September 9 2008

 

Just a minute

My apologies for being late again this week and for the last week's cock-up when I made a hash of the links; making the site inaccessible.
Yesterday, I attended the county council's planning committee as an observer, which, despite all the training members have been given, provided the usual depressing spectacle.
The first issue to arise was the accuracy of the minutes of the previous meeting.
At the meeting of 8 July, Cllr Malcolm Calver asked that it be recorded that he had overheard a conversation in the members' tea room between Cllrs Rosalie Lilwall and Clive Collins during which Cllr Collins had said he would be proposing that a controversial application for Paddles nightclub - recommended for approval by officers - should be refused.
The nightclub is in Cllr Lilwall's ward but she is not a member of the planning committee.
The planning committee is a quasi-judicial body where members are supposed to listen to all the evidence before deciding whether to support or reject an application.
That is the theory, at least, but anyone who seriously believes the fiction that members go to planning committee with completely open minds probably has fairies at the bottom of their garden.
Clearly, if what Cllr Calver says is true, an intention to propose refusal; reached before the meeting, amounts to a prejudgement.
When none of this was in the minutes of the meeting, which came up for approval as an accurate record at the meeting of 31 July, Cllr Calver complained.
And yesterday he complained again when there was no mention of this complaint in the minutes of the 31 July meeting which were up for approval.
The other issue raised by Cllr Calver at the July 31 meeting which didn't get a mention in the minutes was the names of the members who had moved and seconded the proposal that consideration of the plans for a marina at Castle Pill Milford Haven should be deferred.
The members in question were Cllrs Danny Fellows and John Allen Mirehouse, who, as most of you will know, are both directors of Milford Haven Port Authority which owns the marina just around the corner in Milford Docks.
Clearly, another marina in such close proximity is going to compete with that of MHPA and the question is whether these two port authority board members should have declared an interest.
Clearly they think not, because at yesterday's meeting, when the deferred application came back for consideration, Cllrs Fellows and Allen-Mirehouse proposed and seconded approval.
During the officer's presentation, Old Grumpy was interested to see that the planning application included PCC-owned land on the eastern side of Castle Pill, which as regular readers will know, is part of the mine depot site which MHPA was, and, for all I know, still is, trying to purchase from the county council.
I have obviously misunderstood the rules on declarations of interest because I would have thought that taking part in a meeting at which planning permission for land that an organisation of which you are a director is interested in purchasing, would amount to a breach of the Code of Conduct.
In the event, Cllr Calver's attempt to have the minutes changed to truly reflect what had been said was voted down.
As Hannah Arendt put it in Origins of Totalitarianism: "Authoritarians have an extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of the man who can fabricate it."
And I think it was Groucho Marx who said:"I don't mind being in the minority, as long as I get to write the minutes."

Misinterpretation

 

This would not be the first time that my interpretation of these rules, and that of the Ombudsman, has proved to be flawed.
I refer, of course, to the Adjucication Panel's decision that the Ombudsman was wrong to find that Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse had breached the Code of Conduct when he spoke and voted at a National Park meeting where what came to be known as the 'homes for locals' policy was debated.
This decision has now been posted on the Adjudication Panel's website (www.adjudicationpanelwales.org.uk and click on register of tribunals/previous tribunals) in a form that my computer can decipher.
The decision notice records that there was a pre-hearing review on 7 March 2007, when, in order to shorten the hearing, the parties agreed on which facts were accepted by both sides and which were the subject of dispute.
The Panel's judgement records:

2.4.2 Following the pre-hearing review [of March 7] and the receipt of additional information, the Case Tribunal issued a listing direction on 30 May 2007 in which it identified the key relevant disputed facts upon which it would need to find, namely:
a Did Councillor Allen-Mirehouse own any land that was capable of being developed when he participated in the relevant meetings of Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority?

During the course of the actual hearing:

4.2 The Case Tribunal found the following disputed material facts:
4.2.1 Did Councillor Allen-Mirehouse own any land that was capable of being developed when he participated in the meetings of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority?

And

4.3 The Case Tribunal found the following in respect of the disputed facts:
4.3.1 Councillor Allen-Mirehouse did own land that was capable of being developed when he participated in meetings of the Authority.

