Sunday, 24 May 2015

Caerphilly, Carmarthenshire and the unlawful payments


This blog has followed, for obvious reasons, the unlawful payments scandal which unfolded a couple of years ago in Caerphilly Council. After a damning 2013 Wales Audit Office report and a police investigation, Caerphilly's chief executive, his deputy and the monitoring officer were all charged with Misconduct in Public Office back in January 2014 and bailed.

Some of us have been wondering when the matter would eventually reach trial and it looks like councillors in Caerphilly were wondering the same, particularly as all three senior officers remain suspended on full pay.

Yesterday's Western Mail reports that the trial has been delayed yet again and has now been listed for the 16th November.

What interests us over here in Carmarthenshire of course is the nature of the charges. I have pointed out the similarities before, you could call them parallels. Searching this blog with the word 'Caerphilly' brings up previous posts.

Essentially the three from Caerphilly are charged with 'wilfully' preventing proper scrutiny of a pay rise for senior officers, they;

“wilfully misconducted themselves in relation to securing Caerphilly County Borough Council’s approval of a remuneration package for the said council’s chief officers from which they stood to gain for themselves”. 
“deliberately failed to publish agenda and reports for a meeting of the said Council’s Senior Remuneration Committee in advance of said meeting”. 
“deliberately introduced gratuitous material into one of the reports that was to be considered at said meeting so as to provide an apparent justification for exempting that report from public consideration”. 
“deliberately applying a public interest test notice to the reports that were to be considered at said meeting when none was merited, thereby exempting the reports from public consideration”.

In Carmarthenshire, the circumstances surrounding the unlawful, illegal payments, exposed by the Wales Audit Office last year, were equally shocking, and deliberate. Proper governance was manipulated to avoid the possibility of scrutiny and challenge;

;
Failing to leave the meeting, or even declaring an interest when directly gaining personally and financially from the decision to approve his libel indemnity. Discussing the report with the 'author' prior to the meeting.

Wording the minutes of a meeting to deliberately mask the true nature of a 'pension arrangement'. The report was authored and presented by a senior officer, the assistant chief executive, with a personal and financial interest in the decision.

Omitting the libel indemnity from the published agenda on the erroneous grounds it was 'urgent' and thereby removing any possibility that it could be questioned.

Failing to publish the pension 'pay supplement' on the executive board agenda, again to avoid scrutiny and challenge.

Misleading the executive board by misrepresenting advice given in a previous legal opinion and so knowingly exposing the authority to the risk of legal challenge and censure.

Insisting that the lawyer representing the chief executive and the council in the libel litigation was a source of 'independent' legal opinion - commissioned to give 'impartial' advice to the executive board.

Misleading the entire council that both the tax avoidance pension scam and libel indemnity were legal when, in principle and and in practice, they were most definitely not. Those involved, particularly the senior officers, knew full well that in both cases the decisions were ultra vires;


So there we are, make of it what you will. I know what I make of it. I can only imagine that the Caerphilly lot must cast occasional envious glances towards Carmarthenshire and wonder how Mark James CBE and Co aren't awaiting trial with them.

My enquiries with Gloucestershire Police who led the criminal investigation in Carmarthenshire revealed, astonishingly, that they had no correspondence with Council, they spoke to no one at County Hall, and there was no involvement at all with the Crown Prosecution Service..

As for the elected members involved in the illegal decision making, Meryl Gravell and Pam Palmer, former leader and deputy leader (still) respectively, are still on the Executive Board, only Kevin Madge was eventually consigned to the backbench.

Cllr Sian Caiach, in a letter to this week's Herald remarks on the fact that the Plaid Cymru group called for votes of no confidence in all three last year following the Wales Audit Office reports. As a post script to last week's AGM and the demise of Kevin Madge as leader, she comments;
"...The crocodile tears from other councillors are out of place, especially from Plaid who proposed a vote of no confidence in Kevin last year on these shady payments. The same Plaid motion also condemned leading affiliated Independents Pam Palmer and Meryl Gravell for the same issue. 
Now Plaid is in coalition with these two ladies and their party, their previous wrongdoing appears to be forgiven, everyone in Plaid is now big pals with them. 
Politics is not for the faint hearted. It also encourages a very selective view of recent history..." 
As I have said, this, and many other issues will not go away and whether it upsets their new coalition partners or not, the new Plaid led administration, needs to look back as well as forward, 

Saturday, 23 May 2015

The Llanelli roundabouts

Back in January, in a post about potholes and budget cuts to highway maintenance of £3.3m over the next three years, I included a reference to council plans to 'enhance' four roundabouts in Llanelli as 'gateway displays' with walls, flowers and signs.

The planning applications went through, I imagine, with very little fuss and publicity, and the works started a few weeks ago. At which point questions were raised about the cost. The council responded to the Llanelli Star and said the entire amount - £190,000 - was from EU grants and the Welsh Government.

It appears the council were a little economical with the truth and later admitted that in fact it had coughed up £45,000 itself towards the project.

Local people questioned exactly how beneficial these expensive 'enhancements' were to Llanelli and for the council to justify such expenditure, wherever it came from, and which doesn't include, of course, the long term maintenance and upkeep of the displays.

Meryl Gravell was wheeled out to deliver a typical council response claiming that;

"Research has shown that improving the environment in and around town centres makes shoppers and traders feel better and encourages inward investment."

Meryl is vague as to what this 'research' (always a useful word to drop in) might have actually been, presumably it found that as we negotiate our cars around worsening potholes our simple minds are easily distracted by floral displays and dry stone walls. Who knew...?

The Care case...questions for the council

This week's Carmarthenshire Herald continues with another detailed article on the disturbing deprivation of liberty case covered in last week's edition. I mentioned it here and Cllr Sian Caiach, who has fought the family's corner for five years has written a detailed piece on her blog here. I recommend you read the latter for background and comment. The Herald article is not currently online.

The essence of what happened is that social workers and council officers initially removed 'H', a severely autistic young lady, from her family, following allegations of abuse made against her parents. The allegations had been made by two carers who had recently been suspected by the parents of taking their daughter's pocket money whilst on day trips.

The council's initial reaction may have been reasonable although at no time did it appear that the staff involved, and we must assume senior staff were involved in such a serious case, took an objective view of the initial evidence.

What then followed was far from reasonable. Instead of admitting that a mistake had been made, the council, in the face of overwhelming, independent and expert evidence that no abuse had taken place, embarked on a course of action to justify their initial response. Their ultimate aim appeared to be to permanently remove H from her parents.

As I said, instead of admitting that a mistake had been made and returning H to her parents, the council put the family, including their vulnerable daughter, through six months of untold agony.

The Herald article states;

"...the social workers involved appear to have prejudged all issues, irrespective of whether they were supported by evidence. With their preconceptions and prejudices punched full of holes, social workers were hell bent on justifying their actions and not reuniting a family divided by demonstrably bogus allegations of abuse"

Herald columnist Cadno, whilst fully acknowledging the difficulties faced by social workers, writes on the case in this week's edition

"Trapped in a danse macabre between its rock solid self-righteousness and a whirlpool of evidence that should have told those concerned they were heedlessly waltzing towards disaster, the Council’s social workers and their managers refused to believe the obvious: that they had been led down the garden path by those whose motives were – at the very least – open to question. 
An autistic adult was whisked away from her parents on the basis of slanted and dubious evidence. And kept away even when the scale of the error was made plain. There can be no excuse, no special pleading, and no vindication for such a course of action." 

The Herald asked the council's social services department to explain their position in regard to to their apparent determination to prevent H being returned to her parents. There was no response.

They also asked the Exec Board Member, Jane Tremlett and the Chair of the social care scrutiny committee;

"to provide a response setting out how they have engaged with this case and what steps they took to challenge officers on their conduct in connection with it". 

