Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Skewed Priorities

It has been noted of course that Carmarthenshire's Executive Board is back up to ten Members again, it went down to nine a couple of years ago due to the death of a councillor. At the time, Meryl Gravell, former Leader, now Executive Board Member announced it would be kept to nine as a 'cost cutting measure'. Clearly, unknown to the rest of us, there must now be room in the budget for this expense; with the the post attracting a salary of £28,000 plus benefits, it's a tempting offer and not to be sniffed at especially when one is brokering a deal to form a ruling coalition. The Carmarthen Journal has used, as an example, the proposed cull of school lollipop patrols to the tune of £20,000 over the next two years as a cost comparison exercise.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

AGM Agenda - Part Two

The agenda for the adjourned AGM meeting has now been published which actually contains a few links. Firstly, is the disappointing 'Protocol for the Election of Chair' which some of us thought may be a radical move to actually elect someone who showed the necessary skills, sadly it merely reinforces the traditional 'take it in turns' method ie Plaid, Labour, Indie, Plaid, Labour, Indie etc etc - A reward for long and loyal (to the regime) service. The Council have gone to some trouble to publish the monthly string of civic buffets, lunches and  limo trips that the Chair, Vice Chair and escorts must endure - still no sign though of a published register of interests, gifts, hospitality for either Members or officers, or spending details or anything else, for that matter, which may resemble transparency.

There is also a lengthy report on the Councillors allowances for the forthcoming year. As I have already mentioned the Independent Remuneration Panel Wales have set the limits this year - various big winners will now have a 'senior salary' or a 'Civic salary' instead of the Basic + Special Responsibility Allowance arrangement. The IRPW have also set the limit for the number of councillors claiming the new senior salaries to 18, and as you will see, if the 18 take the full whack it adds up to £486,480 pa, with the Council Chair and Vice Chair coining in £38,000 between them on top of that. Whether the esteemed senior Members will take a cut remains unknown until Friday. Of course all this pales into insignificance compared to the salaries for senior officers which show no signs of diminishing. The generous perks of the job for councillors no longer include 'subsistence' ie dinner, unless the councillor is 'out of county', so no more steak dinners for Cllr Theophilus and Co round the corner in the club. There is also a clause which enables mobile phones to be given to Exec Board members free of charge, (iPads all round?) Hopefully they will have some training as how to use them.

Each member of the council will now be required to produce an annual report of their achievements and activities, to be published on the website - I would imagine this will be (for some) an exercise in creative writing for the PR department.
The second half of the document is a lengthy and, in the main, cut and paste exercise of 'job profiles and personal specifications' for councillors - largely an aspirational document which states the obvious levels of ethical behaviour etc that you would expect from elected members, although from some (if they bother to read it) it may come as a bit of a shock. I couldn't find the word 'backscratching' anywhere, but part of the Executive Board 'person specification' includes the 'ability to persuade others' so perhaps it's covered.

The next link refers to the political carve up of the various committees seats, details yet to be announced. Of interest is the formation, as required by the Local Government Measure (Wales) 2011 of a Democratic Services Committee. Quite what this will cover is hard to determine, the Measure itself is unclear as to the function. I am sure we'll soon find out - promoting democracy, as we might understand the concept, doesn't seem to be part of the remit.
The first meeting for this committee will be on the 2oth June but we'll have to wait until September to behold the delights the new 'Community Scrutiny Committee'.

No one would argue that a basic allowance is necessary; without a level of financial support the post of councillor would remain open only to the relatively wealthy, the same argument holds of course for the payment to MPs, introduced in 1911 to try and prevent the post being an amusing pastime for the aristocracy, (although I'm not sure it's quite achieved it's aim). But if you've been wondering what all the intrigue, gossip and deal-making within the council since the election has been about, it was these extra sweeties which were the driving force....

Anyhow, once all this b******s is out of the way the real business of slashing funding to childrens' and disabled services, elderly care and assorted frontline services (remember the budget proposals?) will commence and, with a carefully crafted Executive Board, no doubt the evangelical bowling alley, the stadium, certain legal fees, and the remaining herd of white elephants will be protected for another five years.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Carmarthenshire Council Executive Board announced

The 'new' Executive Board for the Council has been announced by Leader Cllr Kevin Madge. According to a commenter the Indie Group met on Wednesday and the Labour Group meets on Monday to confirm nominations. So far it's a 5/5 split between Labour and the Indies. Nothing for Plaid of course.
Pam Palmer (Ind) and Tegwen Devichand (Lab) will be deputy leaders; Pam will look after Rural Affairs (countryside gossip perhaps?), Community Safety and Business Management whilst Tegwen, a former Chair of the Council, will take care of Housing. As predicted it looks like Meryl Gravell (Ind) will get Regeneration which will keep the Chief Executive happy; Jim Jones will be responsible for the Environment and Jane Tremlett, famed for Dickensian quotes and voting to close care homes will look after our Health and Social Care.
The Labour group have also, I believe, appointed Keith Davies (Education), Jeff Edmunds (Finance) and Colin Evans for Technical Services, it was Cllr Evans who nominated Kevin Madge for Leader at last week's meeting and recounted how the voters of Garnant believe that Cllr Madge can 'walk on water'.

The resumed meeting to be held on the 1st June will confirm the composition of committees and other chairs, it will also determine the level of allowances for councillors for the forthcoming year. It remains to be seen whether the new Executive Members will award themselves the full whack as recommended by the  Independent Remuneration Panel Wales or will attempt to court some popularity as their counterparts have in Powys and opt for a bit less.

