Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Solar panels and historic settings...

A recent row over the council's refusal to allow a homeowner to keep solar panels on his barn roof continued today on BBC Wales news (not online). The row centres around the fact that the dwelling is a listed building and although the barn is not listed, it is within the curtilage. The homeowner, a Mr Bazalgette has also lost a planning appeal and will eventually be forced to remove the panels.

The question is whether or not solar panels are detrimental to the historic setting, something of a subjective view, and this case has highlighted the inconsistent and muddled approach taken by different local authorities. Carmarthenshire council, meanwhile, has said that it will continue to take a 'balanced' approach, whatever that might mean.

I'm not quite sure what the council's current interpretation of 'balanced' is, but perhaps, as a basis, they should take into account their decision in 2011 to let the chief executive put solar panels on his cowshed roof, also in the curtilage of a listed building, and in a Conservation Area. The application was in his wife's name.

Surely, on balance, that should mean the all-clear for Mr Bazalgette. Or are chief executives' curtilages different from everyone else's?

Friday, 28 August 2015

Affordable Homes - The 'Journey'

The Autumn Term at County hall kicks off on Tuesday with an Executive Board meeting. The new (well, not so new now) Plaid leadership can settle in for the long winter warmed by the company of new buddies Meryl and Pam, with Mr James still firmly in charge. It will be hoped that talk of demolished barns will fade with the last remnants of summer, along with the dimming memories of that Extraordinary meeting where toxic cultures and failed governance were quietly disposed of via Powerpoint...

Talking of warmth, or hot air, Tuesday's meeting includes a report titled, comfortingly, 'Our Commitment to Affordable Homes 2015-2020' and follows on from an earlier report that among Welsh local authorities, Carmarthenshire Council ranks second from bottom in the delivery of affordable housing units.

The cosy theme continues inside with Cllr Linda Evans (Plaid) inviting us all on a 'Journey' (presumably in the Carmarthenshire Council Robin Reliant) of discovery, and reads more like a manifesto than a policy document, peppered with bullet points, cliches and promises, but little meat.

The Council predicts that around 2000 affordable homes will be needed over the next five years, with the supply over the previous five years averaging around 69 per year. There are currently 7000 on the register for social housing.

The report admits that little is understood with regards to demand for affordable housing in rural areas. Given the largely rural nature of the county this is inexcusable. In addition, the Local Development Plan, along with its Supplementary Guidance on Affordable Housing finally made its tortuous way to adoption last December after several years of development and scrutiny; local rural housing issues must have passed it by.

However, demand for affordable homes are obviously highest in the urban areas, Llanelli in particular, and yet the LDP guidance is that only 10% of homes on new development should be affordable. In contrast, in the rural north for instance where there is less demand and any developments are usually very small, the quota is 30%.

The delivery of affordable homes through the planning system is something of a joke and as the report states, the obligation to provide below market-price homes is only insisted upon "as long as this is financially possible". As previously reported (and also an example in London here) 'viability appraisals' are being used more and more to reduce S106 contributions.

The council themselves hardly set a 'committed' example. Only a couple of weeks ago the council put forward it's own plans appearing to split a small site in two to avoid providing an affordable dwelling. The Stradey development in Llanelli of 350 homes had no affordable housing at all despite local demand; the S106 contribution went to Scarlets Regional Ltd and the stadium.

The current mishmash of methods to deliver affordable housing, rented or owned is not going to deliver the numbers required. The lengthy saga of the Brynmefys Estate, also in Llanelli saw the potential for affordable housing drop from eighty in the council's 'empty homes strategy' in 2005 to a meagre fourteen earlier this year, and the report only devotes one line to the council's own attempt to build council homes - you might remember Kev's 11 bungalows which went massively over budget - which suggests that further attempts in that direction are unlikely.

No aspirational report such as this would be worth its salt without the phrase 'developing innovative and creative ways to deliver more' This typically translates to 'we haven't got a clue at the moment but hopefully someone will come up with something' and it usually infers a trip into outsourcing territory.

In fact it has already been decided to put together a business case with a view to set up an external company, wholly owned by the council, to deliver affordable housing. The council contends that such an organisation could attract funding which the council couldn't. If it was capable of attracting extra funding and investment this suggests it would need to be run at a profit; so not necessarily compatible with local and sometimes sensitive and specialised housing needs, and far from transparent.

Companies are currently expressing their interests in the running of the entire Leisure Department, from swimming pools to the Archives; country parks to libraries. The award process, possibly a trust, will start next February. To make it even less transparent the council have even outsourced the company to sift through the interested parties.
It looks like the Housing Department may well be next in line...

Back briefly to the agenda and despite news of record parking profits, the long awaited 'free parking pilot' which was 'urgently' referred to the Board, after cross-party approval, around four months ago is notable for its continued absence. Maybe next time eh?

I also note that Tuesday's meeting is not being webcast, despite a promise back in June. Along with a raft of other WLGA recommendations, this was supposed to be implemented within three months, ie January 2015. Let's hope its sorted for the next one. Although with the actual decisions being taken in the pre-meeting meetings and post-meeting briefings, the bit in the middle, for public viewing, is essentially cosmetic.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Asking a Public Question...

It has been almost a year since I last wrote about Public Question Time at full council meetings, or the lack thereof. This week's Herald has also tried to offer words of encouragement to curious members of the public who might want to pose a question. 

The last time a member of the public put forward a question was in 2005, (and there were none for several years before that). A gentleman enquired about the the council's promotion of local sustainable food sources. It was all far too much and when it became evident that the questioner did not live nor work in the county, the constitution was hastily amended to prevent 'outsiders' from asking any more.

As you can imagine, public questions have never been encouraged, nor welcomed but the facility to do so has always been in the constitution. It was only after the WLGA review that it now finally, but reluctantly, appears as an agenda item.

The WLGA recommended that public questions be 'promoted' but of course that hasn't happened. And no questions have been asked.

The bastion of defence for County Hall is the palaver a member of public has to go through to ask. There is nothing obvious on the council's new website such as 'click here to submit a question to full council' which might take you to a page of simple instructions and an online form.
Good grief no.

I typed 'ask a public question' into the search box and this brought up numerous results from 'public toilets' to, inexplicably, 'Cooling towers/Evaporation condensers', but not 'public questions'.

The Herald reports that its own efforts to pose a question led them stumbling, eventually, to the Democratic Services Unit who offered them a few alternative email addresses in the hope that one of them might work. It doesn't bode well.

Currently, the actual details can only be found in the Constitution, Part 4 (1); Standing Orders Part A, CPR 10.1 to 10.10. (See what I mean? So here's a link) and your question must go to the chief executive.

Finding the instructions could be said to be the easy part. You then have to get your burning question onto the agenda. Your written question (by post or 'electronic' mail, with your name and address included of course) must land on the Chief Executive's desk seven working days before the meeting.

He can then decide to accept, or reject the question if he deems it frivolous, defamatory or offensive. (This is the person who was offended by enquiries about publicly funded officers' expenses...) It also has to be related to council business and not have been raised at a meeting in the past six months.

You must also direct it to the correct Executive councillor who holds the appropriate portfolio relative to your question. (everyone knows't they?) and not relate to possible confidential/exempt information.

If you are fortunate enough to be aware of every issue raised in council meetings over the past six months, and the chief executive has decided it is a) bland enough to be asked in front of webcams and the press, b) easily replied with the requisite spin, then we can move on to stage two.

