Thursday, 15 February 2018

February's Council meeting - with updates


Update 23rd February;

After three years, and intense media pressure over the past few days the council have rapidly backpedalled and are flying the Rainbow flag above County Hall this weekend. Good. It will also be flown every May 17th for International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.

With the growing realisation that Carmarthenshire is being viewed as the only homophobic council in Wales, the Rev Emlyn Dole has released a statement claiming that he has 'intervened' in the debate and ordered that the flag is flown, he fails to mention that he has had the authority to fly the flag all along.

Why this has taken three years is simply ridiculous. Let's not forget, as I have mentioned below, that it has been the chief executive, the devout Mr James, who has personally rejected several requests, but embraced, with £2m of public money, an evangelical organisation in Carmarthen. Make of that what you will.
I'd have liked to have been a fly on the wall in the Presidential Suite over the last few days.

County Hall 23rd Feb 2018...and it's upside down. Update 2pm; it's now been put the right way up. As with many things...Only in Carmarthenshire...

Update 22nd February; Flags

With the council's refusal to fly the Rainbow flag now in the news and across social media, it's worth re-stating that the policy states that ultimately it is up to the leader, Cllr Dole, whether a flag is flown or not (apart from the royal flags etc). On the other hand, the chief executive has stated that whilst the council is happy to support community ventures "this does not extend to flag flying at civic centres".

This begs that age old question as to who is running the council, not Mr Dole obviously, and why has the council spent over three years tying itself in knots to avoid flying the Rainbow flag, when no other public body seems to have a problem. Without spelling it out, I believe the answer lies, at least in part, in the main post below.
In effect the policy allows for the flying of the Rainbow flag, it is the personal preferences of the Leader, and chief executive to choose to reject the request.



Cllr Dole also stated, at last week's meeting, that the council are members of Stonewall. According to another FOI response, the council decided to 'pause and review' their membership last year. It is not known if they have now rejoined the network or if Mr Dole was stretching the truth.

* * *

There are a couple of points worth mentioning from yesterday's full council. For the connoisseurs, the whole epic can be seen on the archived webcast.
Firstly came the latest instalment in the County Hall flag saga. The saga largely involves repeated requests, over the past few years, by organisations and lately by a councillor, to fly the Rainbow flag during LGBTQ celebrations. The 'council', otherwise known as the chief executive, has resolutely refused and aside from a brief flutter after the Orlando massacre, the brightly coloured symbol of solidarity and inclusion has remained neatly folded in the Presidential drawers.

According to the council they were so inundated with flag flying demands they had to adopt a protocol in 2015, this was an officer decision with no record of it going near a councillor. I eventually got a copy of the protocol which I blogged about last September. Incidentally, there were only two recorded requests. (Please search this blog for previous posts)

A Labour motion to fly the flag before Christmas was kicked into the long grass to be discussed by CRWG. CRWG, you may recall, is the cross-party group set up following the pension and libel indemnity scandals and the damning WLGA report on the way the council was run. It's current membership is five Plaid; Emlyn Dole (Chair); Hazel Evans, Tyssul Evans, Peter Hughes-Griffiths and Dai Jenkins; two Independent coalition members Jane Tremlett and Mair Stephens and three Labour; Jeff Edmunds, John James and Rob James.
Four of the Plaid members and the two Independents are also Executive Board members.

True to form the group, which is supposed to promote good governance and transparency refuses to publish its agendas and minutes. Neither will the Chair, Emlyn Dole agree to discuss the complete removal the illegal and notorious, but currently 'suspended' libel indemnity clause. As CRWG is overseen by the chief executive and loyal legal Linda, this is, of course, not surprising. One of the criticisms reported by the WLGA was that the council was officer-led. It still is of course.

Anyway, it was left to Plaid leader Cllr Dole to respond to Labour councillor Andre McPherson's enquiry as to the outcome of CRWG's flag deliberations. As Cllr Dole drifted off into the council's efforts to promote inclusion it was clear which way this was heading. And there it was... apparently there was a unanimous CRWG decision to keep the policy as it was, there'd be no rainbow flag, or flags from any other organisations flown anywhere near County Hall. Cllr McPherson was then stopped from asking for a further explanation.
And, furthermore, the Union Jack will always be given prominence over the Welsh flag. Strange that, for a Plaid Cymru 'run' council.

Meanwhile the Welsh Government, police and other councils happily fly the Rainbow and other flags without even a hint of such complex and lengthy prevarication. There are some who wonder whether the Evangelical Christian zeal of certain senior officers, well, one in particular, is creeping into public policy. Readers might recall the gifting of millions to Carmarthenshire's very own evangelical bowling alley. It is notable that it has been the chief executive, Mark James, rather than the leader (as it should be, even under their own protocol), who has rejected requests to fly the flag...



(17th Feb; Cllr McPherson has started a petition to fly the Rainbow flag above County Hall during LGBT history month, you can sign here)

The next item of interest was to approve a £250k loan, and generally give the nod, to the newly formed arms length trading company, Llesiant Delta Wellbeing Ltd. This will replace the Careline 24 hour social care response service and, as I mentioned here, is the latest in a series of wholly owned ventures which include housing and waste services. As I also mentioned in that blog post, the company was registered at Company House a week before the Exec Board gave their approval, which begs the question as to who authorised it.

It made a refreshing change to see some opposition from the Labour benches. This might not be privatisation per se, but by putting 'Ltd' at the end of any council service it smacks of the thin end of the wedge towards outsourcing. They are right to be cautious, there are no guarantees. As with waste services etc it remains to be seen just how secure the transferred employees terms and conditions will be, let alone the accuracy of the predicted 5 year profits, and as these will be trading companies, scrutiny and monitoring will now be further hampered by claims of commercial sensitivity.

The director of communities and deputy CEO Jake Morgan was asked how much had been spent on consultants so far for this new company, he didn't know, which is disappointing as he's paid £134,000 a year to know. Perhaps he just didn't like to say. In fact up to the end of the last financial year it was £62,000 and that's without the specific remit this year to set up the company.

Predictably, both Pontificating Plaid and their Independent colleague, Jane 'your grandmother's safe in my hands' Tremlett, the exec board member for social care, accused the opponents of jeopardising jobs and the future of Careline. Let's hope this sentiment doesn't come back to bite them. Dear Jane is becoming more like Dear Meryl every day...
Whilst Plaid were quick to accuse Labour of scaremongering and political point scoring, they may recall, in March 2015, shortly before acquiring power, they were making similar attacks on Labour's 'outsourcing' plans; 'the obsession of the Labour council with effectively outsourcing services and reducing democratic oversight inevitably reduces the operational control the council has over our public services'. This was in reference to another of the council's supposedly 'wholly owned' companies.
C'est la vie.

Council webcast fans haven't got long to wait until the next instalment with the council budget up for the rubber stamp next Wednesday. There's been some backroom juggling and which shaves a few grand off some of the cuts, a pot of cash set up to help schools with their 'efficiency savings' and, for the third (or fourth?) year running the closure of respite centres has been dropped. Given the regularity with which this particular cut is proposed, then dropped, one can only wonder if it's a plant in the first place. Makes for a good press release though. If I remember correctly it was promised, a couple of years ago, that this would never appear on the budget proposals again.

