Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Carmarthenshire Council: Review of 2013

It's that time of year for reflection over the past twelve months and although Caebrwyn has had a difficult year, it hasn't been a particularly auspicious one for County Hall either. The tail end of 2012 saw a mention in Private Eye for their treatment of the South Wales Guardian and their enthusiasm for all things evangelical. My request for correspondence between the council and the Towy Community Church was in it's infancy, barely six months old.

2012 also ended with a decision to ban the public from filming council meetings.

Anyway, here are just a few extracts from the archives of 2013:


The aftermath of the SWGuardian 'leaked email' scandal led opposition councillors to call for a debate on press freedom in Carmarthenshire. The motion was blocked and the Chief Executive accused of 'gagging debate' as he felt it was a matter for Cllr Pam Palmer and the press manager, Debbie Williams to discuss in private.

One outcome of the council boycott of the paper was that the planning application for a new, and controversial 'superschool' was not advertised in the newspaper local to affected residents.

Around this time, 'Any other business' was quietly dropped from the full council agendas in a bid to prevent discussion on controversial topics which might embarrass the senior hierarchy of the council.

Controversies over the council, the rugby team and the stadium continued with concerns raised over the EU State Aid rules. The council funding of Scarlets Regional Ltd has rumbled on all year. More later.

The month ended with the revelation that the Chief Executive, in his role as returning officer for the 2012 local elections, had been paid £20,000 in advance; weeks before the election and before the number of contested seats was known. The explanation from the council was that 'the funds were there'.

At a pre-trial review in London on the 31st January, a couple of weeks before the trial began, I was denied a jury. For the previous 14 months that had been the expected mode of trial.


This month kicked off with a FOI refusal to release that top secret and internationally sensitive report on the transfer of public toilets to Town and Community Councils. I've nothing to add to that...

Also in February both I and a number of individuals from County Hall decamped to London for the six day trial. It was covered, on a daily basis, by Barnet blogger Mrs Angry, and Carmarthenshire's Cneifiwr. Their blogposts are still there if you wish to refresh your memory and of course Mrs Angry was there throughout the trial. There were numerous press reports including the Leader in The Times
I published a message of thanks after the trial had concluded.

And, after two years of chewing over it, a decision was made to webcast full council meetings for a 12 month pilot, having run out of excuses not to after the Welsh Government made a grant available. I would say it's been a resounding success and I'm sure County Hall would agree with me wholeheartedly....


Plaid report the Returning Officer fees 'advance payment' to the Wales Audit Office. In 2012 they had made a complaint to the WAO over 'creative accounting' regarding the funding of the council rag, the Carmarthenshire News.

News breaks from Caerphilly over the suspension of its CEO over unlawful payments, after a WAO report. He and his deputy were then arrested in July.

The Council's PR machine went a bit awry over the horsemeat scandal with council leader Kevin Madge assuring the public through a press release that there was "no question of any contamination.". A week or so later it was announced that "a sample of minced meat...had tested positive for horse DNA.". The press release was hastily withdrawn.

We were told that the webcasting pilot would begin in May and "that members of the public would not be allowed to film meetings until the pilot on broadcasting meetings has taken place and been evaluated". (I am just reminding everyone that the issue of public filming will soon be back on the cards). Kevin Madge looked forward to 'warts and all' webcasts. I'm sure regular viewers will agree we've certainly been treated to some warts...and of course those wonderfully eloquent speeches from Cllr Madge.

The judgement from the libel action was handed down on the 15th March, I put a statement on my blog.

Before March was out the Ombudsman found that the Labour leader of the council, Kevin Madge, had breached the code of conduct by using the council press office to make a political attack on Plaid politicians,
Jonathan Edwards MP and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM. There was concern expressed that senior officers may have also been involved in the publication. We'll never know...

Eric Pickles MP spoke about the libel case and said he was "deeply unhappy" about the "tendency" for local authorities to use the "resources of the public" to initiate legal action.

Lastly, there was a development in the long running Towy Church/Council FOI request with the Information Commissioner upholding my complaint. The council were told to issue a fresh response as it was found the request did not exceed the 'cost limit', which was the exemption they had used.
Well, they did issue a fresh response and decided the request (and I) was vexatious. The saga continues and I await a second decision from the ICO.


