Monday, 28 February 2011

Filming in the Chamber...(and the Care Homes Stay Open!)

Pleased to see the campaigners trying to save two care homes for the elderly in Llanelli score a victory today in Carmarthenshire Council Chamber. I intended to remain for the entire budget debate but due to the late start, a flat battery on my phone and severe toothache I called it a day. I spent an interesting couple of hours though filming, photographing, and tweeting from the public gallery. Further to my previous post, whereas it may not be council policy it is not against the law to record meetings in such a way. This was, as you will see from the quality of the video, an experiment and the examples are given (YouTube links) to make my point. Point made.
Transparency, even in this cosmetic 'showcase' form, needn't come at a price.
The Care Home closure debate itself saw various Councillors making their point including one who mentioned the £100,000 squiffed by the Planning department pursuing Mr Humphreys and his Mill, another reminded everyone of the gift to 'the stadium'. As the debate continued M Gravell looked crosser and crosser, and a recorded vote, (28 to 38) meant the Care homes stay open.
I must mention that our two local stalwarts of the elderly, Cllr Ivor Jackson and Cllr Tom Theophilus both 'Independents', and ever loyal to Meryl, voted for closure.

UPDATE March 1st;
Remember, the combined pay of those you see sat at the 'top table' is approaching £1.3 million. 

Today's newspaper articles about yesterday's debates;


To date, the You Tube clips have been viewed 216 times!

Friday, 25 February 2011

Recording Council Meetings - The Response

Following on from my previous post, here, I have had a reply to my query regarding the recording of Council meetings;
"While the law requires us to allow public access to meetings, it does not require us to allow recording of proceedings by members of the public and our current practice is that it is not permitted, and this is respected by the media who report our proceedings.
I regret that the same principle would need to be applied to your request.
There are many legal and practical considerations which need to be addressed and resolved before a Council can consider going down the route which you are suggesting. The Council is aware however that there is a developing public interest in the use of modern technology at meetings of Councils and other public bodies, and will be reviewing this issue in the light of legislation and government guidance. How that is progressed will be a matter for Council members to decide at a future date."

In other words, no.
I cannot believe that this would also include a bar to tweeting/blogging from the public gallery as I enquired...or does it? (I shall soon find out)

Eric Pickles' office sent this letter (PDF) to all Councils on Wednesday. I assume Wales was not included as local government is supposed to be a devolved matter (that's another story..) Anyhow, the Council's doesn't have a leg to stand on over this. It seems that there should be no bar to members of the public recording meetings by whatever means - there are no real issues over Data Protection as the activity being filmed is open to the public and the decisions being made, particularly with current budget debates, affect the public - even the Information Commissioner sees no conflict with data protection and states that they are 'elected representatives acting in the public sphere'.
The letter concludes;
'In short transparency and openness should be the underlying principle behind everything councils do and in this digital age it is right that we modernise our approach to public access, recognising the contribution to transparency and democratic debate that social media and similar tools can make.'
This chap has clearly never visited Carmarthenshire.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Recording Council Meetings

Eric Pickles' statement today that bloggers and members of the public should be allowed to make recordings, online films etc of Council meetings has been welcomed by many who hope that such transparency will assist the general public in holding councils to account. I would also welcome such a move, if it happened in Wales. One blogger makes the valid point though that what goes on in the Chamber is often cosmetic democracy and a rubber stamping of decisions. It is the decisions and deals made in the corridors and behind closed doors that are of real importance. So very true in Carmarthenshire.
However, it would be a start and as Carmarthenshire Council has not subscribed, as a fair few other councils have, to live webcasts of meetings on it's website, I thought I'd enquire. I did have a look at the Standing Orders (protocol for meetings) but there was, as far as I could make out, not a mention of recordings and suchlike.
So, with the full Council Budget Debate next Monday (28th Feb) in mind I emailed the 'Democratic Services Unit' with my enquiries;

Dear Sir
Could you please let me know whether, in the interests of transparency, Carmarthenshire County Council would have any objection to members of the public recording committee meetings from the Public Gallery in County Hall. This could be either a sound or video recording which could then be used to illustrate the democratic process to residents of the County. I trust the Council has no objection to the use of mobile phones (on 'silent' of course) by the public in the Gallery to relay information to other residents through social networking sites such as Twitter.
If the Council has any objections to any or all the above, please state why. Please note, I would not expect it necessary to obtain permission prior to each meeting.
A quick response would be welcome prior to the County Council meeting on 28th February.
Thank you

I have been informed that my email has been passed on to the legal department.
I shall post the response here, if and when one arrives.
Regardless of the response, I'll be in the Public Gallery on Monday.

