October 24 2006


Barn dance

Trefochlyd is a large farm near Croesgoch; owned by brothers David and Peter Rees
Cllr David Rees is a member of Pembrokeshire County Council.
There are two disused barns at Treflochlyd which the brothers wish to convert for residential use.
The rules on the conversion of redundant farm buildings in the open countryside are to be found in Policy 60 of the Joint Unitary Development Plan (JUDP).
Policy 60 reads: ". . . the conversion of traditional buildings to residential use (including holiday accommodation) will be permitted where: the building is physically capable of accommodating the new use and any associated requirements without extensive alteration expansion or rebuilding."
The JUDP also says, at 5.5.11 that: "The purpose of this policy is to retain those traditional buildings that make a positive contribution to the character of Pembrokeshire."
One of Treflochlyd's two barns (Barn 1) poses no problems because it is to be converted into a one-bed dwelling "without extensive alteration expansion or alteration."
However, the plans for Barn 2, which is roughly the same size as Barn 1, show a three-bed house; achieved by tacking on an extension that is two-thirds the floor area of the original building.
That, to my mind, involves, "extensive . . . expansion" contrary to the requirements of Policy 60.
To get round this little local difficulty some photographs have been submitted which show that, in 1978, there had been a building on the site of the proposed extension.
According to the report to planning committee, "As such the reconstruction of an earlier extension here is acceptable."
But, surely, that involves "extensive . . . rebuilding" contrary to Policy 60.
As it happens, this application, which was recommended for approval in its entirety, came before planning committee on the same day as I made my debut and I insisted that, if the committee was minded to give consent, the matter should be reported to full council as a departure from policy.
And so the application came to last Thursday's meeting of full council when I proposed that it should be referred back to the planning committee.
During the debate, I drew members' attention to a report by the National Park's monitoring officer in which he criticised Cllr John "Head and shoulders" Allen-Mirehouse J P for breaching the Code of Conduct by lobbying his fellow park authority members regarding a planning application on land which he owned.
In that report, the monitoring officer cited with approval the Ombudsman's guidance on planning applications by members.
The Ombudsman advised: "The council must be seen to be dealing with applications [by members] no more favourably than if the application had been submitted by someone who is not a councillor. To avoid giving that impression the councillor may at times be less favourably treated than would a member of the public making a similar application. Councillors should recognise this as a possible consequence of taking part in public life."
I mention this only to illustrate the principles to be applied, and not to suggest that Cllr Rees, himself, was involved in any improper lobbying.
Given the Ombudsman's guidance, it is not easy to see how the granting of planning permission could be justified in this case, especially as, in his report to full council (though not in the report to planning committee) the Director of Development admits: "The development would be contrary to the development plan . . ." and Section 54A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 provides: "Where, in making any determination under the planning Acts, regard is to had to the development plan [JUDP], the determination shall be made in accordance with the plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise."
Not that that cut any ice with the members of the Independent Political Group, or, for that matter, the four Labour members who voted against my proposal.
The Indies, in particular, rose magnificently to the occasion.
Even Cllr Henry Jones - easily the sharpest knife in the IPG drawer - couldn't resist a bit of twisted logic.
He recounted how, after he provided the planners with evidence of a pre-existing structure, he had been allowed to rebuild the conservatory on his house.
Sadly, I had to rain on his parade by pointing out that his house is within the town limits of Fishguard - where there is a presumption in favour of development - while the application at issue is in the open countryside - where the presumption is against.
Apples and pears, Henry, old chap!
That brought forth assistant cabinet member Cllr Jamie Adams (Camrose) who told of a case in his area where, after photographs were provided to show there had been a building on the site "in the late 1970s", an applicant was allowed to rebuild a ruin that had been reduced to walls just three feet high .
While Cllr Adams seemed to believe that this was an argument in favour of Cllr Rees' application, a few moments thought should have convinced him that it was a clear demonstration of just how corrupt the system has become.
Presumably, even Cllr Adams can see that the reinstatement of such a ruin must involve "extensive . . . rebuilding" contrary to policy 60 and that it is a logically impossible ". . . to retain those traditional buildings that make a positive contribution to the character of Pembrokeshire" if they have fallen down
And someone must surely have told him that two wrongs don't make a right.
This sort of special talent for sophistry must make him a strong candidate for promotion to the Cabinet
Indeed, if William Hill would offer me better than evens, I'd have a tenner on him to be in before we ring in the New Year..
I could sure do with the money because it is looking increasingly likely that I will have to fork out for the two bottles of best £3.99 Chilean that SF will be due if Tony Blair isn't gone by Christmas.

Here I stand . . .

After the meeting, one of the Labour supporters of Cllr Rees' application accused me of "the politics of envy".
As I have said before, I don't do envy.
Firstly, I should say that, as an old-fashioned liberal, I think that planning laws are far too restrictive and, while I wouldn't want a complete free-for-all like in Ireland, I can see no harm whatsoever in modest developments around established farm buildings.
So, if the county council brought forward a policy that allowed the reinstatement of traditional buildings on production of evidence, photographic or otherwise, of their previous existence, there would be no complaints from me.
But that is not what the current policy says and it is unacceptable to allow the policy to be applied differently to similar cases.
What motivates me is not envy but the idea that we live in democracy under the rule of law.
And the basic principle underpinning such a form of government is that everyone stands equal before the law.
As far as I am concerned, that is non-negotiable and, if certain of my fellow councillors don't like me for saying so, that's just tough.
I know that the vast majority of the people I talk to share my view, and the abiding mystery is why they elect so many people who appear to think differently.

