Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Is Meryl Gravell's reign finally over?

I have heard that the Plaid Cymru opposition in Carmarthenshire Council have planned to present a Vote of No Confidence in the Leader Cllr Meryl Gravell at the next meeting of full Council on the 8th February.

The question is, will she resign as Leader before she is pushed?

Of course, previous attempts to dislodge Meryl from the top job were thwarted when the constitution was suddenly tweaked to require seven signatures for such a motion rather than the usual two, despite protestations that this was highly undemocratic. Those recent attempts at a No Confidence vote, (see previous posts) were proposed by the two members of the People First Group - but this time, proposed by Plaid, with thirty Members, (and if it goes ahead), the outcome is by no means certain. With Meryl's recent unguarded comments still ringing in everyone's ears as well as the 'pulled' press release from a couple of weeks ago, (to give just two examples), the long reign may now be over.

It look to me like Plaid have abandoned any ambitions of forming a coalition with Meryl's Independents, should such an outcome look likely after the May election, and they have finally had enough.

There is already speculation, on the grapevine, as to who will be the most suitably loyal replacement, currently the odds are in favour of Cllr Steven James being selected.

Whatever happens, it looks like next Wednesday's meeting, for a variety of reasons, will be a very interesting one.

Update 2nd Feb;
The Agenda for next week's full council meeting has been published, complete with the wording of the No Confidence vote as below;

"In a video recorded speech at "Choose Life" centre, Llanelli on the 12th January 2012 Carmarthenshire County Council Leader Cllr Meryl Gravell, stated;

"We have 9000 employees in Carmarthen and if all of our 9000 employees worked as hard as Alan (the centre's manager) and were as enthusiastic as Alan is, my goodness, we would not have a problem at all in the council. But there we are, we are where we are"

Blaming the Authority's 9000 staff for all the County Council's problems, by implying that they are not hardworking and enthusiastic, is an offensive and unacceptable slur on staff and members of Carmarthenshire County Council.
In the same speech the Leader stated;

"I get so frustrated with some of the rabble that was outside today"

Her word 'rabble' refers to the 300 or more people gathered outside the centre in Copperworks Road, Llanelli, in a peaceful protest against the proposed closure of the A & E department at Prince Phillip hospital, during the arrival of First Minister Carwyn Jones AM
The Leader's remark was totally unjustified and unacceptable. It was an affront to all who attended the rally, and - by association - everyone who opposes the closure of the A & E Unit.

Such unjustified and contemtuous statements by the Leader reflect poorly on this Authority and shows a deplorable attitutde towards county council staff and the people of Carmarthenshire in general.
I move that a vote of no confidence in the Leader of the council be taken by Members"

I do not think it is just this incident which warrants the vote of no confidence, there are plenty more where that came from - but this is perhaps the catalyst to bring it forward. It will be interesting to see whether Meryl promises to resign as Leader in May in return for the withdrawal of this motion or whether she will risk the possibility of a shameful exit next Wednesday. Time will tell. I hope Plaid stick to their guns.
The Evening Post reports today on her attempt to fight back; http://www.thisissouthwales.co.uk/Plans-oust-Carmarthenshire-Council-leader/story-15107076-detail/story.html

Friday, 27 January 2012

Gardens and Thrones

As I mentioned last week, there was an 'exempt' report at Monday's Executive Board meeting concerning the National Botanic Garden of Wales. As I said, there appeared to be no good reason for the exemption other than an order by the Welsh Government. The local paper tried to find out what had happened but other than a vague comment from the leader, Cllr Gravell and the promise of an announcement by the Welsh Government 'in the Spring' we were none the wiser. One presumes that Cardiff are pouring more cash into the money-pit. However, there had to be a reason why this was also before the esteemed cabinet in County Hall. Already granting at least £60,000 per year from our coffers, I see from item 7 of the minutes, that an extra £15,000 per year will now be added to this figure, Cllr Gravell did not mention this to the local paper. As usual the white elephants are forming a queue for extra strawberries before the budget axe falls next month. I can see the 'webcasting council meetings' call being conveniently kicked into touch.

With the furore over Meryl Gravell's derogatory comments about members of staff still rumbling along, and gaining several hundred hits on You Tube, I am sure it will be a very interesting meeting of full council on the 8th February, Cllr Winston Lemon (Plaid) has already publicly called for her to abdicate, I wonder if anyone else will join him? I wonder if any more amendments to the constitution can be squeezed in beforehand to avoid any embarrassment for our Leader? I don't think those protective goalposts can be moved much more.  The Council budget meeting will then be held on the 21st February where the remaining funds will be 'voted' on, in Carmarthenshire's own inimitable way. I trust the Public Gallery will be packed and extra wardens will be deployed, it could be a Code Red situation.

On the subject of the dwindling funds, the Welsh language current affairs magazine, Golwg ran an article a couple of weeks ago about the council's excessive contributions to the evangelical bowling alley, alternatively known as a 'church'. There were several contributors including myself, Y Cneifiwr, Cllr Caiach, the Council and of course the Towy Community Church itself. Y Cneifiwr's blog has a summary of some of the facts and figures.
Today's edition of Golwg has an article about my arrest and calls to allow the filming of council meetings. Well done Golwg.
I have also heard today that my filming and spending petitions have now been put on the Agenda for the Senedd Petitions Committee for the 7th February. The straw poll over on Dyfrig Thomas' blog is still going strong, it currently stands 50 in favour and 8 against webcasting meetings. It would be interesting to know whether the 8 who voted against webcasting object to the cost (which is debatable) or the principle.

Update 27th January - Press Release from the People First Group on Carmarthenshire County Council

What should have been a wonderful day celebrating 15 years of Choose Life in Llanelli with Alan Andrews and his staff was spoilt by the extraordinary remarks made by Councillor Meryl Gravell.