5.1.2 Mr Tolson [Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's QC] said that it had never been disputed that Councillor Allen-Mirehouse owned land that was capable of being developed when he participated in the relevant meetings of the National Park Authority.

So, if it had never been disputed, why was it listed as a disputed fact following the pre-hearing review [2.4.2a]?
And why was it necessary for the case tribunal to find "in respect of the disputed facts" that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse did own land that was capable of being developed [4.3.1]?
Unfortunately, because the barrister representing the Ombudsman was barred from taking part in the proceeings (Two sides to every story), this apparent inconsistency was never resolved.

The tribunals judgement also skates over the facts regarding the police inquiry into the matter.

3.3.2 She [Mrs Elizabeth Thomas the Ombudsman's chief investigator] confirmed that upon receipt of the initial complaint from Mr Stoddart, the Ombudsman had decided to refer the matter to Dyfed Powys Police for investigation in May 2002. In July 2004, the Police advised the Ombudsman that there was insufficient evidence to pursue any criminal proceedings against Councillor Allen-Mirehouse. In October 2004, following the receipt of further information from Councillor Stoddart, the Ombudsman decided to carry out his own investigation into the complaint.

The truth about what actually happened can be found at Simple explanation, though you would never guess it from the adjudication panel's report.
Strangely, Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's statement to the police was not part of the evidence before the tribunal.
And, why, after I had provided the Ombudsman with evidence that the police had reached the wrong conclusion, was the matter not referred back to them for further investigation.
After all, if the conclusion: that he had no land that could be affected, was based on a statement Cllr Allen-Mirehouse made to the police, that would be a rather serious matter.


Policy v public opinion

But, to return to the planning committee.
The first item on the agenda was a proposal to build an eco-village at Lammas on the border between Pembrokeshire and Carmarthen.
According to the officer's report, this proposed development in the open countryside failed to meet certain criteria; mainly involving sustainability and economic viability, set out in the JUDP and the recommendation was for refusal.
No problem with that.
As I have said many times before, it is planning policy that determines these matters.
However, local member Cllr Lyn Davies wasn't content to leave it at that.
"Local people are concerned about this sort of development coming to Lammas" he said.
And with respect to the 865 letters of support, he asked "where did they come from?"
Cllr Brian Hall agreed: "I support the local member", he said, "if this was in my area I would be against it".
Now, for reasons which will become clear in the very near future, the council has been keen to ensure that all members are given training in the operation of the planning system.
The basic message; repeated ad infinitum, is that it is planning policy, not public opinion, that should determine these matters.
People who claim that this is undemocratic should try to remember that we live in a democracy under the rule of law.
Insofar as public opinion is concerned, it should decide what the policy is to be, not how it should be applied in particular cases.
Think Magistrates' courts!
Presumably Cllr Davies' constituents would be "against this sort of development" even if the various technical hurdles could be overcome.
The danger is that making statements like that leaves the council open to challenge on the grounds that the decision was made for invalid or irrelevant reasons.
Joint deputy leader Cllr Jamie Adams took the right approach when he said he would be voting against the proposal because it failed to pass "the financial and functional tests" set out in the policy.
Ah! the financial and functional tests - where have I heard that before?
I remember - the Leader's herdsman's cottage, of course.
Regular readers will remember that in that case the planning officer wrote to the leader's agent informing him that the proposed dwelling was too large and that a dwelling of 1,250-1,500 sq ft was sufficient to fulfill the "functional need", though there was no mention of any of this when the application came befor ethe planning committee a couple of weeks later with recommendation to approve a dwelling of 2,800 sq ft.
You might also remember that the the functional need for any sort of dwelling was based on a "farming regime" that involved 165 dairy cows though it later emerged that the cows had actually been sold well before the planning committee made its decision, leading to one of my better headings (No udder conclusion).
To get around this little problem the council concocted some figures to show that the farm required an extra worker regardless of the dairy cows.
As I pointed out at the time, these figures were arithmetically flawed because they involved grazing cattle on the land reserved for growing cereals (Fantasy figures).
As for the financial test, a council officer had inspected the books in the company of the applicant and found that the business was making a healthy profit; sufficient to finance the new dwelling.
The snag is that, even if the arithmetic was accurate, the Welsh Assembly Government's technical advice notes throw a rather large spanner into the works.
Under the heading Permanent Agricultural Dwellings, WAG specifies that: " 41. New permanent dwellings should only be allowed to support existing agricultural activities (my emphasis) on well established agricultural units, providing:
(a) There is a clearly established existing (WAG's emphasis) functional need.
and,
(c) the unit and the agricultural activity (my emphasis) concerned have been established for at least three years, have been profitable for least one of them, are currently financially sound, and have a clear prospect of remaining so.
As for the existing functional need it doesn't seem to be that pressing because a mole in the north of the county informs me that, more than three years after planning permission was granted, this "essential" herdsman's cottage still to emerge from the ground.
So, the past profitability of dairy farming [agricultural activity] can't be used to satisfy the financial test for a future agricultural activity [beef farming].
Of course Cllr Adams is something of an authority on this functional test business having early last year obtained planning consent for 2,400 aq ft + 260 sq ft double garage on the family farm at Keeston (Worker's paradise) (Cottage industry).
Wouldn't it be nice, not to say democratic, if these people applied the rules as stringently to themselves as they do to other people.