So, as we drift slowly into the new municipal year with the deckchairs re-arranged, the real business, as well as the strength of the coalition and indeed the strength of the opposition will not become apparent until the next ordinary full council meeting on the 13th June. This will, of course be the anniversary of last June's #daftarrest meeting and I will be there as a very interested, er, observer......

As Cneifiwr's latest post observes, it's business as usual on the Towy.

Oops! Parking Fine for Chief Executive

The BBC reports that Council Chief Executive, Mark James has received a fine for parking on double yellow lines just yards from a council run public car park.

(Via BBC Newyddion, please google translate for story in English)


and in other news.....
Part two of Carmarthenshire council's AGM has been put back a week from the 25th May until the 1st June. With a two week adjournment, the next leg will determine who will strike lucky and get the various chairs and executive board posts. There doesn't seem to be an explanation for the delay so I assume that there are problems and I suspect it is the 'Independent Group' who have yet to be satisfied with what's on offer.

By the time the next ordinary meeting of the council meets, on June 13th, it will have been over three months since the last one held at the beginning of March. Agreed there has been an election, and time must be allowed for training of new councillors in the art of Carmarthenshire democracy but the consequence for the residents of carmarthenshire is that we are fed more spin than usual (if that's possible).
The council website has informed us that Costa coffee may be opening a shop in the new Llanelli Eastgate development and the Llanelli Star has a whole front page devoted to the 'long awatied for' report into how many millions the Parc Y Scarlet's stadium is pumping into Llanelli, £117m by 2015 apparently. The figures should be treated with extreme caution as this report was commissioned by the club and the council (I feel it was probably a brainwave of the latter) in a public relations move to deflect criticism over the council's financial commitment to the venture, given the club's recent audit report which questioned the future financial viability of the Scarlets;

"These conditions...[£2m in debt]...indicate the existence of a material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt about the company's ability to continue as a going concern"

The article, oddly, says it was the club who commissioned the report, yet an earlier article states it was both the club and Carmarthenshire council. No one wants to see the club in difficulties and of course we wish the team success - but that is beside the point, it is the use of public money which is under question and how much more will be needed in the future, particularly as severe cuts to children's services etc begin to bite. This is not about a minority group 'harming the club or the council' as the Chief Executive of the Council states but genuine concern over a local government 'folly' - if you are in any doubt, Cneifiwr has recently analysed the figures for us.

The stadium was completed four years ago and has failed to bring in such promised wealth to Llanelli so far. It can be accessed fairly directly from the M4 and if visitors can negotiate the dreadful road layout and actually find somewhere to park they are unlikely to linger long after the event; if they do decide to do a bit of shopping before heading home they are not going to venture into Llanelli itself but shop in the various multi national retailers surrounding the stadium (courtesy again of the council management), those retailers will then conveniently take their money straight back over the Severn Bridge probably before the visitors get there themselves.
The report appears to be nothing more than an expensive PR project prompted by the Council to silence critics; the Club itself has plenty of support and doesn't need to justify it's existence.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Blank Cheques

The Welsh Government issued a promisingly titled White Paper the other day called 'Promoting Local Democracy', on inspection it does no such thing, not in Caebrwyn's eyes anyway. Largely concerned with setting up a new electoral boundary review commission there is little else to get excited about. Even the suggestion that Returning Officers, if also employed by the local authority (usually Chief Executives) should not be 'double-funded' during elections fall a bit flat when my requests for these expenses from Carmarthenshire Council have been consistently refused anyway. If you wish to be deeply underwhelmed, the Paper can be seen here (pdf)

More interesting however is the question of indemnities for legal costs for Members defending allegations of breaching the Code of Conduct. A cap of £20,000 is suggested after recent warnings by the ombudsman (post here) that such disputes are becoming increasingly costly.

Unlimited indemnities are effectively blank cheques provided by the taxpayer and, as the Paper says,
 "It is hard to see how that is a worthwhile use of public funds" Quite so.

However this statement is then qualified with this very vague and possibly expensive sentence;

"The cap would not apply to indemnities provided for other proceedings unrelated to breaches of the code of conduct".

Exactly what those 'other proceedings' might be is open to question and it appears that the Welsh Minister for Local Government, Carl Sargeant is a little confused over the whole issue of blank cheques and what exactly constitutes 'worthwhile use of public funds', particularly given his comments, originally reported by the Western Mail, earlier this year.

Carl Sargeant

"The Welsh Government has told a county council it should not use public money to pay for it’s chief executive to sue a blogger for libel...." (link here)

Which, of course, came after this.....'Carmarthenshire Council funds Mark James libel fight with blogger' (BBC Online)

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Council AGM - 'A Difficult Year'

Back to the public gallery this morning for the first instalment of the AGM. Back as well to the so-very-welcoming signing in ritual and the re-appearance of the wardens to herd the public (4 in total) to the gallery. There was momentary confusion and shuffling on the several flights of stairs that they realised they were out of official position, one then waited so as to bring up the rear, presumably to keep an eye on the rabble and ensure no one made a break for it. 

With 30 new councillors I was expecting the chamber to look a little different, but rest assured still 'white male over-65' dominated, few women and the prime suspects, Meryl, Pam , Kevin etc still in the same seats as pre-election. The £1m collection of senior officers usually sat at the podium had been relegated to the side of the chamber, all a bit squashed, to leave the important seats for the fancy dress competition. Alongside the Chief Exec (who wasn't in fancy dress unfortunately) and Ivor, were sheriffs, lord lieutenants, and the usual white gloved civic pomp and pantomime which I'm amazed still continues, I'm not sure who they were as I was not formally introduced but one appeared to have a sword, just in case of trouble I suppose. Incidentally, whilst the 'guests' were present, there was a camera filming and an official photographer skipping around the chamber taking photos....