After congratulating Alan and his staff for the years of working tirelessly to help people with their addictions, Mrs Gravell then went on to insult some of the demonstrators who were protesting outside about the proposed closure of the A&E department in Prince Philip Hospital. She quite clearly called them “rabble” but did not specify which demonstrators were the “rabble”.

She followed this by stating “Mark and I have 9000 employees (sic) and if they only worked as hard and as enthusiastically as Alan then we would have no trouble in the Council.”

We were astounded that a council leader could speak in such a disparaging manner, especially after some of our hard-working council employees have been forced to take salary cuts.

In our opinion Mrs Gravell’s scathing, unscripted, remarks about some of the protestors and about council staff were insensitive and unprofessional. Her subsequent response to councillors and to the press that her remarks have been taken out of context is misleading - as the video evidence proves.

Is this why the council is so reluctant to have their meetings filmed? The value of such recording is borne out by the YouTube clip showing the council leader’s true character – and her true remarks. It would appear that without a script and without the guidance of officers, Mrs Gravell is not competent enough to make a simple speech without alienating and enraging the public and council workers.

The council needs a real leader who enables and encourages councillors to work as a team to serve the people of Carmarthenshire; not someone who maintains the status quo of an officer-led council where councillors are merely required to rubber-stamp officers’ recommendations.

The People First Group will continue to campaign for recording council meetings and do not accept Mrs Gravell’s insincere apology. She should resign."

And here, in the interests of balance, is a link to the South Wales Evening Post article featuring Cllr Gravell's press release;
'Carmarthenshire Council Leader; 'Rabble' blast misunderstood'

Another update; *stop press* - Carmarthenshire Council has an poll on the homepage of their website (follow link below, the poll is to be found on the right hand side under 'have your say');
'If the council were to live stream it's meetings on the internet, would you be likely to watch?' Please vote Yes!

Yet another update 31st Jan
I see Cllr Gravell has now issued another 'message' (please note, she does not call it an apology) - this time to staff. It begins by explaining again her reasons for using the word 'rabble' in connection to the hospital protestors, which I have already covered in the last few posts. The rest is a last ditch attempt, coined by a council spin doctor no doubt, to apologise for her comments about the 9000 staff; Oh dear, this is getting desperate;

"Many of you by now will have read in the press and even seen a "Youtube" clip of comments that I made at the recent 15 year Anniversary celebrations of Chooselife in Llanelli.........I recognise now that I should have chosen my words more carefully but please believe me when I say that my comments were never intended to reflect badly in any way on council staff. Many of you will know that I never miss an opportunity to commend and congratulate staff within the council. As I have said on numerous occasions we, as Members, can agree to all sorts of policies and projects, but we rely entirely on the Council’s staff to put those policies into practice and to make our many challenging projects come to fruition. All the fantastic achievements we have been able to deliver in recent years would not have been possible without the hard work and expertise of staff.I hope that this explanation will help to put these matters into context.
Since making these remarks I have spoken to many members of staff who have been honest enough with me to express their disappointment with my remarks. Similarly, I have received letters from people who have been equally critical of my comments. What I hope is that they and you will understand the difficult circumstances in which they were made and that you will accept my apology for any offence caused.
Can I also thank the many members of staff who have taken the time to ring me personally to offer their support and understanding and recognise that I have always been very supportive of Carmarthenshire County Council’s staff"

Thursday, 26 January 2012

More questions for Cwm Environmental Ltd

Further to my previous post and Freedom of Information request to Cwm Environmental, Carmarthenshire Council's waste disposal company, new information has arisen. I have now requested some more information. A response is due towards the end of February;

Dear Sir,

Please could either Carmarthenshire Council or Cwm Environmental
Ltd respond to the following requests;

1. The accounts for the year to 31/12/2008 show an item under
"other income" of £3,528,000. Please could you explain how this

2. In the same year the company purchased 20 acres of land at a
price of £650,000, a purchase which according to the County
Council's records had to be funded with a loan of £400,000 from the
authority. Why was the loan necessary in view of the very high
receipts in "other income"?

3. Please detail the resons for the high cost of this land, a
current approxiamate price would be around £1200 per acre, this
land appears to have cost £32,000 per acre.

4. Please confirm the identity of the owner(s) from whom the land
was purchased.

5. You state that Carmarthenshire Council own 100% of this company.
Up until a year or so ago an elected Member of the council had a
place on the Board of Directors and 25% of the vote, a decision was
made to remove this representation. As this company is owned by a
public authority why are the interests of the taxpayer not
represented on the Board of Directors? Please provide detail of how
the taxpayers interests are safeguarded?

Yours faithfully
Jacqui Thompson

Link to WhatDoTheyKnow site here

Monday, 23 January 2012

'One just can't get the staff these days...'

Further to my previous post here, the Unison Carmarthen website now has a video of the Council Leader's performance at the Chooselife event, here's a link; What does Meryl Gravell think about you? (Also now on You Tube; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KM9HgN8SaL8 )  In common with other politicians who realise they have dropped a bit of a clanger, Cllr Gravell has now issued a 'press release'. She defends her 'rabble' remark by saying she was referring to a small minority from within the protestors who were abusive to clients and staff of the Centre - if this was the reason for her remark, perhaps she should have made that very clear in her speech; she was not clear, and it appears to be a general reference to the protestors. The next 'insult' of course came from Cllr Gravell herself, her "Mark and I" remarks about council staff (now popularly referred to as the 'Royal We') were not only crass but rather insulting and her 'explanation' in the press release is...er...a little contrived;

"There have also been reports on comments I made congratulating the hardworking staff at Chooselife. I did praise them for their dedication and for the fact that theirs is not a ‘9 to 5’ job. However this was not meant to reflect badly in any way on council staff. Members will know that I lose no opportunity to commend and congratulate our staff within the council"
It appears she has forgotten what she said - luckily we've got the video, here's a reminder of her actual words;

"We have nine thousand employees Mark and I, and if all nine thousand employees worked as hard as Alan, and were as enthusiastic as Alan is, my goodness we would not have a problem at all in the Council, but there we are, we are who we are!"
Remember, this wasn't in the Council Chamber but at a meeting attended by people from all walks of life - can you imagine what is said in the cloistered seclusion of the Chamber? No wonder they don't want anyone filming!