It will be interesting to see what happens, the current Chair of the council has had an easy ride so far and will have avoided bruised shins from the gentleman to his left, (rumours circulated a couple of years ago that previous Chairs, of the female variety, earned a gentle pat on the thigh as a reward for silencing troublesome Members...). Hopefully there'll be some searching questions over the City Deal and the Wellness Thing, if not next week (why not?) then whenever some sort of update finally appears. If the Swansea Libdems can muster a few published concerns then so can a few Carmarthenshire councillors, before it's too late.

The bottomless money pit, into which taxpayers' money will be happily poured, will make the rest of the budget, with the hefty cuts to social care and the axing of free college/school transport for 16 to 18 year olds, to name but two, look like peanuts.

Update 21st Feb; After an hour of debate the budget was passed by a majority, there were no amendments. Labour did make a couple of proposals, with a view to preventing the rise in school dinners, to cut the Executive Board membership from ten to eight and remove some of the extra payments to committee Chairs. They also suggested that a cross-party group be set up to deal with the eye-watering levels of senior officer pay. All of which sound like a good idea, but are unlikely to happen. The meeting will be available to watch when archived.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Councils at war

It seems that the former police commissioner is not the only one to view our council as Wales' answer to a Sicilian cartel - an element of Pembrokeshire County Council have also expressed the same view, publicly, at a meeting of Pembrokeshire's Audit Committee this morning (30th)

The issue relates to Carmarthensire's refusal, some time ago, to allow Pembrokeshire's elected members access to crucial documents relating to the controversial South West Wales Property Development Fund (SWWPDF).

These were speculative property grants covering Pembs and Carms but administered by Carms. Carmarthenshire bloggers raised their own concerns over these grants, known as 'Meryl's Millions' (see previous posts) a couple of years ago and the outgoing Director of Resources reported matters to the Wales Audit Office as a parting shot.

As you can imagine, no information was released other than a few lines buried in reports. The Wales Audit Office did the final audit of the SWWPDF and Carms refused to accept the findings, which clearly were not good. Carms then took it off the WAO and gave the task to Wales European Funding Office (WEFO) instead and, surprise surprise, nothing more was said.
In 2016 I asked the WAO for all information and reports relating to their audit but it was refused as it would "prejudice the audit functions of the Auditor General for Wales" Hmm.
As WEFO also administered EU grants, it was not in their interests to find anything particularly untoward in Carms.
So, in brief, it was the usual cover up and secretive nonsense. The WAO have, in their annual reports, raised serious concerns with the council's management of numerous grants over the past five years.

Pembrokeshire Councillors (including the two blogging councillors Jacob Williams and Mike Stoddart) have been carrying out their own investigations into some of the SWWPDF expenditure in their county and in an attempt to get crucial documents, met the brick wall of Carmarthen County Hall.

Carms wouldn't even send documents to Pembs but insisted that Pembs officers trek to Carmarthen to view them, presumably under armed supervision. A request to include Pembs Cllr Mike Stoddart in the deputation to Carmarthen was refused. Carms suggested they submit a FOI request. As I mentioned, Cllr Stoddart happens to be the author of the Old Grumpy blog.

The issue at stake is whether, in a joint venture between partner councils, elected members can see contracts, audits and all documents held by the administering council.

As taxpayers money from Pembs is involved, of course they should and, in fact, their own legal department agrees that they should.

And if it is suspected, as it is here, that all is not as it should be then all the more reason that they should be available.

However, this is the Carmarthenshire cartel in action with the usual obfuscation, cover-up and chronically cavalier internal legal advice.

The murky waters of the SWWPDF were one thing, the multi-millions involved in the Swansea Bay City Deal are quite another. The four councils have still not agreed on a Governance Agreement; the previous draft was ripped up last October and apparently 'it is hoped' that the new draft will be 'presented to council' in March. That's over a year of disagreement as well as ongoing secrecy over private investment.
With Mr James as lead chief executive of the City Deal I understand that the other partners are finding his attitude a little arrogant to say the least. No surprises there then.

As for paying the interest on the millions which will be borrowed by the council, there is currently not a penny in the budget to cover it. Mind you, the £400k Respite care budget for profoundly disabled children is due to be slashed by half so perhaps that might contribute a few paltry quid towards Mr James' latest vanity project...

If Pembrokeshire councillors don't push now for free access to all documentation then they won't stand a hope in hell of seeing so much as a Post-It note from the Carmarthen catacombs.
If they do acquire documents, especially through the chief executive, it worth double checking their authenticity, just like you would for a second-hand car...just a precaution you understand.

Carmarthenshire councillors might also like to consider their own rights over access to information and stop taking 'no' for an answer...although I'm sure the majority have never asked for more than their monthly expenses claim form.

Anyway, kudos to Pembrokeshire for webcasting ALL their meetings, including their Audit Committee where the problem of Carmarthenshire's refusal to provide documents was discussed, in damning terms. After this, if they don't play ball Mr James may decide to build a wall between Pembs and Carms, and make Pembs pay for it...
As you can also see from the webcast, the matter has been referred to the Wales Audit Office.

I have been unable to find a way to embed the section of webcast into this post (can anyone help here?) so have provided a link to the relevant Item here. It's worth watching to the end of the item.


Pembrokeshire's Audit Committee





Friday, 26 January 2018

News round up - City Deals, 'Teckals' and more...


I would hope that the collapse of Carillion has, if nothing else, put the brakes on the PFI-style arrangement known as the Swansea Bay City Deal, or Techniums Part 2 for those with longer memories..... Before the four councils, or even the health boards (currently considering hospital closures) commit to million of pounds of public debt in joint initiatives with private investors, due diligence should be reviewed and public accountability and transparency strengthened.

One of the key City Deal developers, so far, is national construction company Kier Group. The firm set up an outpost in Swansea in 2016 and have already joined with the University of Wales Trinity St David, and the council, to develop the Yr Egin/S4C cultural 'hub' in Carmarthen and various Uni 'hubs' on the Swansea Riviera. Whether they'll be involved in the exciting Wellness private healthcare vanity project on the Delta Lake swamp remains to be seen...

Yr Egin, Carmarthen
Kier is not Carillion of course but an interesting article caught my attention in this week's Private Eye and it would seem that there are some troubling parallels:

Private Eye No.1462

Oh, and for an enlightened take on one of the Pembrokeshire 'City Deal' projects, have a read of Pembs councillor Mike Stoddart's 'Old Grumpy' blog here.
And for more on the City Deal/Wellness Shed, please search this blog.

* * *

Up in North Wales, Wrexham to be exact, councillors have been ordered by officers not to share extracts of council webcasts. It would seem that they've been taking lessons in control freakery from our own County Hall, though I doubt they'll actually be arrested...

Claiming copyright of such material as a means to prevent dissemination, for whatever purpose, is a profoundly backwards step and clearly the real issue is a fear that someone might edit a titbit and make someone look silly. In Carmarthenshire they do that all by themselves, no need for editing.
As Wrexham Council have the 'Master copy' they've no need to fret. Same in Carms, who have also taken the extra step of banning public filming of anything which isn't webcast...

* * *

On the subject of transparency, or lack thereof, the council have been busy recently setting up various arms length companies for housing, waste services and the Careline social care 24 hour helpline, and no doubt there are more in the pipeline. The latter two will apparently be 'Teckal' compliant which means, in a nutshell, that they will be controlled by the council (to start with anyway) and will be able to trade privately for around 20% of their income. It also removes the necessity to openly tender for these services.

