September 11 2007


Done deal


A couple of weeks ago (Softly, softly), I reported that moves were afoot to merge the Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion NHS Trusts despite almost unanimous opposition to such proposals at a series of public meetings held across Pembrokeshire last year.
Meirion Hughes, the chairman of the committee working on these proposals, told the Western Telegraph: "The board is conscious there will be many questions about the proposals so arrangements are being made to keep staff, partner organisations, patients and the public up to date with developments."
I must say, when it comes to openness, these bureaucrats know how to talk the talk .
However, the walking part seems to cause them difficulties because when SF asked the project board for a copy of the draft merger proposals he was sent a document marked "Not intended for use in the public domain".
It seems that we are all set for another sham consultation exercise because the document says: "The project is time critical and needs to be implemented by April 1 2008".
Sounds to me like a done deal. (Lack of trust)

Open secret


A police press release informs me that: "Residents in Fishguard and Goodwick are being given more opportunities to meet their neighbourhood policing team. Neighbourhood surgeries have been set up in Goodwick Community Centre and Fishguard Town Hall. The aim of the surgeries is to provide a regular base for the team so people know where they are going to be at a certain time.
Useful information for the town's burgling fraternity, I would have thought.

Expensive junk


By now we should be getting used to government by gimmick.
The latest effort is the proposal that pregnant mothers be given £200 in order to improve their diet.
The gift is conditional on the recipients seeking professional dietary advice.
That done, they can spend the money however they like.
Now, it is difficult to believe that, given all the recent publicity about obesity and the like, anyone could be unaware of the fact that junk food is bad for you.
Nor can anyone be unaware that processed food is vastly more expensive than the home cooked variety.
So, it would seem that the consumption of junk food is nothing to do with lack of money.
Indeed, it might be argued that a cash handout could merely encourage junk food addicts to eat more of it.
Not that the government has a monopoly on gimmicry.
Only this week we have seen David Cameron calling for the return of some sort of National Service and, if rumours are to be believed, later this week the heir to the Goldsmith fortune, Zak, will be unveiling the Tories' plans to force us to live greener lives.
As I've said before, this is a surefire vote loser because, while there is a substantial body of people who talk a good game when it comes to the environment, their numbers will rapidly shrink when they are faced with the fundamental changes in their way of life that Zak's co-author, John "BSE" Gummer, is demanding.

Leaving presents


To return to the subject of inheritance tax over which quite a few readers worked up a lather when I first wrote about it (Death and taxes).
The main argument against inheritance tax is that it is a tax on savings out of taxed income that amounts to double taxation..
This is a fair point, but much of the current problem with inheritance tax flows from booming house prices, and an increase in the value of a house is not taxed income. Though the mortgage may have been paid out of taxed income, the sums expended are dwarfed by the tripling of house prices over the past ten years.
The double taxation problem could easily be overcome if the the initial cost of the asset (including mortgage interest payments) was offset along the lines used for Capital Gains Tax.
The other argument is that inheritance tax discourages hard work and aspiration.
In those cases where the primary motive for working hard is to make enough money to enable you to leave your family comfortably off, that might be true.
However, I suspect that most people's motive for working hard is to enrich themselves, and leaving money to the family is an incidental consideration.
In any case, as I pointed out in my original article, only a small proportion of inherited wealth is first-generation created.
Much of it has been passed down through successive generations of extremely wealthy families.
And what better way of discouraging hard work and aspiration than to allow someone to trouser a huge, tax-free inheritance.
And of course there are ways of acquiring wealth other than inheritance and work: crime and the lottery, for instance.
One e-mailer suggested that inheritance tax only gives incompetent/corrupt politicians more of our money to waste.
I agree, which is why I was careful in my original article to suggest that any extra money raised should be used to reduce income tax - the ultimate tax on hard work and aspiration.
All that said, my main argument against the scrapping of inheritance tax is that it would result in a concentration of capital in few hands and lead to a dynastic rentier class living off the back of the productive economy.
And, because such accumulations of wealth would be untouchable, that would, in turn, prevent what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called "the creative, destructive gales of capitalism" blowing the cobwebs out of the system.
There is also the argument that, as wealth and power are intimately connected, large concentrations of wealth are unhealthy in a democratic system; the aim of which should be to distribute power as widely as possible.
If there is a case for abolishing inheritance tax it is to be found in the fact that, for the very rich, at which it is principally aimed, it is a voluntary tax because they can afford to employ vastly expensive tax consultants to devise ways to avoid it.
Of course, it may be that the current thresholds, which catch the majority of family homes in the south east of England, are too low, but that is not an argument for doing away with the tax altogether.

