March 28 2013

 

Virtue out of necessity

The Pembrokeshire Ministerial Board (PMB)- parachuted into Pembrokeshire in 2011 following the critical reports on the county's education service by Estyn and CSSIW - has now completed its work.
At its final valedictory meeting with members we were told that there had been a huge shift in the council's democratic culture and we were now well along the road on our "journey of improvement".
I must admit that most of this has passed beneath my radar.
If this horse was entered for the Derby it would appear on the race card as "Journey of Improvement (by Dr Pangloss out of Pollyanna)".
That is not to say that there have been no advances, nor that the PMB has had no influence.
What is true is that the very presence of the Board has modified the behaviour of the ruling group, but sceptics like me regard that more as a change of tactics than a change of heart.
Much like the playground bully, the IPPG has undergone this transformation in response to the appearance of a bigger boy on the block.
For example, over many years opposition members, particularly Cllr Bob Kilmister and myself, had sought to have the constitution changed to allow members the right to address Cabinet when one of their Notices of Motion was remitted to that august body.
On all three occasions (May 2007, May 2008 and May 2010) the proposal "That the Notice of Motion be not adopted as current arrangements already provide for an effective channel of communication".was carried by the IPPG block vote (Voting machines).
One thing that struck me is that in 2007 Cllrs Ken Rowlands and Umelda Havard both voted in favour of reform while in 2008 and 2010 they voted to maintain the status quo.
All that had changed in the meantime was that they had switched from Labour to the IPPG.
However, there is a happy ending because when, under the watchful eye of the PMB, the proposal returned to the council in December 2011 it was passed unanimously on a show of hands, although there had been no change in the arrangements that already provided "an effective channel of communications".
There have been several other occasions when long-resisted constitutional changes were quietly adopted when it was realised that, with members of the PMB observing proceedings from the public gallery, the arguments against were just plain silly.
But the biggest change to the democratic culture inside PCC has not been wrought by the PMB, but, as it should be, by the county's electorate which, at last May election, reduced the IPPG's majority from 39-21 to 31-29 (later 32-28 following the defection of Cllr Simon Hancock from Labour and back to 31 - 29 when Cllr Peter Stock resigned from the group).
And it wasn't just a matter of quantity because by and large the voters pruned out a lot of dead wood and grafted on some vigorous new shoots.
That is not just reflected in the huge increase in unaffiliated members from six to fourteen, but also in the new intake of keen intelligent members in the opposition parties.
And, whereas the IPPG with its previous huge majority could shrug off minor rebellions by those of its members in possession of a dictionary (Voting machines) , it now only needs two defectors and its stranglehold on power is broken.
Who knows? the Burton by-election might improve things further still.

 

Tipping point

The Burton by-election is one of the most important political events for a long time.
If the IPPG fail to retain the seat the council will be tied 30 -30 and that will have important repercussions with regard to the political balance rules.
With respect to National Park membership (basic allowance circa £3,000 p.a.) the IPPG currently holds seven of the twelve seats by virtue of the rule that the majority group shall have a majority of seats on all bodies (committees etc).
At 30-all they would lose one of those places.
And, even more important, it would not be in a position to guarantee the chairmanships of the Licencing and Planning committees (SRA circa £9,000 p.a.) to its members.
Nor, for that matter, the much sought after position of vice-chairman of the council.
This would be a serious blow for the political group because it is patronage rather than shared ideology that holds it together.
So we could be nearing the tipping point where some of them begin to question their membership of a party that can't fit them up with a seat on the gravy train.
Goodness me, we may even reach the point where Cllr Adams' position as leader isn't safe.
But I mustn't get too far ahead of myself.
As recent events have made me all too painfully aware, there's many a slip twixt cup and lip.