Whether this is the thin end of the wedge towards back door privatisation remains to be seen. The emphasis will shift to profit and over-ambitious predicted 'savings' may never materialise. The new Careline company, which has yet to be politically approved, has already been named (Lleisant Delta Wellbeing Ltd) and appears to have been registered on company house on the 15th January by the Wolverhampton based consultants brought in to advise the council a couple of years ago; their costs, by 2016 were £62,400, and, presumably, are still rising.

The waste service, discussed in private at last Monday's Executive Board meeting, is currently run by Cwm Environmental, also wholly owned by the council but whose contract has come to an end.

The council have been poring over the problem of renewing the contract for around three years and have brought in Geldards lawyers, Eunomia Consultancy and KPMG to advise. The cost of all this advice is unknown but unlikely to be cheap. KPMG have recently been in the news for signing off Carillion's accounts as all fine and dandy a few short months ago...

* * *

I notice that Carmarthenshire council is in a shortlist of ten for a Chartered Institute of Housing award for tackling homelessness. I don't want to take any credit away from hardworking staff but is the esteemed Institute aware that the chief executive of this council spent a small fortune (of his own money, we are led to believe), used council facilities and employed three barristers to try and render myself and my family homeless last year? He's clearly not a team player...

Interestingly, and according to the CIH website, it costs around £2000 to book a table for the glittering London awards ceremony in May. That's without train fares and hotel bookings. Let's hope none of the attendees trip over the homeless people sheltering under the canopies of the Park Plaza.

* * *

Finally, news that Labour MP for Wansbeck, Ian Lavery is in hot water for using House of Commons notepaper and postage to issue legal threats to local constituents on Facebook also caught my attention (well, it would wouldn't it). According to the MPs' Code of Conduct such facilities, ie taxpayer funded facilities, are not to be used for financial gain.

How different things are in the Wild West of Wales where our chief executive used considerably more than the cost of a publicly funded postage stamp for his own financial gain, and illegally to boot. Lesser mortals might have been had up for fraud.

County Hall is not the House of Commons though, it has its own rules, devised or flouted according to the personal requirements of Mr James CBE...such a trustworthy individual.

Monday, 15 January 2018

The Boston Diaries....leopards and spots


Chief Executive, Mr James, in his witness statement to the police last year, accused me of saying that he had been 'tampering with documents before a tribunal'. In fact, what I had said, here, was that this had been an allegation made several years ago when he was employed by Boston Borough Council. The reason why I made the comment is set out below.

From time to time this blog has mentioned a few of the legacies left at Boston Borough Council following the departure of its chief executive, Mr Mark James in 2001 to Carmarthenshire. One of the main, and well publicised legacies, was a stadium which, as Mr James said at its inception, wouldn't cost the taxpayers a penny. He was quite right, it didn't cost them a penny, it cost them millions. 

Aside from stadiums, the text of an Affidavit copied and partially anonymised below, dated 1997, makes some very serious allegations about Mr James, who was, at the time of the events described, the head of legal. As you can see it is a sworn statement, an affidavit, and the full copy has been in my possession for some time. 

Enquiries with Boston Council confirmed that documents relating to all these matters had long since been destroyed so, whatever the case, it seems that the matters will remain a mystery. However, additional enquiries with some of those named confirm the integrity of the writer and none cast aspersions on the genuine nature of the document. 

As for Mr James, in court he 'couldn't remember' relatively recent events so I'm sure that whatever transpired in Boston are long erased from memory...

You can make your own mind up, but given my experience, and the experiences of others, including Carmarthenshire staff and whistleblowers, over the past few years, I know what I think.

AFFIDAVIT 
I, Ms A, of xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx, Lincolnshire MAKE OATH and say as follows; 
1. I was employed by Boston Borough Council from 1985 until May 1997 when I was retired on the grounds of ill-health. During my period of employment I was engaged in various posts, but from 1992 until my retirement I was employed in the Personnel Section. 
2. During the period August/September 1993 various members of staff were interviewed regarding the restructuring of certain departments. Included in these interviews was Officer A who was employed as Assistant Solicitor to the Council. I was present throughout his interview with Mark James (Director of Administration and Legal Services) and Officer B (Director of Finance). It was clear from the discussion which took place after the interview that Mark James did not want Officer A to continue to be employed by the Council in any capacity. 
3. Officer A was made redundant by the Council sometime between September 1993 and May 1994. Officer A subsequently took his case to an Industrial Tribunal, the hearing of which commenced on the 16th May 1994. One of the arguments put forward by Officer A was that the Council had never written to him offering a particular post and with details of the job specification. 
4. The day before the hearing of the Industrial Tribunal, Officer C the then Personnel Manager (and my immediate superior officer) told me that Mark James had given instructions that I was to type a letter addressed to Officer A offering him a particular post with the Council, and enclosing with it a job description. I was told that the instructions from Mark James were that the letter was to be back-dated to a date in September 1993. I told Officer C that what I was being asked to do was wrong and I was not prepared to comply with Mr James' instructions. I was informed that if I did not comply with such instructions it was very likely that I would be dismissed. As I was in fear of losing my job I carried out the instruction, but to safeguard myself I typed on the disc containing the letter words to the effect that "this letter was actually typed on the .....". I was told to file a copy of the letter on the appropriate file in date order but that the original was to be destroyed. 
5. I am informed that at Officer A's Industrial Tribunal, Mr James gave evidence on oath that the letter in question had been typed and sent to Officer A in September 1993. This was not possible as Mr James knew full well that I did not type the letter until May 1994. 
6. I have to say that when passing on the instructions from Mr James, Officer C was also very concerned that what I had been told to do was not correct, and as a result of him refusing to carry out tasks of a similar nature thereafter Officer C was squeezed out of his post on payment of compensation. 
7. In view of the above information, Mr James appears to have; 
a) Instructed a member of staff to carry out an act which he knew as unlawful in its intent.
b) Destroyed the original of a letter, or gave specific instructions for its destruction, knowing that it was vital evidence in a case against the Council and
c) Deliberately lied under oath at an Industrial Tribunal by saying that a letter had been sent to Officer A in September 1993 knowing that such a letter had not been typed until May 1994. 
8. In November 1994 a Personnel Assistant (Officer D) was appointed. From the very beginning she harassed me in various ways, and on many occasions this harassment was of a sexual nature. This harassment seriously affected my health, and by October 1996 I had had enough. I accordingly saw Mark James and reported to him some six or seven complaints of a serious nature against both Officer D and my departmental head, Officer E. Mr James did not want to know, and merely told me to repeat my allegations to Officer E (one of the perpetrators) for him to deal with. I could not believe that as the Director of the Council fully responsible for staff matters and the Monitoring Officer, and in view of the seriousness of the allegations, he did not commence an immediate investigation. 
9. Two days after my interview with Mark James I had to see my doctor because of the stressful affect the actions described were having on my health. My doctor issued a certificate, and I did not return to work after that date. 
10. There are both current and former members of staff who can verify that the facts I have stated above are correct. Officer C has confirmed to me that he is prepared to attend any inquiry to confirm the facts regarding the typing of the backdated letter. If I am given access to the discs in the Personnel Department I can easily identify the one containing the letter and my note thereon. This is providing the disc has not been destroyed. 
Sworn before a Commissioner for Oaths, and signed by both.
December 1997

Monday, 8 January 2018

'Blindingly obvious' - and those missing declarations of interest...


