October 11 2005

The invisible man

There was an interesting little spat at today's meeting of the planning committee when Cllr Ken Edwards (Lab) recalled being accosted in County Hall's corridors of power by Cllr Brian Hall.
According to Cllr Edwards, he was making his way to a committee meeting, accompanied by an unnamed Cabinet member, when he was confronted by Cllr Hall who accused him of putting it about that he (Cllr Hall) had failed to declare an interest in the controversial planning application to site 34 caravans in Waterston for the use of LNG workers.
Cllr Edwards was at pains to stress that he had never made any such allegation and, to clarify matters, Cllr Hall told the committee: "I can assure members that I have never visited that site. I have been on another site relating to housing."
Old Grumpy has been taking a keen interest in events in Waterston since receiving a telephone call from a local resident who claimed to have seen Cllr Hall and a director of the applicant company, Mr D Thomas, together on the site.
My own researches have also turned up two expense claims submitted by Cllr Hall which I thought might have a bearing on the matter.
On 11 January this year Cllr Hall visited County Hall where he met "A Colley planning (D Thomas hostel LNG)" and immediately under that entry is recorded a trip to Waterston to "site for above".
The entry for 21 January records a visit to County Hall where he met "C[ounty] Caravans. T[aylor] Woodrow. Hostel LNG" followed by a trip to Waterston "Re: siting of hostel - planning consents".
County Caravans is the company owned by Mr D Thomas.
So is there another plan to house LNG workers elsewhere in Waterston that we haven't yet been told about?

Double parked

As an avid Kremlin watcher, Old Grumpy takes a keen interest in the nomenklatura's special car park situated at the left hand end (viewed from Freemans Way) of County Hall.
For several years these five spaces, close by the building, have been the exclusive preserve of a select few: Chief Executive, Leader, Deputy Leader, Chairman and Cllr Brian Hall.
It always puzzled me why Cllr Hall had preference over his Cabinet colleagues but I put it down to his position as the Independent Political (sic) Group's unofficial Chief Whip.
So, when I went to County Hall, yesterday, I was rather surprised to see Cllr David Simpson's dark blue Jag parked in one of the hallowed spaces.
On making further inquiries I was told by one of my moles that Cllr Rob Lewis' people carrier had also been spotted in the same place.
Does this herald the first signs of a breakdown in the IPG's iron party discipline, or are these two manoeuvering for position in anticipation of an upcoming vacancy?

Balancing act

As predicted, Cllr Bill Roberts, the member with responsibility for housing, has been evicted from the Cabinet which now has nine members where once there were ten.
In addition, the number of deputy Cabinet members has been reduced from four to three with Cllr Jim Codd drawing the short straw.
It would be nice to think that these changes were motivated by the desire to provide better governance for the people of Pembrokeshire, but, alas, that isn't the case.
As I pointed out previously you don't need a Nostradamus to work out that a situation where some Cabinet members are given deputies because of their inexperience contains its own built-in sunset clause because, with the passage of time, inexperience inevitably ceases to be a consideration.
Nor do you need a crystal ball to predict that a two tier system, with first and second class Cabinet members, is bound to give rise to petty jealousies.
The problem arises because, as a condition for consenting to the creation of these assistants' posts, the Welsh Assembly insisted that the whole system be funded out of the same pot of money.
To achieve this, the four Cabinet members with assistants were paid two-thirds of the normal special responsibility allowance with the other third going to their sidekicks.
Once the euphoria of achieving high office had worn off, it dawned on these four second division Cabinet members that they were, in effect, paying these assistants out of their own pockets.
Naturally, it wasn't long before they started wondering what they were getting for their money.
The answer: not very much.
So, in order to bring things into line some scheme had to be devised to free up sufficient cash to put all the Cabinet members on full pay.
Getting rid of Bill Roberts and Jim Codd - and their positions - releases one full allowance (two-thirds + one-third) which can then be split three ways between the surviving second-tier members (Cllrs Sian James, David Simpson and Robert Lewis) to bring them up to speed.
No doubt, when he announces these changes to full council on October 20, the Leader will try to convince us that they are part of some grand plan to improve the way the council is run.
In truth, they are nothing more than a device for keeping order inside the Independent Political (sic) Group.
After all, the IPG exists for no other purpose than to monopolise power, and the special responsibility allowances that come in its train, so this opportunistic piece of political deck chair rearrangement should come as no surprise to anyone.

