Friday, 28 December 2012

Keeping you in the dark

As I have mentioned, next year's assorted budget proposals are currently under 'consultation' by the various scrutiny committees and, as the sanitised Minutes gradually emerge, it is clear that any concerns over cuts to services are swiftly swept aside by the relevant officers, at least that's how it appears. For instance; "Concern was expressed about the fact that £120k was being removed from Supported Living by reducing the staff support costs (particularly the proposed reduction in 24 hour support). The Director of Social Care, Health & Housing informed the Committee that this would be done on an incremental basis and that all risks would be managed appropriately blah blah.." (you get my drift?).

During the past few weeks the Executive Board has been similarly busy, but the other way round, and has been handing out cash under a series of 'exempt' reports (ie public and press OUT please). Only five out of the ten handsomely paid Members turned up to the last meeting although the presence of eleven even more handsomely paid senior officers, including the Press Manager made Members' attendance more superfluous than usual, though of course they can always be relied upon entirely not to disagree with anything.

An urgent item popped up (not on the agenda) and £250k was loaned, interest free to the Llanelly House renovation project. A worthy cause no doubt, but running a year behind schedule and with the bank calling in the loan in January, there was a bit of a cash flow crisis. I know how they feel mind you, there's always a bit of a cash flow crisis at Caebrwyn Towers.This project though, unlike the Caebrwyn residence, is currently run by eminent trustees from the 'Carmarthenshire Heritage Regeneration Trust' has had £6m of capital funding from various public pots, including Carmarthenshire Council. Unfortunately, as the report was exempt, we are unable to find out why the project is behind schedule, where the money for the loan was coming from, why private finance wasn't available, why the sudden urgency etc etc  Yet again, why this was considered 'exempt' is a bit of a mystery.

The previous two meetings saw further secret reports on the Cross Hands developments, both West and East. The East project appears to be the creation of a large industrial estate, which, as the council continually informs us, will create 1000s of jobs. Let's hope it does, as the exempt report relating to it involved the approval of various (unspecified) Compulsory Purchase Orders, as wrangles over land deals have proved to be difficult. With approval for funding of possible public inquiries too, this could all prove very expensive. While they were there, an additional £250k was given to Welsh Water to deal with phosphorous discharge. As usual, no questions were asked.

The 'Cross Hands West' 'mixed use' project includes the proposed Sainsbury's store recently passed back to the council from Cardiff. The exempt report meanwhile, convinced the unblinking Executive Board to approve "additional development costs detailed in the report to achieve the full capital receipt". So what was that for then?...and how much were the costs? We don't know. And more to the point, who wanted 'Supported Living' anyway?

My point being that whilst cuts to services are making their steady way through the ranks of, er,  'consultation' meetings; in three cosy gatherings of the Executive Board a very possible £1m has been rubber stamped away with no information given to the public...or the rest of the councillors I suspect. Maybe we'd all agree that these expenses are justified to promote heritage and employment opportunities, if, that is, we were presented with a full picture. But, as usual, we're not....£20k to the £2bn Odeon conglomerate? Was that having a cash flow crisis too?

Of course, popping things on an agenda at the last minute has recently been outlawed by the Chief Executive and the legal squad, essentially to prevent any embarrassing discussions on dodgy press releases, leaked emails, nasty reports from the ombudsman etc etc. Llanelly House was lucky it seems.

Lastly, for now, the Minutes have been published for the last full council meeting which featured the 'public filming' motion and some of you wanted to know who had voted for transparency and who had voted against;

In favour of transparency;

Councillors; C.A. Campbell, J.M. Charles, A. Davies, G. Davies, E. Dole, H.A.L. Evans, L.D. Evans, W.T. Evans, D. Harries, W.G. Hopkins, K. Howell, P. Hughes-Griffiths, D.M. Jenkins, G.O. Jones, W.J. Lemon, A. Lenny, J. Owen, D. Price, G.B. Thomas, G. Thomas, S.E. Thomas, J.E. Williams and J.S. Williams

and those who voted to keep you in the dark....;

Councillors S.M. Allen, R. Bartlett, T. Bowen, A.P. Cooper, D.M. Cundy, D.B. Davies, I.W. Davies, J. Davies, S. Davies, T. Davies, W.K. Davies, W.R.A. Davies, T. Devichand, J. Edmunds, G. Edwards, D.C. Evans, M .Gravell, C. Higgins, I.J. Jackson, A. James, J. James, A.W. Jones, H.I. Jones, P.E.M. Jones, T.J. Jones, K. Madge, S. Matthews, A.G. Morgan, E. Morgan, P.A. Palmer, D.W.H. Richards, L. Roberts, H.B. Shepardson, L.M. Stephens, T. Theophilus, E.G. Thomas, M.K. Thomas, W.D. Thomas, W.G. Thomas, J. Tremlett, and J. Williams

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Carmarthenshire Council win Rotten Boroughs' 'PR Plonkers of the Year Award 2012'

I'm sure County Hall will, as we speak, be celebrating their success as winners of Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs' 'PR Plonkers of the Year' Awards for 2012. Along with a special mention in the 'Hellfire Award' for their involvement with the evangelical Towy Community Church, all in all, it's been quite a year. Of course, the 2011 Awards also saw the council honoured too. 
We'll look out for today's announcements on the council website.....

See 'Council email reveals truth behind blacklisting of South Wales Guardian
and earlier Eye article regarding Mr De'ath;
and much background to the involvement of the Council with the 'hellfire' church can be found throughout this blog.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Council email reveals truth behind blacklisting of South Wales Guardian

Last week the South Wales Guardian used its front page to expose the Council's attempt to financially cripple the independent weekly paper for publishing a couple of articles mildly critical of County Hall. (See South Wales Guardian blacklisted by Carmarthenshire Council)

As the story spread nationally, the council, (as it does), hi-jacked its press office to attack the paper and its editor, Mike Lewis. In the bizarre tirade, the council claimed its decision to withdraw advertising was purely for 'commercial reasons' due to the low circulation of the paper, but went on say that the critical comment piece, which appeared to have sparked the ban, was the latest in a long line of 'biased and unbalanced' articles.

Mike Lewis has this week hit back at the council  and published an email mistakenly forwarded to the paper by council staff, it confirms the council withdrew its advertising back in July and had nothing to do with 'commercial reasons'.

He says;

"... the authority’s press manager Debbie Williams ordered colleagues to pull advertising following a Guardian story describing town council fears that the Quay Street regeneration works would not be completed by Christmas.  
“Due to the continuing negative publicity by the Guardian,” she said. “I do not think we should be placing adverts with them until this issue is resolved. Please could you cancel the ad Diane had planned in the meantime.” 
That comment leaves little doubt that the decision was not a commercial one."

In a further article the defiant editor challenges the council's statements and also suggests that the 'beef' with the paper does not, as many suspect, originate from the council's press team itself.
He says;
"We anticipated County Hall’s response to last week’s front page – and did not have to wait long.The county council’s statement– which can be read in full on this week’s front page – describes the notion of an advertising blackout as “nonsense”.But where’s the beef? Where are the hard facts to support this bizarre 565-word tirade?The council says it is “astonished to have read so many incorrect statements on the front page of the Guardian”.
List them.
Biased and unbalanced coverage in a long list of articles?
Name them.
Numerous complaints and many discussions with myself?
Then show us the correspondence or e-mails to illustrate this supposed litany of conflict.
Never managed to establish any kind of working relationship with the Guardian under my editorship?
Wrong again – the Guardian actually has a very good relationship with the local authority’s press team, all of whom are experienced journalists and one or two I count as personal friends.
Like me, they will find the notion of council press officers quaking at the prospect of another call from ‘The Ogre of the Guardian’ – this fearsome and ruthless individual dedicated to shining his torch of truth into the darker recesses of County Hall – highly amusing..."