Falling mercury

I notice that the Western Telegraph is playing up its green credentials with a little advert on page 2 containing the words "Newspapers support recycling" inside a tree logo together with the information that "Recycled paper made up 75.5% of the raw material for British newspapers in 2004".
And that's not the only thing that the Telegraph recycles because I am not the first person to notice the Telegraph's cricket reports being repeated, verbatim, in the next day's edition of its sister paper, the Mercury.
As one local sport's fan put it: "Why buy the Mercury just to read the same words over again?"
Why indeed?
It seems that quite a few people have come to the same conclusion because I notice that the Mercury's circulation has fallen to under 6000 from the 8,400 and rising when the Telegraph bought it.
And circulation is not the only thing that's fallen because, on the rare occasions that I visit the Mercury offices, I am struck by the absence of people.
Indeed, on one visit I found the door locked and a note in the window informing the public that all the staff were out.
This is not surprising because, as far as I can see, only three stalwart workers remain - compared to eleven in the paper's heyday.
I wonder how long it will be before the Telegraph's banner carries the words "incorporating the Milford Mercury".
Of course it will be accompanied by an article telling us that the change has been made in order to improve the service to its readers.

Publicity boost

The Americans call it "boosterism" - the practice of talking something up to such an extent that anyone who dares to criticise is seen as a party-pooper.
Two examples from this neck of the woods, which get publicity well ahead of their economic importance, are cruise liners and farmers' markets.
A little arithmetic is useful here.
A cruise liner carries roughly 1000 passengers and crew.
And, according to some Milford Haven Port Authority papers that mysteriously landed on my doormat, the average cruise passenger spends £80 during their day ashore.
Assuming the same for the crew, that would make £80,000 - quite a nice sum to have in your back pocket.
However, there are 13,000 people living in Milford Haven and if they spend just £5 each per day that comes to £23.7 million per year.
So, as Cllr Huw George could tell you a cruise liner visit adds less than four-tenths of a percent to the Milford economy.
And that's assuming all the money is spent in Milford, which, of course, it isn't because most cruise passengers prefer to take a coach trip to the National Botanic Gardens, St Davids Cathedral, Pembroke Castle or wherever.
And, spread over the whole Pembrokeshire economy, the contribution of cruise liners is miniscule
A cruise liner moored in the Haven mkes an impressive sight and, as the old lady said, "every little helps", but to present the arrival of a cruise liner as a significant economic event is simply misleading.
Similarly with farmers markets, which, while providing a welcome expansion of choice and diversity, probably account for less than a tenth of one percent of the county's agricultural output.
Another dragon that needs slaying is the supposed superiority of locally produced food.
Now, there are sound economic reasons why food should be consumed near its point of production - not the least of which is the cost of hawking it about in lorries - but to suggest that it is somehow healthier than non-local food is not based on any evidence that I know of.
In any case, is it a good idea for a county - over ninety percent of whose food production is "exported" - to put about the idea that non-locally produced food is somehow inferior.

Cult membership


A gentleman rang me with a complaint which I dutifully passed on to the relevant Cabinet minister, Cllr Islwyn Howells.
Happily the problem seems to have been resolved.
However, during my e-mail correspondence with Cllr Howells he told me ."It may be of interest to you that Mr. X has also been in contact with both Cllr Anne Hughes and Cllr. Alun Byrne in regard to the matter."
Puzzled as to why Mr X's actions, in exercising his constitutional right to contact anyone he pleases, should be of interest to me or anyone else, I e-mailed Cllr Howells seeking an explanation.
"Nothing more than perhaps you would be interested to be informed that Mr. X was contacting other Councillors in the Milford area. Perhaps he is testing the system to see who takes up his concern!" he replied, adding: "I wonder is your curiosity working overtime?"
Well, where that strange creature - the non-political, political party known as the Independent Political Group (IPG) - is concerned, my curiosity button is always switched on.
And, I must say, I find Cllr Howell's "explanation" less than compelling.
What we have here, I think, is an example of what I call "the cult of the local member" which is the IPG's foundation stone.
This allows the local member's views on matters concerning his/her ward to be given inordinate weight.
As part of this cult, other members are not supposed to become involved in matters concerning "their ward".
It is easy to see that, so long as all, or most, members go along with this, their individual power is increased.
And, being politicians, they can be relied upon to use this power for electoral gain.
So decisions are made not in accordance with what is right or just, or, in the case of planning, the council's policies, but what is likely to bring in the most votes.
In short, it is a perversion of the democratic process.
Cllr Howells knows all about this because it was largely due to his efforts that the Tetra mast in his Uzmaston constituency was refused planning permission.
Members were warned by planning officers that, as there was no justification on planning grounds for refusal, such a decision would be perverse.
Unfortunately, the planning inspector also took this view and ordered the county council to pay MO2's costs, which, together with its own legal fees, lumbered local taxpayers with a bill for the princely sum of £170,000 (Playing for time)
At the risk of being accused of "lecturing", I would also say that "the cult of the local member" is profoundly unconstitutional.
The situation, as I understand it, is that all sixty county councillors represent the whole county.
It is true that we all have a particular interest in matters that affect the people who actually elected us, but we have, or should have, just as much interest in seeing that planning policy is followed in Eglwswrw as in our own backyards, and that the children in areas other than our own are properly educated.
So if Mr X wants to contact a county councillor other than the one who represents the ward in which he resides, he is perfectly entitled to do so.
In any case, Cllr Howells was barking up the wrong tree because Mr X lives in Hubberston.
So, if anyone should be interested in the fact that he has been contacting "other Councillors in the Milford area", it is Cllr Alun Byrne.

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