Welcoming Committee

I must comment on the reception usually given by Carmarthenshire Council to those who petition, peacefully protest or otherwise challenge decisions by presenting their arguments on the steps of County Hall.
Whether it's the closure of a day centre or the closure of a secondary school, they're on their own. If you're very lucky a messenger may be sent out to quickly grab the petition or whatever, only to dart back into the security of the hallowed halls before any awkwards questions are asked. Any request for a senior officer or Executive Board Member (who are responsible for the decisions) to engage with the 'rabble' will always fall on deaf ears.
I was surprised therefore to see that there is an entirely different attitude when the representations are in support of council policy. I am avoiding the argument over the siting of the new Furnace School in Llanelli - that is entirely a matter for those directly involved - my concern is with the council's attitude to those who dare oppose the latest 'masterplan'.
A photo in last week's Evening Post featured a group of children and a school governor presenting a petition on the steps of County Hall, supporting the council's preferred school site - and who else were on the steps, nestled in amongst the throng, beaming with delight? None other than the Director of Education Mr Rob Sully and Executive Board Member for Education Cllr Gwynne Wooldridge!


Cwm Environmental - final response

I had another response to my further FoI enquiries to Cwm Environmental ltd, the company owned by Carmarthenshire Council to handle their waste management strategy, see here;http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/cwm_environmental_ltd?unfold=1#incoming-245915 

it raises a couple of interesting points;
As this company is owned (not just contracted) by the council, should it not be subject to the same FoI legislation as a public body? Apparently not according to the Director. As councils continue to outsource public services to private companies the issue of FoI compliance is becoming a national issue. This company, as I have said, is owned by the council.

I asked further about any 'interests' recorded against the directors (see my earlier post here) - again they seem to have different rules (although, according to the Constitution, Carmarthenshire Council officers' declarations are on a 'voluntary' basis too - but failure to declare should, potentially I assume, carry stiffer penalties - but that's another story), and what is more worrying is the inference that my request was somehow vexatious.

As for the quoted discrepancy regarding the funding to community groups, as I suspected, the explanation is that the £270,000+ per year (rather than £1433 initially quoted) relates to the Landfill Tax administered by GrantScape and Entrust. 6% of this tax, generated by the company, can be donated for the purposes of positive publicity (it's good too, of course for the community groups but 'publicity' is mentioned in the response). The identities of the organisations who were unsuccessful in these charity bids are exempt, I am told, through the Data Protection Act.

update; well, it wasn't quite the final word as I am aware that the Council own 51% of the company so I have now asked, (prompted by a tweeter) who owns the other 49%. Incidentally the highest paid Director of Cwm earns £101,000 pa.
For background, this first came to my attention a couple of years ago when Cwm acquired a loan of £400,000 from the council towards the cost of 20 acres of land around the recycling centre, the total cost was £650,000 which seemed to me a bit steep. Another issue which was raised was the lack of council representation on the Board, it was deemed that an ex-council officer would suffice.

update 24th Jan; Cwm inform me that there are no other shareholders, Carmarthenshire Council hold 100%. I have a copy of the accounts now so will be having a look through. So, if the council hold 100%, why isn't Cwm treated as a public sector organisation - it means we, the taxpayers are the owners - don't we have a say in all this?

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Glossing over

Further to last Wednesday's post 'Private Eye again - and today's full council meeting', I see that the minutes of the meeting have been published. (This was the meeting where a child was forced to sign the 'undertaking, remember?)
Yet again inconvenient chunks and awkward moments have disappeared from the record. I am in some doubt if it was the same meeting I went to last week. Although it should come as no surprise, there was not a word about Cllr Caiach's mention of the Council's appearance (again) in Private Eye or her attempt to offer the Council's apologies to me. (I am getting used to this). More importantly her suggestion that, in order for there to be an accurate record of who said what etc, the party leaders should get together and discuss using the existing equipment to make audio recordings - this wasn't mentioned either - nor Cllr Palmer's acidic response.
The Chief Constable's presentation is summarised but the specific concerns raised by several members are not, other than they 'asked questions' - no mention of the executive BMWs or the brand new, distinctly unused (that is unless someone decides to film a council meeting) £multi million Emergency Response Centre or concerns about the closure of local police stations etc.
The item on the 'new school builds' fails to include the concerns raised by Cllrs Lemon and Caiach and the memorable 'words of one syllable' response.
Lastly was the issue of the 'vanishing' press release - despite very clear concerns, all we have is the explanation by the Chief Executive that everything was 'appropriate' - no it wasn't was it? If it was, it would still be on the Council website....
(here, for your information, are the minutes.)
Anyhow, I really shouldn't be surprised any more. 'Glossing over' is the phrase that continually leaps to mind. All the more reason of course, for meetings to be filmed.

