February 20 2007

 

Is your journey really necessary?

The message board on the Western Telegraph's website www.thisispembrokeshire.net has been doing a roaring trade with the question "Should Hall step down?" with several contributors drawing attention to this column's analysis of his unorthodox expense claiming practices.
During the financial year 2005-2006 Cllr Hall again captured top spot in the claiming stakes with an impressive £13,898 - almost double that of the Leader in second place.
Quite a feat, considering that the Leader lives twice as far from County Hall.
Last week, I chronicled how Cllr Hall had travelled from Manchester to Cwmbran via Pembroke Dock adding 220 miles (£110) to the journey, and further comparison of his fire authority and county council claims throws up other examples of his sheer indifference to the size of his carbon footprint.
For instance, on 4 May 2005 he claimed 201 miles from the county council for a visit to a civic amenity facility in Ebbw Vale and on the same day he clocked up 66 miles on the fire authority's account in respect of attendance at a meeting in Carmarthen.
Surely, with a little better planning, he could have arranged to call in at Carmarthen on his way to Ebbw Vale.
Similarly, with his travels on 25 October 2005 when he journeyed to Llandrindod Wells to see another civic amenity site before returning to county hall to discuss the fire authority's budget with Mr Parry-Jones.
On the same day, he claimed 66 miles for a visit to fire service HQ in Carmarthen.
Then there is the curious business of Cllr Hall's visit to the House of Commons on 14 November 2005 for the "Homes in peril" event for which he claimed 502 miles.
Also at the event was the deputy fire chief, who was happy to let the train take the strain at a cost of £242.
The deputy fire chief also appears to have spent two nights in London (£155) - not surprising since the seminar started at 10 am and went on to 7.45 pm - while Cllr Hall seems to have made it there and back in the day.
Goodness knows what time he got to bed because, for some reason, he neglected to claim for the Severn Bridge crossing, so the timed receipt is not on file.
Still, we do know that he must have crossed the bridge because the following day he drove from Pembroke Dock to Cardiff (200 miles at 50p) to visit the Lamby Way civic amenity site.
Think how much easier (and cheaper) it would have been had he stayed overnight in London and then called in at Cardiff on his way home.
And driving late at night, after 20 hours without sleep, is not the sort of example one would expect from the Cabinet member with responsibility for road safety,
Still, we can all look forward to the publication of Hall's Guide to the Civic Amenity sites of Wales.


Every silver lining has a cloud

There are people who think that I would like to see Cllr Brian Hall kicked out of the Cabinet, but they are only partly right.
Actually, I believe that Cllr John Davies should never have appointed him in the first place, especially as I had taken the trouble to send him all the documentary evidence in respect of Cllr Hall's high speed dash from the Severn Bridge to Haverfordwest on 1 February 2001 (see Time Lord).
However, because I think Cllr Hall ought to be removed from all positions of influence doesn't necessarily mean that is what I wish.
Firstly, I have purely selfish reasons for wanting him to remain.
I still shudder when I think of the trauma I suffered when the electorate of Milford Haven removed Eddie Setterfield from the firing line.
With my main source of material gone, I went down with a serious attack of writer's block - spending hours on end staring at the wall, or the bottom of an empty wine glass, in search of inspiration - and was on the point of seeking the services of a counsellor when Cllr Hall succeeded Eddie as chairman of the highways committee; providing a rich seam which I have been mining ever since.
Secondly, my main aim is to highlight the activities of the Independent Political Group - a bunch of people who went around at election time telling people there is no place for party politics in local government, then, once the votes were safely counted, seized control of the council by forming themselves into a political party.
That, to my mind, is a species of electoral fraud, only made worse by the fact that it is largely the work of the county's conservatives who only fielded one official candidate at the last local government elections.
Clearly, it is so much easier to bring the Tory/IPG into disrepute when someone like Cllr Hall, a self-confessed conservative supporter, is one of the party's leading lights.
If he falls, my campaign slogan: "Vote IPG and get Brian Hall", will be as much use as a chocolate toasting fork.

Going straight

Of course, the IPG could neutralise these criticisms by registering itself as a political party.
If they produced a manifesto and stood under a party banner, nobody could complain if they emerged with a mandate to run the council.
And, always ready to be helpful, I have visited to the Electoral Commission's website where I find they can register for a mere £150 - less than £4 per head - a reasonable price for making an honest man (or woman) of yourself.
All they would need to do is choose a name and send off the cheque.
As for a suitable title, they would preferably need something that could be reduced to a catchy acronym.
Pembrokeshire United Party; Pembrokeshire Independent Group; Pembrokeshire Old Originals; Associated Sir Benfro Opportunists; and Federated Union of . . . - the ending to that one has slipped my mind, but you get the idea.
Readers' suggestions would be welcome.
Nothing too rude, please.

