Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Thompson v James update


For information;

Further to correspondence exchanged in January, I received a letter from chief executive Mark James' solicitors, early this month, again regarding his personal damages arising from the unlawful publicly funded counterclaim.

My (somewhat desperate) proposal of a temporary and realistic, good faith, small token monthly payment was rejected out of hand, I was reminded of the charge on my home and a demand was made for details of any equity and 'credible' proposals by the 24th March. I was also reminded that the running total currently stands at £32,479.15

The final paragraph however refers to this blog and makes two points. The first concern a statement that I will 'not pay a penny' to their client.

The second reads thus;

"We also note with concern that you continue to malign our client's good name through recent articles that you have posted on the blog. Our client's position remains reserved in this regard"

I responded to the letter on the 10th March and made it clear that their client has given me no choice other than to fight this all the way. I will not volunteer any information and I stand by my statement that I will not pay their client a penny.

As for the unspecified legal posturing at the end of the letter, if Mr James has a specific complaint, this time he might like to mention it before issuing any further proceedings. Otherwise, and as I said in my response, it seems to me to be nothing more than a demand for money with menaces.


I have not yet received a response.

Due to the circumstances I have nothing further to add at the moment and, with apologies to readers, will not be publishing comments on this post.

Lollipop sweeteners


In a somewhat bizarre move, and a month after the budget, the council decided to issue a press release the other day about the handful of services 'saved' by the Executive Board, including of course, that old red herring, lollipop patrols.

Whether this was an attempt to use the press office for a bit of thinly disguised electioneering on behalf of local Labour party candidates is anyone's guess. To make matters worse, the Llanelli Star dutifully transformed the headline to 'Carmarthenshire council to prioritise children's safety in budget cut choices'. Instead of handing out free tins of soup to boost sales, the paper might been better advised to look beyond the spin and nonsense churned out by County Hall.

A relatively simple check would have revealed that within the budget, £173,000 has been cut from social work teams, £100,000 from fostering support, £75,000 from Behavioural Support, £35,000 from Women's Aid, and so on. In addition, recent reports from the Ombudsman and the Wales Audit Office show that they're not overly impressed with the council's record on Child safeguarding either.

There is more to 'prioritising children's safety' than a quick, disingenuous PR stunt over lollipop patrols.


At the other end of the age scale, you may have seen the reports that firms engaged by the council to carry out home care for the elderly have been paying their employees considerably less than the minimum wage - Cneifiwr's latest post is a 'must read' on the story.

Jumping the gun - Library for sale?


In it's hurry to sell off any council owned building which isn't tied down, the council have got a bit muddled over the wording of a consultation to move Llandeilo Public Library, which has occupied it's own purpose-built building in Crescent Road Car Park since 1980.
'Views are being sought' from local residents about moving it into the council offices at the other end of the car park.

Unfortunately the first part of the consultation blurb describes it as a 'development opportunity' and appears to be addressing future purchasers and developers, suggesting, god forbid, that the decision has already been made;



The reality is that £250,000 of cuts to the library service have been approved for the next three years, and £40,000 has been paid to a consultant to consider the outsourcing of the whole leisure department into a 'trust' anyway. So if it does move into the council offices, make the most of it, it's unlikely to be there long.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Child Safeguarding - A critical report...and other news.


Although clearly not connected to the ongoing police investigation, Operation Almond, Rhydgors Special school was back in the news today following a critical CSSIW report.
It followed an earlier Estyn report which found that its prospects for improvement were “unsatisfactory”.

With that in mind, it's perhaps worth noting the most recent report from the Wales Audit Office regarding the council's Child Safeguarding procedures which appears on the agenda for the next meeting of the Audit Committee.

You may also remember the public report issued by the Ombudsman in January which found serious failings in the council's duty of care towards a four year old child.

The WAO report describes the procedures as "mostly adequate" - which in local government parlance means 'could do a lot better'.

Anything less than a finding of 'excellence' should give serious cause for concern.

The report has found that there was no clear and defined safeguarding policy, and child safeguarding did not appear on the Corporate Risk Register. It also said that "Members...were unfamiliar with Risk Management as a concept". 

It also found that whilst the council operates Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) which checks the suitability of those working with children, this should be extended to all services which regularly come into contact with children. The inference here is that there is a possibility of holes in the net.

Another significant finding was a lack of safeguarding training with the take-up rate in Carmarthenshire Council well below the Wales average.

Significantly it found that neither the Executive Member for Safeguarding, nor the Chair of Scrutiny for Safeguarding "could report on having received safeguarding training which raises concerns about their ability to effectively deliver their responsibilities" 
The Council also had a much higher than average percentage of people who had never received safeguarding training.

We can only hope things have improved.

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Also rearing its ugly head on the Audit Committee agenda is the WAO annual audit of grant management procedures and yet again, for the third (or is it fourth?) year running, many of the same weaknesses have been identified.

Over half the grants put forward for audit were 'qualified' (ie something wrong) and nearly half of the claims had to be amended.

Due to the lack of significant improvement even though less grants were audited this year than last, the work involved has meant an increase in audit fees.

Similar problems have arisen as in previous years (covered every year by this blog) and the WAO have highlighted issues such as poor compliance with procurement rules and, in so many words, a lack of proper paper trails.

We also know that the South West Wales Property Fund grant, administered by Carmarthenshire council has been in the spotlight over the past year.

This arose after concerns were highlighted over 'Meryl's millions' and further concerns were reported to the WAO by the now retired Director of Resources, Roger Jones.
In December the WAO announced it was looking specifically at these grants, or a couple of them anyway.

The matter appears to be slowly progressing and this latest report states that;
"due to concerns identified, we have also issued separate reports on the awarding of two grants under the EUR01 Property Development Fund grant. We await a response from the Council and will summarise our findings in a separate report"

So, there we are, we'll have to wait and see.

Questions and concerns over the council's grant management procedures were swiftly dismissed by the chief executive, Mark James last year who said that once they had a word with the Wales Audit Office, they usually 'backed down'.

Unfortunately, as we know only too well, that arrogant and cavalier attitude is very familiar to anyone and everyone who has criticised the council in some way and is definitely not the best approach, nor mechanism for further scrutiny and improvement...

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Lastly, and on a lighter note, the 'Chairman's Diary' often provides a good illustration of that parallel universe inhabited by the pillars of Carmarthenshire Council.

In what only can be described as the ultimate sacrifice, the Mark James budget passed last month included a reduction of 'official cars' from two to one. How they will manage I don't know.

Incidentally, I have to be careful what I say about who is actually in the 'chauffeur driven limo' as, surprisingly, it turned out to be a very touchy subject in the libel case. My argument that such archaic civic luxuries were wasteful and unnecessary, no matter who was being ferried around, fell on deaf ears.

Anyway, booked into the Diary for next Friday is a trip to Haverfordwest to attend the Pembrokeshire County Council Civic Dinner. Whoopee! Cllr Daff Davies, plus consort (presumably Mrs Daff) will be donning the gold plated regalia and cruising west to wine and dine with their Pembrokeshire counterparts.

One wonders if they will compare notes over the vol-au-vents on representing the two basket cases of Wales?

And what will the toast be in that Victorian parallel universe? "Ladies and gentlemen, raise your glasses please.....to our glorious chief executives, both past and present"!

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Ffos Las homes and another Section 106 agreement 'revisited'


The Ffos Las racecourse in Trimsaran has been one of the jewels in Meryl's crown and, over the past few years planning permission has been granted by the council for a whopping 528 homes on the largely greenbelt area surrounding the racecourse.

The 528 home development was roughly split into two halves. Permission for the first was granted in 2009 and the second wave of 280 homes was granted in 2012. One of the reasons put forward by Ffos Las Ltd was that permission for these 280 homes was essential for the future viability of the racecourse.

The council duly obliged and Ffos Las Ltd were given three years, as is usual, to submit full plans and five years to start the construction.

There was also a Section 106 planning obligation that 15% of the homes were to be affordable and £100,000 to be used for community facilites, eg play areas, within this large development.

Over the years Carmarthenshire Council has been fairly casual over the requirements for affordable dwellings from developers. At the Stradey site there was no requirement at all for the 300-odd home development. An arrangement described as 'unusual' by the head of planning himself.

