October 1 2009
Vale of tears
On my outings to Sychpant in the Gwaun Valley with the grandchildren, I have always been struck by the sheer tranquillity of the place.
But the county council's standards committee was brought face to face with an altogether different picture when it met earlier this week to consider an Ombudsman's report into the failure of the chairman of the local community council, Cllr John Phillips, to declare an interest when his neighbour's planning application was discussed on three occasions by the council
Members of the standards committee learned that the Gwaun Valley is far from the peaceful rural idyll that outsiders perceive because Cllr Phillips and his neighbours were said to be in "a festering relationship of hate" amounting to "prolonged bitter hostility".
More East Enders than Archers, then.
The fact that the proposed development was close to his own property would, alone, have been enough to require a declaration of interest but, the Ombudsman found, in this case, given the bad feeling between the parties, Cllr Phillips was doubly at fault.
In addition, Clr Phillips had already submitted a letter of objection to the National Park Authority, so he was disqualified from participation in community council debates on the matter on the grounds of prejudgment.
To be fair to Cllr Phillips, there is no evidence in the minutes of these three meetings that he tried to persuade the community council to oppose the scheme and his contribution to one of the meetings was merely to enquire whether the community council had received a copy of the application; he having already been given notice as the owner of the adjoining property.
And, though the committee upheld the Ombundsman's findings, it imposed one of the lightest penalties available: censure plus the requirement that he undergo training in the operation of the Code.
So much for the rather mundane facts of the case.
But what fascinated Old Grumpy was the content of the documents that accompanied the Ombudsman's report and the light they throw on the workings of local government in Pembrokeshire.
These include the responses of the other community councillors to the Ombudsman's questions.
Asked whether Cllr Phillips had declared an interest they all replied that he had no need to because he was neither the applicant nor a friend or relative of the applicant.
I assume they got that idea from a misinterpretation of paragraph 11 of the Code of Conduct which states that "a member has a personal interest in a matter being discussed if a decision on that matter could reasonably be regarded as likely to benefit or disadvantage one of the member's family, a friend or any person with whom the member has a close personal relationship."
I suppose that, in everyday language, most of us wouldn't consider ourselves to have "a close personal relationship" with someone with whom we hadn't exchanged a civil word for years.
Though, arguably, it should have occurred to them that, as a matter of basic justice, a councillor's impartiality is equally in question whether the decision affects his enemies or his friends.
What is even more surprising is that the, then, county councillor for the area John Griffiths seems to have believed the same thing.
In a letter to the Ombudsman (of which more later) he thrice asserted that there was no requirement for Cllr Phillips to declare an interest because "He was not the applicant, and so far as I am aware, he is not a relative or close business associate of Mr and Mrs Davies [the applicants]."
While the community councillors' misunderstanding of the code might be excused by lack of training, we county councillors are given regular and detailed instruction on the subject.
I have attended several of these events and distinctly remember being told that, in terms of acting fairly and in the public interest, being perceived to be doing down your enemies is on all fours with giving a leg up to your friends.
And I can't resist pointing out that, prior to his electoral demise in 2008, Mr Griffiths was one of the Independent Political Group's leading thinkers - vice-chairman of the children and young persons [education] scrutiny committee, no less.
Indeed John Griffiths was thought so important to the IPG project that the Leader was prepared to trash the council's constitution in order to save him from facing a motion of no confidence (Dodging the column)
Judging from his letter to the Ombudsman, ex-Cllr Griffiths doesn't hold the Code of Conduct in very high regard.
In a rambling two-page preamble in advance of answering the Ombudsman's, questions he says that he is saddened to learn that Mr and Mrs Davies have submitted a complaint and that neighbours falling out "is one of the least attractive aspects of human nature".
He goes on: "But when complaints such as this are made which incur expense to the taxpayer I feel it is very wrong. However the politicians and the civil servants in the Welsh Assembly have dreamt up these Code of Conduct regulations and this is the type of situation it can lead to."
I'm afraid this reveals a total lack of understanding of what the Code is all about.
It is not simply a guide to councillors on how to keep their noses clean, though it undoubtedly performs that function along the way.
The Code is intended to promote public confidence in our democratic system by sending out a clear a message to the general public that those charged with looking after their affairs are expected to act in accordance with the principles of justice and in the public interest.
When the actions of those in power fall below those high standards, those injured, or potentially injured, have a right to seek redress through the Ombudsman.
How anybody who claims to believe in fair play can say it is "very wrong" when the pursuit of justice incurs expense to the taxpayer is beyond me.
Mr Griffith's letter also reveals that Cwm Gwaun community council has deep suspicions about the impartiality of the National Park Authority.