Mike Lewis also includes an opinion piece in which he questions the council's obsession with negative stories and the low threshold of tolerance, shown by County Hall to any criticism, however mild;

".... wouldn't its energies be better spent tackling the enormous challenges our county faces, including education reorganisation, the off-loading of public amenities and the future of social care?
Let’s be honest, the two recent articles that raised their hackles were hardly the stuff of Fleet Street! The July article on town councillors’ concerns about the major redevelopment of Quay Street was a straightforward account of a town council meeting.
Our September 19 editorial highlighted the council’s much-criticised Sainsbury’s press release, which resulted in council leader Kevin Madge being reported to the ombudsman...."
I'm pleased to see the overwhelming support for the paper in its letters page today, (not online). There is also a lengthy missive from Council leader, Kevin Madge. He describes the paper as 'politically biased' and its reaction to the Sainsbury's press release as 'hysterical', and he again accuses the Plaid MP and AM of being complicit in the destruction of 250 job opportunities. Mike Lewis responds strongly to the accusation of political bias and reminds Cllr Madge of their previous excellent working relationship, he says;

"The furore surrounding that bloody Sainsbury's press release appears to have changed all that. I haven't seen or heard from Kevin since. So, as he's clearly mislaid my number, perhaps he can address a question I have been repeatedly asked in the past can he continue to remain silent while his home town paper is being damaged by the actions of County Hall?" 

Monday, 17 December 2012

The Leader's amendment and an exercise in spin!

As the twists and turns of the filming' debate go on and on and on, a rather odd statement on the website of Carmarthenshire Labour was drawn to my attention, 'Labour Group Supports Live Broadcast of Council Meetings', it announced. Apparently, the amendment at last week's meeting, against the Plaid motion allowing the public to film was actually a proposal for webcasting! Well I never! In a splendid exercise in spin, the carefully crafted, stage managed ban on openness has been miraculously transformed into a call for transparency!

This is Cllr Madge's amendment which, if you remember the procedural contortions, became the 'substantive motion' and Cllr Hughes Griffiths' motion to allow the public to film, disappeared. There is no mention of livestreaming, my comments in brackets;

"This council notes that the Executive Committee has already agreed in principle to a pilot project for the broadcasting of council meetings [This is to record, censor and upload full council meetings only] and has commissioned a detailed report on costs which will come before council in the New Year. Council agrees to endorse the Executive Board decision to support the idea in principle but to await detailed information on costs before proceeding.

Council also notes that the Business Management Group [No agenda, no minutes], which comprises the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Labour, Independent and Plaid Cymru Groups on the council, unanimously agreed in July 2011 not to agree to members of the public filming council meetings and council resolves to reaffirm this policy until the pilot on broadcasting meetings has taken place and been evaluated"

Well, although the 'amendment' doesn't mention anything of the sort, I would of course welcome the livestreaming of all meetings. In consequence, filming by the public would then be fine (if anyone wanted to), as this truly paranoid council would always have a true record of proceedings, indeed we all would. Not that there's a rule against it anyway.

The Task and Finish group have spent 18 months looking at this whole issue (apart from public filming which they 'forgot') and came up with the useless pilot proposal, which was stalled by the Executive Board until further costs had been determined. The Labour group has now come up with this and yes, a further costing report will, at sometime in the future, go before the Executive. To say things move at a leisurely pace in Carmarthenshire would be an understatement and of course, whilst reports are awaited and budgets are being squeezed, the likelihood of anything happening grows, conveniently for the council perhaps, even more remote.

Shh! 'twas a week before Christmas.. and the council submit plans for the controversial new school

Just to let any interested parties know, a week before Christmas, the council has submitted the planning application for the new secondary school at Ffairfach Llandeilo, on a C2 flood plain and in the Special Landscape Area of the Upper Towy Valley.

Regular readers will know there was a hard fought battle to prevent the closure of Pantycelyn Secondary School, Llandovery including a Judicial Review, as well as opposition to the council's 'preferred location' for the new site, due in part to the enormous distances which some of the children will have to travel.

The whole plan was a subject of one of those typical 'consultations' where it appeared that the major decisions had already been made between the council and it's consultants. Opponents to the closure; children, parents, teachers, governors and townsfolk were charmingly accused (obviously!) of 'proliferating misinformation' and having the audacity to have an 'orchestrated campaign of opposition', fancy that!

It would be cynical of me to think the council are hoping that by dropping this one in a week before the Christmas break potential objectors may find far more enjoyable things to do than write to the planning department. The application (E/27510) was valid from last Friday (14th) but not published until today (17th), you have 21 days to comment, whether for or against the proposal, of course.

'Special Measures' - The case for Carmarthenshire

Pembrokeshire County Council, who gained recent notoriety for putting children in padded cells, comes under fire again today after scathing Estyn and Wales Audit Office reports into it's educational and child care services.

Changes are not being implemented fast enough and the level of scrutiny by councillors is insufficient. As the BBC reports here, further Ministerial intervention (a clearly ineffectual Assembly Advisory Board was 'sent in' about a year ago), is looking likely. Ministers, apparently, have 'wide ranging powers', although these do not appear to cover Carmarthenshire of course.

In an attempt to impress it's critics, Pembrokeshire has said it will be joining Carmarthenshire Council today in a school improvement programme.

Clearly Pembrokeshire, who have now surely decommissioned the padded cells, are still failing. Whether this is a result of political infighting or managerial incompetence, or a mixture of the two, is not clear.

So when exactly is the line crossed to warrant 'special measures' into the running of a council?

When it become evident that unelected officers are running the show?

When the Ombudsman, who seems to have found permanent employment in the county publishes no less than three tales from Carmarthenshire in his quarterly Casebook, none of which are discussed in council?

When a previous council leader brands the entire workforce as lazy?

When repeated attempts to control the press are exposed as the tactics of a dictatorship?

When the press office has been hi-jacked to deliver attacks on critics, political bias and promote multinational businesses?

When a propaganda council rag is continually churned out at the expense of frontline services?

When decisions are made behind closed doors to financially assist a company with a net worth of £2bn? And £1.4m given to a fundamentalist evangelical organisation?

When public safety is dangerously compromised for a year and a half to prevent anyone recording a meeting?

When a child is forced to sign a daft undertaking?

When rules are made to prevent minority views being heard in the Chamber?

When Councillors are censured for 'asking too many questions'?

When a planning inspector accuses a council of 'turning a blind eye'?

When a council is banned from the DVLA database for questionable access?

I could go on.

There's no evidence of padded cells for children in Carmarthenshire yet, but as I know, they're not averse to locking up their critics. Without a doubt, departmental failure, particularly in childrens' services is grave, but the situation in Carmarthenshire is different, the failure is at the very heart of local democracy.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

December meeting..and Kev's amendment

I didn't think meetings of Carmarthenshire Council could get any worse but this meeting showed plenty of scope for further decline.
The undertakings have gone, which is something, though not surprising given that the Ombudsman is currently sniffing round the corridors of County Hall. And the fire exit is now open. Visitors now have to go to this door to get in, which was the original entrance, but with the little handles carefully removed, they have to knock and hope someone comes in time for the start of the meeting. The member of staff (only one!) escorts the rabble up the stairs where what appears to be a security guard is now positioned near the door with a clipboard for everyone to sign in and out. The guard remained there for the duration and came and sat in the gallery. Just in case

The Chairs announcements included praise for the Dyfed Pension Fund, who had won some sort of obscure award. There was much praise (of course) from various councillors and much encouragement for even more of them to take up the scheme, it was a fantastic deal with splendid perks. Not so fantastic for the taxpayers though who fork out many thousands of pounds every year in contributions.

The main event, for me anyway, was the vote on filming. I naively expected this to be a simple matter of voting on the Plaid leader's Motion to allow the public to film. Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths presented the motion  and Cllr Alun Lenny seconded it.

Both Councillors spoke very well putting forward the case for public filming perfectly. Cllr Griffiths was astounded that after eighteen months the 'Task and Finish group' had 'forgotten' to look at this issue, but reminded everyone that it now had cross-party support despite being kicked out by the Executive Board.

The Chamber was reminded of the ruling Labour group's Forward Work programme (described by the Leader, Kevin Madge as 'exciting') which promised to 'promote transparency' and 'ensure that the council is open and transparent in everything we do'. Evidence was quoted from where public filming is already allowed, and the 'encouragement' from Carl Sargeant and guidance from Eric Pickles quoted. It would help restore the council's reputation for opaque decision making, they said.

To those worried about 'selective editing' they were reminded that this is already happens in the media and the council minutes. The proposed filming pilot would also be edited. And if they were all honest, what was there to hide? what were they worrying about?

That's were it all went horribly and predictably wrong. Cllr Madge rose and presented an amendment to the motion. This was to not allow the public to film. Cllr Griffiths tried to challenge the amendment as they are not allowed to 'go against' the original Motion, but Kev's amendment had clearly been passed through the bowels of the legal department first. The addition of 'we may look at this again in a hundred years when we may or may not see how the pilot goes' (or words to that effect) was apparently sufficient for the Monitoring Officer for it to be acceptable. What a surprise.

