Saturday, 6 February 2016

Signs, windows, and red tape

A local trader in Carmarthen seems to have fallen foul of Carmarthenshire council red tape. As the Carmarthen Journal reports Ms Bethan Rees opened a fancy dress shop in Guildhall Square last August (pictured below), surely at the delight of the council as it shows resource, enterprise and, more to the point, fills an empty shop. She has now been told to remove the sign, which is bilingual, above the window and replace it with a much smaller one in the gap just above the door.

She says that she was initially told the sign would be fine, but now it's not, and contravenes planning rules. Should she apply to keep the large sign, she has already been told that permission would be refused. It might be in a conservation area but as Ms Rees points out, there are other premises with much larger signs surrounding her.

The sign is bright, vibrant and attractive to shoppers and surely boosts 'footfall' and the economic vibrancy of the use the council's own language.

Pic source; Carmarthen Journal

Take for example the council's own efforts to fill empty shops. Following what must have been an IT brainstorming session, a national tender went out last November for a company to supply 3D virtual reality graphics to display in the windows of a number of empty shops in Carmarthen town centre. Conservation area or no conservation area.

The objectives were to;
'Reduce the negative visual impact currently being created by the vacant properties.
'To make the units more attractive to potential tenants.
'Increase the vibrancy and economic impact in the proposed “Cultural Quarter” of Carmarthen by driving footfall and activity to the area.'

The tender which went out must have incurred considerable costs with research undertaken to identify the list of sites and properties, and the appropriate documentation gathered together.
A couple of weeks later the tender was cancelled, due to an error in the insurance documents.

Almost immediately another one went out. It was exactly the same apart from a couple of variations in the list of premises.

A few of weeks later that one was also cancelled. This time it was apparently because the council couldn't sign up enough premises and a couple of them had been let out. In other words, the plan fell apart.

Whatever the reasons, the council's attempt to create the 'Montmartre of Carmarthenshire' was an expensive waste of time and money, and Bethan Rees, with her colourful sign, achieved far more.

One person who doesn't seem to have a problem with planning red tape is council leader Emlyn Dole. You may recall the #barngate affair late last year when a retrospective application (in Mr Dole's wife's name) was approved by the committee against the officer's recommendation to refuse.

The committee had to come up with reasons why, despite it being contrary to planning policy, it was all ok. Their attempt at justification included a planning condition that wooden window frames had to be be used, this was to complement the old stone which was now required to be used to face the building;

"Condition 4. All fenestration shall be of timber construction in order to reflect the traditional historic character of the barns"

Early last month Plaid Council leader Emlyn Dole (or rather, his wife), put forward an application change the condition from wooden window frames to plastic, the justification being that there were plastic windows in the nearby farmhouse. Surprisingly, this was considered a 'minor' amendment, and approved by the planning officer within one week.

Cllr Dole is fortunate that he's not in a conservation area, nor that the 'traditional historic character' of the 400 year old barn has been taken quite so seriously. It's also fortunate that Cllr Dole, unlike Bethan Rees, is something of an expert in planning 'red tape'.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

February agenda - Badgers, sewers, and another missing question

The full council agenda for February has now been published and this month there are no public questions to sully the smooth running of important council business. Neither, it appears, are there any Councillor Questions, but more on that later.

There is one Notice of Motion, from Plaid Cymru councillor Gareth Thomas, to request that the council lobbies Welsh Government to implement a cull. This is not, disappointingly, a cull of the council top brass, but of badgers;
‘An increasing number of Cattle Farms in Carmarthenshire are under bTB restrictions due to an increase in bovine tuberculosis. In light of the complete breakdown of the present - inadequate and non-scientific vaccination programme, this Council calls on the Welsh Government to support and implement a badger cull in all regions where there is a significant increase in bovine bTB.’

This is nothing to do with council policy of course but it is an emotive subject and I suspect opinions will differ...there are a lot of farmer councillors..but there's also an Assembly election in May. It will be an interesting one to watch.

No full council agenda is complete these days without a powerpoint presentation and this time there's one from Welsh Water. They've been before with their sewage and effluent but this time it's about the Rainscape Project. The idea is to create a landscape to catch rainwater and filter it harmlessly away before it joins the overburdened sewers. A good idea of course and several projects are underway in the Llanelli area.
The problem is whether this initiative will actually reduce the strain on Llanelli's sewers and prevent the pollution of the surrounding coast. As before, I suspect the story will be upbeat and, also as before, have the intended purpose of feeding into the council's planning policy to continue to grant large developments in such a sensitive area.

Back to Councillor Questions, and there was one, but it was rejected by the chief executive. Cllr Sian Caiach wanted to enquire about the small number of council bungalows built in Kidwelly and Llanelli over the past couple of years. The project was much trumpeted by the then leader Kevin Madge who never failed to remind everyone, at any opportunity, about these bungalows. which eventually went massively over-budget.

The final overspend figures are not available, hence Cllr Caiach's question, but at one point, back in 2013, the figure was just over half a million quid.

She is also asking whether the council have plans to build any more;

"We have, in recent years, built a small number of council bungalows for the elderly and disabled in Llanelli and Kidwelly. Unfortunately the project came in well over budget. Can you please tell me the exact amount the project was over budget and precisely itemise the areas where this overspend happened ? Also, have you any plans to build any future council homes?" 

Unfortunately, despite Cllr Caiach offering to withdraw one of the questions, it was rejected as she can ask no more than one and technically it contained two. Technically.

This is the second question in as many months from Cllr Caiach which has been rejected from the agenda by the chief executive. The last one was to ask when, given the current financial restraints, were negotiations in place to recover the unlawful pension and libel indemnity payments from chief executive Mr James. That question was rejected by Mr James without any reason being given, see Unlawful payments - Dole's denial.

Of course the rejections couldn't possibly have been related to the content of the questions or any sense of deja vu from a couple of years back when the chief executive blocked controversial Motions on Notice from Cllr Caiach by introducing the 'seven seconder' rule, (enthusiastically supported by Plaid's Peter Hughes Griffiths and now consigned to the bin after the WLGA review). Or even formally restricting her access to ask officers questions, also a couple of years ago. Never mind silencing her (via the Chair) when she tries to raise a controversial topic, or snooping on her emails.

Anybody would think that the chief executive had a personal dislike of Cllr Caiach, or of anyone really that asks awkward questions, a dislike which seems to habitually spill over into his professional judgement.

Of course Plaid, when in opposition, had first hand experience of spurious reasons being given to reject open debate, see here and here, even demanding ministerial intervention at one point. They seem to have gone all quiet now...

But back to the agenda, and, as promised at the last executive board meeting, 'Jeremy' from the Wales Audit Office will be there to present the corporate assessment. These are the nice, professional auditors of course, unlike those unprofessional troublesome ones which, according to Meryl, gave poor Mark such a headache some time ago...

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Yesterday's Executive Board

Up for discussion at yesterday's Exec Board meeting was the recent Corporate Assessment report from the Wales Audit Office. Seen as a positive report this was an opportunity for some mutual back-slapping and grovelling gratitude expressed by the Plaid members to Meryl and Pam, and the chief executive, for steering them through this 'difficult' process...quite incredible how cosy they've all become.

What this report actually reflects is that Plaid have not taken the 'lead' but have become fully assimilated into the toxic culture at county hall. What they once opposed and fought against they are now supporting. Preferring to adopt the spin and nonsense of the notorious council press office than open all those cans of worms, which might just expose their own weakness under the previous administration. Very disturbing.
The price of power I guess. As well as an approaching election.

As I said in a comment on my previous post, I also find it quite disturbing really that the WAO were so easily convinced that there is now 'collective leadership', by which they must mean that after 13 years of damage, intimidation and control freakery Mark James has been put back in his box. If they believe that they'll believe anything. What a joke.

The significance of the report in light of the unlawful payments scandal didn't go unnoticed and Meryl couldn't resist a comment. She said that this audit team was one of the more professional she had encountered...compared to the way the poor chief executive was treated by those other auditors 'some time ago'. 

