December 12 2006

 

Fuelling suspicion

 

Information on the proposed biofuel plant at the former Mine Depot at Blackbridge, Milford Have, is proving hard to come by.
Several readers have e-mailed to express amazement that none of the Cabinet members thought to ask the name of the company involved, or the amount they were paying for the site (See Hanging together) though it would have been even more surprising if they had.
After all, an enquiring mind is just about the last thing you would expect from a rubber stamp.
However, that might be too simple an explanation, because the gossip in the members' tea room is that Cabinet members were instructed not to ask about these things in case the information was leaked to the press.
What you don't know, you can't tell!
From what I have read about the scheme, in terms of investment and jobs, it is unalloyed good news.
So, why all the secrecy?
Old Grumpy may be able to offer some clues.
There are two main methods of producing biofuels: fermentation and distillation to produce alcohol (ethanol); and the breaking down (cracking, in refinery parlance) of natural fats.
As home brewers and winemakers know, alcohol can be produced from any number of natural sugars - potatoes, grapes and grains, for example - which can then be distilled to remove excess water to yield a flammable liquid, hence the term fire-water.
However, it would seem more likely that the proposed plant at Blackbridge will be based on some sort of natural fat, which can be broken down into shorter chain hydrocarbons suitable for use as fuel.
From what I can gather, the two main sources of feedstock for such an operation are tallow - produced by rendering animal carcasses - and oilseed rape.
No doubt, in the fullness of time, all will be revealed.

PS. It wasn't, obviously, as much of a secret as I thought because even the Western Telegraph had obtained some of the information.
Clearly, the WT has got hold of the confidential Cabinet papers because all the details about capital expenditure and job-creation are spot on.
Have they managed to turn one of my moles?
Probably not because whoever planted the story in the Telegraph was keen to play down the nature of the operation.
We are rather coyly informed: "One of the main processes at the plant would be converting new or used vegetable or animal fats into biodeisel."
In this context it is interesting to note that, according to information gleaned from the Web, Irish Food Processors owns 20-odd slaughterhouses, so the betting must be that the main feedstock will be the tallow obtained from rendered cattle remains.
Now, you can understand why those pushing for this scheme wouldn't want to give too much prominence to that fact, though, with proper environmental safeguards in place, there is no reason why this should be anything like as unpleasant as it sounds.
Or even unpleasant at all.
After all, tallow is fairly close relative of what used to be known as dripping, which, as well as being the nearest thing to perfection for frying chips, could be spread on a slice of bread to make a nutritious meal.
There I go, showing my age, again.

 

Out of the frying pan . . .

What is for certain is that the arrival on the scene of this biofuel scheme has got the county council off the rather painful hook on which it had become impaled.
Readers who have been following this story will recall that, last June, the Cabinet subcontracted the evaluation of the bids of Cleddau Enterprises Ltd and Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA) to the Welsh Assembly.
Strangely, as the bidding up to then had been conducted on the basis of who could offer the most money, the value of the two offers was not part of the information sent to the Welsh Assembly.
Instead, the Assembly was asked to decide which of the bids provided the greatest social, economic and environmental benefits for the residents of the area (See Panto Mine).
Until 2003 the sale of publicly-owned assets was governed by S123 of the Local Government Act 1972, which required that, unless the consent of the Welsh Assembly was obtained for the sale at an undervalue, local authorities should sell for the best consideration that could reasonably be obtained.
Several cases in the courts established that consideration meant monetary value.
For instance, in R v Middlesbrough Borough Council the sale of land to an underbidder, whose proposed development was preferred by the authority, was overturned by the court on the grounds that the desirability of the development cannot form part of the consideration.
That was all changed by the General Disposal Consent (Wales) Order 2003 (GDC) which allows a sale at an undervalue if the authority - in this case the Cabinet - considered it likely that the underbidder's proposed use of the site was likely to provide greater economic, environmental or social benefits to the residents of the authority's area.
For cynics like Old Grumpy this piece of legislation simply allows local authorities to play politics with publicly-owned assets..
As I said earlier, in order to sanitise what had gone before, the evaluation of these bids was passed to the "independent" Welsh Assembly.
The Welsh Assembly was sent details of the two parties' proposals - minus the value of the bids - the best part of six months ago and, according to the most recent report to Cabinet, the assembly had not been able to make any progress.
This is not in the least bit surprising because, apart from a proposal to build a 500-person work camp + 100 caravans, the MHPA/Haven Facilities bid was completely lacking in substance.
I was present at the Cabinet meeting in February when the decision - later revoked when Cleddau Enterprises Ltd submitted a higher offer - to sell to HPA/Haven Facilities was taken.
At that meeting, Chief Executive Bryn Parry-Jones spent fully 20 minutes extolling the benefits of the container port that it was suggested that MHPA/Haven Facilities intended to construct on the site.
Of course, in reality, all they had promised was to carry out a study into the economic feasibility of a container port.
As I pointed out at the time (See Sea Change), even if such a container port proved to be a sound economic proposition, the requirement for extensive building out into the Haven (an SSSI), would require the consent of the Countryside Council for Wales, Crown Commissioners and Environment Agency - not to mention the Maritime and Coastguard Agency which might reasonably have concerns about the navigational issues involved in building such a structure in close proximity to the Dragon LNG jetty.
And it should be remembered that MHPA/Haven Facilities were so strapped for cash that they were proposing to buy the site on the never-never - £300,000 down and £300,000 after two years - so from where was the £50+ million required for the construction of a container port supposed to come?
Of course, it was all well and good sub-contracting the evaluation to the Welsh Assembly, but, the final decision would have been in the hands of the Cabinet.
And before Cabinet could come to that decision it would have needed to consider the details of the two rival bidders' proposals which would have exposed MHPA/Haven Facilities container port plans as nothing much more than pie in the sky.
There has only been one occasion when the GDC has been employed locally, and that was the sale of the Shire Hall, when the Cabinet decided to accept an offer from Red Dragon Developments that was £100,000 less that the highest bid.
The reason given was that the highest bidder wanted to establish a pub in the ancient court building and this could add to the problems of anti-social behaviour in Castle Square, particularly at weekends.
That seems like a pretty compelling argument until you consider that the only reason the Shire Hall was on the market was that the council's original preferred bidder, which was, um, er, Wetherspoons - owners of a national chain of boozers - had pulled out of the deal.
Still, as Hannah Arendt observed, when you control the majority of the votes the truth is yours for the making (See Old Grumpy)