As you will know from Cllr Caiach's efforts, there has been no scrutiny nor challenge and members only became aware of the case after Cllr Caiach requested the report from the Ombudsman.

However, a 'response' was received, purporting to be from Cllr Jane Tremlett. It includes the usual tight-lipped platitudes that 'lessons' continue to be learned from this case', and that as the matter might still be sub judice, it would be inappropriate to comment.

The council have settled H's case but despite being told by a judge some time ago to settle the case brought by H's parents, they still have not done so.

Once their case has been settled, the parents will be free to talk about their experience, which, I suspect, is not something the council will relish.

As Cllr Caiach puts it,

"Do they [the parents] have to wait for every employee involved to retire or move on, to spare their blushes?" 
"I think we could do with some urgent openness and accountability here. It is not just one catalogue of errors that concerns me but the whole culture of reacting to bad news by secrecy and denial. Hiding the truth only perpetuates the injustice and may invite a repeat performance".

There is no doubt that this case must be looked at by the new Plaid Cymru led administration.


The full article, and the Cadno comment can be read in this week's Herald.


Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Carry on Council - Updated


Source; Carmarthen Journal
(Update below)

Rumours are now circulating that there could be yet another challenge to the Labour group leadership on the council. Kevin Madge was ousted last week by Jeff Edmunds - a choice so unpalatable to Meryl she ditched the Labour Group and formed a new administration with Plaid Cymru and Plaid leader Cllr Emlyn Dole was proclaimed as leader of the council (subject to today's AGM). Please see last week's posts.

Quite who is challenging Jeff Edmunds isn't known - possible contenders could be Anthony Jones or Calum Higgins. 
Maybe it's a last ditch attempt by Labour to woo Meryl?

Today's (Wednesday) AGM features the Chains of Office swapping ritual starting at 11am. The meeting will then be adjourned until 2pm when the nitty gritty of electing the leader of council, the allocation of seats on the Executive Board (50/50 split between Plaid and the Independents - subject to any last minute changes) and the allocation of Chairs and associated Special Responsibility Allowances...


Update 21st May

I'll not go into details as yesterday's AGM is now available to watch on archive with the afternoon session starting around 1 hour 10 minutes in. 
Just a few observations.

Plaid's Peter Hughes Griffiths is now the Chair of the Council and veteran Labour Cllr Eryl Morgan is Vice Chair.

The 'votes' for these positions were not unanimous as Cllr Caiach abstained on both. This was nothing personal but a protest over the way these positions are granted every year including the time honoured tradition of each main group taking it in turns. The use of the word 'election' is a misnomer and the system remains deeply undemocratic.

The Plaid/Independent coalition is now official, until the next local elections in 2017, and Plaid's Emlyn Dole is the Leader of the council.

The Executive Board now includes Plaid members; Cllr Emlyn Dole, Leader; Cllr Dai Jenkins, Deputy Leader and resources; Cllr Gareth Jones, Education; Cllr Hazel Evans, Environment and the member for Housing has yet to be confirmed.

(Update 23rd May - The reason that the Exec Board member for Housing has yet to be appointed is that Cllr Dole wishes to appoint Cllr Linda Evans to the post. Although she has been the shadow member for Housing, Cllr Dole must obtain dispensation from the Standards Committee to appoint her to the Exec Board as she is his sister-in-law)

The Independent Exec Board Members remain the same.
The Chair of the Planning Committee, Labour Councillor Anthony Jones has been replaced by Plaid's Alun Lenny.

The aim of afternoon session was, after all the squabbling, to try and show a united front rather than stabbing each other in the back and (with apologies for my cynicism) mourning the loss of Special Responsibility Allowances. However the ill-feeling did become quite apparent. 

Kevin Madge remarked that the lengthy Labour/Independent alliance started with a kiss with Meryl back in 2004. Jeff Edmunds commented that his own failure to kiss Meryl could perhaps explain his current situation and indeed the situation the Labour group now found itself in, he also gave something of a sermon on morality. 

This didn't go down terrible well and Independent Cllr Giles Morgan informed Cllr Edmunds that no one would be queuing up to kiss him (Cllr Edmunds), he wouldn't be listening to his sermons and he thought his, and others, treatment of Kevin Madge had been shabby.

Emlyn Dole promised to bring further openness and transparency to the council. In my opinion he and his group need to do more than take things forward; there are many people who now believe that with Plaid in charge, they will act as a new broom and deal with long standing issues, for so long swept under the carpet.

Whether they will or not remains to be seen, and many of us will have high expectations for the Extraordinary meeting on the 17th June. (My post, 'The Governance Review - part 94' from 2nd May)

The Wales Audit Office will be carrying out a comprehensive assessment of the council's progress in matters of governance later this year.

I gave my opinion last week, and it will be interesting to see whether Plaid can turn things around from an officer-led council or not; the Labour group are obviously bitter and divided; I wouldn't trust Meryl and Pam, their coalition partners, as far as I could throw them, and the biggest problem, the chief executive, is still there for the foreseeable future.

We'll see what happens.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Church News


Council prayers

Over recent years, various well-documented methods have been employed to curtail topical and controversial debate in the Chamber; the deliberate suppression of debate was recognised by the WLGA review. The decision whether something is, or is not on the agenda has been controlled by the chief executive Chair according to the matter raised. If it's not likely to cause corporate embarrassment then it doesn't matter whether it's on the agenda or not.

One item which has never been on the published agenda, but remains a feature of every full council meeting is the prayers at the start of the proceedings. In my view, there is no place for prayers at a civic council meeting. Church and state should be kept apart, and all that. Councillors, and officers, should be able to function without asking for divine guidance.

Prayers, to any god, should be taken by those who want to, prior to the meeting, in my view. Currently, any councillor who doesn't wish to join in, or is a member of a different faith, must either sit down, and be accused by fellow Members of disrespect, or stay outside the chamber until the moment has passed which gives the impression that the councillor is late.

The National Secular Society comments on a recent decision by a town council in England to stop praying at meetings; "local authority meetings are not an appropriate setting for religious worship".

Asking Carmarthenshire Council to stop praying at meetings would be like asking them to take a pay cut, but maybe it's time they weighed up whether prayer forms part of their equalities policy or whether it is in fact the complete opposite and highly divisive.

Horses for courses

Back in March, after a jolly trip to the evangelical bowling alley, the Executive Board eagerly agreed to iron out a few creases for their partners, the Towy Community Church. The church, as readers will know, has already benefited from £1.4m in land deals, grants and loans from the council.

The issue in March, (also covered by the Herald) was that the church were already using parts of the Xcel Centre bowling alley which they were not supposed to, and were in breach of their legal agreement and planning permission.

Unlike those of us who will undoubtedly suffer eternal conscious punishment, or at least end up in the Magistrate's court for such misdemeanours, the Board happily agreed to 'amend' the agreement.  Cllr Jane Tremlett thought they should have a £20k boiler, Pam Palmer got even more righteous than usual and the chief executive offered to arrange further trips to the church for any interested members.

Well there's no news yet, as far as we know, on the boiler but what did the church want to use the extra space for? Ostensibly it was to provide office space for the furniture recycling facility although usefully the council also agreed for meeting rooms in this space to be hired out.

So who has been hiring it out? One organisation is Caleb 14:24, an evangelical group which runs a church consultancy and 'Christian leadership development' courses, with a similar fundamentalist faith as the Towy Church, (and, we sometimes wonder, County Hall). Each to his own of course, and the courses are run in evangelical churches around Wales; apart from in Carmarthen, where they're run from the bowling alley...

Incidentally, the Caleb website calls for donations towards purchasing a £1m mansion in the Carmarthenshire countryside as a 'Kingdom Life Centre'. It is not known if it has been purchased, nor is it any concern of ours.

However, should the organisation succeed in their purchase, their three year financial forecast for the Centre includes £47,500 in 'Grants from Local Government'. What those grants could possibly be is a bit of a mystery...but there's only one local government round here and that's Carmarthenshire County Council.

