Quarter pounder

A few weeks ago I toddled down to Milford Haven Town Hall to listen to a presentation by the trustees regarding the town council's funding of the local museum.

The chief spokesman was Eric Harries, the chairman of the trustees.

According to Mr Harries, the Milford Haven Maritime Museum, to give it its full title, is "an outstanding success" unlike other similar bodies, which are "wallowing in the financial morass", as he put it with a characteristic rhetorical flourish.

The truth, as revealed by the museum's accounts, is, as you might expect, rather different.

In the financial year ending 31 March 2000 the museum collected £3,096 from entrance fees and received grants of £9,000 (Milford Haven T C £6,500 Pembs C C £2,500).

So for every pound collected at the door the taxpayer forked out three.

And the reason MHMM is not wallowing in the financial morass is that it can call on the ratepayers to play the fairy godmother.

If that is what Mr Harries regards as success then he can count himself lucky that he has dedicated his life to "investing" other people's money rather than his own.

However, it is not all bad news for the ratepayer because it emerged during the meeting that the museum has not drawn down any of the £6,000 set aside by the Town Council for this year.

Not that it needed to because, as I revealed earlier this year, the museum has £15,000 squirreled away in a deposit account as a result of providing the Town Council with a series of bogus estimates which consistently understated the amount of money had in the bank.

That seven of the museum trustees are also town councillors, who knew, or should have known, about this piece of creative accounting only adds to the felony.

Still, the fact that, so far this year, the museum has not taken any money from the Town Council seems to demonstrate that at least some of the trustees might be having pangs of conscience about what has gone before.

Not before time either!

Signing on?

Over the years I have collected a vast amount of data on councillors' expenses.

So much, indeed, that I have had to buy a shed in which to store it.

This information is extremely useful in that it can be used to construct" best value" performance indicators comparing one year with the next.

And where better to start than at the very top with the Chairman.

The Chairman for 1999/2000, Cllr Bryan Phillips, submitted a single expense sheet during his year of office, covering the period 15/7/99 - 22/10/99.

His predecessor, Cllr Alwyn Luke, put in no fewer than eight for the same three month period.

As you can imagine, the amount of money claimed varied proportionally (£144 to Cllr Phillips - £1,500 to Cllr Luke)

The area of activity which shows the greatest variability is something referred to as "Chairman's duties" such as "signing legal documents" for which Cllr Luke claimed on 36 occasions during the three months to Cllr Phillips' three.

There must be some reason for this vast productivity gap.

Old Grumpy can think of several possibilities..

1) There were fewer legal documents generated in Cllr Phillips' year.

2) Cllr Phillips was skiving and when he left office there were rooms full of unsigned papers.

3) Cllr Luke is a slow writer.

4) By popping down to Haverfordwest whenever he felt like it, Cllr Luke had hit upon a nice little earner (30 miles at 44p = £13.20 plus lunch at£6.37 = £19.57 in all)

I do, of course, have my own view on which might be the more likely explanation but having put the facts before you I will leave it to you, the jury, to decide.

No turning back

Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, says that the UK will be prepared to surrender its veto at the forthcoming Nice summit in those areas where it is in the national interest to have qualified majority voting (QMV).

The problem with that is that we cannot be sure that the majority of our European partners, whatever their present stance, will still hold views favourable to our interests five or ten years down the line.

For instance, there is a powerful strand of anti-American, anti-free trade thinking in Europe, particularly in France.

If this ever became the majority opinion, foisted on us by QMV, it could be very damaging to our interests as a trading nation.

While it is virtually impossible to predict the future direction of European policy, we can say with some certainty that once we surrender the veto it will be devilishly difficult to get it back again, however strongly the British electorate feel.

The good old days

I suppose I ought to apologise for some of the rude things I wrote about the former Preseli Pembs District Council planning system.

In my defence I should say that I was not to know that the system operated by Pembrokeshire County Council would be ten times worse.

At least under PPDC the officers tried to uphold the policy.

Indeed, it was PPDC's Director of Planning, Roger Anderson, who coined the phrase "bungalow farmers" during one particularly fierce battle with the bunch of corrupt old men who regularly tried to drive a coach and horses through the very policy, which they themselves had devised.

I well remember one stormy meeting when members discussed the Welsh Office decision to call in an application to develop a huge housing estate at Loo Choo farm outside Haverfordwest.

The members had voted to grant consent despite Mr Anderson's clear advice that it was way outside policy.

After telling the members that the Welsh Office was setting up a public inquiry under an independent inspector to determine the application, Mr Anderson dropped his bombshell.

Another thing members would have to decide, he said, was who would represent the Council's view that permission should be granted, at the inquiry?

Up jumped one of the bungalow farmers to tell Mr Anderson that as Director of Planning he would have to represent the authority.

The Director explained that he had consistently advised that this proposed development was contrary to policy; that remained his view and that he was not about to prostitute his professional integrity by standing up in front of an inspector and saying the opposite.

The members voted to go into private session to discuss the Director's insubordination and, I believe, there was even talk that he should be sacked.

In the end the several hundred thousand pounds Mr Anderson could have claimed for wrongful dismissal must have weighed heavily with the members because a barrister was engaged to defend the Council's decision.

Defending the indefensible is a task beyond even the sharpest of legal minds and all the ratepayers were left with, as a memorial to the stupidity of the bungalow farmers, was a large bill for legal fees.

Sadly the goings on at Enfield, Portfield Gate, seem to indicate that the officers are no longer prepared to defend the policy against the ravages of the bungalow farmers.

Indeed, they now seem willing to bend over backwards to play the BFs' game.

At the risk of boring you to sobs, I will again outline what the relevant policy (EV18) says.

Section 1 provides that the development of redundant buildings in the open countryside will only be allowed when: "The building to be converted can be genuinely converted to accommodate the proposed use without extensive alterations, rebuilding and/or extension. In addition a structural survey will be required to establish that the building is structurally sound."

Even the planning officers admit that Enfield: described as "very derelict" and with "only the outlines of the former house being discernible", doesn't qualify on that count.

But policy EV18 has five sections and the planning officers claim that it fulfils the requirements of the other four.

Therefore, they say, it is 80% in compliance and that's O.K.

As I have said ad nauseam this interpretation of the policy is pure unvarnished twaddle.

For instance, EV18 (4) requires that "the proposed form, bulk and general design of the converted building" be in keeping with its surroundings.

NB it refers to the "converted building" not to the rebuilt building or the finished building i.e. exactly the same building required by EV18 1) to be "genuinely converted …….. without extensive alterations, rebuilding and/or extension"

I have some difficulty in believing either that the officers don't understand the policy or that they are deliberately misrepresenting its meaning, but one or other must be true.

The last time I said this, word filtered back from County hall that the pointy-heads in the legal department considered what I had written to be "actionable".

No action followed, of course, because they know that a truth-finding tribunal like the High Court is a far more bracing environment than that found in the County Council's fabrication department.

They also know that if they sued and lost they'd be holed below the waterline.

Much better to seek shelter from this particular storm behind the truth-benders that largely populate the ranks of the so-called Independent Political (sic) Group.


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