As there was no actual business on the agenda (you know, important decisions and all that) and there 'hasn't been since the beginning of March, (and won't be until sometime next month, so presumably all decisions at the moment are being made without the inconvenience of council 'debate') the next hour consisted of civic chain rattling as the Chair, vice-chair and wags and consorts swapped regalia. We were treated to a speech from Ivor recounting his year as Chair and how there had been some 'difficult meetings' (this theme cropped up a few times throughout the meeting. At one point I realised the translating equipment in the gallery wasn't working but thought I'd better not shout down in case this meeting also became 'difficult', anyway, apparently I didn't miss much).

Ivor was most exited to have 'met royalty' and especially Prince Charles (Llandovery's neighbour from hell) who was graciously passing on his wisdom to us all, aren't we lucky. He recounted a school visit to County Hall where he was bombarded with questions from inquisitive children, all too much for him he said so he'd cut that one short. He thanked the Chief Exec for pulling his strings for a year and he thanked his wife for dressing him in the mornings.

Leader on the Indies Pam Palmer was up next to thank Ivor for coping so well during a 'difficult year' and that she would have lost her temper many times over. Enough said. The Chief Executive also said a few words about the 'difficult year' and what Ivor had to 'put up with' - I suppose he was referring to democratic debate - something no self respecting important councillor or officer should have to tolerate of course.

Strangely there was no mention of Ivor's historic appearances in the national press, especially Private Eye, I would have thought his small part in the council's official recognition as a Rotten Borough would have been worthy of a standing ovation.....

After further tributes all round, (and Cllr Sian Thomas and Cllr Terry Davies installed as new Chair and Vice respectively), and further chain swapping nonsense; the Lords, Ladies and assorted hangers on left (presumably in a horse and carriage) and it was down to the business of electing a Leader. Kevin Madge's big moment, and big allowance was nearly upon him, fellow Labour councillors paid tribute, mentioning his endless rambling speeches and we were also told that his constituents in Garnant believe he can walk on water. Amazing.
The whole thing was slightly spoilt though by Plaid's insistence of nominating Peter Hughes Griffiths as Leader. There then followed a recorded vote. This was interesting, as it confirmed the presence of two unaffiliated councillors, John Jenkins and, (I think, correct me if I'm wrong) Cllr E Thomas newly elected in Llandeilo. They both abstained from voting with Cllr Jenkins adding a curse on all their houses for good measure.
It was all a bit of a formality as Cllr Madge was elected with over 40 votes.

The best moment of the day perhaps concerned my own representative in County Hall, Cllr Theophilus, known locally by some as 'good old Tom' who, you may of thought would also have abstained as an independent, or maybe, as he claimed to have the full support of of Plaid in his election leaflet voted for Peter Hughes Griffiths, but you'd be wrong, he voted for Labour's Cllr Madge. Still perhaps he's been promised chair of the Licensing committee again who knows. Or perhaps he's just politically confused, or perhaps just confused. Bless him.

Last mention goes to dear old Meryl who uttered not one word throughout. Sat there in a shocking pink two piece looking, as did Pam, like she'd sucked a lemon.

Anyway, if they thought last year was 'difficult', there's five more to come.

Look out for part two of the adjourned, AGM agenda next Friday, when the Executive Board members are announced and the rest of the lucrative sweeties are handed round.

Update 20th May; Have just noticed that the next part of the meeting has been put back another week until the 1st June which suggests there's some difficulty in deciding who's getting what in the way of Chairs and cabinet places - the Executive Board itself is due to meet on the 28th May so I assume that will also be put back until after the bank holidays.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Was there an election on the 3rd May?

Short of an uprising at Thursday's council meeting, Cllr Kevin Madge (Lab) will be voted in as the new Leader of Carmarthenshire County Council, with Pam Palmer playing second fiddle. He will need 38 votes. The move from Meryl to Madge is almost seamless.
Call me cynical but it's looking increasingly like the election on 3rd May was superfluous to requirements, with all the major players moving back into place to ensure another five years of this officer-led council. I'm not sure what the 12 month review of the arrangement is all about, maybe there weren't enough lucrative positions to go round this time and some will have to wait for a 'reshuffle'. Plaid must be reeling from the shock that exactly the same thing has happened to them as it did after the 2008 election.

Still, our council will be leaping into the 21st century with Kevin, here's one of his most recent memorable statements;

"...Twitter is dangerous and it's not something I support. I don't use it and I do not want any of our political candidates to use it - it's only for young people and not a good thing to use for politics" 

Will he, as Leader, continue to agree wholeheartedly with every anti-democratic move and every bizarre spending decision 'proposed' by officers as he and the rest of the Executive Board have done? Other notable moments whilst in his role as 'Older People's Champion' include voting to close the two care homes in Llanelli, failing to support a group of frail pensioners at County Hall presenting a petition to save their day club and voting to approve £4m cuts to elderly services over three years in February's budget meeting.

So, until I see evidence to the contrary, the farce continues.

Interesting comment overheard at the count, from a Labour member who was in the last administration; "We've done such a good job working with the independents, so I hope it will be Labour in charge now, because if it's Plaid, Mark might leave".

Monday, 14 May 2012

Carmarthenshire Council - A deal is struck

So after endless speculation (latest rumours) a formal statement has now been issued to the press confirming that deals have been done and we will have a Labour/Independent coalition at Carmarthenshire Council, the arrangement to be reviewed after 12 months. Presumably not much different from the Independent/Labour coalition we've had for the past umpteen years. Further details, including who will be Leader, and who has landed the most lucrative positions, have yet to be announced.
I will update this post as and when I hear more.