As I said, politics and religion should be kept apart, particularly in Carmarthenshire.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Today's papers


Things appear to be growing increasingly acrimonious in County Hall with the South Wales Evening Post reporting on accusations made by Labour's Jeff Edmunds. Cllr Edmunds, who had unseated Kevin Madge for the leader's crown on Monday, only to be thwarted by Plaid and the Independents by Wednesday afternoon, has accused the two groups of doing a deal way back in February. He said;
“I was going through one door and they were bringing Councillor Dole through the other. I believed the deal was done when I took the budget through the council.”

According to Cllr Edmunds the two groups hatched a plan two days after the budget and during the media furore over the pile of reserves and the intervention of the chief executive in the political debate.

Mr Edmunds' claim of a stitch up is vehemently denied by Plaid Leader Emlyn Dole as; 
"totally and utterly untrue. What happened is because of an implosion in the Labour Party.."
and insists that the subject of a coalition with the Independents didn't crop up until Wednesday - the opportunity presented itself and they took it.


Then again, who knows...perhaps if Kevin Madge and his Labour group hadn't put the pre-election kybosh on the the chief executive's golden handshake back in January, he'd still be sat in the leader's chair. Our council works in such mysterious ways.


This week's Herald leads with a detailed report on the complex deprivation of liberty case, which, readers of this and Cneifiwr's blog may recall, resulted in an adverse ombudsman report for the council, and a finding of misconduct by the GMC for the doctor commissioned by the council to assess the case.

Cllr Caiach has championed the interests of the family who were torn apart four years ago when allegations were made against the parents of a severely autistic young lady. The allegations were groundless. Cllr Caiach has tried, so far without success, to have this shocking case brought to the council's scrutiny committee.

The Herald provides an update and understands that the legal case brought by the young lady against the council by her advocate has now been settled, but the council, four years on, still hasn't settled the matter with her parents, who went through untold anguish.
The Herald remarks;

"Unfortunately for [the parents], the Council has form in spinning out proceedings, seeking to grind down litigants with legal manoeuvres rather than face up and fess up to its own mistakes."

Cneifiwr has summarised the case today and sends a challenge to the new coalition;

"Let us hope that the new administration acts swiftly in this case and sends a clear signal that cover-ups, denials and complete indifference to the suffering of real people are no longer acceptable."

Update 20th May; Cllr Caiach has blogged on this case here. She comments;
"It is not just one catalogue of errors that concerns me but the whole culture of reacting to bad news by secrecy and denial. Hiding the truth only perpetuates the injustice and may invite a repeat performance."

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

The Herald's Cadno piece considers the ups and downs, and expense, of the chief executive's love affair with sports stadia. From Mr James' time at Boston Borough Council and his 'vision' for the PRSA sports arena, through to the Parc Y Scarlets stadium. The common theme, aside from Mr James' visions, were the wildly inaccurate projected costs for each facility and the lack of proper scrutiny.

Cadno comments;

Projected profits turned out to be yawning deficits. The Council was warned that its investment was risky. It thundered on anyway.
As in Boston, so in Llanelli.
Councillors kept in the dark or not consulted on key decisions seem to be patterns in both Boston and Carmarthenshire.
And through it all the one constant has been the treasured and distinguished Mark James.

Cadno also mentions the curious matter of the Marston's deal and the very unequal split of the proceeds between the club and the council. You may recall the club did rather better out of the arrangement, despite the best efforts of some senior officers, than the Carmarthenshire taxpayer.

A last minute intervention by an even more senior official appeared to rubber stamp a deal which enabled the club to pay off a third party loan and class it as an 'allowable expense'.


For the full story, please pick up a copy of The Carmarthenshire Herald, well worth 50p. 

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Changes at County Hall - My tuppence worth


Well, it's been an interesting couple of days. Jeff Edmunds has achieved the world record for the shortest leadership in history and Meryl's distate for that particular arrangement turned the coalition on it's head and she jumped into bed with Plaid. As for the horse-trading, we'll have to wait and see the cost.

There does, however, need to be an effective opposition regardless to who is in power; for checks, balance and scrutiny; and a splintered Labour group, riddled with bitter in-fighting, isn't going to cut the mustard.

I am sure there are many delighted Plaid supporters who understandably feel that as the largest group on the council, this has been a long wait which is now finally over. I would say that their work has only begun.

I think that Plaid in opposition have, in general, attempted to hold the authority to account under difficult circumstances. However, I feel that they could have done more. For example, the often strong critical voice of the Plaid MP, Jonathan Edwards has not always translated into practical, principled action by the Plaid group on the council.

They now have no excuse. As the larger group in the coalition, they now need to walk the walk, we've heard them talk the talk. It will be interesting to see the make -up of the Executive Board, will the more articulate and outspoken Plaid members be on it rather than the old guard? Despite being the smaller group, I understand the Independents have kept five seats on the Board.

So where should they start? All eyes will be on them and their ideas, criticisms, and their very words spoken in the last few years will be remembered, and a watching brief taken over the way they deal with the poisoned chalice, and the toxic culture created and sustained by Mark, Meryl and Pam.

With the budget for this year stamped and sealed, cutbacks are on the cards - Plaid's alternative budget to use some of the £122m the council holds in reserves to lessen the blow should be a top priority

This blog has been mostly concerned with transparency and Plaid have promised to treat this as a priority. The EGM will be held next month discussing the WLGA 'culture change' recommendations and I fully expect Plaid to go over and above the insipid version actually being proposed and not attempt to keep their less-than-transparent Independent colleagues happy.

Then we come to the rest of it. The way whistleblowers have been treated, the attitude towards the Ombudsman, the Wales Audit Office; the squandering of taxpayers' money and favours on the Scarlets and the evangelicals; the shameful attitude towards the local press and critics; the spin and deception and a system of patronage the envy of any third world dictatorship.

All of which has been condoned and rubber stamped by Plaid's coalition partners.

Then we have the chief executive, Mr James, who, in my view, has been at the root of the problem and who has been left, for years, to carve his merry way through the last vestiges of democracy, truth and integrity, a shedload of taxpayers money, and the final straw - the unlawful payment scandals.

In my view, Mark James still needs to be held to account - I would like to see Plaid do just that. They could start by asking him repay the unlawful monies, and launch official disciplinary proceedings. Until he is brought to account, and whether he goes soon or not, his legacy will remain like an albatross around Plaid's neck. There are many beans still to be spilled.
I hope the deal with Meryl didn't include the eternal retention of the chief executive, he needs to go, and without a golden handshake.

A few years ago we would neither know, and therefore not care, what went on behind the walls of County Hall. As technology has moved forward we all now have access to information, and public interest in the council has grown accordingly. Through blogs and social media we can all have a say, however small. We're all watching.

Not only are local councils under a more effective spotlight these days but so are the bodies which regulate them. We are getting there folks, but it's a long way off yet.

But back to County Hall, and as it's very early days we'll have to see how things progress for the Plaid, who certainly have their work cut out...and Assembly elections next year to bear in mind.
Maybe the council has started a new chapter, maybe it hasn't, but Caebrwyn, who remains politically, and most definitely, unaffiliated, will continue to write the book...








Statement from Cllr Sian Caiach


Statement on the Plaid/Independent deal from unaffiliated Carmarthenshire County Councillor, Sian Caiach:

"I'm instinctively very disappointed with Emlyn Dole going into coalition with the Affiliated Independents because they are right wing and so heavily implicated in many of the poor decisions made by the Council including the two unlawful payments to the chief executive. However, I trust he is his own man and will not pay for the support of the Affiliated Independents with collusion to hide the mistakes of the past.

"It  may be that Emlyn Dole is looking to finally open up the council to open and public scrutiny, starting with the well known recent cases of apparently gross mismanagement and/or victimisation. He has set great store on CCC becoming an open and transparent council and he should start by examining these cases which appear to be examples of past bad practice .

