Thursday, 29 November 2012

Money trees, and a Motion on filming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cllr Hughes Griffiths has now submitted this;

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

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

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

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Carmarthenshire Council part 94 - back in Private Eye

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

My earlier post here; Googling a name

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Costa fortune - part two

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carmarthenshire council and corporate hubris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's her letter;

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

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

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

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

These are the questions which now need addressing;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

H Thomas
Cross Hands

That, don't forget, was in 2006.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

BBC Radio Wales and the public gallery - updated

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Costa fortune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Llanelli Star report here)

Monday, 19 November 2012

Executive Board - and no public filming

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

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

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

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

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

This as you will no doubt guess was thrown out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Thoughts on the Police Commissioner election

The Police Commissioner elections passed by yesterday and here in Dyfed Powys we now have a Tory Commissioner, does that mean he'll try and privatise Dyfed Powys Police? Probably not. With a turnout of 17.1% he hasn't much of a mandate either. Although he does have a salary of £64,000 for consolation. The great British electorate decided to live up to the long running press predictions of a very poor turnout, and after being told for so many months that 'there was very little interest' in the whole thing, decided to take very little interest. I'm not sure what came first, the apathy or the reported apathy.

Maybe people just think that experienced police officers would do a better job of controlling the budget and setting priorities than a politician. Politicians are as experienced in the art electioneering promises of 'putting more bobbies on the beat' or 'making your streets safer', as we are sick of hearing them. Will the new Tory Commissioner, along with the revamped Police Authority, the Police and Crime Panel, lobby his own government against cuts? Unlikely, not that the Labour candidate would have had any effect either.

Much has been said about the role of making the police accountable. For most people that only means one thing, an independent body which will investigate wrongful arrests, police corruption, being at the beck and call of council officials, etc; and for that purpose we have the IPCC, the effectiveness of which is arguable too of course. So the element of accountability will be based on the democratic election of  Commissioner, who, along with his Panel made up of selected County Councillors and retired hill farmers (most will have both those qualifications), will cut crime and make our streets safer....

Accountability, I suspect, will revolve around the meeting of performance and efficiency targets, and suchlike, or not meeting them, then discussing it all in detail at a committee meeting...The committee (and I dare say a sub-committee will have been formed by then), will resolve to contact the Chief Constable to express their concerns....the Chief Constable will reply and say that it was they who set the budget and they who set the priorities....All of which will be discussed in great detail at the next committee meeting....and so on.

So maybe it's not apathy which caused the poor turn out, but the fact that the British public are only too aware of how these things work.

Anyway, for your information here's the result of the election in Dyfed Powys;
Christopher Salmon (Con) 32,887
Christine Gwyther (Lab) 31,773

Of the 17.1% who turned out to vote, 520 voted for both candidates, 309 didn't vote for either of them, and 2075 were 'void for uncertainty', or perhaps had made their feelings know directly into the ballot box.

(and for further reading concerning the hiring and firing of Chief Constables, specifically in Dyfed Powys Police, have a look at this interesting post from blogger Richard Taylor back in June; Central Government Influencing Local Appointment of Chief Constables.)

The council and the evangelical church - my guest post on Secular Wales

Just a link to a post I've written for the Secular Wales blog about Carmarthenshire County Council and the Towy Community Church;

(further posts can be found on this blog, most recently here)

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Sainsbury's withdraws Llandeilo application

The news that Sainsbury's has withdrawn it's application for a store in Llandeilo will be greeted with mixed views in my locality, with opinions typically polarised.
However, this decision and the ongoing saga raise some very serious questions. Still, and most importantly perhaps, the council's relationship with this giant retailer and why the council website was used to promote it's application. The Ombudsman is currently investigating the Council Leader's actions over that council press release.

Local MP Jonathan Edwards has issued this statement this evening;

“Sainsbury’s withdrawing the application simply on the basis that the Welsh government has called-in the proposal following its referral by Carmarthenshire County Council shows complete disregard for the national democratic planning process. If delay and uncertainty was the deciding factor, Sainsbury’s would have also withdrawn the Cross Hands application.

“The comments of Welsh government planning officers on the supermarket developments suggest there are concerns regarding the accumulative effect to existing businesses and also question a significant omission in the assessment of the proposals. Sainsbury’s has to yet to comment on those specific issues.

“The local authority, led by the Council Leader, has attacked Mr. Edwards and Mr. Thomas for representing their constituents. Serious questions remain unanswered regarding the Council’s relationship with the supermarket giant and why taxpayers’ resources were used to act as a mouthpiece for this multi-million pound retailer.