This was a direct slight on the Appointed Auditor Anthony Barratt who had been responsible for exposing the unlawful payments. Clearly quite an unprofessional chap according to all present, including Plaid, and clearly didn't have a clue what he was on about and has caused them no end of trouble with having to deal with the WLGA governance review and all that transparency malarkey.

Still, we can look forward to more trebles all round when 'Jeremy' (from the WAO audit team) present the report to full council. Good old Jeremy.

Also on the agenda was the upcoming council budget. Carmarthenshire ended up with a better than expected settlement of a 1% reduction rather than the 3.3% they forecasted. Around this time every year there is always bit of a PR opportunity for the current Exec Board to show gracious benevolence and drop some of the more controversial elements of the budget. The particular proposals are easily predicted and I identified one or two last November. Budget bingo I suppose.

This year was no exception and with the better than predicted deal from the Welsh Government Plaid had a small bonanza to help towards their Assembly campaign, including a council tax increase of 'only' 3.8% rather than 5%.
With half of Carmarthenshire under water over recent weeks it came as no surprise that the cuts to the flood defence budget were dropped, along with some highway maintenance and street cleaning cuts.

Two predictions materialised in that the decision to charge £250 for home to college transport was shelved for two years (this was also shelved last year, under the last lot) and the axe hanging over respite care and short breaks for disabled children was dropped. Very welcome of course but no surprise.

The £1 rise in the price of meals on wheels will now be phased in over three years, by which time the council should have managed to axe the service altogether, which was, and is, their original intention. Vulnerable pensioners now being charged for an array of care services which were previously free so this is nothing more than a token, paltry, gesture.

The Welsh Government has also stumped up some extra cash to help 'protect' education and social care, This means that instead of the whopping £18.2m three year cuts to schools, the figure will now be a marginally less whopping £17m. I'm already hearing that the shiny new school in Ffairfach is sourcing second-hand furniture and is devoid of lockers. We just hope it's got some teachers.

The rest of the budget, including the very, very exciting, visionary capital budget which will see a new herd of white elephants, with no money to actually run them, cropping up here and there, will be decided by full council later this month. This is Plaid's notion of an 'anti-austerity' package of regeneration, so far the only thing to be regenerated is Cllr Dole's beauty parlour.

On the subject of capital, Labour Councillor Derek Cundy asked, given Cllr Dole's promise that it would be kept in public ownership, whether some money would be put aside for the much needed maintenance of Parc Howard mansion and museum. A £1m was going to the Carmarthen museum so why not Llanelli?

After cutting through the leader's waffle it became evident that the answer was a definite no. To make matter worse, deputy leader Dai Jenkins parroted Meryl's remarks that it was the pesky people of Llanelli who had foiled a bid for lottery money a couple of years ago by having the brass neck to disagree with some of the council's plans for the Parc. Would they do it again? he demanded to know.

The council's grant to the Botanical Gardens was also discussed. The proviso that the garden improves it's use of the Welsh language seems to have been quietly forgotten although the offer to give Carmarthenshire residents a 5% reduction in membership was deemed acceptable. How many could actually afford an 'annual membership' is probably minimal. The Garden will have a decreasing grant over three years, starting at £70,000 and reducing to £30,000 by year three.

A few short months ago the Director, Dr Rosie Plummer gave a presentation to full council ahead of the deal. Now that Dr Plummer has thrown in the towel over the struggling garden it was interesting to see the executive board giving her the cold shoulder, inferring that there should be no more woolly scientific nonsense, the new director had to have a far more businesslike approach than dear Rosie with Cllr Dole wishing it could be more like Alton Towers.

There was also a brief discussion on the Council's foray's into the world of outsourcing with an item on 'alternative delivery models' for social care. The emphasis was on 'early days', 'very broad brush' and 'analysing options' but as we know the Leisure department is already well on it's way to becoming a trust.
As for social care and housing, the drive for arms length companies or trusts are also well on the way with consultants having been appointed to steer the authority through the choppy waters of back door privatisation.

(Full agenda here)

For those interested in the Police Commissioner elections, former council leader Labour's Kevin Madge is the latest to throw his hat in the Dyfed Powys ring. Current candidates are the incumbent Tory Christopher Salmon and former civilian support worker for the police, Dafydd Llewelyn, for Plaid Cymru.

One of the supposed requirements for the job is to hold chief officers to account, not something Kevin Madge excelled at at Carmarthenshire Council, quite the opposite in fact. If the requirement involves covering up corporate ineptitude and corruption, and being dangled on a string by the chief constable, then Kev's your man.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Turning a blind eye

The Welsh Assembly Petitions Committee met today to consider the petition to curb unelected power and restore local democracy. The full petition statement can be read on my earlier blog post here.

The essence of the petition, put forward last year by Mr Royston Jones, was to require the Government to step in where unelected senior officers, most notably chief executives, systematically undermined the democratic process.

Clearly Carmarthenshire stands out as a case in point.

The petition was discussed, briefly, by the committee today (19th Jan) and can be seen on Senedd TV at 10 minutes 50 seconds in.

The Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab) was asked for his opinion and his letter to the committee can be seen here. Interestingly he denies that the Welsh Government has "'turned a blind eye' to the influence of some senior officers in certain local authorities" 

Mr Andrews goes on to say that the draft Local Government (Wales) Bill, which is currently out for consultation holds the political leadership responsible for ensuring that chief officers do not exert undue influence.

But as Mr Jones points out in his response to the Minister, the Bill does nothing more than state what should happen, there is no mechanism for intervention if it doesn't;

'..he fails to tell us what can be done when elected representatives fail to curb the interference and eventual takeover by a chief executive (invariably aided by some other senior officers and one or two leading councillors). 
In the right circumstances, with a determined and dictatorial chief executive and a compliant council, it is inevitable that we shall see further examples of the problem my petition addressed, a problem to be seen in Wales today..'

The Welsh Government does, as we know, have the power to put a council in 'special measures' but as Mr Jones points out;  "why has it not been used in obvious cases of the chief executive subverting the democratic operation of the council?"

Why indeed. In Carmarthenshire it is something of a mystery. Repeated requests for Welsh Government intervention not only in regards to the chief executive but also with issues over social care and planning have been repeatedly rejected by the Welsh Government.
The chief executive has treated the Wales Audit Office and the Ombudsman with utter contempt and regarded the WLGA Governance Review as a joke.

The Minister, and his predecessors have, let's face it, bent over backwards to 'turn a blind eye'.

The question is why. One theory is that the chief executive not only exerts undue influence over the council but this extends into the corridors of the Welsh Government where Mr James has had various advisory and directorship roles over the years.

The petition was not specific to Carmarthenshire but it might as well have been, The committee decided to close the petition, suggesting that the petitioner contribute to the consultation. However, the Ministers view seems intransigent and, as Mr Jones tells him;

"passing the buck to those who've already exposed their inability to deal with the problem is nothing less than the Welsh Government washing its hands of that problem. We have every right to expect better."

Meanwhile the farce carries on in Carmarthenshire, the latest incarnation of 'officer control' being, in my view, the statement from Council 'Leader' Emlyn Dole over the unlawful payment scandal.

Here in Carmarthenshire the 'problem' of a majority of weak/puppet councillors is compounded by a culture of vindictiveness towards anyone who challenges the officer regime.
Cllr Caiach, with first hand experience of this culture, comments on my previous post to that effect;

"..  officers really do run the council whoever is "in power". Its been going on so long that it's difficult to rectify without outside help..."

 "...This terror is real and you can't rely on those who have quivered in fear for years to support cleaning up this council's act."

It's going to take more than Mr Andrews' draft Bill to effect a change in Carmarthenshire.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

The January meeting

Update 15th January; The archived webcast can be found here.

With a packed house, the press, protesters and public present, the January Council meeting managed to plumb new depths in democratic failure - particularly evident around the several questions from members of the public relating to asset transfers of parks and playgrounds.

First up though, after the lengthy preliminaries, was the presentation, by a Cllr Jan Williams (Lab) of a 5303 signature petition to keep Parc Howard, Llanelli, in public ownership.

The whole question regarding the future ownership of Parc Howard mansion and gardens came under the spotlight earlier this year when it emerges that 3rd parties, with questionable backgrounds were angling after this 'jewel in the crown' of Llanelli, and were courting the Chair of the Parc Howard Association, Meryl Gravell and senior officers with meetings taking place behind closed doors.