"I trust he will have a sympathetic ear to those who were whistle blowers in the Council organisation and had their careers destroyed. I also expect him to acknowledge the sewage pollution  in the Burry Inlet and co operate with the case against the UK for breach of the Urban Waste Water habitat directive in the European Court.

"I wish the new administration well and sincerely hope that they can turn the "Government of Camarthenshire" into something we can all be proud of. 
Sian Caiach 

Further thoughts from Sian Caiach on the new arrangements can be found here; A bonfire of the vanities

May meeting....all on best behaviour


This post was written after yesterday's full council meeting and before events unfolded a few hours later. Further comment on those events will follow later today.

With everyone on best behaviour for the cameras, the sharpened knives kept out of sight and a short prayer to 'speak intelligently', the meeting was over in an hour and a half. Most of it was taken up with a corporate presentation from the head of planning on the new planning bill. Kevin Madge decided, either by design or coincidence, not to turn up.

The chief executive, who had thought his premature tactic of removing all the committee reports from the agenda had finally silenced Cllr Bill Thomas, clearly thought wrong. Cllr Thomas ignored audible chirpings from the podium complaining that 'it wasn't on the agenda' and made his declaration anyway. Regular readers will know that Cllr Thomas has taken a principled stand against council planning policy exacerbating pollution problems in the Burry Inlet.

Cllr Emlyn Dole enquired as to what plans the council had in mind for the Drefach Campus of Ysgol Maes y Gwendraeth, which was closing in July and once the new school was built. Locals were concerned the site would be used to merge all the remaining village primary schools in the council's masterplan to accelerate rural decline.

Possible leader in waiting, Jeff Edmunds said that nothing was decided but it would all become apparent later in the year with the publication of an update on the council's Modernising Education Programme (MEP). Cllr Dole, who had had to suspend standing orders to ask a supplementary question, wanted a specific answer. In true leadership style, Cllr Edmunds passed it on to the officer, Mr Sully, who more or less repeated what had been said. It sounds like the locals in the upper Gwendreath valley were right to be concerned.

This is not just an issue in the Gwendraeth Valley of course. The preferred option for redundant school sites is to sell them to developers..a process being considered for Pantycelyn School site in Llandovery. One option for the old Tregib School site in Llandeilo is also to house the remaining village schools.
The plan to move Llanwrda and Llansadwrn Schools into Llangadog Primary have now been mothballed - they will undoubtedly still close, but I suspect that all three will move to either Llandovery or Llandeilo.

Part of the reason of course for the falling numbers in rural schools has been the MEP itself. It began life around ten years ago and created a masterplan for new shiny buildings and has proudly listed schools already closed and those it is going to close, for some years. This is enough to persuade parents, who want continuity in education, to send their kids to schools in the larger towns and indeed move there, in the first place.

Last year, after a lengthy wrangle, plans for the Executive Board and officers decide on school closures alone, without reference to full council were eventually shelved as clearly the final say should be a democratic one.

This was clearly only a temporary measure as 'concerns from stakeholders' that closures are taking too long have prompted another go. This time the idea seems to be to establish a Local Determination Panel (another committee) which could have the final say.

I understand that, despite requests, the much hailed MEP has yet to provide any sort of correlation between shiny new buildings and an improvement in education standards but who cares..the consultants and project management companies have made a small fortune and they're always good for a hard-hat photo op followed by a ribbon-cutting press release.

Anyway, I'm digressing and next up was the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales recommendations for councillor pay. The IRPW recommended no change from last year. Cllr Hazel Evans (Plaid) got up to speak and I thought for one moment she was going to recommend, given the tight budget, that they all take a moderate pay cut. But no, Cllr Evans wanted to express her disapproval that the Chair of the Council (so expertly occupied by Daff Davies for one more week) was getting £500 less than a scrutiny Chair. Outrageous, the Chair should have more!

The head of planning, retiring in September, then gave his presentation on the Planning Bill. This is reaching its final stage in the Senedd next week. I'm afraid you'll have to watch the webcast for the details.

Tune in for next week's instalment; the thrills and spills, leadership nomination(s), the shuffling of Chairs and the Civic Nonsense of Carmarthenshire Council's AGM.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

All kicking off in County Hall - Labour lose control...updating


Update;18:10;
BBC reporter @aledscourfield confirms on Twitter that a deal has been struck between Plaid and the Independents. It now seems that Plaid leader, Cllr Emlyn Dole will lead the council, his name will be put forward at next week's AGM.

The Labour coup seems to have backfired spectacularly and they've lost control of the council.

Plaid Cllr Alun Lenny spoke this evening to the @SWEveningPost ;
"We have our own manifesto and we have our own priorities.
"Obviously we have inherited a most difficult position but we are determined to improve the image of the council and make it more open and transparent."

We'll see. This is a coalition after all, and with Meryl and Pam, and a poisoned chalice.
Interestingly, at the last council elections in 2012 it was rumoured that if Plaid won, Mark James would leave...although knowing how much Mr James likes to involve himself in the politics of the council, he never leaves things to chance. Perhaps Kev and his splintered group were becoming a liability for him, and as for Jeff Edmunds, Mr James has already marked his card, some time ago.

Interesting times ahead...

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

Rumours that Meryl and Pam and their merry Independents were not going to agree to work with Jeff Edmunds, the council leader in waiting, are now confirmed.

The Labour/Independent coalition is in pieces as the Indies have, this afternoon, made overtures to the Plaid Cymru group (the largest with 29 seats) to form a coalition which would boot the ruling Labour group into opposition. Labour have also offered Plaid a coalition deal.

It looks like the Labour rebels who ousted Kevin Madge didn't quite think this one through...

Whether the Plaid group will be tempted to get into bed with Meryl, or Jeff, or remain in opposition, we'll have to wait and see.
Also as predicted, it is Meryl who is calling the shots.


Previous post; Kevin Madge resigns, here.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Kevin Madge loses leadership challenge - updated...resigns as leader of the council


Update 12th May 16:00;
As per my last update, Kevin Madge has just issued a statement to say he has resigned as leader of Carmarthenshire Council. He will still be a councillor of course.

He thanked the Independent Group "most sincerely" folks for their "support and friendship" and "those people" in the Labour group who have supported him...and curse on all the houses of those who booted him out, I imagine.
He also thanks Mark James, the chief executive who, let's be honest, hasn't exactly done him any favours.

There is a full council meeting tomorrow (Wed) at 10am and the AGM, which will be interesting under present circumstances, is next Wednesday, the 20th May. The fur has definitely been flying.
(13th May; Kevin Madge did not attend today's meeting, unsurprisingly..)

The papers report that Jeff Edmunds has met with Mr James and also with Pam Palmer the 'leader' of the Independents. The Independents have also had a meeting to 'discuss their position' and the coalition.
Should be an interesting week.

Update 12th May 11;00;
It is understood that a change in leadership of the council can only happen if Kevin Madge resigns or a Motion calling for a change of leader is brought to full council, possibly at the AGM on the 20th May, if they're quick enough.
I would imagine the most painless and least embarrassing way for Kev to relinquish the crown would be to resign.
It will be interesting to see if there are any other nominations for leader aside from Jeff Edmunds....

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Kevin Madge has been ousted as leader of the Labour group on Carmarthenshire County Council. In successful challenge this afternoon, Labour colleague Cllr Jeff Edmunds has replaced him following a secret ballot at the group's AGM.
Cllr Edmunds nomination as leader of Carmarthenshire Council will be considered at the council AGM on May 20th but his appointment is likely to be a formality.

As this challenge had been rumoured for some time, it was understood that Cllr Edmunds was not the preferred choice of Meryl, whose Independents are in coalition with Labour...
It will be interesting to see whether this prompts something of an Executive Board reshuffle or even a push for the top slot from the Independents.