“Considering that Sainsbury’s has continued with one application and not the other, it was obviously aware that both applications together contravened Welsh planning policy and would therefore have been refused when called-in. That is why it’s pulled the Llandeilo application. It raises questions about why the applications were recommended for approval in the first instance.

“It is clear the Council’s executive and Sainsbury’s are unhappy with their actions being scrutinised. The decision to withdraw the planning application indicates serious flaws in the planning process and disdain for planning legislation.”

(link here)

Doctor in autism case guilty of serious misconduct

Further to my previous post, Council apologise to parents of autistic girl, the GMC fitness to practice hearing for the doctor appointed by Carmarthenshire County Council has continued this week. Last night, Dr Rowan Wilson was found guilty of serious misconduct but was ruled fit to practice as he had shown remorse and insight into the errors he was "highly unlikely to repeat". The Tribunal also invited legal submissions on whether to impose a warning on his registration as a doctor.

Dr Wilson's lawyer said that he had acted in good faith but had been misled by a care worker, employed by Carmarthenshire Council, acting on a "very significant element of malice". An expert witness said that one simple phone call (or a google search for that matter) would have alerted him to the unreliability of Facilitated Communication.

The GMC lawyer said that while the major culpability lay with Carmarthenshire County Council, social workers and care workers, Dr Wilson's report had played a major part in keeping the autistic woman, now 21, from her parents. As a result she has suffered long term effects, remains distressed and finds it very difficult to leave her home.

As for Carmarthenshire Council, the Ombudsman has given his ruling of 'significant injustice', but the question still remains as to why senior officers, including those from the Social Care department failed to heed early warnings and were complicit in the near destruction of this family. It is also still the case that the private care company remain subcontracted by the council and continue to provide respite care to families with autistic children.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Filming on the Agenda

The agenda for next Monday's Executive Board meeting has been published and a packed programme it looks like too. 

The highly inadequate proposed pilot to record full council meetings is up for approval, and according to Kev at the last council meeting, this will be supported. What is less clear is whether the recommendation for the Council to 'allow' filming of council meetings by members of the public will also be supported, I shall be at the meeting so will let you know how it goes. If approved then the report will be sent to full council for deliberation.

Other delights on the agenda include Plaid's Motion to support Unison's call for a 'Living Wage' for the lowest paid council workers (doesn't sound promising according to the report), and also the Council budget for next year which will support the 'Living in Luxury Wage' for senior Council officers.

The budget will not be fully approved until February 2013. The main report (like last year, badly formatted, you have to scroll down) contains the details of the cutbacks, job losses and increased charges proposed over the next couple of years. Included in the report is £218,000 to be generated from increased parking charges and the removal of sixth form transport from the 1st September 2014. Forty jobs within council run care homes will go as the service is 'reviewed' and around £400,000 saved each year through, I suspect, closure of homes. Outsourcing the leisure centres is also on the cards and £180,000 will be used from the revenue budget to support the Eastgate development, and the Nottingham based developers. As for the Council's latest brainwave, the 'Beacon' business hub in Llanelli, long term funding is looking doubtful, so look out for another set of council offices moving in there.

....And no decent Carmarthenshire Executive Board meeting would be complete without an exempt report. Fresh from top secret discussions on public toilets at the last meeting, Monday's will be on the 'Cross Hands East Strategic Employment Site' which is also the site of one of the called-in Sainsbury's applications. We can only guess at the contents, as no further details are provided, maybe they're going to try and explain themselves to Lord Sainsbury as to why things are not going quite according to plan.... (15th Nov, my correction; Sainsbury's relates to the Cross Hands West site, not East, although with the retailer withdrawing the Llandeilo application today perhaps the council's relationship with Lord Sainsbury is on even shakier ground)

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Scrutiny Powers - remember?

Yesterday's Western Mail reports on how Cardiff Council's cabinet member for the economy is being called to answer questions in front of a scrutiny committee of councillors over the council's decision to buy a five acre site for £7.25m. I don't know the details of the decision but what interest me is that the scrutiny committee will add an extra level of democratic debate to what is clearly a major decision.

This serves as a timely reminder to Carmarthenshire Councillors that they too have this power, they can also call-in decisions made by the Executive Board and/or senior officers and request that the appropriate Executive Member or officer attends a scrutiny meeting to answer their concerns. I can think of several decisions which could have benefited from further scrutiny, and also a few ombudsman reports but, as you may expect, the Chief Executive and/or the Monitoring Officer has the right to veto any call-in, which, in Carmarthenshire, is a significant obstacle.


The minutes have been published from last week's full council meeting. As I said, it was fairly brief, but the 'official record' is even briefer. The minutes from the previous meeting were signed off as correct without question it seems, clearly Cllr Caiach's query as to why her request to record meetings wasn't minuted for the third time and the lengthy discussion about filming meetings didn't actually happen.

