Jacob Williams
Tuesday 31st October, 2017

Draft dodgers

Draft dodgers

Local government law requires the committee appointments of us councillors who aren’t affiliated to any political group to be made by full council.

The unaffiliated cohort – or the ‘uglies,’ as we’re also known – amounts to over a third of Pembrokeshire County Council’s membership, and we almost always come to an amicable agreement over who wants to sit where.

On the rare occasions a gentlemen’s agreement can’t be reached, candidates’ nominations are put before full council. Here their fates lie in the raised or lowered hands of all sixty councillors.

A notable number of the council’s unaffiliated members have been license holders, or deem their links to licensed industries should preclude their sitting on the licensing committee.

This avoids public doubts over a councillor’s neutrality if sitting in judgment, for example, of a competitor’s pub license or an application for a taxi license which could be touting for the same trade as a family member.

Consequently during the last council term the uglies had a small surplus of licensing committee seats.

This draft evasion used to excite Martletwy’s ex-councillor Rob Lewis, who made a regular fuss at full council meetings where he made repeated requests to revisit the vacancies at the next meeting.

In May of this year, the Martletwy electors spoke. Since then it’s fallen to Cllr. Jamie Adams to carry on the tradition – and with the new administration in place, a new surplus has emerged: unaffiliated seats on overview and scrutiny committees.

PCC has five of these 13-strong O&S committees. Until August, there were 20 unaffiliated councillors, and we had four seats on each committee.

In August, embattled Tory councillor Dai Boswell withdrew his affiliation to the authority’s Conservative group after being charged with child sex offences.

He is still a councillor, but sits on no committees. By leaving the Tories he raised the total number of PCC’s unaffiliateds to 21. But this small change upped the uglies’ O&S seat allocation from four to five on each committee.

With 21 uglies to fill 25 O&S seats, a full complement is only possible by doubling up – but it’s more complex than that, as we’ll see.

As I type, two of PCC’s five O&S committees have an ugly deficit of three, whilst licensing and another O&S committee are down an ugly each.

At the full council meeting earlier this month, Cllr. Adams criticised unaffiliated councillors shirking their ‘duties’ by allowing these positions to go unfulfilled, and said unaffiliated members need to “take a look at themselves!”

Cllr. Mike Stoddart reminded Cllr. Adams that the rules forbid cabinet members from sitting on O&S committees. As PCC has seven unaffiliateds in the cabinet, the pool of uglies to fill these 25 O&S committee seats is actually 14.

Lewis and Adams’ mock outrage at these unfilled seats is merely an attempt to highlight what they perceive to be an awkward situation for the uglies.

But they may be surprised I commend their efforts to bring this topic up as a regular agenda item. During the previous council term I even drafted a proposal to that effect, but not for their reasons.

I well remember the days when uglies had to make a request of former chief executive, Bryn Parry-Jones, to add arising vacancies onto the next full council agenda.

As full council meets only five times per year, if uglies wish to fill a vacancy it can take weeks or months – consider the particularly long interval between the July and October meetings.

Without being on the agenda, it’s arguable that the council’s legal brains would deny nominations to fill a vacant post from the floor without prior notice. In the above example this could potentially see a July vacancy not being filled until December.

So it’s far more convenient for unaffiliated councillors, then, to have our appointments listed as a standing item.

As for trying to embarrass councillors for not doing their patriotic duties, they’ll find absolutely no shame from this ugly.

I’ve previously said, publicly, on numerous occasions and in the clearest terms: overview and scrutiny committees are a waste of my time.

In Pembrokeshire, as a general rule, these are talking shops featuring much back-patting, jargon junkies, clueless contributions and vomitous virtue-signalling.

That, and fierce competition to be the first or most frequent to say such horrors as “drill down” and “journey of improvement.”

They like to talk about ‘meaningful’ scrutiny but, I’m afraid to say, they are weak and hopelessly ineffective.

I have also said that there were exceptions – like the very finely-tuned but sadly short-lived school performance scrutiny meetings under the chairmanship of Cllr. Pat Davies. These probes were like congressional hearings – those who appeared before it knew only too well.

That is how scrutiny committees work well – and not, like the time during the last council term, where a councillor who shall remain nameless famously turned up to a meeting of the since-abolished environment O&S committee with a bag of sprouting specimens freshly plucked from her patch.