The park and mansion then appeared on the 'Asset Transfer' list. The petition, and campaigners have called for it to be removed from the list. The petition had been started by Labour MP Nia Griffith in response to the public outcry.

Emlyn Dole responded to the petition by attacking the Labour politicians for using the Parc as a political bandwagon, repeating his promise to keep the Parc in public ownership, but fell short, again, of removing it from the list.

As expected, there was no discussion nor debate allowed and it seems that the chief executive has decided that the petition was an 'executive function' so would only be considered by the executive board.

Funnily enough I was under the impression a new, more democratic approach had been taken with regard to petitions after the WLGA report, obviously not.
That, as they say, was the end of that. Done and dusted and back in the long grass.

Next up was a Councillor Question about rat infestation.

The Chair, oddly, decided to make a short statement suggesting that councillors thought very carefully before asking an official question. Was it really necessary? Couldn't they ask an officer for a response outside the meeting? He couldn't refuse them so they really needed to think whether it was a waste of time...and so on.

Interesting that he said he 'couldn't refuse' them, presumably that means everyone apart from Cllr Caiach.

It is staggering that the Chair, in consultation with the chief executive of course, is trying to dissuade councillors from asking questions. I say staggering, but it's not really surprising is it?

You may recall, the dream agenda for the chief executive was for committee reports to be tacked on at the end, just for 'noting' and the bulk of the meeting taken up with power-point presentations and, basically, as little debate as humanly possible. Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths clearly sings from the same hymn sheet.

Councillors were told, at the time, that if they wanted to raise an issue within these reports, or anything else for that matter, they should start using the 'Councillor Question' facility now on the agenda.

It seems that they are now being deterred from this. Democracy is dying yet another death in Carmarthenshire Council.

Next up were the public questions and things went from bad to worse.

When I asked a public question back in September it was the first one for ten years. Prompted by the WLGA report to improve engagement with citizens the council reluctantly put the slot on the agenda. Incidentally it was about the £280,000 given to Scarlets Regional Ltd to pay off a third party loan, a curious decision made on the whim of the chief executive...

That's one park which won't be facing any cuts or closure.

No one is likely to go through the complicated rigmarole, and face the slightly daunting procedure of asking their question, just to congratulate the council on their latest Performance Target Indicators for dog dirt, and the like; a question will always arise out of concern or criticism of council policy or a decision.

Yet again this council showed that unless you are there to present an award, your criticism, indeed your very attendance in the hallowed hall, is not particularly welcome.

All the questioners, who represented local sports clubs, felt and spoke passionately about the potential loss of parks and playgrounds, and sports pitches within their communities and they wished to put that message across through valid questions.

Each questioner tried to give a preamble, stating the basis for local concerns over the programme and their dissatisfaction with the policy Plaid were now enthusiastically endorsing, but the Chair, Plaid's Peter Hughes Griffiths was having none of it. Each questioner was interrupted and silenced.

The Plaid responses were that they were quite happy to carry on with the Asset Transfer programme started by the previous administration, and at one point the Plaid group laughed at one of the questioners. Appalling.

The Chair continued to excel himself and persisted in stopping the questioners from elaborating in any way, including their supplementary questions, which the Chair 'accused' them of scripting. They had to be relevant to the reply they'd just had, he screamed.

Eventually, Cllr Anthony Jones (Lab) called a Point of Order and informed the Chair that their own constitution stated that a supplementary question could also be related to the questioner's original question, not just the pre-prepared reply they'd been given and anyway, surely they were allowed to give their point of view?

The chief executive helpfully added that the Chair also had the power to refuse any questions. Of course.

Cllr Bill Thomas also called a Point of Order to say that the Chair, and executive, were not acting according to the Nolan Principles of public life and was breaching the code of conduct. Prompted by the chief executive, the Chair became even more hysterical and demanded to know what point he was breaching.
As Cllr Thomas tried to continue, the sound was cut from the webcast.

The Chair said several times that they couldn't just let the public come and makes statements about the council, "we cannot have people coming into this council, standing up and saying whatever they like about the council." Good grief no.

Well, Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths, what you were breaching was not only the rules of debate but common decency and any sense of democratic engagement towards members of the public. So much for your prayers at the start of the meeting.

The leader, Emlyn Dole made several points about how his community council was making progress with asset transfers and after rambling on, unstopped by the Chair for several minutes, appeared to conclude that these public questions were nothing more than political mischief.

He went on to attack 'certain elements of the press' who would 'sell their granny' for a story and had been making things up. Charming.

One questioner dared to try and respond to Cllr Dole but by this time the Chair was on his feet, adjourning the meeting and demanding that the gentleman leave the room. I understand that the gentleman walked out in disgust.

The chief executive seemed to find it all rather amusing.

It was a very sorry affair and clearly the Chair's behaviour caused discontent, and disbelief, amongst many Members.

Despite the Chair clearly knowing full well he was in the wrong and offering a rather ungracious apology to all concerned, I'm sure he will be warmly congratulated for his sterling efforts by the chief control freak himself, Mr James. Abysmal.

It should also be remembered that Peter Hughes Griffiths was a very keen advocate of Mr James' 'seven seconder' rule to prevent individual councillors raising controversial topics through Motions on Notice, a rule which has now been thankfully blown into oblivion by the WLGA report.

All that is left now is to stop anyone raising a controversial issue in other every other respect, the sentiment of the WLGA report has been completely ignored.

Once the Chair composed himself and the members of public had left the sacred environs of the Chamber, no such restraint was imposed on the next item which was a lengthy presentation from a man about the Swansea Bay Lagoon project. It had the soporific effect of calming everyone down and possibly sending a few to sleep after all the excitement.

Mr James will be quite happy with Plaid, they've done him proud. They've turned from a troublesome opposition, scrutinising his council, criticising his actions, calling the police on him, and insisting that councillors should run the council, to a pliant, loyal and largely silent bunch; fearful of the press, being accused of hypocrisy and holding the public in contempt.
Cllr Dole denying that those unlawful payments ever happened must be the icing on the cake for Mr James.

When Plaid complained, a couple of years ago that democratic debate was being deliberately curtailed in County Hall they, (well Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM), called for the council to be put in special measures by the Welsh Government.
I don't suppose Plaid are likely to call for it again, but it's as necessary as ever and someone needs to pick up the phone to Cardiff bay. It's way overdue.

For the full coverage of the petition and questions, as well as the rest of the meeting, the webcast will be archived soon.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Unlawful payments - Dole's denial

One 'Councillor Question' submitted for next Wednesday's full council meeting has, I understand, been rejected.
Here it is in full, as sent to the Chief Executive's Office, as it is Mr James who decides what is, and what is not included on the Agenda;
Dear Democratic Services, 
I would like to submit this to The Chief Executive's Office as a Members' question for the next Full Council.
Please forward it on. 
Many thanks
Sian Caiach
"Dear Leader,

Several local voters have asked me about the likelihood of recovering the payments regarded as unlawful by the Wales Audit Office made to the chief executive over the pension compensation and the libel counterclaim, especially in view of the continuing financial difficulties we face. 
I would like to ask you the following questions: 
a) How much money is involved (unlawful pension payments plus unlawful legal fees for the libel counterclaim)?. 
b) Has Mr. James been involved in negotiations for future repayment? 
c) With the precedent being set by the WAO in the case of Mr Bryn Parry Jones in Pembrokeshire, is there merely an assumption that the money will finally be reclaimed from Mr. James' pension lump sum on retirement?
         Sian Caiach"

By way of context, Cllr Caiach had asked Council Leader Emlyn Dole for a direct response to this shortly before Christmas. His response (below) led Cllr Caiach to ask for further details, but nothing was forthcoming which led her to submit the question for next week's meeting. It was sent in on Monday via email, in plenty of time for the Wednesday deadline.

At the time of writing, no reason has been given by the Chief Executive for rejecting the question. The excuse that it has 'already been answered', is hardly justified.