Rules are rules - sometimes

The County Council's decision to take enforcement action against the eco-house built without planning consent at Glydwr has attracted been quite a bit of comment on the WT's website - mostly in favour of allowing this nice young couple to stay put.
This, I would suggest, is misguided because planning policy is a matter of law and the ruling principle is that everyone should be treated equally.
If this development is allowed to remain without planning permission, what is to stop other nice young couples from building their eco-houses wherever they think fit.
And who will decide if the young couple are nice enough to qualify, or whether the proposed dwelling is sufficiently eco-friendly.
I'm afraid the only way that justice can be achieved is by having clear rules that apply equally to all.
Of course, if people think that developments like this should be allowed they are at perfect liberty to campaign to have the law changed.
One comment that did catch my eye was that which asked about the herdsman's cottage at Eglwswrw which featured prominently on these pages some years ago.
This referred to the planning consent given to the former Leader of the county council John Davies for a 2,800 sq ft agricultural dwelling at Cwmbetws.
This was despite the fact that the 160 dairy cows on which the need for an additional dwelling was based had already been sold when the planning committee met to make its decision.
And that, only a couple of weeks before the planning committee met, the planning officer had written to Cllr Davies' agent saying that the proposed house was much too big to pass the "functional need" test and that a dwelling of between 1250 and 1,500 sq ft would be more appropriate, though this didn't appear in the report to the planning committee.
My thoughts on the planning issues involved can be found at (Analysis).
In addition to what is written there, Welsh assembly guidelines require that such dwellings must meet a present rather than a future need.
This is difficult to reconcile with the fact that seven years after the consent was given the herdsman's mansion had still not been built.
Though I understand some foundation work has been done, so there is no need to renew the consent.
Then there is the permission granted to the present Leader, Cllr Jamie Adams, for a large executive-type herdsman's cottage at Keyston, even though a previous consent for an agricultural dwelling at Golden Grove on the same holding contained a condition that "The dwelling is to be used in connection with the farming of the holding and no other residential development will be permitted (Cottage industry).

Lucky strike

I must admit to a slight twinge of envy on discovering that that other website had landed a genuine scoop with the exclusive story that the Hywel Dda CHC is being threatened with a libel action by polling company ORS.
I suppose it had to happen sometime - monkeys, typewriters and the works of Shakespeare, and all that - but I must try to take it with good grace.
Though, coming on top of the recent debacle in Cardiff, it is a serious blow to my self-esteem.
It seems to me that this case raises some important issues around the law of defamation and qualified privilege in which I take a keen interest for reasons of self-preservation.
It will be interesting to see how it all turns out.

Barring accidents

Somewhere on my bookshelf is a copy of S J Moroney's Facts from Figures - a book on statistics for the layman.
In it is a section on the tricks people get up to when presenting statistics to the public.
One such is the stretching and compressing of the axes of graphs to give a false impression of the rate of change.
I recently drew attention to an example of this concerning global warming (On the fiddle).
Moroney also warns of the dangers of bar charts that don't start from zero.
Most of you will have recently received an example of this in the form of a council document entitled "Value for your money".
It contains a bar chart of band D council tax rates for various authorities in Wales which has £600 as its starting point.
A quick glance shows that the column for Powys (£960) is almost two-and-a-half times as high as that for Pembrokeshire (£741).
Of course if you look closely at the diagram (study the small print) it is perfectly accurate, but the whole point about such illustrations is that first impressions count.
What Moroney says is that, if starting the bar chart at zero causes problems, it is much better to represent the figures in a simple table.
That way it is the actual figures that catch the attention, not the misleading diagrammatic presentation.
In any case, as I have pointed out previously, this lowest council tax in Wales business is not a reliable metric unless we also know how much the council is raising in charges compared to other authorities (Taxing truths)

Self pity

Thanks to all those who emailed with their kind thoughts following the distressing events in Cardiff earlier this month.
But it's not pity I need - just a pair of centres who know when to pass and a couple of wingers who can tackle.
I could also ask for some decent props and an openside who is quick around the park, but that would be greedy.
I was particularly heartened by the email from Owain Glyndwr (allegedly) which said simply: "Cheer up! You could be French"".
And then there was the one which detected a wider political significance.
Dear Old Grumpy,
I am sure it will not have escaped your eagle-eye that the top three teams in the Six-Nations were all part of the Sterling Area, with the Euro-users in four, five and six.
Taken together with the fiasco in Cyprus, can there any doubt that the single currency is a dead duck?

Cheers
N Farage

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