Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The Council asks the Senedd for Advice on Filming

At the end of July, my Assembly Member, Rhodri Glyn Thomas wrote to the Chief Executive expressing his support for calls to ensure that councils, National Parks etc record their meetings. He also acknowledged that the Council had stated it had a policy against recordings which it was intending to review. He asked for a copy of the policy and the timetable for review. He requested an explanation why myself and others were now asked to sign an 'undertaking', what exactly the undertaking was, and why I was excluded from the Gallery.

The Chief Executive asked the Head of Law and Administration, Mr L Thomas, to respond, and who had to again admit that 'There is no written policy against the recording of meetings'. Well, we know this, but of course the council has since shifted it's position, describing it as 'practice'. Not quite the same I'm afraid.

Neither was there any explanation why other members of the public were asked to sign the undertaking, or what 'exactly' it was. With regards to myself, the council used this opportunity for another rant - this time, the now customary and entirely unwarranted character assassination of me was for the benefit of not only my representative in the Senedd, but also my MP Jonathan Edwards, who shares the office.

Anyway, the Head of law also made an appeal, via Rhodri Glyn Thomas, to the Welsh Government for help and guidance to assist the council in it's forthcoming deliberations over the issues of filming;

"As I am sure you will appreciate it would greatly assist not only this council, but also others in Wales who are in a similar position, if the Welsh Government were to issue guidance on the subject, not only stating it's approach as a matter of policy, but also giving advice on how the legal implications which are associated with the subject should be addressed"

Well, I suppose it's a fair request and I wonder whether Carl Sargeant will be prompted into action? Or will the ruling administration in Cardiff maintain their view that 'it's up to individual councils'? I have no idea. Personally, as I have said, I think the Welsh Government should be issuing a requirement, and not just guidance. As for legal implications, I believe these are minimal and require little more than common sense. If any advice is given, I would very much like to see it.
(The legal chief also acknowledges the presence of my petition and I have to say I'm a little disappointed that he and his colleagues don't appear to have signed it; perhaps it was, as he states, my 'very poor recordings' that put them off).

I was quite bemused that he concluded his response to my AM by affirming the Council's ongoing commitment to the 'ideals' of 'openness, transparency and community and stakeholder engagement'.

Not from where I'm sitting Mr Thomas.

Cllr Gravell Makes a Vow

I read this morning that Carmarthenshire Council Leader, Meryl Gravell has vowed to do "anything and everything in my power" to keep Ffos Las racecourse open as it faces a cut in fixtures.

Pity she didn't make the same vow to keep day centres and care homes for the elderly, schools, libraries etc open, which I would have thought was a far more fitting pledge for a Council leader to make.

Whilst I naturally hope attractions such as the racecourse remain open for the benefit of the county, I do hope this doesn't include a financial bail-out from the Council, a couple of years ago the owner applied for planning permission for 500 houses on the basis that the racecourse wouldn't be financially viable without them.


Friday, 26 August 2011

Executive Board; Pantecelyn, Day Centres and Filming Council Meetings

I see that the Agenda has been published for the next Executive Board meeting on the 5th September 2011 (10 am). There are three items of interest, in this order; 'School Reorganisation', the closure of the Day centres for the frail and elderly, and proposals about the filming of council meetings.

The closure (or 'rationalisation') of Pantecelyn Secondary School is of particular concern to me. This follows the 'admin error' when the decision to issue the Statutory Notice to close was made in the 4th July meeting rather than the September meeting as published in the Consultation Document. The Council have gone to some lengths to insist that 'no one was prejudiced' by the 'error'. I am not sure if that is for them to decide or those campaigning to keep the school open but in the interests of 'transparency and openness' (sic) the decision to issue the Notice will be rubber stamped (see 'ratified') at this meeting. Anyway, I hear that questions for Cllr Woodridge (Education Portfolio) have been sent in and will hopefully be fairly considered.
(please see link to the meeting at the end of this post)

Day Centres
Readers will be aware that the row over the Day Centres closures was immediately prior to my arrest on the 8th June. Cllr Sian Caiach and Cllr Arthur Davies have submitted a Notice of Motion to reverse decisions made to close the clubs.

