Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Barnet Council's hollow victory

Barnet council claimed a very hollow victory yesterday when the judgement was handed down concerning a Judicial Review application against their massive £1bn outsourcing programme. The victory for the council was that the challenge was out of time. The hollow bit was the finding that, basically, there was a complete failure to adequately consult on such a major change in the structure and delivery of public services.

The judgement and the legal arguments were, as ever, complex and for the details and a far better understanding of the situation read Mrs Angry's excellent blogpost here. The essence of the objections were that public service improvement will not, by definition, be best met by the drive for profit of private companies, in this case Capita plc.

Take the 'out of time' argument. When is it the appropriate time to make a legal challenge against a decision? When does a twinkle in the eye of a council's corporate management team become a 'decision'? Is it when the 'principle' of whatever the proposal is, is 'adopted' for further development or when that proposal is embodied in a report to full council or,  in this case, contracts are (almost) signed? The judge cites examples but the situation for the campaigner or objector, when the time limit is three months, is far from clear. A situation not helped by the jargon-filled sea of mist created by councils particularly if it is clear that the proposal is likely to be controversial.

This mist is apparent in the failure to consult. At no point through this lengthy process did Barnet council make it abundantly clear it's intentions to 'outsource' its services, in fact it seemed to deliberately avoid the word, being aware, I am sure, of the controversy that surrounds it. Promised consultations never materialised and those that did were "plainly not designed to elicit views about it" (para 66).

All sound familiar? Why am I writing about Barnet Council? No, there's no massive outsourcing plan on the scale of Barnet here in Carmarthenshire, not yet anyhow, but take a major regeneration project for instance. The first anybody really knows about it is when a council issues carefully crafted press releases about the corporate 'vision' it wishes to implement. If the proposal is flawed in some way, be it detrimental to residents or financially imprudent, it is likely that the actual process started a long time ago, definitely more than three months and obligations will have been made, appraisals commissioned and consequently, a great deal of public time and money already spent. This should never be a reason to refuse a challenge though - should the challenge be well founded, legally or morally, then that money and time will have been wasted by the council itself.

At some point the council may be obliged to actually consult with the public and at the planning permission stage, consultation is of course statutory. How does that usually pan out in Carmarthenshire? The core group of campaigners who have withstood the test of time become accused of wasting council resources by their endless objections and of standing in the way of progress and the 'improvement' the proposal will bring to the lives of residents. So, armed with their vast resources of spin, valid objections and concerns are not only ignored but those who put them forward become that 'small group of troublemakers'. Divide and conquer again.

Take the idea of 'partner' organisations, one example that springs to mind here is the Towy Community Church. The vision of the council was that this was a form of 'outsourcing' its social care responsibilities, albeit to a far lesser degree. But that was what it is. Forget the bowling alley. By the council embarking on a financial and it would appear, moral commitment to an evangelical association it also embraced its values, quite how eternal damnation upon the rejection of Christ fits into any equalities legislation or any legislation for that matter is beyond me.

And what of conflicts of interest in the decision making process? The Barnet bloggers have constantly highlighted their concerns over possible conflicts of interest between the decision makers and the companies who stand to profit, though these were not part of the legal case. Carmarthenshire Council, on agreeing the various loans and grants to the Towy Community Church over the past couple of years only records two declarations of interest, both from councillors who felt it right that, as Christians, they should at least say so. This didn't appear to be on the horizon of anyone else's conscience at all. As mainstream Christians, they would not, in reality, be personally benefiting from the 'partnership', but anyone with similar beliefs in evangelical Christianity would be promoting something which would benefit their own personal crusade. If nothing else, it's a fine line.

I am not in a position to pick apart the Barnet judgement (which can be read in full here), but the importance of this decision to other councils must be made clear. Barnet's claim to victory is false, to win on the challenge being  'out of time' is no win at all. The message to local authorities is that to deliberately cloud their intentions over controversial proposals goes directly against their basic obligations to the general public and the promotion of democracy. It doesn't really need pointing out.

Barnet's claim to victory may also be premature as the possibilities of an appeal are being considered.