Ffos Las Ltd applied late last year to extend the time limit to begin this second phase of 280 homes. Not particularly a problem perhaps.

However, buried within the application was a request for the authority to reconsider the S106 agreement, whether this pertains to the affordable housing or the community contribution, or both, is unknown. No details are provided but Ffos Las submitted a 'Viability appraisal prepared by Savills which demonstrates that the proposed development is not viable with the current planning obligations'

Anyone, of course, can comment on a planning application but given it's title; 'Extend time period within which reserved matters applications may be submitted' this one appears to relate entirely to the extension of time, one has to dig a little further to find the reference to the S106 agreement.

Also, sufficient documentation must be made available for interested parties to make an informed comment. A Freedom of Information request for the 'Viability Appraisal' was refused under commercial confidentiality.

With Carmarthenshire Council ranking second from bottom in the provision of affordable housing according to figures released last month, any variation on a S106 obligation, in a development of this size is of great significance.

The application has yet to be decided but it would appear that this should be a contender for a decision by the planning committee rather than through delegated power, so at least, if nothing else, the proposed S106 'variations' can be checked out. 

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Ministry of Spin - leopards don't change their spots

Friday's Policy and Resources Scrutiny agenda sees, at last, a draft revised Press and Media Protocol. This has been an ongoing exercise which officially began in January 2014 but which has been called for long before that.

County Hall has, for years, deliberately compromised the ability of the local press to report negative stories, it has attempted to deter investigative journalism, even adding that unique clause (currently suspended) to it's constitution to provide funds to sue should anyone get too critical. Another example was a phone call from County Hall's presidential suite putting paid to a FOI request made by a local reporter regarding senior officer expenses. 

The nonsense of threatening to withdraw advertising funding from local papers as punishment for negative stories has gone on for years and, in the past, both the Carmarthen Journal and the South Wales Guardian have been in their sights; blackmail, in other words. 

Late in 2012 a leaked email from the council press office gave overwhelming proof that a mildly critical story published by the South Wales Guardian had led to the withdrawal of advertising. 

The Plaid opposition brought forward a Motion for full council to respect the freedom of the local press. The chief executive decided that this wasn't going anywhere near full council and kicked it into touch. 

The matter was dealt with behind closed doors by his loyal disciples, Cllr Pam Palmer and press manager Ms Debbie Williams, the latter being herself the author of the infamous leaked email. Ms Williams has also acted as ears for the chief executive, one documented occasion saw her reporting, to the chief executive, an overheard conversation between a Member and a reporter.

2012 also saw the long running saga over the Sainsbury's press release, for which the leader, Kevin Madge, had his knuckles rapped by the Ombudsman for using the council press office for political attack. It later transpired that the offending article had been signed off by the chief executive.

Things also took a turn for the worse with the publication of the Wales Audit Office reports in January 2014 with the press office again galvanised into action to attack the auditor, politicians and anyone who disagreed with the Mark James world view. 

Many controversial 'press releases, including demands for the auditor to retract his opinions over his 'unlawful' findings have been attributed to unnamed spokespersons, this even breached the old protocol.

The emphasis on reputation management has been of paramount importance to County Hall, and readers of this, and Cneifiwr's blog will know that the press office has not been called the Ministry of Spin without good reason. The first thing to suffer is always the truth. Internal emails before, during and after the #daftarrest episode show that defensiveness and damage limitation were the priority. The chief executive even decided on the wording of the #daftarrest council meeting Minute to reduce the scope for criticism and analysis.

Another bizarre example, last year, saw the chief executive rejecting opposition budget proposals in the Carmarthen Journal. 

Not only is the press office one of the most generously funded in Wales, recent figures unearthed by opposition councillors show that the wages bill for technical services (emptying your bins etc) has fallen by nearly 10% since 2009. The wages bill for the press office, on the other hand, has risen by nearly 13% in the same period.

Over the years numerous calls have been made to end the publication of the council propaganda free sheet the 'Carmarthenshire News'. The decision to reduce publication from six to four editions per year has meant even more drivel and pictures of officials in hard hats has to be packed into each issue.
The council's 'partners', eg the health board, fire service and colleges also have to cough up for the privilege of sustaining this nonsense.

You'll always be hard pushed to find a mention of an adverse report anywhere on the council website, let alone in the 'media' section. The link to the recent public report from the ombudsman was there for exactly the time required by law - three weeks. However, the nauseating press release announcing that the chief executive was staying, signed-off by Kev and Pam is still lingering as 'news', like a bad smell, six weeks after it first appeared.

The very recent WLGA governance review recognised the enormity of the problem and said that the council 'will not seek to suppress or censor the activity of an independent press and media'.

The remit of the group reviewing the press and media protocol can be found here and the draft protocol, authored by Ms Williams of leaked email fame, here. There's still no recognition of the independence of local media. 

The trouble is, leopard's don't change their spots and whilst a few tweaks to the protocol might tick boxes, the toxic culture remains alive and well, for now. It will take the continued determination of the local media, including bloggers to play their part in exposing the spin, pushing for change and making the local authority accountable.



Whilst I'm on the subject of Friday's scrutiny meeting, another item on the agenda, and not one you will read about in the Carmarthenshire News, is that the authority have spent £2.88m on external consultants over the past year. That's around £15 per man, woman and child in the county.

The majority of the expenditure involves the technical services department and of course the list excludes the cost of external legal advice, representation and various 'opinions'...

Sian Caiach - Candidate for Llanelli


As I said back in January Carmarthenshire County Councillor Sian Caiach is standing for Llanelli in the general election on May 7th. She is standing under the 'People First' banner.
True to the party title, Sian is asking the people what they want and what is important to them, and has issued the following press release;

People First promise to consult on all issues whenever possible before making decisions of your behalf. We have compiled a questionnaire based on the issues which were raised the most by you on the doorstep. We will try to get as many filled as possible both my our canvassers and by voters filling it in online at www.peoplefirstwales.org.uk or we will send paper copies out on request through the contact links on the website.

The results will guide our policies. Other political groups decide their policies first and then try to get them accepted by the voters. We feel that it should be the other way round!
The questions refer to both local  issues as well as Welsh and UK ones. We will also be interested in taking some smaller samples from neighbouring areas to see if there are any major differences, for instance between Llanelli and the Carmarthen seats. 
Our candidate, Sian Caiach, is our first Parliamentary Candidate and we hope to eventually field many.more candidates.We would actually like every candidate to consult locally and represent their areas based on local needs.This doesn't fit in with the "one size fits all" policy of the big parties. We are committed to the best quality of representation of the voters and believe that they must be asked to find out what they want.   The results of this poll will be published in April.

In the meantime we will collect as many opinions as possible. We are interested in all responses, whether you intend to vote for us or not.



Friday, 13 March 2015

The Carmarthenshire Herald - the fox is on the case...




This week's edition of the Carmarthenshire Herald picks up on County Hall's relationship with the Towy Community Church and their recent appearance on the Executive Board agenda.
All summed up in this fine opinion piece by 'Cadno' (the fox);