"There is an urgent need to review the policy on closure of Day Clubs and Day Centres for the elderly. It is particularly concerning that there has been very little notice given and no prior consultation before making radical changes. it will have a severe impact on our frail elderly in this worsening economic situation. These services not only give support to users through social interaction but also providing vital respite for their carers. With drawal of this service can only result in further increased dependency and possible need for residential care"

I very much hope they are successful.
I have provided a link to the Agenda at the end of this post for further details.

Filming Meetings
Clearly of interest to me, this Notice of Motion by Cllr Arthur Davies reads thus;

"It is proposed that the council should;
a) Provide videoed recordings of council meetings in response to public demand thereby demonstrating that the council is open, transparent and fully accountable.
b) Allow any members of the public to record the meetings with the proviso that they don't seek to obstruct or disrupt the proceedings.
c) Utilise the existing sound recording equipment in the interim to provide verbal recording while tenders are obtained for installing video equipment."

I will not repeat everything I have said about filming meetings here as my views are clear. As the council have made vague promises to consider webcasting meetings, I predict that a) will be kicked into touch for now. However, I will wait to see what is said at the meeting.

I shall, of course, be very interested to hear the Executive Board's comments on b).

I would also rather like to be a fly on the wall at the private briefing between officers and Executive Board members prior to the public meeting.

(and further details on all issues here can be searched for on this blog)

Dyfed Powys Police - Data Protection Response

I have had a response to my data protection request from Dyfed Powys Police. There's not much, and I hope I can safely assume there shouldn't be any more, just what's happened this year. It consists of several computer printouts with much of it redacted an awful lot of abbreviations. It took me ages to figure out what 'ASB' was, then it dawned on me it was Anti Social Behaviour, not a phrase I am accustomed to seeing alongside my name, nor in relation to filming a council meeting, I would have thought it was the complete opposite.

Anyway, the speed of the response to incident on the 8th June is explained by the fact that it was classed as a 'Priority 1' incident, an emergency; ie danger to life, violent behaviour, serious crime in progress etc I am still surprised (that's an understatement) by the quantity of cars and officers who attended particularly as I can now see that the council told the police there was a 'Jacqui Thompson' in the gallery who was filming a meeting and refusing to leave - unless that was council code for 'armed robbery in progress' I fail to understand the excessive deployment of police resources.
The arresting officer's 'grounds for detaining the person' began with; 'officers have attended a report of a female having been recording a council meeting at county hall and that she had refused to stop recording and to leave the premises when requested to do so. On arrival officers located the female and could clearly see an image of the council chamber on the screen of her mobile phone...' It's a pity they weren't aware of the police guidance issued last year. I am not sure either why I was arrested to prevent a 'further breach of the peace' I wasn't aware I had already caused one, or was about to for that matter. Interestingly, according to the council, (and from another source) police officers attended County Hall later that day as part of their enquiries into the Standing Orders, members of the public filming and restricting access to the public gallery, they were met by the Heads of Legal and 'Democratic [sic] Services' who 'provided the required explanations' - I can only presume they didn't have any, shortly after that I was released.

One other thing, according to the police log, and confirming my recollection, it was nearly two and a half hours from arrest to custody which is a bloody long time to be in handcuffs.

(See also; New Statesman, June 2011)

Too Close for Comfort

Another fine example of a carefully considered planning decision from Carmarthenshire County Council?....the correspondent's tiny yard is the bit at the bottom with the white wall. 'Not in my back yard?' - in this case it might as well be. Doesn't look like the parasol will be needed any more.

Carmarthenshire UDP GDC2 Overall Development Policy
"(V) will cause no harm to the privacy and amenity of existing dwellings,……, and their respective occupiers…."Planning Policy Wales Technical Advice Note 12: Design 2002 para.5.67, 3.12 & 3.21
In the interests of both public and private amenity and privacy
To prevent an adverse effect on the amenity of neighbouring buildings and their uses.
To prevent problems caused by a reduction in privacy and daylight, or an increase in smell, noise, vibration, pollution, traffic movement, visual intrusion and shadowing

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Pembrokeshire Council Slated