However, on the agenda or not, Cllr Dole's 'answer' was brief, and quite extraordinary;
Dear Cllr Caiach, 
Thank you for your e mail below.   
We are unaware of any “unlawful” monies having been paid. 
As far as the recovery of any monies is concerned, the Executive Board is awaiting options on this. 
Best wishes,
Cllr Emlyn Dole.
To start with, Cllr Dole's use of the word "We"suggests that this is a joint statement...from him and Mr James? or the Plaid Group? Or even the royal 'we', as he is now leader?

"We are unaware of any "unlawful" monies having been paid"....Have those long months of strong Plaid condemnation of the unlawful payments disappeared into a Black Hole? Are Plaid Councillors now approving the very generous and unlawful funding for Mark James on both issues?

Outside the council, Plaid Cymru politicians Jonathan Edwards MP and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM took an even stronger stance and it was they who called in the police which led to Mark James 'stepping aside' during a criminal investigation.
It was also they who demanded that the money should be repaid by Mr James.

On the 3rd February 2014, the current Chair of the Council, Plaid's Peter Hughes Griffiths said;

“If I was leading this authority I would have at the very least suspended senior officers pending further investigation.  It is the bare minimum which should be done given the seriousness of the Auditor’s findings.  Furthermore, if I was responsible for spending tens of thousands of pounds unlawfully, I would do the honourable thing and stand down."

Cllr Emlyn Dole himself proposed, in July 2014, that the council accepts the WAO Libel Indemnity report and therefore the finding of unlawfulness. He also challenged the presence of Tim Kerr QC, to defend the Chief Executive, at the Extraordinary meeting where the WAO reports were discussed. Another Plaid Councillor later demanded an explanation over the costs of Mr Kerr's services. The council also voted to suspend the unlawful libel clause from the constitution.

I could go on, there are countless media reports, webcasts, and even council minutes - quite enough to make Cllr Dole's response to Cllr Caiach nothing short of astonishing.

As we know, neither the Chief Executive, nor head of legal Linda Rees Jones accept the WAO findings and Mr James ensured that neither Meryl Gravell (goes without saying) nor the then leader Kevin Madge disagreed with him.

The WAO have always stood by their findings of unlawfulness.

Was one of the requirements for Emlyn Dole becoming Leader a promise to deny that the unpleasant episode ever happened? And, if questioned, now claim the payments were lawful?

Does Mr James' hand really reach that far? It seems it does.

Returning to Cllr Dole's response and the second sentence relating to the recovery of monies; Given the content of the first sentence, he must, I assume, be referring to me, not Mr James.

WAO Public Interest Reports; January 2014

Thursday, 7 January 2016

January Council agenda, and a cold wind

Next Wednesday will see County Hall under siege (well, sort of) as January's full council meeting includes not only a public petition, but five public questions. Unison have also stated their intention to lobby councillors on the steps of County Hall over the planned programme of cuts, including those to adult education and the consequential job losses.

The petition, and the questions all relate to the ongoing asset transfer programme of disposing of public parks, playgrounds and sports pitches, the petition calls for the council to keep Parc Howard (also on the disposal list) in public ownership.

The subject of these controversial asset transfers came up at Monday's Exec Board which I covered here, Executive Board meeting - on yer bike, and we can only hope that full council is a little less intransigent and hostile to public opinion and local campaigners than the executive were.

All the questions can be seen on the agenda but one in particular reflects on the change of direction which the Plaid leadership seem to be taking since joining forces with Meryl and Mark:

“When Councillor Emlyn Dole stepped in to help in the fight against the unaffordable pitch fees, he stated that these fees would put an end to participation in sport across the county.  He claimed that these proposals were ill conceived and ill thought out.  He was of the opinion that it was a rushed through policy developed in the midst of the twilight zone.  In light of Councillor David Jenkins’ comment to the press that we simply cannot afford to maintain these areas, would he not agree that the closure of the parks in which these sports pitches are situated should demand the same response?”

In case the intrusion of the public questioners, petitioners and union reps all gets too much, a power point presentation has been slotted in immediately afterwards to dull the senses and distract minds towards the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project. This project has been in the pipeline for a number of years but, good or bad, whatever your view, and despite getting approval it seems to be having difficulty getting off the ground due, reports say, to funding issues.

The usual purpose behind an outside body giving a presentation is to soften-up the council and then ask for some cash. It will be interesting if this is the case here as the Tidal Lagoon project is outside Carmarthenshire. It is not, however, outside the scope of the Swansea Bay City Region board which supports the £1bn project and which is currently, under the guidance of the great and good, and Meryl; innovating, incubating, re-energizing and waffling its way to bugger all at numerous meetings and events.

I can't go without mentioning the Christmas Tree for the Ffwrnes Theatre, Llanelli. The Llanelli Star reports that the council have rented the tree for 72 days, and I can imagine that the idea was well meant, bringing a little festive cheer and all that.
However, the idea clearly got out of control - we could probably excuse £300, even £350 - but £3,400? someone certainly slipped with the pen.

Yet another reason for the council to publish all its spending details...who knows what else they've been buying....

Monday, 4 January 2016

Executive Board meeting - On yer bike

The one downside of webcasting council meetings, particularly those of the executive board is that it's all a bit of a back-slapping PR exercise. This morning's offering was no exception.

Kicking off with praise for the former Director of Social Care on his new year honours OBE, they decided to write a letter, sending him their warm congratulations. I'm sure the various whistle-blowers who have flagged up issues with social care over the years would love to add their names to the card as well, if they have time in-between their disciplinary hearings...

Whilst all around is falling apart, and the county awash with floods, (the staff who dealt with the emergencies were, quite rightly, thanked for their work) there was a strange emphasis on cycling. I have nothing against two-wheeled transport of course, quite the opposite in fact but the percolation of the subject through the meeting seemed to be something of a deliberate distraction.

Anyway, we learned that the chief executive is a keen cyclist which is useful as it can now be suggested that he gets on his bike without it being libellous. We also learned that Cllr Pam Palmer doesn't cycle...thought you did Pam?

We found out that the five year capital programme is very, very, exciting (nearly everyone said that), despite what the cynics might say (see below) and, as for local communities, it's about time everyone sorted out their own facilities rather than the county council, Pam and Meryl were particularly vocal over this. 

We discovered that the chief executive has suddenly learned how to declare an interest - this time over an item on the all-staff car salary sacrifice scheme - unlike that previous occasion when they were handing him the dosh for his legal fees.

We also learned that whilst the Asset Transfer scheme to offload 96 parks and playgrounds to community groups and councils (and Labour councillor Derek Cundy, in attendance to challenge the policy, pointed out that this was not an asset transfer at all, but a cost transfer) didn't impinge at all on the council's 'get fit and active' policy, but would, if the transfer policy was reversed actually impinge on the council's equalities policy.

This leap of logic seemed to rest on the fact that if some areas didn't take over local assets then this wouldn't be fair on those who did. Not entirely sure they quite grasp the concept of equality issues, but I suppose they can pray for divine guidance at the next full council meeting.

Parc Howard came up as it is one of the '96' and the report contained an objection from the Parc Howard Association. This gave Meryl the opportunity to once again trot out her tale of the terrible, devious nature of local residents who had 'gone behind' the council's back and raised concerns about a proposed car park at Parc Howard and so, apparently, thwarting the council's bid for Lottery money.

Anyway. as I've said, the capital programme was also up for discussion and, with the press in attendance, it was welcomed as 'very exciting', Meryl was delighted that they were all in it together, her and Mark she meant, naturally, with Emlyn perched on the back seat. And it might even make Carmarthenshire a centre of excellence for cycling..the cycling capital of Wales even. Wonderful.

On the subject of the capital programme, the chief executive, we gathered, found the people of Llanelli quite simply irritating and clearly ungrateful for the millions being spent there..the proposed care home, the proposed leisure centre and - said slowly for maximum effect - a proposed closed road cycling circuit.

And just what were they going to do with Parc Howard? he said. He meant 'bloody Parc Howard'. Clearly the publicity and fuss which thwarted their plans to quietly sell it off in the summer, to anyone who could spin a good story, is another source of intense irritation to Mr James.

