31 October 2006

News blackout

Pembrokeshire County Council spends some £300 million of taxpayers' money annually. Earlier this month it held a meeting of full council.
There are only five such meetings a year, so I was eager to see what Wales' biggest selling weekly snoozepaper would make of the several lively debates that took place during the three hour meeting.
And what did I find after forking out 60p for the paper that fights for Pembrokeshire?
Well, exactly 198 words on the whole meeting.
Yes, I know it's sad, but I counted every one of them.
This was considerably less than the space given to a county council press release on healthy eating, featuring education supremo Islwyn Howells (roughly 240 words and a nice picture of Islwyn with a group of children, looking as if he'd just stepped out of Hepworth's window, ) and even more considerably less than the 320 words and even bigger picture of Griff Rhys Jones, who in a fit of altruism, it would seem, came down to Fishguard and outbid the locals for the 70-acre Trehilyn Farm and its 200 year old farmhouse.
According to the Telegraph's report, no doubt based on the work of some slick public relations company, the saintly Griff is keen to put some money back in to Wales and is"... very conscious of the moral question over what this farm constitutes and what its use can be."
An affordable home for a local family, perhaps!
The renovation of the farmhouse is being filmed and is to be shown on BBC Wales as a five-part series.

All power . .

As the Western Telegraph apparently can't be bothered, I should tell you that, during the meeting, there was a lively debate on Cllr Kate Becton's notice of motion that would have given applicants and objectors the right to speak at meetings of the planning committee.
This is a right already available in the National Park and, it was not easy to see on what logical grounds the six members of the ruling Independent Political (sic) Group who sit on the park committee, might oppose it.
Not that you should put too much store in logic where these people are concerned.
The county council leader said it would be unfair to allow people to address planning committee meetings because the same rights would not extend to the 80% of applications which were determined by officers under delegated powers.
The leader then put forward an "amendment" that these rights of audience should be restricted to planning committee site inspections.
As only 2% of applications are subject to site inspections, logic would indicate that this would be even more "unfair" than Cllr Becton's proposal.
However, as I said earlier, logic is not the IPG's strong suit, and the loyal members backed their leader, and his "amendment" was carried by 30-20, leaving Cllr Becton's NoM to fall by the wayside.
I have put amendment in inverted commas because, in my opinion, it was no such thing.
The council's constitution - and we do live in a constitutional democracy, rather than some sort of dictatorship - provides that an amendment will either be:
(i) To leave out words
(ii) to leave out words and insert or add others, or
(iii) to insert or add words
As long as the effect of (i) to (iii) is not to negate the motion.

As Cllr Bill Philpin pointed out, he would have been happy to support both the motion and the "amendment" but once the amendment, which was, in fact, an entirely separate proposition, was approved, the motion was negated.
And this is not the first time the leader has trampled on the basic democratic decencies by using his majority to pull a stunt like this (see Dodging the column).
Surely, the role of the media is to highlight such abuses of power.
Or does the Telegraph believe that might is right?



The county council's hierarchy will be interested to hear that one of my moles in the Kremlin-on-Cleddau has e-mailed to tell me that my column of 14 September 2004 has been filtered out by the council's computer system
They needn't take the trouble to run a check on the system because the e-mail was from his private address.
Naturally, I took a look at the offending article to see why it might be considered a suitable candidate for censorship.
One of the first things I noticed were the words "sex orgies" - funny how some words catch your eye - and the name of Mandy Rice-Davies in a piece headed "Engaging Dr Ryan".
My first thought was that these terms were being filtered out by the council's computer to prevent staff accessing naughty sites during working hours.
However, after I had read the whole article, I came to the conclusion that this was a rather shaky hypothesis.

Brian the bus

Of late, this column has been a bit short on articles on councillors' expense claiming habits.
Before getting down to the nitty gritty, I should explain that members can only claim for mileage if they are on what are known as "approved duties".
Approved duties used to be defined in the Local Authorities (Members Allowances) Regulations 1991 which lists the various duties - attendance at council meetings, chairman's attendance at civic functions etc - which carry an entitlement to expenses.
These provisions, save for an addition in respect of cabinet duties, have been imported, largely unaltered, into the Local Authorities (Allowances for Members of County, County Borough Councils and National Parks) (Wales) Regulations 2002 (Sorry about that, but we must be accurate in matters of law).
In addition to this list, the 2002 regulations, as did the 1991 version, includes a more general type of "approved duty" defined as: " any other duty approved by the authority, or any other duty of a class so approved, undertaken for the purpose of, or in connection with, the discharge of the functions of the authority or of any of its committees."
Just before I was unceremoniously sacked from the Mercury, I was involved in a protracted dispute with my old chum Cllr Brian Hall who was threatening to sue me over something I had written about him in my Old Grumpy column (See Legal eagles).
This revolved around seven claims he had made for journeys which I didn't think qualified as "approved duties".
However, during the course of the correspondence with Cllr Hall's solicitors, it became apparent that he was relying on a resolution passed in 1995 by the shadow Pembrokeshire County Council which modified (h) to read: "Attendance by the leader or other group leaders (or their nominated representative(s)) at such meetings approved by the Chief Executive for the proper discharge of the business of the authority".
And, according to letters written to Cllr Hall's solicitors by chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones, he had approved Cllr Hall's journeys and that was that.
I must admit that it came as something of a surprise to learn that a local authority had the power to modify regulations passed by Parliament.
Certainly, nobody had thought to point this out to me when I was studying constitutional law at Cardiff University.
I took this up with the District Audit Service (DAS), which, true to form, sided with the council.
Indeed, DAS told me that the resolution of 1995 had been further modified by guidance published by the Director of Finance which stated that it was an approved duty if "At the request of the chief executive: the Leader of council and other group leaders (or their nominated representatives) to attend at such meetings for the proper discharge of the business of the authority".
Again, it was news to me that a council resolution could be overridden by an officer.
So, when Cllr Brian Hall spent three days chauffeuring the captain and crew of HMS Pembroke around the county in June 2005 - claiming £150 in travelling expenses - he was, presumably, acting on the request of the chief executive, having been nominated by the leader as his representative.