Cadno detects a lapse of judgement

"Einstein once said: “God does not play dice with the universe.” We can, however, be confident that whatever sports or pastimes are pursued by your own god or gods (if you have any) that should Yahweh pop along to Johnstown of an evening, he would at least have the opportunity to go bowling. 
There, alongside the sweeping curves of the Towy, the Almighty could pop in to see the Towy Community Church. The Church’s website proclaims that: ‘Towy Community Church, Carmarthen is a place where everyone is valued. Where inclusion and respect are practiced and where we strive to build strong and healthy community regardless of age, background or race.’ 
Fine words. After all, is not the lesson of Matthew 7: 1-5 that when we exercise judgement we should be wary of being judged ourselves? That would particularly seem to be the case when the relevant text refers to hypocritical judgement. After all, readers, it would be dreadful to say one thing and practice another. 
If a church says it practises inclusion and respect then we are entitled to examine just how much it practises what it preaches. 
February was LGBT History Month. 
Across Wales, Councils flew the rainbow flag that showed – or at least appeared to show – that local authorities practised inclusion and respect for the LGBT community and those members of their staff who might choose to categorise themselves as one or the other of the relevant consonants. 
But not, Cadno is sad to report, in Carmarthenshire. Carmarthenshire County Council took a vital stand for another group who feel they are unrepresented: the bigoted, the prejudiced, and the intolerant. 
Carmarthenshire County Council did not fly the rainbow flag. 
Cadno does not suggest for one minute that having pumped almost £1.5m and rising into ‘a Christian enterprise’, that the evangelical tail wagged the secular dog. That would be unfair to the Council. 
It would also be a vile calumny to suggest that some pointy-headed senior nincompoop with an abiding belief in the literal truth of The Bible put the kybosh on the idea. Cadno will have none of that speculation, readers. Remember: judge not lest ye…etcetera.
No, readers, what people do on their knees whether in their private lives, in the tabernacle of their choice, or in their own home is none of Cadno’s concern. 
Pray, read your psalters, testaments and holy books. Prey, do. 
Cadno’s gripe is rather more to the point of what our Council does with public money that it should spend on behalf of and for the benefit of all Carmarthenshire’s residents.  
So, Cadno’s complaint is not even that public money – Carmarthenshire’s public money - is being pumped into a project favouring one faith group above others 
No, readers, baldly put it is not for a Council to bankroll ANY church, sect, or faith group. 
Why one group should be favoured above others is not the point. The business of the Council is delivering and improving key public services to the communities it serves. Bin collections, dog wardens, safe roads, better schools, disability services, more opportunities for adult education.  
That delivering these services and improvements in them might be evidence to the faithful that a living Lord indeed walks amongst us should be of only tangential interest; particularly when deciding where to spend money the Council holds on trust for everyone. 
Yet, and after mean-spiritedly carving £18,000 out of the budget of Carmarthen’s Myrddin Special and Autistic Unit, it has been seriously suggested that the Council use some of its dosh to subsidise the work of Jehovah by stumping up £20,000 for a new boiler for the Towy Community Church. On the planet occupied by the Council member concerned – take a bow Cllr Jane Tremlett – verily is it said that the Labour/Independent coalition taketh away from each according to their needs and giveth to those who have trousered a load of dosh already. 
On planet Earth, even in County Hall, such a politically maladroit comment by the Executive Board Member for Social Care and Health should start the alarm bells ringing. 
However, since it appears that those highly-placed at County Hall have more bats in their collective belfry than are seen in the opening credits of Scooby Doo, perhaps all the flapping about is drowning out the warnings. 
But that is as nothing with the real problem with the Council’s treatment of the Towy Community Church. 
The real problem is that the Church is being treated as a special case on a matter of enforcement. It has received preferential treatment from the Council in relation to breaches of the planning permission granted to it for the use of the building it occupies. Readers, this is not right.  
There is no planet where the needs of a small extremist sect should entitle it to expect that the Executive Board of this council will let it get away with breaking the rules. And in order to facilitate breaking the rules the Executive Board went on a jolly outing to God’s own bowling alley so they could see for themselves the multiple breaches of a legally binding agreement between the Council and the Church. Isn't there something somewhere about rendering unto Caesar…? 
One can but guess as to why the Executive Board is so supine in its dealings with Towy Community Church. Perhaps they are answering to a higher voice; to their own immanent divinity. If they are, Cadno has some minatory words that may be of use to them. They are also from the Gospel of Matthew. At 7:15, we are all enjoined to: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” 
Of course, readers, bearing in mind the largesse being strewn around the Towy Community Church, the profits are very real."

(Recent and relevant posts on this blog include; No fly zone for the Rainbow flag, Bending over Backwards, and Roads and religion. Earlier posts include a 2011 article in Private Eye) 

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The Carmarthenshire Herald's letters page carries a welcoming message from a Carmarthenshire resident describing its arrival as a breath of fresh air. The writer goes on to say;

"...Keep up the good work to fearlessly report the machinations going on inside County Hall in Carmarthen - something that those without access to certain 'blogs' have been denied for years!

However, I hope that 'Cadno' manages to avoid the 'hounds' and the 'huntsmen' from the Kremlin - sorry, County Hall in Carmarthen. They can be ruthless and firm believers in censorship"


Yes indeed, good luck to Cadno, and the Herald, as only last week I received a legal threat from chief executive, Mr Mark James in relation to this blog.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Roads and religion - yesterday's Executive Board meeting


The £5m link road

As predicted (and covered in detail) over on Cneifwr's blog, the Executive Board were quite happy yesterday to plunder those supposedly precious reserves to fund the £5m link road for the Carms West housing development on behalf of private developers.

As the Carmarthenshire Herald also pointed out on Friday this is in "stark contrast to the stance it has taken on using reserves to cushion the blow of savage cuts to council services...the council appears to be helping out private business interests while slashing services for the elderly and families". See also 'Reasonable and necessary priorities'

After having planned this whole development, totalling 1200 homes, for at least six years that I know of, it is quite incredible that there was no firm plan as to how this road, essential to the development, would be paid for.

Things reached a head a few weeks ago when the application for 250 homes on part of the site was deferred when the Welsh Government intervened, with concerns over the road. This application had been made by a small consortium of private investors called Carmarthen Promotions Ltd based in East Anglia which appeared to have started trading just last September.

In order to get the application approved there was clearly some hard negotiating between the parties. The council, ever keen to please, hurriedly promised to cough up the lot in the vague hope that they might get it back from the developers and a wing and a prayer that the WG might have a whip round. As it happens, the WG have insisted that no more than 60 homes can be built before the road is completed.

Today's decision to fund the road scheme was held as an exempt item, even though most of the information was already in the public domain.

The press and public were excluded but following the WLGA recommendation, and in what must have been torture for the Exec Board and officials, non-Exec Board councillors were allowed to stay and observe. Unheard of in Carmarthenshire, this practice is in fact commonplace across western democracies

I'm not certain whether they had to sign the official secrets act but the non-exec councillors were warned about breathing a word on pain of death, or excommunication.

Praise be!

Also on the agenda was the item concerning the Towy Community Church and the evangelical bowling alley, (See 'Bending over backwards' and previous posts). As also predicted, the good folk were not whisked off to court for breaching legal agreements or planning permissions but treated to a special visit from the Board no less.

I am not certain what took place on the visit, hopefully not a visit to the evangelical bar, but the option of the church vacating the areas of the building they had moved into which breached the agreement was not even discussed. Re-jigging the legal Agreement was the only option on offer.

What has been strange about this whole development has been the utter devotion, financially and spiritually, County Hall has shown to a small organisation, which also happens to be a limited company. Anyone is free to set up a community enterprise but you are highly unlikely to receive the level of support from your local authority as this one seems to have done but as I have said before on this blog, the lord moves in mysterious ways, not least of all in the corridors of County Hall...

The Executive Board members had clearly seen the light (again) and there was some seriously fundamentalist hot-air. Cllr Jane Tremlett was so excited she even suggested they should go bowling on a team building exercise. Not content with that, she also suggested they 'facilitate' grant funding of £20,000 for a new boiler in the area which they're not even supposed to occupy yet. Praise be! And only the week before, she'd voted in favour of cutting £18k of funding from the Myrddin Special Unit...

The last word has to go to dear Cllr Pam Palmer who described it as a 'Christian enterprise' taking things forward with a 'wonderful bowling alley'. She went further and mentioned 'bad press and bloggers who had been unfair...libellous in my opinion'. Really Pam? Do you have some evidence of that?

What can we expect next? County Hall bankrolling a civil lawsuit on behalf of the Towy Church? Nothing would surprise me..

Update 12 March;
The minutes of the Exec Board meeting have now been published and do not, of course, record for posterity Jane and Pam's immortal words above.

However it does appear that Mr James was full of his characteristic, er, spiritual benevolence and  "...it was suggested that any other members who wished to see the facilities be invited to contact the Chief Executive’s office which could then facilitate a visit." 
More boilers on the way.

End of the road

Finally, and not on yesterday's agenda, it appears that the entirely non-religious, non-privately run Adult Community Learning centres will be closing. These are located in Llandeilo, Glanaman, Carmarthen and Felinfoel. In a report to Scrutiny tomorrow (11th March), the original plan to get the college of further education to run the courses appears to have run out of steam. The council emphasises that they don't have to provide this service, they only have to make sure someone else does.

