Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Carmarthenshire Council - Budget Day

As a brief diversion from the continuing implosion of Carmarthenshire Council the budget meeting was held today and all went fairly smoothly, the big black cloud conveniently ignored, (almost), for the duration. Smoothly, that is, for the ruling administration as £30m of proposed 'savings' and a 4.77% rise in Council Tax went though.

There were a few punches thrown and couple of references to the black cloud, most notably from Plaid Cllr Ken Howell who reminded Cllr Meryl Gravell of her fondness of quotes, her favourite being in defence of senior pay...'paying peanuts and getting monkeys'. He left that one hanging in the air...

Anyway , it kicked off with the Exec Board Member, Cllr Jeff Edmunds outlining the dire financial situation and difficult decisions ahead. You may remember, Cllr Edmunds was the one who spilled the beans at the end of last year over unequal division of spoils concerning the Marston's car park sale and the £280,000 'allowable expenses' to pay off a third party loan for Scarlets Regional Ltd. I am currently waiting for a Freedom Of Information response on the subject.

Incidentally, I was asked to 'clarify' my request one day before the 20 day time limit was up.

Recent weeks, as I have said, have seen a few u-turns over the more unpopular proposals, or at least their postponement. Much was made today by the ruling administration that they were 'listening' to the people.

The reality, as we know, was that it was a matter of spin and desperation, and these u-turns happened to coincide with the release of the auditor's reports. An extra sweetener had also been devised as one of the care homes in Ammanford won a temporary reprieve from closure.

I shall not go into all the details here as it will all soon be available on the webcast archive and the agenda, with all the proposals, summaries and documents can be found here..

Cllr Caiach was the first to ask questions and commented on the 'carefully controlled topics' which formed part of the public consultation. You may remember the consultation began last October with the stage-managed 'by invitation only' Seminar in the Furness Theatre (see here and here), and as predicted, aside from the recent PR-panic-u-turns, most of the 52 "They're only proposals" went through today.

Cllr Caiach mentioned the plans for St Pauls and the proposed £7m Extra Care Scheme, a proposal which was announced in the Llanelli Star several weeks ago. Cllr Caiach has previously expressed her concerns over the whole public/private 'Extra Care' model, (see 'The Care homes - the £7m mystery'). £4.5m of that figure was to be in the form of a loan, serviced by funds from the closure of St Paul's Care Home, Llanelli. £2.5m was to come from council reserves.

This was always going to be contentious and the responses to Cllr Caiach's enquiries today referred to 'reconfiguration' instead of closure. There were some financially vague, unquantified mentions of turning it into warden controlled flats. Maybe that will be the case but surely it would then fail to provide the funds to service the new loan? And how much would it cost? Perhaps the pensioners were going to be given some wood, nails and pots of paint so they could do it didn't sound as though this one had been quite thought through..

Plaid had produced their own alternative budget which, for some unknown reason, had not been included as a 'consultation response' at all. Not sure what happened there. You may recall that the Carmarthen Journal provided a 'point by point' rejection of each proposal a few weeks ago, seemingly written by the Chief Executive, Mr James, it even carried a picture of him and a quote, see 'Who runs the council?'

When Kevin Madge was asked by Plaid Cllr Cefin Campbell about this strange way of conducting democratic debate, he denied that Mr James had written it but couldn't say who had, and blamed the whole thing on the Carmarthen Journal.
Neither Cllr Campbell nor anyone else believed him and the Cllr observed that 'It's very dangerous for any chief executive to step into the political arena - they do so at their peril'. Yes indeed.

The distinctly un-Labour-like proposal, (proposed by Labour), to cut Trade Union time and representation was challenged as it would leave many council employees with even less representation than they had already. They, said Plaid, weren't able to import QCs from London, unlike some...

Another issue which came up was the proposal to axe the Appeal Committee which deals almost exclusively with school transport appeals. It is one of the last remaining arenas where members of the public can make direct representations to council. The reason for the axe appears to be that most appeals are successful. The council doesn't like successful appeals of any sort of course.

As a means to dilute the proposal the Exec Board recommended that the school transport policy should be reviewed as it is clearly flawed. It will be carried out by officers and councillors and so there will be no need for the committee. At all. Ever again.

The proposals from Plaid included recouping some of the profits from Cwm Environmental Ltd, the waste company wholly owned by the council. According to the Director of Resources, this was impossible. The Council couldn't, by law, demand a dividend and the directors of Cwm couldn't do anything which might be detrimental to other shareholders.
I didn't quite follow this as I thought Carmarthenshire Council was the only shareholder...a couple of years ago a decision was taken to remove elected councillors from the Board of Directors altogether, it wasn't necessary apparently, even for an arms-length company in receipt of public funds.....

Another Plaid proposal was to use some of the 'reserves'. You would be doing this at your peril, warned the Director. Strange then, that only a few short weeks ago it was perfectly ok to take £2.5m from the 'reserves' for the Extra Care Scheme and it's fanfare in the Llanelli Star.

Plaid leader Peter Hughes Griffiths had placed their proposals as an amendment to the budget. "I wasn't looking forward to this bit" said  acting Chief Executive Dave Gilbert,  and clearly prompted by Linda Rees Jones, the monitoring officer, said the amendment couldn't be considered as it negated the budget motion itself, apparently.
However, with some careful wording the Plaid amendment was put forward. It was outvoted by the Labour/Independent groups of course, and the original budget report was then passed.

For any readers local to Caebrwyn, you might like to know that Cllrs Ivor Jackson, Tom Theophilus and Andrew James said not one word during the budget debate to defend the interests of their constituents.

The decision on the council budget is normally the pivotal meeting of the municipal year, but things are far from normal in Carmarthenshire and it is next Thursday's gathering to chew over the Auditor's reports which is pivotal to the future of this Authority.


Anonymous said...

In Andrew James defence he spoke very well in defence of the suggested AWS closure on 12th of Feb. - which Richard Workman explained was still under negosiations.

Cllr Ivor Jackson - Doesn't seem to care one way or the other (despite frequently using the site).
THANKS for supporting your locals IVOR. I will do my best to ensure this is reminded to all come the next elections.

Anonymous said...

Ceredigon takes schools closures to full council: