Unanswered prayers

Before every meeting of the County Council, the members lay aside the burdens of office while the chairman’s chaplain leads them in prayer.

This usually takes the form of a request to God that He should endow them with wisdom and sound judgment during the forthcoming proceedings.

Observing what usually follows, one can only assume that the Almighty has more pressing business elsewhere.

It has often occurred to Old Grumpy that it would be better to reserve these devotions for the end of the meeting when they could beg forgiveness for the violence they have just inflicted on language, truth and logic.

The fat of the land

Old Grumpy has just completed his annual trawl through the County Council’s books particularly the members’ expense claims.

After much patient research I have established that during the course of the financial year 1999/2000 our elected representatives, collectively, claimed subsistence allowances for meals consumed while in our service on some 780 occasions.

The booklet issued to councilors in April 1999 contains the words: “Receipts should be obtained wherever possible and attached to claims as proof of expenses incurred” (their emphasis)

It appears that, on at least 760 occasions, providing a receipt proved impossible.

Somebody in the finance department has spotted this omission and has endorsed the claim forms “no receipts”

Despite this lack of evidence of “expenses incurred” the claims have been paid.

When I took up this matter with the District Audit service I was told that the words “whenever possible” meant the requirement to provide receipts was purely voluntary.

According to District Audit the tribunes of the people are the sole arbiters of what is possible in this context and what is not.

Needless to say, I cannot agree with this view.

For a start off, subsistence payments are described in the booklet as “reimbursements”.

Reimbursement, according to my Oxford dictionary means: repay (a person’s expenses).

Clearly, if you don’t know the exact amount spent you cannot possibly know how much to repay.

Of course, you could always take it on trust that the amount claimed was the amount expended but then you would have to believe that the members frequently forked out exactly £6.37 for their lunch, which is, coincidentally, the sum described in the booklet as the maximum. (Their emphasis)

Further evidence that the provision of receipts is obligatory is to be found in the claim form itself which includes a declaration signed by the member that: “I have actually paid the fares and made the other authorized payments shown and attach receipts to support my claim.” (Their emphasis again)

Another curious fact I discovered was that of some 780 meals consumed by the 60 members no fewer than 107 fell victim to the knife and fork of one man: Cllr Alwyn Luke.

The story of how the great gourmand managed to tuck into eight times his share of the free grub will have to wait for another time, and, possibly, another place.

A cunning plan

Three weeks ago the controversial planning application for Enfield, Portfield Gate made a dramatic return to the scene.

This saga goes back to March 1999 when the application first came before the County Council planning committee.

Then Head of Development Control David Lawrence told the members that the former farmhouse, which constituted the main part of the proposal, was “very derelict” and needed almost complete rebuilding.

This, he said, amounted to the construction of a new dwelling in the open countryside and that it was “crystal clear” that this was against policy EV18(1) which requires that: “The building can be genuinely converted to accommodate the proposed use without extensive alterations, re-building and/or extension. In addition a structural survey would be required to establish that the building was structurally sound.”

And that was virtually the last word of truth spoken about this application.

Despite Mr Lawrence’s unequivocal advice, and a plea from the then Leader, Eric Harries, that the committee should follow policy, the bungalow farming wing of the ruling Independent Political (sic) Group forced the application through by eight votes to seven.

Because it was contrary to policy, the application had to go before Policy and Resources and Full Council for further scrutiny.

No doubt, the bungalow farmers could have drummed up sufficient support to get it through both these bodies.

But that would not be the end of the matter because, given Mr Lawrence’s clear advice that it was against policy, the Council would be bound to refer the matter to the Welsh Assembly as a major departure from the local plan.

That raised the possibility that the Assembly, on learning of this attempt to ride roughshod over planning law, might take steps to overturn the decision.

Something subtler was called for and a plot was hatched which involved fabricating a scenario in which the application would miraculously be transformed so as to comply with policy.

So, when the application came before Policy and Resources, the Independents proposed that it should be deferred to allow the officers and the applicant to negotiate a scheme that would “better accord with policy.”

It would seem that the Director Mr. Roger Barrett-Evans played a leading role in these negotiations and when the revised proposals came back to the planning committee in June 1999 Mr. Lawrence’s report informed members that: “Although technically the development does not fully comply with Policy EV18 and some of the walls need rebuilding, the amended proposal does meet the other requirements of the policy and approval would not mean a major departure requiring reference to the Welsh Office”

When Old Grumpy inspected the files I discovered an earlier draft of Mr. Lawrence’s report which said, simply: “The proposals do however still constitute development which is not in accordance with the policies set out above.”