The 'debate' then started to get really bizarre. Kev was 'not prepared to let people in the public gallery use filming for political means'; it would go against their equalities policy as only half the Chamber could be filmed from the gallery and there were serious health and safety issues because people would be leaning over the balcony and may fall, the last one was from Pam Palmer.

By now Peter Hughes Griffiths and his supporters were almost as speechless as I was, he couldn't believe that members were challenging this motion and trying to "wrangle" their way out of supporting it. You can see how this council operates, he said, Labour and independents coming together to throw this out, shameful but not surprising. Cllr Lenny hit the nail on the head and called it control freakery.

Cllr Darren Price (Plaid) then spoke and said it was a joke and out of order. There had been cross party support (apart from Cllr Giles Morgan (Ind) who was not in favour of transparency). This was all about the rights of the public and the ratepayers and a lot more needed to be done. Why weren't there ever any public questions? Or even an allotted spot for either public questions or the presentation of petitions?. He reminded Kev of his recent letter in the Western Mail encouraging 'public engagement'.

Then the opponents came back. Cllr Higgins (Lab), the youngest councillor, who you might have thought had a more open attitude spoke against it. Then Cllr Bill Thomas who fretted about editing and public safety again.

Next up was Cllr Tegwen Devichand (Lab) who much to everyone's surprise declared that 'under no circumstances are we changing Kev as our Leader', she must have zoned out for a few minutes because no one had even mentioned that Kev needed replacing. Only a matter of time perhaps.

Cllrs Gwyn Hopkins, Hazel Evans and Dai jenkins all then spoke in favour.
Cllr Jeff Edmunds (Lab) Executive Board Member for Money then rambled on for a while supporting Kev. Of course, all the opponents were in favour of transparency as long as it was under the tightly censored control of the council.

Then it was time for the vote. By now it was the amendment not to film which had to be voted on, not the original Motion. A recorded vote was taken with 23 voting for transparency (against the motion) and 41 wishing to keep you in the dark. The details of who voted for what will appear in the minutes, eventually. Residents in Caebrwyn's locality might be interested to know that those two stalwarts of community spirit, 'independent' Cllrs Ivor Jackson and Tom Theophilus voted to keep things away from the prying eyes of their voters.

With 64 voting, and only 4 or 5 having sent their apologies, a handful must have gone AWOL.

The stage managed procedural nonsense continued as the 'amendment' now became the 'substantive' motion which meant that Cllr Griffith's motion to film, had now completely disappeared.

The discussion continued. More Plaid Councillors expressed disbelief in what was happening. Cllr Gwyneth Thomas said she had been waiting 20 years for the council to become more transparent; another said that the amendment had been drawn up to prevent democratic development. Plaid's Darren Price wondered what had happened and, more to the point, what had been said in the two months since this had been given cross-party support? What were they afraid of? The mind boggles.

A quote of the day from Kev was next; "No one can accuse this council of being undemocratic and not transparent" and waffled on about the all expenses paid Executive Board trips to the outposts of Ammanford and Llandeilo. Dear god.

Pam Palmer was in devilish mode by now with one eye on the public gallery she said that by allowing the public to film, it would be taking control off the people. I felt like crying. People in the gallery, she seethed, could do very clever editing, I hope she wasn't referring to me because I can't. Blogs, someone spat, were picked up around the world. I think that comment said quite a lot.

Plaid continued to try and reason with the dark forces and asked when exactly this long awaited pilot would be starting, apparently Carl Sargeant had recently said there would be funding available for it. This brought the Chief Executive in who said that Mr Sargeant hadn't quite said that and actually he had no idea how they would budget for it - Caebrwyn decided that the £20,000 they'd just given (behind closed doors) to the Odeon (net worth £2bn) would have covered it. It would probably come up at the budget meeting he said.

A supporter said that cost shouldn't be an issue for this and, anyway, weren't the BBC 'selective'? Or any other official media source? Which brought Mr James back in with 'your not suggesting the press are selective in the way they report on us are you?' I think this was meant to be a joke but after that morning's front page of the South Wales Guardian ........

The final vote now had to be taken on the 'amendment', there was no point asking for it to be recorded and it went through. So any further mentions of public filming will only be after the pilot, for which there wasn't any money anyway. In other words, that was that.

To say the whole thing was a highly contrived and a carefully choreographed exercise in procedural b*****s would be an understatement.

And just be clear, in case of confusion, the vote went against allowing the public to film.

Although I was beginning to lose the will to live, I stayed a bit longer to see whether anyone would bring up any of the recent embarrassing ombudsman reports during the report from the Standards Committee. Of course not. Kev did his usual tributes and, amazingly, my own local member Cllr Theophilus spoke, there was a hushed silence for this rare occurrence as he said how upsetting it was to be reported to the ombudsman, it had happened to him several times, he'd been a councillor for 200 years and served under 24 Chief Executives (it went something like that, I couldn't quite catch it), it really shouldn't be allowed. Exec Board Member Colin Evans said that claiming money to try and clear your name was a 'hot potato' at the moment, it was costing thousands to defend allegations. I'm not sure what point he was trying to make and neither did he by the sound of it.

A discussion on the evils of gambling came up, one of Pam Palmer's favourites, and someone suggested a letter to Westminster and Cardiff was in order about the adverts which tempt the poor to part with their money. Pam Palmer's moral outrage continued and she said that had already been done, a letter had been sent by the Executive Board on behalf of the entire council. Someone raised the question that, even though they agreed with the sentiment, were the Exec Board entitled to send letters on everyone's behalf without everyone else knowing? not really..but never mind eh?

Before long the timeless discussion on public toilets came up which the council have decided to close in April. Various councillors tried to say that Community councils didn't have the resources to take them over. Executive Board Member for Toilets, Cllr Evans began a very lengthy detailed speech about the efficiency savings and that closure was the only option. He went on for so long the Chair had to ask him to sit down..

There was a brief interlude to the toilet discussion when Cllr Lemon again asked the Chief Executive when the new school for Seaside would be built. He had the same answer as he'd had several times before - because the residents didn't want to build on the council's 'preferred site' they'd slipped waaaay down the list. So there.

With the conversation returning to toilets I'd had enough and left.

During all this Meryl managed to fit in a half hour eulogy to the 'best council in Wales' on BBC Radio Wales. Perhaps some wag should have issued a statement to say that this wasn't actually the case, and their contributor was 'spreading untruths' and had an 'agenda'. It's what they would have done.....and did of course....

I wondered what the public at large would have made of it all had the council meeting been webcast live, one thing is certain, there would have been no need for clever editors to make those particular proceedings look like something from another dimension. The row of senior officers, almost completely silent of course, was a sight in itself.

And I suppose, and lest ye forget, (and despite the vote), there still is no rule in the Standing Orders against filming council meetings. Not yet anyway.


As I mentioned previously, Unison staged a protest on the steps of County Hall yesterday calling for the Living Wage. There was no mention whilst I was in the meeting, notably not from Labour Members. After I went it cropped up and the SW Evening Post has the story here. The Plaid leader Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths said that the council ought to be ashamed of itself, and Cllr Lenny (Plaid) said  “Is Kevin Madge, as a socialist, is he embarrassed — even ashamed — that his administration is not prepared to pay staff enough, that they live on state benefits?” 
Well said.
The paper also reports that staff at the Welsh Assembly will all now be paid the Living Wage.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

South Wales Guardian blacklisted by Carmarthenshire Council

Another update (13th December);

County Hall is now, without a qualm, of using the taxpayer funded council website to take a further swipe at our defiantly independent South Wales Guardian and it's editor Mike Lewis;
Is anyone going to stop this?

The council have provided a statement to the BBC in which they continue to lose the plot. Starting by being mystified that the S W Guardian should think this is anything other than a 'commercial' decision...they then go on to say;

"It is true that, over the years, some of the editorial coverage in the Guardian has seemed to us to be biased and unbalanced.
"We are surprised that the newspaper has singled out a recent article as if it were an isolated incident.
"The truth is that this was but the latest in a long line of articles which we would feel did not present a full and honest picture"

So, actually it was because the paper dared to print a few articles mildly critical of the council, in between the local jumble sales and motoring offences. Nothing to do with 'commercial decisions'. This statement is astounding and the implications appalling.