In a last ditch attempt to save Llandovery's secondary school children from having to spend hours on buses attending the planned new 'superschool', residents of Llandovery hoped that the local county councillors might finally make a stand. The councillors had sat in silence whilst the town fought and lost a bitter battle to save the secondary school, Pantycelyn. At the planning committee meeting for the new school, Cllr Tom Theophilus (Ind) abstained and Cllr Ivor Jackson went on holiday.

After numerous press releases over 14 months announcing he was calling for a public inquiry over the Ammanford Police Station PFI fiasco, Kevin Madge was finally rumbled when the relevant bodies, in responses to FOI requests, said they'd never recieved any correspondence from Mr Madge, about anything.

And Cllr Ivor Jackson, council representative on the Parking and Traffic Regulations (Outside London) Adjudication Joint Committee....parks carelessly.

The BBC compiled a table of Chief Executive pay across all 22 local authorities, from highest to lowest, Carmarthenshire came in first. Eventually a new requirement that senior officers pay should be determined by an independent panel rather than an elite group of councillors was incorporated the Local Democracy Bill, proposed by Carmarthenshire AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas.


Carmarthenshire Council again topped the fat-cattery charts with the publication of the Taxpayer's Alliance Town Hall Rich List. The accounts showed twelve employees on over £100,000, two more than the previous year. It included a mystery payment of £157,500 and, after a later FOI request for details, the council said it was an 'error in the accounts'. So there.

It was around this time that I noticed and extra £16,353 in the council accounts within the remuneration of the Chief Executive, I made some enquiries but drew a blank. Of course it was this which was found, by the appointed auditor, to be the 'unlawful' pension payment.

May also saw the first webcast of full council. With scripts prepared, councillor training complete, warnings given the AGM was the first thing to treat the viewers. Some thought they'd stumbled on a fancy dress parade. The incredulity of the watching nation began.....

Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM tried to add a clause to the Local Democracy Bill at the Assembly to allow the public to film/record council meetings, it was defeated. Things are different in Wales.

There was more council chart-topping later in the month as the Western Mail reported on the number of senior council officers across Wales on six-figure salaries. There were special mentions for the Chief Executives of Carmarthenshire, Cardiff and Pembrokeshire.

Given the usual rush to defend senior officer pay from the Welsh Local Government Association I asked for senior pay details of the WLGA itself. Although the organisation did provide me with the information they also revealed that they are not, despite being in receipt of £8m Welsh Government grants per year and £2m of subscriptions from public bodies, subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

The coalition between Labour's Kevin Madge and the 'Independents' Pam Palmer was sealed for the foreseeable future.


June started with another embarrassing revelation as Cllr Sian Caiach revealed that her emails had been tracked without her knowledge. That row still rumbles on with the senior council officers who authorised the 'snoop' still in denial that they did anything wrong. The scrutiny committee who requested a full report into the matter are, to date, still waiting.

I made a further statement in relation to my liability for the costs of the libel action and the decision by the insurance company to revoke my cover. The council also gave a statement.

June also saw the grand opening of the evangelical Xcel bowling alley, with the council approving a last minute liquor licence. The great and good of the council were there, joining their partners from the Towy Community Church for a night of photo opportunities and possibly prayers. This fundamentalist Christian group has been embraced by the council to ease the pressure on the social care budget...

The second council webcast saw the meticulous stage management and carefully crafted script ruined as Cllr Darren Price asked about the recent revelation over email snooping and whether this was common practice...in the background, steps were being taken to prevent unpredictable outbursts which may cause embarrassment to the assembled dignitaries by proposing changes to council agendas...

Eric Pickles MP took a swipe at the Welsh Government accusing the Labour administration of 'suppressing freedom of speech' by not allowing the public to film council meetings and on a more general point, suppressing proper transparency. Again giving Carmarthenshire a special mention. The Welsh Government was very cross.

Days later the political row escalated with Westminster responding to Welsh Government anger with;  "The Labour Administration in Wales is openly opposing the right for journalists and bloggers to tweet, film and report meetings. It is obscene that Welsh bloggers are being handcuffed and arrested in Wales for reporting meetings because they don't have the legal rights that English bloggers now have. No amount of bluster can disguise the fact that the Labour Party are the enemies of openness and on the side of town hall tyranny."