An 'exempt' item pops up in next Monday's Executive Board meeting concerning the National Botanic Gardens. Whenever this is discussed, along with other controversial expenditures; Parc Y Scarlets, Towy Community Church etc it is usually exempt from the public and press. Whether the exemption is necessary is quite another thing, we have seen the 'transfer of public toilets to community councils' feature in this category. This time though the (wordy) wording on the agenda appears to suggest that it is the Welsh Government which is insisting on secrecy;
"Being information furnished to the Council by the Welsh Assembly Government upon terms which forbid the disclosure of the information to the public, and accordingly the public will be excluded from the meeting during discussion of this item"
Last February, during last year's round of council budget cuts, it was decided, behind closed doors to up the Council's contribution from £30k to £60k a year, the Welsh Assembly gave it £800k in the last round of hand outs. Whilst wishing the Garden every success, it has cost the taxpayer a fortune and the management of the garden has been 'under review' by the Wales Audit Office and Welsh Assembly more than once. It was established on £43m of  public money and it is a public place, there is nothing (in my opinion) to discuss that couldn't be said in public. (please search for previous posts)

Update; Interesting letter in today's Carmarthen Journal (not online);
Procedure at hall is a farce
There used to be a jail where County Hall now stands and, judging by recent experience, there are still people employed to be warders in the building. If, as a member of the public, you want to watch councillors in action, you are required to sign a bit of paper giving an undertaking not to record in audio or visual form any of the proceedings of a council meeting. This bit of paper actually has no legal standing whatsoever but everyone - including children - are required to sign it before being allowed in the public gallery.
Having duly put pen to paper, two warders materialise and - one in front and one behind (presumably so that you don't make a break for it and create havoc on the stairwell) - accompany you up the narrow stairs, through several locked doors, before leaving you with instructions to use a telephone to call for someone to unlock the doors and let you out again.
In response to a query about what happens if there's a fire, you are told that the doors unlock automatically and a fire officer will come to fetch you to accompany you out of the building. Having pointed out that if the doors open automatically then one could find one's own way out thank you very much, you are told that it is policy to make you wait until a fire officer comes to save you.
So, having listened to the hour of non-stop self-congratulation which passes for an Executive Board meeting and then telephoned to be allowed to escape, the procedure happens in reverse.
What a farce! And are we paying to employ warders to hang about waiting for members of the public to exercise their democratic right to see what is being decided on their behalf?
L Williams

Cast your vote on webcasting Carmarthenshire council meetings

Please go over to Dyfrig Thomas' blog and cast your vote on whether Carmarthenshire Council should webcast it's meetings - I think it is essential and will be money well spent - so please vote YES! Dyfrig is a Plaid Cymru County Councillor based in Llanelli, Carmarthenshire.

Vote on webcasting council meetings - please follow the links

I, of course believe that members of the public, bloggers etc should be able to make their own recordings, unhindered. Please remember, that despite their many statements and 'undertakings' etc to the contrary, Carmarthenshire Council does not have any specific rules against it, and never has....yet.
Please leave your views on the comment section of this blogpost. Thanks.

And a reminder that my Assembly petitions will be considered again next Tuesday (24th) by the Petitions Committee and the Minister, Carl Sargeant, at the Senedd, (update 24th - Carl Sargeant unable to attend meeting so consideration postponed until near future, hopefully not long)

 Dyfrig Thomas has also provided some additional information on webcasting here

Monday, 16 January 2012

Council Leader calls constituents 'rabble'

(In the interest of fairness, I would like to draw your attention to the comment on this post left by Alan Andrews, the Director of ChooseLife who has offered some possible context/clarification as to Cllr Gravell's 'rabble' remark)

(23rd Jan; also, in the interests of fairness to protestors and council staff, here's a link to the Unison Carms website which features a video of Cllr Gravell's performance including her comments/views about 9000 council employees  - What does Meryl Gravell think about you? )

Stunned to learn today that our gracious Leader, Cllr Meryl Gravell has called a group of peaceful protestors 'rabble' and went on to label nine thousand frontline council employees as the cause of the Councils 'problems'. Remember, this is the Leader of one of the largest authorities in Wales and has numerous seats and responsibilities on various Boards and Committees throughout the nation.

Here's the context; Recent news that the A & E department at Prince Phillip Hospital, Llanelli will be axed has caused dismay and anguish amongst residents, understandably so. On top of that a 14 day 'consultation' was announced last week into the closure of an 20 bed acute medical ward - it appears that, unless this deliberate downgrading of essential services is stopped, and Hywel Dda Health Board forced to go back to the drawing board, Llanelli will be left without a fully functioning hospital.
As you may imagine something of a campaign has been gathering pace culminating last week in a peaceful protest. Around 300 members of the public, children, grandmothers, healthworkers, patients, local assorted politicians, etc had gathered in the cold hoping to address their concerns to Labour First Minister Carwyn Jones who, on a rare visit to Carmarthenshire, was visiting the (excellent) drug intervention centre, Choose Life, celebrating it's 15th anniversary. Incidentally, Mr Jones would not speak to the protestors.

Also attending the anniversary was our very own Council top brass and someone decided that it would be a splendid idea to give Meryl the microphone. Unfortunately the Council speech writer must have had a day off, and, after congratulating the centre and it's founder, Alan Andrews on his hard work (deservedly so) she then referred to the good folk of Llanelli outside, peacefully trying to preserve their hospital as 'rabble'. Lord preserve us.
At this point someone should have intervened, and maybe whisked her off to the getaway limo, but no, on she went, and proceeded to denigrate the nine thousand or so council staff and blame the ordinary workers for the 'problems' in the Council; "We have nine thousand employees Mark and I (sic), and if all nine thousand employees worked as hard as Alan, and were as enthusiastic as Alan is, my goodness we would not have a problem at all in the Council, but there we are, we are who we are!"

Yet again, I am lost for words, as I am sure, were the assembled constituents and employees of Carmarthenshire Council.
Anyone fancy another go at the vote of no confidence? The May election can't come soon enough.