Family favourites

I think it was Mark Twain who said that you should never ask a question unless you already know the answer.
With that in mind, I put down a question to full council asking for the names of any relatives of senior officers or members who had temporary jobs with the council during the past summer.
That set the leader off on a waffleathon lasting fully five minutes, the gist of which was that there were some 90 people so employed and, given this large number, it was not possible to sift through all their files to provide the requested information.
To assist the council to narrow down the search, I have submitted a Freedom of Information request for the names of all those temporarily employed on the Tenby traffic survey.
I expect the council to seek shelter behind the provisions of the Data Protection Act (DPA) and I will then have to see what the Information Commissioner makes of it all when I appeal..

Old pals?

The DPA was wheeled out in response to another of my questions regarding the relationship between Mr Peter Scott (the former prospective purchaser of the Mine Depot, Milford Haven) and senior officers of the council.
Old Grumpy has always been puzzled by the fact that, right from the outset, Mr Scott and the council's officers have been on first name terms.
Whereas the letters to the other bidders invariably began: Dear Mr This and Dear Mr That, it was almost always Dear Peter where Mr Scott was concerned.
I suppose the most extreme manifestation of this familiarity was the fax Peter sent to Bryn's private fax number at 7.45 am on 8 September last year requesting an urgent meeting to discuss the council's decision to abandon the first tender exercise (see Minefield)
Even more surprising was that, on the same afternoon, Peter and his colleague Anthony were being ushered into the chief executive's office.
The Leader rambled on for while before concluding that "some officers" knew Peter back in the early 90s.
Naturally, I was keen to have a rather more informative answer, so I asked if "some officers" could be identified.
The Leader was not about to fall into that trap.
Citing the DPA, he referred the case of his predecessor Maurice Hughes who, he said, "had got into trouble" for revealing the sickness record of a social services officer who had the effrontery to go on TV to criticise the council's child protection practices.(see one rule for them)
Obviously, the Leader and I have a different recollection of these events.
As I remember it, Cllr Michael Williams complained to the council's monitoring officer that, by revealing sensitive personal information about the officer, Maurice Hughes had breached the provisions of the DPA.
In reply, the monitoring officer said that no such breach had occurred and that everything was tickety-boo.
To understand how someone can argue that it is possible to get into trouble for doing nothing wrong you can either read George Orwell's Animal Farm or refer to the quote from Hannah Arendt on my home page.

Tender spot

While researching an entirely separate matter, I came across an interesting piece of information regarding the sale of the Mine Depot at Blackbridge.
This was part of a progress report to the Welsh Assembly on various projects in which it has a joint interest with the county council.
It read, simply: "Blackbridge - progress being made with Peter Scott/Milford Haven Port Authority following second tender exercise."
Now, on the second tender exercise (the first having been abandoned), Cleddau Enterprises Ltd (a consortium of local businessmen) had bid £550,000 compared to the £310,000 offered by Mr Scott's company Haven Facilities Ltd, which was acting in concert with MHPA.(see Mine depot minefield)
You might wonder why the council was negotiating with someone whose bid was little more than half that of the highest offer.
And you might conclude, as I did long ago, that these tender exercises were a complete sham because it had always been the council's intention to sell to Haven Facilities/MHPA, come what may.
As part of these negotiations, on 18 October 2005 (ten days after the second set of tenders were opened), MHPA chief executive Ted Sangster was called to a meeting in county hall attended by chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones and director of development Roger Barrett-Evans.
According to the file note of this meeting "No tender figures were disclosed", and what prompted Mr Sangster to offer £600,000 for the site, later increased to £620,000 - precisely double what his partner, Haven Facilities, thought it was worth - remains something of a mystery.

How times change

Just before the last general election but one, I nervously dipped my toe into the dangerous waters of racial politics by criticising multiculturalism (see Race and culture).
Those were the days when any such critical remarks were likely to result in the writer being branded a racist.
How times change!
Since then, we have had Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality, warning that unless we steer away from the sort of multiculturalism that has black and Muslim people living in inner-city ghettos we will be sleepwalking into segregation and that it is time to 'assert a core of Britishness' and encourage immigrants to integrate more effectively into mainstream UK life.
More recently, we have seen Government Ministers queuing up to denounce the wearing of the veil by Muslim women.
If the Tories had dared to say such things during an election campaign they would have been accused of membership of the Klu Klux Klan.
Also, Old Grumpy notices that Haverfordwest's three leading Tory thinkers (only joking) Cllrs Peter Stock, David Bryan and Mark Edwards have submitted a notice of motion to the county council calling for rural post offices to be saved from the wicked Labour government.
Funny, but I remember being called out during the 1997 election to take a picture of Jackie Lawrence and the late Donald Dewar outside Llangwm post office.
You've guessed - they were campaigning to save our post offices from the wicked Tories.
I wonder; is it possible to both have a good memory and not be cynical about politicians?

In the know

Old Grumpy spent many years in the building industry where I came to understand that the tendering process, however clean it looked on paper, was often less than honest.
One of the favourite manoeuvres was the variable specification.
This involved asking builders to price for a job that was, say, half concrete blocks and half bricks.
The favoured tenderer would be tipped off that, once the contract was let, an instruction would be given to substitute blocks for bricks.
So he could put in an artificially low price for bricks knowing that he would never be called upon to fulfil that part of the contract.
And it wasn't always even as subtle as that.
I remember quoting to build a wall in Hook, the specification for which called for expensive Goodwick bricks, throughout.
I didn't get the job and one day when I was driving past the site I saw the successful tenderer, who I knew well, hard at work laying concrete blocks.
I stopped the car and got out.
"Hey xxxx", I said, "I priced for this job and the spec called for Goodwick bricks."
"That's right", he replied, "but I know all about xxxx xxxxxx's [name of clerk of works] fancy woman and you don't."

If you have any comments on this column please e-mail oldgrumpy.mike@virgin.net

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