Just over the border Pembrokeshire County Council have come under a severe slating over the past few days following the publication last week of two damning education and childrens services reports (Estyn and CSSIW - Photon has the full reports) and senior Council officers have been accused of worrying more about the reputation of the council than the welfare of children. During the week the Western Telegraph has reported how Council officers 'managed' information given to Councillors, removing details leading to a 'significant risk to transparency' undermining 'the ability of elected members to challenge and hold officers to account'. A key issue highlighted was a leadership culture that did not provide or record necessary information and an over-reliance on informal discussion. This “masks important issues”, the report states, adding that there was evidence of a “closed, not transparent culture”.
'Significant risk to transparency', report finds
Chief Officers' Group has no agenda items or minutes to review
A Welsh Assembly team has stepped in to try and help improve matters;
Final appointment made to Child Safeguarding Group after scathing reports

Today's paper has the full text of an extraordinary letter to the authority from Leighton Andrews, the Welsh Minister for Education and Childrens' Services. It is surprisingly blunt and so I have copied it here in full;

We continue to have serious concerns regarding Pembrokeshire County Council’s approach to safeguarding children and young people.
As we explained in our telephone conversation with you on the 19 August, you met with our officials and the Ministerial Advisory Board (MAB) on 18 August where these issues were explored in detail.
A number of issues stand out. You have assured us and the MAB that you take these matters very seriously, but you, your officers, and elected members appear to us to have taken steps to play down the seriousness of the issues.
We are particularly concerned about some of the statements that have been made in the media, including:
• "No harm came to these children, to say that it was luck is not right"
Councillor Huw George, BBC Online, 12 August 2011
• When you read the report, and it has been recognised, it is about the potential of harm, rather than actual harm.
Councillor John Davies, BBC Good Evening Wales, 12 August 2011.

These and other statements, in the media, to the MAB, and to Ministers all point to a lack of appreciation of the gravity of the position.
Amongst the cases, there are examples where children and young people have been put at risk as a direct result of the action or lack of action by the local authority.
The gravity of the circumstances of some of these cases must be recognised by you and the elected members of the authority.
They involve serious cases of children being harmed as a result of actions taken by staff employed in schools and by the authority.
For this reason the inspectorates have repeatedly asked your authority to review the management and handling of these cases to ensure that all the necessary action has been taken.
Your authority has demonstrated a lack of rigour and urgency in undertaking this work, as evidenced by the fact that it was not until the inspectors started to point out some of the issues that your authority even realised that there was a problem.
Even then, in one case inspectors had to refer back to your officers four times before all the action that was needed was taken.

Furthermore, it took two and half weeks for your authority to share the necessary information with Dyfed Powys police after being asked to give these cases urgent consideration by the inspectorates. As you are aware, Dyfed Powys police are currently considering a number of issues.

Other statements in the media are misleading. The press notice issued by Pembrokeshire County Council following the publication of CSSIW and Estyn’s joint investigation report states that
"the Council has acquired the services of Mr David Hopkins, former Director of Education with Caerphilly County Borough Council; Mr Phil Hodgson, Chairman of the Welsh Safeguarding Children National Forum and a former Director of Social Services with Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council plus a third independent expert."

This was untrue. Your authority had not acquired the services of either Mr Hopkins or Mr Hodgson.

The seriousness of these cases has been minimised. Pembrokeshire’s Chief Executive told the Deputy Minister for Children and Social Services and Welsh Government officials at the meeting on 9 August that some of the cases were ‘minor and were dealt with at the time to the satisfaction of everyone, including the parents’.
A school’s actions in providing false information in a reference, stating a teacher had resigned, when in fact she had been dismissed, were excused by the fact that the former teacher was not applying to work with children.
Councillor George incorrectly said, in his interview on BBC Good Morning Wales on 13 August, that school staff, in providing the reference, had not lied, but had simply omitted information.
This lack of acceptance of serious flaws in HR processes is extremely worrying. It is made worse by the results following the inspectorates’ direction to your authority to confirm the position on references and up to date CRB checks on staff potentially working with children during the summer holiday period.
This revealed that over 9% of these staff either did not have the required CRB check or written references in place.
In some cases, action has been taken only when this has been prompted by Welsh Ministers and their officials. A helpline for parents was set up only following direction by Welsh Ministers and no pro-active action was taken to contact parents directly; links to neither the CSSIW and Estyn joint investigation report nor the Estyn inspection report appeared on Pembrokeshire’s website until this was suggested by the MAB.