Whilst on the subject of budget cuts, and to illustrate the spin which is so carefully put on unpopular decisions, I noticed that a proposal to close five day centres for elderly people (always an easy target) was 'reported' in the media section of the council website as 'Service development leading to Community Day Club engagement'. There must be someone working in the Council's Press Team who's job it is to select individual 'buzzwords' and randomly re-arrange them in a headline which will have no logical meaning. They must think we're daft. 
Update 25th Feb;

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Housing Benefit Cuts - Carmarthenshire - Leaked Document

Today's South Wales Evening Post reports ( Benefits blitz 'set to target poorest') on the contents of a 'leaked' Carmarthenshire council document, sent to Councillors, which refers to the Coalition government's proposed shake up of housing benefits. It deals with the probable, and worrying, effect on residents in Carmarthenshire, predicting a sharp rise in 'evictions, homelessness and poverty', there will be a 'negative effect on social inclusion and the local economy' as housing benefit is cut to Carmarthenshire claimants to the tune of £3 million.
The way in which housing benefits will be administered will also change so job losses in the Council's benefits section are also predicted.

Incidentally I'm sure it's not exactly top secret stuff and there must have been quite a big leak because I've got copy,  if anyone else would like one please email me.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Conflict of Interest?

Back to the story of Mr Humphreys and the Mill at Felin Wen. Mr Humphreys has now made an official complaint over the role of one of the planning officers who dealt with the case.
The officer, who deals with conservation, gave evidence at the original trial at Llanelli magistrates court, where Mr Humphreys was aquitted of breaching Listed Building Regulations. At no time during that trial, or indeed with the handling of Mr Humphreys' planning applications did the officer happen to mention that he was an executive member of the Welsh Mills Society. It wasn't until  the case was sent back to the magistrates over one issue, after the council appealed to the High Court, did he decide to reveal his membership. 
The Council's Code of Conduct states that if an officer has a non-pecuniary interest in a planning application he should take no part in it's determination - so what happened here? The overriding ethos of the Welsh Mill Society must be the preservation and restoration of old mills, surely this will cloud Mr Griffiths' objectivity in this, and any other similar matter? 
The Council, of course, deny there was a conflict of interest but one wonders, if that was the case, why he didn't declare his position in the very first instance?
The South Wales Guardian has the story; Builder at centre of row questions role of official
The council has now issued Mr Humphreys with an Enforcement Notice, going against the opinion and guidance given by the Planning Inspector; Mr Humphreys has lodged an Appeal. It will be interesting to see whether the Planning Inspector who determines this appeal will agree with his colleague or with the council!

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Cuts and Double Standards

As the deliberations over Carmarthenshire Council's budget cuts rumbles on I was rather disappointed that the Council should blame those pesky 16 year olds and their free school/college buses for pushing up council tax. Shouldn't they be encouraging youngsters to further their education - free transport, particularly for low income families is a deciding factor as to whether they send them or not especially in the more rural parts of the county, they can't exactly hop on a bus, after all, our local County Councillor claims around £2400 a year in travelling expenses...
Incidentally, the thorny question whether to charge Blue Badge holders to park has been deferred, apparently lawyers are being consulted as there are so many Councillors who will have to declare an interest they won't have a quorum.
Anyhow I leave the last word to Mr Ray Jones, resident of Llanelli who sent me this;