(Wednesday, update; Legal Aid has been granted to take the Appeal forward)

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Recent statements regarding the libel judgement

In light of recent statements issued by the Chief Executive and also Carmarthenshire Council press office, including those made last week in the Western Mail, the monthly council staff newsletter 'Y Gair', and on Radio Carmarthenshire, I wish to reiterate the statement I made on the 15th March when the Judgement on the libel action was handed down.
I cannot comment further at the moment, other than to emphasise that preparations are underway to start the process of Appeal.

"I am absolutely devastated by this judgement and I believe it is a miscarriage of justice. I would never have embarked on fifteen months of litigation and endured a six day trial in the High Court if I had not felt entirely justified in my action.

I have always acted in good faith, my motives have always been honest and sincere and have merely criticised the council where I felt it appropriate, and have never had a complaint until the counter claim was issued...."

Full statement from 15th March here; Judgement on Libel Action - a brief statement

Open play areas...and black holes

The Executive Board meets on Monday to consider objections to the 'disposal' of four small areas of land (Agenda Item 2) These were part of a total of 86 small areas, adjacent or nearby other properties, which are being flogged off (otherwise known as an 'Asset Review') to try and fill some of the black holes which are beginning to appear in the council's finances. Incidentally, the Head of Corporate Property has delegated power to seek disposal of 'non-strategic' land.

This whole exercise may have passed you by, a few however did manage to spot the Public Open Space Notices in the Western Mail at the end of last year.

The Council is obliged to advertise the disposals in a "local newspaper", one would think that would mean local to Carmarthenshire rather than local to Wales.

Anyway, it looks like the other 82 went unnoticed and unchallenged, despite the requirement that Local Members were informed. Clearly though, some of the objections raised in the four to be considered on Monday would seem to apply to all. One main point was the loss of open play areas for local children. As the council are also hoping to save on potential liabilities by selling off these open spaces, it would seem they would rather the children stayed safely indoors.

There is another point, it appears that developers are already expressing an interest, one is a housing association. Some parcels of land may of course be well suited for affordable housing, if that is what is promised. I would imagine that most, if not all these plots are within the UDP so planning consent will be little more than a formality. The council, when disposing of these assets will naturally have to remember its policy and afford "all interested parties an equal opportunity to purchase".
A little further down the agenda at Item 6, is the Play Sufficiency Assessment 2013, quite an extensive exercise which determined whether there were enough opportunities, of all sorts, for children to play.
Recommendation Two states;

 Local Authority to recognise the importance of open spaces in contributing to children’s play needs within the community and the potential negative effects that the selling of these pockets of land has on children and communities.

There is even a 'Play Sufficiency Officer' who is tasked with an 'Action Plan' to ensure that;

When decisions are made with regards to disposal of green spaces that children and communities are consulted with meaningfully and that full consideration is given to the impact of the disposal on children’s play. 
Brownfield sites are assessed for their potential to be reclaimed to provide for children’s play

A recent Scrutiny meeting raised the inconsistency between the 'Play Strategy' and the selling of council land as well as the lack of provision through the Planning Service. One large development was mentioned where the only open play area left housed a large electricity pylon.

The Local Members who are objecting to the four 'disposals' are not allowed to speak at the Executive Board meeting so will have to hope that the Board bears in mind the objections (which include a 278 name petition for one of the areas) and that they don't forget about Item 6 further down the agenda....

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Going to the dogs

An interesting decision was made today by the First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) which overturned on appeal, a refusal by Carmarthenshire Council to release details of licensed dog breeders in the county under the Section 40 (personal data) exemption.

Following the initial FoI refusal, the council's internal appeal upheld it's own decision (as it invariably does) and the subsequent complaint to the Information Commissioner also failed.

The requester, a Ms White with, er, dogged determination, took the matter one stage further, and appealed to the Tribunal, and won. The council must now release the details of the 88 licensed dog breeders.

Carmarthenshire has the highest number of licensed and unlicensed dog breeders in the UK and monitoring and managing the welfare of dogs is of considerable public interest. Indeed, problems with 'puppy farms' in Carmarthenshire have featured on a number of television programmes and the press in recent years.

The council also considers that dog breeding, in planning terms, complies with their farm 'diversification' policy. They also have a statutory duty to ensure that the breeder conforms to the necessary minimum standards to obtain a license.

