March 17 2009

Ken'll fix it

A letter from Andrew Lye in last week's Mercury had Old Grumpy's antennae twitching.
According to Mr Lye he had contacted his local councillor, Ken Rowlands, about litter, including a bed, computer monitor, a plastic sack of waste and a pair of boxer shorts, dumped in Church Road Johnston.
A grateful Mr Lye reports that: "Ken got the problem sorted within 48 hours" though it seems "the boxer shorts still reside in the hedgerow".
This, I think, highlights the great problem with local government: influence peddling, or perceived influence peddling.
Perceived, because, in fact, the removal of the litter probably had more to do with the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which places a statutory duty on the council, than anything done by Ken.
Indeed, in a perfect world, had Mr Lye contacted the council direct, he would have had the right to expect the same outcome.
If it were otherwise, it would mean that Ken had used his influence as Cabinet member for the environment to get the matter expedited at the expense of someone else being pushed further back in the queue.
Now, like other elected members, I get several phone calls each week from constituents with similar problems to Mr Lye which I pass on to the relevant department where they are, by and large, dealt with in a timely, efficient fashion.
This is a sure-fire vote-winner as members knocking on doors at election time well know.
During last May's campaign, a lady, whose problem had been sorted out after telephoning me, told me: "You are the best councillor I've ever had.You will definitely have my vote - and my daughter's".
It didn't seem the right moment to explain that all I had done was send an e-mail drawing the council's attention to the matter and what had followed was simply routine.
Of course, this gives an edge to those sitting members who pay close attention to their constituents' concerns - an advantage known as the power of incumbency.
The difficulty is that there is a thin line between alerting the council to a problem and using your influence to wangle something, be a planning consent or council house, for someone who is not, on a strict application of the rules, entitled to it.
but it is a winning game and as a result it is difficult not to get sucked in.
This phenomena whereby people get involved in dubious practices because "everybody else is doing it" is all too common.
Witness the industrialists who protest that, in some countries, paying bribes is an essential part of doing business.
So they are trapped between doing wrong or going bust.
It was interesting to listen to the testimony of the bankers in their recent appearance before the Parliamentary Select Committee.
What they said, in effect, was that any bank chief executive who had objected to the easy credit philosophy of the past ten years would have had shareholders demanding his head on a platter when his bank failed to match the profitability of its rivals.

Twin spin

Last week's Mercury highlighted the award given to the Pembroke Dock regeneration scheme by UK National Town Planning Institute.
The Mercury's report bore a striking similarity to a press release that appeared on PCC's website - indeed, except for the patently false claim to be "By Mercury reporter", it is identical.
Easy job producing a newspaper, these days!
I am grateful to Pembroke Dock councillor Philip Gwyther for pointing out that this PCC/Mercury joint venture contains a certain amount of spin.
The PR puff is headlined "Perfect planning scoops top award" but as Mr Gwyther says: "This is simply not true! There were thirteen outright "award" winners while there were also seven schemes commended including Pembroke Dock. Everyone who has ever been to a village flower show knows that "commended" means "not the winner"; but by lumping themselves and the other six "commended" entries in with the actual winners, and surreptitiously omitting that there was indeed a higher award for actually winning, the council was trying to make themselves look like they had all won. The Pembroke dock scheme didn't win an award it was given a commendation.
Last but not least - and you may be forgiven if you feel you have slipped into a parallel universe, at this point - the finishing touch -- the claim that: "The scheme . . . has already achieved a substantial turnaround in the town's fortunes."
That particular thought does not exactly spring to mind walking down Dimond Street, St Govan's Shopping Centre and Queen Street with all the boarded up shops!
There are some good things going on in Pembroke Dock. The Technium and Cleddau Bridge Business Park and a hard working Chamber of Trade are just some. But please, please - less of the bull****."
Hear, hear, say I.




Thankfully, investigative journalism isn't completely dead and this week Old Grumpy has been asked to comment on documents regarding the relocation of Milford Haven library obtained by the Western Telegraph under the Freedom of Information Act.
Regular readers will recall that, at its December 2008 meeting, the Cabinet agreed to move the library from its present site on Hamilton Terrace to the Milford Haven Port Authority-owned building at Cedar Court at Havens Head.
What the documents obtained by the WT show is that negotiations for the lease commenced in January 2008, almost a year before the Cabinet agreed to the move.
It seems to me that the correct process would have involved the Cabinet agreeing in principle that the library should be relocated followed by the identification of potential sites and a public consultation on the various alternatives before a final decision was made.
Instead the Cabinet was presented with a fait accompli.
And they nodded through the proposals without even asking about the amount of rent or the costs of fitting out the new building.
As I told the WT: yet another case of the tail wagging the sleepy, overweight dog.
Indeed, the only number they had before them was the £250,000 it was claimed it would cost to install a lift in the existing library.
A private developer recently told me that Otis elevators had charged him just £25,000 to put a seven-person lift in an existing three-story building, so I am wondering if a stray nought has crept into the report to Cabinet.
One thing that is missing from the documents provided to the WT is, I understand, the cost of the lease which has been blacked out [redacted is the official term] on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.
It is my view that an appeal to the Information Commissioner would see this redaction overturned.
In any case, the lease will be in the public domain during this summer's audit inspection process.
I notice that the premises to be leased run to 8,500 sq ft and in MHPA's promotional literature they say their target for annual rent is £10 sq ft.
As the mathematicians among you will already have worked out, this comes to £85,000.
I trust the county council have negotiated a huge discount on this figure.
Pity the Cabinet didn't enquire before rubber stamping the deal.

Bright idea


Would you believe that I was so engrossed with making the most of Sunday afternoon's brilliant weather to make progress in the garden that I completely forgot that England were playing France.
I didn't bother with Italy-Wales on Saturday either because I thought it would be too one-sided to be worth watching.
So all I know about both games is what I have read in the papers.
And newspaper reports are terribly unreliable because of the tendency to write to the result rather than the game.
One thing that is rarely mentioned is the advantage enjoyed by the home side.
Ignoring Scotland and Italy - though as the weekend's results showed they can be a handful in their own backyards - all the games between the top four have gone to the home side.
And, if they are to win only their second Grand Slam, Ireland must reverse that trend this weekend.
I don't much fancy their chances, though whether Wales can beat them by the thirteen points required to reverse the present points difference is another matter.
My own estimation is that home advantage is worth ten points, so a much fairer system would be for the away side to be given ten points start.
Applying the arithmetic to this season's results would mean that England would only need to beat Scotland by 11 points to land the Grand Slam.
Can't see this idea catching on, somehow.

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