I recently read two articles in the Evening Post which strikes me of double standards and spin from the Council.
One article covers 450 redundancies which the Council hope will be covered by voluntary redundancies or natural wastage.
Natural wastage means that there will be less employment down the line for our children who already find it extremely difficult to find employment now.
How wonderful that the "Officers" have agreed to a "pay freeze" anybody earning over £100,000 can afford to be generous, all we have to look at now is how much their expenses will rise.
Ask Mrs Gravell to catch "public transport" to her place of work like the rest of the population, and not be chauffeur driven everywhere all around the County, ask her to bring her own "packed lunch" and make do with scraps.
The Council want £25 million of cuts over the next three years, how ironic that, that is exactly the amount our very secretive council have admitted Parc-y-Scarlets cost "the tax payer", even though Chief Executive Mark James told us in his now famous statement that "the stadium won't cost the tax payer a penny"
I consider that the real cost in land sales, lease, preparation costs etc. make the figure more like £53 million. How many council services have been moved into Parc-y-Scarlets and are paying rent for the privilege of doing so, when there are brand new offices in Llanelli's North Dock laying empty.
The Council loans have seen the rate cuts for them cut in half and remember the capital sum will not be paid back until 15 years time, when presumably the "goalposts" will be moved again so that "they won't have to pay a penny" is this what the famous quote refers to.
How much have the Council paid in grants out of the £800,000 for the new "Pumphouse Restaurant" in Llanelli's North Dock.
A restaurant which it was "plugged" twice in commentary live on BBC Television Wales v England Rugby International, that Stephen Jones and Dwayne Peel who own it, and will give a "speedy service"
Mrs. Gravell also believes that we have to many "Care homes" and that places like St Paul's in Llanelli who we are told only has 4 residents must close, she is backed up by Pat Jones Executive Board members who has responsibility over the closures.
Well if we have to many, why not utilise the spare capacity of these places by relieving our Hospitals and the disgraceful amount of "bed blocking" that clogs up the system, or is that to easy a solution.
And while we are on the subject, is the CEO of the Hywel Dda Trust taking a "freeze" in his £175,00 per annum post ?
Prime Minister David Cameron states that we are all in this together, yes we are in it to take all the cuts going and suffer everything, and "they" (the rich, and we have many of those in this Council) will sacrifice absolutely nothing.
"Prime" means FIRST and that is what "they" are putting themselves.
Ray Jones

Is Pantecelyn School Now 'Sustainable'?

Campaigners trying to save Pantecelyn secondary school, Llandovery from closure are a little puzzled over Education Minister, Leighton Andrews announcement to reduce the range of A level subjects. This is not because of the idea itself (which is good or bad depending on your view of the purpose of education), but because the alleged inability of the school to meet previous decrees from the Assembly that at least 30 subjects should be offered, was a very large factor in the Council's argument for closure. Does this mean that Pantecelyn is now 'sustainable'?
Also here;

I was also surprised that a Community Impact Assessment has not been carried out yet, given the grave effect the closure of the school will have on the town of Llandovery. I would have thought this would be obligatory when the proposal was first mooted. I imagine that the eventual assessment will be slanted towards the Council's own agenda over closure, and long after the will to object to the inevitable has passed.

Further posts about Pantecelyn School can be searched for on this blog.

Later post;

Monday, 14 February 2011

Wielding the Axe

Today's paper has yet another report on Carmarthenshire Council's budget cuts. As I have mentioned the proposals many times throughout this blog I will not repeat it all here. The Executive Board will rubber stamp the cuts today, to be ratified at a full council meeting on the 28th February. I shall be in the Public Gallery. With regard to the public consultation this was accurately described by union chiefs as "shabby, cynical and the illusion of choice to the people of Carmarthenshire, as well as a veneer of legitimacy to the proposed cuts", in fact the Council's own analysis (or whoever did it) uses terms such as 'unreliable' and 'should be treated with caution'. No surprises then. I also predict that there are a couple of controversial cuts, deliberately popped in to enable a magnanimous u-turn and an excellent PR opportunity. But then I'm cynical.
The whole issue of council chiefs' pay also turns up again today  with the Welsh Local Government Association predictably rushing to their defence and the unions, two thirds of who's members average £17k a year, demanding that Chief Executives are subject to the same pay assessments as the lower paid.
Arguments over excessive senior pay packages and council cuts can been seen and heard across the UK at the moment and will rumble on in Carmarthenshire over the coming months.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