Cllr Meryl Gravell
Later post; http://carmarthenplanning.blogspot.com/2012/01/one-just-cant-get-staff-these-days.html

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Council fined £3000 by Ombudsman....and FoI updates

As yet another disastrous week for Carmarthenshire Council passes by, featuring a fourth mention in Private Eye, forcing a child to sign the bizarre 'filming undertaking' and accusations of misuse of council resources, the £3000 fine for maladministration from the Ombudsman was not much of a morale booster. The upheld complaint, coming just days after the Council's social care service won some quango based award, concerned a catalogue of failure to adequately house a disabled man, a failure to recognise it's statutory social care duties to the complainant, and consequently his human rights. 
The South Wales Evening Post ran the story , the Ombudsman provides a summary and a link to the full report.
Here's an extract from the report to give you the gist;

"The Council was aware that it had allocated Mr M a property where he had no access to a toilet or washing facilities and, in its view, there would be problems for Mr M getting in and out of the property. The Occupational Therapist has stated in his evidence that any attempt by Mr M to get up the stairs, if indeed he could manage it at all, to access the bathroom would have entailed a high degree of risk. The lack of access to basic facilities at home can only have had a detrimental impact on his dignity and wellbeing. The Council appeared content to allow Mr M to continue to live in these difficult circumstances [for three years] until he agreed to move. I find this wholly unacceptable"

I have also had a couple of Freedom of Information responses which may be of interest. Firstly I asked about the shared IT services with Dyfed Powys Police. According to the response a 'merger', as such, hasn't taken place - all that's happened is the Council's Head of IT has had the boot/retired and the police and the council, to cut costs I suppose, are going 50/50 on the wages of a shared Head. I was particularly interested as to how the sharing of these two large and particularly sensitive IT systems was going to happen, and how the implications of data protection and security arrangements would be considered and managed. Judging by the response, the council haven't got round to thinking about that just yet, (or even whether any council powers delegated to the Head of IT, now rest with Dyfed Powys police) - but I imagine this step would not have been taken without the full intention of providing a shared service.

The other request concerned Cwm Environmental Ltd, a subsidiary company of the Council (mentioned several times, here, here and here) Cwm handles the waste management concerns/strategy of the Council. The Council informed me that they did not hold the information but would pass on my request to Cwm. I then I had an immediate, response from Cwm. As the Council holds all the shares but Cwm is a company in it's own right, FoI enters a slightly grey area. With Councils accross the UK outsourcing services to private companies, whether they should be subject to the same FoI and Data Protection legislation is becoming a bit of an issue. Anyhow, here's the link; http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/cwm_environmental_ltd
I don't think it was a particularly 'full' response and my request for information about grants seems to have been misunderstood. The Cwm website clearly shows the list of organisations who have recieved grants amounting to over £250,000 for 2010 - the FoI response has this figure at £1433. With all the projects presumably funded out of the Landfill Tax, it is unclear whether this lesser figure is a seperate pot - perhaps I should have asked specifically about the 'Cwm Community and Environmental Fund' - I thought, not unreasonably, that the word 'grants' might have covered it. Unsuccessful bids for grant funding have not been included either. I have asked for clarification. I also asked about the registered interests of the directors, I have been given a brief list but on further checking, I notice one of the named individuals is also a company secretary of the 'Carmarthen Masonic Building Company Ltd' - this is omitted from the response.

Lastly, followers of the Towy Community Church/bowling alley saga (please search blog) will know that they recieved a grant from Cwm. The figure given by Cwm Environmental is £50,000, but for some reason, both 'exempt reports' presented to the Council in May and November 2011 have the grant at £45,000. A £5000 discrepancy somewhere. Whilst I'm on the subject this organisation also received (amongst the whole funding package) £25,000 from the Rural Development Plan - which is EU money aimed at improving access to services and regenerating rural/agricultural areas of Wales - in this case the fund specifically paid for 'one and a half bowling lanes' in the urban area of Johnstown, Carmarthen. Another grant was £25,000 from the Council's 'Sustainable Communities Tourism Fund' - set up to;
"develop and safeguard local legends, history, culture, art and language to inform visitors of the county’s distinctiveness, and also to maintain the character of Carmarthenshire for its residents." (Council Tourism Manager)
“This fund will promote awareness and pride in the environment and cultural heritage of the area. Carmarthenshire is such a diverse county, and we have many stories, myths and legends which all make for fantastic tourism potential.” (Executive Board Member Cllr Scourfield)

I can only assume that the phrase 'strict criteria' is slightly more flexible than we think when it comes to grant awards. It  is quite amazing how resourceful even an evangelical bowling alley can be when attracting public money, and even more amazing is the generosity of our Council for awarding it.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Private Eye again! - and today's full Council meeting

Latest issue - 1305
Well done to Carmarthenshire Council for appearing for a FOURTH time in Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs - is anyone getting the message yet?

I was unaware of this latest mention as I ventured once more (into the breach dear friends) of the Public Gallery at County Hall for the meeting of Full Council. I will not repeat again the ridiculous entry procedure other than to mention that whoever is in charge of all this (I was told by the Assistant Chief Executive, on the 13th July that entry is entirely at the discretion of the Chief Executive) has decided that children must also sign the undertaking or they too will be banned from observing the democratic process. A lady visited today and wished to bring her 14 year old son, Jeno. He is home educated and wanted to observe proceedings. She was shocked and told me afterwards that she had questioned, in reception, whether a minor should have to sign, and whether it was even legal for them to ask him to do it. The staff phoned to some higher authority who insisted he signed. This cannot be right - it is unlawful, in my opinion, for adults to sign but children?..bloody hell...is anyone going to challenge this?

