January 8 2008

Power of patronage


Monday's county council cabinet meeting discussed an interesting Welsh Assembly consultation paper on local authority appointments to National Park committees.
Currently, the Pembrokeshire National Park authority has eighteen members - 12 appointed by PCC and the remainder by the Assembly.
Local authority membership is subject to the political balance rules which means that, as a reflection of it controlling roughly two-thirds of the seats on the county council, the Independent Political Group is entitled to eight seats to the opposition's four.
The only other external appointments requiring political balance are the Police and Fire Authorities, where the same arithmetic leaves the IPG with two of PCC's three seats on each body.
In the case of the National Park, the IPG controls almost half the total seats.
As I have pointed out previously, these eight IPG seats, and their £2,000-a-year allowance, are in the gift of the Leader, Cllr John Davies.
Cllr Davies is never slow to tell us that his party holds its large majority on the council because, as he puts it, "the ballot box has spoken", though there is no evidence that the people of Pembrokeshire have ever agreed that he should have the power to appoint almost half the National Park committee.
Now the Assembly has put forward proposals designed to bring transparency into these appointments.
In future there will be published criteria and consultation with the National Park authority and community councils within its boundaries.
As the report before the cabinet points out, there are certain practical difficulties in consulting with the 47 community councils in the National Park especially in the wake of an election when new appointments need to be made.
Those difficulties would be swept away if, as Conservative MP Stephen Crabb has proposed, the members of the authority were directly elected.
It is rather surprising that, given its fondness for talking ballot boxes, the Tory dominated IPG hasn't thrown its weight behind this suggestion.

Information blackout


Speaking of the National Park, I am finding information on the monitoring officer's report on the East Blockhouse affair rather hard to come by.
Indeed, on the substantive matter of the monitoring officer's findings with regard to whether the authority's head of asset management used his position for personal benefit, my enquiries have met with Trappist silence (Half a tale, Inside track).
This is understandable because as the issue involves a member of staff it comes under the categories of exempt information which the authority may resolve to discuss in private session.
It will be interesting to see how many of them decide that "the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information." (Right to know).
Anticipating this reluctance to talk, I put in a Freedom of Information request for the minutes of the asset management group at which the decision not to purchase the East Blockhouse site was taken.
That was on the 29 November and, though the statutory 20 working days have now expired, no response has been forthcoming.
This is hardly surprising because what I have learned is that no minutes were ever taken.
So we had a group of people taking decisions on our behalf but no record of how the decisions were reached.
Indeed, from what I can gather, there isn't even a record of those who were present at these meetings.
I also understand that, under the authority's constitution, the asset management group's powers were restricted to making recommendations to the senior management team so the decision it purported to make was clearly ultra vires.
If what I have been told is true, it reveals serious flaws in the authority's administrative procedures.
Worse than that, if the authority is unable to follow its own policies, it rather undermines its moral authority to impose its various rules and regulations on the rest of us.


Way back in the days when Eric Harries was leader of the county council, the ruling clique used to justify large increases in the chief executive's salary by hinting that, if Pembrokeshire taxpayers refused to cough up, Mr Parry-Jones would be off to greener pastures leaving us all to a fate worse than death (Fools and our money).
One of the most popular suggestions was that the, then,Welsh Office would be keen to recruit such a brilliant administrator.
Over the years, this and similar arguments have resulted in a series of salary hikes for the council supremo, most recently in the summer of 2006. Now Mr Parry-Jones is trousering somewhere in the region of £155,000 (plus car allowance) (Nice little earner) compared to the £63,000 he was paid when first engaged in 1996.
This last increase should quell fears that he might be poached by the Welsh Assembly because, as has been pointed out to Old Grumpy, Cardiff Bay's top civil servant Sir Jon Shortridge has just retired and his job is being advertised on the Assembly's website at a salary of £148,841.
So, if Mr Parry-Jones were to up sticks and decamp to Cardiff, he would have to take a pay cut, though, I am reliably informed, the blow might be softened by the automatic knighthood that goes with the job.

Gordon Brown recently made an important speech on the reform of the NHS.
Pointing to his frequent use of the word "new", the BBC's political correspondent claimed this was an attempt by Mr Brown to relaunch his premiership having been blown of course by the election that never was and the Northern Rock fiasco.
And it is true that the speech was peppered with "new" initiatives of one sort or another.
But the word that caught Old Grumpy's attention was "England", which also put in several appearances.
The reason for that, of course, is that, health being a devolved matter, Mr Brown and his Cabinet have no say over the NHS in either Sotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
So, while the MP for Kirkaldy and Cowdenbeath, and his Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish colleagues, can determine how the English health service is organised, they have no part to play in the health service that affects their own constituents.
This is the famous West Lothian question framed by the former Labour MP Tom Dalyell who said during a parliamentary debate: "For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate... at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on British politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?"
Unless someone comes with an answer fairly soon either the United Kingdom or the current devolution arrangements are bound to come a cropper.

When I used to write this column in the Mercury, hardly a week went by without me banging on about the flaws in the proposed single-currency arrangements, particularly the one-size-fits-all interest rate.
As I was keen to point out, the Bank of England had difficulty in setting an interest rate that suited the whole of the UK, so how much more difficult would it be to pull the same trick for the whole of Europe.
Eventually, I became as bored with the subject as many of my readers and signed off by predicting that the whole project would collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.
Now you know why I keep away from betting shops because, eight years after it was launched as an accounting currency, it is still going strong.
So strong, in fact, that it is now at its highest level ever against the dollar.

My apologies for being a few minutes late this week but a thunderstorm over Liddeston and a minor political earthquake have interrupted my usually smooth progress.
The flash of lightening overhead at about 5.30 pm persuaded me to shut down my computer as a precaution, while the minor earthquake has had my phone ringing constantly.
This concerns a statement made by Cllr Brian Hall during today's planning committee debate on the proposed marina in Pembroke Dock.
According to my several moles, who all tell a slightly different story, Cllr Brian said that this "could/would/might be his last involvement in major improvements at Pembroke Dock".
All my moles took this to signal Cllr Hall's intention to stand down at the next election.
Whether this column; still reeling from the loss of Eddie Setterfield at the 1999 election, could/would/might survive such a blow, only time will tell.

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