So it's on the agenda. As all council meetings are held during the day, a day off work might be required if you want to put your question in person. If that is the case then you just hope that the councillor responding to your question is actually there that day and not conveniently indisposed...if not you will receive an answer in writing several weeks later...

If you can't be there then the Chair can read your question out, or choose not to, it's up to him, and the chief executive.

With seven days notice of your question, senior officers have plenty of time to write the councillors' 'reply' which means that your one Supplementary Question (follow-up) is all important, and obviously can't be posed if you're not there. This can also be rejected if it is considered 'frivolous' etc (see above).

If you've managed to get this far, let's hope you get a straight and informative answer; whether you're there or not. That, of course, is highly unlikely.

Still, don't let me put you off...If you want to ask something go ahead and take it from there. If it is rejected it still has to be logged in a book (available for public inspection during a full moon when there's an R in the month) with the reason for rejection.

Until such time as the council gets round becoming the 'most transparent in Wales', simplifies and promotes public questions on it's website, and offices and libraries...and preferably takes the vetting process out of the hands of that one person, the email address you need to send you question to is; or or by post to;
Mark James, Chief Executive, County Hall, Carmarthen, SA31 1JP.

The next two full council meetings are on the 9th September and the 14th October. Get asking!

The Community Councillor and the wind farm...some thoughts

The local press have all covered the case of Community Councillor Heulwen Lewis who failed to declare a financial interest when the Brechfa Wind Farm was being discussed at a meeting of Llanfihangel ar Arth Community Council, Carmarthenshire.

The turbine company had entered a hefty financial agreement with Ms Lewis over land she owned which formed part of the entrance to the wind farm. She defended her position for two years, only admitting serious wrongdoing at the last minute, which didn't help matters.

She was suspended from meetings for three months (they don't meet until September anyway) by the Adjudication Panel for Wales following a referral by the Ombudsman.

Wales Online has further details.

Ms Lewis is lucky to have got off so lightly, under the new rules in England she could potentially have been facing a criminal charge.

Of course I'm not defending Ms Lewis but Community Councillors (and I am declaring my interest here as a member of another Community Council) are the lowest rank of elected Members and pretty much expendable.
The ripple effect of misdemeanors such as Ms Lewis' naming and shaming are limited to the local rural community, but they don't effect the grand scheme of things.

Further up the food chain, reputations and remunerations become more valuable, whether they're deserved or not, details become cloudy and ranks close.

In the wider context of Carmarthenshire Council adverse Ombudsman reports against the authority are hidden as far as humanly possible. One council tactic has been to attack the Ombudsman, rather like they did with the Appointed Auditor.

To be honest, I don't think the Ombudsman will ever be forgiven by Mr James for telling him to grow up after throwing out his complaints against Cllr Caiach. As Mr James' recent email to Cllr Bill Thomas shows, his threats are now of the legal kind.

If the Ombudsman does find against a county councillor, it never seems to result in a sanction. Most recently the Ombudsman thought Daff Davies 'might' have breached the code over the Dylan Thomas turbine, and Kev's clanger over the press office a couple of years ago saw 'no further action'.

Few incidents ever get reported. I wonder what the Ombudsman would make of Emlyn's Barn? Or Meryl and her dealings over Parc Howard?

What about blacklisting and threatening the press? Or the snooped emails? Dodgy deals defrauding the taxpayer? The toxic culture? Twisted FOI responses or gambling with taxpayers' money? And so on.

Everyone involved in the whole sorry mess over the tax avoidance and libel indemnity scandals managed, somehow, to get through to the other side unscathed. The Ombudsman wasn't involved of course but the potential was there for criminal charges, which undoubtedly should have been brought, particularly against the chief executive.

Anybody reading the council's extended rap sheet over the years would think 'Bringing the council into disrepute' was a favourite pastime of County Hall.

Perhaps Ms Lewis will resign from her Community Council seat, perhaps she won't, but Llanfihangel ar Arth Community Council will drift back into obscurity.

But what of the County Councils? Power corrupts, even within the parochial realms of Community Councils, but absolute power, especially when confined to the hands of any unelected dictator, corrupts absolutely.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The Key to the Presidential Toilet

Below is an open letter from Unison Carmarthenshire to Plaid Cymru's Emlyn Dole, Leader of Carmarthenshire Council published in this week's Herald. As you can see, they had to wait two months for a meeting. Perhaps Mr Dole was busy with his barn...

To add insult to injury, chief executive Mark James also decided to grace them with his presence. Unison said;

"Our disappointment was only added to at the meeting that took place in your room on July 22nd when to our surprise Mark James CEO was in attendance. We had not been informed prior to the meeting that Mark James would be present. 

It is our understanding that we requested a meeting with you alone as we wanted to speak with you regarding the future direction of the council led by your party. If we had wanted Mark James to be present we would have requested it"

Whether Mr James had insisted on being there to ensure Cllr Dole stuck to ze masterplan, or whether Cllr Dole didn't feel able to cope without holding his divine guiding hand is not clear. It's quite surprising that Pam and Meryl weren't there as well...

Unison wanted to discuss the political direction Plaid would be taking the council, with the council leader. The councillors are the employers after all and it is supposed to be they who run the show.

It goes to show that recent events, including the WLGA review have made not one jot of difference, the term 'officer-led' is alive and well and remains in the singular.

Unison raised several issues and challenges to Cllr Dole including introducing the Living Wage and opposing cuts, both of which Plaid had campaigned for when in opposition but the meeting produced no commitment from Cllr Dole, nor, for that matter, a firm stance against further outsourcing of services.

They reminded Cllr Dole of the Plaid alternative budget which proposed, a few short months ago, the use of some of the reserves to prevent cuts to services, the response from Cllr Dole was that they would act 'responsibly'; taken to mean that there would be no change of direction, the promises made in opposition have been 'sacrificed', and Plaid would be 'responsibly' implementing cuts.

Unison threw down the challenge to Plaid to protect vital services for the communities they serve but the outcome of the meeting was clearly disappointing; "It seemed to us from what you did and didn't say that Plaid have ditched very quickly any opposition to Tory cuts" 

No doubt Cllr Dole would have been warmly congratulated by Mr James, with a pat on the back, (and possibly the much coveted Key to the Presidential Toilet) for the way he 'dealt' with the meeting...and maybe there was even a congratulatory phone call from a delighted Meryl...

Click to enlarge

Carmarthenshire Herald on Facebook here

Monday, 17 August 2015

Consulting with councillors

As this blog has mentioned before, back in 2013 the Council joined with the developers of the controversial Grillo site, Castletown Estates Ltd to challenge the Welsh Government in court over its decision to refuse planning permission due to flooding concerns.

The council and Castletown failed in their gamble and lost the High Court bid. Soon after this, the flood maps were rapidly amended paving the way for the eventual, and equally controversial, approval earlier this year. It was probably one of the most predetermined applications in history.

The cost to the council of this failed legal action in 2013 was £26,000 not the biggest legal bill that Caebrwyn has seen in recent years but nonetheless an above average yearly income for many Carmarthenshire residents.

This week's Herald has some further details acquired by a county councillor through the Freedom of Information Act. A breakdown shows counsel's fees of £8970, officer costs of £7285 and an order to pay the successful party, the Welsh Government, £10,500.

Even though the site formed part of the masterplan for the wider area, quite why the council decided that the council taxpayers should support private developers in this way remains a mystery.

Worse still, it appears that that there was no consultation with elected members, all the decisions were through delegated power. The Herald names the head of planning Eifion Bowen, and Wendy Walters, then head of economic development, now assistant chief executive as initiating the process but the officer with the final say, and his hands on the cheque book, remains unknown. I'll give you three guesses who that might be.

