October 23 2007

Outlaws

 

We frequently read and hear about the absence of the Rule of Law in places like China, Russia and most of Africa.
What the pundits usually mean is not the breakdown of law and order but rule by a powerful elite rule without too much regard for constitutional or legal niceties.
But you don't have to get on an aeroplane to witness this phenomena first hand.
Welcome to Pembrokeshire County Council's planning delegation sub-committee.
Most planning decisions are taken by officers acting under powers delegated to them by the members.
Prior to local government reorganisation, which saw the introduction of the Cabinet system, the constitution allowed the local member to require that an application in his/her ward be removed from the delegation scheme for determination by committee.
This right was swept away when the new constitution was adopted.
Members felt this was too restrictive and a planning delegation sub-committee was set up to consider members' requests for committee determination.
The committee's constitution sets out clearly the circumstances when such a request will be granted.
It reads: "Applications, which following publicity, are giving rise to expressions of public concern where:
(a) the public concern relates to impacts affecting more than immediate neighbours, or
(b) the concerns raise issues which highlight conflicting planning policies.

As a recent report to the committee explains: "This is intended to identify cases where there is clearly expressed public concern about widespread likely impacts of a proposed development or cases where [planning] committee needs to consider and attach appropriate weight to planning policy issues where, for example, one policy might suggest approval of a development whereas another might point to a refusal. This is distinctly different from cases where a member may simply not agree a likely delegated decision which straightforwardly follows policy."
Unfortunately, this distinction, which I am sure will be clear to most rational people, is lost on members of the committee.
Like Humpty Dumpty they take the view that words mean just what they want them to mean ". . . nothing more and nothing less."
A report on the committee's previous machinations can be found at (Bending the rules).
More recently, the committee considered five requests, four of which were recommended for rejection by officers.
In each of these cases the officers reported that, as there were no expressions of public concern nor conflicting planning policies, all four should remain within the scheme of delegation.
In three out of the four the committee disagreed.
Now, it may be that we are employing officers who don't understand the council's planning policies but, for my money, the explanation lies in low politics.
Members know that if they can get an application before committee they might be able to employ the principle of what former director of planning Roger Anderson used to refer to a "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" to persuade enough of their fellow councillors to support it no matter how far outside policy it might be.
They also know that, although the Welsh Assembly has the power to call in departures from policy, it rarely uses them, so once the application gets past the council it's more or less a done deal.
And, of course, there are few more effective ways of ingratiating yourself with the electorate than wangling them valuable planning consents.
Imagine the uproar if the JUDP was drafted to read: "There will be a presumption against residential development in the open countryside unless:
(a) the dwelling is required for occupation by a worker in agriculture or forestry, or
(b) the applicant has influential friends on the planning committee."
So, why no outrage when, in fact, that is exactly how the system works?


No offence

 

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the case of Cllr Brian Thomas of Blaenau Gwent County Council who was suspended from office for three months for failing to show respect to a council planning officer as required by the Code of Conduct (Mind your tongue).
Cllr Thomas' offence occurred at a planning site inspection in respect of an application to which he was opposed.
During the discussion Cllr Thomas expressed the opinion that if the application was in Abertillary it would be refused.
The planning officer took this accusation that applications were treated differently in different parts of authority as an attack on his integrity and complained to the Ombudsman.
The Ombudsman upheld the complaint and the council's standards committee suspended Cllr Thomas for three months - a punishment that was upheld on appeal to the Adjudication Panel for Wales.
Old Grumpy hears of a similar occurrence at a recent Pembrokeshire Coast National Park meeting where, during a debate on a planning application in his Newport ward, Cllr Robin Evans was heard to accuse head of development control Cathy Milner of being "economical with the truth".
Cllr Evans, who is lined up to be next year's chairman of the county council, had better hope that Mrs Milner, whose determination to stick to policy led to many battles with the bungalow farmers in her time as planning officer with the former Preseli Pembrokeshire District Council, will be slow to take offence.



