September 17 2002

Quickfire Cabinet

Having drawn attention to the infrequency and short duration of Cabinet meetings (see 10 September, Overpaid and underworked)) I felt obliged to toddle along to the Kremlin on Monday when that august body was called together for only -the third time since its inception in mid-May.
With 35 items of business on the agenda, I expected something interesting to happen, but I was disappointed as the whole of the public part of the proceedings (three minor items were dealt with in private) were disposed of in 1hr 10 mins.
Except for a general and inconclusive discussion on the desirability of giving Orange badges to all those over 75 years of age, there was little constructive activity save for a vigorous rubber stamping of whatever the Chief Officers Management Board (COMB) put in front of them.
When the Council meets on 31 October, to consider a replacement for the present illegal allowances scheme, it is to be hoped that somebody has the courage to ask what exactly it is these Cabinet members do for their £22,500 a year.
They might also enquire how the basic allowance of £9,900 for a bog-standard member was arrived at.
What they will be told, no doubt, is that £9,900 is the figure recommended in the document, Valuing Councillors in the Community, produced by Dr Declan Hall of Birmingham University and endorsed by the Welsh Assembly.
However, Old Grumpy has the advantage over most, if not all, of our elected representatives in that I have actually read Dr Hall's report which bases the £9,900 allowance on the assumption that councillors spend 90 hours a month (22 hours a week) on official duties.
As Dr Hall admits (page 37) many of the councillors interviewed put their time commitment much lower than this, some as low as 6-8 hours a week.
Dr Hall concluded that 8 hours a week (35 hours a month) was too low as "it bore no relationship to the averages that councillors say (my emphasis) they put in."
He did however concede that 90 hours a month might be an overestimate and that his team "could see some merit for local authorities being able to vary the expected monthly input downwards in increments of 10 hours to a minimum of 60 hours", giving four possible bands for the basic allowance.
However, in the interests of simplicity, he decided to recommend a single basic allowance based on 90 hours, though he did add that: "This does not prevent local authorities from voluntarily making such a reduction in their basic allowance if they feel the expected minimum inputs are too high for their local expectations and traditional ways of working."
In fairness to the councillors, the officer's report did not offer this alternative, otherwise those members who have variously described the new allowances to me as "obscene" and "an embarrassment" might have voted differently.
Though, as none of them have opted to take advantage of Section 13 of the regulations, which provides that members may forgo all or part of the allowances, I may be giving credit where none is due.
After all, as Confucius is reputed to have said: "Man with head in trough can't see beyond end of nose".

Net profit

Old Grumpy might respectfully draw councillors' attention to the item in Dr Hall's report entitled "Information Technology".
This starts with the dubious proposition that: "As councillors are now under a duty [???] to embrace e-local government they need to be able to have access to personal computers and peripheral equipment such as printers and modems." which, Dr Hall concludes, will "make them more efficient in their work".
To achieve this desirable state of affairs he proposes that these "direct costs common to all councillors regardless of their role" should be met by a payment of £400 a year (£300 to lease/buy a computer and £100 for the cost of using the internet) to all elected members.
The basic allowance of £9,900, agreed by the County Council in February includes this universal payment of £400.
However, when Old Grumpy checked the County Council's website on Sunday evening I discovered that of the 60 members only 11 had an e-mail address.
Seems like we are being taken for a ride in non-existent cyber-space.


Chalk and cheese

Old Grumpy's attention has been drawn to the startlingly different regimes that exist in the County Council and Pembrokeshire National Park planning systems.
Regular visitors to this site will be well aware of my low opinion of what goes on in the County Council's planning committee where the members routinely act as the applicant's advocate rather than as judges of the facts and law as required by legislation and the Code of Conduct.
I note with approval that all National Park planning meetings kick off with a reminder by the authority's solicitor that members are required to take account of the provisions of the Human Rights Act and that "it is essential that the way in which the authority decides planning issues is characterised by fairness, and that the authority strikes a fair balance between the public interest, as reflected in the Town and Country Planning legislation, and individual rights and interests."
With that in mind, the National Park allows both applicants and objectors to put their case to the committee.
That not only accords with the basic legal principle that people should have a fair hearing but it also removes the temptation for members to break the law by 'speaking on behalf of the applicant', as they often put it.
In the case of the County Council members are not told of their legal obligations, nor are interested parties allowed to have their say.
It strikes me as strange that an unelected body appears to place a higher value on the rule of law than its democratically elected counterpart.
Even stranger is the fact that ten of the National Park Authority members who sit through all this legal palavar are councillors appointed by the County Council.
I wonder if it ever occurs to them that these procedures might profitably be transferred down the road to the Kremlin?