Poisoness blogs

A couple of weeks ago the Western Telegraph carried an unusually informative article on weblogs.
If I had one small complaint it was that the piece didn't make absolutely clear the distinction between a website such as this and an anonymous weblog.
Though my website is written under a nom de plume, anyone who doesn't already know my identity only has to log on to Nominet where my name and address can readily be found.
So, while I am free to write whatever I like, anyone who thinks I may have defamed them is equally free to take out a writ.
However, weblogs are unbreachably anonymous so the writers can say what they like without fear of any comeback.
As a result many of these blogs are little more than poison-pen letters in electronic form and their authors; sheltering under a cloak of anonymity, a bunch of yellow-bellied cowards.
I wrote to the editor of the Western Telegraph making these points and was somewhat disturbed to receive an e-mail from her telling me she was in total agreement with my views.
Unfortunately, she was unable to find room for my letter in that week's edition, though the letters' page carried one of those communications, much loved by the Telegraph, from someone singing the county's praises.
I can't be sure whether it was the content of the letter that led to its publication, or politically correct pandering to ethnic minorities, because it was signed by one Mustaph ap Iss.

Percentage points

Lies, damned lies and statistics, said Disraeli, but most misleading of all are statistics expressed as percentages.
This morning's Farming Today carried a story about the plight of Spanish orange growers who, faced with a glut, are having to almost give away their produce.
We were told that the mark-up between the farm gate price and that on the supermarket shelf is a whacking 1,000%.
Of course, this is entirely spurious because the cost of packing, transporting and retailing oranges is independent of the price you pay for them.
Indeed, if you had the oranges for free and sold them for a penny each, the mark-up would be an astronomical infinity%, though, if it cost 2p to get them to market, you would actually be losing money.
Another example of the misuse of percentages cropped up during a debate on the rate of youth unemployment which has apparently risen by 27% since Labour came to power in 1997.
A government spokesman claimed that this was was the result of an increase in the birthrate 15-20 years ago.
Tory spokesman David Willetts countered that the birthrate hadn't gone up by 27%.
This seems like a knock down argument until you consider the arithmetic.
For instance if you have 100 teenagers, five of whom are out of work, the rate of unemployment is 5%.
If you have 100 teenagers, seven of whom are out of work, the rate of unemployment is 7%.
So, while the difference in the rates of unemployment is 2%, measuring one rate of unemployment (5%) against the other (7%) gives you an increase of 40%.

Watched

According to Craig Brown speaking on the Today programme, 20% of the world's CCTV cameras are to be found in the UK.
There is, he said, one camera for every fourteen people and someone wandering around central London for a day is liable to be captured several hundred times.
And the Information Commissioner Richard Thomas warned recently that Britain was becoming a surveillance society.
Supporters of CCTV point to the number of crimes it helps to solve and argue that unless you're doing something wrong you've nothing to worry about.
I'm not sure about this last point because the issue, surely, is that being constantly watched is an invasion of privacy.
For instance, when I go into Tesco it is not with the intention of doing a spot of shoplifting.
Nevertheless, do I want anyone to know that I routinely rummage through the box of cauliflowers until I find the biggest one, or that I am a regular visitor to the yellow-sticker counter, or that I rarely drink anything but half-price red wine?
On the question of red wine the supermarket can already track your consumption through your credit card details, though that can be avoided by sometimes paying with cash or shopping elsewhere.
Anyway, that information is probably in the hands of someone far away in head office while the CCTV screen is watched by local staff.
It's not a comfortable thought that you might be sitting in the pub and the chap across the room is nudging his girlfriend and saying: "See that old boy over there - he's the one I was telling you about who lives on nothing but out-of-date mince and cheap red plonk".
And, of course, if the criteria is that those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear, what objection could there possibly be to having an implant in your skull that allows the government to follow your every movement with a satellite tracking device.

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