Friday, 24 April 2015

Herald Friday


This week's edition of the Carmarthenshire Herald is, again, worth 50p of anyone's money. It's good to see, at the bottom of page two, a report on the story I covered earlier in the week. It concerned the Council's response to a FOI by Press Gazette for the number of 'communications', or 'PR', staff with the council significantly omitting the whole press office from it's response;

'...while Carmarthenshire County Council's press office is larger than any other councils' in Wales...it appears to have neglected to include those staff on a semantic point that the Council's communications unit is a separate entity from its significant press and spin operation.

In answering to the letter of the query, as opposed to its clear underlying intent, Carmarthenshire's Council once again has laid itself open to a charge of even spinning its own spin'

The Herald also covers the Extraordinary Council meeting planned for June 17th to discuss the findings of the review group following the WLGA governance report. This has been covered by this and Cneifiwr's blog at length but the article is again critical, and challenges the way the process has been handled by the council;

'...rather than accept the recommendations, the council decided to review the review and pick out the bits which, in Kevin Madge's words, would 'fit in' with the way things are done in Carmarthenshire.

The second review group, however, has only met behind closed doors and deliberations only made available by freedom of information requests.
That is despite the call to make Carmarthenshire one of the most open and transparent council's in Wales.

....as the Working Group as been working under the aegis of a Chief Executive who is largely responsible for determining the culture at County Hall, it remains to be seen...whether the majority will continue to endorse a failing status quo'

Significantly, it's not a picture of Kev, or even Meryl which accompanies the piece about a 'change of culture', described by many as toxic



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Herald Friday wouldn't be complete without a few words from the paper's resident fox. This time Cadno ventures to the wilds of Llanelli;

'Cadno visits a new place 
'It was a day that began much like any other. After a long night in the chicken coop, Cadno felt weary and decided to find somewhere warm and cosy to have a nap. Espying a handily open door, he crept inside a building and found an ideal resting place, As he went to his rest, he smiled to himself that at least one bloody cockerel would not be disturbing his post-prandial slumber. 
A quick hop and skip and Cadno was soon snoozing in the back of a trailer. As he slept, Cadno dreamed of riding on horseback across green fields, while the baying of hounds from a distant copse indicated that Simon Hart had been cornered. 
Waking with a jolt, Cadno slipped his snout out into a noisy day into a vista consisting of a prime view of what appeared, on first glance, to be the slopes of Hell. Smoke belched and billowed, the air stank of sulphur, legions of the damned moaned in torment.
Readers, this was not a quiet nook. 
Cadno looked at a sign to establish his whereabouts. Was this the second circle of Dante’s Inferno?
No, readers, this was Llanelli. 
Checking to make sure that those attired in scarlet were not also sporting horns and pitchforks and agog at the noise and chaos, Cadno crept from his hidey hole.
Little had Cadno dreamt that one day he, too, would walk on the legendary streets paved with half-eaten kebabs and breaded chicken bones tossed carelessly aside, but there he was, readers. The Promised Land. 
There were many signs up in Llanelli. Much seemed for sale but little seemed sold. Posters for protest, posters for gigs, posters for almost anything under the sun abounded. Most of the posters seemed stuck on or in whited out shop windows. 
When you want to discover what the County Council’s vision for regenerating town centres is, readers, pop along to Llanelli. As retail destinations go it is the last stop on the road to nowhere. Only Dudley in the West Midlands ranked lower than Llanelli in a survey of retail vitality. The corpse is not yet cold, but twitching seems to have ceased. 
In a corner Cadno espied a couple of shady coves wrapped up in conversation. They were talking about Hengoed councillor Sian Caiach. Collaring a nearby Cardigan corgi to act as translator, Cadno discovered that these shady figures were not fans of Cllr Caiach. No, readers. They did not like her one bit. One of them went so far as to suggest that the party for which Cllr Caiach stands was not properly constituted. 
Pulling out his I-phone, it took Cadno all of two minutes to put the kybosh on that assertion. 
On the pair mumbled. They were concerned that Cllr Caiach would take votes away from their candidate and spoil his chances. They decided on a desperate ruse of contacting a newspaper to see if it would do their dirty work for them. 
Cadno’s fur bristled.
And the extent of their news, readers?
They asserted that Dr Caiach had signed the nomination papers for another candidate in the same election. 
Dialling the Electoral Commission, Cadno discovered that there was nothing in the rules to prevent Cllr Caiach being another candidate’s subscriber, if she wished. So, if there was a story there, there was not much of a story there. 
If true, it is fair to say that the alleged act appeared to Cadno to be a pretty rum thing to do: endorsing an opponent for a post you wish to occupy could be held as being rather equivocal about one’s own chances of victory or suitability for the post. 
Perhaps those Cadno stealthily ear-wigged were concerned that the candidate endorsed by Sian Caiach would also take votes away from their candidate. 
But contacting a newspaper to try and get them to smear Sian Caiach is pretty underhand. 
Perhaps they were enthused by the storm in a teacup about comments made fifteen years ago by a Plaid Cymru candidate standing in another seat. Certainly, Cadno thinks that using the press as an attack dog for one party or the other is a squalid thing to do. It disgraces the candidate seeking to benefit from such a strategy, treats the electorate with contempt, and demeans the editor who bows to a candidate’s agenda to fill a paper devoid of news. 
Imagine, if you will readers, the existence of a newspaper that was so dependent on handouts from one party or organisation that it printed whatever its funder wanted with scarcely a word of criticism and did not print news that reflected adversely upon the paying party. Now in those circumstances, readers, you would say the relevant media was acting as no more than a tart for hire. And a pretty cheap one, too. 
So what would you think of a newspaper that performed that service for free? 
Cadno looked at the two rapt in their conversation. He slunk away into the shadows and, despite the heat of the day, shivered.
Llanelli or not, readers, this was plainly an abode of lost souls.'