We are concerned about levels of transparency. We were surprised to learn that inspection reports do not routinely go before Council.
We understand that the last time this happened was in 2001, when the adverse Social Care report was brought to Council. The failure to provide a link on Pembrokeshire’s website to the CSSIW / Estyn joint investigation report and the Estyn inspection report made it difficult for parents to understand the reason for the helpline.
Meetings between Cabinet and officers are informal and, since minutes are not taken, there is no audit trail of decisions.

The lack of challenge of officers by Cabinet is unusual. It is insufficient to state that the constitution delegates operational matters to officers.
Council should have a strategic overview and must provide direction and challenge to its officers, and you must accept that your role as Leader is to ensure this happens.

We are copying this letter to Assembly Members.
Yours sincerely,
Leighton Andrews,
Minister for Education and Skills Deputy Minister for Children and Social Services

From the Western Telegraph;
Council accused of making misleading statements and playing down the seriousness of Child Safeguarding issues
The Photon Blog - Pembrokeshire Council - The Leighton Andrews Letter

There has been something of a reaction to this with the Council Leader, John Davies stating that some of the comments in the letter were misleading (BBC News). Perhaps someone will elaborate on this.

Let's hope that these serious issues raised in the reports are now being dealt with properly rather than denied, although it doesn't look like anyone's been sacked yet of course.
One commenter does give a word of warning though and suggests that this could well be used as an excuse by the Assembly to push forward plans to re-organise local government and warns that Pembrokeshire could end up suffering the terminal fate of being run by Carmarthenshire. They wouldn't want that; officer-led? reliance on informal discussions? prioritising reputation? Carmarthenshire Council are experts.

An interesting view from Y Cneifiwr here; Reorganising Local Government in Wales 
And from Peter Black AM who questions whether the Assembly should be flexing it's muscle at all; Welsh Government is so Macho!
and back to The Photon as the Leighton Andrews flexes more muscle in Blaenau Gwent; Commissioners; First it's Anglesey, now it's Blaenau Gwent

25th August;
The row heats up with the Pembrokeshire Council Leader accusing Leighton Andrews and the Welsh Government of using these critical reports for political gain running up to the local elections next May.
 'Authority leader says ministers targetting councils' (BBC)

And while were on the subject of Welsh Councils, just seen this excellent post from Y Cneifiwr; Welsh councils - the vultures come home to roost

26th August;
Pembrokeshire Council admits employees harmed children (BBC News)

27th August;
Pembrokeshire Council's scrutiny system blasted as 'self-congratulatory tea-party' (Western Telegraph). Same goes for Carmarthenshire's.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Excuses, Excuses

Of the many and varied excuses given by Carmarthenshire Council concerning the newly imposed restrictions to access to the public gallery, this one is particularly imaginative. A member of the public who attended the meeting on the 13th July made a complaint in that the procedure was intrusive, humiliating, and at best, unwelcoming. The complainant also stated that, like everyone else who has followed the #daftarrest story, they were well aware of the Council's 'reasoning' behind it all but questioned the justification of a blanket approach. Further queries have also been asked by others with regards to the fire and safety assessments for members of the public under the 'new arrangements', so far the response has been inadequate to say the least.

 you would almost think they believe it themselves;

"In accordance with fire regulations and the security of the building and its staff it is necessary, as with every large building accommodating a large number of staff (be it public or private sector) to maintain a record of every visitor entering and leaving the building.
In the event of a fire the designated fire safety manager has an up to date record of how many visitors there are within the building and where they are located so that a proper head count is undertaken and the information passed on to the attending Fire Officer. The building also has to be secure to safeguard staff and their belongings, the visitors log and security doors provide information on who was in the building at the time an event occurred and where they went within the building. You will also notice that there are CCTV cameras in the foyer to assist with this aspect.
Maintaining the security of County Hall is therefore not "unique to Wales " for the reasons outlined above.
The reason why members of the public have to be accompanied to and from the public gallery by staff is purely to provide access through 2 sets of security doors which also act as Fire Doors. I must reiterate the fact that the Council is not preventing any member of the public from attending a meeting of the Council or its committees to observe the proceedings but as is the case in Parliament, Welsh Assembly Government and the other 22 Unitary Councils in Wales, the Council does not and is not required under the Law to allow members of the public to record or film the proceedings of meetings. The Council also has to consider the human rights of individuals who are being filmed against their wishes.
The statement that is provided to members of the public to read at the reception desk merely points out the conditions for attendance in the public gallery and the signed undertaking confirms that person's agreement to abide by those conditions, no more no less."