Yet again, this does not sound like a statement from the press office nor does it sound like the words of council leader, Kevin Madge.
(Full BBC article here)

The Western Mail has also covered the story and adds a further chilling comment from County Hall;

“The county council has, in fact, made numerous complaints and had many discussions with the editor and senior figures with the paper. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts we have not managed to establish any kind of working relationship with the South Wales Guardian under Mr Lewis’s editorship.”

Oh dear, the truth is coming out now. Have they someone more 'appropriate' for the job in mind? Is that what it will take for the council to take the paper off the blacklist? I'm speechless.

Oh, also in the Guardian, the big Guardian and elsewhere.

The editor of the South Wales Guardian, Mike Lewis, has today come out fighting with a front page spread about the paper's ongoing row with Carmarthenshire Council. There is also an editorial piece and an article. I for one am very glad that this is now in the open, the council should be holding it's head in utter shame. It's now time that County Hall's tin pot dictators are stopped in their tracks. Well done to Mr Lewis for standing up to the bullying tactics of the county council.

The comment piece which Mr Lewis refers to, published in September, can be found here.

I have published all three articles below, all of which can be found on the South Wales Guardian website.

Guardian Blacklisted by County Council

The South Wales Guardian has been subjected to a Carmarthenshire county council advertising blackout since September, following a comment piece criticising the authority.

Ironically, the revelation came on the day the council was being urged to show greater support for local newspapers.

In the wake of the Leveson report into media standards, county politicians called on the authority to abandon its own Carmarthenshire News publication – produced by council staff and costing taxpayers £148,000 – and help ensure “the vibrancy of the press”.

Meanwhile, council advertising in the Guardian has all but dried up since publication of an editorial lambasting the authority’s now notorious Sainsbury’s press release regarding the Welsh Assembly’s call-in of plans for stores in Llandeilo and Cross Hands. Council figures show that during eight weeks between September 27 and November 21, the authority spent £9,551.69 in the county’s three newspapers with just £224.99 or 2.3 per cent spent in the Guardian. The remaining 97.7% went to the Guardian’s two rivals.

In his report, Lord Justice Leveson noted with dismay the difficulties faced by local newspapers due to declining advertising revenue.

Plaid Cymru AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas said: “Local authorities have a duty not to undermine local newspapers and we’re calling on Carmarthenshire county council to join our campaign to secure the future of the local press in the county. The council should start by scrapping its own publication and direct advertisers to the independently-run publications in the county.

“Carmarthenshire has a much-respected local press and it is imperative it is able to act freely and report without fear or favour.”

Meanwhile, MP Jonathan Edwards said: “Lord Justice Leveson categorically states that local, high-quality and trusted newspapers are good for our communities, our identity and our democracy and play an important social role. It is imperative that local authorities play an active role in ensuring the vibrancy of the press.”

Carmarthenshire county council has not responded to requests for a response.

Guardian Editor Mike Lewis on the latest round of the newspaper’s ongoing dispute with Carmarthenshire county council

The Guardian’s lone stand against Carmarthenshire county council has been described by one political commentator as David v Goliath.

Yes, the odds are uneven but, in all honesty, we never wanted a fight.

Surely, in these times of austerity it is in the interests of everyone to pull together?

But County Hall’s response to our hard-hitting editorial of September 19 criticising their now-notorious Sainsbury’s press release was to pull all advertising - a move which has cost us around £9,000 - despite a full page right-to-reply.

To describe this as a third rate decision by a third-rate local authority would be an insult to all those hardworking frontline county council employees (many of whom are Guardian readers) who help keep our county up and running.

The Guardian has nothing but respect for them - but we do have a problem with a regime which acts like some Eastern bloc state from the 1960s.

The most depressing aspect of all this is that the council continues to spend thousands of pounds on two local papers from a rival group.

The Guardian, meanwhile, is punished for speaking its mind. I suspect that even people who don’t read or don’t particularly care for us will be alarmed by this sinister turn of events.

We cannot give in to this pressure, because when a local paper gives up its freedom to criticise, a key plank of local democracy has gone.

Should this be allowed to happen? That is the question all county councillors, regardless of their political colours, should be considering today.

Now is the time to stand up and be counted.

I can’t help wondering what that Amman Valley political legend Jim Griffiths – a fearless champion of the underdog and passionate supporter of free speech – would have made of all this.

He must be spinning in his grave

South Wales Guardian Opinion

TO go public or maintain a dignified silence? That was the question confronting us last week in the face of the latest intimidatory tactics employed by Carmarthenshire county council.

Newspapers occasionally display an over-inflated sense of their own importance so, in going public on County Hall’s advertising boycott would we ourselves be guilty of navel-gazing?

In the end, the decision was effectively made for us. For a number of weeks now there has been mounting speculation about the Guardian’s relationship with County Hall – the odd tweet here and there, the occasional enquiry from a reader.

Then the story hit the blogosphere (the full sorry saga can be read on Y Cneifiwr) and, finally, attracted the attention of the national media.

So, in a sense, our hand was forced.Yet the fact a local business is suffering as a result of the county council’s actions surely constitutes news?

This unofficial advertising boycott was a direct response to our no-holds-barred editorial condemning a county council press release accusing Plaid politicians Jonathan Edwards and Rhodri Morgan of “deliberately sabotaging” Sainsbury’s Llandeilo planning application by getting it called-in by the Welsh Assembly.

We rightly anticipated repercussions, voiced our concerns to the county council’s press office - and have the e-mails to prove it. Sure enough, council leader Kevin Madge was duly reported to the Ombudsman.

The backlash against us was swift, but in striking back at the Guardian the council has scored an own goal.

The paper is still read my most people in its Amman Valley heartlands and, by not advertising local events, the council is effectively shooting itself in the foot

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

A brief reflection on 2012

Another interesting Item on the agenda for tomorrow's full council meeting (apart from the vote on public filming of course) is the Standards Committee Annual Report. The report in itself is not exactly searching, the usual gloss over of Ombudsman stats, but perhaps some Members will seize the opportunity to ask a few searching questions. The Planning Department and Social Care have both recently received damning reports, not forgetting the £3000 fine over Mr M's case back in January. The Ombudsman's wholehearted rejection of the Chief Executive's attempts to censure Cllr Caiach was not a particularly proud moment for the authority either.

In fact there's quite a lot to reflect on this year. The Leader, Cllr Madge is being investigated over the Sainsbury's press release which brings into question the integrity of the press office to deliver apolitical news.  In fact the press office, the propaganda arm of the regime (elected and unelected) has had quite a year threatening local papers and ensuring that the £148,000 propaganda council rag will remain unscathed after the budget; who cares? Let's lop £66k off the after-school clubs and nursery groups instead!

And who could forget Meryl's 'Mark and I' gaffe back in April? I doubt if it's warmed her to the charms of You Tube. It certainly didn't warm her to the 'rabble'. In fact there's a growing movement in Llanelli to separate itself from Carmarthenshire Council altogether, who can blame them? I'm thinking of polling the residents of Llanwrda to see if they'd like to join the resistance.

The senior management have also been kept busy either refusing to take part in, or putting a size 10 in, various media programmes. In the spring S4C's Taro 9 showed the unfolding mess behind whistleblower Delyth Jenkins complaint about abuse in a day centre. The council's input was apparently limited to having the police follow Delyth and the BBC film crew. The next in the series was BBC Dragon's Eye investigating the council funding of the evangelical bowling alley,  followed later on with BBC Week In Week Out' s report on the Breckman planning case, They broke their silence though a few week's ago with a size 10, this time on BBC Radio Wales calling a retired schoolteacher and a town councillor who were taking part in a discussion about the perils and nonsense associated with the public gallery as disingenuous liars.

Taking into account numerous column inches in Private Eye, it hasn't been a particularly good year, PR wise.

Of course we can't forget that there was actually an election in May.  Or perhaps we have. Did it really happen? Remember the weeks of backroom deals and promises? The whole thing went full circle and we were back were we started, an Executive Board unwaveringly loyal to the ruling officer group and a collection of councillors silenced from uttering anything other than tributes to the politburo.