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Lastly, you may have seen the news from London concerning the disgraced Mayor of Town Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, who has been found guilty, by the special Election Court, of corrupt and illegal practices. One well respected blogger in particular, Ted Jeory, has played a big part in seeking justice over this matter and writes in today's Independent.

The concluding paragraph should strike a couple of chords everywhere, and not least of all in Carmarthenshire;
"And lastly…I started my spare-time blog in 2010 when I realised my former paper, the East London Advertiser, was no longer able or willing to keep an eye on the detail of the council administration. I kept plugging away where it should have been. For that, I received numerous legal threats from the town hall. None succeeded. But the retreat of so many local papers  is deeply worrying. 
How many other Lutfur Rahmans are there out there?"

Indeed.

The Guardian also carried an interesting piece on the ups and downs of local newspapers;
Unreported Britain - without local newspapers, who is keeping tabs? 

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Annual Reports - fact or fiction?


Back in 2013, Councillors' Annual reports began to trickle onto the website and although they're not compulsory at the moment, that could change following the Local Government Reform White Paper. The reports also list the attendance records for meetings.

The WLGA Governance Report, see here, recommended that; 'All members should produce Annual Reports in order to promote openness and transparency about the role and contributions of councillors' and Monday's meeting of the Democratic Services Committee (DSC) is considering the recommendation.

In fact, around two thirds of councillors manage to produce a report but the problem is with the template provided for their convenience. The guidance for the format of the reports, back in 2013 stated that

"It should also be noted that Annual Reports should only include factual information regarding activities undertaken and events attended" (My underlining)

Carmarthenshire council officers interpreted 'factual' in their rather unique way and the first paragraph of the template, which most councillors have used, remains distinctly a matter of opinion (see, for example, yesterday's post) and hardly 'promotes openness and transparency', again I've underlined the key sentence;

"Dear Resident, The purpose of this report is to keep you informed of some of the issues I have dealt with on your behalf during 2013/14. Real progress has been made in respect of these and I hope that you will find this information of interest"

As I mentioned nearly two years ago, (see 'Real progress - aren't we the judge of that'), I think the electorate can be trusted to decide whether or not councillors have made 'real progress' over anything.

If the DSC want to do something useful, they should change the template as clearly, in many cases, the statement is definitely misleading....


Labour Leader Kevin Madge,

The Register of Councillors' Personal Interests, a common feature of nearly every other local authority website, will eventually appear online, as per WLGA recommendation 14.

This is not, as you may think, a matter for the DSC but will happen when Ms Linda Rees-Jones, the acting or permanent (it's not clear) Monitoring Officer and head of legal, decides what, and what not, to include....

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Brawling councillors


Not quite sure what it is about Llanelli Rural Council but, not for the first time, the police have been called to an 'altercation' between two councillors.

As the Llanelli Star reports, the two councillors involved, Theressa Bowen (Ind) and Tegwen Devichand (Lab) also happen to be County Councillors and Ms Devichand is on the Executive Board and is deputy leader of Carmarthenshire County Council.

Ms Bowen was part of Carmarthenshire Council Labour group until a mysterious split a couple of years ago when she crossed the floor to sit with Pam's Independents. She used to sit close to Cllr Giles Morgan (Ind) until the last time the police were called to the rural council.

Her last 'altercation' was with another member of the rural council and apparently, Cllr Morgan (yes, he's another rural councillor) refused to take sides in his police statement and Cllr Bowen became a bit miffed.

There have been plenty of rumours over the past couple of years as to why these former friends, Ms Devichand and Ms Bowen have fallen out, but, as the Star reports, other rural councillors are keeping quiet.

Despite Ms Devichand's senior role at county level, for which she is handsomely rewarded, "A spokeswoman [anon again] for Carmarthenshire Council said it was not a matter for them to comment on". So there we are.

Interestingly, and according to someone present, things could have been far worse if Tegwen Devichand's daughter, Cllr Sharen Davies hadn't been present to pull her mother away from Cllr Bowen...all the same, and no matter who actually started it, the councillors' Code of Conduct is fairly clear about behaving in a manner which could bring the authority into disrepute..

Tegwen Devichand and Theressa Bowen (pic; Llanelli Star)

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

FOI - bending the truth?


A few week's ago, Press Gazette ran a story listing the number of PR staff, or 'spin doctors' employed by council Press Offices across the UK. The story then appeared in the Western Mail.

The figures were obtained under a Freedom of Information request which asked; "How many staff are employed in your council's communications department? Please provide job titles". 

The response from Carmarthenshire Council was ten, and the job titles included Communication Manager, Advertising Officer, Web Editor, graphic designers and Print Officer.