So there you have it, the restictions were imposed because of fire regulations. Nothing to do with 'anything else' then - despite the fact that the external door to access the gallery has been open during public meetings since time immemorial and no member of the public has ever had to sign in, read laminated warnings on filming, sign undertakings or be 'escorted' to the gallery etc.... ever. If the undertaking is required as an agreement of attendance surely it should contain a variety of conditions? Disruptive activities such as heckling, playing loud music, cooking, or swinging from the chandeliers could also be mentioned but it is only the peaceful 'policy-less' activity of filming which is.
It is also odd that the Council is mentioning the human rights of those being filmed 'against their wishes' - clearly that doesn't apply to the CCTV camera in the foyer then? Then again, in my experience, human rights are not a Carmarthenshire Council strong point.

As for the issue of filming, that will be a question for the Autumn Term. I can imagine, probably not all that long ago, when the thorny and controversial issue to trouble our Council was whether quills should be replaced by the technologically alarming ballpoint pen, (some of our Councillors can probably recollect the fierce debates), especially given it's anti-democratic, disruptive and worrying capability to 'write quickly'.


Thursday, 18 August 2011

More on the #Daftarrest Parking Ticket

Whilst I wait for further advice over #daftarrest, a few words about my challenge to the parking ticket kindly administered by Carmarthenshire Council after they had been so instrumental in my wrongful detention at Llanelli police station on June 8th. As I have said, my initial challenge was rejected. Carmarthenshire Council will have to admit to being at fault over the entire episode to allow my parking challenge to succeed and it doesn't look like that is going to happen without a fight. Anyway, I have now sent the Notice to Owner form back to the Council with my repeated challenge - the second 'stage' in these parking matters. I can't imagine Carmarthenshire Council quashing this penalty notice unless it is over dead bodies - and I will not give up either so I can see this eventually ending up in court, or wherever these things usually go.
I have ticked the box marked 'other grounds' and stated;
"As it has been admitted by Dyfed Powys Police that they acted on false information given to them by Carmarthenshire County Council on 8th June 2011 which resulted in my unlawful detention, I am therefore not guilty of the parking offence. It was due to circumstances beyond my control that I was unable to renew my ticket"I should imagine this would be one of the more interesting lines of defence they have heard for sometime. It also happen to be true.

I have also sent in two Subject Access Requests under the Data Protection Act 1998 for information held about myself. One is to Carmarthenshire County Council for obvious reasons and the other is to Dyfed Powys Police. The information held by the police only relates to 2011, but the data held by the council will go back a bit further. I suspect however, that neither request will be straightforward for a variety of undoubtably spurious reasons and I will be intrigued to see what the Council comes up with, or doesn't, as the case may be. As the recognised author of this blog I have also asked that anything relating to that should be included in the response. Barring any initial validation hiccups, both authorities have 40 working days to fully respond.
Talking of waiting, there has still been no response (or acknowledgement) to my questions about the filming undertaking sent to the legal department last Wednesday. I agree it is early days but you would have thought that as it (and the other strict public access measures) were brought in with such desperate and undemocratic haste then the information would be readily to hand. Particularly as these measures are now affecting public access to EVERY meeting. Perhaps they find themselves in a similar situation to Dyfed Powys Police who took a week to answer questions from about my arrest. In fact I haven't seen the council give a straight nor truthful answer over any of this (or anything else, as it happens). I sent a polite reminder yesterday and copied in the Chief Executive this time - after all, he is the only person, according to the assistant CEO, who has the authority to control access to the public gallery (that can't be right). Hopefully I'll have a few answers before the entire legal department jumps ship or perhaps they're ignoring me and hoping I'll go away.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Officers' Interests

At a recent meeting of the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee  concerns were raised over the 10 - 15% yearly rise in Freedom of Information Requests and whether the Authority could cope - apparently it could, just, even though the requests were becoming more complex...it is clearly taking far more time and ingenuity to put enough spin on the responses. Of course if as much information as possible was published (spending over £500 perhaps?...) this would ease the backlog, but the mysterious interweb is not a strength of this council. Two recent major 'consultations' - Dinefwr School Reforms and, of course, the Local Development Plan were very difficult to find despite a section of the website devoted entirely to 'Consultations', but it never occured to anyone to put them there.