Cllr Dole wasn't going to remove Parc Howard from the '96', as requested in the letter but was looking forward, he snarled, to discussions with the PHA and the Town Council.

There was much giggling when the subject of sex came up. Sorry to disappoint but it was in relation to a reduction in the licence fee, from £5000 to £975 for sex establishments, a reduction required by recent case law. There are no such dens of iniquity in Carmarthenshire of course and, amidst the giggles, Cllr Dai Jenkins wondered if there would now be a flood of applications.

I suspect that this could form an important element of Meryl and Mark's regeneration strategy, and no doubt they will be exploring the possibilities after the meeting... perhaps Parc Howard could become a playboy mansion? with topless skittles down at the evangelical bowling alley?

An item on 'Active Travel' also came up which involves mapping all the 'healthy routes, footpaths etc across the county. This gave yet another opportunity to mention cycling and the fact that there's a lot of cyclepaths in the county, or in the Chamber...I couldn't quite hear.

All in all, everything was given a gloss of spin. Slashing the majority of Adult Learning courses, which was also on the agenda, along with offloading the parks and playgrounds etc were all magically translated into 'wonderful opportunities' for the communities involved.
The gist of the chief executive's new year message was that the people of Llanelli were, quite simply, ungrateful b*****ds. And Pam and Meryl with the patronising smugness which only overpaid senior councillors can deliver, admonished the communities they claim to represent, and the general populace of Carmarthenshire, for being lazy parasites, in so many words.

And so, another year begins in County Hall.

A few cynical previous posts about the very exciting capital programme can be found here;
Capital Priorities
Plaid's 'vision for Carmarthenshire' under attack
A 'vision for Carmarthenshire' - Plaid embrace County Hall spin

..and in case you missed my brief, seasonal summary of 2015, it's here.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Capital priorities

This week's Herald takes a look at the Council's five year capital programme, up for the consultation stage at Monday's Executive Board meeting, I've mentioned it myself once or twice over recent weeks.

The programme includes £5.7m to modernise and rebuild the primary school in Trimsaran (the figure includes match funding from the Welsh Government). What is unusual about this is that according to the school's website it is currently operating around 50% under-capacity.

The usual pattern in such cases, even those with less surplus places than this, is for the council to decide that these schools are 'unsustainable' and either close the school completely and ferry children to other schools miles away, or merge/federate to cut overheads. We are well aware of this trend in the Llandovery area.

The main aim of the Modernising Education Policy has not been to modernise schools, but to remove surplus places. The scattering of shiny new schools has been largely for the benefit of the army of consultants and 'preferred developers' involved in the process - the money to run them is quite another thing and, if the £18m cuts to schools goes ahead, there'll be even less.

But back to Trimsaran and The Herald continues;
"Whilst nobody begrudges the children of Trimsaran the chance to learn in a shiny new school, some have wondered why other (and full) schools struggle to get so much as a new loo fitted when a school operating at barely half stretch receives so much money.

Former Council leader and current Exec Board Member for Regeneration and Leisure, Meryl Gravell is the current county councillor for Trimsaran"

Incidentally, at a full council meeting in 2008, with the process to close over forty village schools well underway, Meryl Gravell, leader of the council and holder of an OBE, launched an attack on councillors who "exhibit extreme weakness and are prepared to listen to people protesting about school closures out there in the community". (my underline)

The Herald article also mentions the planned new Llanelli Leisure Centre and the capital programme indicates that the council will be contributing rather more than councillors were originally told. The council's commitment now stands at £12m with previously promised external funding now, in cold reality, reduced to ifs and maybes.

With the Leisure department in the process of being outsourced, I'm sure the external providers lining up to take over these services will be delighted with the burgeoning amount of public money being invested...

Let's hope this latest vision doesn't become a continuing drain on the taxpayer as we have seen with the Parc Y Scarlets Stadium and, as the Herald reminds us, the chief executive's other expensive baby, the Boston Stadium, for which the taxpayers of Lincolnshire still count the cost.

With millions more committed to a 'Transformation Commercial Property Development Fund' and the even more intangible sounding 'Transformation Strategy Project Fund', it's notable that only £250,000 per year has been earmarked for highway resurfacing and road safety in each of the next five years with the capital investment actually required currently running at £18m.

A 'Highways' Update' report appears on a scrutiny agenda for the 11th January and paints a bleak picture of the county's roads with 11.9% currently classed as 'poor' and the £54m backlog of repairs predicted to worsen. Highway maintenance is also facing a three year revenue cut of £1.2m.

The 'finger's-crossed' plan is to change how roadworks are prioritised. A 'Network Hierarchy' will be formulated with a 'scoring matrix' based on use and 'strategic importance'. This may seem a logical use of limited resources, but with much of Carmarthenshire classed as rural, in practice only the larger towns will have their roads properly maintained, whilst the rural hinterland (apart from Trimsaran perhaps...) will see little or no improvement for years to come.

Still, whilst we have 'Transformation Strategies', more shiny-but-empty office blocks and white elephants dotted around the county, who needs roads? Let's be honest, when it comes to County Hall photo-shoots, fixing potholes and making our roads safer never offers quite the same glamour.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Plaid's 'vision for Carmarthenshire' under fire

With Plaid's decision to spend £20m of the council reserves coming up for the rubber stamp at Monday's Executive Board meeting it has once again been picked up by the press. Putting aside the fact that the announcement (see earlier post 'A 'vision' for Carmarthenshire - Plaid embrace County Hall spin' ) pre-dates Monday's decision by several weeks, and that it largely involves capital projects which were decided twelve months ago, the decision seems to have woken up the Welsh Government.

Plaid's Exec Board Member for Cash, Cllr Dai Jenkins has been tasked with trying to explain the decision and has come up with...we'd better spend it just in case the council merger plans ever materialise and we might have to share it with Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion, and, worst of all, they've described the move as an 'anti-austerity package'.

Creating cyclepaths might be welcome but hardly compares to the current budget proposals to cut funding for vulnerable children, putting up the price of meals on wheels, increasing school dinners, charges for schools/college transport, and axing £18m from our classrooms. Not to mention cutting a the flood defence budget by a quarter...

On what planet this £20m could be described as an 'anti-austerity package' is anyone's guess and further confirms that the move was nothing more than a publicity stunt.

The Welsh Government are making noises that it might halt such 'irresponsible spending' by this council or any others considering the idea. This is an interesting concept as Cardiff have been very reluctant in the past to step in over anything else relating to Carmarthenshire Council; from governance and legal advice deemed unfit for purpose, to questionable handouts to private companies; and from the murky misuse of EU money, to illegal payments to the chief executive. And everything in between.

Still there's a first time for everything.

(There's a Llanelli Herald Facebook article here)

Bins and hypocrisy

Back in March, when the Plaid group were in opposition, they were quick to highlight the perils of outsourcing, specifically in reference to the council's arms length waste management company, Cwm Environmental which had come under fire over it's long hours/minimum wage terms of employment.

A Plaid spokesperson said;
'the obsession of the Labour council with effectively outsourcing services and reducing democratic oversight inevitably reduces the operational control the council has over our public services'

Now that Plaid are 'in power' they seem to have abandoned this principled stand and are embracing the current trend to outsource various services to arms length companies, trusts and organisations with vigour. Or perhaps they're just following orders. Affordable Housing, Social Care and Leisure are all at various stages of offloading with tenders for consultants, soft marketing exercises, etc etc. all well underway and up for grabs with plenty more in the pipeline.

Aside from the inherent risks of the lack of democratic control, and the last councillor on the Board of Directors of Cwm Environmental Ltd was declared superfluous to requirements a couple of years ago, there can be legal minefields.

Back in June councillors at a meeting of the environment scrutiny committee were surprised to learn that the council's contract with Cwm Environmental Ltd had been informally extended for another three years after the 15 year contract expired three months earlier.

The risk of legal challenge from other potential providers (this informal three year 'arrangement' was worth over £7m) was dealt with by quietly changing the Council's Procurement Policy, and the job specification of the Director of Environment had to be altered to avoid conflicts of interest during any eventual tender.