Amongst other things that 'didn't happen' was the discussion over the mysterious connection between Sainsbury's, the land deal and the school extension in Cross Hands.

Then we come to the Eastgate vision. I could have sworn I heard several councillors raising concerns about the wisdom of underwriting the costs to the Nottingham developer to the tune of £5m over twenty years by renting office space back off them, as well as spending £450,000 to subdivide the said offices, approved two days earlier at the Executive Board meeting. The carefully polished minutes merely state the official council spin; office staff will increase 'footfall' and surplus offices will be 'rationalised' - clearly the intent is to open council offices within every vanity project the taxpayer is forced to finance.


Whilst the Councillor's Allowance search facility on the council website continues to be a confused mess of double entries and missing claim forms, I was wondering how much in the way of expenses certain councillors receive for being on various external bodies, often paid by the bodies themselves, but public money all the same. Cllr Madge, for instance, is one of four deputy Chairs of the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) and of course Meryl sat on it for several years. Back in September 2010 the Executive Board, on the recommendation of the BMG (the Business Management Group, party leaders and officers as far as we know - no agendas, no minutes) decided that these expenses should be listed. They included;
Brecon Beacons National Park Authority;
Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Authority;
West Wales Valuation Tribunal;
APSE (Association of Public Sector Excellence)
Welsh Local Government Association;
Dyfed Powys Police Authority;
Hywel Dda Community Health Council;
South Wales Sea Fisheries Committee;
CAVS (Carmarthenshire Association of Voluntary Services)

According to the 2011/2012 record of all payments to councillors, only the first two are listed, the BBNPA and the MWWFA. The Police Authority, after the election on Thursday, will become the Police and Crime Panel, still with Member representation. The WLGA website itself has no details of expenses paid to members or, for that matter the salaries of it's senior executives. I'm not saying that reasonable expenses should not be paid for members to attend the vast array of committees and panels which form a sub-strata of  Welsh governance, but transparency, as always, helps.

And do we know the expenses and allowances claimed by senior officers who sit on various Panels, Boards, Quangos and Committees from which to rule the empire? Of course not. Not a whisper.

Monday, 12 November 2012

'Googling' a name....

A few weeks ago Carmarthenshire Council tourism officers reacted to a negative article in a magazine called 'The Oldie' by inviting the writer, a Mr Wilfred De'ath, back to the county to stay in five star accommodation (all expenses paid apart from the train fare, as I understand it) to re-sample the culinary delights of our county. They also sent him a lot of cheese.

The object of the exercise was, understandably, to raise the profile of the county as a tourist destination after Mr De'Ath, who lives in Cambridgeshire said he'd 'rather die than spend another 2 days in Carmarthenshire'. Quite how widespread and influential the 'Oldie' magazine is I don't know. The return visit was also reported in the Carmarthen Journal.

Anyway, the object of this blogpost is to suggest to Carmarthenshire Council that sometimes it's a good idea to Google a name before sending out invitations, and cheese, this can be particularly informative if the name is unusual. If they had 'done a quick google' they would have seen several articles including this from 2006, where Mr De'Ath proudly recounts his years spent conning various hotels, for which he did a couple of spells inside. As well as treating with caution the words of a convicted fraudster, they may have also seen this article in Private Eye, and presumably they haven't missed today's news from the Daily Mail in relation to the Jimmy Savile arrests...Mr De'Ath is now out on police bail 'pending inquiries'.

Update 29th November 2012; This story has now appeared in Private Eye, see here

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Llanelli Town website

Just a brief plug for 'Your Llanelli', a great example of a local community website, regularly updated with news, views, videos and everything you need to know about Llanelli and the surrounding area.

I have a slightly ulterior motive in promoting the site as it features contributions from an assortment of regular columnists...and one of the newest ones is me!

The homepage is here;

and Jacqui Thompson's 'Democracy Watch' (well...what did you think it would be about?) can be found here;

Promoting Sainsbury's...again

According to the last meeting of the Standards Committee, a report was supposed to be presented to last week's meeting of full council on the "promotion of economic growth in the county". The report would contain specific reference to Sainsbury's ambitions to develop stores at Cross Hands and Llandeilo. The Standards Committee had to decide whether thirteen councillors who were members of the Co-op (two had also received contributions towards election expenses), could speak and vote at the full council meeting. The Co-op, had made objections to the two stores.

The report didn't appear at last week's meeting, and we now know that the Leader, Cllr Madge is being investigated by the Ombudsman over the now infamous 'Sainsbury's press release' on the council website.
The minutes of the Standards Committee provide a little more information as to the content of the (as yet unseen) report, which included a recommendation that the full council agree "to request the Welsh Government Minister to determine the ‘call in request’ as soon as possible". 

