9 November 2004

 

In concert

Sorry about the delay in posting this week's column, but Old Grumpette decided it would be a good idea if I had a dose of culcha with a visit to Prague.
I must say it is a very impressive and thriving city and it is difficult to believe that it is only 15 years since they threw off the Soviet yoke.
Last Saturday afternoon, after a brief consultation process, we decided to go to a concert given by a viola/flute/piano trio.
The conversation went as follows:
Me: "What are we going to do this afternoon?"
She: "We're going to a concert."
As I always say, making decisions together is the secret of marital harmony.
The concert started at 1pm, which coincides with the usual time for my post-lunch power nap (much more young and dynamic than an afternoon snooze) and as we went in Old Grumpette warned me not to besmirch the family reputation by dropping off during the Bach.
This was something of a tall order after a morning spent tramping around the tourist attractions and two pints of that heavy Czech beer with lunch.
Fortunately, the chairs were uncomfortable enough to discourage sleep.
However, half way through the musical entertainment, I could feel the eyelids drooping and from time to time I found myself in that wonderful never never land where sleep and wakefulness meet.
Luckily, the trio was playing a series of short pieces and several times the sound of clapping saved the day and we emerged into the icy breeze with the family honour, and the marriage, more or less intact.

 

Playing for time

Nothing could better reveal the constitutional warts on the face of local government than the current furore over the siting of a Tetra mast near Uzmaston.
A month ago, despite advice from the planning officer that the proposal was within policy, an application for a temporary mast on the same site was overwhelmingly rejected by the planning committee.
So when the application for a permanent facility came before Tuesday's committee meeting the decision was almost certain to go the same way.
According to the planning officer's report, Welsh Assembly guidelines suggest that if the mast meets the standards set by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), as this one does, then planning committees should give consent unless there are other planning policy grounds for refusal.
Three recent appeals, relating to refusals of Tetra masts on the Gower, all led to a successful outcome for the appellants.
In addition, a High Court judge has ruled that, in cases which are not decided on national policy guidance and technical advice, there is a strong risk that the decision will be overturned on appeal with the council being ordered to pay the costs.
Of course, these masts are hugely controversial and some 100 local residents turned up to Tuesday's meeting to make their opposition known.
However, as I have said a thousand times before,the planning committee is a quasi-judicial body whose only concern should be to apply the law to the case before it.
I know that a lot of people find it difficult to grasp, but public opinion is entirely irrelevant to the question.
Normally, in democracies these conflicts between public opinion and the law are dealt with by the separation of powers.
This means that public opinion, usually expressed through our elected representatives, determines what the law should be, while the adjudication of individual cases is undertaken by independent tribunals such as the courts.
In this case Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have decided that radio-telephony in all its various forms is, on balance, a good thing and, provided they meet the internationally agreed safety standards there should a presumption in favour of the masts required for its operation.
Unfortunately, where the determination of planning applications are concerned, we have a poisonous mixture of law and politics that really has no place in a properly functioning democracy.
Now, imagine you are the local member in this situation.
The advice of the officers is that the application should be approved and that, if the application is refused on the basis of non-planning considerations, the decision is likely to be overturned on appeal with the possibility that the council will be saddled with a sizeable bill to cover the appellant's costs.
The Code of Conduct, by which members are bound, requires that they must reach decisions "on the merits of the circumstances involved and in the public interest."
And there are a hundred of the people you depend upon for re-election sitting in the public gallery.
Really, elected members should not be put in that position!
The situation is given added poignancy by the fact that the member in this case is a member of the Cabinet, Cllr Islwyn Howells.
As it happens, contrary to the Western Telegraph's headline: "Mast gets go-ahead despite health fears" the application was deferred so that, we were told, a seminar could be organised to enable members to familiarise themselves with the technical and medical issues involved.
I suspect the real reason for the postponement was that the Leader had informed the Chief Officers Management Board (COMB) that he couldn't muster sufficient votes to get the application through and that the seminar ruse is a way of giving him more time to soften up the opposition.
Indeed, Old Grumpy is told that, on Monday afternoon, the Leader was running round County Hall trying to organise Labour group support for the proposal.
This exposes the fiction that the planning process is an objective judicial process because anyone trying to influence a jury in a proper court case would probably find themselves locked up.
And, of course, the application has been with the council for more than eight weeks - time enough to organise a seminar prior to Tuesday's meeting if that was considered necessary.
The deferment meant that we didn't get to hear what Cllr Howells had to say about the matter, but, judging from his performance when the temporary consent was debated, one can assume that he was about to make a heart-rending speech against the application.
Ditto, his Cabinet colleague, Brian Hall.
This gives rise to the curious situation where members of the Cabinet are, in effect, saying that the officers employed by their own council are a bunch of duffers whose advice is not to be trusted.
However, there is no reason to suppose that the planning officer, David Lawrence, gave the committee anything but sound advice.
Indeed, given the controversial nature of the application, coupled with the desire for a quite life, he would have every reason to recommend refusal if there were any grounds for doing so.
After the meeting Cllr Howells complained that Mr Lawrence shouldn't have warned the committee of the likelihood of costs being awarded against the council in the event of a successful appeal.
I would suggest that failure to give such a warning would have been a gross dereliction of duty.
If Mr Lawrence is right, what we will end up with, should Cllr Howells manage to persuade the committee to refuse the application, is the mast and a £15,000 bill for costs [PS. Actually this was a gross unerestimation because the council did lose on appeal and were ordered to pay £170,000 in respect of their own and other party costs]
The only person to benefit from that is Cllr Howells who, having fought the good fight, will leave the battlefield with the cheers of his constituents ringing in his ears.
This, I'm afraid, is nothing more or less than electioneering on the rates.
Not that I particularly blame Cllr Howells.
All members find themselves in this situation from time to time and the temptation to go with the electoral flow can be irresistible.
The long-term solution is for politicians to be restricted to making planning policy while the determination of individual applications is left to independent tribunals.
Unfortunately, the government's latest act of constitutional vandalism, which will see the transfer of the licensing of pubs from the Magistrates Courts into the hands of local politicians, seems to indicate that the tide is flowing the other way.


