Thursday, 23 February 2017

February Council meeting, and the budget


As usual the event kicked off with the parish notices and chair's announcements, the chief executive joined in at one point to wave vaguely at the public gallery and welcome 'visitors from London'. He didn't elaborate further as to who they were. A crack team of forensic auditors seconded from the Met Police perhaps? I am joking of course.

The main event for full council was of course the budget but prior to that were a few Notices of Motion to get through. First up was Cllr Sian Caiach who had managed to get a Motion relating to the sewage problems in Llanelli past the chief executive. Cllr Caiach's motion was for the council to regularly test the water quality of all beaches where people visit and swim, not just the two 'designated' beaches at Pendine and Pembrey, in the interests of public safety. Of particular concern is Llanelli which currently features a large council sign urging people to wash their hands after visiting the beach.

Plaid's Emlyn Dole decided, oddly I thought, to oppose this because it might use some resources and wasn'tnecessary. Cllr Caiach reminded the chamber that the UK government had already been found guilty of breaching EU water quality directives specifically in the Llanelli/Burry Port area. With the help of some Llanelli area Plaid councillors, and with some Plaid and Indie members abstaining, the motion was carried, but the chief executive was quick to chirp up, twice, that it had to go to the executive board to find the long grass to be considered as policy, all of which rather explains why he allowed it on the agenda in the first place. Anyway, what's a dose of e-coli between friends, or tourists, anyway?



Next up was a motion from Plaid's Peter Hughes Griffiths to set up a group of councillors to look specifically at rural issues. Not a bad idea and something I suggested during the Cilycwm by-election. Labour decided to put in an amendment to include all areas of Carmarthenshire, rural and urban. which, in my view, as a rural dweller and community councillor, defeated the object.

Meryl Gravell reminded everyone about all those rural grants she'd signed off, reminiscing I presume over all those hot-tubs and sets of patio furniture. Great. We will of course remember Meryl for her grants (amongst other things), and how the council refused to see eye to eye over several of them with the Wales Audit Office preferring to plump for the auditing skills of the Wales European Funding Office instead. It wouldn't be in the best interests of WEFO to find much wrong.


Meryl will be bidding farewell to County Hall in May
Cllr Pam Palmer, along with Meryl, will be hanging up her Civic Broomstick in May, and reap the rewards of the taxpayer funded pension

Anyway, the original motion was passed but is, again, a matter for the executive board. This was also a golden moment for our Plaid councillor Dafydd Tomos to speak up for his very rural ward of Cilycwm, be a 'strong voice' for the community perhaps, but sadly he remained silent, and has yet to speak in full council at all.

Things then took a religious turn - one for the chapel goers and lay preachers amongst the members, of which there are quite a surprising number. Cllr Alun Lenny (Pl) put forward a motion to celebrate the 300th birthday of William Williams Pantycelyn, the Llandovery hymnwriter. Clearly this had a much better chance of getting on the agenda than his previous Motion before Christmas.

There was a lot of enthusiasm and they just about managed to stop themselves bursting into a rendition of Bread of Heaven. It even brought Llandovery's Ivor Jackson (Ind) to his feet, for once, to call for a statue to be erected in Llandovery. Pity he never got to his feet to oppose the closure of the town's secondary school, named after the great man, or even to oppose car parking hikes in this little market town. Or anything else. He's standing down in May as well. Good.

There was a lengthy debate on the budget but essentially it became a straight split with both sides focusing on the election in eight weeks time. True to form, a few cuts have already been dropped, as I've mentioned earlier, and money mysteriously injected into the School budget which was one of the biggest vote losers. The official spin is now that the school cuts, this year, are 'cash neutral' whereas the opposition call it a cut in 'real terms'. Who knows? I expect only the schools themselves will discover the truth over the next year or two.

Plaid went for a lower rise in Council Tax than last year at 2.5%, which will appeal to voters across the board though the earlier decision to charge £48 for garden waste collection bumps it up a bit.