Kevin Madge survived a council motion of no confidence in March 2014 in the aftermath of the pension and libel indemnity scandals in a tightly whipped vote. He had been on the executive board when the original unlawful decisions had been made and has continued to defend the indefensible at huge cost to the taxpayer.

Cllr Madge has been seen as weak and a puppet leader, remaining solidly under the influence of the chief executive and Meryl Gravell.  Combined with the negative effect his track record has had on the local Labour doorstep, he has now failed to win the confidence of even his own party.

How 'Psychic' Jeff Edmunds will fare however, remains to be seen....

Cadno considers the Guru of Garnant...


With rumours that the knives are out from within the Labour group, Kevin Madge's future as leader of Carmarthenshire council hangs in the balance (or perhaps he's asked them to put him out of his misery).
Carmarthenshire Herald columnist, Cadno, considers the scenario and possible options;


Cadno hears the head of the herd

There it is, readers: whether you voted or not, the General Election is over and, if you are reading this on Friday May 8, the business of forming a government is underway. 
Think of individual policies as parasites within the body-politic. With a level of skill otherwise required only when luring out a tapeworm from its cosy home in the lower part of the human digestive system, concessions are – even as you read this – being enticed out to sate the aspirants’ appetite for power. 
It’s a beguiling image - isn’t it readers? – all that bold talk of majorities and mandates boils down which party is prepared to swallow the unspeakable in order to get its mitts on the levers of power. 
As Cadno is writing this before the results of the election are known, he could be wrong and either David Cameron has clung on to the chain of office and is even now flushing the remains of the UK down the pan with him, or Ed Miliband is being sucked towards having to do a deal with parties he and his lieutenants in Scotland and Wales have spent the better part of six weeks deriding. 
It’s a rum do that politics malarkey, readers. You might even describe the political process as capricious; one that – from the perspective of those who lead parties – punishes success as much as it reviles failure. 
Look at poor old Kevin Adequate, for instance. 
If you believe one quarter of the things the Council come out with, Carmarthenshire leads the way in leading the way and all sorts of good stuff. There are strategies, plans, and many things done. 
The responsibility for all this good stuff is the enlightened and benign leadership of Comrade Kev and his administration made up of the great and the good. 
So, readers, how is it that rumours abound that so toxic has Carmarthenshire County Council been on the doorstep that it is said that the Guru of Garnant currently possesses the shelf-life of a rather aged pilchard? 
Like the emperor who had no clothes, the County Council has proven rather too fond of believing in its own infallibility than is healthy. The recent debate about Carmarthenshire’s future as a unitary authority betrayed self-delusion beyond measure in the ranks of County Councillors. 
In principle, Cadno believes that, given Carmarthenshire’s geographical size, it should be retained and not dismembered. However, too many on the governing coalition’s benches bobbed up and down to suggest that it was unthinkable that a Council they claimed was a beacon of hope and high ideals in Wales should be swept aside simply because of a long series of crass and venal errors of judgement and morals. 
Honestly, readers, Cadno listened disbelievingly to any number of points and speeches that suggested that Carmarthenshire’s Council was one that other councils aspired to be. 
When poor old Emlyn Dole, whose motion was hijacked by the ruling group, compared – without irony - Carmarthenshire’s free-thinking democratic process to a lack of strong governance in neighbouring Pembrokeshire, Cadno damned near carked it when overcome by a fit of laughter. 
As Robert Burns wrote:
Oh, wad some Power the giftie gie us,
To see ourselves as others see us! 
If the Council was one half as successful as its members claim, readers, Kevin Adequate’s future would be in no doubt whatsoever. 
But there are rumblings of discontent which suggest that some Labour councillors, at least, are becoming aware that the public are less content with their record of fifteen years of carve up than they are themselves. 
The abandonment of ideals, the desertion of manifesto commitments, and the appearance of being in hock to one arguably over-mighty employee has not helped Labour’s profile whether on the Council or in Carmarthenshire’s Westminster seats. 
It is no good Kevin pointing out debateable successes when they are weighed in the balance against an administrative agenda that appears to pork-barrel a favoured few and put money in the pocket of speculative property developers. Let’s look at Carmarthenshire Labour’s headline ‘achievements’ over fifteen years: 
· The county is 21st out of 22 Welsh local authorities for the provision of affordable housing; 
· Spending public money to pay its best paid employee’s legal expenses; 
· Trying to silence any critical comment in the local press by outright political thuggery and malice; 
· Llanelli town centre is ranked 499th out of 500 town centres; 
· Treating the Ombudsman with contempt; 
· Routinely curtailing democratic scrutiny; 
· Using Council officers to attack political opponents; 
· Repeatedly defending the indefensible decision to enrich the retirement of the Council’s Chief Executive by hatching a squalid pension tax avoidance scheme 
The natives are not revolting, but the Labour Party on Carmarthenshire County Council have proven in spades that they are. Perhaps they have lain together with Meryl and the WI on the ‘Independent’ benches for too long to realise it, but people want real politics and real achievements, not semantic shuffling combined with the type of breast-beating more usually associated with Tarzan, King of the Apes, than with a barrel of asthmatic monkeys. 
Of course, the Leader of the Council does not have to come from the Labour Group. Perhaps the poisoned chalice could return – could it be, readers? – to Meryl the Peril. 
With her unique brand of blinkered hauteur to the role of leader and rallying cry of ‘Boldly going forward ‘cause we can’t find reverse’, Meryl could well be the answer to Carmarthenshire Labour’s dreams, enabling it to scuttle away from the scene of the crime without too many questions. 
But the most likely head of the herd will come from the Labour ranks. The alternatives to Kevin appear to be ‘Mystic’ Jeff Edmunds, whose joie de vivre and scintillating rhetoric has set so many budget reports alight and Anthony ‘The Chair’ Jones, Head of the Planning Committee, and one who appears regularly to bear the impression of the last officer to sit on him. 
Like Comrade Kev, ‘The Chair’ hails from the area around Ammanford, whence Labour draws much strength. Mystic Jeff hails Llanelli-ward and is perhaps better placed to fight against any move to remove Llanelli from Carmarthenshire in any future reorganisation of Welsh local government. 
The prospects of any of the above replacing Kev is almost enough to inculcate a fond longing within Cadno for Kevin Adequate to stay the course. It certainly makes writing this column so much easier while he is at the helm. Bear in mind, readers, the captain of the Titanic headed straight into the iceberg without handing control over to a number two.
(SourceThe Carmarthenshire Herald)

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the Guru of Garnant....


Friday, 8 May 2015

Is County Hall turning its guns on the Herald?




Judging by this week's edition, and despite only being launched in March, the Carmarthenshire Herald appears to be coming under pressure from County Hall over its publication of negative council news stories and its determination to get to the truth.

The Herald's statement, placed squarely on the front page, suggests that there has been a specific incident. It is astonishing and deeply disturbing that yet again, County Hall believes it can wield power to suppress and control the editorial content of the local independent press. It has learnt nothing.

The Carmarthenshire Herald is sending a very strong and very clear message to County Hall;

"..In Carmarthenshire, the council has sought to bully and intimidate the press by either threatening to cut off its advertising revenue or actually cutting its expenditure in local press. 

Using its financial muscle it has encouraged other public sector bodies with which it has a relationship to do likewise.

The Herald will not be bought off or bullied into submission however; and if misguided people within the council think it will, they need to know we will not rest in pursuing real news stories and investigating real issues" 

The article continues and adapts for publication my March blogpost concerning the review of the press and media protocol along with the council's 'form' for attempting to suppress criticism and investigative journalism, including the notorious incident with the South Wales Guardian; Ministry of Spin - Leopards don't change their spots





In light of the above, and with the revised press protocol on the agenda for Monday's Executive Board meeting the Herald posed some very pertinent questions to the council;

1. What was the reason the council felt it needed to consider revision of the press and media protocol?

2. Would you accept in the past that the council has deliberately compromised the ability of the local press to report on negative press and deter investigative journalism?