The soily spectacle of uprooted flora included giant hogweed, Himalayan balsam and Japanese knotweed.

I’m not sure who was more taken aback by the invasive species – and I’m not referring to the committee’s chairman, Cllr. Brian Hall, who I have to say in my experience is a very fair chair.

Indeed, I’m still a member of Bri’s corporate O&S committee – from which I daren’t resign for fear of Jamie’s wrath!

On a serious note, if Jamie really wants to improve O&S committees, a far better system, might I suggest, would be to align them to scrutinise topics directly under the remit of the council’s directorates.

This could clear up the muddled mess of committees with their strange remits, and it would also reduce the number of committees overall – I know many councillors agree five is far too many.

But, I don’t think such a change will ever happen. It would be turkeys voting for Christmas for PCC’s political groups, who are unlikely to back committee culls when their chairmanships attract £9k special responsibility allowances.

As for the beleaguered draft dodgers, these councillors could be scrutinising on their constituents’ behalf in their own, far more effective ways.

It’s interesting to note that, apart from those I’ve mentioned, no other PCC committees feature unaffiliated vacancies.

I might be the only one who’ll say it, but something tells me I’m not the only ugly who thinks O&S committees are a waste of time.

The Welsh Government kept PCC in the dark ahead of its sweeping press release on scrapping Cleddau Bridge tolls.

October’s council meeting heard how County Hall’s bigwigs only learned of Cardiff Bay’s key development through the media, like everyone else.

Of course, it may never happen, but some in County Hall are clearly miffed such a big announcement was made without the courtesy of prior consultation.

Top Facebook comment on the situation comes from Daniel Devine:

“Similar to what PCC usually do to the Pembrokeshire public…”

If you missed its first airing a year ago, you can now catch Who’s Spending Britain’s Billions online again.

Jacques Peretti’s documentary, featuring PCC, was repeated by the BBC this evening meaning it’s back on iPlayer.

The show is about public sector excess and councils wasting taxpayers’ cash – look out for my seaside cameo!

Star of the show is Ceredigion council’s leader, Ellen ap Gwynn.

She abruptly ends Peretti’s probing interview yelling at his crew: “…get out of my room, the bloody lot of you!”

As a Halloween treat, I’ve set aside eloquent Ellen’s snippet below, but for the next month you can watch the whole programme on iPlayer at this link.


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12 Comments...

  • Flashbang

    As the previous regime has been booted out surely the new regime should have cleaned out the staff who made the excesses and dodgy dealings possible by their connivance.

    The taxpayer deserves to be relieved of these parasites and yes men. People who have the taxpayer’s interests first and foremost should be employed.

    I see PCC are trying to fob off a three weekly black back collection on a very cynical public. PCC should remember it’s part of their remit to provide proper service and not create more problems than they solve.

  • Mayday

    Isn’t it about time the Head of Transformation delivered a progress report on the grand plans for re-organisation, cost cutting and revenue generation?

  • John Hudson

    On Monday (6 November) Cabinet is to consider the report concerning next year’s budget including the local government settlement, i.e. the amount of money PCC gets from Welsh Government.

    The report makes interesting reading as it seems that the council perceives itself to be poorly treated because of its long proud boast of having the lowest council tax in Wales.

    As the report states, PCC Band D Council tax at £883.15 is the lowest, compared to the formula produced “standard tax element” for all councils of £1,166.72, a gap of £283.

    PCC has consistently used surplus annual Cleddau Bridge toll income and car park service income (excluding CPE) to reduce the net expenditure that falls to be met by our council taxes. In 2017/18 this “Council Tax subsidy” may be estimated at about £44 at Band D level.

    This does not fully explain the remaining gap of £239 attributable to policy spending decisions of PCC.

    More worrying is that the council is now pursuing a full cost recovery policy on fees and charges. This may result in our paying fees and charges which include some notional costs that the council does not actually incur when referenced to the council cash based management accounts.

    This difference in accounting treatment was explained by the former Leader on 2 March 2017 in response to a council question whereby an accumulated cash based surplus of £1.6m on car parking could be regarded as a deficit of £2.3m, simply by reference to different accounting terminology.

    This provides the council with a greatly expanded opportunity to increase charges within the full cost recovery limit.