He writes: "On further point I feel I should draw to your attention is that the indigenous people of Cwm Gwaun, that is to say the Welsh speaking people born and bred in the community, which includes all the members and Clerk of Cwm Gwaun community council have very little faith in PCNPA specially the English staff of the development management section together with the Chief Executive and Welsh Assembly appointed members of the PCNPA. They are of the opinion, rightly or wrongly, that the local people are treated harshly, with most of their planning applications rejected, but that PCNPA give far more favourable treatment to incomers like Mr and Mrs Davies."
Grumpy - it's official
At the other end of the county, the agenda for next Monday's meeting of Manorbier Community Council (MCC) includes: "To review and consider the appropriate course of action to be taken in relation to comments made about Manorbier Community Council and its members on the Old Grumpy website."
Official recognition, at last!
I think I'll toddle along and see what they have to say.
During my correspondence with the chairman of MCC, Cllr Ray Hughes, he has threatened me with both legal action and the Ombudsman, though to date his words have not matured into action.
If I could be so bold as to offer some free legal advice it would be that, given MCC's rather poor record in past legal skirmishes, which have set the village's ratepayers back by some £40,000, the council should think long and hard before trying to sue me.
As it happens, I recently had cause to revisit the famous case of Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers Ltd.
I appreciate that comparing MCC v Old Grumpy with that clash of the titans is like drawing parallels between the Vauxhall Conference and the Premier League but the offside rule is the same in both.
Members of MCC might be interested in what Lord Keith had to say when the Derbyshire case reached the House of Lords.
Finding in favour of the Times, he ruled that "It was contrary to the public interest that organs of government, whether central or local [like MCC, for instance], should have the right to sue for libel because any governmental body should be open to uninhibited public criticism and to allow such actions would place an undesirable fetter on freedom of speech". He concluded: "It was of the highest importance that a democratically elected governmental body, or indeed any governmental body, should be open to uninhibited public criticism. The threat of a civil action for defamation must inevitably have an inhibiting effect on freedom of speech."
Of course, the members may sue in their personal capacity though they might be deterred by the fact that they will be spending their own money.
That leaves the Ombudsman though, as I have said previously, in that eventuality I will be drawing attention to Cllr Hughes' role in pressing a motion of no confidence in Cllr Malcolm Calver at a time when he was under investigation by the Ombudsman following a complaint by Cllr Calver.
As the Ombudsman says in the Gwaun Valley case (above) "... animosity between a member and an applicant also amounts to a personal interest that needs to be declared."
And that applies to all matters that come before the council, not just planning applications.
I also read in the Western Telegraph that another member of MCC, Cllr David Baker, has been banned from driving for 26 months and put under a tag and curfew regime after being caught driving a motor vehicle while three times over the legal alcohol limit.
Cllr Baker is quoted as saying: "I was convicted and banned and phoned the county council to make sure I had not breached the code of conduct, and I had not."
Now, I find this difficult to believe because, as far as I am aware, the county council has no powers to determine whether or not someone has a breached the Code.
That is a matter for the Ombudsman, as is made clear in the final paragraph of the Telegraph's report where a Commission spokesman is quoted as saying that, if the Ombudsman received a complaint, "consideration would be given as to whether the case and the person involved had brought the office of member or the authority into disrepute."
This reflects a change in the law following the cases involving Ken Livingstone and Cllr Brian Hall where it was held that the Code only applied when the member was on council business.
In Cllr Hall's case he managed to convince the standards committee that he was in St Davids on private business even though he claimed travelling expenses from the council, and, it later emerged, he was there as the Leader's nominated representative.
An achievement that makes plaiting sawdust look like child's play.
But I digress.
I have also received a a rather menacing e-mail from Cllr Baker regarding the contents of my website.
Timed at 21:21 it reads: " regarding your last letter being a member of the mcc i am angry that you copare(sic) the mcc to the bnp you dont (sic) know me or my family so dont (sic) you dare judge me or the mcc until you get to know the"
I would advise Cllr Baker to follow my rule about sending out e-mails in the evening: never send anything even remotely serious after more than two glasses of wine, or 8 pm, whichever is the earlier.
In my case, the limiting factor is, almost invariably, the wine.
By 21:21 I am usually tucked up in bed.
One of the best things to happen in a long time is the introduction of traffic lights at the Horse and Jockey crossroads, especially for those of us travelling from west to east.
I must have crossed there at least 20 times since they were switched on and I have never once had to wait for more than a few seconds.
Indeed my three grandchildren are mightily impressed at the way the lights turn green as I approach, and, if already on green, to orange just as I pass through.
"How does that happen?" they ask.
"They are programmed to recognise when a county councillor is approaching," I explain.
"You must be a very important person", they say.
"A very, very important person" I reply.
At which point, for some unaccountable reason, they all have a fit of the giggles.
I suspect that Grumpette has been poisoning their impressionable young minds with anti-Grumpy propaganda.
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