Forked tongue

Of course, as several of the contributors to the WT's website point out, the Leader appointed Cllr Hall to both the Cabinet and the Fire Authority, and only the Leader has the power to remove him.
Indeed, the Leader enjoys a degree of power and patronage that is completely out of place in a democracy.
Not only can he hire and fire the eight Cabinet and three deputy Cabinet members, but he also has sole power over the council's appointments to outside bodies - some 140 posts in all - and school governing bodies.
Ten of these posts (National Park 6, Fire Authority 2 and Police Authority 2) attract extra moolah, while others merely give the holder the right to drive around the country at 50p per mile.
While the chairmen and vice chairman of the council and various committees (14 in all) are nominally appointed by the full council, nobody can be in any doubt that it is the Leader who calls the shots.
So at the 2004 AGM he simply stood up and read out a list of his preferred placemen.
With 35 paid positions at his disposal; worth about £220,000 at a conservative estimate, it is little wonder the Leader is able to exercise iron control over his non-political, political party.
Cllr Davies is keen to claim that his party has a 39-21 majority because "the ballot box has spoken".
The truth, I'm afraid, is that it's the money - your money - that does most of the talking.
While tootling around in the Internet, Old Grumpy came across an interesting article on the Leader from the Teifiside Advertiser (Cwmbetws philosophy)
It appears that both the Leader and his deputy Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse are products of the the Royal College of Agriculture at Cirencester.
This upmarket cow college is described in the Advertiser's report as "the Oxbridge of farming", which is a bit like saying that Monkton Swifts are the Manchester United of the Pembrokeshire league.
Cllr Davies' description of the 1979 mock elections held in Ysgol y Preseli is also significant: "It was my last year in the sixth form and we had a mock election. I defied the school's political history and had a landslide victory as the leader of my party, which may well have been reflected in what happened the same year on a national scale!"
Though Cllr Davies is not a member of the Tory party his involvement in the selection process that saw Stephen Crabb installed as the candidate for Preseli Pembrokeshire makes it safe to assume he is a fellow traveller.
It is clear from this puff in the Teifiside Advertiser that Cllr Davies is lacking in neither ambition nor self-regard.
But it is difficult to reconcile "his enviable gift for straight talking", as the report puts it, with the e-mail full of weasel words and obfuscation he sent me when I queried Cllr Brian Hall's entitlement to claim 20 miles for visiting his solicitor in Pembroke before returning to county hall to to be interviewed by the Ombudsman's investigator (see Duty bound).

Riding two horses

Soon after the last local elections, all the new members were invited to a seminar in county hall where a barrister specialising in planning law tutored us in the responsibilities of planning committee members.
The planning committee, we were told, differs from other committees in that it is a quasi-judicial body that adjudicates on the rights of individuals.
So, in addition to the rules in the Code of Conduct that require members to declare an interest and withdraw from the meeting whenever matters concerning themselves, their relatives, or their friends are under consideration, members of planning committees are under a further duty not to prejudge the issue before they have heard all the evidence.
Unfortunately, these rules are mainly honoured in the breach.
However, it is rare that you get such blatant influence peddling as that which occurred in the case of the Heron's Brook application; approved by the planning committee two weeks ago (see And more of the same).
During the debate on the application, the local member Cllr Wynne Evans informed members that he knew the applicant well and that the development was "vital to the applicant's livelihood".
That should have been enough for him to declare an interest and leave the meeting.
But, of course, he didn't, and following the approval of the development he told the Tenby Observer: "I'm delighted I played some part in this decision. It was a victory for common sense."
Also quoted in the Tenby Observer, the applicant thanked "local county councillors, Wynne Evans and Elwyn Morse, who have been a great help to us".
Of course, there is nothing wrong with a local member helping a constituent with a planning application, but he can't be both an advocate for the applicant and a member of the quasi-judicial body charged with taking the decision.
That would be like allowing the defendant's solicitor to sit on the jury.
And it would also lead to two classes of applicants - those with supporters on the planning committee and those without - an affront to the basic principle of the rule of law: that like cases should be treated alike.


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