September 6 2012

Influence peddling

As you may have read in the Western Telegraph, I have been trying to persuade the county council to spend more money on improving parking on council estates.
The problem is not of the county council's making, because, when these estates were built, nobody could foresee that some families would have two or even three vehicles.
Matters are made even worse because many of the houses are have been disposed of under the right-to-buy scheme and the council argues, quite reasonably, that it isn't fair to spend public money improving facilities for private owners.
A further complication is that any spending on parking has to come out of the housing revenue account which is financed by rents, and it certainly wouldn't be acceptable for tenants' rents to be used to subsidise enhanced parking for owner-occupiers.
As a result, parking schemes are only carried out in those locations where 80% of the properties are council-owned.
Over the years, the council has made some valuable improvements but by now most of the low hanging fruit has been gathered and future schemes are likely to prove much more expensive.
This year's budget contains a sum of £50,000 for improvements to parking across the whole county and, when I tell you that the accounts for 2011-2012 show that a single scheme in Coombs Drive Milford Haven cost £73,000, you will appreciate that £50,000 doesn't go far.
My argument is that it is rather lazy to refer to these as council estates because many of them are more than half privately-owned, and that improvements to those, such as Picton Road and Observatory Avenue, that act as through roads to other parts of the town should be financed from the general highways' budget where there seems to be no shortage of money.
For instance, during my recent trawl through the county council's 2011-2012 books I came across an invoice for £43,000 for tarmacing a section of the little-used back road from Johnston to Troopers Inn.
Also, invoices for more than £300,000 for resurfacing works in Maenchlochog, Llandissilio and Clynderwen; the ward represented by Cabinet member for education Cllr Rev Huw George, which led me to wonder if the £50,000 for ex-council estates demonstrated a proper sense of priorities.
When I put forward this argument to Cabinet I was told that that these various resurfacing schemes were all part of the council's scheduled works programme which was dictated by the council's road safety and maintenance policies.
That, of course is how it should be in a proper functioning democracy: the politicians make the policies and the officers carry them out.
However, if these things happen automatically - like the ebb and flow of the tide - it raises the question as to why Cllr George felt it necessary to try to to persuade the voters in his ward that these road works were somehow his doing (The love etc)
His election address begins: "I believe in positive politics . . this is what we have already achieved" followed by a long list of road and footpath works and ending with with the words "Putting our Community before the Council."
If, as is claimed, these road works are preordained by some fixed policy, it is not rather disingenuous for the local member to claim credit for them?
And what exactly do the words "Putting our Community before the Council" mean?
Cllr George, as the Cabinet member for education has a responsibility to everyone in Pembrokeshire, as indeed, though to a rather lesser degree, do all members of the council.
However, what is noticeable about his election address is that, among this wall-to-wall tarmac, there is no mention of his membership of either the Independent Political Group or the Cabinet.
Nor is there any word about the education policy for which he was, and still is, responsible..
Perhaps that is understandable given that he was in charge when the two critical reports on child safeguarding and education in general were published last autumn.
As a result of those reports, he was stripped of half his Cabinet responsibilities (though not his salary) (Collective wisdom) and, to cap it all, following the election he was promoted to deputy Leader which brought a pay rise of £2,500 a year.
So much for accountability.

The law is an ass

The difficulty in making watertight laws has been illustrated recently by the fiasco over the disqualification of those with criminal records from standing in the election of police commissioners.
This has led to the withdrawal of several candidates with criminal records stretching back up to 40 years - in one case for trespass on the railway at the age of 13.
Clearly, Parliament didn't want to see criminals elected to police commissioners, but it can't have intended to disqualify those convicted of minor criminal offences in childhood.
What Parliament failed to do was apply what is known as the "mischief rule" which requires that the law catches all those instances of behaviour that it is designed to prevent - no more and no less.
It would have been much simpler if the law required disclosure of previous convictions and left it to the electorate to decide whether they were of such seriousness as to make the candidate unsuitable.
Another rule of statutory interpretation is that the rule, when strictly applied, should not lead to an absurdity.
Which brings me to the Welsh Government's Local Government Measure 2011, particularly the sections on the allocation of scrutiny committee chairs.
These provisions were enacted with the entirely commendable aim of preventing the ruling group on councils from monopolising these chairmanships.
Briefly, under the new rules, chairs are allocated to the executive groups on a proportional basis with the proviso that anything less than a whole number is rounded down.
In Pembrokeshire's case the executive groups are the IPPG (32) and Labour (8) and there are five scrutiny committee chairs on offer.
The remaining 20 members are made up of Plaid Cymru (5) Conservatives (2) and unaffiliated independents 13.
Doing the sums we have 40/60 x 5 = 3.33 which rounds down to 3.
The remaining two chairs are then shared between the opposition political groups, again on a proportional basis with fractions rounded up or down to the nearest whole number.
Plaid 5/7 x2 = 1.4 = 1 and Conservatives 2/7 x 2 = 0.54 = 1
The unaffiliated members, who make up almost 25% of the council are totally excluded from this process.
That is both absurd and unfair, but it is possible to construct scenarios when applying the rules leads to even greater absurdity.
If there is only one opposition group, then it is entitled to all the seats not allocated to the executive group.
So if we have a council of 60, divided executive group (31), opposition group (2) and unaffiliated independents 27 the chairs would be allocated executive group (2) Opposition Group (3).
So, one of the opposition group's members would be entitled to hold two chairmanships while 45% of the members would be excluded altogether.
I will be writing to the Welsh Government pointing out this anomaly and I'll let you know how I get on.

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