As I mentioned in my end of year post (scroll down) I emailed the head of legal/monitoring officer Linda Rees Jones before Christmas raising a few concerns. One of these concerns was the revelation that the chief executive had not declared his 'Cardiff' interests which, in my opinion, he should have done; namely that he runs a property management company, he's a director of four private companies, owns leaseholds on several flats and is a registered landlord.

Ms Rees Jones (the email could have been written by Mr James of course) attempts to remove herself from the equation by saying that it is up to him to consider whether or not there is anything within these extra-curricular affairs which may be in conflict with the authority's interests. In my view, the problem with such a voluntary arrangement, for Carmarthenshire anyway, is that this is dependent upon the honesty and integrity of the senior officer concerned...
Ms Rees Jones also notes that there has been much 'blogging' about it all. Quite.

Whilst I have set out my reasons why I think this failure to declare could lead a potential for conflicting interests, and even costly judicial reviews, let alone the significance of the bad press which emerged over the summer, I also made a comparison with the failure, by the chief executive, to declare an interest when being bankrolled for his legal costs by the Executive Board in 2012.

That 2012 failure to declare was one of the reasons why the decision was declared illegal (or 'unlawful', if you like), this was in addition to the fact that such an indemnity was unlawful, full stop. It also led to an independent review of the entire way the council was governed and the conclusion from former lawyer and lay member of the Audit Committee that the council's internal legal advice was 'cavalier' and 'incompetent'.

Ms Rees Jones is of course, unwavering in her defence of Mr James, as if her job depended on it... and continues to argue that the Wales Audit Office were entirely wrong. Quoting various 'counsel's opinions', namely Mr Tim Kerr QC (who was brought in to defend Mr James and the Labour/Independent Exec Board at the time), one of the bizarre excuses was that as it was "blindingly obvious" to the Members that Mr James had a direct interest, a formal declaration was not required. The leap of logic continues with the unverified claim that it was she who gave the advice and not him.

I have pointed out that it is also "blindingly obvious" to Members that officers have a direct interest when pay policy or pensions are being discussed at full council, but those officers duly, and correctly file out of the chamber when such items arise.
In the real world anyone with a shred of integrity would have made a formal declaration and left the meeting. As for the 'advice', I have suggested that his presence alone was sufficient to influence the decision and, furthermore, she discussed the report with Mr James, and sought his advice and approval three days before the meeting, this was highly inappropriate to say the least. It didn't matter whether he spoke at the meeting or not, he'd already influenced the decision.
Oddly, when questioned about his presence at the 2012 meeting at the libel trial he had a sudden memory lapse and 'couldn't remember' if he'd been there or not. Yeah really. Far be it for me to suggest of course that he was not being entirely truthful when in the witness box.

As for the current state of affairs, and undeclared interests, it appears to me that governance is still dire and legal advice remains both cavalier and incompetent. In fact, it's blindingly obvious.

*

In an unrelated issue, the legal department are, it seems to me, currently taking it upon themselves to extend the Freedom of Information Act exemptions to prevent the release of the now scrapped City Deal Joint Working Agreement.

The 70 page document, covering the governance arrangements between the partner local authorities, led by Carmarthenshire, was scrapped in the Autumn and a new one commissioned. In refusing my request for the original draft the council acknowledged there were "public interest factors which favour disclosure in this case, namely transparency and furthering public knowledge in relation to a high profile project involving the expenditure of significant public funds", but used legal professional privilege to prevent its release.

Legal professional privilege (in this case relating to legal advice rather than impending litigation) is, in theory a reasonable and well tested means to protect lawyer/client correspondence and advice, but this is not a bundle of legal letters in the true sense of the law but a complete draft document not only of significant public interest but one that has also been made available to councillors elsewhere.

What this means is that the council can refuse to release documents which may, or may not have been wafted past a lawyer at some point. We wouldn't know. This could even be applied to documents and agreements which have been adopted such as the council's own constitution. Clearly that would be an extreme example, but the council are attempting to set a dangerous precedent regarding the legal exemption and as this is an important principle, I will be taking the matter up with the Information Commissioner in due course. (10th Jan; complaint has now been sent to the ICO)
The full thread of the request and the responses can be read here.

Whilst I'm on the subject of the City Deal it seems that despite the questions hanging over governance arrangements (the new agreement has not yet been approved), the level of public funding, etc, council staff are being redeployed to work for the City Deal, and as recent advertisements for media and office managers show, this is on the council payroll. It seems that not only are 'cash-strapped' councils required to borrow (and pay interest on) unknown millions but will be funding the staff themselves.

Or perhaps it's just Carmarthenshire, whose chief executive happens to be the lead chief executive for the Deal and who is perhaps busy creating a personalised offshoot of the Kingdom of County Hall, leading us all up the garden path to, er, Wellness...or oblivion.
Councillors may wish to check for themselves that staff and resources are not being diverted away from frontline services to an organisation, a quango of sorts, which has yet to show its hand, let alone democratic accountability.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Press Office news


Interesting rumours were circulating just before Christmas that changes are afoot within the council's notorious press office, a couple of senior staff, including press manager, Debbie Williams are apparently off to pastures new. Various social media postings suggest that the pastures may not be entirely new, and there has been further speculation over the deal which may, or may not, have been on offer. Who knows...maybe they're retiring and the press office is finally being cut down to size. Time will tell.

Incidentally, there has also been some council 'restructuring' and a new 'Media and Marketing' section set up. Restructuring is occasionally used to get rid of rebellious staff or, on the other hand, to provide an opportunity to reward the loyal with promotion, a revolving door or a sidestep elsewhere. Mr James has played this game since his days at Boston...allegedly...

Nothing is ever quite as it seems....

Like any self-respecting tin-pot dictator the chief executive has ensured that he not only has a pliant and obedient legal squad but also a loyal and well resourced propaganda machine. One that can churn out half truths, attack 'enemies of the state', gather 'intelligence' and feed it back to the Presidential Suite. He even added that unique, and illegal clause to the council's constitution to give himself the power to sue anyone, press included, who expressed robust criticism, or tried to take a closer look at County Hall.

As for press releases, anything more controversial than, for instance, changes to bin collections, or the named and shamed litter droppers and fly tippers requires the oversight of the Supreme Leader.

There have been countless (in fact, I've lost count) incidents over the years, reported on this blog, and Cneifiwr's blog, which illustrate how this has all played out, please search both blogs if you wish.

One of the first things on Mr James' 'to do' list on his arrival in 2002 was to accost local editors, unannounced, and explain exactly how 'things would be done'. Very chilling.

With his own Ministry of Truth established at County Hall he set about attacking both the Carmarthen Journal and the South Wales Guardian for publishing various articles critical of the regime. The tactic was to threaten to withdraw advertising, or threaten to complain to the newspapers' owners - both of which were actually carried out. Blackmail in other words.

In another development, back in 2006, an email which appeared to originate from the press office, urged an internet campaign against those opposing the Stradey development.

In 2012, an advert was pulled from the South Wales Guardian following a mildly critical article concerning some minor developments in Ammanford. All was revealed when an email from Debbie Williams to the council's marketing officer was leaked.
Another example was a phone call from County Hall to a local editor demanding that one of its reporters withdraw a FOI requesting details of senior officer pay.