There were further developments from Caerphilly as the Chief Executive and his deputy were arrested on suspicion of fraud following the Wales Audit Office report into unlawful pay rises and an investigation by the neighbouring police force. (Gwent police, the local force, were considered 'too close'). They remain on bail.

The Wales Audit Office described Carmarthenshire council's grant management as 'weak'.  Amongst the critical findings were 'poor decision making and inappropriate expenditure' and 'Contracts not awarded in accordance with procurement procedures'.

The refurbishment of the Georgian Llanelly House as a tourist attraction was facing something of a cash flow crisis with Finance Wales reluctant to extend the terms of the loan. Carmarthenshire Council duly obliged with £250,000 to be repaid by December 2013. Whether it has or not is unknown.

Following the opening of the bowling alley, the proposal to set up a Mercy Ministry reappeared on the Towy Community Church website. I took the precaution of taking a screenshot.

When concerns were raised in 2012 that the council were giving £1.4m in land, grants and loans to an organisation with links to the Mercy Ministries, the original item was removed from the website. It's July 2013 reappearance was brief, and quickly disappeared yet again.

Despite the council statement that “It is important that the position of the council as a secular institution is preserved.” it also turns out that the Towy Church was/is an agency for the council social care initiative, the 'Team around the Family'.


A smattering of councillors' annual reports began to appear, aided by a template provided by the Democratic Services office. The suggested opening line was "...this report is to keep you informed of some of the issues I have dealt with on your behalf during 2012/13. Real progress has been made in respect of these and I hope that you will find this information of interest". My underlining...


With the spectre of budget cuts to frontline services on the horizon, and the Scarlets financial deal coming up for it's three year review, Cllr Sian Caiach continued with her efforts to find out the details of the split and 'allowable expenses' between the club and the council over the sale of the car park to Marston's.... as we now know, the beans were eventually spilled...

The September council meeting was the fourth to be webcast.....

Strange scenes at Llanelli Rural Council where County Cllr Tegwen Devichand (Lab), Deputy County Council leader and Executive Board Member for Equalities reacted to criticism that they'd received an 'all-male' invite to a rugby dinner with "I have no problem. It is the old boys' brigade and it is set in stone.". Aah...good old Teg, she knows her place...

Also, Cllr Pam Palmer rubber stamped a policy relating to covert surveillance of social media which enables local authorities to create undercover online identities to befriend 'subversives'.

The 25th September saw the scandal break over the appointed auditor's unlawful payment findings relating to the Chief Executive, Mark James. They concerned, as readers will know, the libel indemnity and the pension payment. The Audit Committee refused to put their name to the accounts sign-off and passed that responsibility onto the Executive Board. MP Jonathan Edwards issued a statement.
I commented further here and the row continues........


The unlawful payments scandal continued with the South Wales Guardian taking the lead in the local reporting stakes and the row earned the council yet another mention in Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs' column.

October's council meeting saw an attempt to bring up a discussion on the unlawful payments thwarted. Cllr Darren Price called for the Standing Orders to be suspended for an urgent debate. However, he was not allowed to say what the subject matter was before the vote was taken.
Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM, amongst others, had had enough. He called on the Welsh Government to put the council in 'Special Measures';
“In the almost fifteen years I have represented Carmarthenshire in the National Assembly I have never known public confidence in the County Council to be so low."

Against a backdrop on impending budget cuts of 'biblical proportions' on the horizon, Scarlets Regional Ltd were again on the agenda. The financial deal between the club and the council was up for a three year review. The Executive Board agreed to 'help them out' a bit more. The question later arose whether all members of the Executive Board were aware of the £600,000 cash windfall from the Marstons' car park sale when the review was agreed.

The infamous 'Budget cuts meeting' was held in October. A stage managed pretence at consultation on fifty-two budget proposals held at the Ffwrnes Theatre in Llanelli. Amongst the invited guests were several media organisations and it was claimed that attendance was conditional on participation rather than independent observation. Hotly denied by County Hall, it was significant however that several news outlets refused to attend...

Eric Pickles announced new legislation which required councils to allow filming and recording of meetings by the public and the press. It doesn't apply to Wales though...

Another appearance for County Hall in Private Eye along with the Chief Executive of Pembrokeshire Council, who is also under investigation by the Wales Audit Office over an unlawful pension payment...titled 'Naughty Boyos'.