Here's the reaction from Plaid Cymru; Contempt for Democracy

and, according to Independent Leader, Cllr Pam Palmer, the decision to form a coalition with Labour has been made after 'careful consideration' and for the benefit of the residents of Carmarthenshire.
Really? I think that was the last thing on their minds.
The first round of sweeties, ie Leadership and deputies will be handed out at tonight's meeting of the Labour group. Meryl will not be leader but that will be little consolation as she will undoubtedly feature large on the Executive Board, possibly with the regeneration portfolio, ensuring that the 'dream team' of Meryl and the Chief Exec (Cllr Madge's description) will be preserved.

Thursday's AGM should prove interesting, apparently there's an item to 'consider the protocol for the nomination of Chair' - maybe an ability to Chair a meeting has become an imperative after Ivor's performance last year, and maybe one will be 'elected', rather than the automatic installation of last year's vice-chair as the usual 'free lunch' reward for loyal service.

Wales Audit Office and the Council

Back in January I asked the Wales Audit Office to investigate the council's involvement with the evangelical Towy Community Church Excel project in Johnstown, Carmarthen to the tune of £1.4m. Concerns have been raised on this blog, and others, for the past couple of years. So I'll not repeat it all again. There have also been critical articles in Wales on Sunday and Private Eye with the local MP also calling into question certain aspects of the 'partnership', and of course there was the council meeting in December where the loan was approved. A couple of weeks ago BBC Dragon's Eye also aired concerns - you may remember that no one was available for comment, apart from the Chief Executive just to say he couldn't comment - it being close to an election and all that, although commenting on the controversial Stradey Development, Furnace School, the Grillo site and the industrial dispute with the binmen was different, apparently.

Anyway, I digress, as you may imagine the response from the WAO was as expected, everything is fine - what were you all worrying about? Not that I'm questioning the independence of the WAO but the response reads as if it had been penned by County Hall itself. The letter also warns against publication, twice; I can't think why not, there is nothing in it of a 'sensitive' nature, all of the information is already in the public domain and it does not reveal anyone's details. As the letter is five pages long I am unable to publish it anyway but if anyone would like a copy, please email me.

I am aware of course that the remit of the WAO is quite narrow, focussing on proper procedures and compliance with the law, rather than the more ethical questions which have risen, although 'looking after our money' is their watchword, which, I imagine, includes not taking unnecessary risks with it either. 

Anyway, let's have a look at the response. It starts with a brief background, emphasising that a bowling alley is a 'priority for the residents of Carmarthen', and confirms that from 2009 the Council 'chose to deal exclusively with the church'. This was when presumably, the links to the 'Mercy Ministries' were evident as was the intention of the church to establish one in Carmarthen - the 'seed that never grew' according to the Pastor.

The letter then outlines the legal requirements which enabled the council to pursue this 'opportunity' (odd choice of word for the WAO). Perhaps we should remind ourselves here that this evangelical church is run from a small office above a sweet shop in Carmarthen.
The WAO list some of the grants, including the £280,000 from the council in May 2011 and appear satisfied that the various requirements over the disposal of the land such as State Aid/Procurement considerations were met after the council sought external legal advice, (at unknown cost). Similarly the WAO concludes that the risks concerning the loan in December were conveyed to the Executive Board and the Council but that "the council took the view that the project was at an advanced stage and that it was a risk they should accept", if I remember rightly they had little choice given the, er, zealous nature of the council meeting, and the project had yet to get off the ground let alone be in an 'advanced stage'. The risk, you may remember, is that the council has very little security on the loan, being third in line after the bank and the lottery. Basically, the WAO have been told that all the various criteria for the numerous grants, the loan and the land deal have been met, and that is as far as they are going with it. As for meeting some of the grant criteria, I'm still as puzzled as I was earlier this year;
"amongst the whole funding package was £25,000 from the Rural Develoment 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 it's residents" Hmm.

As for the planning permission the WAO deny that it is 'flexible' as stated in the report to the council in December but then go on to state that it is in fact 'flexible', with regards to D1 - D2 Use Classes, which, of course includes use as a 'place of worship or religious instruction'.
The whole tone of the response is dismissive.
The last paragraph is particularly abrasive given my real concerns after Meryl Gravell's disturbing public statement that the 'partnership' with the evangelical project would hopefully ease the pressure on the Social Care budget and described it as "the biggest social enterprise in Carmarthenshire. That's what we need more of in the future"
The WAO said;
"You suggest that the Council's interest in facilitating this project is in some ways 'off-loading' some aspects of it's social care responsibilities. I am unclear as to how this could be viewed as such, for example, the council has no legal duty to provide a furniture recycling warehouse etc....This does not therefore appear to be an issue.
I hope you find this response helpful, although I have to conclude that I can see no reason to take any further audit action on the issues that you raise at this point under the powers that we have. Can I also remind you that this response is strictly private and confidential"

So there you go, most of the boxes have been ticked as far as the WAO are concerned, and for some reason I don't think it will be long before those of us who are raising concerns about this large investment of Carmarthenshire taxpayers' money in an evangelical church, particularly given the severe cuts promised for elderly care and childrens' services, are referred to as an 'unfortunate example of a small group of people' intent on harming the council and the church (it was 'harming the council and the club' in a recent Western Mail article over the finances relating to the other great council 'not costing the taxpayer a penny' venture, Parc Y Scarlets)
As for the WAO, perhaps they should rethink their remit, as well as their investigating procedures. The long and expensive saga over the Stradey/Parc y Scarlets development is notable for the absence of the WAO.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Carmarthenshire Leadership - Latest Rumours

Here's the latest rumour, from an anonymous commenter on my previous post, I repeat, it's still only a rumour as no official statement has been made yet;