Some members of the minority groups believed this change of tone was evidence that Mr. Lawrence had been pressurized into producing a report more friendly to the application than his professional judgment would warrant.

But when questioned about this Mr. Barrett-Evans denied any arm-twisting and claimed the revised wording had been introduced in order to make it “absolutely clear that the proposal was against policy”

George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth would be hard pressed to better that.

Planning committee approved the application and when it arrived at P and R, Mr. Barrett-Evans told members that, though the application did not comply with Policy EV18 (1), it did accord with the other sections of Policy EV18.

That, I’m afraid, is non-sense on stilts.

Policy EV18 is a sequential test and if an application fails to satisfy 18(1) then it is impossible, logically, for it to clear the other hurdles.

P and R duly gave the application the green light and two weeks later it turned up at Full Council to receive the final seal of approval.

In the meantime Old Grumpy and others had written to the Welsh Assembly, alerting them to the dishonest process that the Council had put in train, and requesting that they call in the application for determination by an independent inspector.

When Mr. Barrett-Evans addressed Full Council he told the members that the Assembly had informed the Planning Department of the call in request but had taken no action.

“If the Assembly felt this was a major departure they would have called it in,” he said, triumphantly, before the Independents voted the application through by 31-17.

Within the hour a chastened Mr. Barrett-Evans was back on his feet announcing that um, err, the Assembly had just been on the phone to say they were calling the application in after all.

An inspector was appointed and in due course he recommended refusal on the grounds that “These proposals could not be regarded as a conversion or a change of use in compliance with policy GN4 nor could they constitute a genuine conversion without extensive alterations, re-building and/or extension in compliance with policy EV18. In effect they would, in total, constitute a new dwelling in a location where development should be strictly controlled.”

Remarkably similar, you will notice, to the advice given by Mr Lawrence way back in March 1999, before Mr Barrett-Evans got involved.

Significantly, the inspector also found that, of the two proposals that had been before the Council, the one negotiated by Mr Barrett-Evans was even further outside policy than the original i.e. what the Director had negotiated was not something more “in accord with policy” but something which was more in accord with the applicant’s desire to disregard policy and build a large new dwelling in the open countryside.

That the Director, who is supposed to be the guardian of the local plan, should be involved in this deliberate attempt to subvert it is nothing short of disgraceful.

I was first alerted to the resurrection of the Enfield application by a public notice in the Western Telegraph on September 27 2000.

The application was being advertised because: “The proposed development does not accord with the development plan in force in the area in which the land to which the application relates is situated.”

Imagine my surprise when I read the agenda for the Planning Committee of November 1 and found that there was no mention whatsoever in the officer’s report on Enfield that the proposals were contrary to policy.

Even more surprising was that the officer’s recommendation was for “approval”, implying that the application was within policy.

Fortunately the Welsh Assembly was alerted to what was afoot, not by the Council, which should have notified them at the time the public notice was published, but by members of the public, and they contacted the Council on the day before the meeting and extracted a written promise that the application, if approved, would be reported to the Assembly as a major departure and no consent would be issued until the Assembly had considered what, if any, action to take.

When questioned about this, planning officer Alf Williams said it was fully accepted by the planning department that the proposals were outside policy and, he claimed, it had always been the intention to subject the application to the full departure procedure.

But he failed to explain why none of this was contained in his report, the purpose of which is to inform members of the relevant policies and how the particular application stands in respect of those policies.

Mr Williams’ explanation didn’t satisfy Cllr Phil Llewellyn who said that, on reading the officer’s report, he had formed the impression the application was now within policy and could be determined by the Planning Committee under its plenary powers.

“We have been led up the garden path by the officer’s report”, he said.

Not for the first time nor the last, I fear.

Poet’s corner

Would you like to sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
To err
With her
On some other fur?


Please feel free to print off copies of this article and distribute them to your friends (or enemies if they happen to be County Councillors)

Anyone who wishes to join my vast network of moles can e-mail me at. Stods@freenetname.co.uk Complete confidentiality guaranteed. Despite several extensive mole-hunts in Kremlin on Cleddau not one of my moles has come even remotely close to losing so much as a whisker.

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