What puzzles me is that Carmarthenshire's response appears to have conveniently omitted the Press Office - the whole point of the FOI. As far as I can tell, Carmarthenshire's Press Office still exists, along with its Press Manager, Ms Debbie Williams. The Communications Unit and its manager is a separate entity.

The clear purpose behind the FOI was to determine how much is being spent on unnecessary PR and spin when frontline services are being axed, and it is undoubtedly in a council's best interests, reputationally speaking, to send back the lowest figure possible.

Could it possibly be the case that Carmarthenshire Council have taken the FOI request so literally that they only included the Communications Unit and, er, forgot all about its Department of Spin Press Office?

Saturday, 18 April 2015

A date for the diary


You might recall, in the dim and distant past, that the Welsh Local Government Association carried out a 'peer review' concerning the dire state of governance at Carmarthenshire County Council.

The review was required following the libel indemnity and pension scandals relating to the chief executive Mark James, reported by the Wales Audit Office. The remit, which included the council's own target to become, apparently, the 'most open and transparent in Wales', turned out to be fairly comprehensive and the report it made 39 recommendations and, importantly, recognised the toxic culture which exists in County Hall.

Last year a cross party working group was set up to implement the findings of the review, under the watchful eye, of course, of two of those responsible for the mess in the first place, Mark James and Linda Rees Jones...

Anyway, it looks like the deliberations are nearly over and a date has been set for an Extraordinary Council meeting on Wednesday the 17th June to;

"consider the recommendations of the Cross Party Constitutional Review Working Group established to consider the recommendations contained in the Carmarthenshire Peer Review Report."

The  agenda will appear nearer the time and some clues as to what's in store have already emerged including the ridiculous recommendation over the public filming of meetings and, on the insistence of Mr James, we've already seen the severe curtailment of debate in the Chamber with the removal of committee reports.

Amongst the desperately needed changes to the constitution, I hope to see defeat finally admitted and the permanent removal of the unlawful 'libel clauses'. Viewed by some as nothing more than a slush fund to silence criticism, the clauses were 'suspended' the last time Carmarthenshire Council held an Extraordinary meeting;




Whatever happens, I remain of the view that no amount of tinkering with the constitution will change the toxic culture, that will remain as long as the unholy alliance of Mark, Meryl, Pam and Co remain in post.
All the same, we will be watching with interest...and so will the Wales Audit Office I'm sure.


Previous posts also include;
Wales Audit Office reports - a year old today, January 2015
The governance working group - cats and pigeons, December 2014
Carmarthenshire Council governace 'in disarray and not fit for purpose' - Sir David Lewis, August 2014

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The April shower - full council meeting

Following the usual formalities, the first item of interest was the election of chair and vice chair for the new municipal year.

Carmarthenshire retains the quaint habit of appointing Chairs and Vice Chairs by each party (including the 'independent party') taking it in turns for the 'honour'. There is no election, the main criteria is that you haven't rocked any corporate boats and actual ability is far from essential, Cllr Daff Davies being evidence of that. If by chance the Chair turns out to be vaguely controversial, shin guards are apparently required for protection from the chief executive sitting to your left.

Just as the mutual congratulations were about to start Cllr Caiach mentioned that their whole Chair appointing process was silly and archaic. A statement as shocking to sensitive municipal ears as swearing loudly in the Chamber.

As Plaid's Peter Hughes Griffiths was the Vice Chair, as light follows day, he is now the Chair for next year (the silly and archaic ceremonial pomp will feature at the AGM next month....something to look forward to).
As it is Labour's turn for Vice Chair next year they nominated 'veteran' councillor Cllr Eryl Morgan for 2015/16.



Next up was Plaid's Motion for Carmarthenshire to remain untouched by any future mergers.Everyone (nearly everyone) was in agreement that Carmarthenshire should remain as it is. The proposals for the new 'map' were changing by the day and this was leading to 'uncertainty and instability'. 

Kevin Madge took the opportunity ramble on about it being the 'best run council in Wales' and that their resources would be squandered by less virtuous local authorities. He'd also lose his £49,000 pa as Leader I suppose.

Pam Palmer, on £31k a year did the usual 'we sometimes get things wrong...but doesn't everyone?' nonsense.



After further rose-tinted back-slapping on how great the council was, Sian Caiach came up with a reality check. 

She had conducted a local survey of people's views on the issue of mergers and it turned out that not everyone agreed with the council view that it was universally popular. Some, she said, regarded the council as a basket case.

It was not the 'best in Wales', or at least she hoped it wasn't as if it was, it would be a pretty poor benchmark. She then listed several taboo issues which are not supposed to be mentioned; the curious case of the unlawful libel counterclaim against a blogger and the WAO reports; the email snooping; the possible misuse of EU funds; questionable grant awards; the gagging of whistleblowers and the covering-up of ombudsman reports.



She said that she had been trying, unsuccessfully, to get a particular ombudsman's' report (one which found that the individual had suffered six months of unlawful deprivation of liberty), onto the Health and Social Care scrutiny agenda for discussion. 

Plaid took exception to her last comment which they took to infer as a slight on the Chair of that Scrutiny Committee, Plaid Cllr Gwyneth Thomas. Cllr Dole insisted that Cllr Caiach knew that agenda items were decided by a majority vote and in a disappointing display of political aggression, suggested that after her comments this morning, Cllr Caiach would find securing a majority even more difficult.