In planning news, the Minister, Carl Sargeant finally called-in the Stradey homes development in Llanelli over flooding issues. And in the courts, Carmarthenshire council, jointly with developers Castletown Estates lost a bid to overturn Carl Sargeant's refusal to allow the development of the Grillo Zinc Oxide site in Burry Port.


The promised debate on the unlawful payments at this month's council meeting was jettisoned at the last minute. An email was sent to all councillors explaining that the senior officers and executive members involved had received strict orders from the Wales Audit Office not to say anything.

However, this didn't prevent the more determined councillors bringing the subject up at the meeting, in front of the cameras. Cllr Darren Price kicked off the row by asking whether or not the police had been in touch yet...

Also on the subject of avoiding debate on controversial issues, a Notice of Motion put forward for a full council debate concerning the Executive Board decision to increase charges for sports facilities, and the three year review of the Scarlets' deal was not allowed on the agenda...one of the new proposals for 'modernising' agendas is that Executive Board decisions will no longer be scrutinised by full council...

A similar fate awaited the Plaid Motion for a no-eviction policy in relation to the 'bedroom tax', it was deemed unsuitable for full council and went straight to the Exec Board where it was duly rejected...

November went out with a bang as the details of the 'Marstons' split' emerged. The Executive Board member for finance, in a brave move, detailed the 'allowable expenses'. £280,000 had been deducted to enable Scarlets Regional Ltd to pay off a loan to another private company for the fixtures and fittings of their new shop and restaurant, the Red Room, at the Eastgate development. More complaints have gone to the Wales Audit Office...


In an effort to diffuse the unlawful payment scandal the Executive Board, in relation to the pension payment, backed down and agreed to reverse the policy. They did not, however, accept that the pension arrangement was unlawful. There has been no comment concerning the libel indemnity to date.

The December council meeting saw a corporate presentation from the Scarlets...followed by a heated row between Kevin Madge and Cllr Caiach over, essentially, the 'allowable expenses'...Cllr Caiach has called for Clllr Madge's resignation..

I was back in London at the Court of Appeal, I was denied permission on further grounds but I have already been given permission to appeal on one ground relating to the Chief Executive's counterclaim...

Back in Carmarthenshire and the BBC had been busy carrying out some investigations of its own concerning the council funding of Scarlets Regional Ltd, this time the question of whether strict EU State Aid Rules had been breached....complaints have gone in to the relevant bodies.

The council took to its Department of Propaganda to dissuade people from signing a petition to save two respite centres for disabled children, both up for 're-organisation' in the forthcoming budget....

And 2014?

Well, the Wales Audit Office looks set to issue a public report about the unlawful payments sometime in January...its taking an awfully long time...

The webcasting pilot will be up for 'evaluation' before long and decisions will be made whether to scrap it, keep it, or even extend it to other meetings. Personally I believe it has been an invaluable, if small, insight into the council.

The next couple of meetings will see the all important budget going through the 'democratic' process and discussions at full council will be there for all to see.

The next step is to bring Wales in line with England and legislate to protect the democratic rights of members of the public to film and record meetings.

Unlike the highly selective 'Minutes', the webcasts have provided a true record of what has been said. Minutes for December's meeting have just been published and an objection was made when the approval of November's minutes came up in that they were 'lacking in detail'. The objection was rejected of course.

When the minutes from a recent scrutiny meeting were up for approval, someone, fortunately, remembered this small but important request which had, mysteriously, been omitted entirely from the record;
"Reference was made to a request that had been made for information regarding legal fees incurred by the Council as a result of the two issues identified recently by the Wales Audit Office, which the Head of Financial Services agreed to follow up"

Well that's about it for 2013, there was plenty more of course but this blogpost is long enough. Not sure what 2014 has in store for Caebrwyn but I suspect like the past five years, the ivory towers of County Hall will continue to oblige and provide endless material for local bloggers....

With that, I'd like to thank everyone who has continued to support me and also the readers of this blog, and of course wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


Anonymous said...

Happy Christmas Jacqui and thank you so much for keeping us informed throughout 2013.
Diolch yn fawr!

Anonymous said...

Merry Xmas and best wishes for the New Year! Many thanks for keeping us updated on issues in CCC that they would rather we didn't know.