Labour's Derek Cundy put forward amendments to add further cash to the school budgets, save crossing patrols, stop cuts to care packages, stop the increase in school dinners etc, all of which meant a rise of 4.5% on Council Tax.  All in all a case of the usual swings and roundabouts. It was noted however that Council Tax is due to rise by 4% next year anyway. It's amazing how £500k was found a few weeks ago to commission an external provider for stress management services.
The Labour amendment, which may have proved more fruitful if each proposal had been voted on individually, was lost and the Plaid/Independent budget carried.

A few squabbles broke out during discussion of the capital budget with Labour accusing Plaid of targeting spending to boost their election prospects and Plaid accusing Labour of not reading the documents properly. Kevin Madge was worried about "that Brexit thing". You get the gist.

What should be concerning to all of them is the private healthcare 'Wellness Village' money-pit about to open up in Delta Lakes, Llanelli; millions will now be borrowed for this and other Swansea Bay Deal white elephants with the figures, so far, completely unknown. Another council project, the Museum of Speed at Pendine is currently being developed, on their behalf, part grant funded, by a company from Hereford who have just awarded a £200k contract to interior designers from London. So much for the capital programme boosting the local economy.

The full meeting, all five hours of it, can be watched at your leisure on the archived webcast.

In another pre-election dash, Monday's exec board will kick start the process to outsource housing services, I suspect the plan will be to set up a company wholly owned by the council with funds borrowed from the council. This is nothing new and Flintshire council set one up a couple of years ago. As these are commercial entities, transparency becomes an issue, as does democratic oversight and it becomes difficult to monitor success or failure. Conflicts of interest, governance and HR issues can all become problematic. It is one to keep an eye on given that they have trouble running a small country park.
The fact that this report will be discussed behind closed doors is not an auspicious start.

Monday, 20 February 2017

A couple of updates; The libel clause, and the Employment Tribunal


In what is becoming an annual event I made enquiries with Monitoring Officer and joint guardian of the Council's Constitution, Linda Rees Jones, as to what progress had been made, if any, to remove the unlawful, and still suspended libel indemnity clause from the constitution.

The clause was suspended, but remains struckthrough 'until the legal position is clarified' (pages 12, 17 and 27) , following the Extraordinary meeting on February 27th 2014. Almost three years ago. And before Plaid's Emlyn Dole acquired 'power', but, unfortunately, lost his memory.

Back in 2015 Ms Rees Jones claimed that the cross-party Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG) would look at the matter in due course. Naturally, they didn't as this is clearly, for Mark and Linda, a no-go area.

This time round she claims that "CRWG has had enough business to consider without prioritising something that’s already marked as “withdrawn". That busy schedule is reflected in the fact that the group have only met once since June 2015. They met in July 2016 when, aside from a few minor tweaks, the main concern was to tighten up, even more, the availability of exempt reports following an embarrassing leak.

CRWG, you might recall, was set up to chew, reluctantly, over the 39 recommendations set by the WLGA Governance Review. The Review, which recognised the toxic officer-led culture, had been required following the publication of the Wales Audit Office reports on the pension and libel indemnity scandals.

The role of the Monitoring Officer, also enshrined in the constitution, is to keep the constitution up-to-date and to monitor and review the operation of the constitution and 'compare practices in this authority with those in other comparable authorities, or national examples of good practice'.

Indeed, following the Governance Review, and as and when required, changes, amendments and deletions to the constitution have been made, and as for 'good practice' I've yet to find national examples, or comparable authorities which include such a sinister clause, withdrawn or otherwise in their constitution.

Clearly the clause would never be used again; it is impotent, obsolete and unlawful but the problem for the Monitoring Officer, and the chief executive is one of finally admitting illegality, and the implications that complete removal would mean.

The constitution places a duty on the monitoring officer to ensure that all decisions, and her advice to Members, are lawful, in this case it most definitely wasn't. As for the chief executive, his legal position would be further compromised, if that's possible, by its removal. This blog has often remarked on the curious interpretation of the constitution by the Monitoring Officer and chief executive, one such example being the permanent appointment of Ms Rees Jones herself.