"The white smoke was seen over County Hall today. Dominium Kevin 'Leader of the Council' Madge.
The official news is that Kevin Madge has secured the leadership of the Labour Group. His chief rival from Llanelli Tegwen Devichand has been bought off with being Deputy Leader of the Labour Group and Council.
The independents listened with closed ears (for all of 5 seconds) to Plaid Cymru. They sent a delegation consisting of those well-known Plaid lovers in the former administration Councillors Meryl Gravell and Pam Palmer to hear them out (at the insistence of the independent group at Parc y Scarlets on Thursday). Talks broke down between Meryl and Pam and Plaid Cymru quite quickly - in fact the talks broke down about a week before they started.
So the smoke above County Hall has turned red. Kevin Madge will lead the Council. He will have two deputies; one independent (Pam Palmer) and one Labour (Tegwen Devichand)
Tipped for the cabinet are Meryl Gravell who gets the Regeneration portfolio, so the Mark and Meryl show continues.
Chairman of the Health Committee Jane Tremlett is tipped for promotion to the cabinet for the same portfolio.
Pat Jones has been given her P45 by the Llanelli Labour Party for trying to shut the care homes.
Also being promoted to the cabinet is Cllr Jim Jones as a reward for crushing an independent group rebellion that wanted to do a deal with Plaid.
We await more news from County Hall as the deal is thrashed out over the weekend ready to be unveiled on Wednesday"

Update 13th May; Latest gossip....
It would seem that the best way to decide who's running the council would be to have some sort of competition, It's a Knockout perhaps with a greasy pole climb as a finale. The latest gossip is that Plaid may have thrown a desperate spanner in the works by offering the Independents the pick of the sweetshop, ie 9 out of 10 cabinet posts, keeping Meryl on for a bit and most of the committee Chairs. The independents are meeting today to decide who to side with and the Labour group meet tonight to ratify their offers to the independents. Apparently there is also division within the independents with several threatening to set up their own group if the main camp sides with Plaid and a couple threatening to remain 'unaffiliated' if the they join with Labour. And for those still puzzled by the very idea of an Independent group, so am I.
The sweeties, of course, are substantial; on top of the basic allowance there's an extra £35k for Leader, £18.5k for each Deputy Leader, £17.7k for the other 8 cabinet members, and between £7 to £10k for the committee chairs.
With the independents divided it looks like a shaky, but politically interesting, administration will emerge, whoever plays the trump card.
Another source has said that an attempt by Giles Morgan and Huw Richards (both Ind), to lead a decamp to Plaid, without Meryl, failed due to lack of sufficient volunteers. There are also problems within the Labour group with the old guard wishing to preserve the pre-election status quo but the newcomers not so sure.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

More rumours...and other news

With the question of the council leadership and control still under intense speculation it's probably pointless me mentioning it again until firm announcements are made. However, having become a bit of an anorak about these things I'll continue with the rumours a bit longer. Comments on my previous post can be seen here and predict Plaid taking control but the latest tweets from the Plaid camp, who, you remember, now have 28 seats on the council are not so optimistic and it appears that Labour (23 seats) have managed to entice more 'independents' than Plaid;

"Meeting for 3 group leaders scheduled for tomorrow am, but hearing now Labour and Independents have already done a deal"
"Hearing that it will be 5 Independent and 5 Labour members on the Carmarthenshire Executive Board....."

Update 10th May; A source tells me that an Indie/Labour coalition looking likely with the Indies meeting tonight to hand out the sweeties. More info may emerge from the councillor induction meeting at the Scarlet's stadium this afternoon. Word has it that Labour may sideline Kevin Madge as leader in favour of someone more, er, what can I say...

I have also noticed that an extra county council meeting has just been listed for the 25th May; the AGM and full council is still next week on Thursday. This extra meeting is described as 'adjourned meeting county council' - which I presume means that next week's meeting will go on so long that it will have to be adjourned...sounds like they have a full programme planned.....

In other news, I see that the Editor of the Carmarthen Journal left the paper today. I wish her well. According to Northcliffe Media the hunt for a replacement will begin immediately, let's hope no one in County Hall sees this as an opportunity to extend the Council spin empire any further, or even formalise the current arrangements. Perhaps former Editor, Robert Lloyd, @rlloydpr, would kindly save the day and quickly apply for his old job back?

Finally, a mention of Llanelli Labour AM Keith Davies, 71, who was caught misbehaving at a hotel in Cardiff. AM's from 'out of town' stay in a rather plush hotel courtesy of the taxpayer, by way of an apology for his drunken rampage he has generously agreed to pay the hotel bill himself and hopefully the bill for the 'mystery woman' too.

The Council and the local press..again

I hear that yet again County Hall are having rather too much say on the contents of the local papers. This time it involves the current dispute between refuse collectors represented by Unison, and the council. The dispute has been ongoing resulting in a backlog of rubbish on the streets. Towards the end of April the Chief Executive issued a statement, published on the Council website which laid the blame squarely on the binmen, and the Union for refusing to put up with revised working conditions brought about, the council says, by the Single Status agreement.
Last week the Carmarthenshire branch of Unison wrote a letter for publication in the Carmarthen Journal outlining their side of the story. The Journal contacted the council press office for a comment and shortly afterwards a senior officer from the council contacted the paper and suggested that it would be inappropriate to publish Unison's letter so close to the election.
This comes from the same council who felt it entirely appropriate to publish an article enthusing over their latest victory over the Stradey development and employing the usual tactic of condemning opponents as troublemakers who seek only to 'harm' the council. A couple of months ago the Chief Executive was allowed to have the 'last word' over a series of letters concerning the funding of legal actions, an issue which had been distorted by the council into an diverted attack on the lady who had raised the matter in the first place. The flurry of letters written after the Chief Executive's were not printed. The issue of editorial control by County Hall is not new and goes back some years.

