October 10 2006

 

Class apart

 

Old Grumpy's predictions about the outcome of the selection process for a local authority member of the Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA) board proved well wide of the mark (see Self-selecting).
And, it seems, I have also seriously underestimated the successful candidate Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse (Eton and up-market cow college) who I had always regarded as living proof that, where education is concerned, there is no necessary connection between expenditure and outcome.
But I was clearly wrong because, according to no less a luminary than MHPA chairman Bob Clarke, Squirehouse was "head and shoulders" above the three rival candidates and MHPA are "lucky to have him".
I must admit that the image of a colossus-like Cllr Allen-Mirehouse bestriding the MHPA boardroom had passed beneath my radar.
However, my predictions were not based my subjective assessment of his abilities, or lack of them, but upon the rather awkward fact that, last December, the Ombudsman produced a report which alleged that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse had breached Pembrokeshire County Council's Code of Conduct by failing to declare an interest during a Pembrokeshire Coast National Park debate on the controversial "homes for locals" policy..
That report is presently with the Adjudication Panel for Wales which will be the final arbiter.
Details can be found under "Tribunal register" on the Adjudication Panel's website www.adjudicationpanelwales.org.uk
According to Bob Clarke, MHPA knew about Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's brush with the Ombudsman before it decided to recommend his appointment to the Department of Transport (DoT) and MHPA "was content that this had no bearing on on our considering him for a port authority position."
Of course, the interesting question is whether this was also known to the DoT which actually made the appointment.
I have written to DoT seeking clarification on this point.
As the person who lodged the original complaint against Cllr Allen-Mirehouse, I have naturally taken a keen interest in the progress of the case.
My complaint was sent to the Ombudsman in May 2002.
Soon after, I received a letter from the Ombudsman informing me that, as any failure to declare a pecuniary interest is a criminal offence, he had referred the matter to the police.
More than a year later the police told me that they had recently begun their inquiries in earnest, and about six months after that the Ombudsman told me that he was discontinuing his investigation because Cllr Allen-Mirehouse had told the police that he had no interest to declare because he didn't own any land that could be affected by the "homes for locals" policy.
That prompted me to pay a visit to the National Park's offices at Llanion, where, after less than half an hour rooting around in the Angle village file, I came across two applications, by agents acting for Cllr Allen-Mirehouse, for land which he owned to be earmarked for housing development in the the JUDP.
These two applications were dated June 2002, more than a year before Cllr Allen-Mirehouse was interviewed by the police.
I sent this evidence to the Ombudsman who then reopened his investigation, and discovered an even earlier letter from Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's agent regarding development land in Angle village.
That, of course, raises some serious questions both about the rigour of the police inquiry and the accuracy of Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's statement.
I look forward to seeing these questions addressed, once the tribunal finally gets round to hearing the case.

Jacks of all trades

 