The SWG incident, and a politically charged attack (another press office tactic) from the then Labour leader Kevin Madge towards Plaid politicians prompted calls, by Plaid, for a council debate on the freedom of the independent press. The Motion was blocked by the chief executive who left it in the capable hands of now retired Cllr Pam Palmer and press manager Debbie Williams to discuss between themselves, behind closed doors. Naturally, they didn't find anything amiss...

In another incident the press manager emailed Mr James after earwigging on a phone conversation between former councillor Sian Caiach to a reporter questioning whether it was wise to believe a word that Mr James said. This conversation, which was only half heard, formed part of a complaint to the ombudsman in 2012 and was duly thrown out.

Throughout this time the council were also expending valuable resources on its own propaganda rag, the Carmarthenshire News. This seems to have dwindled to a couple of copies a year and the cost burden now falls on other public bodies, ' the Public Service Board' as well as the council.

The former Police Commissioner Christopher Salmon, who described County Hall as a Sicilian cartel, withdrew their funding a few years back saying he'd rather support independent local media. It is not clear whether the new Commissioner has reinstated the payments.

Another sinister incident,in 2012, detailed by Cneifiwr here, concerned the Jason Mohammed BBC Radio programme which featured discussion about the ridiculous security measures imposed upon visitors to the public gallery - the measures were concocted by Mr James after the filming incident in 2011.

Somehow or other the council got wind of the names of the two residents being interviewed and the press office issued an astonishing, but typically paranoid statement, for broadcast, accusing the two pensioners of lying and having an 'agenda'.

The press office was used to the fore during the libel trial in 2013. Not, as you may think, to ensure balanced reporting, nor even to cushion the reputation of the council but simply for the benefit of Mr James.

Ms Williams kindly provided a witness statement for Mr James in which she expressed her distaste for my blog - it wasn't balanced and didn't report on anything positive. This was the pot calling the kettle black, if in reverse. I had also "totally rubbished" one of their in-house style PR awards. She was, she explained, a regular reader of my blog as it was her job to monitor what was said, and, it turned out, pass it on to Mr James. How comforting to know that taxpayer's money is being put to such good use...and still is.

Ms Williams was also involved in the chief executive's letter to the Madaxeman blog which led to the libel case, suggesting the removal of a couple of the more extreme expletives which Mr James had originally decided to include.
Mr James' suggestions that councillors were involved in approving the Madaxeman letter was a lie, he did it all by himself with a little help from his friends; his legal squad and media empire.

Despite the fact that Ms Williams' witness statement was withdrawn (the James' legal team in London decided it was far too risky to put her, or Cllr Ivor Jackson in the witness box) she was there for the duration of the trial, alongside legal Linda and the rest of the Circus from County Hall.

It was interesting to note that in London, away from their fiefdom, County Hall were unable to control press coverage to their usual satisfaction, and The Times leader on the last day of the trial was a corker.

The post-judgement Mark James Victory Parade went on for months with numerous press articles and even a couple of highly charged staff newsletters to all 9000 staff, very classy.. However, things began to deteriorate as it became clear that the Appointed Auditor was on the prowl and wasn't backing down, not even under Mr James' persuasive, erm, charms.

The press office was then used to attack the Auditor and the MP, even demanding that the former retract his 'opinions'.

Sadly the press office chose not to publish photos of Mr James scowling in his potting shed whilst under criminal investigation, if you could call it that, by Gloucestershire police.

During the furore of those libel and pension scandals, in January 2014, calls were made for a review of the Council's Press and Media protocol, it was deftly kicked into the long grass for over a year but during that time the WLGA Governance review included a revision of the press protocol in its recommendations. It said that the council 'will not seek to suppress or censor the activity of an independent press and media'. 

The 'revised' protocol eventually emerged, but as I pointed out here, leopards rarely change their spots and given the chief executive's utter contempt for the WLGA Review (it had been prompted by the scandals), the spots remained undisturbed and it was business as usual.

Early in 2016 whilst Mr James was sending in the bailiffs (remember, it was, according to him, a private matter) he made use of the council press office to call me a liar in a statement to the Western Mail. I had said I'd made offers to settle, he said I hadn't. I then sent the proof to the Herald who had picked up on the story. They asked the press office if they were sure the Western Mail statement was entirely accurate? They responded by sending an exact copy of the WM statement. Mr James had been deliberately untruthful, twice, via the publicly funded press office about something he claimed was a 'private matter'.

I could go on and on but rather like Sooty without Sweep, or even half a Krankie, what will Mr James do unless he has a suitable replacements?...or perhaps opportunities in the PR-heavy City Deal could be arranged...coincidentally a 'redeployment opportunity' for a City Deal press manager was recently advertised by the council... It needs a loyal disciple, as the Deal currently seems to be going pear shaped with our Mr James at the helm...

Anyway, let's hope that the chief executive remembers all those who helped him through his darkest hours of libel trials and audit reports....he personally gifted Linda Rees Jones her permanent job and another was promoted to Director a few months before he retired on a final salary pension, one hopes he doesn't forget the others....

I recognise, of course, that the press office has an important job to do and provides a service to inform residents, but there is an element which has been used to defend the indefensible, to threaten the local press and individuals, and has perpetuated, without question, the toxic culture of manipulation, threats, lies and lumpy carpets so favoured by the chief executive.

They may have played his game but he is the one who done the damage to the reputation of the press office and the council as a whole and it is he who has overstayed his welcome, by about 15 years.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

2017 - A year on the blog



January

For the first couple of months of 2017 Caebrwyn's mind was pretty much preoccupied with hanging on to the family home. The council had acquired a charge of £190,000 in December and Mr James, one step ahead of them, and, after threatening everyone with contempt of court for having the temerity to try and bring about a resolution, was all set to take my home.

Meanwhile, the very very exiting Wellness Thing was underway with 3D visualisations of what, to the uninitiated, looked like a herd of white elephants around a watering hole. Luxury spas, private health care, massive debt....all awaited the good taxpayers of Carmarthenshire as, apparently, the NHS had had its day. With Meryl Gravell waffling vaguely about sea air and wellness, the scene was set and the City Deal on its way..

The first whiff of an arms length housing company appeared on an executive agenda. The opposition finally picked up on the wheeze eleven months later asking a few polite questions last week. Scrutiny never has been a strong point.

Towards the end of the month and thanks to Private Eye, our most respected chief executive had yet another honour to add to his CBE:



The Herald celebrated the honour by publishing a collage of Eye appearances over recent years.

February

With the May local elections now firmly on the horizon the council budget was the usual pre-election campaign, this time being the turn of the 'ruling' Plaid/Indie coalition. The budget was finally approved on the 23rd February

The Carmarthen West Link Road was back in the news as the council were wrangling with landowners, developers and compulsory purchase orders, and they're still wrangling today. One piece of land, around 20 acres, was bought by the council in 2016 for £570,000 which will be repaid from 'future S106 money', or, in plain English, 'when our ship comes in'.

The lumpy carpets of county hall were put to the test as the Pembrey Park scandal had a bit of an airing at a whistleblower's employment tribunal in Cardiff. The story has been covered on this blog over the past couple of years. There certainly appeared to be a County Hall cover-up by senior officials with one of them memorably recorded pleading 'for f***s sake don't go to the police'...




