July 31 2001

Old Grumpy

It couldn't happen here

One Sunday last Autumn, I was up on the scaffold doing some repairs to the garage, when I was called down to answer the phone.

On the other end of the line was an extremely agitated local businessman with a familiar tale to tell about the county council sourcing goods "up the line" rather than from his firm, which could supply them at the same price.

My man had documentary proof, which he faxed to me, and I promised to take the matter up the following morning.

At 7.30am the next day the telephone rang.

It was the businessman again. Could I hold off doing anything about his complaint? he asked.

This was such a dramatic about turn in less than 24 hours that I asked why he had changed his mind.

"My father is applying for planning permission and he's worried that if I make a fuss it might jeopardise his chances," came the reply.

I could have told him that the determination of planning applications is a quasi-judicial matter and that the only concern of both planning officers and members of the committee was to judge cases on the basis of their compliance with planning policy (the law).

That is what is supposed to happen in a democracy under the rule of law, but unfortunately, in Pembrokeshire, and from what I can gather, in many other places, this basic judicial principle, that everyone has the right to fair treatment is routinely abused.

Of course, if local authorities do abuse their planning powers to "punish" those who criticise them, we are living in a type of fascist tyranny.

But it couldn't happen here!

Oh no?

Last Tuesday, when I heard Cllr Bill Hitchings urging his fellow members of the planning committee to "be consistent" in their decisions, it occurred to me that the county council should provide sick bags for the use of those who are nauseated by the stench of hypocrisy.

Cllr Hitchings is, you see, a serial bungalow farmer of many years standing, whose only consistent principle on planning matters is to do whatever seems politically expedient.

Interestingly, he was speaking on a planning application at Pope Hill, Johnston, for an "infill" development.

The council's policy allows the infilling of small gaps in the built-up frontages of hamlets.

Unfortunately, the planning policy does not provide a precise definition of "small gap".

However, the planning officer's report said that the distance between the properties to the north and south of the application site was 50 metres, and this did not qualify as a "small gap" though it would be perfectly reasonable to argue the opposite point of view.

But nobody did, and though Johnston Community Council had recommended approval, the committee went along with the officers' recommendation and refused consent.

Contrast that with another application in Johnston which came before the committee in April.

This was for a large storage shed in the garden of a bungalow on the Neyland Road.

According to the officer's report this proposal contravened policies GN1, GN5, GN6 and EC10 and should be refused.

The local member, Cllr George Grey turned up at the meeting and made a speech in favour of the application during which he pointed out that Johnston Community Council was in favour of the application, and "grass roots democracy" should prevail.

Several other members supported the application (had they been lobbied, I wonder) and it sailed through with a large majority.

Not much sign of consistency there.

It is also interesting to compare this latest Pope Hill application with another in the same area two or three years ago.

This involved the renovation of redundant buildings at Pope Hill Farm.

The Welsh Office Highways Directorate opposed the application because of inadequate visibility at the junction of the lane to Pope Hill and the trunk road.

Consent was given without debate.

The applicant? Cllr George Grey.

As I've said many times before, when it comes to planning in Pembrokeshire, it's not what you know but who you know.

I am sure that it is entirely coincidental that, last year, the applicant who got such short shrift in this latest case complained to the Ombudsman about the Planning Department's failure to stop the unauthorised tipping of excavated material arising from Freemans Way and the demolition of Tesco on the Council's property at Withybush Airfield.

If Welsh Assembly minister Edwina Hart is serious about cleaning up local government, she would be well advised to transfer the determination of planning applications (a quasi-judicial function) from local politicians to independent tribunals.

The politicians could then be left to carry out their proper function - making policy.

If the opportunity to feather their electoral nests by influence peddling in the planning committee was removed, there would be no need for Mrs Hart to offer £10,000 bribes to these old power brokers in order to encourage them to step down. The electorate would do the job for her, in due course.


Latest from the molehill

One of my moles in County Hall tells me that an alternative meaning for the acronym COMB (Chief Officers Management Board) is gaining currency in the Lubianka-on-Cleddau. Such is the subservience of the ruling Independent Political Group (Leader Maurice Hughes) to the Chief Executive and the Directors that COMB is now popularly used as shorthand for Control Over Maurice's Boys.


It's a jungle out there

Old Grumpy is taking a close interest in the highly entertaining row between New Labour and the brothers in the Trades Unions over Mr Blair's plans to involve the private sector in the provision of public services.

As someone who has worked in the private sector all my life, I know for certain that we are far more efficient than our public sector cousins.

I would like to tell you that our superior performance stems from our greater intelligence and capacity for hard work.

Sadly, I am unable to sustain that case.

We are more efficient for basically the same reason that antelopes run faster when pursued by a lion - fear.

This fear: that our customers will go elsewhere and doom us to the bankruptcy courts if we don't provide a level of service for which they are prepared to pay, is what makes the private sector more willing to embrace change that monopolistic providers in the public services.

It is not that we privateers like change any more than anyone else, it is simply that if our customers demand it we have to go along with it.

Like the antelope, we must either outrun the competition or die.

There are those who believe that if only the government would exert control over this competitive jungle we could all live happily ever after.

Like in the former USSR, for instance?


Gravy Train - Timetable update

For further details see July 16

 Rank  1996  Jan 2000  New proposals
 Ordinary Member  £3,500  £5,325  £9,907
 Leader  £8,500 £18,830   £35,437
 Deputy Leader  £6,000  £11,893  £22,672
 Committee Chairmen  £6,000  £11,983  £15,566
 Committee Vice Chairmen  £5,000  £7,608  £12,460
Scrutiny Com Chair (new)  ----------  -------------  £17,566
Scrutiny Com V-C (new)  ---------- -------------  £15,013
Cabinet Member (new)  ---------  ------------  £22,500
Principal Opposition Leader £4,000  £7,608  £17,566

There will also be a £10,000 one-off payment for passengers (literally) volunteering to vacate the train.

This is designed to get rid of some of the useless deadwood that an over-polite electorate seems reluctant to axe.

Early indications are that there will be eight Cabinet Members and a similar number of Scrutiny Committee Chairs and Vice-Chairs.

All figures for Leaders, Chairmen etc include the basic allowance paid to ordinary members.



The camera never lies, or seeing is believing.


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