Whilst on the subject of FoI requests I have been meaning to submit this one for some time. A recent decision by the Information Commissioner means that there is now a case for making Registers of Senior Officers' Interests for local authorities available to the public through publication. Members' Interests; business, property etc are already available to view, strictly by appointment (and I expect there's an 'undertaking' in there somewhere) at County Hall, although Carmarthenshire's two neighbouring authorities, Pembrokeshire and Swansea in a flash of transparency, publish the Members' Register on their websites. 

Must just add that during the update to the 'Integrated Community Strategy', someone raised the undoubtably strategic question as to whether the Local Service Board (committees of local officials - council, health board etc, found across Wales) was really just a quango - the minutes didn't specify whether the councillor also used the word 'useless'. The officer's response was that it was a jolly good idea even if it couldn't make any decisions and it's main purpose was clearly vital - a 'strategic forum to bring partners together to work strategically'. That's comforting then. I was surprised to read, a little further on that despite such great gatherings of strategic minds the Authority found it difficult to budget for Social Care services for the coming year as it was difficult to predict the demand - unlike the LDP where the population increases are predicted, (and taken as gospel), for many years ahead...strategically of course.

Y Cneifiwr blog about the Council website and Freedom of Info Requests - Secrecy and Incompetence

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Plugging my Petitions

With another mention in today's South Wales Evening Post, the issue of filming council meetings (or Carmarthenshire's anyway) is still rumbling away - hopefully to re-materialise in various council debates throughout Wales after the summer. The deadline for signing my Welsh Assembly petition has been extended to the 19th September 2011 and will be considered at the Petitions Committee meeting on September 27th. I may ask if I can briefly address the committee on the subject, in person, (if that's possible)

Please don't forget my petition to require Councils' to publish spending details over £500 as well (also extended) - currently we are limited to the annual summer activity of physically attending County Hall and personally 'inspecting the council's accounts' not something most people would have either the time or the inclination to embark on - the publication of the details would enable all those who are interested, at any time, to act as 'armchair auditors'. The two should compliment each other. Carmarthenshire Council have yet to announce the inspection period - I shall be popping down for a browse of course.

The aim of both petitions is to raise the accountability and transparency of our local authorities - this could be an opportunity for the Assembly to take the lead - neither of these issues should be a matter of party politics, nor, this time, entirely a matter for individual councils as we are so often told. Don't forget, both recommendations (to webcast meetings and publish the spending details) are now becoming commonplace throughout English councils without the sky having fallen in. And even Mr Pickles noticed the strange goings-on in Carmarthenshire.
Assembly Members have already shown their support for filming and 'widening access' and I hope this transpires into positive action by those in the driving seat at Cardiff Bay.
As you will be aware, the filming petition also requires councils' to allow members of the public to film or record, and at the risk of endlessly repeating myself - this is an unarguable necessity in Carmarthenshire.

I have noticed that several English Councils who have set up webcasts of their meeting have also quietly dropped a clause into their Standing Orders barring 'other forms' of recording ie by members of the public.
This is unnecessary and wholly unacceptable and I will lobby Councillors to oppose such a step in Carmarthenshire.
The cost is of course an issue but as I have said before, it would be money well spent and would be a negligible percentage of the vast annual PR budget. Or I could do it for free.

The petitions are here;
Filming; https://www.assemblywales.org/gethome/e-petitions/epetition-list-of-signatories.htm?pet_id=582
Spending; https://www.assemblywales.org/gethome/e-petitions/epetition-list-of-signatories.htm?pet_id=583

Many previous posts (of course) on this whole issue including http://carmarthenplanning.blogspot.com/2011/07/filming-debate-continuesand-that_03.html for one.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Fire Assessments (or lack of) and questions about the Undertaking

The Council have responded to the Photon's request for fire and safety assessments and procedures following the restricted access to the Public Gallery introduced on the 13th July. The response is here and Photon's excellent analysis is here. It appears that, in the event of a fire, members of the public in the gallery should wait, quietly sizzling on the well seasoned wooden benches until a sympathetic warden remembers to lead them to safety.