I also made my annual enquiries to Linda Rees Jones about removing the suspended libel clause from the constitution. (NOT a slush fund of course..).

March

Following a brief lull in police stuff, apart from the lingering harassment warning, a Sunday morning phone call from Dyfed Powys' thin blue line informed me that Mr James had made another complaint and if I didn't arrange to go 'Voluntarily' for an interview I'd be arrested at 'any given moment'. The interview was on the 17th, a week before Mr James was going to try and force sale of my home in the county court.

The hearing itself revealed the fact that Mr James had broken his promise to hand over any damages to the council and was, his barrister said, free to stuff it in the gutter if he wanted. This charming turn of phrase was immortalised in another edition of Private Eye. The upshot was that as long as I gave Mr James £250 a month for 15 years he'd let me keep the keys.


Also in March, Sian Caiach was informed that the Ombudsman was 'investigating' an assortment of complaints made against her by Mr James. To date, the process is still ongoing...
If there's any justice in the world then the outcome will be the same as followed Mr James' previous outburst back in 2012

The judgement for the Pembrey Employment Tribunal was issued this month, with whistleblower Eirian Morris stating that the council had 'put him through hell'. We can well imagine it Mr M.


The Swansea Bay City Deal was signed in March providing a photo opportunity for  the great and good of south west Wales, and Carwyn Jones, with Theresa May...



April

Local election fever was hitting a crescendo and the fallout from the court hearing revelations was in the Western Mail and the Herald and, as I've said, Private Eye. Local politicians also expressed their views and wondered whether Mr James would do the 'honourable thing'...

In other news, the council found £350,000 down the back of the corporate sofa to bail out Llanelly House. This was a few weeks before they went into a voluntary insolvency arrangement (Llanelly House that is, not the council, not just yet). A BBC report on the incident appeared six months later...

The last full council meeting before the election was held and a strong stomach was required to cope with Meryl's farewell speech...



May

A month of contrasts - it kicked off with Caebrwyn's attempt to live blog the Carmarthenshire local election results. It ended with a visit from the police to inform me, after some delay, that I was going to be charged with harassment.

Plaid won 36 seats but still needed the support of the somewhat depleted Indies. Meryl and Pam, now retired, had passed the baton to the steely grip of Mair Stephens, and they survived. Emlyn Dole announced that the deal had been done with the Indies whilst Labour were still undoing the safety pins on their rosettes. All this culminated at the AGM on May 20th.

I added my own thoughts here.

News also reached Caebrwyn that the chief executive's business interests weren't confined to wheeling and dealing with public money in Carmarthenshire but extended to property management in Cardiff Bay.

June

Blogger Jac o'the North took up the previously mentioned property interests and affairs, business affairs of course, of Mr James CBE. Some wondered how did he have the time? Had he made a declaration of interest about all this? Questions needed to be asked...


The general election came and went, rows over Parc Howard rumbled on and the Wellness Village/City Deal became even more very very exciting, if that was possible; behind the scenes however there were rumblings of discontent amongst the partners, and also rumours that a certain 'lead chief officer' was keeping them in the dark...

BBC Wales Online decided to highlight the fact that Mr James had failed to repay the unlawful monies taken from the council to fund his libel counterclaim, they even produced a short but amusing video. I eventually managed to upload the video to a later post, here.

July

The first couple of weeks was, for Caebrwyn, taken up with an forthcoming hearing at Llanelli Magistrates Court to answer to a charge of harassment, I intended to plead not guilty of course. A few days before the date I was told that the CPS had dropped the case. The 'insufficient evidence' later turned out to be a little more specific; the comments were not oppressive and in any event did not amount to a course of conduct. I did try telling the police that in the first place..

There was an excellent post on the decision, and Mr James' witness statement by Cneifiwr and an opinion piece by Cadno of the Herald.


It also transpired that Mr James had used, or had instructed others to use council computers to provide 'evidence' for the police for his private complaint to the police. I sent my evidence of hours of council hits on the blog to the Wales Audit Office to see what they thought about it. More on that later.

The council's accounts revealed a few figures on exit packages and generous senior pay. Soon after there was an attempt by opposition councillors to reduce the salary levels of two new Directors from £123k to £112k. The chief executive intervened in the debate to sway the vote and the motion was defeated by Plaid and the Independents.

One of the 'new' directors turned out to be assistant chief executive Wendy Walters who breezed rapidly into the 'Regeneration' post, with the resulting £20,000 pay rise, thanks to on the recommendation of the chief executive...More on this post written in August.

Internal audit reports revealed continuing problems with the council unable to follow its own contract procurement rules. Reassurance was given that all was now progressing well with the Supporting People Grant although I noticed, just the other day, that the council failed to spend a whopping £257,539 of the grant last year and it was clawed back by the Welsh Government. Same thing happened with £26k meant to help people facing eviction.

August

A Freedom of Information request revealed that the council had spent £32,000 on the 'Wellness Village' to date. This didn't seem quite right to me given the prepwork which was underway, let alone the hefty consultancy and legal bills and the whole business of planning permission (which has yet to be applied for).
I asked for an internal review and the 'revised' response came back at, erm, a slightly higher figure of £564,000.

The Western Mail picked up on the curious developments within Mr James' property management empire in Cardiff. Residents were complaining of rowdy stag parties and hen dos and overnight lets. Mr James' response was typically charming and diplomatic, calling the complaining residents a 'cancer'. Interestingly he also said he'd had consent from the council to embark on these extra curricular activities....a Freedom of Information request for details on senior officers' declarations and consents was submitted at the end of the month...


September

On the 1st September I had a meeting with the Police Commissioner where I raised various concerns over the police decision to charge me with harassment; I wanted the harassment warning removed and raised again the issue of their conflict of interest with the council. I also enquired if the police would consider investigating Mr James for wasting eighteen months of police time, and for misconduct in public office...these were passed on to the chief constable for his deliberation...

In council news there was controversy over a planned car park at Parc Howard, Llanelli and there was some City Deal rebellion in Pembrokeshire where doubts were expressed whether the whole thing was viable, or even a good idea. The burden on the council, and the taxpayer was becoming a real issue.

There was more on the budget, licensing news, Llanelly House, and a trip back in time covering County Hall's attempts to control the local press.

Another subject this blog has covered has been the council's refusal to fly the Rainbow Flag. something that other public bodies appear to do without a great deal of fuss. It's a rather convoluted story, which seem to involve the chief executive rather than the council leader, but I eventually asked for a copy of the council's 'flag policy', which can be seen here. The most recent development is that the policy will be 'reviewed' by the Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG).
Nothing's simple in Carmarthenshire.

October

The chief executive of Neath Port Talbot council put the cat amongst the pigeons by issuing a damning report to his councillors on the progress, or lack thereof, of the City Deal to date. It was publicly available and revealed that, amongst other snags, the Carmarthenshire Council commissioned 'Joint Working Agreement' was useless and another one had to be drawn up. There seemed to be some disquiet amongst the partners over Mr James' plan to funnel extra funds into the Wellness vanity project.
Carmarthenshire Council have just (December) put out a tender for a PR company to plug the City Deal, it isn't clear who is funding that little exercise, nor how much it's worth...whatever the case, a little more transparency and scrutiny would be welcome rather than more PR drivel.