Of course we are very lucky that we have such legal expertise in out council. I'm sure that the lay member of the council's audit committee was entirely wrong when he described the internal legal advice as cavalier and incompetent...

Mr James has much expertise in the legal workings of local government of course. Back in the day, and before he became chief executive of that lucky Borough of Boston he became their Director of Legal Services.

There were rumours and some disquiet at the time as he was apparently asked by councillors whether he was actually a solicitor, a requirement for the post. Allegedly he told them, without elaborating further, that he had a law degree, which is not quite the same thing of course. Anyway, he got the job. Must have been his charm...allegedly.

There were further rumours, allegations and complaints of exerting undue pressure and even tampering with a document for an Employment Tribunal held under oath. The allegations were, apparently, 'dealt with' and following that, Mr James was elevated to the rank of chief executive...

Of course all that is in the dim and distant past and Mr James currently exercises the depths of his legal mind with trusty Linda Rees Jones at his side, with, as we have discovered, a remarkable ability to survive even when dropping the most dire of legal clangers...

Consulting with councillors over legal matters is always a last resort, and only if a democratic gloss is required to shift the future potential of blame. And only with minimal paperwork of course; carefully prepared to ensure dutiful, unquestioning agreement...

Affordable Housing - The council splitting its sites?

Last Thursday the planning committee approved an application, put forward by the council itself, to demolish a former village school and build four dwellings, a separate proposal for two further dwelling adjacent to the site was also approved.

Mynyddcerrig Primary School

The Council's own Supplementary Planning Guidance states that;

"The affordable housing will be required to be provided on proposals of 5 or more dwellings in
all settlements. Where adjacent and related residential proposals result in combined numbers meeting or exceeding the above threshold, the Council will seek an element of affordable housing based on the affordable housing target percentages set out above". 

It did not go unnoticed at Thursday's meeting that the two plots added up to six dwellings and yet there was no affordable element at all. You might think that after closing and selling the village school a contribution to the community would be the least they could do.

The LDP, adopted by the council last December, aims to provide 2,121 affordable homes by 2021 and promises to try and "maximise the potential of Planning’s role in gaining affordable homes". 

This target is highly unlikely to be reached, particularly when the council appears to avoid following its own policy by splitting a site into two applications and hoping no one can add up.

Eventually, with the acting head of planning floundering over a response, the council solicitor intervened and claimed that the council had a duty to get the best price for the land and any inconvenient S106 conditions would reduce the value.

An interesting statement and. as we have learned,  a 'duty' entirely dependent the parties involved with the notorious Marstons' deal being a classic example.

Whether the duty to get the best price for land should outweigh the duty to provide affordable housing and support local communities is, however, an interesting question.

If nothing else, it gives the wrong message to developers who might be given to thinking that the council is a push-over when it comes to applications to reduce affordable housing obligations...

There is an excellent blog post from County Councillor Sian Caiach on the current 'Fire sale' of publicly owned land and buildings in Carmarthenshire.
It is, of course, our land and property but unfortunately we, and indeed backbench councillors rarely hear about it until the deal is done. As Cllr Caiach says, the ambition to be the most transparent council in Wales is currently a sick joke.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Emlyn's Barn

As The Herald reports today, shortly before Cllr Emlyn Dole (Plaid) unexpectedly became council leader, promising to guard the heritage of Carmarthenshire and bring in a new era of transparency, he became embroiled in an interesting planning hiccup down on the family farm, Capel Ifan, in Pontyberem.

A planning application was approved in 2012, in Cllr Dole's wife's name, to convert a double barn at the farm, into a hairdressing salon and holiday lets.

According to the officer's report, the farm could trace it's roots back several hundred years and "was recorded as belonging to the Dun Lee family in 1613 and Rudd family later in the 17th Century, so the barns have some historic interest" so the structure of the barn and its unique charm was to be preserved. According to Dyfed Archeology one of the barns was four hundred years old.

Work began on the conversion but at some point as the barn went from this;

to this; the work continued, it eventually drew the attention of planning enforcement as it did not comply with the original permission, and the conditions had been ignored. There was now precious little left of the unique charm, historic setting, or anything else.

To try appease enforcement, another application was submitted which was largely based on new build.
This time the planning officers recommended to the committee, upon which Cllr Dole sat (with, I add, interests duly declared) that the application should be refused.
The new proposals were completely out of character from the original buildings and environment, and clearly against council planning policy.

Then the usual happened, a site visit was called for and last November the Magical Mystery Tour headed off to Pontyberem. The convivial group returned to the warmth of Chamber in the afternoon and, true to form, granted permission, contrary to the recommendation.

The Herald has spoken to the agent, a Mr Davies, who acted for the original application. He was not involved in the subsequent developments and is not best pleased that his name still appears on the later documents.

He also said that the structural survey which identified the barns as structurally sound was ignored to 'facilitate demolition'. Cllr Dole, or rather his wife, had argued that the demolition became unavoidable, but the agent is clear that he never saw a second survey to that effect.

The Herald asked Cllr Dole, or should I say Reverend Dole (for he is also a Preacher) to answer the allegations made regarding the planning process.

They asked whether permission had been granted for demolition, he replied that "demolition was undertaken with regards to safety and structural integrity of the building". A simple 'no' would have been a more honest answer.
He would not confirm the identity of the agent, or any changes of agent, just that the information was 'online'.
He also denied allegations that grants had been received 'in relation to works at the property'.

Mr Davies, the original agent sums up this very whiffy situation ;

 “A lot of people are aware that that this development is totally against council policy. People are coming up to me and asking me how he got permission when they can’t. When I tell them it’s nothing to do with me, they point out that I am still shown as the agent. I was still shown as the agent when it went back to planning in February 2015.

"Judging by the evidence, it appears Emlyn Dole is not playing the game everyone else in the county has to play, which is going through due process.

“When I see in the papers he is bringing transparency, it makes me ill.”

A local resident also spoke to the Herald;
 “It looks like one rule for him and one for the rest. Everyone round here calls it ‘Southfork’ because that’s what it looks like.”

In my opinion, the whole thing stinks.

The article is not yet online but the Carmarthenshire and Llanelli Herald websites can be found here and here and also on Facebook.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

No Data breaches? Are you sure?

Interesting report published this morning from civil liberty group Big Brother Watch (pdf) concerning personal data breaches at local authorities across the UK. The information was compiled using Freedom of Information requests and covered the period April 2011 to April 2014.
Carmarthenshire council's response is recorded as 'No data breaches'.

Back in April last year when BBC Wales requested the same information, also through FOI, it reported that in 2013 alone, Carmarthenshire returned a response of five data breaches. I wrote about it at the time and unearthed a few of the details. I suspect that if by 2011 the chief executive was able to snoop on a councillor's emails without her knowledge there have been far more issues over the misuse of personal data than County Hall will ever let on.

Whatever the explanation, Carmarthenshire's latest response is a little puzzling. Perhaps it was the difference between BBC Wales making the request and the far more alarming sounding Big Brother Watch which caused the hurried realignment of the FOI goalposts. The council' recent response to a request from Press Gazette illustrates just how the spirit of FOI can be avoided, see Bending the Truth.

Aspirations, cycles and indicators

Towards the end of last week a press release was published on the council website announcing that the Annual Report and Improvement Plan had been published, I've mentioned this before as it has been some weeks wending it's was through the corporate channels.