However, I am sure that Cllr Caiach was neither convinced by his explanation nor intimidated by his threat. In fact, the reality is that is it the chief executive and the head of legal who prefer to shove ombudsman reports into locked drawers.

The majority of the rest of the meeting was taken up with parking and a rather strange Labour amendment to unaffiliated Cllr John Jenkins' Motion for a six month pilot of two hours free parking to try and help trade in Llanelli town centre.



Cllr Jenkins' motion read thus;

"This Council acknowledges the current challenges facing Llanelli Town Centre and; to show its support for local businesses and traders, to generate footfall within the Town Centre and compete with out-of-town retail parks, requests the Executive Board to implement a 6 month trial of 2 hour free parking in Council car parks in Llanelli Town Centre." 

The Amendment was put forward by Labour's Cllr Cooper with the purpose of kicking the whole idea into the long grass. An amendment has to relate to the original motion but, as can be seen here, this one does not. It didn't mention the pilot but suggested that the executive board look at more 'flexible' approaches to the demise of town centres which would include the parking policy. By failing to incorporate the original Motion at all, in effect, it 'negated it'. In other words, had the amendment succeeded, the free parking proposal would automatically fail.

It is the chief executive who decides if an amendment is constitutionally correct and he became very shirty when challenged on this point by Cllr Caiach. Plaid councillors also considered the amendment to be unconstitutional.

Several councillors wondered if they could vote on the two separately which, if approved, would result in the proposed pilot and a parking review taking place. The chief executive then got all constitutional and patronising insisting that Cllr Cooper, who had brought the amendment must agree to it becoming a Motion before they could vote on the two proposals.

Cllr Darren Price disagreed. If Standing Orders were suspended then he could bring his own Motion for the vote which could easily include the two proposals.

The arguments continued for some time and clearly became too much for Kevin Madge who then called for the suspension of the whole meeting so that the issue of the amendment could be discussed by his group.

The meeting adjourned for ten minutes and when they returned, safe in the knowledge that the Exec Board would have the final say anyway, and sparing the chief executive the public embarrassment of having allowed a dodgy amendment, clearly in favour of the Labour group, they withdrew it. The original Motion was then carried.

What the Executive Board will do with it is anyone's guess as they've already introduced Sunday charges and charges for disabled drivers, although any lost revenue from the parking concession is likely to be somewhat less than the amount spent on the chief executive's legal adventures over the past couple of years.

Independent Cllr Ivor Jackson's belated call for Pantycelyn School buildings to be kept for 'community use was up next. This comes, of course, after he had supported closing the school and voted for the subsequent development brief to demolish the nice old buildings and build 45 houses on the site. He seems to have forgotten all that. Anyway he was told the council needed the money, but he could still try 'engaging' with community groups if he wanted to. Don't hold your breath Llandovery...

Ivor
With half hour to spare there was just enough time to rush through part two of the death by powerpoint 'discussion' on the local government reform White Paper. The details of which can be viewed on the webcast. Part one was 'debated' at the last meeting.

One particular proposal in the consultation is for quicker and easier intervention from the Welsh Government if things go wrong. Something which might have been welcome over the past year or two. 

Anyway, the item was duly introduced by interim assistant chief executive Wendy Walters who said that the Welsh Government would be able to intervene if there was a complaint from a whistleblower or a member of the public, this devastating news was delivered with a dramatic pause, challenging those gathered to be sure to reject that particular piece of nonsense forthwith...

And that, was more or less that.

(Archived webcast here)

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Pam Palmer ventures into the world of online advertising

As we know, Executive Board Member Decision Meetings are currently held behind closed doors, even backbench councillors are barred from attending and the agendas are not published until after the meetings have been held.

Interest in these private arrangements grew last year as 'Meryl's Meetings' gained the unwelcome attention of the press, the Wales Audit Office and the WLGA Review panel.

"The [WLGA] Review Team heard from a number of non-executive members and members of the public who expressed concern about the transparency of Executive Board Member Decision Meetings. There was no apparent non-executive member witnessing of and therefore limited opportunity to call-in or scrutinise delegated decisions made by individual Executive Board Members....and concerns that some individuals had significant delegated authority regarding funding and the distribution of grants to external bodies" (WLGA report)

The cross-party group set up to consider the WLGA recommendations has "Agreed to ask the Executive Board to consider allowing any Member to attend and observe Executive Board Member meetings"

Quite why the Executive Board has to be 'asked' rather than told, is beyond me, similarly it is being 'asked' to consider webcasting its meetings and, amongst several other polite requests, to 'consider' allowing Members to ask questions at its meetings.

Anyway, the latest Executive Board Member Meeting, which may have attracted some questions and scrutiny if any notice of it had been published beforehand and if Members were allowed to attend, concerns advertising on the council website. This, along with 'Communications' and 'surveillance' are, unbelievably I know, within the remit of that stalwart of press freedom, Cllr Pam Palmer.

In a 15 minute meeting between Pam and the Communication Manager, 'it was resolved' to launch a 6 month pilot to place commercial advertisements on the council website. The plan, not unknown amongst local councils, is to generate a bit of revenue, not a bad idea of course, but online advertising, on a publicly funded government website, is a little different to an small hoarding on a council roundabout and Members may have wished to comment.