The Wales Audit Office got back to me to say that there was nothing wrong with Mr James using council computers for his private use, it was, apparently perfectly OK for senior officials to use your money and your resources to further their private interests....the story wasn't quite over yet though...

There was news of a planning application to store extremely toxic chemicals at a site in Llangennech...the site itself had a curious history...

There was more on CRWG and libel indemnities and a response from the Police Commissioner. The harassment warning had expired all by itself, however, the details about its issue remained on police records....I am currently challenging this with the Professional Standards Department of Dyfed Powys Police. (Dec 19th; I have now reported the police refusal to remove the data to the Information Commissioner)
Individuals have a right to not be treated as permanent suspects on the basis of unproven allegations.

November

The plight of the Burn family, Robin, Julia and their autistic daughter Carina have featured on this blog several times. Robin is still trying to get justice from the authorities who let the family down so catastrophically.


Another long standing scandal has been the treatment by the council of Patricia Breckman. She received a full apology from the former police commissioner for the actions of the police but no such apology, nor justice, has been forthcoming from Mr James and County Hall. Quite the opposite in fact and Mr James is taking his usual preferred action of issuing legal threats to the pensioner. I understand the threats are continuing.


A freedom of information request revealed that eight members of staff had been disciplined over the past few years for using council computers for personal use. The request was made after the Wales Audit Office soothed Mr James' brow and dismissed my complaint over his personal use of council computers. You couldn't make it up really could you?

Another surprising Freedom of Information response revealed that Mr James had not made any declarations of interest relating to his business and property interests in Cardiff. It's worth a read, as are the comments.

A news round up at the end of the month included a refusal from council leader Emlyn Dole to consider removing the suspended libel clause from the constitution. Confirmation, if we ever needed it, that he sings from the same hymn sheet as Mr James.

December


Apart from the possibility that Llanelli residents have been identified as an ideal source for clinical drug trials, or lab rats, at the Wellness Village, blogging has been light this month. So far anyway.

Interestingly it looks like at least three new build primary schools, Ammanford, Gwenllian and Hendy and possibly Llandeilo will be under a public/private arrangement, or a 'Mutual Investment Model' devised by the Welsh Government. Far from being 'innovative', it seems no different, other than in name, to PFI schemes...Ysgol Coca-cola and the like.

Investigations carry on though. I've emailed Democratic Services to enquire when Councillors' hospitality and gifts will be published as this information hasn't been published online since May. (18th Dec; Something of a result here - I've received an email to say that they were 'unaware of the issue' and as a result of my enquiry these have now been published as of today), I also asked when senior officers' interests will make their first appearance online.
They have told me my enquiry has been sent to the appropriate person to deal with. I daresay this is the legal/chief executive's office.

I've also enquired what 'FOI whistleblowing investigation - complete - no report issued' is all about in an internal audit report. I'm intrigued but again they've gone quiet and I expect it's been sent in the same direction (18th Dec - this information has been refused under data protection, I've requested an internal review)

I've also emailed Linda Rees Jones asking her, as a supposedly independent Monitoring Officer when she will be instigating a disciplinary investigation into Mr James, outlining much of the above. And more. I've saved her the bother of using the internal email service and sent a copy to Mr James.

If anything else happens before 2018 I will update this post, or even write another. If not then best wishes for Christmas and the new year to all, and thank you to those who have supported me throughout the year, and for all who continue to read this blog.

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

December 20th; Some Festive Thoughts from Y Cneifiwr...is Mr James contemplating another blitzkrieg of festive litigation....? Well worth a read.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Drug trials at the Wellness Village?


Back in March one of the most powerful drug manufacturers in the world, Pfizer, based in the US  but with 'offshore' interests, announced it was collaborating with Swansea University to set up an 'innovation hub', all of which is connected with the City Deal and the ARCH Project (A Regional Collaboration of Health, which also may, or may not, still include Meryl Gravell on the 'Wellness' bit).
As with everything else associated with the ARCH Project there is little in the way of detail but plenty of 'exciting journeys' and assorted bland waffle. The 'Wellness Village' site has been earmarked for private healthcare by the council for at least three years...

Like most global drug companies, controversy follows in its wake and recently Pfizer surprised the NHS by raising the price of an anti-epilepsy drug by 2000%. As with other drug companies Pfizer carries out extensive paid clinical trials worldwide and over the years there have been the usual big successes, big failures and class action lawsuits, this example from Nigeria a few years ago was just one that caught my attention.

What, you may ask, has this got to do with Carmarthenshire. Well, at a recent 'confidential briefing' to councillors at County Hall, a very senior officer, and I understand it was the chief executive, gave the usual spiel about the wondrous Wellness Village and the City Deal, and as he listed the enthusiastic global companies who are, he claims, champing at the bit to throw their millions into the Delta Swamp Wellness Dream, the name Pfizer came up.

I understand, from a reliable source, that some councillors wondered why on earth a global drug manufacturer would want to set up an outpost at the Wellness Village; after all, despite an element of research and development, the place is being plugged as an oversized leisure centre, with 'assisted living', 'alternative therapies' and a luxury hotel, (the words 'private health care' are deliberately avoided)

In response, the chief executive apparently referred to Llanelli as having a 'stable' population and suggested, in so many words, that its residents would be an ideal source for clinical trials.
We must assume, of course, that the chief executive's response was showing a deep concern for the financial fortunes of Carmarthenshire's residents, rather than the the ramblings of a crazed mind...

So, along with the temporary construction jobs and numerous low paid cleaning jobs, impoverished locals will be able to submit themselves for paid drug trials for a few extra quid! This should do wonders to improve the economy of Carmarthenshire!

Incidentally, the chief executive addressed an Assembly meeting early this year and noted that the Wellness Village would be "right next door" to a Communities First area of deprivation, though it's not entirely clear now whether this was a reference to 'sharing the wealth', or to a steady queue of willing subjects. Indeed, further digging revealed a reference to 'Commercial Trials' and 'Trials Recruitment' in a Wellness Village briefing document for the NHS.

With the project already underway; prior to a full business case, a joint agreement, or even the usual good manners of planning permission, it seems to me that some proper open and transparent scrutiny is urgently required rather than confidential briefings. One can't imagine the incentives on offer to these companies, or what exactly the benefit will be to you and me.
And neither can we imagine the possible rewards for the key players who set up the 'Wellness' vision, Carmarthenshire style...a lifetime supply of Viagra maybe?



For further background posts, of which there are quite a few, please search this blog.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

News in Brief - Council budget and other news


Council budget

The council's budget for the next couple of years puts in an appearance on Monday's Executive Board agenda as the proposals are rubber stamped for consultation. The budget report shows that, for next year at least, the cuts to the schools budget are avoided by a cash injection (taken from other grants, not new money) from the Welsh Government, although in real terms there are no extra funds to cover inflation, pay awards etc so in effect there's a £2.3m cut. The following year there's a planned cut of £4m. Nor has the chopping and changing to assorted grants by the Welsh Government, such as the school uniform grant, been taken into account.

Reading the report there seems to be a real problem with clarity from the Welsh government over it's various funding pots but the council have had a better than anticipated deal which means that instead of around £36m of cuts ('efficiencies') required over the next three years the figure is around £31m. For 2018/19 it's £8.5m instead of £12.5m. Council tax is due to rise by 4.12%.