As for the offending clause, the 'legal position' has of course been clarified, Welsh Government legislation (adopted by the council) prohibits the public funding of libel claims by officers. It is of note that, so far, no attempt has been made, by Mr James, to take enforcement action against me for the unlawful counterclaim costs, which would then bring the matter before a court.
An additional issue is that this all flies in the face of the Derbyshire Rule which prevents a governing body from suing for defamation, by itself or by proxy. The previous Labour and Independent administration, mainly Meryl, Pam and Kevin Madge are equally culpable.

Whether or not the enforcement of damages is, in effect, an attempt to profit from an unlawful decision in public office, is an interesting point. Incidentally, the majority of the damages were awarded for my reference, on the blog, to this very clause.

The clause remains, for now, as a monument to bad practice, a banana republic council, and a tin-pot dictator. Quite a legacy. As for the '39 steps' to perfect governance, the use of good old threatening behaviour, as we saw before Christmas, is still a preferred tactic.


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


Further to my earlier post The Pembrey scandal - An Employment Tribunal, the judgement has been reserved until the near future so this week's Carmarthenshire Herald (not online) covers the final couple of days of the hearing and features the evidence given by Ms Stephanie Thomas. Ms Thomas held the catering contract at the park for a number of years and was, in March last year, subject of an assault by the Council's Countryside and Coast manager Mr Rory Dickinson. Mr Dickinson was allowed to resign his post a few days before pleading guilty to the offence.

Ms Thomas's evidence further corroborates Mr Morris's claim that the knowledge of serious mismanagement, bullying and underhand tactics went up the corporate ladder.

Despite the audit report clearly referring to missing money and assets, the minutes of the most recent audit committee meeting reveal that an external investigator (a former policeman) had found 'substantial failings' within the service but the police had told the council that there was insufficient evidence of 'deliberate' criminal activity. Interesting use of the term 'deliberate'. The Director of Corporate Services, Mr Chris Moore told the committee that there was 'no need' to prepare an official report on the findings. Really?

The closing statements were interesting. The council's barrister suggested that the idea that the restructuring plan was engineered to deliberately remove Mr Morris was fanciful, and the witnesses were unreliable. Counsel for Mr Morris rather turned that on its head.

You may recall that a very similar post to Mr Morris's was advertised shortly after he was made redundant. Mr Morris's barrister suggested that there had been no proper business case, nor consultation with the union, in an £800,000 efficiency plan, a plan which, curiously, placed Mr Morris in a redundancy pool of one. The new post was titled Active Facilities Manager, something which, as Ski Centre Manager, Mr Morris would have been eminently experienced and qualified for.

The Panel asked the Council's legal team how the point scoring for the new post, and for Mr Morris, was worked out, and how they had come up with 'Five' for Mr Morris, "Five out of what?" they asked, the council's team didn't know. The Panel had also asked, several times, how long Head of Leisure Ian Jones knew of the potential new jobs in the very short pipeline after Mr Morris's redundancy, he couldn't give a definitive answer. The Chair of the Panel observed that he should have known as it was he who wrote the job descriptions.

It is understood that Ms Stephanie Thomas has also brought a case against the council.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Fanfares


With potentially uncomfortable revelations down at the Employment Tribunal this week you could forgive the council for going full throttle with it's good news press releases. And there's also the small matter an election looming ever closer....

It's been a week of wonders, first up was the Executive Board's deliberations over the budget and the 'shock' news that money had been found to 'inject' into the soon to be depleted school budget. The actual figures have yet to be seen and the announcement was shrouded in spin and some complicated arithmetic but by my calculation a three year cut of £11m will now be about £9,5m. Interestingly it was also murmured that a new post of 'Schools Efficiency Officer' is to be created, at cost unknown to assist the schools with the cuts efficiencies.

With the budget spin it's easy to forget the 'efficiencies' and 'savings' which will go under the radar, for example the rise in school dinners, the cuts to care packages, day centres, school music services, SEN services, libraries, etc etc. Another 'we've listened to you' announcement was to postpone the proposed closure of St Clears Leisure centre, all very well but on closer inspection the actual proposal reads 'asset transfer (or possible closure) of St Clears Leisure centre'. So it wasn't definitely going to close anyway, not yet, but deposited on to the community instead.