It's a move unlikely to be welcomed by the local press either who's very existence seems to be dependent on advertising and who will now be competing with the council for limited advertising revenue. 

As for compliance with the bi-lingual requirements of the website, advertisers would merely be encouraged to provide advertisements in Welsh and English.
Careful monitoring, and hefty council disclaimers, would be essential to ensure compliance with council policies such as health and equalities, never mind the assorted pitfalls of linking to external commercial sites and possible inappropriate content. 

Care would also need to be taken to ensure that no adverts inadvertently compromised our council's wonderful reputation;






Friday, 10 April 2015

The Candidates - Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, and Llanelli


The official lists have now been published and first up is Carmarthen East and Dinefwr;

In alphabetical order;

Jonathan Edwards, Plaid Cymru
Calum Higgins, Welsh Labour
Sara Lloyd Williams, Welsh Liberal Democrats,
Matthew Paul, Welsh Conservatives
Ben Rice, Wales Green Party
Norma Woodward, UKIP

Labour is hoping to win this seat from Plaid Cymru. This is Caebrwyn's constituency and, having talked to locals, and despite this being a Westminster election, the track record of the Labour administration at Carmarthenshire Council, including the unlawful payment scandals, and the aftermath, is far from forgotten.

Jonathan Edwards has the distinct advantage of a track record of opposition to the nonsense at County Hall, and not just at election time. Cllr Calum Higgins has the distinct disadvantage of being forever associated with his group leader, Kevin Madge and has nodded through, approvingly, the relentless massage of the chief executive's ego
His attempt to gain votes by opposing a massive pay-off for Mr James earlier this year was greeted with the scepticism it deserved. It was also Mr Edwards, not Mr Higgins who felt that police intervention was required after the WAO report were published.

It also looks like UKIP's Norma made it on to the list, despite alleged 'financial irregularities' and 'inappropriate comments'.

The voters of Carms East and Dinefwr will of course be looking at the wider picture as well as local issues. I remain unaffiliated to any political party, and can only confirm that I most definitely will not be voting for Norma.

Llanelli

Sian Caiach, People First
Nia Griffith, Labour
Scott Jones, Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition
Cen Phillips, Welsh Liberal Democrat
Ken Rees, UKIP
Selaine Saxby, Welsh Conservatives
Guy Smith, Wales Green Party,
Vaughan Williams, Plaid Cymru

It probably goes without saying, and should come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that my vote, if I lived in Llanelli, would undoubtedly go to County Councillor, Dr Sian Caiach. If anyone has a track record of fighting for her constituents; trying to root out injustice and prise open the County Hall can of worms, it's Cllr Caiach. After the training ground she's had in County Hall, tackling Westminster would be a doddle.

The constituency has been represented by Labour for 93 years, most recently by Nia Griffith. Plaid have high hopes of knocking Labour off their perch with their candidate Vaughan Williams who, if nothing else, is relentlessly enthusiastic on Twitter.

The Tories, in both constituencies have never done very well, their appeal largely limited to the huntin' and shooting' brigade. I doubt if this election will be any different and Ms Saxby is clearly not expecting great things with her address firmly remaining in Wiltshire.

Mr Rees, the UKIP man was formerly a Libdem councillor who, shortly after being elected in 2008 jumped ship and joined forces with Pam Palmer's Independents. He lost his seat in 2012. Clearly, he's now hoping UKIP will take him to the giddy heights that neither the Libdems, or perhaps Pam, ever could...


I don't intent to ramble on, there's plenty of that everywhere else, and with three and a half weeks still to go, election fatigue could well become a more significant problem than voter apathy!

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For those of you who just can't get enough of it all, or wish to pose a question to your prospective representative, here's a list of the candidates that I can find on Twitter, in the same order as they appear above. UKIP are missing..and can remain so. Scott Jones from TUSC has a Facebook page but for the purposes of this post, I'm limiting the list to Twitter;

Carms E and Dinefwr;

@JonathanPlaid
@calumhiggins
@Sarz_Lloyd
@matthewgpaul
@GreenParty_Ben

Llanelli;

@SianCaiach
@NiaGriffithMP
@CenLD
@SelaineSaxby
@GreenParty_Guy
@Vaughan_Wms

Next week's agenda - the April meeting


With the election on the horizon our council has yet another perfect excuse to avoid controversial matters, of which there are many. This has led to a particularly thin agenda for next week's meeting of full council. No doubt the Labour leaders and the Plaid opposition will use the opportunity for some vote-catching but the purdah rules might at least stop the chief executive (and currently Returning Officer) from joining in for once.

There are a couple of Notices on Motion, firstly Plaid Leader Emlyn Dole wants Council to officially declare, to the Welsh Government, Carmarthenshire's wish to remain intact and 'stand-alone' in any future merger plans. The current proposed 'map' leaves Carmarthenshire as it is, but this could easily change over the next couple of years, and eventually I think it probably will.

The second Motion is from unaffiliated councillor John Jenkins. He is asking the Executive Board to consider a 6 month pilot of 2 hours free parking in council car parks in Llanelli Town Centre. Not a bad idea of course but any reduction in this lucrative source of income is unlikely to be entertained. If it is, and for it to be fair, it would have to extend to all council car parks in all town centres. Not just Llanelli...