This is the weighty document which the council is required to publish but nobody reads. For that reason a Summary is published, which also no one reads. A bit like the Carms News except it's not forced through the letter box.

To try and get anyone to read it, an even shorter version is supplied to the press office. It talks briefly about 'Key Improvement Objective Priorities' or KIOPs for short (I prefer Key Resource Allocation Priorities, or KRAP for short).

It mentions 'improvement cycles' and 'performance indicators' and of course 'severe budgetary constraints' and contains side by side, ridiculously unlikely 'quotes' from new Executive Board Deputy Leader buddies, Cllr Pam Palmer (Ind) and Cllr Dai Jenkins (Plaid).

In other words, the usual meaningless waffle. The six KIOPs are the six 'priorities' for the forthcoming year and are probably (apart from perhaps the second one) found in council 'priority' lists across the UK, after all, these are are standard expectations and you're unlikely to find a list aspiring to provide the opposite;

Delivering value for money and directing resources to front line services
Reviewing governance, decision making, openness and transparency
Supporting older people to maintain dignity and independence
Improving council housing stock and helping people access affordable homes
Improving school achievements
Tackling poverty

One can understand the Council churning out this predictable aspirational nonsense but I was quite struck when I read exact copies of the press release in the local press; Unquestioned and word-for-word. Even down to using "All actions and targets in the plan will be monitored throughout the year and reported on at year-end"
'Year-end'? 'End of the year' at least, surely.
As a rule, if a council press release is not related to a local flower show or a changes to bin collections, it is usually worth closer inspection to detect possible spin and excessive jargon before re-publication.

Anyway, back to those KIOPs. Naturally they include the stock phrases, 'delivering value for money', 'frontline services' and 'tackling poverty' to tick the right boxes and keep those 'external regulators' who 'validate this self-assessment' happy. We'll have to wait and see if the new Plaid 'led' administration immediately introduce the Living Wage and non-evictions for bedroom tax - two issues they campaigned for when in sign so far though.

Hopefully 'delivering value for money' doesn't still include fraudulent payments to bump up the chief executive's salary such as paying his legal bills or providing him with a tax avoidance scheme. And presumably 'frontline services' doesn't still include the pet rugby club or swanky hotels.

The priorities to 'support older people' and 'helping people access affordable homes' are interesting as a brief delve into council minutes reveal which way the wind is blowing. For both of these the council is looking to outsource remaining services, either through a 'social enterprise scheme' or a 'wholly owned company'.

Whichever way you look at it, and the track record of Carmarthenshire promises neither due diligence nor a transparent process, the wheels are already in motion; the Leisure department is on the cards to be offloaded into a trust and democratic accountability and control will be reduced even further and profit rather than public service will become the priority.

The second KIOP is one of those priorities which apply exclusively to Carmarthenshire. I've probably said quite a bit about all that already...but notably, the recommendation for 'culture change' is again missing. The rules can be tinkered with and the deckchairs rearranged, but to change a culture as toxic and as ingrained as that found in Carmarthenshire is impossible with the cause of all the trouble still steering the Titanic. And no sign of a mutiny...

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Llanelli town centre - The End?

Much to the despair, I would imagine, of the struggling town centre, 'expressions of interest' are being invited to develop four plots of Council owned land squeezed in and around the Trostre and Pemberton out-of town retail park and Parc Y Scarlets stadium, Llanelli.

Involving around 16 acres, long leases are being offered for lump sums and rent to be paid in peppercorns and/or magic beans. One of the plots, which also happens to contain one of the only wildlife ponds for miles around, is currently occupied by council offices.

Presumably, as they currently own the land, it is rent free but this office is being closed and re-located to the Eastgate centre, where the rent won't be free.

Eastgate was another council led development in Llanelli and in their attempts to fill it's cavernous spaces, and to provide a nice little income for the global corporation which now owns the site, the council agreed to pay £250,000 per year, for twenty years, for office space.

Despite only being recently completed, the council then decided to spend £450,000 redesigning the office to suit it's needs. See here and here. The profligate spending continued of course with the notorious, and in my view undoubtedly fraudulent, 'Allowable Expenses' scandal.

More profligate spending has continued on the Parc Y Scarlets stadium, or more specifically, Scarlets' Regional Ltd, and has been well documented. Despite the fact that the rugby club, which is a private company of course, has been excused from paying a penny rent to the council due to it's debts, it enjoys regular injections of taxpayers money, courtesy of County Hall, for office rental and hospitality.

As the council continues to prop up its assorted white elephants by renting office space, it is only a matter of time before County Hall becomes defunct and the Chief Executive's Offices are relocated to that suitably holy environment of the evangelical bowling alley...

Anyway, I'm digressing slightly so back to Trostre and I must mention the council's official statement on the plan. What happens to councillors when they acquire power?  Cllr Dai Jenkins (Plaid) would, I think, when in opposition, have readily raised a concern or two over the negative effect on town centre trade caused by further out-of town development and it's abundant free parking and cheap rent.

But he is now the Executive Board Member for Resources and like Pam, Meryl and even the new leader, 'official statements' are, as per usual, straight from County Hall Central Command and the 'quotes' are pre-prepared b*****kspeak;

“It is currently too early to anticipate when these developments will take place as this would depend upon the nature of the proposals that are chosen. Our marketing of the sites, which are in prime locations surrounding the popular Trostre and Pemberton retail parks and Scarlets’ stadium have already attracted a good level of interest from across the property sector.” Cllr D Jenkins

So, with the council offering up this 16 acres of land, the ultimate plan to re-locate the town centre of Llanelli to the Great Sheds of Trostre and Pemberton is a major step closer. No longer will visitors and residents have to gather in the traditional streets of Llanelli, or in the traditional streets of anywhere else in Carmarthenshire for that matter, but will congregate in awe at the historic, aluminium clad surroundings of The Mark James CBE Stadium, and of course the Meryl Gravell Shopping Mall...

Friday, 7 August 2015

Friday's Herald - The Ombudsman's report

Further to Monday's post on this blog; Ombudsman; Council maladministration - Data Protection and mental health,
It's good to see that both the Carmarthenshire and Llanelli Heralds have covered this important story;

June wasn't a particularly good month for the council with the Ombudsman summarising another adverse decision in his quarterly report. This one also involved the health board, presumably Hywel Dda.

This was a 'quick-fix' settlement which enables the offending party, or parties, to avoid the publication of a detailed report by swiftly making amends.

Although the summary is brief, clearly there was a failure to follow the correct procedure under the Protection of Vulnerable Adults (POVA) policy;

"Mr X complained that his mother, Mrs Y, had not been treated with dignity and respect while a patient in one of the Health Board’s hospitals, and that the way in which she was handled amounted to an assault.
He also complained about failings on the part of both the Health Board and the Council in the way in which the subsequent POVA (Protection of Vulnerable Adults) investigation was carried out.
The Health Board and the Council agreed to apologise to Mr X for the failings in his mother’s care and in the POVA investigation, and to ensure that in future full details of a complaint are shared/sought when a POVA referral is made. The Health Board also agreed to arrange training in dignity/respect for all nurses on the ward in question." 
Ombudsman Wales

Readers may recall the Delyth Jenkins case a few years ago, covered on this and Cneifiwr's blog, when the Ombudsman published two scathing reports against the council. A vulnerable adult had suffered abuse at a council run day centre and the abuse had been reported by a care worker, Delyth Jenkins. To put it in a nutshell, the council went out of their way not to investigate the abuse under POVA or anything else, and the whistleblower, Delyth, suffered years of victimisation.