Despite the council solicitor suggesting that, as no planning decision was being taken, the thirteen should be able to speak and vote, the committee decided that, as there was likely to be considerable debate over the supermarket applications, it would be impossible to control the contributions by the thirteen Co-op members. Their applications to speak and vote were refused.

The question here is not so much about the possibility of opposition from the rank and file of the Co-op Party, whenever the report is aired, but the decision to write the report, after the call-in, which promotes the interests, and planning applications of a private company under the misleading guise of the 'economic' profile of Carmarthenshire.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

November Council meeting - short and not so sweet

Today's meeting was a relatively brief affair lasting exactly one hour and fifteen minutes. There were, of course, no uncomfortable ombudsman reports to discuss nor awkward Motions to debate, all shoved in a drawer until, it is hoped, things have blown over. Since the last meeting it appears that those in charge, have ensured there is no more nonsense, nothing will be mentioned unless it is specifically on the agenda, apart from items which do not reflect badly on the authority of course.

After the usual hatched, matched and dispatched announcements it was time to sign off last month's minutes. No one appeared to have the will to put up a fight, apart from Cllr Caiach who asked why her request for councillors to make their own recordings of meetings was not minuted for the third time, she made the point that this was separate from the filming proposals, and was there anything in any of their rules which prevented her from doing so anyway? Her last point was politely ignored. The Chair again said she was waiting for the report from the Task and Finish Group (who, we now know, weren't looking at this anyway).

Cllr Madge, the Leader said that the Executive Board will be supporting the filming recommendations at their next meeting (19th November) and blustered on about how 'open' this council was. Plaid Cllr Lenny, sensing perhaps that Cllr Madge had forgotten about the public filming amendment welcomed the leader's support and the fact that the public would be able to come in and film or record freely.

At this point Meryl Gravell and Pam Palmer looked very alarmed and Meryl rose to speak, they had to think of the cost, she said, so it had to be a pilot of only full council meetings and they had to make sure that no one would be able to just come in and film parts of the meeting and possibly misrepresent the situation. Unlike the Minutes, I could have said. Pam Palmer seemed perturbed that the great unwashed may be about to burst through the doors wielding mobile cameras and said that this discussion was a 'non-event' as it had to be sanitised at the Exec Board meeting and then discussed at full council.

It will be very interesting to see what happens over the extra amendment, and I shall be at the Executive Board meeting to find out.

Cllr Caiach also brought up the question of 'off-agenda' items, you may remember the email circulated after the last meeting which warned of possible legal challenges should such items be discussed, she asked whether this had ever happened. The acting head of law didn't divulge whether it had. Strangely, this didn't stop lengthy debates and political grandstanding over the Living Wage proposals, cuts to EU funding or the public sector pension Bill. None of which were on the agenda.

Unlike the last meeting where the attempt to bring up the  Sainsbury's debate under the 'Improvement Plan' was silenced under 'procedural rules', this time, again under the same 'Plan' the  'procedural rules' were forgotten as the Plaid Leader challenged Labour's Cllr Madge over his party's support to cut EU funding, quite a lot of which makes it's way to Carmarthenshire. The debate carried on despite not being on the agenda and Cllr Madge responded that it was all a matter of Westminster politics, they were in a 'bubble' up there and Cllr Griffiths was just playing politics, and he didn't want jobs threatened, etc..

Cllr Caiach attempted to say that they were more likely to be penalised by the EU anyway for non-compliance with EU environmental directives,  and mentioned the Burry Port estuary pollution, at this point she was silenced. The agenda had suddenly been remembered.

The next non-agenda item up for discussion was the Living Wage. This, as well as the EU funding issue, and pension cuts (the Plaid leader asked Cllr Madge to apologise for his party abstaining against the public sector pensions bill, Plaid had voted against it, Cllr Madge skirted the issue by accusing Cllr Griffiths of playing politics and talked about Westminster bubbles again) are all important of course and discussion is welcomed; but these are clearly fairly countrywide issues and are not likely to result in red faces and awkward questions about ombudsmen, for instance.

Unlike several other Welsh Councils, Cardiff, Neath Port Talbot and Swansea, Carmarthenshire's Labour led lot don't seem quite as committed to the Living Wage, Cllr Madge, with one eye on the Director of Resources questioned whether they could afford it, people might lose benefits, it will mean job cuts, what about benefit reforms etc. Plaid insisted that the least they could do was help their lowest paid staff, a couple of thousand of whom were paid £1.26 below the proposed minimum wage, a thirteenth the salary of the most senior officer. I happen to agree.