Planned chaos

Last week I popped along to County Hall to witness the planning committee in action - a disturbing experience for anyone who values truth and logic.
One of the first items on the agenda was a proposal for a waste recycling centre near Pembroke Dock.
The head cheerleader for this development was Cllr Brian Hall who pointed out, quite rightly, that the officers were recommending consent and that there was no reason on planning grounds to refuse the application.
As Cllr Hall pointed out, were the council to refuse the application, without good reason, the applicant would win his appeal and, very likely, the council would have to pay his costs.
This is, of course, exactly what happened at the recent appeal on a site at London Road, Pembroke Dock, where members refused an application, despite the officers' advice that the proposals were within policy.
And the man leading the charge against the officers' advice on that occasion? um, er, Cllr Brian Hall.
And let us not forget the famous case of the proposed waste transfer station at Waterloo, Pembroke Dock; also recommended for approval by the officers, which was scuppered when Cllr Hall highlighted his opposition by turning up at Couty Hall with two stuffed rats.
So much for consistency!
In the event the proposal was rejected by 10-5 with Cllr Hall's Independent Group colleague, Planning Committee vice-Chairman, Bryan Phillips, who lives near to the proposed recycling facility, leading the antis.
"I represent a lot of people in that area", Cllr Phillips told the committee, "and 100% of them have ordered me to vote against this."
So much for the Code of Conduct and its requirement that, when determining planning applications, members should objectively consider all the evidence before reaching a conclusion.
However, on matters political, as opposed to legal, members are perfectly in order to consult their constituents before making up their minds.
I hope that, before Cllr Phillips casts his vote for the revised members allowance scheme on October 31, he ascertains the percentage of his constituents who think he should be paid £250 a week as vice-chairman of the planning committee (one meeting a month).

Stock jokes

Word has reached Old Grumpy that Cllr Peter "All-over-you-like-a-duvet" Stock, the Cabinet Minister for Communities, has been putting it about that my reporting of County Council matters lacks the objectivity expected of serious reporter.
According to my sources, "Eiderdown" is fond of relating a little parable (who does he think he is?) about Old Grumpy emerging from the Kremlin on Cleddau to find a County Councillor struggling with a rottweiler that is about to savage a small child.
The headline in the following week's Mercury?
This story is so old and corny that the first time I heard it I fell out of the pram trying to make myself laugh.
And the thought of one of Parry-Jones's poodles taking on a rottweiler has now caused me to fall out of my bath chair.


As a fully paid up eurosceptic, I can't let the tenth anniversary of Black - or was it White - Wednesday, September 16 2002, pass without comment.
That was the day, you will remember, that the UK was thrown out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) on its ears, or some anagram thereof.
Since that dramatic day our economy has thrived like never before, with ten years of consistent growth, rising living standards and low inflation, unemployment and interest rates.
All week, euroenthusiasts like Kenneth Clarke, Lord Haskins and Michael Heseltine have been touring the studios telling us that membership of the ERM is not the same as scrapping the pound and joining European Monetary Union (EMU).
They are right, of course, there would be no escape from EMU.
I am at a complete loss to understand how anyone can support our entry into EMU while, after three years of the Euro, Germany, Europe's leading economy, has more than 4 million unemployed (UK 1 million) and economic growth hovering just above zero (UK 2%).
The fact is that, despite the competive advantage of a 15% devaluation of the Euro against the Pound and the Dollar, the economies of Euroland seem to be heading in the same direction as Japan, which shows no sign of pulling out of a ten year decline.

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