The damning reports were issued in 2009, and by the look of this 'quick fix' decision by the Ombudsman just a few weeks ago, the council are still failing the POVA procedures.

Turbine news...and Daff gets away with it

Another contentious ruling over a Carmarthenshire wind turbine was issued by the High Court yesterday. A Judicial Review brought by a local resident failed to overturn the planning permission granted by Carmarthenshire Council for 67m turbine destined for the village of Pencader, Carmarthenshire.

The Western Mail has a report here. This was particularly interesting as a second, virtually identical application was submitted by the turbine company whilst a Judicial Review was still considering the first approval. I mentioned this last December.

Whether or not a wind turbine 'spoils the view' can be a subjective matter depending on your stance on renewable energy but the visual impact of this one was described by one of the council's own planning officers as 'very unpleasant' to people living nearby. The planning officers then went on to recommend approval.

The 'view' was very much on everyone's minds over the Dylan Thomas wind turbine approval which was successfully quashed via a Judicial Review, brought by opponents earlier this year. This turbine was planned for farmland across the estuary from Dylan Thomas' boatshed in Laugharne and caused something of an uproar.

Planning officers had recommended refusal but after employing some jiggery-pokery and his undoubted, er, charm, former Chair of the Council and member of the planning committee Cllr Daff Davies (Ind) convinced the committee that the turbine wouldn't be seen from the poet's shed. They refused to visit the Laugharne of the estuary to check out the view and promptly approved the turbine.

A complaint was also made that Daff 'drove dangerously to the site visit'. The mind boggles.

Council webcast watchers may recall Daff Davies memorably bumbling stint in the Chair..

Although Daff declared an interest at various points (see the link to the new-fangled interweb member's declarations in this earlier post) his long friendship and personal and financial connections to the farmer on whose land the turbine would sit, or rather his uncontrolled enthusiasm, led to several complaints being made to the Ombudsman and a vote of no confidence from his community council. His support most definitely had nothing to do with a passion for renewable energy.

However, the Ombudsman has cleared Cllr Davies from breaching the Code of Conduct at planning committee meetings where the application was considered, although he may have breached the code at the site visit; he failed to declare a personal interest, failed to withdraw from the meeting and made oral representations when having a prejudicial interest and also when the public were excluded.

Quite why the Ombudsman couldn't give a definite yes or no over the site visit is something of a mystery as he is the ultimate arbiter. Anyway, the Ombudsman also decided that no further action was necessary. Daff lives to promote farmer's wind turbines for another day.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Record parking profits for Carmarthenshire Council

BBC Wales reports that for 2013-14 Carmarthenshire Council made a profit in parking income of £795,000, this is record amount for the council and up from £487,000 for 2012-13. It now ranks just 4th behind Cardiff, Swansea and (marginally) behind Gwynedd.

In the past twelve months or so Carmarthenshire Council has imposed increased charges, shelved Christmas free parking and introduced evening and Sunday charges so next years figures are likely to be even higher. In addition, higher charges and greater restrictions also bump up the income from penalty charges. All in all, the town centres have suffered and the motorist has become a lucrative cash cow.

Back in April a Council motion for a six month, two hour free parking pilot in Llanelli to try and boost town centre trade had cross party support and was kicked into the long grass of the Executive Board for their deliberations. They are apparently still deliberating and will report back in the Autumn.

The vandalism of ticket machines in Cardigan in June led to a reported 40% increase in town centre trade for the couple of weeks that they were out of action, not something I'd advocate of course but clear evidence of the benefits of free parking.
With these newly published figures, surely there will be no excuse for Carmarthenshire and a full review of excessive charges will be treated with urgency and the free parking pilot implemented without delay and extended to cover the whole of the county.


On a completely unrelated note, and nothing to do with parking at all, Madaxeman's latest blog post is well worth a read;

What of Justice?

Monday, 3 August 2015

Mark and Meryl's Masterplan

As this week's Herald reports (not yet online), an email has emerged addressed to Exec Board Member Cllr Meryl Gravell thanking her for her 'spiritual and practical support' from a Mr Tony Rees. Mr Rees most recently featured in the Herald's video about the Parc Howard meeting and attended, when it was eventually disclosed, as a representative of Loca Ventures who had designs on the mansion.

As the Herald reported last week, a member of the Parc Howard Association disclosed that it was Meryl Gravell who had recommended Loca Ventures to Ken Rees, the Chair of the PHA.

This email however, which is also copied to senior council officers Wendy Walters, now Assistant Chief executive and Jonathan Fearn, Head of Corporate Property, is not thanking Meryl for her efforts to offload Parc Howard, but pre-dates the Parc Howard 'interest' by twelve months.

Significantly the subject line of the email refers to 'Pembrey Country Park' and the airport which, along with other areas of land within the Mark James and Meryl 'Masterplan', were part of the original ambitions of Loca and it's assorted associates and tangled guises. Only more recently did their focus concentrate on Parc Howard.

With the email dated May 2014, this was, as I said, a year before the Parc Howard fiasco unfolded and the rest of the council, and public, became aware of the interested parties and clandestine discussions. The email suggests that Meryl contacts the writer by email or mobile which suggests that the two had become quite well acquainted and that commercial ambitions went much further than Parc Howard.

As Unison warned back in July 2013 when 'expressions of interest' were invited regarding Pembrey Country Park;  "There is a very real risk of developers being given the land for a pittance, applying for and receiving planning rights, which would boost the value of the land and simply cashing in."

Back then, in 2013, a hysterical, yet 'anonymous' Council spokesperson (this statement has Mark James written all over it)) screamed from the Press Office that;

"Unison's claims are complete and utter tosh and scaremongering. This is same old same old rumour and fabricated diatribe that is resurrected every few years that has absolutely no foundation at all. It is a downright and cheap-shot lie that the park is for sale, designed to provoke anxiety."

It would seem that Unison were quite right to be concerned as, if nothing else, discussions with assorted interested parties (which, as reported by the Herald seem to consist of a few recurring names) over the future of these tracts of land have been ongoing, without any reference to full council, for some time. In other words, the press release was not only offensive, but a lie.

Back even earlier, in April 2012, an item titled Pembrey Peninsular Masterplan appeared on the minutes of an Executive Board meeting. The Item was, surprise surprise, exempt from the public and press (it wasn't on the published agenda either).

The minutes record that the chief executive referred to a 'potential purchaser' of the airport and surrounding land within the Plan and sought agreement to continue discussions. With Meryl as leader, and the unpublished report 'discussed' in secret, agreement to carve up Carmarthenshire was, like tax avoidance scams and libel indemnities, never going to be hard to find.

To be honest, I wouldn't trust Mark or Meryl with a small garden, never mind a county and a 'Masterplan'. However, the issue of course is the usual lack of due diligence, openness and of keeping the public fully informed. With private companies hiding behind claims of commercial confidentiality, and the council hiding behind anything it can, it is incredible that yet again it takes investigative journalism to uncover information and plans that should already be, even in summary form, in the public domain.

Herald Facebook page here

Cllr "Mad" Meryl Gravell

Ombudsman; Council maladministration - Data Protection and mental health

(Later post 7th August; Friday's Herald - The Ombudsman's report)

Another complaint to the Ombudsman made against Carmarthenshire Council has been upheld. The complaint relates to Adult Social Care and the decision was issued in June.