Only words

The above reminds Old Grumpy of an incident almost ten years ago when Mrs Milner came under fire from Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse.
It's funny how the doctrine of officer infallibility is kicked into touch when members' planning aspirations come under threat.
The case concerned a planning application for residential development at Chapel Bay Fort on Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's Angle Estate.
Mrs Milner was recommending refusal on the grounds that the application involved development in the open countryside, contrary to policy.
In response, Cllr Allen-Mirehouse wrote to his fellow national park members urging them to vote for a site inspection.
He told his fellow members: "My reasons are that I feel that Mrs Milner has mis-represented the situation at Chapel Bay. To claim that this house is in the open countryside is ridiculous."
Other of Mrs Milner's conclusions were described in the letter as "absurd" and "patently absurd", though, as Cllr Allen-Mirehouse was keen to point out: "The above is not to belittle Mrs Milner . . .".
Could have fooled me!
Of course, what was truly ridiculous was Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's claim that Chapel Bay Fort was NOT in the open countryside.
As a member of many years standing he must (or should) have known that, in planning policy terms, "open countryside" includes all land outside the development limits of a town or village.
But, as I said above, words mean exactly what they want them to mean.
I remember attending one planning meeting where a member argued that a site was not in the open countryside because it was surrounded by trees, while another claimed, even more bizarrely, that it failed to meet the description because the narrowness of the roads meant planning committee had to leave the coach and complete their journey by minibus.
But the biscuit for this sort of linguistic manipulation is still taken by the late, great Desmond Codd - the bungalow farmers' bungalow farmer.
Faced with a council policy against the development of domestic gardens, Des told the committee that when he visited the site all he saw was a washing line and a shed.
No cabbages, no carrots, no potatoes - no garden.
QED.


Nothing much changes

 

Someone has given me a copy of a July 1938 West Wales Guardian discovered under a carpet during a house renovation.
And Old Grumpy is struck by how little things have changed..
There are lengthy reports on the the selection of carnival queens in Pembroke Dock (Miss Lorna McGregor) Llangwm (Miss Doreen Jennings) and the Pembroke Dock fairy queen (Miss Joyce Canton (11)) and her two attendants (Miss Leila Brown (10) and Miss Margaret Reeves (10)).
This last one caught my eye because the Guardian reports: "At the conclusion, the mayor (Cllr Dennis Rees) presented boxes of chocolates to the three successful competitors, and, amid loud applause bestowed a kiss upon each of the delighted little girls"
Perhaps not everything remains the same because nowadays you can get arrested for that sort of thing.
There had been a recent typhoid outbreak in St Davids and two shopkeepers were set to receive £60 compensation from Haverfordwest RDC for goods destroyed on the orders of the district medical officer.
Not so lucky was Mr W A Williams, who, the paper reports, was to be paid £4 by the council "but a claim by him for £5 for loss of false teeth was not allowed".
An article headlined "Agriculture's plight" reported on a conference in Haverfordwest where the low price of agricultural produce caused by grasping middle-men was on the agenda.
Now where have I heard that before?
A proposal before the county council that roadmen be admitted to the council's pension scheme was deferred and another proposal, that a steamroller driver's wages be increased from 9s 2d to 9s 6d per day, was defeated by "a big majority".
Even in those days, when car ownership was the preserve of the well off, traffic offences seem to have been the main business of the magistrates courts.
Mrs Elsie Noyce of Cilgerran was up before Tenby magistrates for driving a vehicle without a reflecting mirror or windscreen wipers and was fined 5s on each count, while Miss Eria Davies of Manorbier was fined £2, having been paced by police doing speeds of up to 40 mph along Marsh Road Tenby.
Indeed, she was travelling at such a rate of knots that the police pursued her all the way to Jameston before they could pull her over.
Asked for an explanation, Miss Davies told the court: "I was in a hurry to get home. I wanted my dinner"
The sports pages are dominated by the exploits of cricketer B R Rossiter who had just scored his second century of the season as Carew ran up a total of 165 against Saunderfoot.
In reply Saundersfoot were shot out for eight, with nine of the batsmen getting ducks.
However, what is striking about this old newspaper when compared to its modern equivalents is the extensive coverage given to local authority matters; whole pages been devoted to verbatim reports of council meetings.
And the robustness of the comment columns is in stark contrast with the verbal mogadon served up by our present local press.
Unfortunately, there are no reports on the proceedings of the planning committee - the first planning act being nine years in the future.

To cap it all

Wine buffs decry the modern practice of selling wine in screw top bottles, but Old Grumpy thinks it is wonderful development.
No more hunting for the cork screw, and no more having to push half the cork down into the bottle when it breaks.
From shopping bag to wine glass in under ten seconds must be good thing, whatever the purists say.
However, I have noticed a recent tendency to cover the screw top with a stiff metal cap which rather defeats the object because its removal requires a screwdriver or other sharp instrument.
And, in our house, screwdrivers are even harder to find than corkscrews.
These caps are also dangerous, as I discovered last night when I gashed my finger on a sharp edge.
"Look on the bright side", Grumpette said as she applied the elastoplast, "If we had a butler he would be seeking compensation for an industrial injury."
"If we could afford a butler, I wouldn't be drinking £2.99 Chilean Merlot", I replied.

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