The whole of the Leisure Services, and Housing, are in the process of being outsourced to trusts or arms-length companies, and so is social care although I understand that plan is being put on ice until after the election, being of a sensitive nature.

It's at times like this when one begins to question the monumental amount of cash paid to senior council officials, well over £2m to the combined top brass and heads of service. One in particular coins in more than your average Prime Minister, plus perks. One wonders if he'll be advanced another £20,000 Returning Officer fees ahead of the May elections, like he was in 2012, before the number of contested seats is known, in the previous financial year and because, we were told, it was just 'there'. In the biscuit tin I suppose.

It also brings into question the actions of senior councillors and whether they have now completely left reality behind them. A recent update to the register of gifts and hospitality records an invitation to council leader Dole, and a plus one, to the Liberty Stadium, with pre-match offerings, from the leader of Swansea Council. It is not clear whether Cllr Dole went but as the entry informs us that a 'car and driver' were ordered, it seems likely he did.

This is not unusual of course across Wales (or anywhere), and also across all political parties, and often includes senior officers as well as councillors, as my efforts to have Carmarthenshire's information released will attest. It is not time for these practices to be cast into history? It does not sit well with a struggling electorate and to label such events as a 'regional networking opportunity' when council leaders are on £48k+ per year is to treat residents, particularly those struggling to afford family tickets to rugby matches, with total contempt. It is also a form of lobbying without one jot of transparency. I would far rather decisions were made in the council chamber, however poor and manipulated, than in the various council hospitality boxes around Wales.

Topping even the council's exciting, transformational, visionary and mind-bending (I made that one up) capital programme press release extravaganza was the once-in-a-generation-envy-of-the-world, 'the NHS has had its day', fanfare over our old friend, the Wellness Village. The only bright spot was BBC Wales calling Meryl Gravell the leader of the council, oops. Having blogged about this for a couple of years, each blast of the 'Wellness' PR trumpet has reinforced my opinion that this, basically, is pouring public money into private health care behind closed doors. Worryingly, the chief executive and leader have now been given that familiar taxpayer-funded book of blank cheques to spend, as they wish.

Whatever your views on it all, and of course there is good news along with the bad, you should always bear in mind that whatever is presented by our council press offices might just be a dog's dinner and not the top cuisine it appears. Or, in modern day parlance, Carmarthenshire Council continue to break new ground when it comes to alternative facts.

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

14th February; Interesting post from county councillor Sian Caiach, well worth a read; Plaid's Poisoned Chalice - the Leadership of Carmarthenshire Council.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

The Pembrey scandal: An Employment Tribunal - updated


Update 10th February; Report in the Carmarthenshire Herald

With the Employment Tribunal expected to conclude today (Friday) the Herald has provided a detailed report on the main events, up until the time it went to print. The article is not yet online.

What appears to have emerged over the past few days is, to quote the Herald; '...that a key consideration of Carmarthenshire County Council's officers concerned in Pembrey and the serious and serial malpractice at the Park was to preserve the council's reputation at all costs and conceal the extent of the bad news'. The failure to involve the police, the treatment of whistleblower Eirian Morris and the bland assurances given to councillors suggests this was indeed the case.

Here are some of the key points, though I would urge those interested to read the full article in the Herald;

In response to questions as to why the council (key witnesses were Helen Pugh the Audit and Risk manager and Head of Leisure, Ian Jones) failed to involve the police, it was claimed that the unfolding scenario before them was so chaotic they were unable to formulate a complaint. This was despite potentially criminal acts in that very scenario.

A disciplinary hearing in early October which could have resulted in the dismissal of the Country Park manager Mr Dickinson, who had already received a final warning, was 'postponed'. He was then allowed to resign immediately prior to pleading guilty to the assault of the catering franchise holder.

As Mr Dickinson's line manager, Ian Jones came under questioning as to the extent of his knowledge and any alleged involvement in the removal of Mr Morris. Mr Jones denies involvement.