Fair cop?

 

My conversations with members of ruling party in the County Hall tea room convinces me that the concept of constitutional government is totally alien to most of them.
Then, I suppose, you shouldn't expect too much in the way of intellectual coherence from anyone who can't see the contradiction in being a member of something called the Independent Political (sic) Group.
So, given their limited grasp of constitutional principles, it must have seemed a brilliant idea to appoint ex-Chief Superintendent Cllr Don Evans as the IPG's representative on the police authority.
However, as I have pointed out before, the role of police authority representatives is to provide a layman's perspective and a former Chief Superintendent, whatever his virtues, is absolutely the wrong person for the job.
To make matters worse, the Independent Political Group has made Cllr Evans chairman of the licensing committee, where he will be frequently called upon to consider objections to licence applications from police officers - former colleagues, maybe - employed by the authority on which he serves.
It can only be a matter of time before one of the licensing committee's decisions comes up before the High Court for judicial review on the grounds of perceived bias.
I have attended one of Cllr Evans' committee meetings and I must say that the proceedings were conducted with exemplary fairness and regard for due process.
That, however, is not the point.
Nobody suggested that Lord Hoffman's connections with Amnesty International in any way affected his judgment in the Pinochet case; a mere perception of the possibility of bias was enough to have the decision overturned.
I am sure that a man of Cllr Evan's abilities could be found a more appropriate role.
Indeed, looking at the competition, it is somewhat surprising that he is not in the Cabinet.


The platitudinistas

I was pleased to hear the Leader confirm at Monday's Cabinet meeting that the County Council has no powers to instruct its representatives on the Fire Authority how to vote on the vexed question of the reorganisation of fire service provision in Pembrokeshire (see Direct elections) as required by a Notice of Motion submitted by Cllr Bill Philpin.
Instead the Leader tabled an amendment, approved by the Cabinet, that: "The council asks its representatives on the fire authority to demand that the safety of the public across Pembrokeshire is the paramount consideration in any reviews of fire cover arrangements which might be undertaken within the county."
As the sole purpose of the Fire Service is the safety of the public, this "form of words",as the Leader described, it is a platitude of which even Peter Stock would be proud of.

 

Progress by degrees

 

It is more than a year since I heard from the Professor, who used to email me regularly to correct my grammar, spelling and punctuation, and I had begun to fear that he had departed to the Great University in the sky.
However, a communication regarding last week's column seem to indicate that reports of his death have been exaggerated.
The Professor takes me to task over my article about the Leader's appointments to outside bodies, in particular my comments on the suitability of Cllr Islwyn Howells for membership of the Courts of Governors at various Welsh Universities.
As I said, Cllr Howells' register of interests records: "Kemes Lodge and other associated side degrees" which seemed like the perfect qualifications for the job of running our universities.
The Professor was not impressed with my logic.
"You surely know that Kemes Lodge refers to the freemasonry fraternity in the Fishguard area, and that 'side degrees' are masonic, not academic, qualifications.
Freemasons can study the more complex aspects of the movement's rituals and, as they become more knowledgeable, they acquire additional degrees - written, as in degrees centigrade.
To become a member of The Supreme Council requires 33 degrees, while you can join up to the Order of the Secret Monitor, or become a Provincial Principal Grand Sojourner, with rather fewer.
Opportunities for study and advancement continue throughout a mason's membership which would make Cllr Howells the ideal man to put in charge of 'Lifelong Learning'."

Thanks for that Prof - it just shows you're never too old to learn.

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