There is one 'councillor question' and without a hint of irony it's from Independent Llandovery Councillor Ivor Jackson. Without having the backbone to join with the townsfolk and publicly oppose the closure of the town's greatest community asset, Pantycelyn secondary school a couple of years ago, he's now asking that the school buildings should not be demolished but retained for 'community use'.

Presumably, the whole Local Development Plan thing passed him by as the development brief for the site, which he voted to approve, is to demolish all but the sports hall and build 45 houses on the site.

Part two of the 'debate' over the local government reform consultation is also on the agenda which will presumably mean another death defying Power Point stint from interim assistant chief executive Wendy Walters. Part one was 'discussed' at the last meeting and it appeared that the Minister's dream of ending the 'old boy's club' culture will be vigorously opposed...

We then have the ever lengthening list of committees meetings, ten in fact, which are no longer allowed to be discussed, or even mentioned, thanks to Mr James.

Missing from the agenda is any mention of the £5m Carmarthen West Link road.
With almost breathless excitement the council's new Director of Environment announced last week that clearance work had started on the £5m link road for the Carmarthen West development. Incredibly, this is before the thorny matter of funding has gone to full council for approval.

The plan, recommended by the Executive Board, seems to be to dip into those 'precious' council reserves and 'other sources' (whatever they are) and hope they can get the money back through various 'agreements'. Despite the bulldozers moving in, the proposal has yet to be even "approved in principle".

In addition to the messy and vague funding arrangements, a report appeared last week (see 'Noxious fumes') designating the centre of Carmarthen as having high levels of pollution, Llanelli is also similarly affected. The council have provided and interesting statement;

"The declaration of the AQMA (Air Quality Management Area) by Carmarthenshire Council is a legal process and will include areas that are considered as being part of the solution, not just those areas affected."

Will building 1100 houses, with at least as many cars, be 'part of the solution'? The Carmarthen West development has been a 'brief' for several years and so has the monitoring of pollution levels...surely this AQMA report wasn't withheld until after the latest application for 250 houses was rushed through despite numerous objections..was it?

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Monitoring Officers


Councillors over in Pembrokeshire have been expressing disquiet over the temporary appointment of a new Monitoring Officer to replace the retiring incumbent, Mr Harding who is leaving at the end of April.
As this is a Statutory post (ie the authority has to have one) Pembs councillors insisted that proper procedures should be followed and referred it back to the council's Senior Staff Committee.

Their worries, however, pale into insignificance compared to the situation in Carmarthenshire which saw Ms Linda Rees Jones gliding quietly into the post of Acting Head of Law and Monitoring Officer way back in September 2011 around three and a half years ago without a whisper to any committee of councillors, just in time for the introduction of the unlawful pension arrangement in November of that year.

According to the constitution, (the public version anyway, we've long suspected that Mark and Linda's must be a little different), 'Appointments Committee B' must appoint the Monitoring Officer.

There is no mention of the post ever having been advertised or ever having before the committee and curiously, the council website (updated on 20th February 2015) has dropped the 'Acting'. However, the word 'Acting' remains on the 'Welsh' version of the page last updated on the 9th January 2015 (and which is in English).

English version 20th February 2015..
...and the, er, 'Welsh' version 9th January 2015
 
Either it's a typo on the website, or Ms Rees Jones has mysteriously become the permanent Monitoring Officer and Head of Legal...maybe she's finally acquired enough Mark James Loyalty Points.

Internal legal advice, in general terms of course, has been described by the lay member of the audit committee, Sir David Lewis, as cavalier and incompetent, I'd go a step further and say it was cosy and unhealthy. It all became very apparent over the pension and libel indemnity scandals.

For instance, for the Monitoring Officer to seek advice and approval from Mark James prior to completing the report recommending the unlawful indemnity, and then to deny that there was anything inappropriate, let alone illegal, for him to remain in the meeting during discussion and rubber stamp was staggering.

As for the official functions of the Monitoring Officer, Article 11 para 11.3(b) of the Constitution states that he, or she, is responsible for "Ensuring lawfulness and fairness of decision making", which was why those damn Wales Audit Office reports caused so much difficulty.

Ms Rees Jones is currently re-writing the Constitution, in close consultation with the chief executive of course, and, as it appears to be business as usual in County Hall, they might just as well delete para 11.3(b) altogether....

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Chief Officers and disciplinary procedures


An interesting snippet of legislation was laid down just before parliament dissolved the other day which removed the requirement to appoint a 'Designated Independent Person' (DIP) in disciplinary proceedings related to errant chief officers. However, it appears to relate only to England.

The current procedure involves the setting up of a disciplinary panel which could issue a report recommending either disciplinary measures or dismissal. The recommendations could only proceed if the DIP, usually a QC or similar, decided the chief officer had a case to answer.

Under the new rules the necessity for a DIP has been removed and the decision would be made by a vote of full council and overseen by a panel made up of local electors.

One of the reasons behind the move is to cut the cost and time involved in the process, one case is cited as having taken 16 months and £420,000. It could also lessen the number of chief officers being offered (or demanding) inflated golden goodbyes by councils eager to avoid a costly legal process, which is basically what happened in Pembrokeshire with Bryn Parry Jones.

In Wales, the local government reform White Paper recognises that the extra employment protection is to protect senior officers from political interference but that this "must not prevent the council from dismissing them without compensation where they are not performing their duties responsibly". 