During all this chat about low wages, benefits and the peasantry, the podium of mostly silent senior officers started to look a bit distracted....

Rural problems were raised next and primary school closures. Cllr Williams who represents a north Carmarthenshire ward was concerned that, should the council proposals to 'reorganise' go though, it would mean 4 year olds travelling 15 miles to school, another said that due to closures, their remaining school was oversubscribed and village children had to go elsewhere. The Chief Executive said that it was all very difficult and they couldn't please everyone and Cllr Madge waded in to say he now fully understood rural problems and was currently touring the wilderness visiting them all.

Next was the interesting puzzle of how the Cross Hands Sainsbury deal tied in with the extension to Maes yr Yrfa school, hinted at in the controversial Sainsbury's press release. Cllr Caiach asked how the land transfer would affect the school. Unfortunately we're still in the dark but it appears that the council have made a deal with Sainsbury's over the land, the revenue from which, I assume, will be funding the extension, perhaps it will be called the Jamie Oliver Canteen? All we learned from the Chief Executive was that if the store is refused through the call-in then the extension is back to the drawing board.

Clearly the council are funding the education budget on the basis of planning permission for major retailers.

The last gasps of the meeting brought some awkward moments as a few councillors questioned the Vision of Eastgate, Llanelli; the latest vanity project currently dominating the council press office.

As I have said the council have committed £250,000 per annum for twenty years for office space, and on Monday will rubber stamp £450,000 to redesign the floor plan. Was the move permanent? What would happen to Ty Elwyn (the old offices). Apparently it was well, sort of permanent but if any private businesses came along the council would move out, one had almost moved into part of the offices but had pulled out, another was considering a move.

The Executive Board Member for Money said that footfall and spending in the town centre would increase as council staff would now be there, I guess they're hoping it won't be the low paid ones though.  Cllr Caiach asked how much of the £450,000, and £250,000 rent would be paid by the private company? The Chief Executive didn't say, maybe the private company were only going to rent a small cupboard, who knows.

Cllr Caiach mentioned that the aim was to attract footfall from outside Llanelli and by simply moving the stadium, the theatre and the cinema from one side of town to another wasn't achieving this. The Chief Executive was not pleased of course at this criticism, and seemed almost on the brink of offering Cllr Caiach a tour of the council's achievements around the county again, fearing perhaps she may of finally taken him up on his offer and provide the sandwiches if he brings a flask.

And on that wonderful note the meeting ended. I took the opportunity during the escorted exit to go and check along with a fellow inmate to see whether the 'Keep Clear - Fire Exit' door to the outside world was still locked. It certainly is.

My letter in the Western Mail - putting the record straight

Today's Western Mail has published my letter replying to the Leader of the council, Cllr Madge. This is the third piece of correspondence; my first letter can be linked to here and Cllr Madge's response is here (The Minister,Carl Sargeant replied to me here).
It's all self-explanatory really and all concerns, of course, the public gallery. Presumably, when the Executive Board, er, wholeheartedly embrace the cross-party motion to 'allow' the public to film, and the non-existent rule is even more non-existent, all restrictions will be cast aside......

Here's my letter;

Council openness 
SIR – I would like to reply to the letter from Carmarthenshire council’s Mr Kevin Madge (Oct 29) regarding the entry procedures to the public gallery. 
Firstly, I strongly dispute allegations that I have disrupted any meetings. Quietly filming a meeting is not in any way disruptive.
Mr Madge refers to “rules” governing meetings, these are standing orders. Maybe Mr Madge should familiarise himself with them, he would then realise in there is no mention whatsoever of filming or recording meetings, let alone any prohibition. 
To insist that visitors, including a child, be made to sign an undertaking agreeing to comply with a non-existent rule is at best unwelcoming and at worst unlawful. 
Visitors are also escorted to and from the gallery by two members of staff and locked in. There were no fire risk assessments carried out when these arrangements were implemented by senior officers last year. We are now told to wait in the gallery to be rescued in the event of a fire. 
I am also surprised that Mr Madge is unaware that the 15-year-old, Jeno Davies, was required to sign, especially as this is the second time this has happened, the first being in January when he was 14. 
On both occasions his mother made his age very clear to the staff at reception, they then contacted officers by phone to clarify that he did in fact have to sign, and the officers confirmed that he did. 
As for Mr Madge’s comment that “it was a school day”, I have since been made aware that Jeno is registered home educated and very interested in local politics. 
The council is not committed to transparency at all. The pilot broadcasts, if they go ahead will be selectively edited, pre-recorded videos, not live-streamed. By the time they’re cleansed and uploaded it will be about as informative as a two-week-old newspaper. 
Mr Madge refers to his “commitment” to transparency, this was how the filming proposals were worded in the Forward Work programme in July: “Whilst we are anxious not to waste local taxpayer’s money with frivolous or perceived populist ideas, we will shortly receive the findings of the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee review of E-Government which is recommending that the council trial the filming and webcasting of council meetings. Such a pilot would enable us to judge whether there is a genuine interest across the county with ordinary members of the public, rather than single campaigners.” 
Carmarthenshire council continues to fail to grasp the concept of openness and democracy and strives to silence its critics while committing a large part of its shrinking budget to one of the largest PR departments in Welsh local authorities. 
And may I suggest that it would have been far better to have issued a simple, sincere apology to Jeno Davies and his mum. My advice to Ms Davies would be to make a complaint to the Ombudsman. 
Llanwrda, Carmarthenshire