More Tales from the Wales Audit Office

The continuing revelations into the champagne lifestyle of those chosen to protect public money in Wales are reported in today's Western Mail . It concerns (yet again) the ex Chief Operating Officer of the Wales Audit Office, Anthony Snow who decided that the best form of transport to take him to a conference on 'how to save public money' was a £464 chauffeur-driven Mercedes. According to the article, the Welsh Assembly Public Accounts Committee have finally persuaded him to give evidence on the 23rd March. Last week the external auditors of the Wales Audit Office resigned after criticism from the same committee was expressed concerning a £1m 'black hole' in the WAO accounts.

Just to say that I notice that when Mr Anthony Snow, (see links above) left the Wales Audit Office with a £750k 'secret' retirement package, took up the position of Chief Operating Officer at the Financial Reporting Council which is 'the UK’s independent regulator responsible for promoting confidence in corporate reporting and governance'.
Well well well!

Even More Cash for the Gardens

A local journalist has managed to squeeze an answer from the supposedly 'cash-strapped' Carmarthenshire Council as to the amount it is now dishing out to the National Botanic Garden of Wales. Bearing in mind the forthcoming frontline cuts it is quite unbelievable that the continuing bail-out will be doubled for the next three years from £30,000 per year to £60,000. 
As I said before I hope, for Wales, that the garden eventually succeeds and stands on it's own financial feet, but I wonder if there are any other tourist attractions in the county which enjoy such generous, and endless, public handouts despite failing financially, and continuously, for 11 years? It was only three weeks ago that I asked the current Director of the Garden, on the Radio Wales phone-in if a "guarantee could be given that the garden will not need bailing out again in near future with taxpayers money?" With a little laugh and a bit of PR rambling, she couldn't rule it out. Obviously not! It also looks like the annual £500,000 from the Welsh Assembly will be increasing, this follows on from yet another urgent review into the governance of this £43m 'risky project'. The Garden made much of the fact that it had a 'record breaking' 13,000 visitors in January - perhaps that was because entry was free for the entire month?

The Welsh Assembly is giving the garden £800,000 this year, following a review which decided, surprise surprise, that it needed more public money.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Leader Caebrwyn?..Meryl's Left Out!

Must say I was rather flattered to be chosen above Carmarthenshire Council Leader Gravell as a recipient of a Welsh Assembly email yesterday launching their 'Child Poverty Strategy for Wales' - I noticed it was sent to each of the leaders of the Welsh local authorities apart from poor Meryl, strange to see my humble email address amongst all the esteemed .govs! Anyway either the Assembly thinks this blog is a more worthy recipient and my political career has accelerated faster than I realised, or, they've dropped a clanger and of course, if M Gravell feels a little left out and wants a copy I'll forward it on... she's only has to ask...

"From: "Davies, Lisa (SJLG)"

4 Files Download All
CHILD POVERTY STRATEGY for WALES (Eng).pdf (912KB); Letter to accompany Strategy FINAL English.xml (367KB); CHILD POVERTY STRATEGY for WALES (Cymru).pdf (883KB); Letter to accompany Strategy FINAL in Welsh.xml (369KB)"

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Persistent Complainants Policy Again

Following recent posts about Carmarthenshire Council's Persistent Complainants Policy, the lady I mentioned, Mrs Breckman has, as I said, been wrongly languishing on this 'policy' for over three and a half years, as has her partner who has barely picked up a pen. They are both pensioners. What is also disturbing is that it is now very clear that not only have they been wrongly labelled, and the policy was flawed and open to charges of maladministration. Hence the review.  
In addition, we now know that the council has failed on numerous occassions to carry out the required 6 monthly review on time, the most recent review being last May! They have also failed to consider new complaints raising fresh issues. These are all matters of Human Rights legislation which the council have possibly breached and I hear Mrs Breckman is pursuing a challenge.