The council's relationship with the local press is something that has been troubling the Carmarthenshire bloggers for some time, for years in fact, and as Cneifiwr reports, things could be reaching a crescendo. I would like to think, for instance, that the South Wales Guardian remained defiant after the July threat with their front page the following week picturing the Executive Board juxtaposed with an interesting headline, who knows;

Anyway, the show lumbers on, untouched it seems by either Government or watchdog, to any meaninglful degree anyway. Even the DVLA has had enough. Regeneration continues, largely at the long term expense of the taxpayer and the long term profit of multi-national chains.

My campaign for transparency reaches a significant moment tomorrow with the vote on filming - it will be interesting to see who has been whipped into shape, and who has decided to do a bit of Christmas shopping instead. Whatever happens, it'll take more than me and my mobile phone to bring this council into the 21st Century.

And a final word of support for the Unison members who will be protesting on the steps of County Hall tomorrow for a living wage for low paid council workers, currently earning a thirteenth of the salary of the Chief Executive. The rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate......

Carmarthenshire Council on DVLA banned list

Privacy campaigners Big Brother Watch have published details of public organisations who have had their access to the DVLA database suspended or revoked for improper use. Councils can lawfully use the database to track drivers for parking tickets or track down littering offenders etc.

Carmarthenshire County Council is one of 38 organisations, according to the published information, to have had their access permanently blocked for abusing the system. The reason given is 'audit issues' which can mean a failure to monitor who, and why the database was used, failure to respond to audit inquiries from the DVLA and generally poor record keeping, all of which can lead to breaches of privacy.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Carmarthenshire Council to vote on public filming

The agenda has been published for next Wednesday's full meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council.
Item 5 reads;



To any councillors reading this, I'd like to make the following points;

1. Don't allow the decision to be put off any longer.

2. By agreeing with the motion you are;

a) Following guidance issued by both Westminster and Cardiff Governments.
b) Taking a small step to improving the transparency and accountability of the council
c) Supporting a cross-party agreement from one of your own scrutiny committees

3. The council pilot is proposing to film only full council meetings, then selectively edit the footage before making it available. It is therefore essential that the principle of public recording is allowed alongside.

4. As you will be aware, quietly and unobtrusively recording or filming meetings does not in any way disrupt proceedings.

5. The public must be able to film without prior permission from Chairs, legal officers etc.

6. The right to record/film should also include the press.

7. The recorded material remains the property of the recorder.

8. Should this motion be accepted, it is up to elected members to ensure that more decisions are not taken outside of meetings.

9. The public has a right to observe open council business which includes Members' and officers' actions, words and decisions by whatever means are available. Ideally, live webcasting of all meetings would give, once and for all, a true record of what was said, but this is not being proposed in the pilot.

10. The Minutes do not provide an accurate, timely, nor comprehensive record of proceedings.

11. Enquiries have revealed that the Council does not have a rule or policy prohibiting the public from recording meetings, the current ban is based on threat of expulsion or possible arrest which, if tested in court and given government guidance, would be unlikely to succeed.
The right to film should therefore be positively confirmed within the Standing Orders.

12. With regards to Data protection, the Information Commissioner said;

‘ In the absence of any other legal barrier to comment, publication, expression and so on, the Act in and of itself would not prevent such processing of information.  
In the majority of cases the citizen blogging about how they see the democratic process working is unlikely to breach the data protection principles.  
In the context of photographing or filming meetings, whilst genuine concerns about being filmed should not be dismissed, the nature of the activity being filmed – elected representatives acting in the public sphere – should weigh heavily against personal objections’.

A simple sign such as the one pictured, alerting members of the public who may address a meeting, to the possibility that they might be filmed would be sufficient, and provide an 'opt out' if they so wished.

(Source; Cambridge blogger, Richard Taylor); 

13. A vote in favour of the Motion will put an end to the current undemocratic and unwelcoming restrictions faced by visitors to the public gallery, which were not discussed by elected Members. This blog has also highlighted how public safety in the event of fire has been compromised by this 'operational decision' by senior officers. I now understand the council has been told to unlock the fire exit.

The requirement to sign an undertaking not to film has proved to be highly controversial with staff at reception being made, unfairly I believe, to 'follow orders' and try and deal with those who have, quite rightly, challenged it.  The situation became even more farcical when a 15 year old was forced to sign. The Chief Executive has now issued a apology to the family for what happened, hoping I'm sure to prevent the Ombudsman from casting a critical eye yet again over County Hall.


We now wait and see, I understand that a request will be made to have the vote recorded.
I aim to be present next Wednesday, and if anyone else feels strongly that this council needs to be more open and accountable, this Motion is a good place to start so if you can, please offer your support and join me in the public gallery, County Hall Carmarthen, at 10 am next Wednesday 12th December.

Monday, 3 December 2012

The Council, the rugby club and the stadium - back door subsidies?

An interesting set of figures for payments to Scarlets Regional Ltd were released under FoI the other day. Over the past couple of years the council has continued to subsidise the club through conference fees, rent, various grants, expenses, hospitality etc to the tune of £165,000, equating to over £1000 per week.
The full response, and the figures, with either a download option or html version can be seen here.

The Parc Y Scarlets stadium, as you will know if you followed this blog, was one of those County Hall 'visions' which was going ahead back in 2006, regardless of the cost to the taxpayer, or even the concerns from the auditors. £23m later we're still paying. If you take into account the value of the land the figure is around £40m. The club's financial difficulties were kindly eased in 2007 by the council slashing the interest payments on the £2.4m loan resulting in a loss to the taxpayer of £216,000 over three years. Also, the club's contributions to the maintenance fund for the stadium were 'waived'. Earlier this year part of the council owned land, leased to the Scarlets, was sold to Marston's pubs, any profit sharing promises unlikely to go back into the pockets of the taxpayer.

It looks like the Council's Chief Executive was being a little optimistic back in 2007 when he said that “The council will have no ongoing liability for the running of the club in the stadium.”.
One could almost imagine that the council are dreaming up ways to subsidise the club rather than consider cheaper and more convenient venues. And of course nothing helps 'business' along more than watching the match from the comfort of the council's hospitality box, washed down with a champagne lunch.
What will be next? Complimentary tickets to the new Eastgate Odeon complete with extra large popcorn and a bottle of pop?
With the public toilets being closed, elderly care under threat, the future of council owned leisure centres uncertain etc, and all the much publicised dire savings needing to be made, why are the council paying £1000 per week to the Scarlets?
Why, for example is any money at all coming out of the 'small schools improvement grant' for anything other than improving schools?

The use of funds in this way to private companies such as Scarlets Regional, Henry Davidson Ltd or even the evangelical bowling alley raises serious questions whether the council is in breach of EU State Aid rules, designed to prevent public bodies heavily subsidising private companies. Those questions remain unanswered.

We all wish the club success on the field, and that goes for all other sporting endeavours in the county too and we also know that criticism of Council, particularly when it concerns the various vanity/pet projects, never goes down very well with County Hall. Back in May of this year, the club's auditors once again rang alarm bells about the club's financial future. Carmarthenshire residents raised legitimate concerns again about the council's financial involvement - it is our right, after all to scrutinise council spending (isn't it?), the Chief Executive reacted by accusing them of being;
 "part of the on-going nonsense peddled by a small minority of people....We are concerned but not surprised about the language used by those who would wish the club and the council harm"

How many times have we heard remarks like this? I've lost count. The most recent version was heard by thousands listening to the Jason Mohammed programme a couple of weeks ago

Inquiry refused

The reluctance by ministers in Cardiff to take a closer look at Carmarthenshire Council continues. Following the BBC Week In Week Out programme in October about the Breckman case, Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM wrote to the Ministers, Carl Sargeant and John Griffiths to request a public inquiry.

Mr Thomas recognised, possibly due to the amount of correspondence he has had from constituents concerning the planning department over the years, that the programme;

"resonated within Carmarthenshire and the wider region....I have said for a number of years to Welsh Government Ministers, the Ombudsman and the Wales Audit Office that confidence in the planning authority is fast diminishing. The findings of the Ombudsman and public response to this week's television programme confirm that position"

Here's the response;

Whether it has anything to do with a Plaid Cymru AM trying to appeal to Labour ministers about a Labour run authority I wouldn't know. Mr Thomas' first hand knowledge of wider concerns about the planning process in Carmarthenshire are brushed aside. The Ombudsman's comments concerning the Breckman case which included the accusation that the authority was 'turning a blind eye' to what was going on surely warrants further public examination.

