An end to planning sleaze?

Last week saw a dramatic development in the field of planning law when the High Court ruled that the determination of four planning appeals by Secretary of State John Prescott was illegal under the recently introduced Human Rights Act.

Under the present regime, appeals are heard by an independent inspector who makes a recommendation to the Secretary of State in whose hands lies the final decision.

In the case before the High Court the plaintiffs argued that, because his own government's policy was at issue, the Secretary of State could not be impartial because there is a conflict of interest.

The judges agreed, saying of Mr Prescott: "He cannot be both policy-maker and decision-taker."

Presumably, the same considerations apply to whoever is Mr Prescott's equivalent in the Welsh Assembly.

It is now widely forecast that the government will move swiftly to set up a completely independent planning inspectorate with the power to both hear and determine appeals.

However, that might not be the end of the matter.

Surely, what applies to the Secretary of State also applies to local authority planning committees.

They also make policy and adjudicate on individual planning applications, so on the basis of the High Court's ruling they cannot be impartial either.

And, in their case, there is not only the technical matter of a conflict of interest to consider.

A planning committee is in law a quasi-judicial body i.e. it has all the attributes of a court and the members of such a body have a duty to consider the evidence fairly and to arrive at a reasoned decision based on that evidence and nothing else.

But, as anyone who has ever attended a local planning committee meeting will know, these putative judges are often to be heard acting as shamelessly partisan advocates for the applicant.

Even before the Human Rights Act was passed this was illegal under the old common law principle of natural justice: a man cannot be judge in his own cause.

This wilful disregard of the law has led to a string of shameful episodes under both the present county council and its predecessor district council, culminating in perhaps the most disgraceful of all - the complete perversion of the principles of truth and justice in the long-running Enfield saga.

I am no great fan of the Human Rights Act but if it rids us of the corrupt planning regime under which Pembrokeshire has laboured for too long then all I can say is: hallelujah!

No free lunch

Earlier this year Chancellor Gordon Brown won loud applause when he organised a hugely complicated and successful auction of our airwaves.

The telecom companies, afraid of missing out on the great mobile phone bonanza, piled in with massive bids and Mr Brown collected a staggering £22billion windfall on behalf of the British taxpayer.

So brilliant was Mr Brown's mathematically based bidding system that the German and Italian governments followed suit, relieving the telephone giants of several billion pounds more.

Amidst all the cheering could be heard the plaintive voices of a few free market Jeremiahs pointing out that all this cash would have to come out of someone's pockets with the front runners being the telecom shareholders and the users of mobile phones.

But recently another runner entered the field - us.

British Telecom alone owes the banks £40 billion and if it doesn't generate sufficient profits to service its debt it might default.

Last week the Bank of England issued a general warning to the clearing banks to make sure they were not over-exposed to this sector.

The danger is that if the telecom companies are unable to service their debts it might precipitate a banking crisis.

Clearly no government could afford to stand idly by while the financial sector collapsed - Gordon Brown would have to intervene through the Bank of England to shore the system up.

And where would the money come from to mount such a rescue?

Out of the pot Mr Brown raised from selling the licences, of course.

As Milton Friedman says: there's no such thing as a free lunch.

Latest from the Kremlin

Last Thursday I made my way to the Kremlin on Cleddau to attend the County Council's final meeting before the Christmas break.

As I was making my way across the car park a large, black, chauffeur-driven people carrier pulled up opposite the main entrance and out stepped the Chairman Bill Hitchings.

You've got to hand it to Mr Parry-Jones, he's a clever politician.

He knows that if you pander to these people's overdeveloped sense of self-importance you will quickly have them eating out of your hand.

And what could be more self-importance enhancing that being picked up from your front door by an official car driven by a flunky immaculately attired in a suit.

Somebody should ask how many schoolteachers' salaries all this is costing.

The meeting itself was a fairly boring affair.

When I left they had reached page 90 of the agenda and it was noticeable that up to then not one member of the ruling Independent Political (sic) Group had raised a single issue.

Whether this was because they had been studying the works of Francis Bacon where they might have read that "silence is the virtue of fools", or because they feared delaying their annual free booze up, it is not possible to say.

