September 19 2009


Lack of interest

The minutes of the National Park meeting of June 24 have now been published.
This was the meeting, you may recall, when Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse's request to have his legal bill paid by the authority was discussed. Councillor Allen-Mirehouse had engaged m'learned friends to defend him before the Adjudication Panel for Wales against the Ombudsman's allegations that, as the owner of land that could be affected by the park's controversial "homes for locals" policy, he had breached the code of conduct by failing to declare an interest during a park meeting when the planning policy was debated. The county councillor's Cardiff lawyers were successful, and Cllr Allen-Mirehouse was exonerated by the panel. He subsequently asked the park authority to foot his £40,000+ legal bill
I was present at the meeting in June, when, despite the clearest possible advice from both the authority's solicitor and monitoring officer that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse had a prejudicial interest in the matter before the committee, he refused to withdraw from the meeting during the debate as to whether to hold the discussion on his claim behind closed doors (Interesting times).
In the event, after members voted to go into private session, I had to leave while Cllr Allen-Mirehouse remained. The recently published minutes reveal that things got really interesting after that.
The minutes record that: "The Member concerned requested that consideration of the above-mentioned matter be deferred. In support of this request, they [Cllr Allen-Mirehouse] stated that they were unhappy with the way in which the Monitoring Officer's report was presented to Members. They acknowledged that the facts of the report were correct, but considered that the Monitoring Officer had placed the wrong inclination on them. The Member also asked that their Solicitor be allowed to represent them in this matter."
And despite being told by the Monitoring Officer that "he should disclose a pecuniary interest in the matter and consequently withdraw from the meeting" the minutes record that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse then suggested that the matter "be deferred in order that a meeting could be arranged with the Monitoring Officer to discuss the report, and that the report be considered at the next meeting of the Authority. The Member then withdrew from the meeting."
It seems this argument was accepted by the committee because the minutes record that " Following a lengthy discussion, it was RESOLVED that the matter be deferred to enable the Member to make representations to the Monitoring Officer on the content of the latter's report.
(Ms C Gwyther and Councillors JA Brinsden and M Williams voted against the above-mentioned decision, whilst Mr R Howells abstained from voting.)

The rest, presumably, voted for the deferment.
It is interesting to note that nowhere in the minutes is it recorded that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse declared an interest in this matter.


The committee eventually met again on 29 July when, according to the minutes, Cllr Allen-Mirehouse tendered his apologies.
There was an interesting contribution from Mr David Ellis, a WAG appointee, who the minutes record: ". . . wished to point out that he felt very strongly that Members should not be deciding upon this matter. The Member concerned was a friend and colleague of all present, and he considered it inappropriate for Members to be considering an issue concerning another Member."
This is a fair point, but Old Grumpy would have thought that if Mr Ellis felt that he couldn't deal with this issue with the required degree of impartiality he should have withdrawn from the fray.
And it would be interesting to know what he thinks of the authority's standards committee which has the power to discipline members found guilty by the Ombudsman of breaches of the Code of Conduct.
Members finding themselves before this quasi-judicial committee will be facing no fewer than three of the friends and colleagues who serve alongside them on the authority.
In addition, one of the independent members is the county council's former director of development Roger Barrett-Evans, who will be well known to most of the 12 county councillors on the National Park authority.
Clearly, a magistrate would not be allowed to sit on any case involving a defendant, or witness for that matter, with whom they had a close personal relationship.
It has always been my view that the same rules should apply to standards committees, though my previous attempts to modify the county council's constitution to that effect have fallen foul of the Independent Political Group's block vote.

Taxing times

The county council's economic development scrutiny committee has endorsed the Cabinet's policy on planning obligations - sometimes referred to as S106 agreements.
This will mean that developers of sites involving three or more dwellings could find themselves having to fork out in excess of £11,000 per house to compensate for the detriment caused by the development.
As I have said previously, this is a form of taxation. (Tax by any other name).
What is surprising, given their constant harping on about the government's stealth taxes, is that the Tories and closet Tories who provide the majority of the ruling IPG should so enthusiastically embrace such a policy.
But, as Milton Friedman said, politicians of all persuasions find it difficult to resist the chance to spend other people's money.
And it promises to be a tidy sum because it is estimated to raise a not-to-be-sneezed-at £1 million - £4 million per year which is to be used to finance schools, libraries, play areas and transport
Sadly, the law of unintended consequences probably means it will have undesirable effects elsewhere.
These could range from making houses less affordable by adding £11,000 to the price, or reducing the supply of new homes by making developments less attractive financially.
I did try to head off this impost by way of a notice of motion to full council but I got little support.
The point I tried to get over was that these sort of taxes (betterment levy, development land tax) had been tried before without conspicuous success and that, in the present economic climate, sticking £11,000 on the cost of building a house, regardless who who picks up the bill, is sheer economic lunacy
However, someone must have been listening because the latest proposals include the proviso that "The planning authority acknowledges the uncertain economic situation and is receptive to testing scheme viability to ensure that Section 106 obligations do not impact to such an extent as to affect the viability of proposals."
This is to be achieved by means of the supposedly objective "Three Dragons test" devised by the Welsh Assembly.
So, if a developer claims that the charge will make the scheme unviable, the old Three Dragons will be wheeled out to see if they are right.
My experience of property developers tells me that, if they believe they can't make a profit on the deal, no amount of dragons will persuade them to go ahead.
And there is worse to come because in the legislative pipeline is something called Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) which will extend the planning obligations regime to all new developments.

No laughing matter

It seems that most economic forecasters now expect the economy to start growing again in either the present quarter or the next.
That will mean the recession is over, at least for the time being.
However, before you put out the flags, you might also want to reflect on the other prediction that the increase in unemployment is likely to continue well into next year.
That is because productivity grows at about 2% per annum which means that output must also grow at the same rate to keep employment constant.
Anything less than 2% and the jobless figure keeps rising.
In fact it is probably worse than that because the shakeout in a recession usually affects the least efficient firms which boosts the average productivity of those still in work.
Add to that the cuts in public spending that everyone now agrees are necessary and the outlook is bleak.
And when you consider the increases in taxation required to repay the massive sums the government has borrowed to fund the bail out of the banks the outlook is bleaker still.
Plus the fact that, to get back to where we were before the crisis hit us, the economy has to grow at above its trend rate to make up for the 4%-5% shrinkage in the first half of this year.
All in all, we are in for several years of austerity.
Sorry to sound so negative, but, as ITMA's Mona Lott used to say: "It's being so cheerful that keeps me going"

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