October 9 2007


Insider trading


Last week I apologised for misrepresenting what had transpired when I asked the county council for information on Pem Developments Ltd.
Pem Developments is an Irish company based in Clonmel.
Last year it successfully bid for the contract to develop the Withybush Business Park - a joint venture between the county council and the Welsh Assembly.
There was keen competition for the job, not least from an established, Bristol-based property company called Terrace Hill.
But, following a bid evaluation exercise involving a complex scoring system, Pem Developments emerged the winner.
One of the headings in the scoring system was previous experience of similar developments.
Terrace Hill scored more highly than Pem on this count, but not by a large enough margin to offset Pem's perceived advantages in other areas.
What is surprising is that Pem scored anything at all for experience because the company, which counts among its directors an auctioneer, a manufacturer of dental equipment, a couple of consultants and a builder, had only been incorporated a year earlier (on 31 May 2005, to be precise) so had insufficient time to carry out any similar projects.
It is also noteworthy that the company were awarded the Withybush contract on rather easy terms.
The minutes of the Cabinet record:
"That the Director of Development be authorised to confirm to PEM Developments that they be granted preferred Developer status for an initial six-month period during which they can advertise and promote their development, seek Welsh Assembly Government grant funding and planning consents prior to financial agreement on terms to be agreed with the Director of Development and acceptable to the Welsh Assembly
So, in effect, they had the site on appro.
It would be interesting to know whether the other bidders were aware that these risk-free arrangements were part of the package.
Old Grumpy is struck by the frequency with which the words "terms to be agreed with the Director of Development", or similar, appear in Cabinet minutes.
I would have thought that as custodians of public assets the Cabinet might like to have the final say regarding the terms for their disposal, but, as I've said before, the Cabinet is merely the officers' rubber stamp.
But, I digress.
The company's name suggests that it was set up with Pembrokeshire in mind, and Withybush Industrial Park is not by any means the full extent of Pem Developments' involvement in Pembrokeshire.
You may wonder why a group of businessmen from a small town in the centre of Ireland should suddenly become interested in the county.
To understand the full story you have to go back to the Cabinet meetings of January and April 2005.
At the January meeting the council resolved to seek a compulsory purchase order for the Commodore/Port Hotel in Pembroke Dock and in April a similar resolution was passed in respect of land at Withybush earmarked for a motor retail park.
You may remember that the second of these caused a bit of a rumpus because the council claimed that attempts to reach a negotiated settlement with the owners had run into the sand leaving compulsory purchase was the only way forward, while the owners denied that any such negotiations had ever taken place.
Both these purchases were to proceed by way of what are commonly known as "back to back" agreements, where, prior to the compulsory purchase order being activated, the council identifies a development partner who will immediately buy the property from the council.
The advantage of such arrangements is that, while avoiding any financial commitment, the council retains control over the ultimate use of the site by means of a building agreement with its development partner .
Unfortunately, before either compulsory purchase order could be taken out, the council was pre-empted when private bidders stepped in to buy the properties from the respective owners.
Not that that would have prevented the council proceeding with the compulsory purchase order, which is taken out against the land not the owner.
However, the council seems to have acquiesced in these arrangements, though with the properties still in the hands of the private sector the council had lost the ability to control any future development through a building agreement.
As you've already guessed, the private bidder in both instances was Pem Developments which was set up on 31 May 2005; close on the heels of the compulsory purchase orders being approved by Cabinet.
Of course, this may be pure coincidence but you have to wonder how a group of businessmen from Clonmel came to get wind of these opportunities.
Unsurprisingly, negotiations for the land at Withybush earmarked for a motor retail park were swiftly concluded.
After all, threatened as they were with a compulsory order, the owners were hardly negotiating from a position of strength.
It may well be that the owners saw these Irish businessmen as white knights riding to the rescue, though a cynic might conclude that Pembrokeshire County Council shook the tree and Pem Developments caught the apple.
The owner of the Port Hotel proved to be made of sterner stuff, though, after the place was set on fire by vandals last autumn, her hand was considerably weakened and I understand she has now succumbed.
As the minutes of the Cabinet record, the council required the Port Hotel in order "To fulfil the objectives of the Townscape Heritage Initiative, secure the future of a listed building and help bring forward the physical and economic regeneration of Pembroke Dock."
If this was such a matter of urgency, why did the council stand aside for almost two years while Pem Developments negotiated with the owners?
This is all very strange.
Whenever Old Grumpy encounters a mystery involving the county council's dealings in Ireland my thoughts turn to our old friend; Cllr Brian Hall's former business partner and the council's £450-a-day economic development consultant, Dr Michael Ryan (Hall-Ryan).
And, on examining Dr Ryan's travelling expense claims, I notice that he made the 94 mile return trip trip from his home in Limerick to Clonmel on 17 occasions in the early part of 2005 and, interestingly, no fewer than 11 of these journeys occurred before May 31 when, according to Irish Companies House, Pem Developments was incorporated.