The council is very keen to blame cuts inflicted by the Welsh Government and makes much of the fact that the service is predicted to be over-budget by a whole £34,000 this year. It appears that the council have been keen to rid themselves of these community centres for sometime and the Welsh Government has provided a useful excuse.

Friday, 6 March 2015

The Mark James budget is ratified


The first half of today's full council meeting was essentially to ratify the budget approved last week.
As I and others commented at the time, it was the intervention of the chief executive which was particularly inappropriate. Today's Carmarthenshire Herald seems to have reached the same view;

'Watching the meeting on playback a key role in the budget debate was played by controversial chief executive Mark James. Intervening in political repartee, and siding with the administration after stating that the Council's head of finance could not comment on the oppositions proposals, Mr James proceeded to comment on them and roundly reject them.

Mr James, whose 'peculiar' pension arrangements were the subject of a humiliating climb down by the council last year, and who lately had his request for a £400k+ severance package booted into the long grass, appeared intent on ensuring that the budget proposals before the council were accepted as written without amendment nor redaction.

The Labour/Independent grouping made sure that Mr James' bidding was followed."


As today's gathering was largely a technical rubber stamp for last week's decision the chief executive didn't need to join in. Safe in the knowledge that the decision could not be rescinded. The matter of cutting £18,000 from Myrddin Special School funding was mentioned several times but the Labour and Independent speakers chose to ignore it.

The argument over the use of reserves continued, which can all be seen on the archived webcast.
Plaid councillor, Elwyn Williams, proposed that £1.2m (1%) be taken from the earmarked reserves to cap the council tax at 3% instead of 4.8%. Plaid's original proposal to use £4.2m of reserves was defeated the previous week.

Mr James and legal Linda quickly intervened to claim that the constitution forbade such a vote being taken as it would affect last week's decision. The only way the proposal could continue to a vote was if the Standing Orders were suspended.

The vote to suspend Standing Orders was defeated by the Labour and Independents. So that was the end of that. Once again, Mr James' bidding was obediently followed. The proposal to cap your council tax didn't even get to the vote. 4.8% it is then.

As a reminder, the council currently has £122m in reserves stuffed under the County Hall mattress.



One final point with regards to the use of council reserves, or rather the refusal to use them. Earlier in the meeting there had been unanimous horror at the decision by the National Police Air Service to stop using Pembrey as a base for the police helicopter and all were agreed that they's send a stern letter to the Home Office.
Kevin Madge then went on to criticise the Police Commissioner for sitting on police reserves of £43m, some of which could have been to fund necessary frontline policing....oh dear.

The meeting then moved on to the Local Government Reform consultation, a topic which I covered briefly here. What was very strange was that the item had to be introduced by the chief executive (not the Chair of course..) as a 'debate'. Holding a debate, apparently, was not something they'd ever done before. As it was such a new concept he even asked for feedback on how they all thought it went.
Not sure what anyone thought was supposed to happen in the Chamber for all these years.

Kevin Madge proceeded to ramble on at length giving the Labour groups' view on the entire paper until somebody stopped him.

Anyway it doesn't seem that our councillors are very impressed with Minister Leighton Andrew's attempts to end the culture of 'old boys' clubs', not even from the old girls. There was much disgust over the 'five term' time limits for councillors and equal dismay at the possible reduction of allowances. Kevin Madge argued that the basic allowance was too low, although didn't comment on proposals to reduce senior councillors's pay, his being £49,000 per year.

Cllr Palmer also thought the idea of having an independent panel for the senior management selection process was an 'abomination', no less. Only councillors, such as her good self, and dear Meryl naturally, could know what was good for the people of Carmarthenshire...

There was a general consensus that the report was short on detail and not well thought through. Several interesting arguments were made (all available to view on the archive), but time ran out. The 'debate' will continue at the April meeting... so a subject to which we'll return in more detail.

Oh, and before I go, the annual Pay Policy Statement was also up for the rubber stamp. Not that I'm cynical about these things being PR exercises or anything but by happy coincidence, benevolently removing the lowest points on the staff pay scale, the ratio of Chief Exec pay to lowest earner has, er, 'plummeted' from 12.4:1 to 11.95:1.
Although of course these calculations wouldn't take into account any extra pay or benefits that the chief executive might happen to receive such as unlawful pension supplements, returning officer fees or unlawful legal costs.

The Carmarthenshire Herald - First Edition - updated


Pic source; Carmarthenshire Herald

Today's first edition of the Carmarthenshire Herald leads with the allegations of historic child abuse at Rhydygors Special School and Cartref-y-Gelli Children's home, as reported in the media this week.

In what can only be described as a refreshing change, The Carmarthenshire Herald (the Llanelli Herald was also launched today) has given the story the prominence, and in particular the headline, it deserves.
A very promising start.

Update 14.23
After having now bought a copy there is little more to add to the headline story.

The Herald was contacted by a former pupil of Rhydygors who said that not only was such abuse rife 30 years ago but it was a well known fact that it was happening.
Sadly this is a story we hear all too often these days.

The Herald asked the council what contact it has had with the police over both the 2000 and this latest investigation and whether it had ever had similar allegations or complaints made to it, outside of these police investigations.

No allegations have been made with regards to Carmarthenshire Council's handling of its role in the investigations but given the example of Clwyd County Council's refusal to publish a 1996 report into north Wales child abuse, apparently on the advice of their insurers, prompted the Herald to ask Carmarthenshire whether its own insurers had provided any advice with regards to both the 2000 and the ongoing investigations.

So far the council have only confirmed that they are working closely with the police to investigate the matter and "As this is a legal matter, it is not possible to give any further information at the moment".

The council also declined to comment on the 1998 Social Service Inspectorate report concerning Cartref-y-Gelli Children's home. (Again please see earlier post for links)

Earlier post here.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Reasonable and necessary priorities?


Last week, amongst the budget proposals, the council approved over £200,000 in cuts to services for children with special educational needs or disabilities.
The budget was pushed through by officers and approved by the Labour and the Independents at last week's meeting.

The reality is illustrated by an article in this week's Carmarthen Journal concerning the Myrddin Children's Special and Autistic Unit in Carmarthen. The unit will see it's council funding of £39,000 cut by £18,000, nearly half of it.

Last October, Leader of the council Kevin Madge said that the payment of nearly £27,000 to Tim Kerr QC to defend (unsuccessfully) the unlawful payments received by the chief executive, Mark James, were "reasonable and necessary".

I guess it all depends on your priorities as to what constitutes 'reasonable and necessary'....

Bending over backwards


Next Monday's Executive Board meeting has a couple of interesting items. The first concerns County Hall's evangelical friends at the Towy Community Church, or the Xcel bowling alley as it's more comfortably known.

The Item concerns a breach of the legal agreement by the church for using parts of the building designated for phase 2 of the project. Phase 2 consists of the creation of a 600 seater 'auditorium' (a church) and various 'therapy' rooms and offices. The church has breached the agreement by using some of the space to house it's furniture recycling facility before presenting detailed plans of the phase 2 works.

Allowing this current breach to continue might appear reasonable but this agreement was put in place to prevent 'piecemeal development or occupation' and to ensure the church were able to deliver phase 2 of the agreed scheme. If they were not able to honour the agreement, the council would then have had the the option to secure possession of the remaining part of the property for an alternative use. How phase 2 will be funded remains to be seen...Cneifiwr's most recent post on the subject is well worth a read.

The council, so far, has been extraordinarily generous towards it's evangelical partners giving them over £1.4m in land deals, loans and grants. Requests for correspondence between County Hall and the church were flatly refused, in fact it's turned out to be something of a sensitive subject. All this, including the controversy over the proposed Mercy Ministry, has been covered on this and Cneifiwr's blog.

The church are now seeking to alter the agreement to 'legalise' the breach.

What strikes me as odd is that the church would have been very well aware that parts of the building were legally off limits and I can only assume that they would have also been well aware that County Hall would happily iron out any legal creases.

We can also safely assume the new agreement will be rubber-stamped on Monday. The added threat that the council's lease could become void will help. When mere mortals have been found to be in breach of some council agreement or other, including building regulations or planning permission, they are swiftly hauled over the coals. Perhaps if you let them know you're a believer in the literal truth of the bible, it might help...

Bending over backwards for a small fundamentalist Christian organisation may be entirely reasonable but we can only speculate as to why County Hall refused to fly the Rainbow flag...