Here's a link to the Western Mail letters page, 7th November 2012, my letter is the second one down.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Social media guidance....and other news

According to the agenda for the next Policy and Resources scrutiny meeting, the 'E-Government' report, which includes the pilot to record (and edit) meetings, along with its amendment to 'allow' the public to film, will be considered by the Executive Board on the 19th November. Not to be missed methinks.

The minutes of the last Policy and Resources meeting were published today which records the public filming amendment and the question was raised as to why the group didn't consider recording by the members of the public during the 18 month was 'not in part of their remit'  apparently. Why not?

The next meeting of this committee will be looking at the half yearly 'complaints and compliments' report which shows an 84% increase in the number of complaints from the same time the year before, I mentioned the wide fluctuations in figures back in September (at the end of this  post), and wondered whether someone had been using a faulty calculator. This alarming upward trend was helped along by a few "complaints for Administration and Law in relation to how we handle people visiting the public gallery during meetings". Predictably the document is silent on any corresponding 'service improvement recommendations' for this item....

I recently asked for a copy of the council's most recent social media guidance for staff and members. I was more interested in whether Members could tweet at meetings etc but there was no mention of any of that. The guidance, which I imagine is nothing unusual, dates from August 2011 and consists largely of the perils of commenting on social networking sites, including Blogs (with a capital 'B');

".....however it is acknowledged that, following a number of recent incidences [incidents?] publicised within the media, there is the potential for such sites to blur the boundaries between personal and employment lives.
Therefore, it is important that all employees are mindful that, when using such sites, they must consider the potential impact of their actions on their contract of employment with the Council. Employees must remember that anything posted on a social networking site is in the public domain and reflects on the individual as an employee of the Authority......
To breach confidentiality
To criticise or abuse users of the Authority’s services, any other Council
employee or elected members
To bring the Authority or any of its employees and/or its elected
members into disrepute
During working hours
......Employees are advised that the publishing of any inappropriate, inaccurate or
defamatory information/ material in the public domain may result in
disciplinary action being taken by the Council in accordance with its
Disciplinary Policy & Procedure.  Furthermore, in certain circumstances, civil
court proceedings could ensue..."

The full guidance can be seen here (Pdf)

Still on the subject of FoI requests, I notice that someone else is asking the council a few questions about their partnership with the Towy Community Church;
My request for correspondence between the council and the evangelical church is still with the Information Commissioner;

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Council apologise to parents of autistic girl - updated

Update 13th November;
The Western Mail has reported on Dr Rowan Wilson's fitness to practice hearing before the General Medical Council this week. Dr Wilson was appointed by Carmarthenshire Council to provide an initial assessment of the girl's capacity, he has admitted he had no knowledge of Facilitated Communication (FC), nor it's profound limitations.
He also failed to consider the discrepancy between the girl's autism and her apparent language fluency using FC.
The article provides some more detail of the appalling events including the mother's suggestion that the allegations were made after the family fell out with the care workers, sub-contracted by Carmarthenshire Council to provide 29 hours per week of respite care. She gave her daughter £10 a day for lunch and it was after she queried why the care workers didn't provide receipts that the allegations were made.

The Western Mail article is here


Another serious complaint to the Ombudsman against Carmarthenshire Council has been upheld. It concerns the Adult Social Care Department of the Council.

The report, from August 2012, although available on request from the Ombudsman's website, has not been generally published. Welsh language magazine, Golwg carried an article last week about the report and, as certain legal matters relating to this case are still ongoing, I am merely providing an English translation without further comment, apart from a small section at the end;

The Council has had to apologize to the parents of an autistic girl who was taken from them to a care home for six months.

The order was made ​​following an investigation by the Ombudsman. According to his report into the case, the parents of the girl, aged 21, had suffered "significant injustice" and ordered the council to pay £1200 "in recognition of the injustice" and £250 for the time and trouble to complain about the case.

Golwg understands that the parents are taking legal action against the council so they do not want to speak publicly at this time.