In summary, the matter has been ongoing since October 2011 and is both complex and very sensitive. It is also of wider interest as it concerns Article 8 of the Human Rights Act (Right to a private life), Data Protection and the common law principle of confidentiality concerning a person suffering from mental health issues.

The Ombudsman summarises the case thus;

Mr B made a complaint on behalf of his adult daughter Ms A, who lives in a supported housing project. He complained that the Council had copied, used and kept on file a copy of Ms A’s personal writings without her knowledge or permission. The Council had been asked to remove the copy of Ms A’s writings from her records but it did not agree to this. 
The Ombudsman found that Ms A’s writings had been copied from her personal notebook, left open in a communal area of the project, by project staff who were concerned by the nature of the content. They had shared it with Ms A’s then care coordinator. A decision was taken that the content did not indicate risk and the writings were not to be kept on file.  
It seems that an electronic copy was inadvertently kept, which over a year later appeared appended to a social services report to a mental health tribunal. The writings therefore remained permanently on Ms A’s file as part of this report.  
Ms A had requested that they were removed, but the Council stated that they were relevant to future care and they would remain on file. 
The Ombudsman upheld the complaint. Whilst the retention of the document was ultimately a decision for the Council, there were several reasons that the Ombudsman cited for concluding that retaining Ms A’s personal writings seemed to be disproportionate. These were that: 
1. The writings are Ms A’s own sensitive personal data; they were not intended to be seen or copied in the first instance; 
2. The initial decision was that the writings did not indicate risk and should not be kept on file; 
3. Ms A had requested their removal; 
4. They were not in the correct context in the social services report; 
5. They did not add any specific information relevant to Ms A’s current and future care and support needs. 
The Ombudsman recommended that the Council apologise to Ms A and review its service agreement with the supported housing provider. The Council also agreed to remove the copy of Ms A’s writings from her file. 
The Ombudsman records Ms A's progress and the succession of care coordinators but significantly the Mental Health Tribunal scheduled by her third care coordinator for December 2012 was in relation to the detention of Ms A under the Mental Health Act and the copy of her writing, typed out by staff at the home had been attached to her file, without her knowledge, in the Council's submission. In the event the Tribunal was not considered necessary but her writing remained on her file.

Mr B made several complaints to the council that Ms A's private writings were being used by Social Services without her knowledge nor consent. He also considered that the writings were irrelevant having reflected her condition several months before the Tribunal and that Ms A's Human Rights to the privacy of her personal writings had been breached

In September 2013 Ms A signed a statement;
“This is to confirm that I have not given permission for my private writings to be circulated and used by anyone and that I would like them removed from my files and an assurance that unless I am a genuine risk to myself or others, my privacy be respected at all times”.

The Council continued to refuse to remove the writings from her file. They contended that both it, and the care provider had acted correctly in attaching the copy to the file as it was pertinent to her mental care. They also argued that the writings had not been discussed with Ms A as she was not well. Data Protection exemptions to not seek consent had been used to 'protect the vital interests' of Ms A and the decision was, they claimed, in line with the Human Rights Act which qualifies that privacy may be breached “in accordance with the law and ...necessary... for the protection of health”

The Ombudsman's analysis and conclusion makes it clear that it is not within his power to determine a breach in the law, only whether the Council were guilty of maladministration. The issue was whether or not the council had acted reasonably and proportionately in striking the correct balance between the right to confidentiality and any appropriate disclosure.

The Ombudsman concludes that the records from the first care coordinator show that there was no intention of making or keeping a copy at all. The fact that the writings were 'inadvertently' copied and kept shows a failure to understand the meaning of 'not kept on file'. In such a case all copies should have been deleted or destroyed.

As it happened the writings were copied and kept and found their way onto the Tribunal file. The Ombudsman found that they were not placed in the context of Ms A's current mental health and were further misrepresented in that they incorrectly attribute the writings to the 'summer' 2012, rather than October 2011.

Whilst the Ombudsman believed that Ms A should have been told that her writings had been copied and used in this way, even as a matter of good practice - he points out that Tribunal reports are disclosed to the subject anyway so she would have then become aware of the contents eventually. Which is exactly what happened.

He states that even if concerns were raised over the writings it was not necessary to keep a verbatim copy, the issues raised could have been discussed verbally in general terms as part of the care plan. The Council could have noted any relevant concerns without keeping the whole copy - which shouldn't have been kept in the first place and;

No member of staff sought to inform or discuss with Ms A at any stage that her diary entries had been seen or subsequently been used in the report. This should have been discussed with her.

The Ombudsman disagreed with the council and found that in keeping the personal writings the first principle of Data  Protection had been breached; they had not been processed fairly. Neither did the retention of the writings add relevant or specific information to current or future care, her vulnerability was already demonstrated in her clinical and care history outlined in the Council's response..

The writings were not intended to be seen or copied by staff in the first place and the initial decision not to keep the writings on file should have been followed, and additionally the context and dates were incorrect.
In addition, Ms A herself was upset by the inclusion of her own personal and sensitive writings in her records and had requested their removal.

The Ombudsman states that the writings have now been removed and the Council have been ordered to apologise to Ms A. The Ombudsman also suggested that the care provider issue further training and guidance to its staff regarding issues of confidentiality and data protection.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Council's Support Grant failures - in the press

Further to my post last week concerning the long-running failure and mismanagement of Carmarthenshire Council's Supporting People grant, it is good to see that the Carmarthenshire Herald;

and the Western Mail have covered this story;

I understand that Cllr Caiach is flagging this up with the Wales Audit Office before any past, er,  'discrepancies' are brushed under the Presidential Axminster at County Hall.

Again, this week's Herald reaches parts other papers don't and following on from their Parc Howard revelations, have dug deeper into the plans Mark and Meryl have for our county. The Cadno opinion piece continues the theme and considers the whole scenario with "Mark 'Blofield' James"..."stroking a shaved chihuahua" with "his very own Rosa Klebb, Meryl Gravell".
More on this early next week.

Meanwhile the Carmarthenshire and Llanelli Heralds are available throughout the county at the bargain price of 50p. I hope by now that County Hall have taken out a lifetime subscription to this excellent publication and that it is presented to Mr James, along with his organic Earl Grey, every Friday morning.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Brynmefys Estate - 'The land and people the council forgot' - Carmarthenshire Herald

Brynmefys Estate from PEMBS.TV on VimeoAlan Evans reports for The Herald.

A detailed report appeared in last week's Carmarthenshire Herald about the Brynmefys Estate near Llanelli, the full article is not yet online but the video above is well worth watching. To cut a long story short, over the past fifteen years or so the Council have neglected the site and now and again have been trying to sell it off to developers.

The few remaining owner occupiers who have maintained their properties, despite having to machete their way through the undergrowth to get to them, have been offered a paltry £30,000 by developers to move. However, as the neglect continued, so the bats moved in and, as the report states, the council then built a bat-house on the site for an astonishing £60,000.

In 2005 the council's own 'Empty Homes Strategy' earmarked the site for 80 affordable homes to be supplied in partnership with developers.Various expressions of interest were made over the years including one from housing association Gwalia to build 103 affordable homes in 2010, but the application was, for reasons unknown, withdrawn.

The latest plan by the council is to offer the site on the open market with a very loose condition that a mere 14 affordable homes are built, and they don't even have to be built on the site but could be dotted around elsewhere...if at all.

The irony is that the council operates a policy to actively pursue landowners and landlords, through the courts if necessary, if they have allowed their properties to fall into disrepair. In the case of this site, the landowner and landlord of the derelict homes is Carmarthenshire County Council itself.
But as we know they have different priorities from the rest of us - a white elephant stadium a few miles down the road being one of them.