The buck stops here

Monday's meeting of the county council Cabinet had to swallow some nasty medicine in the form of a less than complimentary report on children's services from the Social Services Inspectorate for Wales (SSIW).
Anyone who has read last January's Ombudsman's report on his investigation into the Stephanie Lawrence debacle (see Ombudsman's report) can be excused a sense of deja vu.
Those with longer memories will recall the Joint Review of Social Services carried out by the District Auditor and the National Assembly in 2002.
That, too, took the council to task for serious shortcomings in its social work practices.
At that time we had the ritual assurances that lessons had been learned and remedial action was in hand.
It is interesting to read what this latest report has to say on that subject.
"Despite the willingness of the authority to acknowledge deficits in practice [identified in the 2002 review] there had been little progress during the past two years."
The two years referred to are those prior to December 2004 and for most of that period the Cabinet member in charge of children's services was the current Leader Cllr John Davies.
Cllr Davies was again spouting soothing words about journeys of improvement at Monday's meeting, but can he walk the walk?
And what confidence can the public have in a system that has installed the Leader's place man Cllr Alwyn Luke as chairman of the committee charged with scrutinising this area of activity?

Sauce for the goose


Naturally, members of the ruling group were keen to seize on whatever positives they could find in the SSIW report.
One I spoke to wanted to put the blame on the chronic understaffing referred to in the report.
This simply will not do.
Making sure there is sufficient staff to carry out the department's functions is one of management's main tasks.
Would one of the council's licensing officers be satisfied if a nightclub owner tried to use the difficulty in recruiting and retaining staff as an explanation for the number of registered doormen (bouncers) falling below the required level?
My view is that the council should police itself with the same rigour that it polices other people.
The obvious way to recruit more staff is to pay them more.
It is not as if the council is unaware of the market forces governing supply demand and price.
A recent meeting of the Senior Staff committee was told that, over the past five years, due to the relative scarcity of "high quality, experienced staff", salaries of senior officers had "continued to increase in excess of general wage inflation."
And that the council was subject to this "marketplace".
"It is therefore necessary", the report concludes, "that salary levels in this organisation are not kept at a point which encourages existing staff to seek posts elsewhere and which reduce the field of applicants (particularly external) from considering posts here."
Adam Smith couldn't have put it better!
But old Adam would also have pointed out that these market principles apply equally to senior staff, social workers, oil, potatoes, bread and any other freely traded commodity.

Money is the root . . .

And that brings us to the nub of the problem: money.
As the report points out: "The authority's expenditure on social services is below the Welsh average per head of population and as a proportion of total Council expenditure." and "Expenditure on personal social services for children had seen year on year growth but remained relatively low in comparison to other Welsh authorities . . . ".
Which means that, despite all the Leader's fine words at yesterday's Cabinet meeting, spending on child protection is a low priority.
So, while the Independent Political (sic) Group bangs on constantly about the lowest council tax in Wales, a vital public service goes short.
But surely, I hear you say, members wouldn't skimp on looking after vulnerable children for the sake of a tenner on the council tax?
Well, not if they knew about it.
But the fact is that the council's budget setting process is an undemocratic farce by which members wave through large sums of cash under vague headings without any real idea how it will be spent.
And the Independent Political (sic) Group seems to prefer it that way because whenever we members of the opposition try to ask searching questions we are met with cries of "nitpicking", and a marked reluctance by the IPG's tame Chairman to allow extensive debate.
The result is that the task of setting of spending priorities, which should be one of the most important functions of your democratically elected representatives, passes to the officers by default.
And the way budgets are set causes a problem because as the SSIW report points out up to now they have been resource led rather than needs led.
For those who are unfamiliar with the jargon, this means that, rather than work out what is required by way of staff etc before budgeting to cover the cost, the method used has been to allocate an amount of cash and leave the department to do its best with the means available.

Back to home page