The Ombudsman's report, which includes the statement that "the council could have done better in making a communication plan with the family earlier ..." will be discussed in due course.
The council insists that lessons have been learned and have acted on the recommendations of the Ombudsman.

According to the complaint to the Ombudsman, staff from the company who were working with the girl said that she had made serious allegations. The information was then transferred to the county council's social services department in October 2010.

Although the father says that the allegations were malicious, he accepted that they had to be investigated, and that the council must follow the policy to protect vulnerable adults.  As the police become involved, the parents were arrested two weeks after the girl was moved to a care home.

Cllr Sian Caiach, who has supported the family for the past two years said;

"This very vulnerable young woman spent almost 6 months confined in a care home against her will, unable to understand what had happened to her parents who had cared for her all her life and were not there any more. Her mother and father were beside themselves with worry and accused of terrible crimes. These are times of austerity but the private carers provided for "H" with public money were clearly not only poorly prepared for their task in training and experience, but dangerous. They very nearly destroyed three people's lives. The story is a catastrophe caused by several errors but the main one was skimping on the quality of care for "H" to start with."

The family and carers used the facilitated communication method for people who have difficulty speaking. This means that they help her to communicate by pointing to cards with letters on them. But some experts argue that the helpers can influence what is being said.

Although the ombudsman's report acknowledges that the council "has faced an extremely difficult case" it also noted that this method of communicating was "unreliable" and that "several of the council officers should have realized sooner that the facilitated communication method is very doubtful,

"this would have led to a reassessment of the capacity of H (the young woman) much earlier, and as a result the outcome would be different. The likelihood is that H would have returned home two months earlier. This represents a significant injustice to Mr and Mrs "J" (the parents) "
The council had reached the wrong conclusions about the woman's ability to make decisions, and it was a terrible experience, almost destroying the lives of family - the girl and her parents.

In a statement to Golwg, a Council spokesman said;

"This has been a very difficult and complex case. The council has accepted the findings of the Ombudsman’s report and has complied with the recommendations made. This has been a highly unusual case, and one from which lessons have been learned by all the professionals concerned In particular, those aspects relating to the decision making process in relation to capacity, facilitated communication and communicating with the family."

With regard to Facilitated Communication, despite early warnings to the Council that this was a very unreliable measure of either mental capacity or evidence of abuse, it was not until a respected expert in capacity assessment carried out tests under laboratory conditions, did it become clear that H's responses were being led by the facilitators.


In the mid-1990's the American Psychological Association reported on the failings of Facilitated Communication. In 2001 Dame Butler-Sloss issued a judgement in the case of Re D (Evidence;Facilitated Communication) [2001] 1 FLR 148 and commented that the method was "dangerous" and "had no more scientific validity than a Ouija board".

She went on to say that the technique should not be used in courts to back up or dismiss claims of abuse, "Facilitated Communication may be viewed with the greatest possible caution unless further evidence is would be wise that the courts should pay the greatest possible attention to the advice of the American Psychological Association that information obtained by facilitated communication should not be used to confirm allegation of abuse"

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Weekend round up

Local Plaid Cymru AM, Rhodri Glyn Thomas tweeted yesterday that "Kevin Madge, this morning acknowledges he was wrong on Cross Hands" Clearly the prospect of the impending investigation has prompted a bit of backtracking from Labour's Cllr Madge in the form of a letter to the AM. However, yesterday's Evening Post reports that he will "robustly defend the allegations" and the offending press release is still on the council website.
The saga continues.

Also absent of course, from either the Executive or full council is any mention of the filming of meetings, I would imagine this thorny issue will be ignored for as long as possible.

Sainsbury's cropped up again at last week's meeting of the Standards Committee as thirteen councillors, who are members of the Co-op, sought permission from the council lawyers to speak and/or vote at next week's council meeting. The summary states that  "On 7th November 2012 a report will be presented to full Council upon the steps being taken to promote economic growth in the County. The report will refer specifically to the proposed Sainsbury’s stores in Llandeilo and Cross Hands, the latter having been the subject of an objection by the Co-operative Society". Perhaps I'm missing something but I can't see a report on the agenda, if and when a report does appear I wonder how many other private companies have been named in the council's plan for economic growth? Frankie and Benny's? Costa Coffee?

Monday's Executive Board will consider an exempt report over the transfer of public toilets to community councils, clearly containing extremely sensitive information, perhaps even involving national security, so the press and public will be booted out.

