Jan 22nd 2001

Slippery customers

Last Wednesday's Western Telegraph reported a "Spate of crashes on icy roads" on the previous Monday morning.
Mr George Oulton, the ambulance control manager, is quoted as saying the service was flat out on Monday morning dealing with the victims of accidents caused by roads, which he described as "treacherous" and "like a skating rink".
The County Council, whose duty it is to maintain the roads in a safe condition, admitted to the Telegraph through their spin-doctor that no salting had been done on Sunday night.
However it was difficult to decide from the spin-doctor's statement whether this lack of precautionary salting was the fault of the Met Office: "Pre salting of priority routes is carried out on receipt of an appropriate forecast from the Weather Centre" or the result of a deliberate policy decision: "It [pre-salting] had already been carried out a couple of days earlier".
The spokesman is also quoted as saying that "because of its limitation of resources, Pembrokeshire County Council is unable to salt all the roads in its area".
This is a masterpiece of the spin-doctor's art.
Nobody expects them to salt every country lane.
But the question here is why none of the roads were salted?
It certainly can't be because of lack of resources!
As Old Grumpy has pointed out previously, the County Council has huge amounts of money squirreled away in its reserves.
Last September, in his report to members, the Director of Finance revealed that a whopping £710,000 is held in the "Winter Maintenance Fund".
Three years ago, when I enquired about the purpose of this large hoard of taxpayers' cash (which then stood at £640,000), I was told that it had been built up during a series of mild winters so that the authority would be well placed to deal with a cold snap.
Perhaps one of our more enterprising County Councillors (not a big field to chose from, there) will ask why the roads went ungritted, putting peoples lives at risk, while these funds rot in a deposit account.

Outstaying their welcome

Consultations are underway on a Welsh Assembly proposal to postpone the next local government elections from 2003 to 2004.
This idea emanates from the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) whose members, it should be pointed out, would be the main beneficiaries of this extension of their term of office.
This change is being dressed up as an improvement in the democratic process because as things stand at the moment local government and Welsh assembly elections are due to be held on the same date.
The WLGA claim this shifts the focus away from local government as well as confusing voters with two ballot papers.
Meanwhile the Scottish Parliament has decided to put back local government elections north of the border for a year so that they will be on the same day as the elections to the Scottish Parliament.
All in the interest of better democracy, of course!
The sad truth, I'm afraid, is that members of the two devolved bodies are intent on giving their chums in local government - from whence most of them sprang - an extra spin on the gravy train.
In terms of democratic principles what is being proposed is a disgrace.
In a democracy power resides in the people.
Elections are the occasion for us to transfer our power to elected representatives for a fixed period of time.
Politicians have no right to unilaterally vary the terms of that contract.


Unkind cut

Last week I wrote about the difficulty of thinking logically in a language that is systematically ambiguous.
This problem extends to communications of all sorts, as I recently found to my cost when I asked a local farmer if he could let me have a load of muck for the garden.
To a gardener "a load of muck" means half a ton - a ton, maybe if he has a big garden.
To a farmer, "a load of muck" means something entirely different.
So it was that I found five ton of the stuff dumped outside the house one Friday morning.
During my time in the building industry I also discovered the importance of giving clear unambiguous instructions.
I remember one instance when we had to shutter and concrete the top of a 30-foot by 10- foot tank.
The timber had been delivered in standard lengths, which were about nine inches longer than required.
I had to go off site and was looking for a routine job for a keen but green young labourer.
I took him down to the tank, picked up a length of four by two, laid it across the tank, marked it and cut it to size.
"Cut the rest of them like that", I told my man.
When I returned a couple of hours later there he was looking pleased with himself having completed the task.
He was, as I said, a good grafter.
There on the ground lay a large heap of four by twos neatly cut up into nine inch logs.
What could I do but laugh?

Costing the earth

Recently, while digging about in some old Preseli District Council minutes, I came across a report dated December 15 1978 on the appointment of Mr Roger Anderson as Director of Planning.
The minutes record that Mr Anderson was to be engaged at an annual salary of £8784 per annum with a supplement of £312.
That is in contrast to the present Director of Planning Mr Roger Barrett-Evans who is paid £70,000 plus 10% of salary to lease a car.













That Mr Barrett-Evans' car allowance is almost as much as Mr Anderson's salary just 22 years ago amply demonstrates how the pay of senior council officers has escalated.
And Mr Anderson was a qualified planner.

Counting the cost

The reason I was in the County Records Office looking at these ancient minutes was my interest in the local authority's dealings with 34/36/38 High Street Haverfordwest (the three properties immediately downhill from Barclays Bank).
A couple of weeks ago I drew attention to the County Council's "live now pay later" venture, Project Phoenix, the Private Finance Initiative to build a new school in Pembroke Dock.
My researches into 34/36/38 High Street would indicate that this type of arrangement is nothing new.
In 1982 the then Preseli District Council sold the premises to a property developer for what seemed at the time the handsome sum of £240,000.
On the same day that the sale was completed the Council took a 20-year lease on the three properties at an annual rental of £22,250.
When I inspected the County Council's books last October I noticed that this annual rental had increased to £48,000 (34 High Street £20,000; 36/38 £28,000).
What original caught my eye is that the two people to whom the rents are currently paid are a former member of the Council's Property Services Department (Mr Chris Hunter) and a present employee in that department (Mr Tony Parrish).
But the issues surrounding that aspect of the case will have to wait for a future article.
For the present I will restrict myself to dealing with the cost to the taxpayer of this sale and lease back arrangement.
Assuming an average rent over the period of the lease of £35,000 (£22,250 + £48,000 divided by two) we find that the cost to the local authority over the 20-year period is £700,000, compared to the £240,000 it received in 1982.
Had the Council borrowed £240,000 from the Public Works Loan Board at six per cent the cost over 20 years, including repayment of the debt would have been £370,000 - a saving of £330,000 in cash terms alone never mind the fact that the Council would still own the building.
The financial geniuses who set up this deal are now all comfortably retired on index-linked pensions.
No such luck for the poor old taxpayers who are still picking up the tab.

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