The second item concerns the Carmarthen West development - this clearly relates to the £5m link road and will be held behind closed doors. Cneifwr has covered this and also explains how the council are funding the landed gentry of England.

Before I go, there is yet another full council meeting on Friday to rubber stamp the budget by formally setting the council tax. The meeting is only listed for two hours and includes a notice of motion to retain the police helicopter base at Pembrey. This is a worthy cause but one which I am sure everyone will be in agreement on and I daresay will want to speak on.

All this leaves little time for the item on the recent White Paper regarding local government reform. As I said at the beginning of February, this is an important consultation and if the council are going to provide a corporate response, it must have as full input from all councillors, it's not something that should be left to Legal Linda to fill in in her tea break.
  

Historic child abuse allegations at Carmarthen special school - updated


Update 17.10;

BBC Wales have obtained a Social Services Inspectorate report dated 1998 regarding the Cartref-Y-Gelli Children's Home. The home closed in 1998 but Carmarthenshire Council will not say why.

"The report published in 1998, obtained by BBC Wales, makes 14 recommendations for Carmarthen's Cartref-y-Gelli.
It says not all children were confident "of being listened to and some expressed a feeling that it was not worth complaining".
Carmarthenshire council has been asked to comment."

Full article here; Abuse probe home children 'ignored'

------------------------------------------------------------------

Grim news (BBC Wales) emerged this week that six people have been arrested in relation to allegations of sexual and physical abuse of children at Rhydygors special school and Cartref-y-Gelli childrens' home in Carmarthen. The allegations date from 1976 to 1990.

Rhydygors is a pupil referral unit for children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, Cartref-y-Gelli closed some time ago. The allegations relate to abuse of over twenty victims and all involve members of staff, none of those staff still work at the school.

Allegations relating to Rhydygors were first investigated in 2000 and referred to the CPS but criminal proceedings were not instigated. Those allegations and the investigation were not reported to the media at the time.

Additional allegations, including those at Cartref-y-Gelli, were made in 2012 and the subsequent criminal investigation, called Operation Almond looked again at the earlier allegations afresh. The investigation, which is ongoing, has now resulted in today's arrests.

Carmarthenshire County Council has said it is working closely with Dyfed-Powys Police to fully investigate the allegations.

Rhydygors Special School
Statement from Dyfed Powys Police here

Friday, 27 February 2015

Filming council meetings - Carmarthenshire style


In case it still isn't very apparent, the council, via the working group are aiming, they say, to be the 'most open council in Wales' and considering the 39 recommendations of the WLGA Governance review. True to form, the meetings of the working group are held behind closed doors and the minutes, or 'Action Notes', are not published. They are available on request several weeks later.

You would expect a group of this nature to be made up exclusively of backbench and opposition councillors, and not include three members of the ruling executive board.

It is also clear that the chief executive is exerting plenty of influence either in person, or via the medium of acting head of legal, Linda Rees Jones.

The review, you may remember, recommended a 'change of culture', it was number one recommendation in fact. So far, there's little evidence of that.

As regular readers will know, the issue over members of the public filming meetings has been a bone of contention for some considerable time, so I'll start with that.

You might have thought, following the legislation passed in England and even Pembrokeshire's decision to throw open the doors, that the WLGA recommendation for the council to "Consider allowing the public filming of council meetings" would be happily accepted.
Sadly not. What we've got is pointless and ridiculous.

The mealy-mouthed Notes for the 8th January meeting state;

"In accordance with the Group’s decision at its last meeting consideration was given to whether to allow the public to film meetings. The Head of Administration and Law advised that the Welsh Government had urged Local Authorities in Wales to look favourably at permitting filming of meetings provided it was not a distraction though it was noted that the former did not allow filming of its own meetings.  
The Group heard arguments for and against allowing members of the public to film at all meetings they were entitled to attend and it was subsequently; 
"AGREED that initially, for a trial period of 12 months, filming be allowed at meetings webcasted by the Council itself.

....and moving forward to the 26th January meeting;

"Reference was made to minute no. 5 [filming meetings] and it was pointed out that not all members of the Group were in agreement with the decision made.  The Head of Administration & Law clarified that where decisions are not unanimous then they are carried by a majority vote.   
"AGREED that.... minute number 5 being amended to state AGREED BY A MAJORITY

So the public can only film and record those meeting which are currently being webcast, ie under council control. It's highly unlikely that anyone is going to want to do that.

Currently only full council and planning meetings are webcast. Executive Board, all five Scrutiny Committees, Democratic Services, Audit Committee, Standards Committee and Licensing Committees are not.

Just in case the sky falls in, they've also limited this pointless exercise to a twelve month pilot.

Not only that, some Members even voted against this resolution, and wanted that fact noted. Quite incredible.

The point of allowing the public to make their own recordings is, as I've said many times, a matter of democratic principle and transparency and one important enough to have now been given legal protection in England. The point has been missed, yet again.



Moving on, the removal of any discussion of committee reports from the full council agendas was something the chief executive was very keen on. As we know, it has already been brought in.

It was discussed at the meeting on the 8th January. Mr James was not present at that meeting but of course, Linda Rees Jones was and she did her best to push the point on his behalf.
The committee agreed, but no decision was made as when this would happen.

Mr James was present at the meeting of the 26th January, and unique to this recommendation, the group were invited to implement this change 'with immediate effect'.

Unlike the sidelining of committee reports above, Councillors who wish to ask a supplementary questions at full council still have to go through the rigmarole of suspending standing orders.

According to the Notes this was supposed to be changed at January's, and then February's council meeting, along, incidentally, with a 'review' concerning the collection of details (on the false pretences of "fire safety reasons", remember all that nonsense?) of anyone who attends the public gallery...
Oh well, perhaps March then...

Many of the recommendations are being sent off to the Executive Board, who are being politely asked to consider, for example, whether to webcast their meetings (shouldn't be a problem as the decisions are actually made in pre and post meeting 'briefings'), or whether to allow backbench councillors to ask questions at their meetings.

Some of recommendations have become completely skewed. For instance;

WLGA Recommendation 31 has gone from;

"The Council should ensure that all members receive information relating to exempt items and that non-executive members should remain for exempt items, as is practice at most other councils." 

To;

"Agreed to recommend to the Executive Board that the Chair and Vice Chair of the opposition and Chairs of Scrutiny Committees receive copies of exempt reports"

The point of allowing all members to have information on, and be able to observe exempt items is so they can be fully informed and ask questions or call-in decisions. Clearly the mistrust that backbench councillors are not to be trusted with such information is still prevalent.

The requirement for seven seconders to support any Motion was brought in by the chief executive a couple of years ago as some were critical of the council. The recommendation is that this should relaxed back to normal levels, ie a proposer and one seconder within three months.

Despite this appearing to be a simple matter it seems to require Ms Linda Rees Jones trawling around all 22 local authorities to ask them what they do. Seems she's still trawling.

Whatever your views on the budget decision on Tuesday, the control, and level of intervention, by the unelected chief executive showed quite clearly that the democratic governance of this council remains in disarray and not fit for purpose, and no amount of tinkering around the edges, or with the constitution, is going to cure the toxic culture.

I will report on further developments, including the urgently needed and ongoing (two years now surely?) review of the Press and Media Protocol, over the coming weeks...or months.

As a reminder, here's who's on the working group;

Kevin Madge (Lab)
Terry Davies (Lab)
Derek Cundy (Lab)
Pam Palmer (Ind)
Mair Stephens (Ind)
Hugh Richards (Ind)
Emlyn Dole (Plaid)
Hazel Evans (Plaid)
Tyssul Evans (Plaid)
David Jenkins (Plaid)

Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Budget - further comment


A few hours after Mark James's budget was approved on Tuesday, Labour Minister Leighton Andrews issued a statement, again referring to Council reserves as he had already done last year.
Carmarthenshire, it turns out, has a total of £122m in reserves, twice as much as Cardiff.
Mr Andrews said;

"Whilst it is prudent for Authorities to prepare for more challenging financial times, it is also reasonable to want to see evidence that Authorities are making financial decisions in the best interests of their communities."