There have been recent rumblings about the off-loading of toilets, sports pavilions, parks, bus shelters and day centres in the County. They are non-statutory services, meaning the council doesn't have to provide them, so to save money, they don't. The big idea was to chuck a lump sum £500 - £1000 to volunteers or community councils and tell them to get on with it themselves. According to sources, and raised briefly at last month's council meeting (swiftly silenced) things are not going quite as planned and in some areas the volunteers are struggling to maintain services.

Not struggling of course is the latest project, the Eastgate Centre in Llanelli. Heavily subsidised with the gift of £3m - £4m of council owned land the Nottingham based developers, they will also enjoy £250,000 per year guaranteed income by renting a whole floor to the council. The council will have to redesign the open plan office, and we learn from Monday's Executive Board meeting that this will cost a mere £450,000 to be taken from the 'reserves'.

The council has a habit of subsidising their various vanity projects in any way possible, but not, of course, day centres and public toilets, which are not quite so glamorous. I have asked, via FoI about further subsidies to the Parc Y Scarlets stadium, and I suppose it's only a matter of time before there's a suite of executive council offices squeezed inbetween the church and the 'therapy rooms' at the evangelical bowling alley.

Also being kicked into touch is the free parking in the couple of weeks leading up to Christmas. Apparently, in their wisdom, the council believe that it would be more helpful to local traders if the free parking was confined to one week in dull and damp January.

Quite what the logic of this is I don't know, other than driving even more Christmas shoppers, who don't shop online, to the out-of town retail centres and the delights of free parking. And it will save the council a few grand...

Update; On the subject of parking, one floor of the new Eastgate Centre will comprise a 55-bed Travelodge hotel. At a recent Executive Board Member Decision Meeting to introduce parking charges for the Eastgate car park, it was decided, bizarrely, to limit the parking to short term only. Hotel visitors beware! 

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Public Gallery nonsense - the Minister responds...

Had a response this afternoon to my open letter to Welsh Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab). My letter, about the continuing nonsense concerning Carmarthenshire Council's public gallery, was published in the Western Mail earlier in October along with a comment (more or less the same as below) supplied by a Welsh Government spokesperson.

In between my 'open letter' and the Minister's response below was the misleading, inaccurate and ridiculous letter from Leader, Kevin Madge, published in the Western Mail on Monday.  For the record I do not think Cllr Madge (Lab) wrote the letter. However, I have sent a reply to the Western Mail putting the record straight and I wait to see if it's published.

Cllr Madge, in what must rapidly be turning into a less than memorable first few months as Leader, is also now under investigation by the Ombudsman over the Sainsbury's press release and the questionable use of council resources.

In a nutshell, my letter to Mr Sargeant included the council's insistence that a 15 yr old had to sign the filming undertaking before being allowed to observe a meeting;
My letter ended with "I cannot believe you are not appalled by this latest development involving a youngster and I trust you will agree with me, act within your remit, and bring this unlawful behaviour by Carmarthenshire Council to an end"

Quite clearly, Mr Sargeant is not appalled at all by the actions of Carmarthenshire Council, and, as we have discovered over the past couple of years, he never is. As far as he and the Welsh Government are concerned, they have carte blanche to do as they please. In my opinion, as Minister for Local Government, Mr Sargeant is failing in so many ways.

Here's his response (well, from the Scrutiny, Democracy and Participation Team anyway) with my comments in red;

Dear Mrs Thompson 
Carmarthenshire Council access to public gallery. 
Thank you for your e-mail of 15th October to Carl Sargeant AM, Minister for Local Government and Communities. I have been asked to reply. 
The process that a local authority follows to allow public access to meetings is a matter for them, as they have to take into account the need for security in today’s society. 
I beg your pardon? The 'need for security in today's society'?? We're talking about a youngster who has an interest in local government. We're talking about a few hardy souls who track to County Hall, brave the guarded escort and the perils of being locked in the gallery, armed with nothing more dangerous that a pen, paper and a mobile phone. Just what does this Labour government consider to be a security threat? Will we soon be searched for weapons of mass destruction?
The Minister has placed on record his for support local authorities trying to engage with the public and a number of provisions within the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011 are designed to encourage this. However it is a matter for the local authority to decide what methods and resources should be employed to make their meetings more accessible. 
The Minister is due shortly to conduct a consultation on a new code of practice with regard to local government publicity. The revised code is likely to contain specific guidance concerning the production of council newspapers and the broadcasting of council proceedings. 
Oh, a consultation, that's decisive Mr Sargeant. 'Local Government publicity'? - are you going to suggest they spend a bit more on PR? Maybe publish extra editions of the Carmarthenshire Pravda? Two weeks in a Llanelli gulag for filming a meeting? You never know though, perhaps Eric Pickles and his transparency agenda has got to him. We'll have to wait and see, and wait, and wait....
Yours sincerely 
Scrutiny, Democracy & Participation Team