All a bit of a legal minefield as I said but despite councillors expressing disquiet that they were being asked to approve something that had already been done and dusted, they nodded it through. Bins still had to be emptied of course.

Possible changes to Welsh Government waste policy were cited as an excuse for there being no proper procurement programme in place in time for the renewed contract but the real issue seemed to be this legal problem of having, by law, to advertise the contract and treat all potential suppliers fairly and objectively whilst wholly owning the current contractor, who, along with one small company in Llangadog, manages all the municipal waste, and waste sites, in the county.

Queries over the vanishing procurement exercise cropped up again at another scrutiny meeting earlier this month (December) and councillors were fed another helping of meaningless flannel;
"a significant amount of work had been undertaken to date, especially in conjunction with the Authority’s Legal Services. Whilst no further details could be disclosed at this stage, the interim contract with Cwm Environmental was still in place and he assured members that progress was being made with respect to scoping and preparatory work to provide valuable information to inform the debate with regard to the best solution for the future."

It sounds to me as if the minefield is currently alive and well and should, along with all the other issues involved in the lack of democratic oversight, with which our Plaid leaders were once so concerned, sound warning bells for future outsourcing experiments, wholly owned by the council or otherwise.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

2015 - A brief summary, and Season's Greetings

Another year has almost passed in the weird and wacky world of Carmarthenshire Council. I'm not writing an in-depth review of 2015, everything I have covered is available on this blog so a brief summary, or, to be honest, a bit of a ramble, will suffice.

This time last year the chief executive was rubbing his hands at the prospect of a £446,000 pay off, safe in the knowledge that he, and a couple of his colleagues had got off scot free over the illegal payments scandal.

All that remained, was to mangle the 39 WLGA recommendations into something acceptable to themselves and ignore the call for a change to the toxic culture. All smugly achieved through death-by-powerpoint at the Extraordinary meeting in June.

Prior to that, as we know, the Labour group, as part of the ruling Labour/Independent administration, announced shortly after last Christmas that they (but not dear Meryl of course) would block any golden handshake for Mark James. Nothing to do with the approaching general election of course...

Funnily enough, Mr James then decided to grace us with his presence for a bit longer and decided to stay.

Entirely by coincidence, I'm sure, Kevin Madge was then knocked off the Leadership post and Labour crumbled. With Meryl and Mark refusing to countenance Labour's Jeff Edmunds as leader (slightly too honest), and with Plaid Cymru eager to take power, Emlyn Dole stepped in, did a deal with the devil, or devils, and took the poisoned chalice.

From a hopeful and promising opposition, the Plaid group soon assimilated themselves into the Mark and Meryl gang with new leader Cllr Dole even having his own little scandal, of the planning variety this time, to weasel out of. That episode brought into focus yet again the vagaries and ineptitude of the planning process in the county and did nothing to improve public confidence.

Recent opposition challenges to Plaid over their standard of leadership, as well as questions over the alleged fraudulent misuse of EU Coastal money, including the doctoring of evidence, were treated with a liberal coat of denial, subterfuge and whitewash.

My question regarding, in my opinion, the wholly fraudulent payment to the Scarlets, in the form of 'allowable expenses' fell on equally disengenuous ears. The Plaid leadership seemingly happy to trot out the pre-prepared script.

To be fair, much of this pre-dates the present Plaid administration and the reported ill-treatment of whistleblowers has been a constant issue at Carmarthenshire Council.

In fact allegations of this very nature, including, for that matter, the alteration of documents can be traced back even further into the mists of time, to events at Boston Borough Council, which I mentioned in this earlier post here.

In my view, as long as Cllr Dole doesn't decide to put the kibosh on any future golden handshake for the chief executive, or rock any boats, he'll probably cling on until 2017. The rot set in years ago but with Mark James and the political arm of the regime, the Independents, still holding firmly onto the reins it continues to fester.

The council have made moves over the year to outsource various services from Leisure to Social Care and Housing and currently have all ninety-six parks and playgrounds up for grabs. Various invitations for 'expressions of interest' are currently simmering quietly away with the aim to hive off assorted services, with no guarantees that terms and conditions for transferred staff would remain the same.

I expect this trend will continue and needs to be watched closely, Carmarthenshire is not known for it's due diligence or transparency when it comes to its 'preferred partners'. The proposed 'wellness centre' should already be ringing huge alarm bells for those familiar with County Hall vanity projects. It's also worth remembering as that council borrowing is already well in excess of a quarter of a billion, costing over £14m per year in 'servicing' and interest payments.

The budget consultation is underway (ends on the 3rd January) and the cuts (let's not use the word 'savings') are based on the council bean counters' prediction of a 3.3% cut in the money they receive from the Welsh Government. This turned out to be 1%. In fact the actual amount is the same as last year, just to confuse matters. How this will all translate remains to be seen but is causing confusion and uncertainty and makes one wonder if the public consultation is even more pointless than usual.

There was no uncertainty however a few weeks ago when councillors rejected a paltry 10% cut to the allowances of a handful of their executive board colleagues.

The usual budget pattern, as I've mentioned once or twice, is for a couple of red herring proposals to be initially included or, as a commentator in this week's Herald eloquently puts it; "The usual form in Carmarthenshire is for Mark, Meryl and Co to announce impending plagues of boils, famine and compulsory slaughter of the first born every year, only for them to announce in February that the first born will be spared thanks to the heroic efforts of officers and the executive board"

As not all cuts had been identified, leaving a £2.1m black hole this year, the difference between the Cardiff/Carmarthen figures may be used to plug the gap. Alternatively, a 5% Council Tax increase had been factored into this budget, so maybe there'll be room for manoeuvre here, giving Plaid some well needed PR in the new year.

The massive £18.2m cut to the education budget over the next three years was somewhat unexpected and deeply alarming, and even more surprising given the recent announcement that the Welsh government was continuing to protect this budget. There is clearly disagreement over this and recent scrutiny minutes reveal that the council have had meetings with the Welsh Government to push their agenda. The council does like to cherry pick when it comes to suggestions from Cardiff and protecting children's education is clearly not a cherry they want to pick.

In addition to this are cuts to special education, the closure of libraries and adult learning centres. At another scrutiny meeting earlier this month, a Motion put forward by Labour councillors to defer consideration of the budget proposals until the situation became clearer was defeated.

The County Hall Ministry of Spin is, as ever, likely to escape the worst of the cuts with no sign yet that the 'Carms News' will be consigned to history. As a council led publication they have managed to involve the limited resources of no less than six other public bodies, apart from the police who withdrew their funding in 2014, preferring to support media of the independent and democratic variety.

Whatever happens with the budget, and there will be more on all this in the very near future, I doubt if anything will become clear until after the festivities, in the cold light of January, or February. For schools trying to plan ahead this must be a nightmare. You can be assured however, of plenty of spin, particularly with the Assembly elections fast approaching.

On the upside, webcasts for full council are now well established and were joined this year by Planning and Executive Board meetings. It's just the starring cast which needs to change. Still no sign of the ePetitions page though, having been promised around twelve months ago.

March 2015 saw the last communication I have had with Mr James and his solicitors, demanding the counterclaim damages (with interest) with vague threats of further action. I remain resolute that I will not pay him a penny. With Mr James having secured a charge on my home, this will continue to be an issue, whether he's an employee of the council or not.
In recent months he's turned his legal attention to a couple of councillors who remain determined to ask searching questions, not something tolerated by Mr James.

The unlawful 'libel indemnity clause' remains in the constitution albeit in 'suspended' form, with, I am informed, no plans to delete it any time soon.

2015 was also notable for the appearance of the independent Carmarthenshire and Llanelli Heralds, their investigative articles and observant opinion pieces have been a very welcome development for those struggling to hold County Hall to some sort of account.

Their arrival has not been warmly welcomed by the council though, who have been, shall we say, a little uncooperative to say the least. So much for the 'revised' press protocol; the priority remains to bury bad news. At least the track record of bullying local reporters and attempting to control editorial content has fallen on deaf ears with the Herald. I wish them all the best for 2016.