I have just received the MHPA's annual report and accounts for 2005 and it looks to me that Cllr "Head and the shoulders" Allen-Mirehouse has returned not a moment too soon.
Casting my admittedly untrained eye over the profit and loss account, it seems that MHPA lost a staggering £2.2 million while JA-M was on his gap year (see Self-selecting).
Mind you, the hypothesis that these losses were something to do with the absence of Johnny's guiding hand takes a bit of a knock when you consider that the losses for 2004, when he was on board, were over £2 million.
One of the reasons for this year's spectacular deficit is an item for £1.525 million for "write down in investment" for "associate companies".
This is believed to refer to Ledwood Construction Ltd which MHPA took over in a blaze of publicity a few years ago.
Not that it is all bad news for the MHPA board because I notice that Opencraft Ltd, the company of MHPA board member Geoffrey Philipps, is being paid £38,000 a year for his services as Ledwood's chairman.
Wheels within wheels?
What must be understood about MHPA is that it is in fact three separate businesses.
Firstly, it is heir to what used to be known as the Conservancy Board - the quango that had responsibility for shipping in the haven.
This part of the organisation is charged with marine safety and navigation and in return for taking on these responsibilities it has been given the monopoly power to collect dues from harbour users - the oil companies in particular.
It hardly needs saying that no great talent is required to squeeze a profit out of this activity, particularly as the oil companies and, in the near future, the gas companies, have nowhere else to go.
Indeed the 2005 accounts show that MHPA made a cool £1 million out of pilotage services, alone.
Though this is not entirely a one-way street as is amply demonstrated by the Sea Empress fiasco (£4 million fine (reduced to £750,000 on appeal) and £850,000 costs)
Secondly, MHPA, for reasons which need not concern us here, was able to buy up the Milford Docks Company for a song.
So fell in its lap a large amount of extremely valuable real estate (think Tesco) from which it has been able to extract significant revenues.
Thirdly, there is the board's desire to play at being entrepreneurs which has led it to produce almost as many turkeys as Bernard Matthews.
Just a field away from Chez Grumpy there is the nine-hole golf course (now abandoned) a large new shed for what was to be a golf driving range (never used) and a quad bike track (discontinued).
A trawler and the electronic fish auction both came in with a bang and went out with a whimper.
In December 2000, Milford Docks Company (MDC) bought Swift Construction Ltd, which, according to chairman Bob Clarke's foreword to that year's annual report, was "a high quality and respected business".
The annual report says: "Acquisition by MDC will allow Swift Construction to expand in a controlled manner with the support, experience and management of the Docks company."
Just a year later, Mr Clarke was telling us: "Unfortunately Swift Construction, the building company, returned extremely disappointing results. No further contracts are being undertaken."
And in the 2002 report, Mr Clarke informed us that MDC was pulling the plug with the words: "Swift Construction had poor trading year and all projects are being progressed to completion before closure."
The 2002 accounts show that, during its two years under MDC's stewardship, Swift Construction lost £524,000 - just north of £5,000 a week.
In the same year, the loss on what is coyly referred to as "share in associated companies results" (presumably Ledwood) was £301,000.
The latest report shows that, under MHPA's brilliant management, the loss under this heading for 2005 has grown to £768,000.
And these are not the only numbers that are on the up and up.
I notice that in 2000 the highest paid member of the board received £68,000 a year.
Five years on, that has risen to £110,00 - an increase of 60% during a period when inflation has been running at roughly 2% per annum.
Of course, if MHPA was a private company, none of this would be of interest to anyone but its shareholders, employees and creditors.
But MHPA has all the attributes of a public body and, therefore, the public has an interest in what it does..
Two groups of people complain about MHPA's operations.
Firstly, some ex-pilots; citing the Sea Empress experience, say that these commercial activities are a distraction from its core business of running a safe, efficient port on behalf of the nation.
They argue that, with the imminent arrival of LNG tankers, the money squandered on failed business ventures would be better spent on upgrading the facilities in the harbour.
Secondly, other engineering companies grumble that they are facing unfair competition from Ledwood which is being subsidised with what is, in effect, public money (harbour dues).

Partial victory

Is that light at the end of the tunnel, or is it an oncoming train?
That is the question Old Grumpy is asking after last Friday's corporate governance committee (CGC) appeared to at least partly accept a notice of motion submitted by Cllr Kate Becton to allow applicants and objectors to address meetings of the planning committee.
This committee, on which the Leader Cllr John Davies commands eight of the twelve votes, is reluctant to give an inch when it comes to proposals from members of the opposition.
The report before the CGC recommended that Cllr Becton's proposal be rejected on the grounds that it would be unfair because: "Whilst the opportunity to speak would be available to all applicants and all third parties for those applications reported to committee, the reality would be that only certain applicants and only certain third parties would utilise the opportunity and there may not be a balance in the presentation of arguments before committee."
As Cllr Becton argued, on that basis nobody should be allowed the vote.
She also pointed out that six members of the Leader's Independent Polititical Group serve on the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park authority which has for many years allowed both applicants and objectors to have their say at planning committee meetings, and she hadn't heard of any of them objecting to this unfair practice.
The IPG had no answer to that, though they didn't surrender completely.
The Leader proposed an amendment that the notice of motion as submitted be not adopted but "Council should further consider the protocols to allow participation of the public within the planning process, where necessary."
The late, great Professor Stanley Unwin couldn't have put it better.

Separate ways

 

Today (Tuesday) I made my debut at the planning committee where, most unusually, I found myself in almost total agreement with something said by Cllr Brian Hall.
It was during the debate on the Tetra mast in Penally when Cllr Hall said: "I wish controversial issues like this were taken out of our hands and decided by the Welsh Assembly, or whoever."
I said almost total agreement because I would go further and transfer all planning decisions into the hands of independent tribunals.
It is simply unacceptable that elected politicians should be allowed to have a say in what are essentially judicial matters because of the temptation that we have to place our narrow political advantage above the interests of justice.
What price the planning policy, on which these matters are supposed to be decided, when your placard waving constituents are outside county hall urging you to breach it.
The ancient constitutional doctrine of the Separation of Powers holds that politicians make the laws and independent adjudicators decide individual cases.
As long ago as 1690 the philosopher John Locke wrote: "It may be too great a temptation to human frailty, apt to grasp at power, for the same persons who have the power of making laws, to have also the power to execute them . . .".
The dangers in the present system are amply demonstrated by the Uzmaston Tetra mast which was refused by the planning committee on for purely political reasons.
The applicants won their appeal and because the committee hadn't determined the application on planning grounds i.e. it had acted unreasonably, both parties' costs were awarded against the council.
As Cllr Hall revealed at Tuesday's planning committee, this escapade has set the council taxpayers back by something in excess of £140,000.

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