The 'steps being taken' by the council do not include, as we know, any sort of public debate on the report. Recommendations to review their enforcement policy have been kept in-house. Yet another 'Task and Finish' group of councillors have been asked to tag on the complex area of planning enforcement as part of their wider review of littering, parking and other enforcement issues.
Advice to the group will be given, naturally, by the very officers who were criticised by the report.

Living Wage - Carmarthenshire Unison responds

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Plaid motion to support Unison's call to introduce the Living Wage for Carmarthenshire council workers was put on the back burner at the last meeting of the Executive Board. Discussion on the subject which arose at the last full council meeting was silenced with the excuse that the motion was on the Executive Board agenda.

Of course, at the Executive Board meeting, only the officer's opinion opposing the introduction was heard. The Executive Board, not known to ever disagree with the officers, shelved further discussion until some unknown later date. The Labour leader, who's socialist principles are, shall we say, hard to detect, gave in to the officer's recommendations without a whimper.

Unison have responded by writing this letter to all the Labour members on the council;

30th November 2012

Dear Councillor,

Re: Living Wage

We (UNISON Branch Officers) met with members of the Labour Group on 10th October 2012 along with UNITE and GMB.

At the meeting UNISON raised our demand for a Living Wage giving the Labour councillors present information justifying the case for a Living Wage.

We were informed that the Local Authority’s initial response from Paul Thomas 30th July 2012 had not been agreed with the Labour Group. The councillors present at our meeting stated that they were in principal supportive of a Living Wage but they were waiting for an impact report from officers and how the Living Wage could be financed.

To reiterate Carmarthenshire County UNISON Branch is campaigning for Carmarthenshire County Labour led Council to implement a Living Wage as part of UNISON’s national campaign. We want each Local Authority to implement the Living Wage as a minimum bottom rate for all public service workers this includes workers that work for private contractors carrying out for the Local Authority.

We have explained the justification for implementing a Living Wage and how we feel this would alleviate to some degree the poverty our members and their families’ experiences as a result of the Local Authority paying less than £7.45 to 2,800 employees and how this increased income would benefit the local economy.

Also given the disproportionate numbers of women and part time workers who earn less than £7.45 the introduction of a Living Wage is a welcome move in equal pay terms. This is because it should secure improved pay for women and narrow the gender pay group by 0.75%.

We would hope you would agree that it is unacceptable that the minimum wage paid by CCC is £6.38 and that 2,800 employees earn less than the Living Wage. It is particularly galling to many of our members that they are paid wages that condemn them to poverty when the Chief Executive earns 13 times more than them.

Making ends meet for many of our members is becoming more and more difficult – many members have more than one job in order to try and provide the basic necessities for their families. We have highlighted these issues to you in the letter we set to you on the 9th July 2012. The poverty our members are experiencing is also highlighted in our last newsletter “making ends meet” and this member earns more than the Living Wage!

We were disappointed with the information the Executive Board were provided with on the 19th November 2012 as is does not deal with the identified above concerns about employees receiving poverty wages and the impact this has on them, their families and their communities.

We also do not accept that the implementation of the Living Wage “could lead to a potential 88 job loses” as this is based on “average £20k salary cost” we question what average was used in this calculation as 70% of Local Authority workers earn less than £21,000 does the average £20k salary cost include corporate management salary costs? We strongly disagree that there should be any job losses or further cuts as a result of implementing the Living Wage. While we accept that there will be an initial cost of implementing a Living Wage and on-going costs the Local Authority officers have presented a one sided negative view of implementing the Living Wage focusing on the costs per hour and costs of implementation.

If CCC were to look at the whole cost of employment then the Living Wage is far less costly to the CCC than that claimed by management. As you can see from the examples below the Living Wage can pay for itself. We are asking Labour Led CCC to prioritise their employees who provide important services and to take the long term view in regard to implementing a Living Wage.

"In reality, the introduction of the Living Wage has not been the big drain on resources predicted by its opponents. When looked at over a two‐year period the expected budget for 2008/9 is almost identical to the expenditure spent on contract cleaners in 2006/7."
Queen Mary, University of London

“Many people see paying Living Wages as only something to worry about only when the economic cycle is buoyant. Such a perspective is extremely short term. A really motivated workforce is in many ways even more important when businesses are facing really challenging times.”
Guy Stallart, KPMG Europe

“Since adopting the Living Wage in 2007 catering staff retention rates have increased to 77% compared to an industry norm of 54%, and cleaning staff retention rates climb to 92% compared to the industry norm of 35%. Now when we train our staff we know that the money isn’t being wasted. They (staff) don’t want to leave and they no longer have to do two jobs just to survive.  Savings made on recruitment and training has offset the increase in the wage bill. Most of all, our workforce is now stable and reliable. Employers need to look at the whole cost of employment not just the cost-per-hour. We don’t understand why more companies don’t do this”
Wendy Cuthbert, Barclays Group

The above examples of employer’s quotes serves to demonstrate that the Living Wage can pay for itself. There is also research and evidence to demonstrate that implementation of the Living Wage can significantly reduce sickness absence in some cases by 25% and can improve productivity and staff morale.

We were expecting a response from the Labour Group in regard to the Living Wage following our meeting on 10th October 2012 and were as already stated disappointed by the outcome at the Executive Board meeting. Is this the stance of the Labour Group? Given the stance of leaders of the Labour Party and Local Labour MP Nia Griffiths we would have hoped that Labour Group would have supported our modest demand for a Living Wage.

Plaid Cymru group is supporting our demand for a Living Wage and we expect no less from the Labour Party UNISON is affiliated to.

While we are happy to negotiate how the Living Wage could be implemented for example we would prefer that the Living Wage to be paid as a supplement – this avoiding altering the grading structure we think waiting for the Welsh Government’s policy group to explore the introduction of a Living Wage in Wales is a delaying tactic.

Our members need a Living Wage now.

We call on the Labour Group to support our demand and implement a Living Wage.

Yours sincerely

Mark Evans
Branch Secretary
Carmarthenshire County UNISON Branch

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Money trees, and a Motion on filming

This week's Carmarthen journal carries a two page spread featuring a lengthy statement (it's called an 'exclusive interview' but there don't appear to be any questions, which is the usual format I believe) from the Chief Executive as he reflects on the financial black cloud hanging over County Hall.

Despite some evidence to the contrary; including the £20,000 to the Odeon; the continuing taxpayer bailout of the Parc Y Scarlets stadium; £1.4m to the evangelical bowling alley; a 20 year, £5m deal for Eastgate office space to a Nottingham based company (+ £100,000 for the move + £100,000 to rent the car park); the expensive regurgitation of the Council propaganda sheet every two months and an overstuffed press office; a new executive motor for the Leader; twenty three senior managers earning between £85k and £155k plus the senior management team of seven pocketing a £1m between them etc etc, Mr James tells us that there is "no magic money tree".

There is a bigger picture of course, and over the next few weeks various scrutiny committees will chew over the details and go through the motions of 're-alignments' and 'restructuring', increased charges and even some outsourcing as the budget is finalised. Believe it or not, this is called a 'consultation' although it seems that the Chief Executive's 'interview' has set the scene which they will be expected to follow.

The agendas will appear online, and some already have, but unless you decide to co-ordinate your life with the various meetings and go and watch, you will not know whether your councillor is furiously fighting your community's corner or not.

Which brings me to another article in the Journal, a little further on, and the filming of council meetings.
As I reported, the Executive Board threw out the proposal for the public to film a couple of weeks ago (which would cost nothing) and the unsatisfactory pilot looks set for further delays to determine exact costs.

The article, which is not online, has a contribution from me and a reaction from the Plaid group leader, Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths;

'...he said it was a disappointment that members of the public would not be able to film meetings themselves. "The Executive Board's negative approach to this matter does the council no favours at all. Allowing people to film and record meeting would not cost a penny, but would change, at a stroke, the public perception that County Hall is a 'closed shop'.

Other councils such as the City of Westminster already allow this to happen. Local government ministers at a UK and Welsh level have also indicated their wish that councils should allow the public to use 21st century technology to film meetings"

He said Plaid were considering placing a notice before the next full meeting of council calling for the public to be allowed to film all council and committee meetings.'