We also saw the last post from Cneifiwr's blog back in June, though eagle-eyed readers will I'm sure have spotted a few articles popping up here and there in that unmistakable style...the blog is still accessible of course and who knows, it may return one day....Pat Racher's West Wales News is still going strong though, as is the blog of county Councillor Sian Caiach. It would be great if a few more Carmarthenshire residents, or even councillors, picked up the blogging pen, or keyboard.

Whilst I'm here, if you have a spare few minutes, and agree with the sentiments, please sign my petition to abolish prayers at full council, and there's another petition available to sign for a few more days to curb unelected power and restore local democracy, a particular problem in these parts.

I would like to wish all those who visit this blog (now approaching its seventh year) a very Merry Christmas and a healthy and happy 2016.

Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda
Diolch yn fawr iawn


Thursday, 17 December 2015

The Cross Hands question

The council's 'strategic economic vision' for Cross Hands appears to be becoming more of a mirage as the huge site earmarked for Sainsbury's, a new health centre, housing and 350 jobs continues to resemble a giant lunar car park.

Pic source - 'Cross Hands Re-development' Facebook page
The issue cropped up in a BBC Radio Cymru feature this morning with Labour Cllr Terry Davies leading the charge that councillors were being kept in the dark about what was being planned for the site, if anything. When Sainsbury's pulled out of the scheme a couple of month's ago they sold the site to investment company Conygar Plc for £2m, Conygar stated they would market the site for 'mixed-retail' and hoped to put in a planning application by February.

The council have refused to comment and Hywel Dda Health Board remain non-specific about timescales or budget for the new health centre. When this question was posed to them during one of their presentations to full council a few months back they refused to be drawn in to any firm commitment at all. It is also understood that Persimmon are having trouble selling the homes they have already built, let alone those they have yet to construct.

Back in October 2014 a very excited Kevin Madge welcomed this wonderful masterplan "which will bring so many benefits to Carmarthenshire, creating hundreds of much needed jobs". Roll forward to December 2015 and the diggers have gone and all that remains is a wasteland and not a job in sight.

October 2014
Moving slightly to the east and the access to the new KFC restaurant, just off one of the most dangerous roundabouts in Wales, is causing even more congestion and being described by members of the public, and councillors, as an absolute nightmare. The council's transport division has now decided to go and have a look at the problem for themselves as it seems, quite unbelievably, this wasn't done during the planning process.

The usual fuss and palaver about access, traffic flow and highway safety doesn't seem to have been fully considered prior to approval and some of us who are familiar with the roundabout have speculated that the planning officer who signed this off must have been particularly partial to a Boneless Banquet or two, wielding the rubber stamp with a Hot Wing and a prayer.

Moving south to Llanelli, the Herald video team have been touring other wastelands with Plaid Cllr Winston Lemon, and his dog. The areas in question, the North Dock Development Dream, or something like that, features a vast array of council-led office developments which, as Cllr Lemon and his dog point out, have remained largely unoccupied since they were built five years ago, not much further up the road is the equally seriously under-occupied Eastgate centre, a development much mentioned on this blog.

Pic source; Llanelli Herald
With millions of pounds of taxpayers money and EU grants pumped into the regeneration of Carmarthenshire over the years it makes you wonder who exactly has benefitted, and, for that matter, who has made the most profit...

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

December's meeting - pork pies and mince pies

Aside from an initial breath of fresh air from several sixth formers giving their views on the council's budget proposals, including a powerful case against the £18m cuts to schools, today's meeting was the usual dire mix of smugness, propaganda and grumbling ill-humour.

Several points are worth a mention.

During the 'anything to declare' part at the start of the meeting several councillors started to say they were in receipt of Single Farm Payments so they thought they'd, er, better not vote on the Motion on the UK's Membership of the EU.

Declarations should be made of course when a direct financial, prejudicial or personal interest comes up, particularly when it comes to planning or licensing, but whether Huw's sheep or Dilwyn's cows would be direct beneficiaries from a vague council motion to support EU membership in a distant referendum is surely questionable.

You may have read Cllr Caiach's recent blogpost which questions whether some of the contrived declarations and negligible connections trotted out at each meeting are absolutely necessary and in fact, deter local members speaking on behalf of their constituents for spurious reasons. This one, I'm sure, falls under that category.

However, Cllr Caiach had barely begun to question the point of these declarations when she was silenced by the Chair, (Plaid's Peter Hughes Griffiths) and Chief Executive. Cllr Caiach tried to continue but the webcast audio was mysteriously switched off. This is obviously a new ploy by the dynamic duo, perhaps involving pre-arranged signals to the technicians should Cllr Caiach say something untoward, such as, god forbid, the truth.

Of course it could have been an entirely coincidental, one-off, 'technical issue'...
Perhaps discussions around the subject of declaration of interest are a sore point for the chief executive, who notoriously failed to declare a direct financial, prejudicial and personal interest when being granted his libel indemnity, making it even more illegal than it already was.

As an anecdote I can recall, several years ago, Cllr Tom Theophilus declaring an interest in Prince Charles' planning application in Llwynwormwood as the councillor's nephew worked with the protection team at Highgrove. Quite where the prejudicial or personal interest arose here was anyone's guess, but at least Tom got to reveal his distant royal credentials to the mystified crowd.

But back to the meeting and I was particularly interested (see 'December's agenda') in the responses to the two questions posed by labour leader Jeff Edmunds, expecting a smattering of that well known, (but little heard of in these parts) democratic function of 'holding to account'.

The first was to ask Emlyn Dole if councillors should maintain high standards of behaviour, follow the code, and all that. As expected, Cllr Dole's answer was a simple 'yes'.
Cllr Edmunds then asked a supplementary question which, instead of using the opportunity to make the point we were expecting, was more or less the same, adding a bit about whether Leaders, ie Cllr Dole, should set an example.

Again Cllr Dole was able to say a simple, 'yes'.

Although viewers would need a sixth sense to detect it, this was an attempt to hold the leader to account aver the barn fiasco, but, with the Plaid Chair constantly speaking over him and clearly reluctant to allow Cllr Edmunds to elaborate, it failed miserably.

Another pointless effort followed as Cllr Edmunds asked Cllr Jane Tremlett (Ind) (Exec Board member for social care) about the allegations concerning Coastal Care and the misuse of EU funds, previously reported on Cneifiwr's blog, and more recently on this blog and in last week's Carmarthenshire Herald. Everywhere in fact.

The current policy which sees council whistleblowers unexpectedly finding themselves at the wrong end of a disciplinary hearing has also been something of an ongoing issue. Cllr Edmunds was calling for a full public inquiry into the allegations.

Dear Jane was ready with her script, clearly written for her by the legal department. There was no outright denial (that would have been dangerous should the truth manage to leak out), instead there was the usual waffle about independent auditors, non-compliant claims being adjusted, (not, I add, in the sense that the whistleblowers' had reported) and that "nothing had been brought to my attention which required further investigation", but if Cllr Edmunds had any information she might look at it.

In other words, a whitewash.

Cllr Edmunds then had a supplementary question. Could Cllr Tremlett provide copies of the whistleblowers' reports to councillors? She merely repeated the gist of first answer. So no, she wouldn't.

With Cllrs Dole and Tremlett off the hook, Cllr Edmunds was reduced to squabbling with the Chair over whether he could use quotations or not.

He recently made much of how his challenge to the 'status quo', and in particular, his challenge to Mark James cost Labour power and how, in opposition he would hold the executive to account. Admittedly, this is not easy in Carmarthenshire, but I would suggest he acquaints himself how, at the very least, to attempt it with effect and determination and takes a few urgent lessons from Cllr Caiach.

Cllr Caiach had put her own 'Councillor Question' forward on the subject of the Coastal Care allegations but Mark James refused to put it on the agenda. He considered Cllr Caiach's question to be defamatory but has failed to provide details to substantiate his decision.

The Chair, or Chief Executive, (the lines are forever blurred), has also decided, in another curious interpretation of the constitution, never to throw the subject matter of Councillor's Questions (or Public Questions, I noted) to the floor for debate. Hell no!

In fact Cllr Hughes Griffiths seems to be enjoying his stint Chairing council meetings, he also seems to enjoy the sound of his own voice. It's quite clear that control-freak extraordinaire Mark James has no problems whatsoever with the behaviour of the current Chair. The Civic shin-pads can be safely stored in the cupboard for yet another year.

