January 22 2008


Quick off the Mark?

Things are looking up for democracy in Pembrokeshire following the National Park's monitoring officer's decision that the public interest is best served by the publication of his report into the East Blockhouse affair (Inside track).
On the face of it the issue revolves around the events of the first two weeks in May 2006.
What we know for certain is that the NP's asset management group met on 4 May 2006 and decided not to purchase the site, and that the authority's head of asset management Gary Meopham was present.
We also know that, on the 8 May 2006, Gary Meopham's brother Mark Meopham wrote to the owners QinetiQ (pronounced kinetic) offering £200,000 for the site.
Aside from that, hard facts are hard to come by because evidence provided to the monitoring officer by QinetiQ is at variance with the Meopham family's version of events.
According to QinetiQ's estates officer, Mark Meopham rang him sometime between 1-4 May 2006 and made an offer of £165,000, but was told that this was too low to be considered.
Not surprising really because, according to the MO's report, the asking price during the NP's consideration of the purchase was £250,000-£300,000.
Qinetic say that, on 5 May, Mark Meopham rang again and increased his bid to £200,000 and was told to put his offer in writing.
This he duly did in a letter dated 8 May and in an undated e-mail QuinetiQ's estates officer informed Mark Meopham that his estates director "has said yes to your unconditional offer of £200,000"
Of course, if QinetiQ's version of events is to be believed, it would mean that Mark Meopham was making enquiries about the site on or before the date the NP's asset management group made the decision not to purchase.
However the Meopham's tell a different story.
According to he MO's report they say that "the following events all took place on 8 May"
(i) Notification by the authority's estates officer [Gary Meopham] to Qinetic that the authority was not in a position to bid for the Angle site.
(ii) The subsequent telephone call on 8 May from Mr B [Mark Meopham] to QinetiQ estates officer when Mr B made an offer of £165,000. Mr B states that it was during that same telephone conversation that the offer was increased to £200,000, which was then accepted by the QintiQ estates officer.
Even if that is the case it only gives four days between Gary Meopham removing his NP hat and putting on that of the private developer.
Obviously, if he was contemplating purchasing the site for himself while also acting for the NP there would be a clear conflict of interest.
As Aristotle taught us, two contrary statements can't both be true, though both might be false.
It is up to you, the jury, to decide which, if either, of these conflicting stories is to be preferred.
Before reaching any conclusions you might like to consider the following questions:
(1) Why did the Meophams initially offer £165,000 when the asking price to the NP was £250,000-£300,000?
(2) Why did QinetiQ accept an offer of £200,000 ditto?
(3) When acting on behalf of the NP, did Gary Meopham try to persuade QinetiQ to drop the price?
(4) Might the asset management group's decision have been different if it had been made aware that the site was available at between £50,000-£100,000 less than the asking price?
(5) Why did Gary Meopham write a file note on 8 May which reads: "Spoke to [QinetiQ estates officer]. Advised him that the Park were not in a position to bid for the site. They will now begin the process of marketing the site", when he already knew that his brother had made, or was about to make, a bid?
(6) Why did Gary Meopham hold off from telling his superiors of his interest in the site until after the sale was completed in September 2006?
The National Park Committee is due to discuss the MO's report at a special meeting at 12.30pm on Wednesday 23 January (tomorrow).
Should be fun

Guilty as charged


The Audit Commission has reported that 25% of councils in England raise more from charging for services than council tax.
It has been a constant theme of this column that boasts about the lowest council tax in Wales are meaningless without similar comparisons of charges.
Clearly, if one council charges for a service that another provides for free, it will be able to set a lower council tax.
Charge are, in fact, a tax by another name.
Unfortunately, because charges, government grants and other sources of funds are all bundled together under the heading of income in Pembrokeshire County Council's council's accounts it is impossible to discover the precise level of charges.
Some years ago the district auditor promised greater transparency in this regard.
Hopefully, this latest report from the audit commission will be a spur for action




As I said a few weeks ago the world economy is (was?) floating on a sea of debt.
Driven by credit-fueled consumers the global economy has enjoyed a long period of uninterrupted growth.
Meanwhile cheap imports from China and other developing countries has kept inflation at bay allowing central banks to lower the very interest rates that initially encouraged the credit boom.
Now the sub-prime crisis has deprived the economic engine of fuel and a crash is a serious possibility.
Yesterday the world's stock markets went over the cliff, though they rallied today after he Fed made what many commentators consider to be a panic 75 basis point cut in interest rates.
Of course, as anyone who knows the first thing about economics will tell you cuts in interest rates encourage borrowing and discourage saving - the very trends that have landed us in our present pickle.
Warren Buffet has said that a financial crisis is the best way to sort the sheep from the goats.
"It's only when the tide goes out that you know who's been skinny dipping" was the Sage of Omaha's colourful way of expressing this proposition.
With major banks writing off billions to cover their sub-prime losses, and customers queuing round the block to get their money out of Northern Rock, the world's financial community is coming to resemble a nudist colony.

Give me sunshine

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee has recently published a report which pours cold water on the idea that biofuels will help solve the climate change problem.
From cutting down the rain forests to make way for palm oil production, to the effect on food supplies of switching to biofuel crops, the committee is scathing in its criticism of this supposed panacea.
Of course, biofuels are not a new idea.
Before the invention of the oil-powered tractor large areas of land were given over to biofuels - mainly fodder for horses and oxen.
In addition to the increased efficiency of tractors over horses, the move to an energy source that didn't depend on land increased food production for human consumption by 10% at a stroke.
Modern biofuels suffer from the same disadvantages.
Instead of concentrating on modern versions of old technologies (windmills, tidal power, biofuels) mankind would be better served if our efforts were directed towards the utilising earth's most abundant supply of free energy - the sun.
Using the sun's heat to generate steam, using a scaled up version of the boy scout's trick of lighting a fire with a magnifying glass, would be a start, but developing the photovoltaic cell that can turn sunlight directly into electricity is surely the way ahead.
As energy is crucial to modern economies, it is the sunniest parts of the world (Africa, India) that will be the main beneficiaries of this technology.
Perhaps, in a hundred years or so the Africans and Indians will be debating whether trade or aid is the best way to help their poverty-stricken brothers shivering in their unheated homes.

Getting personal

Old Grumpy has recently received two e-mails from fraudsters seeking my bank details.
The first, an almost plausible effort, purports to be from Lloyds TSB: We are contacting you to remind you that our Account Review Team identified some unusual activity in your account. In accordance with Lloyds TSB Online Banking User Agreement and to ensure that your account has not been accessed from fraudulent locations, access to your account has been limited. Your account access will remain limited until this issue has been resolved please log in your account by clicking on my account activity bellow (sic):

The second, which wouldn't catch anyone with more than two functioning brain cells, from the Nationwide:
We have asked few additional information which is going to be the part of secure login process. These additional information will be asked during your future login security so, please provide all these info completely and correctly otherwise due to security reasons we may have to close your account temporarily.
We thank you for your prompt attention to this matter. Please understand that this is a security measure intended to help protect you and your account. We apologize for any inconvenience.

J. S. Smith
Security Advisor
As it happens, the chances of me being taken in these two scams is precisely zero, because I don't have an account with either.
However, the 10% of the population do bank with one or other of these organisations are at some slight risk.
This is known as phishing because, as with the similarly pronounced f-word, success doesn't depend on every cast resulting in a bite.
In this electronic age it is possible to send out thousands of emails virtually cost-free and, if only a small percentage rise to the bait, you are in the money.
Though whether this is a more cost-effective method of obtaining personal information than picking up one of the regiment of government laptops that are strewn across the countryside is debatable.


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