Despite Mr Morris making allegations against Mr Dickinson, and at least one against Mr Jones, Mr Jones remained as Mr Morris's line manager throughout the council's investigation. A 2014 email from Mr Jones to the then Director, and deputy chief executive, Dave Gilbert states that both he and Mr Dickinson were unconcerned about the allegations against them. This confirms that Mr Gilbert was aware of the allegations.

Despite being in line for a new management post, the interview was postponed. Mr Morris found himself instead being made redundant following his whistleblowing disclosures. Mr Morris then noticed that a post similar to his own was being advertised six weeks later. Mr Jones stated that the postponement of Mr Morris's interview was down to advice from the Council's HR and Legal department.

Part of Mr Morris's case is that a restructuring exercise was used to create a bogus redundancy procedure. In evidence a recording was played between Mr Dickinson and a third party which appears to confirm this (see Herald article from June 2016). Mr Jones admitted that the source of Mr Dickinson's information with regard to restructuring must have been from himself but although he admitted to discussing Mr Morris's redundancy with Mr Dickinson, he didn't know why Mr Dickinson stated, in so many words, that the restructuring was rigged to remove Mr Morris.

Mr Morris also alleges that following his disclosures he was subject to pressure and harassment as manager of the ski centre. Mr Jones claimed that this was due to 'audit issues' which had been flagged up. Who flagged them up is not clear. However, as the Herald points out, Mr Jones told the Council's Audit Committee only last month that there were no audit issues at the ski centre.

The panel asked whether any attempt was made to get Mr Dickinson to attend the hearing but were told that he was no longer an employee and had resigned. Personally I find this a little odd as during the libel case the chief executive dragged the former Head of Legal out of nearly two years of retirement to give evidence on his behalf.

Under cross-examination it was put to Mr Morris that he had no evidence of wrongdoing and that his disclosures were anecdotal. Whatever the case, it was these disclosures which led to the uncovering of mismanagement and misconduct at the park. The real issue is what those council officers chose to do about it, or not do, as the case may be.

The hearing continues.

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


There's an interesting Employment Tribunal due to take place over the next few days (starts 6th Feb) concerning Carmarthenshire County Council. The claim is being brought by a former leisure manager at Pembrey Country Park, Mr Eirian Morris, against the council for unfair dismissal, and detrimental treatment. He blew the whistle over historic, and not so historic, 'issues' at the Park.

The case put forward is for unfair dismissal and that the complainant  "Suffered a detriment and/or dismissal due to exercising rights under the Public Interest Disclosure Act"

In other words, he blew the whistle and paid the price, County Hall style.

The case, which is being held in Cardiff, is, I understand, open to the press and public.

The background is well documented and began with allegations and rumour of severe management problems at both Pembrey and the Millenium Coastal Park over the past few years. However, nothing emerged until early last year when a brief, but damning summary (and only the summary) of an internal audit report, commissioned following the retirement of the previous Director, appeared on a committee agenda.

Amongst the findings were, to use plain English rather than councilspeak; money and assets going missing, failure to follow almost any proper procedure, health and safety issues and conflicts of interest.

Rather than report matters to the police or the Wales Audit Office as requested by some councillors (not, however by leader Emlyn Dole who thought the suggestion was impertinent...) the sordid affair was kept in house and the usual whitewash began.

One councillor, Bill Thomas (Lab), has consistently called for a forensic audit and has been less than convinced by the usual 'lessons learned' flannel updates to the committee, which he says, has been duped by officers over the past financial chaos. The amount of money which has gone walkabout is not known, but it's not chickenfeed.

Despite the council claiming there was no evidence of fraud or theft, the audit report stated that "It was not possible to place an assurance that all income due has been collected, recorded, banked, monitored and accurately reflected in the Authority’s accounts." rather suggests to me that it was exactly that, fraud. 

Essentially, the internal audit was a means to keep the lid on a far wider scandal and control the release of information.

Far from reporting all this to the police, the chief executive reported me to the police for my reference to lumpy carpets in county hall.