If you haven't realised it by now, those that are running this council are not acting in the best interests of their communities. Mr James personally intervened to reject outright the opposition proposals to use a tiny proportion of the earmarked reserves and the Labour/Independents followed like sheep. He acted unprofessionally and with arrogance.

Quite why the Plaid opposition didn't shout out their objections there and then and stop him in his tracks, I don't know.

Don't forget, whilst Kevin Madge, Meryl and Co are cutting your services and raising your council tax they were complicit in approving a tax avoidance scheme for Mr James and shelling out thousands to defend him. Along with the unlawful libel costs, the whole affair was nothing short of criminal.

And the only reason the Labour group refused to rubber stamp his golden handshake was because there's an election on May 7th.
You will note that £3m has already been transferred into the Severance Scheme (from those 'precious' reserves, 'earmarked' for something else), ready and waiting for the eventual pay-off.

The WLGA governance review identified a toxic culture within County Hall and a need for urgent change. Clearly those poisonous relationships remain alive and well.

If councillors were acting in the best interests of their communities, they would have sacked Mr James last year when they had the chance.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Budget meeting


The sound wasn't working for the first twenty minutes of today's council webcast but when it did kick in, the Chamber was in mid-tribute to Mr Dave Gilbert, Director of Regeneration and deputy chief executive who was 'semi-retiring'. Quite where he was going was lost due to the absence of sound (it may return on the archive) but he did seem to be leaving the Titanic after 12 years on board.

Amongst the applause, Mr James thanked him for 'holding the reins' for those three months last year and apparently Meryl had written a poem. Sadly she didn't read it out....

Amid the back-slapping the meeting moved on to drive through the budget, cutting services to residents and putting up their council tax by 4.8%.

The Exec Board Member for money, Cllr Jeff Edmunds wanted to present the whole budget, including the capital budget and rent increases all in one summary.
Opposition councillors protested to this, so the chief executive suggested a show of hands, he swiftly concluded that the protesters had been defeated.
Daff (the Chair) looked a bit puzzled and actually appeared to disagree with Mr James over the vote...Mr James took no notice and Cllr Edmunds continued anyway.

To be brief, it was a three year budget plan to make cuts of £45m, £30m of which was to be made in the next two years. As I have mentioned, there were several red herrings which had already been dropped by the Executive Board.

As the opposition rightly pointed out, although welcome, this has become an annual event, drip fed to the press since Christmas purely to benefit the reputation of the Executive Board. As the Administration, they could have made sure these cuts, eg meals on wheels, youth services, never appeared in the proposals in the first place.

The plan put forward meant a well-over-the-rate of inflation council tax rise of 4.8% and council house rent rise of 4.3%. Which made the small rise for the lowest paid staff which was on offer, a bit pointless. No one suggested a pay cut for the very highest paid staff..

The Plaid opposition put forward an amendment to the budget to use just 8% of the earmarked reserves which would have cancelled out the £4m in service cuts for this year as well as reducing the council tax rise by 1%.

Despite their own Labour Minister Leighton Andrews suggesting the exploration of reserves as a realistic option for Welsh Councils late last year, Labour claimed that Plaid's proposal was far too late in the proceedings, having only materialised the previous day.

This was not strictly true as Plaid have made this suggestion every year during consultation and I am certain that this year was no exception.

However, this year Plaid, well Cllr Dai Jenkins, had done the maths and based this suggestion on a little research on how these 'earmarked reserves' are managed.

The council holds roughly £73m in 'earmarked' reserves for various purposes. There's a further £26m in 'general reserves'. The amount held in the reserves has doubled since 2009. Cllr Jenkins observed that when money has been taken from reserves it's not always related to the purpose for which it was intended.

Most notably earlier this month, the Exec Board approved a £3m transfer from the Job Evaluation Fund to the Corporate Retirement Fund to pay for the continuing severance scheme. As the Cllr pointed out, this was decided by the Board in about 3 seconds, a million quid a second.

He mentioned another transfer when £3m was taken from the Fleet Management reserve to finance extra care in the social services department.

He also made an interesting observation over the wages bill, whilst the bill for technical services (bins, roads etc) had dropped by 9.6% the wage bill for the council press office had risen by 12.8%.

Cllr Jenkins listed several reserve funds which could possibly be reduced without detriment to future risk. This money belonged to the people of Carmarthenshire and should the county disappear in the wake of the Williams Commission where would it go? No one knew.

After some political to-ing and fro-ing, the Plaid proposals appeared to be gaining legs so Kevin Madge, after waffling that there was too much debate, quickly sought officer back-up.

The chief exec waded further into the debate claiming that that the finance officer couldn't comment on proposals from a political group, but Mr James himself then proceeded to rattle off his own rejection of the proposals.
You may remember last year he went one step further and used the pages of the Carmarthen Journal to reject political proposals from the opposition.

Both Mr James and the interim Director of Finance resorted to scare tactics to quell the resistance; it wouldn't be 'legal', the books wouldn't balance....the budget was clearly set in stone, there was to be no deviation or delay.

Taking over as Chair, Mr James called for the votes. The full debate can be seen on the archive but the upshot was that the Plaid amendment was defeated by the Labour/Independent Groups (Cllr Dole called for a recorded vote for future reference) and then the main budget went through, again supported by the Labour and the 'Independents'.
The decision will be rubber-stamped at a further full council meeting on March 6th.

Next up, two and a half hours into the meeting and just before lunch, was the Ombudsman's report. As predicted, the deliberate inclusion of this report within the budget meeting meant that debate and discussion would be minimal, completely overshadowed by the previous item.

In the event Exec Board Member Cllr Keith Davies, the Director Robert Sully and the head of service Jake Morgan all spoke to express their disappointment in the report and how the issues identified by the ombudsman had now been addressed. Cllr Lenny raised the issue of the 'culture of defensiveness' and was told, somewhat defensively, that this was the approach taken by the staff originally involved.
Everyone had learned from their errors and all was now fine, apparently.
It doesn't look like this report will go to the scrutiny committee. All done and dusted. Nothing to see here..move along.

That was more or less that, and with the Mark James' New Look Agenda removing any possibility of discussion over the batch of Scrutiny, Planning and Democratic Services meetings 'for information only', it was over.

Later in the day, Plaid Cllr Alun Lenny released this statement;

A DAY OF CUTS AT COUNTY HALL 
The Labour-independent controlled council voted for a budget of cuts, increased charges for services such as school meals and car parking, inflation-busting 4.3% hike in rents for council tenants and a 4.85% raise in council tax. 

All the cuts and charges could have been avoided this year had they accepted a Plaid Cymru opposition group proposal to take £6.2m (under 10%) from the Earmarked Reserves of £73.5m. 

These reserves (which are in addition to the General Reserve) have doubled since 2009. 
The people of Carmarthenshire have been badly let down and have every reason to be angry. This Labour-led council has meekly followed the Tory agenda of slashing public services. Plaid Cymru says that austerity has clearly failed. 

Our people have suffered cuts and extra charges to no avail. What was truly depressing was seeing the council’s Chief Executive and Head of Resources intervening in the debate. This council is obviously officer-led, as the Executive Board is too weak to run the council.


Archived webcast here, the sounds starts working around 18 minutes in. 

Monday, 23 February 2015

The Carmarthenshire Herald - Updated


Later post 6th March; The Carmarthenshire Herald - the first Edition

---------------------------------------------------------

(Update below)

I received confirmation today that a Carmarthenshire version of the Pembrokeshire Herald will be launched next month. On Friday 6th March to be precise and the new 'Carmarthenshire Herald' will be available throughout the county.



Anyone who has followed the goings-on over the county border will be aware that the Pembs Herald has been impressive, and has certainly not held back, in it's reporting of council matters.

This is welcome news for Carmarthenshire, where the Herald will find plenty to fill its pages from our very own dysfunctional council.

I'm sure County Hall will be delighted...

Update 24th February;

The launch of the paper (which will also have a Llanelli edition) has been covered by the journalism website Hold The Front Page.
The Editor of the Herald, Thomas Sinclair said

 “Launching two brand new independent newspaper titles could be seen as a brave venture in this uncertain economic climate, but we at the Herald see a growing need for a county-wide voice for the people of Carmarthenshire.

“We will be launching these papers along the same principles which have made The Pembrokeshire Herald successful further west.