Indeed, if Chief Executives are, for example, acting unlawfully or interfering in the political process themselves, that extra protection becomes an enormous obstacle to democracy and accountability.

The White Paper also suggests that there should be term limits for Chief Executives;
"There is reason to believe that, in some circumstances, Chief Executives retaining their posts for long periods can lead to an entrenchment of power and influence within the Authority which can serve as an obstacle to effective relations between Elected Members and officers and threaten the independence of the Executive"

Something which is very evident (and alive and well) in Carmarthenshire where, as the White Paper quotes, "the balance of governance has become disjointed".
It's difficult to remember a time when the 'Executive' was independent, around thirteen years ago I believe.

The consultation on the Wales Local Government White Paper is open until the end of April.

Friday, 27 March 2015

This week's Herald


Update 30th March - BBC Wales are reporting that the home care company, Mitie, referred to in the post below, has now agreed to pay it's staff their travel time. Hopefully the firm will thank the two whistleblowers, both former members of staff, who brought the matter to their attention....

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I'm please to see that this week's Carmarthenshire Herald picks up on the critical report from the Wales Audit Office regarding child safeguarding which I mentioned earlier in the week. Featuring on the front page, it describes the report as 'hard-hitting' and the WAO's conclusion that members were "unfamiliar with risk management as a concept" as 'devastating', and rightly so.
Indeed, and it's perhaps a worrying fact that the council is trusted with the role of corporate parents for looked after children.
As usual, there was no comment from the council.

County Hall has been equally tight lipped over the home care pay scandal reported over the past week or two by BBC Wales and, in detail, over on Cneifiwr's blog. The story is given the front page headline in the Carmarthenshire Herald.

As I'm sure readers are now well aware, Village Home Care, or rather its parent company, Mitie, which is commissioned by the council to deliver home care to the elderly and vulnerable, is being investigated by HMRC for allegedly breaching minimum wage rules.

One of the issues is the ridiculously short time allowed to travel between appointments. Basically workers are not being paid adequately (an understatement) for travelling times, leading to 'clipping' which means that visits are cut short as the carers attempt to reach the next visit, maybe twenty miles away in the five minutes allowed.

The result of this is not only visits being cut short leading to poorer levels of care, but carers being actually paid well below the minimum wage.

The recent CCSIW report into Village Home Care itself noted the travelling time issue, lengthy hours and split shifts. It also found compliance failure regarding staff training, quality monitoring systems and annual quality of care reports.
The company was also informed it must not start care work without proper assessment and regular reviews.

This is nothing new. Locally, I am aware of several youngsters who were employed by Village Home Care. Once it became apparent that they were expected to work over 48 hours a week for what worked out to be about £3 an hour or less with little, if any training, they didn't last long. Those I knew were kind and caring but it is fairly obvious that many companies are prepared to take virtually anyone on.

One remarked to me as to how they were expected to arrive at a person's home at say 7.30am, stay there for the allotted hour then be half way across the county's rural roads to the next appointment by 8.35.

This was at least three years ago. Yesterday the council said it would be meeting with the company. 
Presumably to have a go at them for giving the council bad press. 
This is the council's idea of care in the community and it is inconceivable that they have been unaware of these problems. They have clearly chosen, until reported in the press, to turn a blind eye.

In addition, the council has just awarded four year contracts for home care services in the county and the 'Framework' agreement began on the 2nd March. Given that the issues identified above have been known for some time, and are possible not confined to just the company mentioned, it will be interesting to see who has been successful for the approved 'framework'.

Lastly, this week's observations from 'Cadno', who is rapidly turning into one of Caebrwyn's favourite columnists;

"Carmarthenshire has branded itself as ‘The Garden of Wales’ and certainly the rich green landscape that rolls across the landscape between Laugharne, Llanybydder, Llanelli, and Llandeilo suggests that there is something to that description. Criss-crossed by a few arterial roads and many small country byways and highways, the County’s charm is that wherever one is one is not too far from a rural idyll. 
The important thing about gardens, whether you are growing cabbages or carnations, is a plentiful supply of fertiliser. 
And so we come to County Hall, which produces more fertiliser than would be needed by a garden the size of the Sahara: to a depth of four feet and rising. 
So overflowing is County Hall with rubbish that it has even privatised its generation and recycling to its own pet company. 
Cwm Environmental is a purportedly private operator in which the sole shareholder is the local authority. In other words, and according to its own website, Cwm Environmental is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the County Council. 
As he who pays the fiddler calls the tune, you might wonder what advantages could accrue to the local authority by setting up a company in this way. 
Well, let’s look towards Llangadog. 
Sitting near Y Garn Goch, Llangadog is one of those rural communities that make up much of the patchwork of small settlements that are dotted around Carmarthenshire. A former centre for droving, its years of home-generated prosperity are past. It has fallen on increasingly hard times over recent years. 200 jobs were lost when the creamery closed in 2005.  
It follows that Llangadog is a community that cannot take the loss of any jobs, let alone the ten that will be lost there if Carmarthenshire County Council has its way. 
You see, readers, there is something unusual about the Llangadog site that suggests a conflict of interest between the Council in its role as a statutory authority and its interest as a shareholder in a private company where the profit motive rules the roost. 
Our Council claims that Llangadog is an unfortunate casualty of its drive to save money. So skint is Carmarthenshire County Council after outfitting the Almighty’s favourite bowling alley that it cannot afford to renew its contract with the site operator, AWS.
More to the point is that Llangadog is the only remaining site of its type in the County which is not operated by Cwm Environmental. 
That Llangadog is an efficient and well-performing site is shown by the fact that over 80% of rubbish brought to the AWS facility is recycled. That’s an awful lot of copies of the Council’s in-house propaganda sheet Carmarthenshire ‘News’. 
In the whole of Carmarthenshire, that is, readers, in every other site managed by the Council’s own notionally private enterprise, the average recycling rate is below 55%.
If Llangadog closes residents would need to travel to Ammanford. 25 miles away. How ‘green’ is that, readers? You force people to take an hour and a half to travel backwards and forwards to a site which recycles under two thirds as much as the facility far closer to hand. 
The County Council’s disturbing lack of familiarity with the geography of the county it is supposed to serve is alarming. 
Last week, this paper reported that the Council’s celebration of its ‘success’ in building a new school near Llandeilo, ignored the human cost of transporting 400 students every day from Llandovery and the small communities around it to the new shiny building, leading to imminent closure for Ysgol  Gyfun Pantycelyn.