Well, onto the meeting and as you may imagine there were some formal congratulations for Mr James and his CBE. Cllr Sian Caiach then spoke and added her tribute, I think those present may have been lulled into a false sense of security as she immediately mentioned that there was 'another' award which they might not be quite so proud of and that of course, was the one in Private Eye, in the highly competitive Legal Bully of the Year category.
This was not going down too well, Mr James was shifting around uncomfortably and Cllr Ivor Jackson was attempting to shut Cllr Caiach up. Undaunted, she continued and offered the apologies of the entire council to Jacqui Thompson (indicating me) for their actions which led to my arrest. I wonder if all this will be in the Minutes for once? It was perhaps all the more poignant as the Chief Constable of Dyfed Powys Police was also there, on the 'top table' waiting to give his powerpoint presentation about the cash strapped force.

Briefly silenced, Cllr Caiach then challenged the inaccuracy of the minutes from a previous meeting (give that lady a medal). She said that this sort of thing (a very common occurence) could be resolved if the Council used the audio equipment already in place, more or less) and recorded the meetings. She hoped the group leaders would agree to this. A rather irate Exec Board Member, Cllr Pam Palmer said 'they' were thinking about it anyway but if it cost 'one penny' on the budget, they wouldn't countenance it (my mind immediately pictured the piles of cash 'they' have bestowed on the evangelical bowling alley). Of course, if they did record and archive the meetings, one of their main worries about members of the public filming meetings and 'editing' the material which might make some of them look silly (sorry Pam, nobody has to edit anything to do that) would be redundant, as a true record would be preserved by the council. I could be allowed to film!

Moving on, to what was becoming quite a lively meeting, next up was Mr Ian Arundale, Chief plod. The purpose of the talk and the powerpoint, (and I am not going to debate the finances of the police force here) was that huge cuts were being made of course, from central government and he was there cap in hand for an extra 5% from the council. Much debate ensued, as it has around the UK I believe, his BMW was mentioned as well as the brand spanking new Major Incident Unit in Carmarthen, (this is just in case a white elephant goes on the rampage). However the concensus of opinion, after about an hour, which on the whole I wouldn't argue with, was that Dyfed Powys should have their 5%, in fact this was proposed and seconded. Several minutes of total confusion ensued until Mr James said that it would not be legal for the Council Members to decide this - I am not sure who could..the Police authority perhaps. Anyway that was that and Mr Arundale declined an invite to remain for the rest of the meeting, and off he went, escorted by Mr James.

There was an interesting discussion involving the 'Modernising Education Programme' - One Councillor questioned why Seaside School in Llanelli had had to wait years for funding for a new school, thankfully, Mr James explained all. If local people had not objected to the site selected by the council (he said that he had told the councillor this previously, in "words of one syllable") then it would have been built, as such there was a five year delay. He also warned there would be an eight year delay if anyone dared to object to the siting of the new Furnace School in Llanelli (there have been objections and Cllr Caiach was pilloried in November's meeting for doing so). So we can now confirm - and take note those who may dare to disagree with the siting of the new superschool in Ffairfach - that the consultation process was, and is, a complete sham after all. Do it our way or not at all. How democratic.

Last but not least (there was more but I think I have gone on long enough for now, anyway) was the bizarre press release written, approved, published, then pulled after a couple of hours from the Council website. (a somewhat diluted version appeared in the paper) Peter Hughes Griffiths, the Plaid leader led the charge. The main concern was that major decisions had been concerning the budget by a couple of ruling members with diddly squat consultation with any other elected members, with the additional swipe at the Plaid opposition, it was nothing more than blatant electioneering. He siad the people of Carmarthenshire deserved better. The Chief Executive, the Leader and co all tried to gloss over it all, Cllr Pam Palmer (Ind) said she was becoming very angry with such nonsense from Plaid and was beginning to look very cross indeed. However, before blows were exchanged Mr James interjected, carefully explaining (in words of one syllable again) that the ruling administration, as the 'Government' of Carmarthenshire' were 'procedurally' correct in making such decisions and announcing it to the press....
To be honest I became a bit lost at the astounding logic at this point - this was a bloody scandal, and they know it. Please see yesterday's posts 'Short and Snappy' and 'You know there's an election on it's way' (the 'pulled' press release can be seen on the latter)

The meeting eventually concluded and we were escorted out, as usual, by two members of staff one of whom was the highly paid (I'm sure) Democratic Services Manager himself, not only highly ironic but an even greater waste of resources don't you think?

The press release story was picked up by yesterday's Western Mail 'Council staff used for 'blatant electioneering' claims Plaid'
'Chief executive Mark James said: “We follow very strict rules in terms of impartiality and I am satisfied that these rules have been adhered to in this case" - so that's why the article was pulled then was it??

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Short and Snappy

Further to yesterday's post; You can tell there's an election on it's way... (which includes the 'pulled' press release)

I have just noticed that the Plaid politicians, Jonathan Edwards MP, Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM and Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths have strongly attacked Carmarthenshire Council over this matter. I feel compelled to state that if I had not mentioned on my blog the (suddenly pulled) press release on the Council website yesterday, and fortunately made a copy - this whole issue may have passed them by. It was far stronger than the newspaper article, and was clearly highly inappropriate use of the Council website as well as public resources.
I, and many others, have been telling our MP and AM for YEARS that there is something seriously wrong with the way this Council is run, by certain senior officers and Members alike - does it take me and my blog to point it out AGAIN??
Perhaps it also explains the blog hits I had this morning from the Houses of Parliament, there's not many up there who can spell caebrwyn perfectly.

Sorry to sound a bit annoyed but I find it a little frustrating that despite endless complaints and appeals to our elected representatives by members of the Carmarthenshire public, it is only when Plaid perceive a personal attack on their party do they issue such a vehement statement;

Plaid Cymru attacks County Council's publicly funded electioneering

Monday, 9 January 2012

You can tell there's an election on the way...