One of Cllr Hall's favourite manoeuvres is to come into county hall on some pretext or another before discovering he has urgent business on the other side of the Cleddau Bridge.
Then back to county hall and eventually home a distance of 40 miles compared to the 20 he could have claimed had he done whatever he had to do in Pembroke first.
For example:

I have e-mailed the leader to ask if he nominated Cllr Hall to be his representative at these meetings with J Parsons and Mrs Bassett.
I will bring you up to date once I have received his reply.


We're doomed, We're all doomed

Sir Nicholas Stern has reported on global warming and, it seems, in the words of Private Fraser: "We're doomed, we're all doomed".
We are now promised swingeing green taxes to help persuade/force us to mend our ways.
As I rarely venture beyond Haverfordwest in the car, hate flying, and grow my own vegetables I have nothing to fear from these new imposts.
Green taxes - bring them on, I say.
At least the Stern report has started a debate.
As several commentators have pointed out, the UK produces only 2% of global carbon emissions, so, even if we ceased fossil fuel use tomorrow, at its present rate of growth it would only take China 13 months to make up the shortfall.
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted warming by the end of the century of between 2-5 degrees centigrade.
It is interesting that, in order to produce the scariest possible conclusions, Sir Nicholas has used the worst case scenario as the basis of his calculations.
No doubt, Sir Nicholas would counter this criticism by pointing out that if you read the whole report you will find that the whole range of options is covered but, as he knows full well, journalists, who are only interested in tomorrow's headlines, don't have the time or the inclination to read 700-page reports.
Sceptics take delight in quoting Professor Stephen Schneider, one of America's leading global warming advocates - they would say alarmists - who, back in the 1970s, wrote:
"To capture the public imagination, we have to offer up some scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements and little mention of any doubts one might have.
Each of us has to decide the right balance between being effective, and being honest."
I fear that most of what we read about global warming today is, in part, driven by Schneider's philosophy.
To appreciate why Schneider is so often quoted you have to understand the temperature record for the last century when there was a rise of about half a degree between 1900 and 1940 followed by a fairly steep reversal between about 1940 and 1970 before the warming trend resumed up to the present day.
What is so particularly delicious about Schneider's words is that when they were written in the 1970s he was predicting a coming Ice Age.
So far as I know, current global warming theory offers no satisfactory explanation for this mid-century dip in global temperatures.
Nor can it account for either the mediaeval warm period when grapes were grown as far north as York and there was a thriving agricultural community on Greenland or the mini-Ice Age that affected northern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.
It is not that anyone denies that the greenhouse effect is real - it is calculated that, without it, mean global temperature would be a rather chilly minus 18 degrees C - merely that there are other factors at work and to attribute all temperature changes to man-made emissions is far too simplistic.
But Sir Nicholas is an economist and it is his views on that subject that are causing most interest.
It is said that if you ask six economists a question you will get seven different answers, so, as is to be expected, his fellow practitioners are lining up to have a pop at him.
One thing that surprised most people was the almost trivial amounts of money - one percent of global GDP over 30 years - that Stern claims will be required to stave off the worst of the consequences of global warming compared to the cost of doing nothing; put at 30% of GDP.
A word of warning is in order here because GDP is not the same thing as economic wellbeing.
If some centralised government directed that all car production capacity should be diverted into making tanks, the GDP might remain the same but the economic wellbeing of the population would be much reduced.
The problem with GDP is that it takes no account of quality of life.
Suppose you have saved up £10,000 to buy a new car and then you find you have dry rot in the roof.
You have a stark choice between repairing the roof, or ignoring the problem and taking the risk that things might become a good deal worse.
So you decide to forgo the new car and call in the builders.
The builders charge you £10,000 for the new roof which makes exactly the same contribution to GDP as if you'd bought the car.
In this situation, the dry rot has made you poorer (you don't have a new car) without affecting GDP.
All individuals have what economists call a demand, or consumption, schedule.
These are the things you would choose to buy if you had a certain level of income.
It is assumed that the things you choose to buy are those that give you most satisfaction - the maximisation of economic welfare.
So, if you are the sort of person who likes foreign holidays; driving around in a Chelsea tractor; and eating Kenyan runner beans at Christmas, green taxes, by altering your consumption schedule, will have a negative effect on you economic welfare, even though, in GDP terms you are spending the same amount of money.
Of course, if someone comes up with a quick technological fix that provides energy at prices comparable to fossil fuels, there will be no problem.
However, if new sources of energy cost more, all our demand schedules will be negatively affected . i.e. in terms of economic welfare, we will all be worse off.