(Update 4th Aug; Herald article now online here)

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Register of Members' Interests

Finally, after a kick up the backside from the WLGA Governance review last year, and a lot of legal chewing over what should and what shouldn't be published from monitoring officer Linda Rees Jones, Carmarthenshire Council has joined most of the democratic western world and published the Register of Members' Declarations, Gifts and Interests. They are required to publish it and it can be found here (pdf).

Publication of the register is also something which local bloggers have been calling for for some time purely in the interests of transparency. Long standing (perhaps that should be long suffering!) readers may recall my FOI efforts, and my eventual closely monitored visit to peruse the sacred parchments back in December 2011.

Back then the register was peppered with mysterious gifts of silk scarves and boxes of tea from visiting dignitaries from China as well as the usual invitations to the Council's hospitality box at Parc Y Scarlets stadium.

This time, it is still fairly standard stuff; the silk scarves are missing but the trips to the hospitality box are still sprinkled amongst the occasional Sheaffer pen, cufflinks and bunches of flowers. It is all on a far less monumental scale than the champagne receptions at the Millennium Stadium enjoyed by senior officers (post from 2011) of course.

In one particularly desperate attempt by the council to boost the stadium gate numbers Cllr Hazel Evans (Plaid) was invited to watch a game against the Blues, plus four of her friends She adds that they did give a few quid to the Chair's Charity and bought their own drinks. So that was all right then.

The register includes all the declarations of interests made by councillors at council meetings (already recorded in minutes anyway) since June 2012 and the annual notifications. For councillors elected before the 2012 local elections the original notifications are not always present, just an updated or 'nothing changed' entry for each year.

However, the most spectacular and deliberate failure to leave a meeting, let alone declare an interest, to date, was not a dozy councillor of course, but that oracle of local government knowledge, Mark James CBE. Personal, prejudicial, was all there at that Exec Board meeting in January 2012.

Anyway, back to the Register and there are a couple of strange entries including one from Cllr Dole (Plaid) relating to a solar park application. He wished to declare an interest at a planning committee meeting as he 'Does not know the applicant or objectors'. (my underline)

Of course sometimes the poor dears forget, the most recent example being Cllr Pat Jones (Lab) and the Grillo applications, urging everyone to 'let's get on with it' when she was a substitute on the planning committee.

Independent Cllr Joseph Davies wanted it known that a previous Notification which stated that he had received a donation towards his 2012 local election expenses from Pam and Meryl's Independent Group, was an 'error'.

Oo-er, I'm sure that would never would be terribly misleading for the voters of course if a supposedly independent candidate received such financial assistance, and sell their soul to Meryl's Mob...

For a polite turn of phrase look no further than a notification from Cllr Jeff Edmunds (Lab) who partook in a pub meal in far-off Cornwall with Building Research Establishment (BRE) representatives. The pub bash was prior to a renewable energy 'session' with Cornwall Council the following day;
"Unexpectedly our hosts kindly offered to pay for the meal and I accepted." Ah, nice.
The BRE advise the Council on renewable energy projects.

I nearly choked on my cornflakes when I read that some joker in County Hall had made Llandovery's Cllr Ivor Jackson (Ind) a substitute representative on APSE, the Association of Professional Service Excellence. 
The words 'Cllr Jackson' should, quite simply, never be mentioned in the same breath as the word 'Excellence'. I have already mentioned his role as representative on a parking adjudication panel...

Of course what is logged on the register and what happens in the real world can sometimes be two separate entities but at least residents will no longer have to endure heavily escorted visits to County Hall to see what their local councillor has declared, or not declared...officially anyway.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

News in brief - Meryl, managers and mould

Meryl and 'democracy'

The Carmarthenshire Herald continues to delve into the bowels of the Parc Howard saga (see earlier posts including here) and this week's article (not yet online) refers to an angry letter from one of the members of the Parc Howard Association to the Herald. The anger appears to be strangely directed against the paper for reporting a failed vote of no confidence in the Chair, Ken Rees. You would think PHA members would have been simply grateful to the paper for uncovering the questionable tangled web of companies attempting to turn the historic and publicly owned jewel of Llanelli into a plastic coated conference and wedding venue. Apparently not.

Anyway, the writer of the letter helpfully confirms to all those interested in this sorry tale that it was dear Cllr Meryl Gravell all along who recommended Loca Ventures and their assorted associates to the gullible former UKIP candidate and current Chair of the PHA Ken Rees, they then wined and dined him, and persons unknown, in local hotels.

Executive Board Member Meryl knew all about the plan which was originally a much wider proposal and included Pembrey Country Park, and quite clearly the named senior officials of the council were also far more informed and involved than they have been letting on.
Unlike the rest of our democratically elected members that is, who had been kept completely in the dark.

This means, of course, that Meryl's statement, churned out on the council website on the 9th June, is as disingenuous as we all thought, and shows exactly how warped her view of the 'appropriate democratic process' really is, although I think we all knew that anyway (my underline);

"...From time to time we are approached by third party organisations who are interested in working
with the authority, however, any considerations or such requests have to go through the appropriate democratic process..."


As some retire and others leave in haste, the chief executive continues to rearrange his generals with the occasional inconvenience of having to advertise for candidates outside the castle walls.

Last year, when Assistant chief executive Mr Burns left to join Caerphilly Council, Mr James mused over the possibility that, with a salary range of between £95k and £100k, the authority might just manage with one Assistant CEO rather than two.
Trusty aide Wendy Walters filled in for the interim while he pondered. With the pondering over he clearly felt that two Assistant Chief Executives were absolutely essential to fulfil the needs of our rural backwater and Ms Walters has now become permanent.

At the end of June, after a few brief months, Director of Environment Christina Harrhy escaped the madhouse for gainful employment elsewhere. The post, with a starting salary of £112,000 was readvertised but it seems that Carmarthenshire Council will melt if it doesn't have one, even for the few short, quiet summer weeks before a new appointment is made at the beginning of September.

Step forward soon to be retiring Head of Planning Mr Eifion Bowen selected by Mr James to fill the Director's shoes for these few weeks. Still, you never know, this brief 'acting up' arrangement might just bump up Mr Bowen's pension pot! Who knows.

Shifting sands

Burry Port Harbour is afflicted with an annual build up of silt which has led to diminishing room for boats and made this listed harbour less appealing to visitors and residents alike. Every year the council does it's statutory duty and dredges the harbour but a more permanent solution is required. Without getting technical the solution appears to involve a cost of around £400,000 so for now the annual dredge will continue at around £40,000.

In contrast, a few miles, perhaps not even that, up the coastline, is the Machynys Quayside housing development where the council, for reasons best known to itself, joined with developers Charles Church in some sort of legal agreement over landscaping in 2008. The land is partly owned by the council

A problem has arisen due to the 'realignment' of the development and the council is now obliged to do the landscaping or else they will be in breach of their agreement with the private developers. Meryl, in her capacity as regeneration rubber stamp, is set to agree;

"To appoint professional consultants, via the authority’s Environment Directorate, and compile the necessary detail to support planning application, design, tender and the construction of works
To appoint a preferred contractor and implement the works accordingly"

The 'Risk Management Issues' identified with this venture are interesting...