The scandal deepened when details emerged over the March 2016 park catering tender, which was later abandoned when it became clear that it had been somewhat 'compromised'. The council's Countryside and Coast manager Rory Dickinson, who was in charge of the tender, was allowed to resign just a few days before pleading guilty in October to the common assault of the incumbent contract holder for catering services, Ms Stephanie Thomas.

All in all its been a very sordid affair, and smells distinctly like a long and tortuous cover-up by senior officers, further amplified when recorded conversations, reported in the Herald, revealed a senior official pleading "for f****s sake don't go to the police."

Documents were eventually passed to the police by Nia Griffith MP and we wait to see what comes of that.
It is also understood that further legal action might be on its way against the council, possibly relating to the tender, and other unspecified claims as it now appears that other employees lost their jobs via underhand tactics.

This whole business has been kept well under wraps by County Hall, as best they could, and enquiring councillors fed the usual lies, spin and half-truths, but the big question remains that given the length of time over which this serious fiasco rumbled along, exactly how far up the pecking order had the knowledge of the scandal reached, and when?
And this case also brings into question, yet again, the council's treatment of whistleblowers.

Whether or not the council will make a last ditch attempt to settle, or if not, whether further details will emerge and the whistleblower will get justice, remains to be seen, but as with this case, my case, and many others, the least we can hope for is that the uneven floor covering at County Hall may eventually even out, though this will only happen once the Sicilian cartel have finally moved on.

Currently, the claim by this council that it has turned a corner and is on course to be the most transparent and wholesome council in Wales remains a massive standing joke.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Court date


Further to council chief executive Mark James' claim to force sale of my home, the matter has been listed for the 23rd March 2017, although it appears from the letter below that the details may be provisional. 
As I have provided background to all this, and my views, in earlier posts I will not comment further at the moment.



My apologies, but I will not be publishing comments on this post.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Carmarthen West Link Road news


A planning application relating to the Carmarthen West link road is due to be considered at next week's planning committee. The construction of the road was considered essential to alleviate traffic problems as the Carmarthen West Development Brief for 1200 homes progressed, and would also link up the new S4C headquarters, when that is eventually built. The cost of the road is supposed to be paid by the various developers, in stages, as the homes are built.

Whether there was, or is, any demand for 1200 new homes on the outskirts of a town the size of Carmarthen is debatable and a controversial issue in itself.

Anyway, in 2015, to get the road going, and with no developer contributions forthcoming at the time, the council decided, in secret session, to borrow most of the £5m to fund the road.

Throughout 2016 there have been numerous council press releases, with suitably hard-hatted and hi-vis wearing officials pictured at the various stages of road building. All went quiet late last year when it emerged that there were wrangles with landowner(s) and compulsory purchase orders were set in motion. Although, given that the development brief has been around for about five years it's a wonder that such issues weren't ironed out years ago. The identity of the landowner is unknown.

The application next week has been submitted by one of the developers to increase the number of houses they can build before the new road is complete from 60 to 150. They have permission for 250 homes out of the 1200.
The landowner/developer, Carmarthen Promotions Ltd, which features landed gentry based in Norfolk, claims that the current agreement is not viable, (their most recent accounts can be seen on the Companies House website) so presumably no developer contribution to the road will be made until 150, rather than 60 of the homes are built, though this is not entirely clear.

The application (here, W/27776) features some technical wizardry which suggests there'll be little or no impact on traffic even if the road is not built. I suspect that residents local to Carmarthen, rather than Norfolk, might disagree.

However, despite the fact that the council has borrowed the £5m, (the Welsh Goverment also provided £1.3m towards it) the application is recommended for approval, and has also been given the nod from Cardiff. Whether any 'developer contributions' to the road ever materialise is clearly in doubt.

Amending S106 agreements or planning conditions due to apparent viability problems is fairly common and was the subject of this interesting Guardian article in 2015. What is not common is for the viability reports to be disclosed, although campaigners in Bristol have had some recent success.

An application by Ffos Las Ltd in 2014 to extend the life of the planning permission for 280 homes included a requested amendment to  change the S106 agreement due to 'viability' issues. My FOI request for a copy of the viability report commissioned by Savils was refused.
That particular application is still, according to the council website, 'under consideration' so I guess the extension of time was granted by default but what became of the S106 agreement remains unknown.