I am publishing these statements from Unison as too often, with the attitude of County Hall, we are left with a very one-sided view of any dispute. After all, it was only a few short weeks ago that Meryl Gravell uttered her infamous speech laying the blame for 'the problems in the council' on the laziness of the staff. 

Here is the letter from Unison deemed 'too political' by a senior council officer for the Carmarthen Journal to print prior to en election;

"We would like to take this opportunity to give an alternative view to the refuse issues that have been causing Carmarthenshire County Council and some members of the public problems of late.
Despite the blame being laid firmly at the feet of the hardworking drivers and loaders, Carmarthenshire County Council Independent/labour led coalition has to take responsibility for these problems and not use the issue of single status as a smokescreen.
The Chief Executive, in his recent article fails to mention that in order to complete rounds many refuse workers would turn up early to check their lorries, work through their breaks and push themselves in order to complete rounds with the likely repercussion of physical ailments in later life. One of the many dangers of the job is having excreta sprayed over your face and clothes and of having to handle offensive waste. Ask yourself, how many refuse collectors have you seen over 50?
'Job and finish' has also been removed. Carmarthenshire County Council say that this due to wanting equality for all staff, but they fail to acknowledge that refuse workers work in rain, snow and icy conditions and are expected to work in wet clothes, at a frantic pace crossing dangerous roads for a full shift is not practical or sensible. Has there been a single complaint from other employees or the public about job and finish? The old saying that 'If it isn't broke, don't fix it' seems to apply here.
The Technical Services department has told loaders and drivers that they are no to run and not to collect refuse from both sides of the street at once; this has led to rounds taking longer to complete and a subsequent build up in refuse. Compare this to Cwm Collections [Cwm Environmental, wholly owned subsidiary of the council, see previous posts] the company which has been used to cover the unfinished rounds; it is alleged that they have been witnessed running, collecting from both sides of the street at once and not being forced to adhere to the same health and safety rules as council workers.
Along with other frontline workers, refuse loaders have been heavily hit as a result of Single Status, losing close to £2,500 in wages, losing their bonus and agreed overtime payments for Bank Holidays. Refuse collection has only worked well in this county due to the hard work and goodwill of the frontline staff. In light of these cuts is it any wonder that this goodwill has disappeared?
Compare the average wage of a refuse loader with that of the five top levels of management who were also spared from going through the single status process and were not asked to choose between a savage cut to their wages, terms and conditions, or the prospect of losing their job.
It is time that Carmarthenshire County Council owned up to the failures of Single Status and admit that it has protected the highest paid in the county while dealing a hammer blow to hard working frontline staff. Management has made several promises about the refuse collection rounds, how work is distributed, and their support for workers' single status appeals; these promises and more need to be made a reality if Carmarthenshire Council is to regain the trust and goodwill of refuse workers"

Mark Evans
Branch Secretary
Carmarthenshire County Unison Branch

 Mark Evans, Unison, has also issued this statement;

"The Unison Carmarthenshire Branch submitted this article for consideration on Tuesday 1st May. We have been informed by a source within the Carmarthen journal that when they asked Carmarthenshire Council for a statement on the issue, a senior officer advised the Journal not to print our letter before the local elections due to it's 'political nature'.
In their eventual response to our letter Carmarthenshire Council points out that Unison represents a small portion of the refuse workers. This is true, but we would fight just as hard if we had just one member in the affected service; we do not sit back and allow our members' terms and conditions to be eroded and their effectiveness as a workforce to be questioned without presenting their side of events.
The end of 'job and finish' is touted as an equality issue, but it was this perk of the job that was responsible for so much goodwill from the refuse workers. It was the possiblilty of an early finish (although we are unaware of any 'simply leaving three hours early'), that made working in soaking, cold and uncomfortable conditions bearable. With it, workers would work through breaks with the knowledge that they could get changed after completing their work, before their sodden and unclean clothes caused health problems. without it, Carmarthenshire Council must put inplace alternatives to ensure that workers do not spend overly long periods of time in adverse weather conditions and have adequate changing and break facilities away from their lorries. We would argue for the same treatment for all staff, be they refuse workers, traffic wardens, patrol staff etc and if any member works in such conditions we would urge them to speak to us so that we can take the issue up with management.
The response also mentions 'constructive discussions' that we have been involved in. We are firmly on the side of our members and to our knowledge, Carmarthenshire Council has only made some tentative suggestions, no concrete proposals as a solution to the current problem; a problem that can be summed up by saying that Carmarthenshire Council only meets it's statutory duty to collect waste by relying on the goodwill of refuse collectors, goodwill that is built on give and take. At the moment Carmarthenshire Council is 'taking' jobs, 'taking' wages and 'taking' conditions."

If anyone is under the false impression that forgoing breaks, or lumping bin bags around at speed, in the rain, to finish a round that bit quicker is a 'perk', then have a look at this; THESE are perks; Just the ticket - I doubt if many of the county's refuse collectors enjoy champagne lunches at rugby matches courtesy of property developers, or for that matter travel by train to nice hotels on the council credit cards either.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The question of leadership

Further to my previous post, rumours have been rife over the bank holiday weekend concerning the leadership of the council.
Although Plaid have cornered Carmarthen, 17 out of the 23 Labour councillors now come from Llanelli, and rumour has it that they believe their group leader should come from there. After the 2008 election, the only person available and willing to take the job of leader of the small Labour group was Kevin Madge who has spent the last four years agreeing with Meryl and her independent closet Tories. Labour, I hear, are reluctant to join the independents with Meryl at the helm and a possible contender for the post of Leader of Labour and the Council, I hear, is Bill Thomas who has now regained his seat in Lliedi after losing it in 2008. An interesting prospect, as Mr Thomas has spent the last four years as being something of a thorn in the side of County Hall, and particularly the Chief Executive, by continuing to campaign over the issue of pollution of the Burry Port inlet and the development of 355 executive homes at Stradey Park. 