    We will be required to pay over our real money to meet fees and charges calculated on a basis that includes notional costs that the council does not incur in real cash money terms.

    The council’s balanced budget legal requirement clearly has to be protected yet the burden between rates and fees and charges income is being altered.

    All this appears to be happening without any effective scrutiny by councillors. As I was informed last year in response to an FoI request, the difference in accounting terminology had never been fully explained to members but had been hinted at. Officers thought that sufficient information had always been provided and an undertaking given, that in future additional explanatory narrative would be provided, WHERE WE FEEL IT IS NECESSARY (my emphasis).

    At the Cabinet meeting on Monday there is a report on ‘transformation’ which includes a Fees and Charges Handbook for Managers. Based on the full recovery model, including non cash based notional costs, this appears to exclude any member involvement in the assessment of charging less than full cost which is left to officers to determine.

    Officers still rule.

  • Malcolm Calver

    Flashbang quite rightly informs us that Pembrokeshire County Council has a duty to provide a “proper” service to residents of Pembrokeshire.

    That service does not have to be automatically provided by PCC employees, if it is not competitive with other supplies/providers.

    The time is long overdue for tenders for all services that PCC provides to be carried out. With a bit of luck that is what the highly remunerated Head of Transformation is doing.

  • John Hudson

    Appendix 1 of the Transformation report by the WAO (Cabinet on Monday) lifts the veil on the opinions of staff and councillors about the progress, or not, of transformation.

    Although dated September, not long after our new council was installed, it paints a confusing and in my view depressing picture. There is light, in as much as staff on the ground at least, are aware of the problems and issues that the council faces, but there is little awareness of any political intervention and direction.

    Is the structure of scrutiny wrong, with priorities still apparently based on the original bible of the PWC recommended transformation programme?

    Why isn’t our council taking this matter by the scruff of the neck and leading?

  • Faux Espoir

    The recent policy overview and scrutiny committee reviewed leisure last week and there was no surprise that they have employed the services of a consultant to advise them on what to do with the leisure centres/services.

    The consultant is looking at option 2 after option 1 and its faulted line of enquiry was thrown out. There were only three options tabled in the first place and the third was keeping the status quo.

    Option 2 is to offer a set sum to the leisure service to run what we have – which is the route they will take as they don’t want to keep the status quo: why then waste money on consultants again when it’s obvious to those of us watching that the members want option 2?

  • Mayday

    Wow, fantastic response by PCC! Transformation update delivered to Cabinet on Monday 6th Nov.

  • Flashbang

    This is what happens Jacob when you don’t post anything for a long while. Only 4 comments so very few appear to be aware that there is something here. Maybe an email to let us know you’re in business would help? You need to get the fire in your belly again as this lot are no different from the previous thieves and liars.

  • There were a few comments in the ‘pending moderation’ queue, Flashbang! I’m not a fan of mailing lists but I’m still in business, just not as active.

    An unexpected plot twist could be just around the corner. Despite the passage of years, my moles say an explosive Partygate follow-up is bubbling!

    At least as far as the elected contingent goes, I can’t agree that PCC’s administration is no different from the previous one – although there are still some others struggling to accept the loss of absolute control with the shift away from the officer-led (dominated) style.

  • Weasel

    For those that may not be aware, the highly paid Head of Transformation has been extremely successful in his new job. He has managed to “transform” his pension into a far far bigger pot, and is now leaving the authority at the end of December. Not bad for a mere 12 months in the role!!!

  • Malcolm Calver

    Weasel, if you are correct in your revelation regarding the Head of Transformation it is (or should be) the duty of county councillors to make sure that all the details of this are questioned and put into the public domain.

    The question is why would someone take on this role and then leave after only a short period?

  • Keanjo

    It was a nonsensical appointment anyway. There is no way an officer is going to receive the consent of the Chief Executive to introduce any changes involving staff cuts.

    Transformation must be led by elected members with officers providing assistance, rather than the other way around.

    They could start by getting rid of their Tourism Department and giving the Tourist Industry a start up grant to form their own organisation.

    Libraries and Leisure centres could be run by the private sector. Why not lease the facilities, with the necessary safeguards, to companies/individuals who could run them at no cost to the council tax payer.

    Why do we need a housing association and the county council providing and maintaining social housing. Surely the two could be amalgamated with considerable savings?

    Just a few ideas – there must be others.

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