The bizarre and desperate measures, including the undertaking which the public are now required to sign, should be challenged at the next meeting of full council, if not by the councillors themselves then by those that object to having to agree to a policy that doesn't exist and who feel, as a matter of democratic principle, that they should have free unfettered access to the gallery.
I have asked the Council the following questions;

To; Head of Administration and Law
Carmarthenshire County Council

Dear Sir,

Please would you be kind enough to answer a few questions I have regarding the undertaking which members of the public are now required to sign before being allowed entry to the Public Gallery.If you are not the appropriate officer to ask then please pass this on to whoever is responsible. The undertaking I am referring to, of course, concerns filming and recording of public council meetings by the public.
As this refers to a course of action taken by the council I am sure you will agree that a Freedom of Information request is not appropriate in this instance.

1. Members of the public must promise not to film "until and unless the policy relating to this is reviewed by the Council". This is a very specific reference to a particular policy directly relating to filming. Could you please provide a link to the published policy to which you refer.

If there is no specific policy with direct reference to these activities, could you please explain on what basis the form of the undertaking was made?

2. Was any legal advice taken concerning the decision to issue the undertaking and if so was any of this advice specific to civil liberty and human rights issues? How does the undertaking satisfy the requirements of such legislation?

3. Could you please tell me who made the decision to introduce the undertaking? Whether it was by officers, members or a combination of both? Could you please provide, via email if possible, the date on which this was discussed, the minutes or notes to the meeting, and the names or titles of those present and the details of voting, if applicable.

4. Could you please explain how the terms of the undertaking would be enforced by the Council? If a member of the public signed the undertaking and then decided, in the interests of the wider electorate, to film part of a meeting, what course of action would the Council take? Particularly given the comments made by Dyfed Powys Police that this is not a matter for them and that a legally binding undertaking can only be issued on the orders of a court or as part of a condition of bail.

5. As the Information Commissioners Office has stated that, during an open public meeting filming would be very unlikely to breach data protection or privacy legislation, on what grounds exactly does the council object to filming?

6. As filming or recording is, by it's nature, a peaceful and silent activity, on what basis do the council have stating that this would equal the 'disruption' of a meeting. Please explain why the council considers it to be disruptive.

7. The first 'Core Value' in the Council's Improvement Plan is 'Openness' - How does this undertaking and the accompanying restrictions on access to the public gallery since July 13th support this principle?

I look forward to your acknowledgement of this email and prompt reply
Yours sincerely
J Thompson

I would also urge anyone else who wishes to attend the Public Gallery, but objects to signing the undertaking and the restricted access, to write to the council, or leave a comment below or attend County Hall at the next meeting of full council on the 14th September at 10am and express your concerns, and don't forget to bring a mobile phone.

I was reminded again the other day of the words of the Council solicitor at the planning meeting on the 31st March, (You Tube clip) in which he stopped me from filming, his actual words were;

"...it's clearly stated in the Rules that there's no photographic [sic] or anything like that allowed in the Chamber.." (my underlining)

I would have thought that with his many years of attendance at Planning Committee meetings, he would have been more familiar with the 'rules', apparently not. Subsequent events have now, of course, been well documented.

UPDATE 30th AUGUST - Still no response from the Head of Administration and Law to my email.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Sainsburys Llandeilo and more on the LDP