"Current grievances expressed by local residents would likely increase if no scheme was implemented. There would be a high risk of negative publicity as a consequence.
There may be grievances expressed by members of the public, which do not agree with public funds being used to implement such a scheme. This could result in negative publicity.
Revenue/maintenance funding will need to be continued in future years"

...and, as you can see, the 'issues' appear to be largely concerned with 'negative publicity'. However, the real question should be how the council tied itself up to such a legal agreement with private developers in the first place.

Archive news

Lastly, a link to a light-hearted but rather accurate and observant blog post from author and historian J D Davies who has recently become not only a campaigner for the survival of the Carmarthenshire Archives, but has also rapidly become very well acquainted with County Hall doublespeak with which we are all so familiar;

More spinned against than spinning

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Supporting People Grant - Fundamental failure

(Update 31st July; See also later post; Council's Support Grant failures - in the press)

Each year Carmarthenshire County Council receives a 'Supporting People' grant of around £6.7m from the Welsh Government.

To put it simply, the grant is aimed at helping vulnerable people live as independently as possible and covers, for example, homelessness, domestic violence, drug abuse, mental health issues and physical and mental disability, for young and old alike.
Many of the services are commissioned by the council and provided by external sources.

A recent report from the Council's own Internal Audit shows that all is definitely not well and failures delays and mismanagement of this grant, by the Council's Department for Social Care have led to the Welsh Government withholding £3m until the appropriate certificates have been signed off, currently a year overdue. This is shocking.

The Internal Audit found  'Fundamental weakness' for the second year running which, in general terms of risk means; "inadequate controls, a high risk of not meeting objectives and a high risk of fraud, negligence, loss and damage to reputation".

The Authority’s Financial Procedure Rules have not been complied with and in particular, monthly payments to providers had been paid in advance without any authorisation - advance payments are not permitted without prior approval.

Documentation to support spending was insufficient and money was being transferred to in-house service provision without any documentation to prove that it was either eligible or met the grant criteria. Payments to providers were also being made which lacked supporting documentation.

There was also non-compliance with the council's Contract Procedure Rules. Out of 154 Supporting People contracts only ten were current and properly signed by a representative of the Council.
Only one on those had actually been in place and signed in the grant certificate period in question.

In the majority of cases contracts had been awarded without following the appropriate tendering/quotation process. Documentation for contracts are not maintained and the majority of providers do not have up to date contracts.

These contracts were not always signed by a representative of the council and evidence of approval was not available to support the extension of contracts.

Where contracts are in place there was no monitoring to make sure that providers were only getting paid what they were supposed to be.

A further fundamental weakness was identified as 'Insufficient monitoring arrangements' - there was no evidence that the eligibility of providers were being monitored or that they were delivering the service as required by the terms and condition of the grant.

Many had not been visited for eight years and none had received a monitoring visit in the financial year in question. There was also no evidence that the projects were being managed appropriately or progressing as expected.

Although some financial information and 'outcomes' from providers were collated by staff in the department, there were no checks to ensure that any of it was accurate before being provided to the Welsh Government.

The report concludes with a warning that unless there is a marked improvement the council is currently at risk of having grant monies withdrawn and having applications for further funding refused.

The Wales Audit Office are currently assessing the council's grant management procedures in relation to property grants and I would imagine they'd be casting their auditing eye over this lot too. Or they should be.

This is scandalous, what's been going on? No paperwork? Money and contracts being dished out willy-nilly? If this was a private company they'd have been strung up by now.

A further Internal Audit report related to VAT accounting procedures within the council. This was assessed as being 'acceptable'. VAT is a complex area but in general the council is exempt from VAT - it cannot charge VAT and can reclaim all VAT it has paid out via it's monthly returns.

I do have one small query though. The unlawful costs incurred for the chief executive's counterclaim for libel was over £33,000, and around £5400 of that was VAT, which was reclaimed.

I wonder what the legalities are over VAT reclaimed on unlawful expenditure? Perhaps I'll ask HMRC...they don't take kindly to fraud.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Played them like a fiddle

It's now been eighteen months since the Extraordinary council meeting to discuss the pension and libel indemnity scandals exposed by the Wales Audit Office reports and exactly a year since the issue of libel indemnities appeared, again, on the agenda in July 2014.

Tucked away in a report for Scrutiny on Friday is the annual report from the Monitoring Officer, Linda Rees-Jones (mysteriously no longer 'acting'). Included in the report are various Constitutional amendments which have been brought to council, and approved, over the last twelve months.

One of these is "To note that the provision allowing members to grant indemnities to Officers to bring libel proceedings would not be reinstated in the Constitution."

What we have actually had in the Constitution, since February 2014 is this, in its various forms;

It has never been removed, just suspended. I suspect that when Mark and Linda have finished rewriting the constitution and it is presented to council in September the clause will have been airbrushed out, without explanation and especially without admission of wrongdoing. I could be wrong given Mr James' email to Cllr Bill Thomas a few weeks ago, however, we'll assume (and hope) it will finally go.

There has been no need whatsoever for the 'legal position' to be clarified because every man and his dog knows it was illegal in the first place.

As for the actual indemnity granted to Mr James in 2012, that was also illegal but Mr James and whichever cohort of obliging officers and councillors were, and are, currently in his pocket have managed to separate the two - the clause and the actual indemnity.

If the clause is permanently removed it is because it is 'contrary to law', or whatever polite way you want to put it.

As night follows day, this means that, despite the view of Mr James and co, the actual indemnity was also illegal. Or unlawful, as the Wales Audit Office put it.

As far as the council are concerned, the legality of the actual indemnity can only be determined by a court, whatever that's supposed to mean. We may find out one day.

What has happened is that there has been a great deal of constitutional and legal manoeuvring and manipulation to ensure that the chief executive and those responsible have got off scot free.

In the meeting last July (2014) Cllr Emlyn Dole (then in opposition of course) politely soothed Mark James' concerns that the 'suspension' of the clause, and the acceptance of the First Minister's statement the day before damning the actions of the council, would not be retrospective, and would not interfere with the indemnity granted in 2012.

In the event, the Welsh Government opinion was merely 'noted' and the clause suspended. This kept both the external auditor, and more to the point, the chief executive, happy and clinging on to his CBE.

This left the curious situation where the council were agreeing that the clause was illegal but when it was used in practice, it wasn't. Did they not think this was a bit odd and perhaps they'd been shafted?

In fact, the chief executive knew what he was doing was illegal in January 2012, hence the misrepresentation of legal advice to the Executive Board who were too dull to even question it. The unlawful presence of Mr James in the meeting also ensured they toed the line.

The upshot of all this was to save the skin of the chief executive and the usual suspects and avoid any unpleasant confrontation over his publicly funded legal costs. This was not the only issue of course, there was also his tax avoidance pension scam.

Looking back, I still find it quite incredible that not only the chief executive but the head of law and the Executive Board members present at the meeting when the indemnity was granted are still there. The only one who vaguely paid the price was Kevin Madge, who lost his £49,000 per year. This handsome remuneration has now passed seamlessly on to Cllr Dole.

I have spoken to Plaid supporters in my area and there is deep concern and disappointment that Cllr Dole and Co have, it seems, sold their soul to the devil, and Meryl of course.

Bryn Parry-Jones has gone, expensively I know, from Pembrokeshire but Mark James remains, despite the extended rap sheet - and there's only one reason, Mr James has played the lot of them, aside from one or two, like a fiddle, whereas in Pembs Mr Parry-Jones couldn't.

In addition, Mr James is now in the fortunate position, whether by design or coincidence, I couldn't possibly say, of facing no effective opposition to his power...all worked out rather well didn't it Mr James?