Conviction without trial

I have received an e-mail from Mr Andrew Lye of Johnston in which he criticises me for failing to publish my thoughts on "the recent high profile court case between Cllr Malcolm Calver and Mr Charles Cochrane".
After pointing out that it is more than four weeks since a report on the case appeared in the Western Telegraph, Mr Lye continues: "Possibly it slipped your mind or you were putting your thoughts together to include it in one of your epistles, soon, as I cannot imagine it could slip past your hawk like (sic) eyes."
Actually, very little slips past my hawklike eyes, it just that I have I some difficulty in finding the time to write about everything I see.
In the case of Cllr Calver matters are further complicated, by the fact that there is a lot of background to this story about which anyone who relies on the WT for their information will be unaware.
I should also say that I am pleased to call Cllr Calver a friend and, although we disagree about many things, if I had to choose someone from among my fellow councillors to accompany me into the trenches he would be near the top of my list.
Now, Mr Lye has obviously got the wrong impression because the court case was between Mr Cochrane and the CPS.
What is not in dispute is that there was an incident between Cllr Calver and Mr Cochrane outside a Manorbier Community Council meeting.
Both parties complained to the police and following an investigation the CPS decided to prosecute Mr Cochrane.
After hearing the evidence, the magistrates took a different view, though whether it was wise, or fair, for the chairman to effectively "convict" Cllr Calver, who it should be remembered was not even on trial, of using his car as a lethal weapon is a moot point.
Cllr Calver's version of events is clearly set out on his website www.Manorbier.com
All I can say is that Cllr Calver has been the subject to what can only be described as a hate campaign almost exclusively conducted through anonymous blogs.
I also came under attack from these bloggers after I wrote a letter to the Tenby Observer supporting Cllr Calver's view that planning policy, not public opinion, should determine the army's application for planning permission to conduct night firing at the Manorbier range.
That soon ceased after I went on the attack by pointing out that anonymous, untraceable blogs were the last refuge of the coward.
I also received an e-mail from Mr Cochrane in which he accused Cllr Calver of fiddling his expenses.
As the world's leading authority on PCC members' expenses I knew that this simply wasn't true.
And, as I will attempt to show next week, you shouldn't believe everything you read in the Western Telegraph.


Past it?

They say you know you're getting past it when you begin to notice how young the policemen seem to look.
For Grumpette the realisation that she was past the first flush of youth came a couple of summers ago when she walked past the building site at Havens Head on her way to Tesco and nobody leaned over the scaffold and wolf-whistled or shouted "Hello darl'".
"Perhaps they were all on a tea break", I said by way of consolation.
"No they weren't", she said sulkily, "they just carried on laying bricks as if I didn't exist."
Now it seems the wolf-whistle has been ousted, in Whitehall, at least, by the inappropriate text message.
"Why do none of my secret admirers ever send me suggestive text messages?" she said glumly after reading of the Minister's antics in the the Daily Telegraph.
"Could it be because you don't own a mobile phone", I suggested.
That cheered her up no end.
Would it be cruel if I brought her back down to earth by buying her one for Christmas.
I have to be a bit careful because, although she made the usual polite noises, I know that last year's ironing board didn't go down too well.


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