3. Would you accept as a press department that you and your colleagues have failed to get back to our Carmarthenshire correspondents on requests for the Carmarthenshire Herald since we started the newspaper?

The 'response', if you could call it that, came from Cllr Pam Palmer who, despite having made her derogatory views concerning the local press publicly known, has the portfolio for 'Communications', I doubt it was her who actually 'responded' and I doubt very much if the Herald expected an honest answer;

"The Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee have been reviewing the press and media protocol - as they review all policies from time to time - and a cross-party working group was set up for this purpose. It is now going through the political process and will go to Executive Board on Monday"

I remain of the opinion that it is not Pam Palmer, nor Kevin Madge, or anyone else for that matter who has form for flexing dictatorial power - it is the chief executive Mark James who has always been at the root of the problem, and his disciples have been complicit in letting it all happen.

The damning findings of the WLGA review concerning the relationship between County Hall and the press are, it would appear, being treated with utter contempt.

The lady vanishes...and next week's meetings


One person who will not be in the Chamber for next week's meetings is the "first female director" at Carmarthenshire County Council, Ms Chrisitna Harrhy, who has resigned after just three months in the job and gone to Caerphilly Council. So unique was the appointment of a woman back in January that the novelty required a headline in the welcoming council press release.

I'm sure Ms Harrhy left for entirely personal reasons but, as ever with these things, rumours abound and it was said that the council had been found wanting, a complete shambles, apparently..
Today's Carmarthenshire Herald describes her departure as an embarrassment for the authority and that 'it has been suggested that she found the task of tackling entrenched interests at County Hall a disillusioning experience"

The chief executive's statement on the quick departure was certainly brief and devoid of even a hint of the customary regret/tribute/well-wish at losing a valued colleague, or the first female Director for that matter. I doubt there'll be a second;

"The Director of Environment has resigned to take up a post at Caerphilly Council as Director of Education and Environment.

"We will be re-advertising the post."

Until the arrival of Ms Harrhy, the couple of senior roles taken up by women have been internal appointments and 'acting up' positions, although incidentally. the word 'acting' appears to have mysteriously vanished from the status of the head of law and Monitoring Officer, Linda Rees Jones.

It would appear that, as well as being male, an in-depth knowledge of, and an unquestioning loyalty to, 'how things are done in Carmarthenshire' is a prerequisite, 'Answering back' is the road to oblivion, for anyone.

Ms Harrhy's position took a couple of years to fill. One meeting back in 2013 to appoint a director was abandoned when it became apparent that the councillors on the Appointments Committee were not on course to appoint the, er, 'right' candidate and there was, allegedly, some highly unconstitutional 'unelected intervention'..

The post then morphed from Director of Technical Services into Director of Environment, now with a multitude of responsibilities from Planning to Democratic Services. It was all part of the management restructuring masterplan.

As an aside, at a recent Executive Board Member meeting, (the public, press and other councillors currently excluded), a revised version of the 2013 restructuring policy was approved.

We don't know what's in it, as neither the brief minutes nor the agenda (both published together, a week after the event) link to any documents. As per my last post, the governance working group see nothing wrong with the minutes of the council's meetings....

Anyway, it seems that one of the "key changes" of the revised policy was to change it's name from 'Organisational Change Policy and Procedure' to...'Restructuring Policy and Procedure'. Obviously an essential decision... though after Ms Harrhy's sudden departure it appears that a pointless name change is the least of their worries.

With the Labour group at Carmarthenshire Council in apparent disarray (see previous post), it's not entirely clear whether Mr Madge will survive challenges from within his own group next week and still be delivering his usual, er, statesman-like speeches as Leader next Wednesday.... Meryl (Ind) may well have the final say on who she could and couldn't possibly work with, if the coalition wants to continue in it's present form that is....

There's a notable omission from Monday's Executive Board meeting with that political hot-potato, the 'free parking in Llanelli' pilot (see April's meeting) failing to put in an appearance...maybe next month..or the month after that.

The agenda for Wednesday's council meeting includes the delights of yet another lengthy Power-Point presentation, this time it's about the Planning Bill which is currently wending its way, controversially, through the Senedd, A Google search is probably your best bet if you want to find out more, but the council's summary is here. (Warning; there are lots of Plans, Strategies and Frameworks..)

The raft of committee reports are again relegated to 'for info' only, (see previous posts) and instead we have just three paltry questions; one of which is directed at the health board and another to the Welsh Government and all three are from one councillor.

The format of the agenda is beginning to look like the one proposed by the chief executive back in October 2013, complete with corporate presentations. Those proposals which, along with other tactics to remove debate, prompted a request for the council to be put in special measures.
All that's left to remove now is executive decisions, perhaps they could be replaced with an hour or two of gospel songs and prayer?

With both managerial and political 'leadership', if you could call it that, in its usual disarray, the shambles continues for the foreseeable future.

Election Results for Carmarthenshire 2015


After what seemed to be the most frenzied campaigning in living memory there's no change in this corner of Wales. Plaid's Jonathan Edwards held Carmarthen East and Dinefwr with an increased majority with Labour's Calum Higgins only just beating the Tory candidate to come second.

Nia Griffith held on to Llanelli with Plaid's Vaughan Williams second, the result, in the end, was not as close as predicted. Tory Simon Hart was returned again for Carmarthen West and South Pembs and Libdem Mark Williams managed to fight off Plaid and hold on to Ceredigion.
The predicted rise in the UKIP vote did materialise but, overall, it doesn't look like they've made much of a dent into the political make-up of the UK.

In a nutshell, overall, the Tories did well and now have 11 seats in Wales, the Labour vote fell but retain 25 seats, and the Libdems were decimated just about everywhere. Plaid Cymru didn't make the gains they'd hoped for, for that matter had been expected from the momentum of the SNP and they stay on three seats.

It looks like Mr Cameron won't need the removal van after all and it'll be business as usual.

(Update 12:07: with the results now, in the Tories have clear, if small, majority. Nick Clegg has resigned as leader of the Libdems and it looks like Mr Miliband is just about to follow suit...and at 12:14, he did just that)

For more information on the general election result, there's plenty of it about. Here's the results for Carmarthenshire where the turnout averaged around 70% a slight drop from 2010;

Carmarthen East and Dinefwr;

Plaid Cymru: 15,140    Jonathan Edwards returned
Labour: 9,541
Conservative: 8,336
UKIP: 4,363
Green: 1091
LibDem: 928

Llanelli;

Labour;  15,948   Nia Griffith returned
Plaid Cymru;  8,853
UKIP;  6,269
Conservative; 5,534
Liberal Democrat; 751
Green Party; 689
People First; 407
TUSC; 123

Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire;

Conservatives 17,626   Simon Hart returned
Labour 11,572
UKIP 4,698
Plaid Cymru 4201
Liberal Democrats 963
Green Party 1,290



Saturday, 2 May 2015

The Governance Review...part 94


The general election will soon be out of the way and Carmarthenshire Council will be able to revert to form without fear of influencing the voters. I suspect that the very recent scandalous events, approved by this Labour run council may have already had a negative effect.

The AGM will be held on the 20th May and rumours are circulating that some of Kevin Madge's Labour colleagues are considering a challenge to his, er, leadership. Possible contenders to replace our Kev include, apparently, Jeff Edmunds, the Exec Board member for money and Anthony Jones, currently Chair of the Planning Committee. (See comment on this subject below, 3rd May 13:18)

possible scenario for the AGM

I suspect that the annual constitutional changes, usually pushed quietly through amid the pomp of the AGM, will, as they form part of deliberations over the WLGA findings, be aired at  the Extraordinary meeting booked in for the 17th June.