.......when the present Administration ('Independents' and Labour groups, in case you'd forgotten) are allowed use the media section of the Council website for some shameless political point scoring and (as I predicted) a couple of 'surprise, surprise' u-turns on the more 'bad press' elements of the proposed cuts. As I have said, I am not politically aligned, but this 'press release' smacks entirely of disingenuous spin - if I was a Plaid Councillor, I would be up in arms. Plaid have been accused of abstaining from voting on 'every committee' - yet I notice the votes at the last Education Scrutiny committee against closing childrens' respite homes, putting up the price of school dinners and agreement to defer the museum closures, was 'unanimous' - no mention of abstentions.

Clearly there are problems facing the council's ability to balance it's books but it beggars belief that this sort of  PR nonsense continues. It is the ultimate irony that Cllr Palmer has used this opportunity to unashamedly accuse others of making 'political soundbites'. Decisions to keep respite homes open etc are, of course to be welcomed but one wonders how (and why) they appeared on the list in the first place, all the items which have now been 'reviewed' are geared to maximise support for the current administration, which has, to a man, and woman (of course), rubber stamped all officer decisions for years. The whole thing was engineered at a 'behind closed doors' meeting yesterday.

There is not, I notice, any mention in this puff piece about the decision taken only last month by the three main groups (I believe two Plaid Cllrs voted against it along with Cllrs Caiach and A Davies) to risk over a quarter of a million quid on the evangelical bowling alley (with £1m+ already on it's way).

There is a time and place for political in-fighting but for it to appear on the supposedly 'politically neutral' Council website does make one wonder who's controlling it....

'Leaders of the Administration make changes to budget proposals' (spin alert warning - Council website)

Update 7pm; I have just checked the above link and the press release, which was published this afternoon, has mysteriously disappeared from the website. The link now goes straight to the Council 'Enter Site' page. Maybe someone complained.
I made a copy this afternoon. So, in case it does not re-appear, here it is;

Leaders of the Administration make changes to budget proposals
"The Leaders of the Administration have confirmed a number of matters regarding the Council’s budget process to stop people worrying unnecessarily and to stop idle speculation and unhelpful comments to the press.
Leader of the Council, Cllr Meryl Gravell stated that having reviewed carefully the list of savings put forward by officers, there were very clearly some areas that it would not be appropriate to cut. The first of these was the Council’s two Children’s respite homes in Llwynhendy and Blaenau. These performed an essential respite service for parents of children with profound and complex needs. It was important that the families and the staff at the centres knew now that they would not be cut. They will be removed from the list of possible savings.
Cllr Gravell also confirmed that the proposal to charge blue badge holders to park would also be removed for now, given the on-going national review of the entire blue badge system.
Chairman of the Labour Group in the Administration Cllr Terry Davies confirmed that the suggested increase in the charge for school meals, above inflation would not be proceeding. Officers had been told to withdraw the proposal for meals to increase from £2 to £2.15. Cllr Davies added that families are struggling to make ends meet and it is essential that children continue to have a proper meal. The Schools Meals Service in the County is regarded widely as the best in Wales for offering fresh, locally produced quality food. It also has one of the highest pupil uptake rates in Wales. It is important that this continues. School meals will therefore remain at £2 for the next financial year.
Cllr Pam Palmer, Leader of the Independent Group, commented that there had been lots of reaction to the proposal put forward by officers for consideration to close some of our museums. Cllr Palmer confirmed that the decision on the museums at Parc Howard and Abergwili was to be deferred to allow for discussions with the "Friends of" Associations in Carmarthen and Llanelli and the Town and Community Councils in those areas. She hoped that by working together an alternative solution might be found to reduce the costs of these museums or to raise more income to make them self-sustaining to avoid them closing altogether.
With regard the Mentrau Iaith, Cllr Gravell confirmed that whilst the Council could not continue to provide the same level of funding, the proposed cut would be limited to 10% this year, which conforms with cuts made to other third sector organisations.
Cllr Gravell made it clear that the Executive Board had asked officers to look again at the budget to see how they could reduce the draft proposal for a 4% Council Tax increase down to nearer 2%. Taking the above service reductions out of the proposed savings would add more pressure in this respect and make it more difficult to get down to 2%, whilst also having to make the required budget savings of £8m.
Cllr Davies added that it was all well and good for Opposition Members to make statements to the press, but it was disappointing that they had not participated in Scrutiny Committees when the budget was under discussion. The Plaid Cymru Group had simply abstained from voting at every Committee.
Cllr Palmer agreed that it would be too late on the budget day at Council to make political sound bites, not real suggestions that could be properly considered in a timely manner."

Update 10th Jan; Y Cneifiwr, spot on, as ever; Award winning PR

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Transparency - Let's move forward, not back

Having checked the Agenda for the Petitions Committee for the 10th January I noticed my petitions weren't listed, a quick phone call to the ever helpful Assembly petitions office confirmed they will be discussed, with the Minister, Mr Sargeant on the 24th January. Mr Sargeant has already given a preliminary opinion which can be seen here. In case readers have forgotten the petitions concern the filming of Council meetings and the publication of spending details over £500 - basic elements, alongside the Freedom of Information Act, of transparency.
I also noticed that the Assembly website has published the responses collected from the 'call for evidence'. Several public bodies (although not many, and not Carmarthenshire Council I note) have given their views - a few councils, the Police Authority and the Welsh Local Government Association;

Filming;  http://www.senedd.assemblywales.org/documents/s4013/Consultation%20response.pdf
Spending details; http://www.senedd.assemblywales.org/documents/s4014/Consultation%20response.pdf
(Both are PDF docs and some responses are duplicated in the lists)

The most detailed response comes from Wrexham Borough Council who have been looking at the possibility of webcasting meetings for over a year. There is also one positive response from a member of the public (thank you Mr Cole!) but the rest go to some length to argue against the proposals. The arguments are of course perfectly valid and I appreciate very much the trouble taken to respond at all. There are issues of cost, legalities, demand, interest etc and some positive suggestions, for example Wrexham notes that cross boundary collaboration could produce economies of scale. None are particularly keen, it has to be said, for members of the public to film, which is possibly the most cost effective method of course.
One of the most telling responses comes from Trawsfynydd Community Council (the only community council to respond, so thanks anyway) who are most definitely against the proposals and state "The existing procedure is sufficient and has been in place since 1896". Hmm.

