Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Bus Stop Nonsense

If you want a clear example of the was that the smoking ban has produced ridiculous contortions in the bureaucratic mind, the disappearing and reappearing windows of Bus stops in the south of Copeland last week would have provided it.

As my colleagues Ray Cole, Alan Jacob, and David Moore explained at a meeting of Copeland Council yesterday, workmen appeared at bus stops in Millom, Gosforth, and Seascale owned by the council and removed approximately half the window panes, leaving people in these shelters vulnerable to the wind and, when it is both windy and raining (a common coincidence in West Cumbria) to the rain.

When my colleagues, who represent these areas on the council, asked what was going on they were advised that the window panes were being removed to take the bus shelters outside the smoking legislation. If a space is less than 50% enclosed it is not covered by the ban.

The idea of making users of the bus service more vulnerable to wind and rain so that people could also smoke in the bus shelters went down like a lead balloon with my colleagues, who complained furiously, and suggested that "No Smoking" signs in the bus shelters. The council did a welcome U-turn and put the windows back.

The inference is that whoever ordered the removal of the window panels did not feel that the council could enforce the smoking ban in bus shelters, although the Executive Member responsible disavowed that view in the council chamber.

My colleagues asked how much this ridiculous farce has cost the taxpayer: the information was not immediately available and we await a written reply with interest.

The saga of the bus stop windows was the first of two rather ludicrous displays at the meeting: the second concerned the latest code of conduct for councillors which the government has asked all councils to vote on but will impose on any who refuse to adopt it. This code was adopted yesterday, without any dissenting votes: but if the order of the agenda had been changed so that the following item on nuclear sites had come first I suspect there might have been some.

The new code requires all councillors to declare and explain the nature of any interest they have in any item before the council. The requirement to declare an interest is a good thing, and is not new. However, the definition of an interest which one is required to declare has been getting steadily wider. The consequences were shown at the very next item when we had to go round the chamber in turn so that almost every single councillor could declare an interest.

The agenda item after the code of conduct concerned nuclear sites. And well over 24% of the working population of Copeland works for the nuclear industry.

So of course, and quite reasonably, everyone who works at Sellafield or for any other part of the nuclear industry had to declare it. That was about six or seven councillors. Everyone with a close relative who works there had to declare the fact: that was about another dozen. Most people would probably agree with that rule. But the definition of an interest has now been broadened sufficiently that we were advised that anyone with a friend who works at Sellafield had to declare it. In a community like Copeland that meant everyone else.

Even for a councillor employed by the nuclear industry, unles he or she were directly working on the issues under discussion by the council, these interests would not be "prejudicial" which means that the councillors were still able to speak and vote on the item. If these interests had been prejudicial we would have had to all apply for an exemption on the grounds that there would otherwise have been nobody left who was entitled to vote.

The same issue would arise in any other local authority representing an area where the local economy is completely dominated by one particular industry, when that industry is discussed in the council chamber.

So we spent five minutes going round the room in sequence so that everybody could declare a personal interest, and thinking to ourselves, "isn't there a better way of organising this?"

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