With the 39 WLGA recommendations currently working their way through the long grass, by June it will be seven months since the WLGA report was presented to council and eighteen months since the publication of the WAO reports. Many of the 39 were supposed to be implemented within three months.



Anyway, I've managed to prise some slightly more recent (up to mid-March), but brief 'Action Notes' of the meetings of the working group, or to give it it's full title, the cross party Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG), from the council which give a flavour of the mediocre changes in store.

Closely overseen, of course by the person who really runs the council, Mr James, it is interesting that the CRWG omits the word 'Governance' from its title; it was the utter failure of governance which led to all this in the first place.

You may recall that the sidelining of committee reports at full council was the only recommendation that Mr James seemed particularly keen on and using his powers of persuasion managed to implement it some time ago.



The group reported that members had been expressing disquiet as how anything had been implemented before they, working group had concluded their deliberations. Fortunately Mr James was present to soothe things over and say that full council could reject any decisions already made.

Oddly, the group then resolved to include all their recommendations in a single report to council, excluding those decisions already brought in..

Smug complacency emerged with the group considering that the current format of minutes for meetings 'compared very well' to other local authorities. Astonishing.

These are the minutes considered by the Wales Audit Office to be misleading, less than informative and 'lacking clarity'.

Currently held behind closed doors, Executive Board Member meeting minutes, which include 'Meryl's millions' were also considered to be fine - despite the agenda only being published, along with the minutes, after the event and never containing links to documents discussed.

Unfortunately the same complacency emerged over the 'culture change' (WLGA recommendation Number One...which wasn't discussed until March) with the group deciding that 'the council had already taken steps to address the vision and values of openness and transparency'.

It was inevitable that the current requirement for seven seconders to endorse a Motion on Notice wasn't going to survive the review and it hasn't. This was brought in a couple of years ago at the behest of the chief executive to silence minority voices raising controversial issues in the Chamber.

Given the long terms barriers which have been put in place over the years to stifle controversial debate, Members had previously attempted to raise important issues as urgent items. One remedy was to swiftly remove 'any other business' from full council agendas.

In 2012 errant councillors were warned that such outrageous behaviour could be challenged by Judicial Review, although no evidence was given that this had ever occurred anywhere.
A 'reminder' was sent to all councillors which I covered here. That reminder is being re-sent to all councillors.
Rules, however, are different elsewhere. The two items found to be unlawful by the WAO were both brought to the Executive Board as urgent items for entirely spurious reasons. No Judicial review there then...



The ability of scrutiny members to call-in executive board, or executive board member decisions has also been a problem with Carmarthenshire having particularly restrictive rules. A majority decision was required by any scrutiny committee, leading to political block voting supposedly not allowed in scrutiny, and only three days from the publication of the decision to call-in was allowed.

Described by the WLGA team as a 'back-stop' to power, the onerous rules and the 'inconsistent availablity of information' relating to these decisions had effectively blocked the procedure. All adding to the accurate view that the 'council is defensive and does not encourage legitimate challenge and scrutiny'

The time limit has been extended to five days but perhaps the most significant recommendation (as it stood in March) is that any three members of council will be able to request a call-in, scrutiny members or not.

This will still depend on improved minutes (not happening, see above) and availability of information, and as the WLGA recommends, the availability of exempt reports to members.

Perhaps though the biggest obstacles remain, and potential call-ins will still have to get past Mark and Linda who will have the final say over whether a call-in is appropriate..or not.

The recommendation has also been made for the Business Management Group to be replaced by the CRWG which will meet once a year. So, under current arrangements, the BMG, criticised for not publishing agendas or minutes will be replaced by another group which doesn't publish agendas or minutes.

These are just some of the recommendations, I've covered other 'progress' earlier, including the public filming pilot and the 'revised press protocol'. The latter must be under some strain with the arrival of new newspaper titles in the county.


It remains to be seen exactly how the final report, considering the 39 recommendations will look, how they've been cherry picked, and how events will pan out at the EGM in June.

Not only might we be without the, er, firm guiding leadership of Kevin Madge by the 17th June but further rumours are circulating that, having encountered the 'shambles' which is Carmarthenshire Council, a recently appointed senior officer, a Director no less, has had enough and after three months, decided to quit... (Update 6th May - confirmed as Director of Environment Christina Harrhy who has resigned and left last Friday)

As I have said before, the most important element of all this was the change of culture. This will prove impossible without the removal of the culprits responsible for creating the toxic culture in the first place. The chief executive, currently busying himself with election stuff (for some extra cash), has viewed this whole process, from WAO reports, to WLGA review with a patronising mixture of denial, contempt, and arrogance.


Friday's Herald...and Cadno goes to Grillo

Passers-by have again reported seeing steam issuing forth from the windows of the Presidential Suite, County Hall. This is becoming a regular occurrence every Friday and appears to coincide with the publication of our new weekly newspaper, the Carmarthenshire Herald'...
This week's edition makes some interesting observations ...

The front page leads with the ££££ emerging mess over council funding to voluntary groups and charities and in particular the discrepancies between what the council's own departmental spending figures are telling them and what the organisations are actually receiving.

The Wales Audit Office is already looking at the council's management of property grants and this may well add another dimension to their investigations.
I mentioned the fiasco earlier in the week and the Herald doesn't hold back;

"The failure to control third sector spending featured prominently in the recent court case involving disgraced former mayor of Town Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman. While there is no allegation of corrupt practice relating to third sector spending at Carmarthenshire County Council, close scrutiny is bound to follow as to who is benefiting from the Council's largesse and exactly what their relationship is with different council departments"

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This week's splendid Cadno piece takes a look at the Grillo development in Burry Port, Llanelli. The subject of considerable controversy over the past week or two;

Cadno covers the waterfront

THIS IS the week when Cadno hopes that each of his readers will enter into their local ballot booths and mark their X’s against the appropriate candidate.

Possibly because Cadno is a nomadic sort, and possibly because he is a fox, the pollsters and canvassers have not troubled Cadno too much during the present campaign. As you might expect, Cadno’s manifesto would be pretty straightforward and revolve around the restoration of hunting MP’s on horseback and making Basil Brush appreciation a compulsory element of the National Curriculum.

With all the sound and mock-fury surrounding the election campaign, Cadno’s readers will be relieved to learn that he does not propose to discuss the General Election. How you vote is a matter for your conscience and yours alone, readers.

Cadno can’t help wondering how the ruling group on the local authority will vote come May 7. Without respected and admired employee Mark James to tell them what to do, how will some of the Executive Board even manage to spell ‘X’, let alone put their mark in the right place on the ballot paper?

Mind you, readers, Cadno wouldn’t mind seeing where esteemed pension specialist and all around good guy Mr James planted his cross, so to speak.

Even having entered into a self-denying ordnance regarding the General Election, there is still plenty around to tickle Cadno’s palate.

Last week, Cadno visited Llanelli. Having hopped aboard a passing train, this week he has reached Burry Port.

Great is the wrath of the Town Council that the government in Cardiff Bay has dared to piddle in their harbour. Mighty are the plans of Carmarthenshire County Council for the same area. Grand is the developer’s vision and desire for vast profit.

And despite all of this, the Welsh Government has intervened at the eleventh hour and derailed the County Council’s allegedly ‘impartial’ scrutiny of a scheme hatched between it and a development company to use derelict and toxic land for housing.

It is one of the great mysteries of the planning rules governing local government that authorities involved in drawing up and promoting development schemes are permitted to mark their own homework. It matters not how principled an officer or a councillor is, institutional inertia and self-interest is bound to have an effect on deliberations over a scheme sponsored by the authority of which they are either an employee or a member.

After all, readers, Carmarthenshire County Council contrived to begin preparatory works for the West Carmarthen Link Road before the full Council had voted on the budget for the project. Indeed, it appears that the Council began work on the road more in the hope than expectation that its unidentified partners will actually stump up towards its cost. Procedure means little when the Council is approving its own plans or pursuing its own agendas.