There is more to ‘public service’ than husbanding public money readers. The ‘service’ element should count far higher than it does. Shuffling thousands, if not hundreds of thousands and millions into the pet projects of a coalition without an electoral mandate, while bowing the knee to over-mighty officers is a betrayal of Carmarthenshire.  
Our county really does deserve an awful lot better than the current collection of rancid misfits and halfwits who are allegedly running the show. 
In a local authority in which the governing group has condoned funding libel actions for its highest paid staff member and then gone on to stomach a scheme to permit the same Chief Executive to attempt to stave off a tax liability on his publicly funded pension, we can guess that pound signs are more important than providing service. 
The question on the latter point – as seems to have escaped Kevin ‘Adequate’ Madge and the legion of the dumbed and damned that follow his blustering lead – is not whether or not the decision was legally correct but whether it was morally and objectively defensible. It was certainly morally reprehensible and objectively flawed. 
The Council was compelled to end the scheme by the Wales Audit Office, which it did with the type of spectacular ill-grace one would expect from a ten year old with their hands caught in the cookie jar and not from a collection of old nags and knacker-man leavings who really should have known better in the first place. 
So, readers, the question the Council needs to ask itself when considering withdrawing a local service should not be a calculation made in pounds shillings and pence (although Cadno suspects that such is the quality of debate in Carmarthenshire that LSD is in play somewhere).  Leave the bean-counters and their like in charge and we would all be driving beige Trabants and living in ‘efficiency’ apartments.  
There are more important things for Councils to think about. The effect of cuts and closures on rural communities, for one thing; the human cost of decisions measured in lives affected and not in pennies saved for another. 
Carmarthenshire County Council is very quick to blow its own trumpet about the success of its waste management and recycling schemes. At the moment, there seems to be an initiative a week. 
Cadno suggests, however, that the Council’s blathering on about its small ‘achievements’, pushing out releases to be printed without query or criticism in publications over which it has an editorial influence, masks a vacuum at its centre where common-sense and compassion should sit. 
Common-sense says that if you are serious about recycling you do not close a plant which is delivering it better than other facilities. You aim to bring your facilities – or that of your wholly owned subsidiary – up to the mark. 
If you are serious about the environment, you would know that a long round trip to Ammanford or – worse – Nantycaws will lead to lower recycling rates and – potentially – increased fly-tipping.
Spending £75,000 to make Llangadog prettier, or to put in prettier speed bumps, as recently announced, is not going to replace ten jobs. 
So, readers: which of the Executive Board will exercise their common sense? Moreover, which of them actually have any?" 
Cadno, Carmarthenshire Herald.
Cadno, the fox.

Incidentally, and unfortunately for County Hall, the contract to deliver waste services for the next few years expires this month and must go out to full tender. This has caused some problems and I understand legal opinions have been sought..as they usually are. 

One cannot imagine any company other than Cwm being awarded this contract but according to scrutiny minutes from last November, "CWM Environmental would not be treated any differently to other potential tenderer". You will recall that Cwm has also been in the news recently over long hours and low pay.
It will be an interesting one to watch.


Inhabitants of County Hall settle down to read the latest edition of the Carmarthenshire Herald

Noxious fumes


A few years back, after lengthy monitoring, Llandeilo's main street became a 'Air Quality Management Area' after breaching safe levels of NO2 emissions. The purpose of the official designation is that this should then influence council policy such as Highways, Transport and Planning.

Quite how this was 'considered' when the decision was made to close Pantycelyn School in Llandovery and bus four hundred children, twice a day, through the middle of Llandeilo to get to the new school site is anyone's guess.

Anyway, it now appears that Llandeilo is not alone in breaching pollution levels and has been joined by the centres of Carmarthen and Llanelli who are about to have AQMA status themselves. Presumably this has been factored into the 1200 home (and 2000 car?) 'West Carmarthen' development...not.

It will come as no surprise that County Hall is included in the Carmarthen 'AQMA' as it has been emitting it's very own pungent brand of toxic gas for some time...



County Hall, Jail Hill.

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...

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

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.