September 12 2013

Price differentials

I am afraid this week's column is going to be rather heavy on arithmetic, but in case anyone logs on who still believes that, save for the formation of the IPPG, the Labour Group with nine of the sixty members would control the council (Through the looking-glass), I will try to keep it as simple as possible.
First, I have been doing some more sums on the commercial property grant scheme in Pembroke and Pembroke Dock
What I find is that the ten projects in Pembroke for which I have figures attracted total grants of £265,000 - an average of £26,500.
Nine projects in Pembroke Dock - total grant £516,641 - had an average grant £57,404.
On the face of it, building in Pembroke Dock would seem to be more than twice as expensive as in Pembroke.
However, that is only half the story because, if you subdivide the 19 projects into those carried out by Cathal McCosker/Kinver Kreations/G & G Builders (MKG), and the rest, you find that the five MKG contracts in Pembroke Dock attracted grant offers of £410,000 - average £82,000, while for the other 14 projects the total grant is £371,000 - average £26,515.
Of course, that is not conclusive because the MKG projects might simply be more than three times more complex.
To test that hypothesis you might go to Dimond Street, Pembroke Dock, where, by happy coincidence, two of these projects; No. 29 (MKG), and No.31 (other) sit side by side.
According to the reports to Cabinet the estimated project costs for these two contracts were: £188,371 with a grant of £81,073 (No. 29) and £66,485 with a grant of £35,590 (No. 31).
I also have the outturn figures for these two contracts which are £161,373 and £63,127 (No 29) and £42,684 and £24,735 (No 31).
Anyone eyeballing these two properties from the street might be surprised that these figures are not the other way around.
No. 31 has a modern shop front and interior, while if you if you wander into Paul Sartori (No. 29) you will find that no work has been carried out to the interior of the shop.
Ditto No. 25 Dimond Street (MKG) - the former Gordon's butcher's shop which still has the original tiles on the walls.
Though, as the purpose of these grants was to upgrade the town's retail area, you might wonder where the money was spent.
There is another way of looking at these figures for commercial property grants.
All the cabinet reports with the exception of 10 Meyrick Street (MKG) give a figure for the amount of retail space refurbished/brought back into use.
For the non-MKG projects this totals 2148 sq metres and, for the four MKG projects for which I have data, 298 sq metres.
The MKG contracts (excluding 10 Meyrick Street) have a grant rate of £1,138 per square metre compared to £172 per square metre averaged over the rest.
Naturally, confronted with discrepancies of that magnitude, anyone with an enquiring mind seeks an explanation.
Unfortunately, the county council seems reluctant to provide me with information that might help me come up with one.
I have now received a response to my latest FoI request for details of the final account for Nos 25,27 and 29 Dimond Street (all MKG) comprising the summary sheets from the Bill of Quantities (BoQ) with all relevant information blanked out.
Even the signature of the officer(s) who approved these final accounts has been given the black ink treatment.
So all that I can discern is that G and G Builders did some work at these properties and, in the case of No.25, the tender price was £222,468 and the final cost £87,992.
I have now asked for the extracts from the Bill of Quantities that support the amounts on these summary sheets.
Once I have the detailed breakdown of the final accounts, I will be able discover why the contract for No. 25 came out at just 40% of the tender price.
All I can say is that it doesn't say much for the accuracy of the original BoQ.
Of course I have my theory as to how all this works (Weed control), but without hard evidence the possibility that there is some other explanation cannot be ruled out.
Though the fact that have not yet received a solicitor's letter encourages me to think that my theory might have legs.

Lucky for some

It is not everyone, it seems, who draws a blank with FoI requests to the county council.
A Mr Rhys Matthews put in a request for details of compromise agreements with departing members of staff.
These are sometimes referred to as "gagging orders" because of the widespread practice in the NHS of using them to silence potential whistleblowers, but that is not an accurate description because they are mostly used to ensure a smooth exit without the risk of the employer finding themselves in front of an employment tribunal.
Or, as BBC human resources chief Lucy Adams described them before a recent Parliamentary Select Committee: "sweeteners".
Anyway, in answer to the request "Please could you provide a breakdown of the numbers and costs of such [compromise] agreements per year." Mr Matthews received the following answer.

01/04/13 – 2 @ £48,720 + PILON
01/04/12 – 31/03/13 2 @ £35,200 + PILON
01/04/11 – 31/04/12 0
01/04/10 – 31/03/11 1 @ £7,000 + PILON
01/04/09 – 31/03/10 1 @ £3,672 + PILON

PILON, I should explain is an acronym for Payment In Lieu Of Notice.

As it happens Grumpette put down a question on this subject at the July meeting of council.
She asked, among other things: "If any such agreements have been made with staff leaving the Authority's employ, what is the highest severance payment made to any one individual?"
And "Has any senior member of staff leaving the Council's employ in the last three years up to this month received a severance package over and above the statutory requirement?"

According to the draft minutes, Cllr Jamie Adams replied: "This was a rare practice for the Authority. Over the last three years, there had only been five such Agreements, with two of those negotiated by School Governing Bodies."
And "Of the five Agreements made in the last three years, the highest additional sum paid had been £34,185."

No doubt Cllr Adams was reading out answers prepared for him by officers, but it is difficult to see how the five payments made in the past three years don't include the two of £49,720 paid out in 2013 because, if they are excluded, there are only three payments in the last three years.

Bread and circuses

Old Grumpy notices that the Western Telegraph is reporting that last week's Ironman was worth £4 million to the county's economy.
I seem to recall that last year it was £10 million.
So, what went wrong?
Well, nothing, because these figures are plucked out of thin air - they have no statistical basis.
And as I explained a couple of weeks ago, even if true, they make very little difference to the county's wealth.
That is because these are gross figures and at least half of any money spent by visitors and competitors will disappear up the line in taxes and payments to suppliers.
But, I hear you say, £2 million is not to be sneezed at.
Indeed!
But it amounts to something less than £20 per head of the county's population - hardly enough to transform the county into a land of milk and honey.
Of course, it is manna to local politicians because it gives them the opportunity to foster the illusion that "something is being done".
The fact, alas, is that the county's economy is driven by thousands going to work day in day out at building sites, shops, factories, bus depots and all the other humdrum activities that people do for a living.
Spectaculars like cruise liners and Ironman do make a small contribution, but anyone who looks to them for economic salvation probably has fairies at the bottom of their garden.
This is not a new political strategy.
The Roman satirist Juvenal had it weighed up 2,000 years ago when he said "Give them bread and circuses".
Our ten-year-old grandson had his own take on Ironman.
Over lunch it was mentioned that it cost £325 to enter.
"What!", he exclaimed, "They pay £325 just to make themselves tired?"

False consensus

There is a 97% consensus among climate scientists that human activities are causing dangerous climate change.
This figure has been quoted by both President Obama and Energy Minister Ed Davy.
There are umpteen articles on the web rubbishing this claim, but none so devastating as that penned by Professor Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia.
I should point out that Prof Hulme is a fully-paid-up member of the group of climate scientists who believe that most of the warming over the past hundred years has been caused by man's Carbon Dioxide emissions and that, if we don't mend our ways, the consequences will be dire.
However, he is also someone who believes in scientific truth and this is his view of the consensus-mongers:
"The “97% consensus” article is poorly conceived, poorly designed and poorly executed. It obscures the complexities of the climate issue and it is a sign of the desperately poor level of public and policy debate in this country that the energy minister should cite it."
That's telling 'em!

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