What was also noticeable was that whenever it came to the vote on issues raised by the minority parties the Independents' hands shot up as if controlled by a single string.

I doubt if the Politburo showed such a degree of unanimity, even at the height of Stalin's terror.

One item which did interest me was a letter sent to all the elected members by the former Director of Planning Roger Anderson in which he threatened to report the council to the Ombudsman over the disposal of a piece of land at Castle High, Haverfordwest.

According to Mr Anderson, the members had acted on the basis of misleading information given by an officer.

A labour member wanted to know what the council was doing about this threat.

Up popped Mr Parry-Jones to inform the meeting that, though he had been shown the letter, it had not actually been sent to the council, only the members.

It would have been nice to know whether Mr Parry-Jones thought Mr Anderson's case had any merit, but on that subject he was silent.

The Leader, Maurice Hughes, intervened to urge members to ignore Mr Anderson's complaint and proceed as agreed.

"If he reports us to the Ombudsman, so be it", he added defiantly.

Who needs to worry about the law when they're used to wielding absolute power?

Or the code of conduct, which all members agree to abide by on taking office, the opening words of which are: "Councillors hold office by virtue of the law, and must at all times act within the law"?

Luke the time traveller

Cyber-chums may remember that, about two months ago, a story appeared in the Western Telegraph regarding expense claims made by former county councillor David Edwards.

This was based on information gleaned from the County Council's books when they were open for inspection last October.

Mr Edwards had submitted duplicate mileage claims for half a dozen meetings he had attended when a member of the council.

This was hardly news because exactly the same story, with virtually the same provenance, had appeared in the Mercury some six months earlier.

There was one very important difference.

While the Telegraph's "scoop" was based on publicly available documents that in the Mercury was not.

It was founded on copies of Mr Edwards' expense claims, provided by the County Council outside the statutory audit period.

Recently, I rang the council to request sight of the current year's expenses claim forms and was told by Director of Finance Mark Lewis that I would have to wait until October 2001 when the books were open for audit.

So, why were these rules not adhered to in the case of Mr Edwards?

Sounds like a publicly funded dirty tricks campaign to me!

Not that it was much of a story anyway; councillors often make mistakes on their expense claims.

In the same year that Mr Edwards "transgressed", the highly respected member for Solva, Gordon Cawood, also claimed twice for a number of meetings.

Somebody in the finance department had simply put a line through these duplicated claims and written, "Already paid"

Why wasn't ex-councillor Edwards afforded the same treatment?

More evidence of dirty tricks, perhaps!

Two years ago during my trawl through the National Park's books I discovered that Cllr Rev Emyr Jones had duplicated a whole month's claims and had been paid twice.

I wrote a humorous piece about this, but at no time did I suggest, or even suspect, that this was a deliberate attempt to swindle the authority.

These double claims I have always regarded as examples of memory failure rather like forgetting where you have left your car keys.

Had they claimed for meetings that they hadn't attended that would be a different matter.

And that is exactly what happened in the case of Cllr Alwyn Luke, who is becoming something of a regular in this column (and there's much, much more to come).

He put in a claim for £19.60 in respect of attendance at a meeting of the Policy and Resources committee on 1 April 1999, including details of the time he left home and time returned.

The records show that he tendered his apologies to that meeting.

His activities on May 27 1999 were even more bizarre.

According to his expense claim he left home at 9.00 am to attend a 10 o'clock meeting of the Leisure and Sports committee, claiming £13.23 mileage allowance and £6.37 for lunch.

On the same day, his claim form reveals, he also left home at 2 pm and drove to Haverfordwest to attend the 2.30 pm meeting of the Cultural Services committee claiming another £13.23 mileage.

As he was at home at 2 pm he couldn't possibly fulfill the conditions for claiming lunch allowance " Four hours away from place of residence including the hours 12 noon-2 pm"

One possible explanation is that he owns a Tardis.

But much more plausible is that he made the whole thing up, because the minutes record that he tendered his apologies for both meetings.

Now forgetting where you left the car keys is one thing.

Remembering where you left a set of car keys that have never been in your possession is quite another.


Thanks for all the e-mails and a Happy Christmas to you all


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