Cllr Hughes Griffiths has now submitted this;

"A Notice of Motion by Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths to be placed before the meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council on Wednesday December 12th 2012;

That Carmarthenshire County Council permits the public to film and record all council and committee meetings that are open to the public starting with the January 13th meetings"

The Motion was handed in on Monday the 26th November so will hopefully appear on the agenda, when it is published next week. I'll let you know.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Carmarthenshire Council part 94 - back in Private Eye

Carmarthenshire County Council back this week with their regular slot in Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs;

My earlier post here; Googling a name

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Costa fortune - part two

Must just briefly revisit an earlier post (see Costa fortune) about the Council's decision to give £20,000 to the new Odeon cinema in Llanelli towards the 3D sound system. I said that I hadn't seen it on any agendas or minutes, well, after some extensive digging, I have now found it.

As I have said before, the agendas for Executive Board Member Decision meetings are not currently published until a week or so after the event, along with the minutes.

Meryl Gravell is the Executive Board Member for 'Regeneration' and at this particular meeting back in September it was decided to give 'O.C. Ltd' £20,000 to ' create sustainable employment opportunities within the county', can't quite see how it fits the remit but there you go. The decision was 'exempt' from the press and public (although no one was aware the meeting was taking place anyway) so as not to reveal business interests. Sometimes this is perfectly understandable, but what about this case? The reason for the exemption was;

'...the public interest in transparency and accountability is outweighed by the public interest in maintaining confidentiality, as disclosure of this information would be likely to damage the applicant at this stage.'

Odeon Cinemas Ltd, or 'O.C Ltd', has a current net worth of £191,481,000. The Council, on the other hand, has to make savings of at least £16m over the next three years and is, apparently, strapped for cash. Would disclosure of information have damaged the Odeon? I think not. It might have made the council a little uncomfortable though as I am sure there are many local businesses in Llanelli in far greater need of a helping hand than the Odeon.

Surely it wasn't just to have the council named on the little plaque was it?

Carmarthenshire council and corporate hubris

Carmarthenshire council failed in quite a spectacular fashion last Thursday, live on the airwaves, by labelling the two contributors to the radio programme as liars. I am sure the council will be hearing further from Ms Williams and Cllr Thomas. Maybe the Ombudsman will be called in yet again, he's certainly been busy with Carmarthenshire council recently and must surely now be wondering what's going on.

Initially the council press office issued a written statement to Radio Wales, denying there was a problem with the fire regulations. Incidentally, I spoke to the fire safety investigating officer yesterday who has confirmed that from now on the fire exit will unlocked and opened during meetings. So, as we have known for 18 months, there was a problem.

Not satisfied with just a written statement, the council press office contacted the BBC on the morning of the show and insisted that the following verbal comment was added;

"The people who are contributing to the programme today are running a campaign against us (the county council) and are spreading untruths."

This was a very strong allegation and presented as a statement of fact. There was no explanation and no attempt at justification. I also have very good reason to believe that the council were not told who the contributors were, for all they knew it could have been a group of schoolchildren. Even if they did know, there was no excuse, nor reason, for the attack. It was simply reckless and outrageous.

The familiar pattern of deliberately smearing anyone who challenges or questions the collective wisdom of Carmarthenshire County Council is nothing new, and we have seen it time and time again with residents, groups or county councillors who exercise their democratic right to make complaints, oppose council led projects, campaign against school closures, etc, or even it, seems, raise concerns about safety in the public gallery.

There is always an inference, or statement, that people have a 'hidden agenda', that their complaint or criticism is disingenuous; there is incomprehension that anyone could sincerely have an opposing or critical view. There is an arrogance from this council which, for the past few years, has been getting out of control. This has also manifested itself in repeated attempts to influence editorial control of the local media.

To illustrate the point that this has all been going on for some time, I'd like to take you back to 2006.

A few of you may remember Mr Harry Lloyd, a Carmarthenshire pensioner who was a regular contributor, a few years ago, to the letters page of the Carmarthen Journal. He had the temerity to question and scrutinise various issues relating to the dire level of democracy within the council.

One particular spat saw Mr Lloyd voicing his concerns that, in his opinion, members of the planning committee deliberately stayed away from meetings rather than vote against council led projects, fearing a backlash from senior officers.

The Chief Executive responded by launching a very personal attack on the 85 year old in a letter published in the paper. The sole aim was to destroy Mr Lloyd's credibility and sincerity, in a strikingly similar fashion to the comments from the council press office last Thursday.

Amongst the shocked responses to the Chief Executive's letter in 2006 was a very measured reply from another letter writer, who also happened to be an expert on human rights issues;

Here's her letter;

It is with unbelievable shock that I read the latest contribution in the public domain from the pen of Carmarthenshire Council Chief Executive Mark James (Journal, October 18th 2006).

I have tried to avoid personalising the comments I make on the issue of governance and democracy in the county, but on this occasion I feel it is imperative to make a comment on such a visceral personal attack on a council taxpayer, pensioner and legitimate voter of the county, Harry Lloyd.

Given what has transpired over the last few months in relation to the decision making process, it would have been prudent of the council to keep a low profile.

Instead it has continued to issue statements to defend the indefensible, and resorted to unbelievable paranoia in this attack on a member of the public.

These are the questions which now need addressing;

1. Has the Chief Executive had the endorsement of the board and full council to deliver such a tirade in the public domain?

2. Is the council considering the human rights of individuals they choose to target in such a way? Public Authorities are required to do so since the introduction of the Human rights Act in 1998.

3. Is it not the function of an individual who takes on a leadership role such as this, to be as diplomatic as possible in order to avoid bringing his organisation into disrepute? Letters such as these will do enormous damage to the organisation because the issues at stake cannot be verified or scrutinised by the public. It is the Council's word against that of Mr Lloyd.

4. Is it the case that the council considers the attempts of Mr Lloyd to elicit accountability and transparency from it's hidden depths, to be such a major threat, that it finds the scapegoating of a member of the public acceptable, due to the fact it has such a lot to hide?

5. Is it not time for senior management at County Hall to consider an anger management course in the light of such an unacceptable tirade?

6. Where is the collective democratic power of the full council in putting pressure on the Executive Board to reverse this paltry state of affairs? Once again, it is the public which must judge on these issues.

The only warning I can give is this - who will be next in the council's firing line, and does not this attitude from the council smack of fascism and everything this country has opposed in it's fight to preserve democracy, fair play and justice?

You will not get any of this in Carmarthenshire. But you will get plenty of opinionated claptrap from the council, which is a cynical ploy to deflect attention from the legitimate public debate as to the unacceptable structure of a council which has clearly now lost the plot.

No member of the public need apologise or defend him or herself from exercising their legitimate right to scrutinise government, and it is not the function of any government to try to suppress those rights, or to create such a divide between people and the decision-makers which takes away those rights.

H Thomas
Cross Hands

That, don't forget, was in 2006.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

BBC Radio Wales and the public gallery - updated

Update; It seems that the Fire Officer has now told the council that their current arrangements are in breach of fire regulations, and have ordered them to open the Fire Exit. I am waiting for further details but this is very significant. It would mean that for the past 18 months, the council have been in breach of safety regs, despite their insistence that they weren't.
This will raise all sorts of questions, not least of all, what the council have been telling the Fire Officer for 18 months.
It also makes the council's statement today, attacking the two contributors to the radio show, even worse.


Typically, Carmarthenshire Council refused to take part in Jason Mohammed's programme this morning to discuss the entry procedures, the lock-in, and the accompanying fire risks for members of the public attending the public gallery.

Instead, they really excelled themselves this time and hid behind a statement accusing those who have contributed to the programme of 'spreading untruths' and of 'running a campaign' against the council. The contributors, Carmarthen residents Mrs Lesley Williams and town councillor Mr Wyn Thomas were horrified and completely taken aback at the council's allegations. They had merely given factual accounts of the whole bizarre procedure and the plain and simple fact that, if there's a fire, you cannot get out without assistance.

For the council to have accused a retired schoolteacher and a town councillor of lying, to an audience of thousands of listeners, not only beggars belief, but was extremely foolhardy to say the least.

The remainder of the council's statement was inaccurate and misleading and was written by someone who either has no knowledge of the facts, or is in complete denial over the entire sorry shambles. It certainly smacked of desperation.

Regular readers will know all about the entry ritual, the escorted trip to the gallery, the locked doors and the blocked Fire Exit. They will also be aware that the real problem is that the county council are putting the safety of the visiting public secondary to their determination to prevent anyone recording a meeting.

Carmarthenshire council have gone to such lengths to control and monitor who is observing public meetings, that not only are they actively deterring members of the public from attending, but treating those that do like criminal suspects and putting their safety at risk. This has been going on for eighteen months.