Back, for the moment, to more local issues.
The impending arrival of the large Sainsburys supermarket in Llandeilo's very own new 'out-of -town' retail centre has, of course, polarised local opinion. As a small market town, traders can see their livelihoods going down the drain, local produce will fail to find a market and many feel the traditional character of this small Welsh town will be lost. There are those of course who will welcome the convenience, cheaper food and greater choice, and tempting nationally advertised offers on petrol will draw us away from the three local garages and their shops and services. Sainsburys, as with all other major retailers know, that if they build it, 'they will come'; from far and wide, not just Llandeilo but right along the line of the A40, half way to Carmarthen, Ammanford and north to Llandovery - tourists will also by-pass narrow streets and parking charges for the easy option of the 'out of town' site. When the new school is built in Ffairfach how many of the Llandovery parents will decide to drop the kids off themselves and call into Sainsburys? Further adding to the demise of Llandovery (but who knows perhaps close neighbour Prince Charles has a Pantecelyn Waitrose up the royal sleeve?!).
Maybe 'competition' is not a 'material' planning consideration but good practice should indicate that for such a major development directly affecting the economy and well-being of the area it must be considered. But as with the closure of Pantecelyn Secondary School in Llandovery the County Council have no qualms in bulldozing through schemes regardless of public opinion or any detrimental effect on the local area. Retail Studies, often carried out by the very consultants who also represent the supermarkets, are taken as gospel by the planners. Sainsburys will be no different, some of you may remember the contortions the Council went to to aid the Tesco Extra application in Carmarthen a few years ago and more recently, St Catherine's Walk. Perhaps now would be a good time to remind ourselves why the same proposed site in Llandeilo was considered so completely unsuitable by another consultancy company for the siting of the new superschool only last year;
1) Green field site
2) Poor connectivity
3) Cost of bridge over A40
4) Increase in bus and private vehicle travel
5) High noise level from A40
6) Puts infrastructure constraints on the site
7) Detrimental impact on visual amenity
8) Significant adverse ecological impacts
9) High visibility from road
10) Lack of pedestrian links to the site

These of course are planning considerations. (oddly, the Sainsbury's site was one of the two preferred, including another nearer Llandovery, after the lengthy and expensive report - both of which were swiftly abandoned and Council's preferred site at Ffairfach was chosen - must have been good news for the Sainsbury's scouts). The consultation period runs for a few more weeks, and, if you feel strongly enough, whether objecting to, or of course, supporting the proposal, I suggest you put pen to paper.

A few jobs will be created which may soak up a few of the many that will be lost as local retailers struggle to survive but the other problem is that the vast majority of the money spent in the area will go straight out of Carmarthenshire and straight over the Severn Bridge. This won't just apply to Llandeilo, it is already happening in Carmarthen, Llanelli and Ammanford. It's a subtle change in the economy but one that deprives the county of local entrepreneurs and local business innovation and turns us all into an army of low paid shelf stackers. If major retailers wish to set up shop in these small towns the 'community benefits' from their soaring profits should not only include the usual zebra crossing or a set of swings but perhaps they should also consider a scheme of investment in local trade to try to offset the economic damage it's presence will inevitably cause.

On the subject of consultations (are these purposely timed for late July early August when most peoples' thoughts are on holidays and lazy summer barbeques rather than focussed on drafting detailed responses to jargon filled consultation documents?), a few words about Carmarthenshire Council's Local Development Plan which is winding it's tortuous way through the system. The last date to comment on the 'Draft Deposit Plan' is the 19th August 2011. One of the predictions I find questionable concerns population growth. In 2010, Meryl Gravell, the leader of the Council stated that between 2001 and 2009 the population of the county rose by 7925. The Draft Plan, in amongst very confusing and almost indecipherable sets of figures, bar charts and even colourful Venn diagrams predicts that roughly 16,000 new homes will be required by 2021. That equates to a possible 30,000 people - seems rather ambitious to me. The figures are generated, somehow, by the Welsh Assembly and various commissioned reports as recommendations to Local Authorities. Carmarthenshire Council went to the trouble of spending £13,000 on it's own report by external consultants, Edge Analytical, who recommended caution over the assumed population explosion and stated, in 'bold';
"Ultimately, the membership rates and other demographic assumptions need to be properly aligned with evidence from the 2011 Census"
So, this key recommendation has been quietly ignored as the Draft Plan does not include the evidence from the Census, as it's not yet available. A waste of £13,000 then.

I also note that this Plan as opposed to the previous UDP, has no policy on 'dwellings in open countryside' or (Rural Enterprise Dwellings as they are now known), something you would think was a fairly important issue in this very rural county - there is merely a pointer to 'Planning Policy Wales Edition 4' and Technical Advice Note 6 (revised), not exactly easy to locate to those uninitiated with the the hidden depths of planning policy.

Still, as we know with this planning department there are rules and then there are rules.

(I have written many previous posts about the closure of Pantecelyn, and a few on LDP and the proposed Sainsburys, all of which can be found by searching this blog. Have a look at the always excellent Y Cneifiwr blog too where the LDP has been given a good airing)