“We’re going to be an independent voice. Just like in Pembrokeshire, we’re not going to be relying on revenue from local authorities or any government sources.

“It’s again a return to good old fashioned journalism.”

Another article has appeared this evening on Press Gazette.

25th February; for Cneifiwr's take on this latest threat to the Mark James Media Empire click here

2nd March; Carmarthenshire Herald Facebook page is here and @carmsherald can also be found on Twitter.

Friday, 20 February 2015

No fly zone for the Rainbow flag


A few weeks ago Carmarthenshire Council entered the rankings of Stonewall UK's top 100 employers, at joint 94th. This recognition of good workplace equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans employees is of course something to be proud of and naturally, the obligatory press releases went out and there was even a mention in the staff newsletter.

February is also LGBT month and numerous organisations fly the Rainbow flag to celebrate the diversity of their employees and to encourage workplace equality.

You would think that as a celebration of this recent achievement, County Hall would do the same. After all, the UK government, the Welsh Assembly, Dyfed Powys Police and numerous councils, including Cardiff, Merthyr and Swansea are happily flying the Rainbow flag.

The Carmarthenshire Diversity Improvement Group (the DIG) was formed by the council itself following equalities legislation. The Group has now become a Network (the DIN) and their work has helped the council reach the top 100.

They have been asking for some time for County Hall to fly the Rainbow flag. So far, they've refused.

The DIN has done a little research and found that the council actually procured a flag with the intention of putting it up, but oddly it refuses to do so. It clearly remains in a drawer somewhere.

After initial enquiries the DIN were told that as they (the council) have sooo many requests to fly flags, they don't fly any. Presumably the UK government and the Welsh Assembly don't have that problem...

The DIN then made a direct appeal to the chief executive, but he has refused and this time offered no further explanation. They hope he will change his mind.

Incidentally, the council flew three flags yesterday in honour of the Duke of York's birthday!




The DIN website carries a couple of articles relating to this issue here and here and includes this statement below;

"The flying of a Rainbow flag really is the simplest and easiest of gestures and it gives a clear and visible statement to staff and the wider community that we are an organisation that’s committed to equality and diversity. 
Many government and public service organisations are proud to fly the flag in support of local LGBT+ events / achievements we are unable to see why Carmarthenshire CC, as a Stonewall Top 100 Employer, can’t embrace the opportunity to celebrate this achievement. 
The flag would symbolize the authority’s endeavour to improve the workplace for LGBT+ staff and would serve to encourage more members of staff who still don’t feel able to be themselves at work to be more themselves at work. 
We don’t think that you can get any greater impact from such minimal effort...

....Carmarthenshire finds itself in the strange position of being in the Stonewall Top 100 Employers but keeping it’s Rainbow flag kept locked in a County Hall closet."







Hengoed by-election result


The Carmarthenshire County Council Hengoed seat was held by Labour tonight with 335 votes. Penny Edwards was duly elected. Plaid came second, and UKIP third. The Conservative candidate came last with 54 votes.
The turnout was 35%.

Labour - 335
Plaid Cymru - 313
UKIP - 152
People First - 80
Independent - 76
Conservative - 54

Plaid Cymru took the seat on Llanelli Rural Council from Labour with 351 votes. Labour came second with 285 votes and again, UKIP somehow managed third.

The Labour win for the County Council seat means they now have 22 councillors and their coalition partners, the Independent Group remain the same with 21. Plaid remain the same of course with 29 seats.
I imagine the Meryl, Mark and Madge unholy alliance will be quite happy with the result.

Probably the most worrying result of the night was the Kipper coming third in both the County and Rural votes. A result that I imagine will be noted by the main parties as we head towards May 7th.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Dylan Thomas wind turbine judgement


The Cardiff High Court judgement over the granting of planning permission for the 'Dylan Thomas wind turbine' was handed down today. Planning permission was quashed.

Permission for the turbine, across the estuary from the Dylan Thomas boat shed, was granted by the planning committee last year, against the recommendation of the planning officers that is should be refused.

Uproar ensued and a Judicial Review was brought by campaigners concerned that the turbine would blight the view from the boat shed.

The council have now been ordered to pay £21,275 in costs, as well as their own of course. However, they have already been granted permission to appeal.

Whatever your views on wind power, or Dylan Thomas for that matter, the judgement is an interesting one.

The judge (perhaps surprisingly) rejected the argument that Cllr Daff Davies, a (declared) friend of the applicant misled the committee by stating that the turbine would not be visible from the boat shed. Cllr Davies (Ind) is also, currently, the lamentable and laughable Chair of Carmarthenshire Council.

The judge decided that however inaccurate Cllr Davies' address to the committee was, the Members had sufficient material, in the way of photo montages, to decide for themselves.

Interestingly, the only ground accepted by the judge and which formed the basis for his decision, related to the planning officer's report, and specifically, the contents of the 'Screening Opinion'; a document which is supposed to address all the impacts including those relevant to this case, namely the cultural and historical impact.

Whilst the officer's report to the committee acknowledged the impact of the turbine on the historical and cultural sensitivities of the area, the 'Opinion', did not and neither did it recommend that an Environmental Impact Assessment was required.

So in effect, it was not the bizarre antics of the planning committee which quashed the permission, but the officer's flawed 'Screening Opinion' which formed the basis of the judge's decision.

Mr Justice Gilbart said;

"There is at best, some considerable confusion in the thinking of the Officer. It is not possible to read his words that "it will not give rise to any adverse environmental impact upon the surrounding area" in the context of his report which had taken great care to set out all of those impacts....

.......I find it striking that the Screening Opinion did not address the cultural significance of the boathouse and writing room, which I remind myself are Listed Buildings. They have a cultural importance which is not merely local, nor even regional".

Just in case the judgement is not splashed all over the front page of the council website, in the manner of Thompson v James....it can be found on the Bailii website here.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Council "Undemocratic and dangerous" says Cllr Sian Caiach


(Update below)


Back in 2012 I referred to an Ombudsman's report which upheld a complaint against Carmarthenshire Council relating to the unlawful extended removal of an autistic young woman from her parents, unlawful deprivation of liberty in fact.

Cllr Sian Caiach has been supporting the family throughout this lengthy, sensitive and complex case and has now written to the Minister, Leighton Andrews to intervene.

Her concerns relate to the refusal of senior officers to allow the case to be discussed by Scrutiny, despite her repeated requests over the four year period. She said;

"This Council continues to hide failure....This is not scrutiny of a local authority, it is undemocratic and dangerous"

The Western Mail reports this evening on the background to the case and today's responses from the Welsh Government and the Council.
The Welsh Government have said what they always say, that 'This is a matter for the council". Surely this approach can't be allowed to continue for much longer.
It's not exactly the first time calls have been made for government intervention in this council.

In her letter to the Minister, Cllr Caiach says;

“Following the resolution of this case, the health and social care scrutiny committee has not, despite my repeated requests to the committee chairs, discussed the case.

“The council acting monitoring officer, Linda Rees Jones, has said that the councillors have no right to discuss Ombudsman’s reports, criticising the council even if they are, as this one is, available to every member of the public on request and have already been reported in the press.

“She maintained that only special interest Ombudsman reports can be discussed, and these only if the Ombudsman specifically requests the councillors to be involved.

“As a councillor, I know the details of this case only from my contact with the family.

“I have no idea as to the safeguards which may or may not have been introduced subsequently to stop a repeat case and I know that the parents believe that the carers concerned are still working locally with vulnerable people.

“The health and social care scrutiny committee have not been informed of the case, now four years old. This council continues to hide failure.

“I believe that we councillors have no proper oversight. I am concerned that other families, who were not like the parents in this case – middle class articulate people with the funds to engage specialist lawyers – may have lost their children with learning difficulties to long term care in similar circumstances.

“This is not scrutiny of a local authority. It is undemocratic and dangerous.”

It was only a few weeks ago that the Ombudsman issued a Public Interest Report concerning the council's care of a four year old girl. The "abject" failings were found to be "fundamental and inexcusable" and the complaint handling was "very poor.... defensive and lacked objectivity"

The Ombudsman required the council to publish the report on it's website for three weeks, and it did so. The three weeks was up last Thursday and, allowing a couple of days for the press office to follow orders, it disappeared yesterday, although for now, the link still works from this blog.