Of course, if Plaid are successful in coaxing enough councillors to join them, they may have the upper hand. According to sources, Plaid may be considering a more formal link up with the independents, one offer, apparently is that Meryl will be allowed to carry on as Leader for a couple of years before passing the post onto Peter Hughes Griffiths. In which case, I imagine they wouldn't be repeating their earlier attempt to boot her out.

I am sure the results of the rumours, speculation and horse trading will emerge over the next few days and it will be interesting to see who's sitting where at next week's AGM and full council meeting (Thursday 17th May) and who's acquired the more lucrative positions. I shall be back in the public gallery and I will also be interested to see whether the 'operational decision' to unlawfully obstruct our democratic rights to observe meetings has been abandoned, if not I shall be raising my objections.

Update 1pm; BBC political correspondent has just tweeted that "Plaid - Independent coalition talks appear to be progressing fastest" whilst another source reports (unconfirmed, I hasten to add) that Cllr Gravell is busy clearing her desk at Llanelli Town Hall...if she's seen at County Hall Carmarthen loading the boot of her car with lucky gonks and framed photos of senior executives, please let me know.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

The struggle for power begins...

I see that the grappling for power in Carmarthenshire Council has begun. Plaid have issued a statement appealing to individual councillors to join their fold and adopt their manifesto. I assume the call is largely aimed at the so-called independent councillors who may think it's time to ditch Meryl as a sinking ship. The question of the integrity of any of the independent councillors to remain independent and not join any group remains to be seen. However, Labour may have beaten them to it as, according to a Plaid spokesman, the Labour group met with various independents yesterday morning at 9 o'clock, the venue having been booked over a week ago.  So it looks to me that if it's not Meryl and Mark running the show, it's likely to be Kevin and Mark, and with Kevin Madge having consistently shown his total commitment to continuing the undemocratic officer led regime, it's all looking a bit bleak.

One thing I suppose is clear and that is there are only three players in the leadership contest, Meryl Gravell, Labour's Kevin Madge or plaid's Peter Hughes Griffiths, backed by whatever deal each can muster, and as Cneifiwr points out, it may well be the promise of lucrative positions which will determine future allegiances.

Peter Hughes Griffiths, in his plea for support stated;

“In the spirit of our manifesto in which we promised to return democracy to the council, we are opening the door to councillors who can sign up to our manifesto and join us for the benefit of the county"

Interesting use of the word democracy; where have the majority of Plaid councillors been for the past few years? They may have been in opposition but they've had numbers, and public voices. Where was their objection to the change in the constitution to sue members of the public in 2008? Where was their concerted and loud opposition to more recent changes to silence minority views? Why did they not challenge the appalling and unlawful restrictions for members of the public entering the public gallery? And where were their publicly stated concerns over the decision to fund the Chief Executive's legal costs? Not to mention the Council's questionable involvement with an evangelical church or the continuing bailing out by the taxpayer of the rugby stadium.  And what about the insidious control over the local press by County Hall? Plaid's pledge to rid us of the Carmarthenshire News is to be welcomed but there are wider issues over the culture of spin and misinformation which need to be addressed.
Mumbling dissent in the Chamber is no good to anyone, once in a while you have to put your head over the parapet, and be heard, loud and clear.
If Plaid gain control, they will have to go a long way to please Caebrwyn. Not a challenge I would even waste my breath with in respect of the other two.

Oh, and, while I'm here, who will take over the mantle of 'Young People's Champion' now that veteran councillor Gwynne 'the only book worth reading is the bible' Wooldridge has lost his seat? My money's on Tom Theophilus who, as an octogenerian, has just the right qualification for those jokers in County Hall. I hope I'm wrong.

Hypocrisy in St Clears?

Back briefly to the matter of allowing the public to film council meetings. Last year, in July, not long after my arrest, St Clears Town Council (Carmarthenshire) issued this statement (my underlining);

The Town Council's Planning Committee expressed support for Carmarthenshire blogger, Jacqui Thompson, at its meeting on 14th June [2011]. This was endorsed by the full Council at its meeting on 12th July....Chair of the Planning Committee, Cllr Selwyn Runnett, commented:

"The County Council are in danger of making themselves look foolish. This story has been covered by papers such as the Guardian and The Telegraph as well as Private Eye. This is the 21st century and Council Tax payers should be entitled to record public meetings of any Council.."

Move forward now to 2012, a few weeks ago local man, Alan Evans, author of community blog, the St Clears Times put in a request to the Town Council to film it's meetings, his request was refused almost unanimously, the only dissenter, I believe, was Cllr Runnett who has maintained his support for openness through filming. The (now usual) fears were expressed that 'context may be lost' and they, the council should have control over filming. Mr Evans has raised previous concerns about how the town council has been operating, he has used the proper channels, sought answers and, basically, as any of us will be aware who have tried to raise a concern involving any issue greater than a local pothole, got nowhere. His reasons for wishing to film sounds familiar;

"I made a request to film the meeting as I felt that discussions were taking place and the minutes did not reflect these discussions. In the interests of democracy and open local government I made a request. Previously I had made a request to digitally record sound only and this was also refused on the grounds that the sound could be doctored....I also pointed out that the Town Council had discussed your case and decided to support you and condemn Carmarthenshire County Council's decision. Hypocrisy reigns..
A camera pointed to cover the whole room running all the time is hardly rocket science. What are they afraid of...?"