There are, of course more positive moves which I have tried to keep up with and have mentioned over the past months, most recently from Monmouthshire , Swansea and Llanelli Town Council .

If matters of transparency are to be left to the various authorities to determine then ultimately it will depend on the personal views of those in local power, it will then depend on whether you, as a resident come under the auspices of somewhere like Carmarthenshire (or Trawsfynydd!) or somewhere like Monmouthshire. In these times of financial austerity cost is undoubtedly an issue for both proposals in the petitions but as with the costs of responding to Freedom of Information requests, ultimately it is all about democratic accountability and open decision making. Without progress (and campaigns) to greater transparency MPs could still be buying their duckhouses and examples of selective amnesia will continue to prevail in council chambers. These are just a couple of examples - I doubt if we could imagine a society these days without the Freedom of Information Act, and I believe, given the opportunity, we would feel similarly about viewing council proceedings a few years down the line. We need to move forward not back, a point made memorably (and hilariously) by bloggers Welshnewsnot back in June.

Councils, of course are also adept at conveniently pricing themselves out of something they would prefer not to countenance, have a look at this blog post from 'Anna Raccoon', inspired by a request to Hampshire Council about the cost of webcasting;
Does it really cost that much?

2012 could be crucial year for our Freedom of Information Act, here's an interesting post from blogger @tim2040 The War on Freedom of Information
Twitter is a great source for news and many varied views on the Act, remember to use the hashtag #FOI.

10th Jan; Just adding this link from the 'Help me investigate blog' via @paulbradshaw, featuring Heather Brooke (@newsbrooke) and the importance of FoI's; Tips for starting to investigate public bodies 

Thursday, 5 January 2012

The 'ideal world' of Carmarthenshire Council

The row over whether Carmarthenshire Council has a legal right to deny entry to the public gallery continues. Carmarthenshire blogger @towy71 has refused to sign the undertaking on several occasions as he, and of course myself, believe it has no legal basis. Here's his blog post which includes the latest response from the Acting Head of Law, Ms Rees-Jones which I have copied below;

Thank you for your e-mail.
I consider the introduction of the requirement for members of the public wishing to access the public gallery to first sign an undertaking to be a lawful one, yes. In an ideal world such an undertaking would not be required, but in light of disruption to previous meetings it was considered necessary to introduce some sort of process to avoid future disruption and ensure the smooth running of meetings. You will not find mention of it in the Constitution or Standing Orders because, as I said in my letter of the 5th December, it was a decision taken by officers.
There has never, to my knowledge, been an issue with the press.
As I have previously told you the whole issue of whether meetings should be filmed is being considered by a Task and Finish Group so the requirement for an undertaking to be signed may change.
Yours faithfully,
Linda Rees-Jones
Acting Head of Administration & Law
And Monitoring Officer

Perhaps it should be made clear that the 'disruption' referred to involved me filming an open meeting on a mobile phone last June, seven months ago, and as Ms Rees-Jones points out, there is still no such ban on filming in any Council Standing Orders nor Constitution.

In order to access the meetings I have reluctantly signed the slip of paper numerous times, the reluctance stems from what I see as an unnecessary, unethical, undemocratic and unlawful decision. Neither I, nor as far as I am aware, anyone else, has made any attempt to film a meeting since the 8th June - and nobody is likely to given the dire consequences. In fact I attended yesterday's Executive Board meeting and another member of the public questioned the undertaking, and the absence of the usual legal sanction of such things, they were given a similar (but briefer) explanation with the added comment that it was 'the Chief Executive's orders'. It is quite alarming that senior officers, with no consultation with elected members (or members of the public for that matter) have taken it upon themselves to ban the public from public meetings. I wonder what it is like to inhabit the 'ideal world' of Carmarthenshire Council?

Yesterday's meeting itself was unremarkable. In amongst the usual relentless mutual backslapping, and, contrary to popular opinion, our town centres were described as the envy of the world, (well, Merthyr was envious anyway); and the school ' modernisation programme described as 'seismic' (it will be seismic for Llandovery with the closure of Pantecelyn). Brief mentions were made of the forthcoming budget cuts and the fact that nothing had been decided, yet. Assurances were given that this was a 'listening council' and there would be 'full consultation'. Sadly the track record on such things gives little comfort. Perhaps the snap decision to present the latest inspection report for Social Care (CSSIW) to full council gave the game away a bit. A paragraph was spotted which suggested that less reliance should be given to residential care - this was leapt upon as another reason to close the two Llanelli care homes or at least to make those who had voted against closure last February 'aware of the consequences' of their actions. Campaigners take note.
In view of the above mentioned 'ideal world' of Carmarthenshire council, growing old could be a risky business.

Y Cneifiwr, as usual, has put it all rather well; http://cneifiwr-emlyn.blogspot.com/2012/01/gongs-cor-bloody-ell.html

Interesting read from the Swansea blog 'Inside Out' where it is rumoured that Swansea Council's newspaper is for the chop. Attempts to self-finance the rag, it seems, have not been successful. I am hoping to hear similar rumours in Carmarthenshire where not just individual departments are required to make financial contributions to our council rag, but 'partners' such as the health board and the police must cough up too. No mention in the budget proposals though.