Budget, Stress Management and deja vu


Update 6th February;
As predicted, the local election was forefront in the minds of the Exec Board. The closure of St Clears leisure centre has been postponed and the grants to Citizens' Advice phased over three years rather than in one big hit. The school budget will have an 'injection' of £1,76m next year which will make the cut 'cash neutral', apparently. A 'Schools Efficiency Officer' will also be appointed. The school cuts will still be around £10m over three years.
The council bean counters are reducing the average balance by which the council's loans are reduced each year from 4% to 2.5% which will, if approved, release a few quid to fund the above 'injection'.

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

Next Monday's Executive Board will consider the budget for the next three years. By far the biggest cut will be to the schools' budget, around £11m, with additional slices taken off school improvement support and SEN services.

It remains to be seen whether, with the local elections just around the corner, a couple of red herring cuts might be dropped but it's unlikely that there will be room for much movement in the £11m. The council is facing an overspend of £1.3m this year but, digging a little deeper, we see that the quarterly budget monitoring reports are peppered with 'efficiency slippages', a quaint term to describe the failure to meet the cuts decided at previous budgets, all of which suggests that the cuts programme is not working, and with schools expected to deplete their reserves, the outlook is bleak. At the other end of the age scale, £1.2m is due to be cut from home care packages over the next three year.

But never fear, there's always the capital programme and the many opportunities for hard-hat high-vis photo opportunities they provide as yet another steel-clad out-of-town monolith emerges. The agenda includes the decision to build a covered cycle track at Pembrey Country Park. All very well but the council's borrowings, largely to fund the monoliths, is now approaching £400m with another £10m borrowed last September, goodness knows what for.

The director's report on the five year capital programme mentions the decision last week to give leader/chief executive a big blank cheque to sign off the city deal, which, crucially for the Carmarthenshire taxpayers, includes the Wellness Shed Village.

The unknown cost to the authority, and the hefty borrowing which will be required throws the council bean counters' calculations up the creek. And what of the interest payments on all this borrowing? Currently this stands at £14m per year and it is now clear this will rise significantly but no one has a clue by exactly how much. I'm still astonished how nearly all councillors fell for the hard sell 'Wellness pitch' at last week's extraordinary meeting, complete with a temper tantrum from Mark James when someone dared to politely challenge the wisdom of the whole project.

The budget will go to full council later this month where election fever, rather than future black holes, will be in forefront of the minds of most of our councillors.

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

With the council's recent £500,000 tender for stress management services in the news I thought I was having a deja vu/senior moment. After a couple of days the penny finally dropped and I remembered that a tender went out for exactly the same thing in January 2012, I even blogged about it briefly.

The 2012 tender was a little more explicit as to which 'partners' of the council would also benefit from the service and included Castell Howell Foods Ltd, a private hospital, a private school and a manufacturer of puddings. It is not specified which private companies might benefit this time round.

It's not clear whether anyone was ever awarded the 2012 contract and reports since that time suggest the service was kept in-house. In fact only a couple of weeks ago a departmental business plan stated;
'The use of the in-house stress management/Cognitive Behavioural Therapy services continues and is focused on supporting stress, anxiety and depression, alongside management interventions and support' 
There's no mention of outsourcing the service. In fact, a revised Stress Management policy was approved at last Monday's Executive Board meeting, again there was no mention of this tender or the half a million quid.
Furthermore, a planned budget cut of £135,000 is being proposed for health and safety 'restructuring' in general 'to yield savings from a reduction in expenditure on external contractors' .

I do not want to minimise the impact of stress, far from it, and of course, the council does have a legal duty of care towards it's employees but unfortunately, having been contacted by numerous current, and former, members of staff over the past seven years it seems that that duty of care is often disturbingly selective, with 'special' treatment being reserved for whistleblowers and opponents of regime.
Furthermore, it would be interesting to know exactly which private companies will be benefiting as 'partners' of the council, another very selective term.

Still, on a lighter note, if anyone is in need of some therapy, I can think of one person who should be at the front of the queue...