The proposals themselves can be found here (See? I'm assisting the council in it's consultation process) The managerial cuts seem a little optimistic and depend heavily on restructuring, reviewing and rejigging existing arrangements, particularly a £1m cut next year to domiciliary care and support for those with learning disabilities.

The actual service cuts ('Policy proposals') kick off with another rise in school meals, with Carmarthenshire the joint highest in Wales. The continuing price increases are showing a drop in uptake, which can't be good.

The main points which struck me were a couple of proposals which have reappeared after being dropped in earlier budgets. First is the plan to start charging for sixth form/college transport. The provision is non-statutory, and, indeed, some other authorities make charges but getting from A to B is hard enough as it is, from the cost of running a car to the very limited rural bus services and for most families in the outlying areas a charge could easily be the decider over whether a 16 year old continues their education or not.

The second proposal is a £400k cut to the respite centres for profoundly disabled children. Previous plans to close the two respite centres were permanently abandoned last year so I can't imagine closure is on the cards, well, I hope not. This is what the proposal says;
"Consultancy (IPC) engaged in full review of disability services. This suggests that families would
benefit from greater flexibility of service and more personal discretion would lead to a more
diverse range of respite provision thereby requiring less residential respite"

I would like to know how much the consultants are charging for all this and I also hope that the families are being fully consulted rather than being the subject of a desk-top exercise to arrive at the council's preferred outcome.

It will be interesting to see how the City Deal and 'Wellness Village' translates into figures, or should I say borrowing, in the capital budget. The cash set aside for the leisure centre and care home could well disappear into the black hole of this latest vanity project. The council debt is already £388m with a quiet £20m borrowed in August. The luxury spa Wellness thing and could well provide a lasting legacy of insurmountable debt whilst our roads crumble and day centres for the elderly are 'reviewed'...

It remains a disappointment that Carmarthenshire Council, and other Welsh council still refuse to publish their monthly spending details. This is a legal requirement in England and provides the public, and, of course, 'armchair auditors' with a greater financial insight and enables better scrutiny.

National Botanic Gardens

The next item on the executive board agenda is a plea from the Botanic Gardens to extend the time to start paying back an interest free £1.35m loan from March 2018 to March 2020. Despite years of mismanagement, nobody wants to see the Gardens fail and recent reports claim a slight improvement in it's financial fortunes. However, it has always required public money to keep going and probably always will; the council itself now gives the Garden around £50k a year, though let's face it £1.35m would certainly help with respite care, etc sooner rather than later. (Update 27th; Exec Board agreed to the extension)

Interestingly the report states that 'questions need to be asked' over the Garden's proposals to turn the farmhouses into holiday lets and student accommodation. The four farmhouses on the land are the security for the council's interest free loan and were supposed to be sold off to repay it, but never were.

Mind you, questions need to be asked about a lot of things, unrelated to the Botanic Gardens....

Council Owned Housing Company

Also doing the rounds of press releases and agenda items (and also mentioned briefly in my previous post, Nothing to declare!) is the plan to set up a council owned housing company. As Carmarthenshire Council is the latest in a long line of councils to do this then one would hope that lessons have been learned over the years and little could go wrong. Let's hope that is indeed the case, because as it will be trading as a company there will be 'commercial sensitivities' which preclude too much in the way of scrutiny. The set up costs will be at least £100,000.

The idea is to find 'new ways' to deliver affordable and/or market housing though the report is not entirely clear how this will be achieved (or it could be me who's not clear, I'm not exactly an expert). I'm presuming that, in part, it will be subsidising the private rented sector via loans and schemes and land transfers from the council. For a snapshot of another council's, erm, arrangements for housing those in need, this blog post about Barnet Homes is worth a read...

At the moment the company would continue to use existing council staff and resources but, as with any commercial entity, and "without significant intrusive Council controls", after a time it would look to save costs, maximise profits and branch out into the 'market' and source cheaper options from elsewhere.

The justification for the company is in part, based on the Welsh Government populations predictions for future demand for housing, which formed the Local Development Plan which were never going to be met. These predictions were, in fact, soon found to be way off the mark across the whole of Wales and have now been reassessed to much lower figures.

Anyway, it will be one to watch.

Councillors' salaries

On the agenda for next week's Democratic Services Committee is the annual Independent Remuneration Panel Wales' recommendations over councillors allowances. This year a £200 rise is recommended putting up the basic allowance from £13,400 to £13,600; the Leader, deputy, Chairs and Chair of council also get the extra £200 within their 'senior salaries'. All the details can be seen in the report here.
Meanwhile, the salaries of senior officers remain at eye-watering levels. Topping the chart is the chief executive at £170,000 plus assorted perks, and his Deputy on £134,000 plus £17,000 pension contributions.

I note that Mark James has resigned from his role as lead chief executive of the regional education board (ERW), I wonder if this is the start of a pattern? Rumours have also been circulating that Chez James, otherwise known as the Presidential Palace, is having a bit of a refurb and might soon be on the market....a golden handshake on its way? Golden handcuffs might be more appropriate.

Webcasting and 'CRWG'

To see whether you are getting value for money for your councillor (£48,000 for the leader etc etc) webcasting has been a useful guide. Though, as this is a subject I have taken a particular interest in, I must remind readers that in the control freakery world of County Hall recordings by the public are still banned, unless the meeting is already being webcast.
Unfortunately, Wales has yet to catch up with England in enshrining our democratic rights.

Last December discussions took place to start webcasting all the other meetings, including Scrutiny and Audit Committees in addition to full council, Planning and Executive Board meetings which are currently screened. As it would have meant an increase in hours from 100 to 230 the idea was shelved. Not helped I'm sure by having the now-retired Pam Palmer, who hated any sort of filming, sat on the Group. One concession was made however and that was to webcast special meetings, such as when Scrutiny Committees discuss the budget. As these meetings are coming up over the next couple of months let's hope the concession is honoured.

This information came from the 'Decision Notes' from the Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG) which I had requested from Ms Rees Jones. The Group meets a couple of times a year. I still find it highly ironic that this group, which grew from the pension and libel indemnity scandals, the WLGA governance review and, essentially, the council's aim to be the most transparent in Wales, refuses to publish it's agendas and minutes online.

One of my somewhat repeated enquiries has been the request to remove the 'suspended' libel clause from the constitution. It's approaching it's fourth year of 'suspension' and Mr James and Ms Rees Jones are, given their dilemma, reluctant to let it go. It seems they would prefer to leave it there as a permanent memorial to their professional incompetence, arrogance and unlawful behaviour... I recently wrote to Emlyn Dole, who 'Chairs' CRWG to ask for the matter of its complete removal to be placed on the agenda for discussion at a future meeting.

Sadly Mr Dole refused my request having changed his mind since his opposition days and now sings from the same distinctly un-Christian like hymn sheet as Mr James. As to who actually Chairs the CRWG meetings, well, it is notable that Mr James and Linda Rees Jones are both present to impart their wisdom. Which might just explain things...
Anyway, I'll keep trying. Before they un-suspend it, blow next years budget and sue someone.

In other news, as I mentioned in my earlier post, Response from the Police Commissioner, the harassment warning issued against me in August 2016 expired last month, but the chief constable has refused to remove the details concerning its issue from police systems. It's a bit like having some sort of 'criminal' record with no crime ever having been committed and having no means whatsoever to defend myself.
I have now made a complaint to the police that they are holding information about me that I do not agree to. I'll let you know what happens.