The BBC Radio Wales link is here, and the relevant section starts at 1.09.15 into the recording, the programme will remain online for seven days. Have a listen.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Costa fortune

In a week in which Carmarthenshire Council announce that they will have to make cuts of £16m over the next three years, close thirty public toilets, withdraw free transport for 6th formers, shave £5m off technical services and save £40,000 by abandoning the usual free parking for town centres leading up to Christmas (moving it instead to that notoriously busy time between Christmas and the New Year) we discover that they've given £20,000 towards the 3D sound system for the new Odeon in Eastgate Llanelli. Incidentally, this is roughly the cost of installing webcasting in the Council Chamber.

To start with, I spend quite some time trawling through agendas and minutes and failed to spot, anywhere, a decision to do this. The Nottingham based developers of the Eastgate complex, Henry Davidson Ltd, have already been given prime development land worth £4m, further funding and a promise by the council to 'underwrite' their costs to the tune of £250,000 a year for twenty years for offices in the complex. A further £450,000 is earmarked to redesign the office space, (previous post here) Parking at the development appears to be inadequate not least of all the decision to limit it to short term only which must have come to something of a shock to the 55-bed Travelodge hotel who have set up shop there.

The Odeon cinema is part of the complex and, as the Llanelli star reports, local traders are furious to discover that the council has spent £20,000 subsidising a multi million pound private company in this way whilst directly affecting their Christmas trade by refusing the free parking.

A local market trader said;
"Are we also right to assume that maybe they are sponsoring the coffee machines for Costa coffee, the kitchen facilities for Nandos and the Hungry Horse, and perhaps the beds for the new Travelodge?

Of course, he's not far off the mark. As each company announced it's arrival at Eastgate, so did the Council with full page free 'advertisements' from the council press office on the council website; the Odeon, Nando's, the Hungry Horse, Costa Coffee and Ben and Jerry's were all given a wondrous welcome as the saviours of Llanelli, thanks to the council. The article advertising the Odeon contained no less than ten references to the company in capital letters. So the comment from the council spokesman that 'no contributions were made to other companies soon to open at Eastgate' was not entirely accurate.

The spokesman also said that 'The 3D sound system might not have come to Carmarthenshire without our support'. Well, yes it probably would have done, I expect the Odeon can afford it, and there's already a 3D system in the Apollo in Carmarthen, I wonder how much the Council contributed towards that? Since when has it become a Statutory Duty of local authorities to provide 3D sound systems? Or provide free advertising and rent concessions for multi national chains?

And just how many people will go to the cinema and frequent the rather expensive eateries and coffee shop in the complex? Who can afford it? I know I couldn't. Most people these days can just about afford the occasional takeaway and a rented DVD. Whatever the clientèle this all attracts, and Llanelli is not known for it's 'cafe culture', none of it will benefit the economy of Llanelli.
Surely 'regeneration' should be aimed at existing businesses and encouraging new local enterprises? or perhaps refurbishing the existing cinema instead of leaving it to decay? Keep it local and the money stays local. As usual the priority of this council, is to ensure that every penny spent in it's various vanity projects, which the local taxpayer is subsidising to the hilt, goes straight over the Severn Bridge and is never seen again.

(Llanelli Star report here)

Monday, 19 November 2012

Executive Board - and no public filming

Battled through the monsoon this morning to attend the Executive Board meeting. I was the only member of the public present but still had to sign and go through the ritual of being escorted to and from the gallery, one in front, one behind. 

For reasons which I didn't quite catch, Kevin Madge (Leader) and Meryl sent their apologies. I'm not sure if they had eloped or were busy elsewhere. Odd really because it was quite an important meeting dealing with the budget and all that, but there you go. With the two cats away, Pam Palmer was allowed in the Chair.

Also quite important was the first item, which was the 'E-Government' report. Included in this as I have mentioned numerous times was the recommendation to pilot the filming of meetings, which, as I have also mentioned several times, will consist of recordings being made, then edited, then uploaded. Useless.

Anyway, although the recommendation was accepted (and will now go to full council), and despite having deliberated on the issue for eighteen months, there is still apparently more implications to consider, 'further reports needed' and 'many issues to resolve'. Dear god.

The crucial point was the extra bit, passed with cross-party support at the Policy and Resources meeting, to allow members of the public to film.

This as you will no doubt guess was thrown out.

There were mumblings about waiting to see how the pilot went etc but to be honest I think the decision was made long ago, and the waffle about waiting another year or so was ironed out at the pre-meeting briefing. It pleased Pam Palmer anyway.

Whether this could still go to full council, with the possibility that they could overturn the Executive Board decision, I'm not entirely sure.

The meeting moved swiftly on to Plaid's motion to introduce a Living Wage, which would help around 2800 council workers on low pay, the officer echoed the contents of the report in that it would upset the current council pay model, cost £1.75m to implement, equate to eighty eight job losses and might open them up to legal challenge.
A recommendation was made that employees could start at slightly higher grade of pay, still under the Living Wage though. But even this was deferred until further reports from the Welsh Government were completed. As I said in an earlier post, the Living in Luxury wage for senior executives remains intact.

Next up was the budget proposals which were to be rubber stamped ready for consultation. Although there was little sign of austerity in the Chamber, the future was apparently bleak. Reserves were being dipped into at an alarming rate and a proposed 1% pay rise would send the budget £1m adrift.

Efficiency savings had to be met, they were told, which prompted Pam Palmer to express her disappointment that the Plaid Leader, Peter Hughes Griffiths had left the Chamber as she wanted to remind him, in no uncertain terms, that it was no good criticising cuts without coming up with alternatives. As he was only an observer, even if he'd been there he wouldn't have been able to speak and would have had to be satisfied with a hard glare back.

They had to 'work together' said Pam, in other words, do as your told. That's what 'consultation' consists of in Carmarthenshire of course. One member said that scrutiny was a little difficult when, for instance, at the last Environment meeting, only four out of thirteen members turned up. Pam decided to cut things short at that point; perhaps she didn't want the single journalist and lone blogger to dwell on this attendance figure too much.

With a 4.14% rise in Council Tax suggested for next year, the Director of Resources was told to go back and massage his figures a bit more. It was decided that something under 3% might be acceptable to the voters.

The Capital budget was next and with funding shortfalls on the horizon, the longevity of some of the white elephants and vanity projects looked under threat, the former Technium site in Llanelli, now rebranded as the 'Beacon' might be one.

As it was Executive Board and not full council, there were no awkward questions from rebellious members about, for example, the twenty year £5m commitment to Henry Davidson Ltd for office space at the Eastgate development, nor whether the continuing financial package benefiting the Scarlets would be up for review, and god forbid anyone mention the evangelical bowling alley, or any other items of questionable expenditure. However, just in case anyone was beginning to have second thoughts and loosen the grip on the rubber stamp, the Chief Executive, who had been quiet until this point, reminded those present how wonderful the capital programme was.

Just before I left there was a brief discussion about the review of the Gambling Policy. This was nothing more than some tweaking in line with legislation. Pam Palmer though, in full temperance mode, decided that gambling, probably in line with filming meetings, was an 'abomination' as vulnerable poor folk were being bombarded with tempting TV adverts. Couldn't gambling be banned like cigarette smoking she wondered? Cllr Jane Tremlett, in her best BBC pronunciation suggested that years ago there was something called the Independent Television Network, and you could write to them and complain about the adverts. The Board decided to write to a Minister and complain about the ads. Fat lot of good that's going to do.
Anyway, this will probably go down well with the council's evangelical bowling partners (despite them being happy to receive £750,000 of lottery money) but probably less well with Meryl's crowd at the Ffos Las racecourse.

So what about the filming? The council are still without a policy or rule prohibiting such a 'subversive' activity by members of the public. To be honest, if anyone wants to record one of their meetings I think they should just go ahead. Despite the outward appearance of a cross between an exclusive Gentlemans' Club and a meeting of the WI, and the attendance by one member of the public, open meetings are just that, open and public and make decisions on spending your money. We, as residents of the County have every right to record the proceedings, I fail to understand the arguments against it....and I presume we would also have the support of the Minister, Carl Sargeant who has said it should be 'encouraged', and failing that, we can always turn to Eric Pickles.

Anyway, with the word 'abomination' ringing in my ears, I summoned the guards and was escorted out into the sunlight. Actually, it was still raining, but you know what I mean.