It's only a game


I had vowed not to mention the Rugby World Cup - intruding on private grief, and all that - but the dramatic events of last weekend, when England and France both upset the form book, have forced me to abandon my self-imposed silence.
Reading the papers one might conclude that, by beating the Aussies, England have become a side on the verge of greatness.
But, had Mortlock's last minute penalty been a couple of yards to the right, the sports' pages would have been full of stuff about England's Dads Army of no-hopers and Brian Ashton would be clutching his P45.
And, had the ref spotted the forward pass that led to France's winning try, Graham Henry would still be in a job, and New Zealand would be on course to win their first World Cup since 1997.
The sports' writers reaction to these two fluky wins - as with that of Fiji a week earlier - only goes to show that we take sport far too seriously.
The fact is that the outcome of many sporting contests, especially those involving fairly evenly matched teams, is simply a matter of luck.
Of course, if you are being paid a lot of money to fill one of the Daily Telegraph's twenty pages of sport, you have a vested interest in creating the impression that you have some special insight on the subject and to admit that pure chance has anything to do with it undermines your claim to expertise.
So sports writers have a tendency to lazily "write the result".
After all, nobody can argue that 12-10 is a victory, however achieved.
If this was only a question of what fills the sports pages it wouldn't be a matter of much concern.
But, on what amounts to nothing much more than the throw of a dice, careers and reputations are made and destroyed.
The Americans have a saying that things are rarely so bad that they can't be made worse by sacking the coach.
It appears that Wales and New Zealand have decided to ignore that advice.
Finally, if, as seems to be the case, the dreary diet of garryowens and rolling mauls served up by the Argentineans is superior to the exotic fare provided by the South Sea islanders, it is surely time that the rules were changed to reduce the importance of the set piece.

Brown study


I am not a fan of David Cameron but it is difficult to disagree with his description of Gordon Brown's explanation for deciding not to call a General Election as an insult to the electorate's intelligence.
If, as Mr Brown claims, he only wants "to get on with the job" why was he giving serious consideration to going to the country with all the uncertainty that that entails.
Everybody knows that the reason the General Election was shelved is that the polls had turned against Labour.
To pretend otherwise is not only an insult to our intelligence but seriously damaging to democratic politics because, once the public forms the impression that nothing our elected leaders say is to be believed, the trust in government that underpins any democracy is destroyed.
Of course, it is easy to see why Mr Brown might have been tempted to cut and run because the successful economy over which he has presided looks set for a downturn as the sea of debt on which has been floating begins to dry up.
Events such as the unravelling of the American sub-prime mortgage binge and the carry trade (carried away) are largely beyond the Chancellor's control but, as he knows full well, if things turn sour, regardless of fault, it is the government that usually gets the blame.

In a pickle


I came home the other night to find Grumpette in full domestic godess mode.
A huge pan of green tomato chutney was bubbling away on the cooker, while an industrial scale pickling operation (onions and beetroot) was in full swing in another part of the kitchen.
"No point in being married to the county's best gardener if you don't take advantage", she explained.
As a wartime baby - reared on powdered eggs and rose hip syrup - I find this primeval urge not to let good food go to waste wholly admirable.
However, I'm not sure I'm looking forward to another winter of cheese and pickle lunches.

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