Plaid (5) Lib Dem (3) and 40 truly independent members, the council would not have a majority group and (b) would be redundant.
Seats on committees would then be allocated in accordance with (c) and (d) i.e. in proportion to the number of seats.
So Labour with 12 of the 60 seats would be entitled to exactly 20% of committee places.
Hardly a position of dominance!


New Maths?

Last week, I criticised the Ombudsman's tendency to believe everything he was told by local authorities (see Watchdog or lap-dog?).
The latest instance concerns the agricultural planning consent granted to county council leader, Cllr John Davies about which the authority told the Ombudsman:

"When it was discovered that the farming practices were changing, with a run down of the dairy herd, after the decision to grant permission by the Planning and Rights of Way Committee, an exercise was carried to evaluate whether the on-going levels of stocking and cropping would in themselves without the dairy herd, be sufficient to justify an additional dwelling in terms of the functional test and financial test and the conclusion was positive."

Whether the ambiguity in this sentence is deliberate, or merely a symptom of sloppy thinking, I cannot say, but, as it was the discovery that took place after the meeting of the planning committee, not the sale, the words "were changing" should read "had changed".
But what really sticks in the craw is the council's claim that, despite the disposal of the dairy herd, there was still an agricultural justification for the planning consent.
To justify an extra dwelling there needs to be some change in the "scale or nature" of the farming operation such as to require an extra worker to "live on the spot".
As, there had been no such change, and the farm that was generating "healthy profits" with its existing accommodation, I would suggest there never was any justification for an extra dwelling.
But, even if there was justification, originally, it was surely nullified by the sale of the dairy cows
Presumably, because there is to be an increase in the number of dwellings on the holding, that change must lead to an increase in the farm's labour requirements.
The farm's labour requirements are calculated on the basis of the number and type of stock on the holding and other factors such as the amount of land under cultivation, etc.
In making this calculation, a dairy animal is considered to require 36 hours of labour per year and a beef animal 16 hours.
According to the "agricultural justification form" submitted by Cllr Davies there were 165 dairy cows and 162 beef cattle on the farm.
Clearly, if the beef cattle were to be replaced by dairy cows, there would be a change in the "scale or nature" of the operation sufficient to justify a second dwelling.
But not even a spin machine as efficient as that of the county council can finesse the rules of arithmetic to conjure up a justification when the movement is in the opposite direction.
Indeed, to replace the 165 dairy cattle in labour terms would require 370 beef animals, which, added to the 162 beef animals already on the farm, makes 532 in all.
Rather more than a 350 acre farm can carry, I would suggest.
And, of course, that only brings the farm up to its previous speed and does not involve a change in the scale or nature of the farming enterprise sufficient to justify an extra dwelling.
It is worrying that a public body such as the county council should spin such a yarn.
But even more worrying is that the Ombudsman, who is charged with upholding standards in public life, should swallow it hook, line and sinker.

Code breaker

A week last Monday, I made a bet with my socialist friend that David Blunkett would be gone by the end of the week.
It was only a pint of bitter, but, in matters such as this, it is not the taking part, but the winning, that is important.
So it was with great pleasure that I emailed him on Wednesday evening to rub it in.
I informed him that, as Mr Blunkett had "done nothing wrong", my code of honour would not allow me to accept the pint.
However, as the code was entirely voluntary, I was going to take it all the same.


Yet another reader has emailed with reference to my use of the word "numpties", in last week's column, to describe members of the Independent Political (sic) Group.
"This word is not in my dictionary - what does it mean?" he asks.
It is not in my dictionary, either, so I must apologise for lapsing into north country vernacular.
However, as most of you will have gathered from both the context, and the sound of the word itself, it was not meant to be complimentary.
Below is what I think the dictionary definition might look like if there was one.
(occ. numbty)(pl -ies) n. dull, lacking sparkle (of a person) (Scots and N Eng slang) orig. unclear but prob compound word c.f. fantabulous (fantastic, fabulous) poss from numskull, nonentity.

back to home page