Somewhere in his office, readers, the Council’s presiding officer has a crystal ball that enables him to see in advance which votes will succeed and where the budgetary bite can be put. Perhaps much-loved Mark keeps that ball next to those belonging to the Council leader.

So, readers, let us have a little look at the plan to build houses on the polluted site of a former metal processing works.

Back in 2013, the Council fought against the decision of the Welsh Government to stop development on the former Grillo zinc oxide works. The authority went all the way to the High Court to battle a Welsh minister’s decision on grounds so specious that even Mr Justice Cranston – no slouch he - was baffled as to the basis upon which the Council threw Council Tax payers’ money at legal counsel to fight someone else’s battle.

Dismissing the challenge, the Court found that the Ministers had been entitled to rely on maps which classified parts of the site as falling within a 'highly vulnerable' area without any significant flood defences to protect them. The Ministers had rightly adopted a 'precautionary approach' to the flooding issue and there had been no unfairness to the developer which had been given a 'fair crack of the whip'.

Just to show how unbiased officers are about the whole thing, one Jonathan Fearn, aka the Head of Corporate Property for Carmarthenshire County Council, tweeted on November 4, 2013,

‘Bad news as Burry Port Grillo development rejected by High Court :(.’

Well at least one cannot accuse Mr Fearn’s sad smiley of having prejudged the issue this time around. Cadno read the Council’s planning documents, readers – a service he provides to spare your sanity – and no response had been received from Mr :( of 2013.

In order to get round the Court’s ruling, new maps were drawn. These new and improved maps, the Council argues, show that the risk of flooding is minimal - nugatory, even.

So, that’s all alright, then. The fears of pedestrian carnage on Burry Port’s Church Road crossing are brushed summarily aside. The idea that house owners will face difficulties getting insurance, of no concern. The fact that leeks grown on that land would be able to be sharpened and used as pencils is as naught.
It’s all alright, readers, because the map has been redrawn.
Funny that, readers.

But oopsy-daisy, readers, the Welsh Government has called the plans in.

The Council is trying to ride two horses on this one, readers. As Cadno is about to explain:
Firstly, the Grillo site sits outside the area covered by the Council’s own Local Development Plan.

That the Grillo site was outside the LDP was not an oversight. Readers, the Council knows that so hopelessly contaminated is the site that even developing it presents a massive pollution risk to Burry Port and the waterway on which it sits. In any event, the fact the development is outside the LDP means that the plans would have headed to Cardiff Bay for consideration.

Secondly, no matter what conveniently redrawn flood maps show, the Council were told POINT BLANK in 2013 not to permit the Grillo site to be developed.

The Council knew it was playing fast and loose, but now tries to appear affronted and disappointed at the Welsh Government’s intervention in its planning jiggery-pokery.

You could not make up the extent of the Council’s over-weaning arrogance and hubris, readers.

Convinced, as ever, of their own rightness and everyone else’s wrongness, the Council has invested the efforts of officers into a plan that is all fur coat and no knickers. How many hundreds, if not thousands, of man hours have been ploughed into the sand and silt at Burry Port?

All the pictures of councillors staring sadly through a gate onto a wasteland will not turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, any more than redrawing lines conveniently on a flood map will convince Cadno that there is not something ripe and rotten about the way Carmarthenshire County Council has conducted this business.

Burry Port needs redevelopment and regeneration readers, but this all smacks of the sort of reasoning that follows the line that ‘we must do something – this is something – therefore, we must do this’.
That simply is not good enough, readers, in fact it makes Cadno feel a bit :(

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Finally, for now, I was surprised to learn this week that planning decisions which are decided under delegated powers (decided by officers  rather than by the planning committee) are no longer accompanied by the case officer's report. If this is the case, then there are not only implications for audit trails but the transparency of decision-making has been dealt another blow.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Filming Welsh councils - Failure in Flintshire


Update 7th May; Flintshire Council has written to Mr Butler to say they now have no objection to him recording meetings. This is good news although permission has been granted on the basis that he will provide them with a copy of the recording...which seems to me to be entirely unnecessary and probably beyond their powers.

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The effort to shine a light on Welsh councils continues. As we know, legislation was passed last year in England protecting citizens' democratic right to film or record open meetings; the principle has been established. All we've had in Wales is feeble words of 'encouragement' to councils from successive local government ministers. The progress, or lack of it, over the past few years has been reported on this blog.

In Carmarthenshire the recommendation conjured up by the working group, following the WLGA report, is to allow the public to film/record meetings but only those that are already webcast, for a twelve month pilot. Ridiculous and misses the point completely.

So what about elsewhere in Wales? Events at a meeting of Flintshire council yesterday illustrates that Welsh councils, aside from Pembrokeshire, still cannot grasp the concept of open government and the public's' right to report.

Flintshire resident, Mr John Butler, contacted his council three days in advance of a scrutiny meeting to inform those in charge that he would be quietly and unobtrusively recording the meeting, he duly quoted the English legislation as well as the willingness by the Planning Inspectorate in Wales to allow filming.

He was then informed that the 'new rules' didn't apply to Wales and there were 'by-laws' preventing recording....the usual stuff.

The meeting, which was held yesterday, was discussing impending library closures, clearly a matter of considerable local interest.

Mr Butler, undeterred, announced his intention to record the civic process by way of a note to the Chair, and took a determined stand. He was asked to turn off the recorder several times and refused. They also asked him to remove the batteries from the recorder. He remained calm but warned the officers that he would not be intimidated and would seek legal advice if he was forcibly removed.

Eventually the Chair claimed that he had 'no choice' under the Standing Orders and forced the meeting to a close.

Like myself, Mr Butler cannot understand what the problem is and why the Welsh Government doesn't enact the same legislation as England. It is not a party political issue but one of simple transparency. Webcasting is welcome, of course, but is council controlled and does not cover all meetings.

Mr Butler remains defiant an wants his grandchildren to grow up in a more transparent Wales. His challenge to Flintshire Council continues and he has vowed to continue to record open meetings. The ball is in the council's court, or perhaps the Minister, Leighton Andrews might want to sort this out once and for all and commit the Welsh Government to protect the democratic rights of the Welsh public.



Update 5th May;
Now reported in the north Wales based Daily Post; Flintshire council meeting halted after pensioner refuses to give up 'his right' to record it

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Out of time..


Back in February, following speculation that the aborted severance application made by the chief executive may have incurred some legal expenditure, I made the following Freedom of Information request;

"I am requesting detailed costs breakdowns, preferably invoices, for external legal advice for the following;

1. Any employment issues regarding the Chief Executive of the council from October 2013 to date. Please include any costs incurred prior and during the police investigation early in 2014 and also the Chief Executive's application for severance which he has now withdrawn.
If any costs were incurred, please identify the legal firms involved.

2. Detailed invoices from Mr Tim Kerr QC and also Slater and Gordon Solicitors (Formerly Russell Jones and Walker)"

The second part of the request concerns the legal advice and representation relating to the Wales Audit Office reports and also the defamation case.

The twenty day legal limit for a response passed over six weeks ago.

Is it a particularly difficult, or time consuming request to answer? I don't think so, especially as nearly a month ago, on the 2nd April, the FOI officer told me he was "in the process of establishing whether the information I have been provided with is complete and will revert to you as soon as possible".

As you can see from the What Do They Know site, and as we now enter the month of May, my recent requests for updates have been simply ignored.

At something of a loss to know what to do and somewhat reluctantly, I've now gone to the Information Commissioner as the council has failed to respond without reasonable explanation. Whether this will have any effect remains to be seen.

I'll let you know.

Update 2.10pm; Coincidentally, and sfter the lengthy silence, I have just received an email update apologising for the "continuing delay in responding to your request, which is continuing to receive attention"
I continue to wait.