To view the discussion around the EU Motion and the squabble at the end of the meeting over Plaid's 'Vision for Carmarthenshire' press release, you'll have to watch the archive but I'll finish for now with the report from the Chair of the Standards Committee (who is a lay member, not a councillor).

Delivering the committee's annual report, he said that the council were all jolly good chaps and had earned a well deserved pat on the back for their marvellous whistleblowing policy...not only that, but they all deserved yet another pat on the back for their "democracy and transparency".

I nearly chocked on my tea. The only explanation I could come up with was that the poor man had wandered into the wrong council.

With that, they all, (well, perhaps not all), trotted off to the Chair's Parlour for corporate coffee and mince pies. Ho ho ho.

Llanelli Rural Council to allow filming...sort of

At it's meeting yesterday Llanelli Rural Council decided to amend it's rules to allow members of the public to film or record it's meetings. Very commendable although this will only be allowed at the discretion of the Chair. This is a slight improvement on the County Council's bizarre policy to only allow the filming of meetings which are already being webcast.

However, following the decision, the Chair, Plaid Cymru Rural Councillor Martin Davies was asked about this discretion, would it involve determining the position of recording equipment and similar practicalities?

It seems that his 'discretion' went a bit further than that and he responded by saying that there'll be no filming at all!...not while he's Chair!'

Monday, 7 December 2015

Committee rejects 10% pay cut for Executive Board colleagues

Last month I mentioned proposals from the Independent Remuneration Panel Wales (IRPW) to cut some Executive Board salaries by 10%, see Councillors' Pay.

In Carmarthenshire there are ten executive board members, five Plaid and five Independents; seven of them receive £29,000 each; the two (yes, two) deputy leaders £31,250 apiece, and the Leader, Emlyn 'two barns' Dole, £48,000 per year. These figures do not include expenses.

The IRPW suggested that executive members with smaller workloads, perhaps four or five out of the seven, should take a 10% cut.

Not exactly drastic and not altogether unreasonable, you might think, given the current financial restraints and massive budget cuts on the horizon.

However, the proposal was offset somewhat by a suggested £2000 increase in deputy leaders' pay, so Cllrs Pam Palmer (Ind) and Dai Jenkins (Plaid) would then be on £33,250 each.

The IRPW report went out for consultation and was dealt with by the Council's ironically named Democratic Services Committee at the end of November.

The minutes do not record any protest over the proposed £2000 increase, but the 10% cut for their esteemed Executive Board colleagues?

"Members expressed concern as to whether, half way through the current electoral terms, it was necessary and desirable to introduce a two tier system of salaries for Executive Board Members that would necessitate differentiating between the portfolios.

UNANIMOUSLY RESOLVED to authorise the Chair to submit a response to the IRPW on behalf of the Committee taking on board the concern raised".

In other words...sod off.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Coastal Care...a scandal unfolds?

This week's Herald takes another look at the unfolding mess over the use, or misue, of EU money for the Coastal Care programme. Although several local authorities were involved in the project, it is only Carmarthenshire's role which has been the subject of complaints and attempts to blow the whistle.

A Herald report from a couple of weeks ago outlined the issues and allegations and this week's edition includes a further report. This is timely given that this sorry saga forms the subject matter of a question to be posed at Wednesday's full council meeting.

The issues are twofold; firstly the project was never the success that the council claimed and, as the Herald reports in detail, glossy brochures, massaged figures and unverifiable targets disguised the fact that by 2011 the aims were being missed by a mile.

By 2012, the Welsh European Funding Office (WEFO) was investigating, but despite their own doubts over the programme's success, their remit seemed to be to 'bend over backwards' to accommodate the shortcomings, rather than ensure proper governance and value for money.
For instance, they decided that in-house, non-accredited courses could be classed as 'positive outcomes' even though the participants were never externally assessed to determine whether they had in fact learned anything.

The second issue concerns the allegations that evidence was 'doctored' by the council, actions which would have only been sanctioned by the highest authority. The purpose, to put it simply, was to cover-up the fact that the EU money had not been spent correctly.

This EU money, meant to be directed at finding jobs for vulnerable people, was instead being used to create council jobs by funding duties which the council, by law, was supposed to be providing anyway. Furthermore, clients who were ineligible for the Coastal scheme were seen by workers under it's scope.

During the WEFO 'investigation' the council conducted it's own internal enquiry, which is where things get muddy, The Herald has seen a council document which states that “Evidence has been found to show that claims submitted to the COASTAL project were not always consistent with work documented on client files.”

The Herald continues;
"The solution proposed by the Council was drastic: “A decision has been taken to revisit all timesheets and claims.” 
And the purpose of revisiting them was to: “ensure that these reflect work that was undertaken.” 
In other words, doctoring evidence."

Reading between the lines of the most recent (2015) council report suggests there was indeed something of a problem, and the 'amendments' to files continued;

"...It was essential that each participant's file was scrutinised to ensure compliance in every aspect of work. There were significant risks during the closure process that had to be identified to minimise the potential for future claw-back of the ESF [Coastal] grant"

It will be interesting to see how this matter is discussed on Wednesday....the webcast starts at 10am.

Interestingly, the subject of timesheets also cropped up at a meeting of the council Grants Panel in June, this was in relation to the final grant claim for The Works' development in Llanelli. The WAO were taking a closer look at these documents after a 'Qualification' (in other words, a massive question mark) appeared in the Accountant's Report.

The long wait continues for the WAO report over the two EU property grants dished out by Meryl last year, and, as revealed in an internal audit in July, a £3m payment to the council from the Welsh Government Supporting People grant was delayed due to 'fundamental weaknesses'.

These 'weaknesses' included the failure to comply with procurement rules and a failure to ensure that the money was being spent where it should have been. In this case, the appalling lack of an adequate paper trail seems to have been miraculously 'resolved' and the grant subsequently paid.

The Wales Audit Office, for four years running, has expressed disquiet over the council's grant management procedures but it seems that 'encouraging improvement' and 'health checks' should have been ditched long ago and given way to either an investigation into possible fraud, or at least a full public inquiry. 

'A vision for Carmarthenshire' - Plaid embrace County Hall spin

Must just mention a press release issued by the Plaid administration on Friday, never a particularly good time to attract worldwide attention. However, the press release, picked up by the Carmarthenshire Herald, claims that Plaid will take £20m (over five years) out of the council's £100m+ reserves to fund various projects across the county.

This 'strategy' for jobs and the well-being of residents is described as a 'vision', no less, suggesting that Plaid have finally wrestled free from the clutches of Mark and Meryl. On closer inspection the list of projects and developments are largely those approved in the Capital budget back in February.

The £2m towards the archives became necessary due to fifteen years of neglect by County Hall and the £286k towards the Carmarthen velodrome has merely puzzled and irritated those communities campaigning to stop the 96 parks, sport fields and playgounds being sold off.

The planned spend on Pembrey Country Park was authorised last year (also in the process of being sold off) and the 'new' care home in Llanelli relates to the 'Extra Care' scheme already in development. The £750,000 for Oriel Myrddin Gallery (offloaded to a trust) is the same £750,000 which appeared in February's capital budget. The same goes for the Disabled Facility Grants and the rest of the list.

So broadly speaking, there is no 'new' spend.

In February, and there's a reminder here, Plaid were in opposition (in their anti-austerity days) and their alternative budget called for a moderate, £6.2m transfer from the reserves to help prevent some of the more unpopular cuts to frontline services. The chief executive entered the political debate, as he does, and told them not to be so silly and sent them to the back of the class.

Promises were then made that although their 'hands were tied' Plaid would look at the reserves this year and see what could be done. Quite clearly their hands are still tied firmly behind their backs.

I suspect a few quid will find their way out of the reserves for PR purposes for one or two predicatable red-herrings but £18m cuts to schools, etc, and the offloading of anything not tied down remains.

No one is arguing that the cuts facing local government are easy but this press release smacks of typical county hall spin and propaganda and the only 'vision' Plaid can lay claim to is to have been fully assimilated into the Mark James Media Empire,