So, not only Mr Evans but the residents of St Clears and so far, the whole of Carmarthenshire are left with the 'context' as determined and controlled by the very councils who should be open to public scrutiny and who are so obviously reluctant to allow that to happen, and who continue to give the impression rightly or wrongly, that they have something to hide. As I have pointed out many times the minutes of county council meetings are 'selective', often inaccurate and not subject to adequate review prior to approval. In other words, 'doctored'. If the County Council decides to record it's meetings we are again at the mercy of public image 'editing', it is essential that, alongside webcasting or whatever mode it may or may not use, the public are freely afforded the chance to record meetings as a proper balance, nothing less than complete openness should be, or will be, tolerated. It's unlikely that there will be an enormous rush by members of the public to record the deliberations of our town and community councils, but the principle needs to be established that if they want to, they can.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Carmarthenshire Election Results

Well, I didn't win the election, and for the record, veteran sitting councillor Tom Theophilus had 307 votes, I had 264 and the Tory candidate had 136. I am very grateful for all the support I have had both locally and online and there's always next time. Naturally, I shall be back in the public gallery at the next meeting of full council. Onwards and upwards.

The overall results are disappointing to say the very least, I have not digested the full implications but Plaid have 29 seats, Labour and Meryl's Independents 22 seats apiece; fortunately Cllr Sian Caiach (People First) was returned to provide one challenging voice in the Chamber, sadly Arthur Davies and Marion Binney will now not be joining her. Meryl Gravell squeezed back in and Pam Palmer, Kevin Madge, and most of the usual suspects were returned. I suppose Meryl and Madge may form  another coalition and we'll be back where we started, or maybe Plaid will strike a deal. With the independents losing eleven seats to Labour, I imagine the phones will be buzzing over the bank holiday. Unbelievably, Ivor Jackson was also returned back in Llandovery.
If this is democracy then I despair.

Prior to the count I was highly amused to be approached by Pam Palmer herself who seemed to be trying to make overtures in the event of my success - what was she thinking?! She also said that there was no need to mention this on my blog. Naturally I assured her I wouldn't. Sorry Pam, couldn't resist it.
I decided against sharing the stage with the Chief Executive/Returning Officer Mark James for the Cilycwm results but came back into the hall in time to see a triumphant Kevin Madge (Garnant ward) waving his arms around, fortunately victory speeches weren't allowed and we were spared his usual endless drone of tributes.

As I was leaving I saw the Director of Education (not quite sure why he was there), Mr Robert Sully warmly congratulating Cllr Theophilus on his success, no doubt delighted to have his continuing, undying support of the closure of Pantycelyn School, Llandovery. I have no doubt that he gave Cllr Jackson a big hug too.

I assume Plaid Cymru will attempt to gain some power, it's the best we can hope for under the circumstances but I am sure the senior management of the council will be relieved that the status quo is almost intact and they, rather than the councillors can continue to run the show; the white elephants can relax and the questionable spending decisions remain unchallenged. The dire budget cuts can be nodded through with no elections to fret about and it will be left to a couple of bloggers to keep an eye on things.
Commiserations to all those candidates who stood with the noble intentions of making a difference in Carmarthenshire, don't give up, there's more than one way to skin a cat.

For now, and for your information, here's the full results from the council website (now including Town and Community Councils);

5th May; With the political horse trading underway, today's Evening Post reports on the possible shifting of power within the council; whatever happens I daresay it will be a case of same horse, different jockey. I would, of course, be happy to be proved wrong.

Here is Mr Meryl; or as Labour leader, Cllr Kevin Madge has described them, the 'dream team'.

(photo via Evening Post website)

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Ivor goes to vote....

Council Chair Ivor Jackson goes to vote........

Double yellows?...on a junction?.....perhaps he can't afford the parking charges in Llandovery......

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Carmarthenshire Council Elections - a reminder

Just a reminder to the electors of Carmarthenshire to please pop out and vote tomorrow. I am, of course, standing for Cilycwm ward and will find out on Friday whether I shall be in the Chamber or back to being locked in the public gallery at the next council meeting. I do not think this is the time to air my opinions on the tactics of opposing candidates although I believe there has been something of a campaign by one of them, as a puppet of the ruling Independents, to keep me out of County Hall. There is plenty of time for all that though, after the results.

I shall be at the count on Friday and hope that the results will bring an end to the Meryl and Madge fiasco which has dominated Carmarthenshire Council for the past umpteen years. A fiasco which has led to a systematic erosion of democracy through their continual unquestioning lap-dog support of unelected senior officers, to put it bluntly.
The cabinet system is not conducive to healthy debate at the best of times, and the senior management of Carmarthenshire Council along with the Executive Board have manipulated this to the nth degree resulting in a virtual dictatorship. Even minority voices amongst the back-bench councillors have been subdued by the recent insistence that motions to full council are accompanied by seven seconders.  As for public opinion and opposition, it is (at best) completely ignored and at worst, vilified as 'unfortunate', 'misleading' or 'lacking common sense' to give just three recent examples. Carmarthenshire needs, a strong contingent of vociferous and determined back benchers, as well as a new Executive Board who's loyalties lie with the residents rather than the unelected officers and who, it has to be said, will welcome the observing public rather than locking them up.

As the council themselves were so fond of saying over the closure of Pantycelyn School; "the status quo is not an option" - please bear this general thought in mind when you vote tomorrow. Another five years of the same nonsense and old boy cronyism doesn't bear thinking about, it's time to move on.