This is not efficiency but reputation management at the deliberate expense of proper scrutiny. To give an example of why this is not simple efficiency, according to their website, Roger Jones who retired last summer is still the Director of Resources, this information has yet to be updated.
The Wales Audit Office reports issued last year didn't appear at all on the website other than within the agendas of council meetings. Hiding failure, as Cllr Caiach rightly says.

This toxic, defensive culture has to change but as has been said, that change is never going to happen without a clean sweep of the top brass, along with it's cavalier and incompetent internal legal advice.


Update 18th Feb;
The recent Ombudsman's Public Interest report has just appeared on the agenda for next Tuesday's council meeting.
Councillors are being asked to 'accept' that improvements have been made. As this is the annual budget meeting, one hopes the timing wasn't deliberate to overshadow and minimise any debate over the ombudsman's findings.
The webcast will start at 10am.

Local Authority Performance - six red cards for Carmarthenshire


The latest stats for Local Authority Performance 2013 -14 have just been published by the Welsh Governmet and like the recent traffic light bandings for education; red, amber and green are used to denote top middle or bottom ranking.

The report can be found here in full and covers various services as key pointers to provide overall comparison. Carmarthenshire council hasn't done very well. Out of nineteen 'markers', six are in the red, nine are in the average amber and only a paltry four merit a green badge.

If matters of governance and undemocratic and unlawful behaviour had been included, the council would have gone off the scale...

Before the council's Ministry of Spin get hold of the data, it's worth mentioning the six which appear in the red, the figures are the position of Carmarthenshire Council out of the 22 local authorities;

Delayed transfer of care for social care reasons; 18th

Looked after young people with three or more placements; 20th

Secondary school attendance; 20th

Delivery of Affordable housing units - 21st

Days to deliver disability grants; 20th

Roads in poor condition; 20th

Thursday, 12 February 2015

February meeting - CCTV, hustings, and constitutional mischief


As usual, yesterday's meeting, in its entirety, can be viewed here so I will only refer to a couple of points.

Due to Mr James' last minute alterations to the agenda for the avoidance of awkward questions, the whole thing was over with in two hours. Sadly he didn't have any powerpoint presentations available this time, but I'm sure they're well in-hand for next time...

CCTV

Amid something of an uproar, the Police Commissioner, Christopher Salmon (Con) has withdrawn the police contribution to fund the monitoring of CCTV. The council, well the Executive Board, has refused make up the shortfall.

Mr Salmon is definitely not the flavour of the month, or year, in the council chamber. The Motion, put forward by Cllr Elwyn Williams was for Mr Salmon to have a rethink over the funding.

The South Wales Guardian published a powerful opinion piece in this week's paper.

Both Plaid and Labour accused Mr Salmon of politicising the police and said his recent 5% reduction in the precept was, basically, an election move, at the expense of police services. It was pointed out that in 2012/13 the old style police authority cost £377k, but with the arrival of the new Commissioner system, that figure had now jumped to £619k.

Mr Salmon defends his decision claiming that monitoring CCTV makes little difference to crime levels and there was no difference when live monitoring stopped in Powys and the area has one of the lowest crime rates.

Despite Plaid saying they'd never supported the idea of a police commissioner in the first place and Labour's Calum Higgins getting in on the act saying Labour would abolish the PCC if it gained power in May, it was all immaterial really as the PCC has no intention of restoring the funding.

Anyway, the upshot of it all is that CCTV will remain, but will no longer be actively monitored, and only time will tell whether this was a poor decision or not. Hopefully not, and hopefully the staff can be redeployed.

It does appear however that police resources were available for Dyfed Powys police officers to visit various corner shops to find out who in our Welsh villages has been reading Charlie Hebdo....

Election talk

With three candidates for the general election in May in the Chamber, some Westminster style debate was inevitable. Not only that, but a fairly hotly contested council by-election in Hengoed will be held next Thursday (19th).

Cllrs Calum Higgins (Lab), Elwyn Williams (Plaid) and Sian Caiach (People First) are all standing in the general election. Cllr Dole's Motion, whilst mentioning the council's budget was in reality an attack on Labour's support of the Tory austerity policy.

Cllr Dole referred to several Labour Members' wards and the high levels of child poverty, he also mentioned, that to be on the safe side, voters in Hengoed by-election should avoid Labour...

Labour candidate Calum Higgins responded and tried to say that Labour didn't exactly agree with the policy, their view was different, a gradual 'balancing of the books' rather than huge short term cuts...

You get the drift. And 84 days still to go.

Cllr Caiach suggested that actually, nobody had any real answers and this wasn't presently an issue on the doorsteps of Hengoed anyway. Perhaps they should concentrate on the nitty gritty of their own budget.

Eventually the Motion was lost, 31 against, 27 for and 4 abstentions.

Pension question

Sian Caiach could not ask her question regarding the unlawful pension arrangement as the Leader, Cllr Madge was not present. She was told by Mr James, via the Chair, that she must wait for his return.
I don't suppose Deputy Leader, Pam Palmer could have answered as she didn't have a copy of the script, prepared for Mr Madge by Mr James.......

Pension scrutiny

There was then a general grumble to the setting up of a local Pension Board to oversee the panel of trustees of the Dyfed Pension Fund. Essentially the purpose of the Board was to hold the trustees to account, advising over matters of governance and compliance. The chief exec chipped in to say it was 'completely unnecessary'. I suppose he has a bit of a personal 'thing' about scrutiny of pension payments...

Anyway, as it was part of new legislation, more bureaucracy or not, the changes had to be accepted.

Constitutional mischief

After some discussion relating to Blue Badge charges and the lack of consultation with local members, it was time for the agenda change.  As I mentioned here, scrutiny and planning committee minutes were now 'for information only', no questions allowed. A move that Mr James was particularly keen on, unsurprisingly.

However, he was very careful to point out, as some members had been critical, that this was a decision of the working group. They had decided, he said, that he should implement this change with 'immediate effect'.at their meeting on the 26th January.

Presumably Mr James was on hand at the meeting to give them plenty of encouragement. a bit like his carefully engineered 'democratic mandate' over the unlawful libel indemnity and pension tax avoidance scam..

He went on to explain that as there was no requirement in the constitution to include these meetings on the agenda then there was no constitutional amendment necessary.

Cllr Caiach said that even if that were the case, it should have still gone to full council for discussion and approval, it had been clumsy and discourteous.

Incidentally, there's no 'requirement' in the constitution specifically preventing supplementary questions from Members either, but according to Mr James, a constitutional amendment is going to be necessary to allow them....

There was nothing in the constitution, you may remember, banning the public from filming meetings either...

Labour Cllr Anthony Jones acknowledged that Councillors could ask questions relating to these meetings, but as they had to be made in writing seven days before the meeting, it was not satisfactory.

Basically, aside from Executive Board minutes, no spontaneous questions relating to other committees are now allowed, any questions will now involve the drafting of letters and vetting by the chief executive.

Motions on notice still require a record seven signatures as well as the proposer. I'm sure all will be relieved when this is relaxed back to the normal two as per the WLGA recommendations.

This particularity unpleasant requirement only lasted three years having been implemented by Mr James due to a number of Motions in 2011 which, amongst other irritants, were, and I quote, "criticising the council".

According to Mr James, who seems to be in complete control over the working group considering the WLGA governance recommendations, they have now covered everything and will be reporting to council soon. His trusty acting sidekick, and legal rubber stamp, Linda Rees Jones is drawing up reports for council and amendments to the constitution as we speak.



As I said the full meeting can be seen on the archive. No one mentioned the Public Interest Report from the Ombudsman, no one mentioned the protest outside County Hall by Unison concerned about the latest outsourcing venture

Incidentally, all council tax and housing benefit correspondence much of which is highly sensitive, has now been outsourced to Dstoutput Ltd based in Dagenham. This contract, which I mentioned back in October, is worth £220,000.

Annual budget meeting

The next webcast meeting of full council will be on Tuedsay 24th February to decide on the budget. Hopefully these two bright sparks pictured below will perk up by then and speak up for all the residents of Caebrwyn's corner of Carmarthenshire. Then again, pigs might fly.

Independent Group Cllrs Tom Theophilus and Ivor Jackson