To put it simply, the council contended that to publish the list of licensed breeders would have the effect of opening them up to attack. Ms White responded by saying that there was no evidence that this had happened even prior to 2008 which was when the council changed it's policy and decided to withhold the list from the public register.

She also maintained that there was no evidence of council discussions leading to the policy change in 2008.

During the course of the Information Commissioner's investigation the council carried out a 'consultation' of registered breeders. The Tribunal was "unimpressed" by the survey, "conducted after the information was requested – that seeks to justify the policy of non-disclosure. The survey, and the suggestive language used in posing the questions, inevitably gives the impression of being self-serving and less than objective".

The Tribunal said that the correct time to have carried out an impartial survey would have been prior to the policy change in 2008, not after someone challenged it.

Unsurprisingly the majority of breeders who were consulted didn't want their details disclosed. Ms White also said that the council used emotive language to justify their refusal to her, referring to “animal welfare extremists”, “targeting” the authority and “converging on it from all parts of the country”.

Significantly, Ms White requested the details of neighbouring Ceredigion Council's 71 licensed breeders, they released them without hesitation.

The Tribunal concluded that this was a "regulated commercial activity which is subject to a public licensing regime to protect the welfare of animals", the public interest in disclosure outweighed privacy issues.

There's probably a few lessons to be learned here. Firstly, there is no reason to withhold information such as a list of regulated licensees in this business, any more than the licensees of pubs should be withheld. Secondly, its never a particularly good idea to buy a puppy out of the back of a van.

The decision of the tribunal can be read here.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Caerphilly, accountability and re-organisation

Caerphilly Council is back in the news today with a vote of no confidence in the Council Leader. The row has arisen following the Wales Audit Office report which found that the circumstances surrounding the pay rise for the Chief Executive and senior managers was unlawful. The decision was taken at a closed meeting, the agenda item was not publicised and the Chief Executive, who had input into the report recommending the rise, did not withdraw from the meeting nor declare any financial interest. A compromise was eventually reached but the Chief Executive has now been suspended and the police are looking into the matter.

The political fall-out has resulted in today's no confidence vote where the Leader and his cabinet were accused of allowing this to happen on their watch. As this blog post has been sitting in draft for several hours I can now add that the vote was lost and Caerphilly's Leader remains in place. I followed the meeting on twitter for a while and noticed they were also discussing the damning Wales Audit Office report. In Caerphilly, at the very least, the question of accountability has been raised if not fully resolved to the satisfaction of all political colours.

In Carmarthenshire, as we know, the council will go through constitutional contortions to avoid any negative reports, or even vaguely negative stories being discussed either inside or outside the Chamber. The recent removal of urgent business from full council agenda; the requirement that seven councillors second a motion; the refusal to discuss ombudsman reports; threatening the local press; the 'discussion' of a crucial council motion on press freedom, 'in camera', between two officers and an Executive Board member...I could go on. And on.

This morning's BBC article also carries a table of Chief Executive pay across all 22 local authorities, but doesn't include additional extras such as Returning Officer fees etc. These figures add up to £3m, all bar the cost of a frugal night at Claridges, I wonder whether this furthers the idea of a dramatic reduction in the number of local authorities? There is also a huge difference in pay, given that the duties of a Chief Executive are virtually the same everywhere, and one could almost feel sorry for the poor chief officer of Blaenau Gwent. Executive pay has been called an 'easy target' but it all adds up, and given the army of Directors and, in the case of Carmarthenshire, two Assistant Chief Executives, there would certainly be savings to be made by reducing of the number of councils.
Carmarthenshire also has 74 councillors of course who, in 2012, took home £1.26m between them, £20,000 more than in 2011.

The arguments for and against re-organisation are complex and discussed far more eloquently elsewhere but with each individual council pursuing its own policies, programmes, LDPs, tendering frameworks etc etc, it would be a difficult, costly and painful process.

Collaboration with other authorities has been encouraged by the Welsh Government to 'streamline' services and reduce pressure on budgets but these are not always well thought through as Carmarthenshire has found with its IT 'strategy' with Dyfed Powys Police. The vision of a 'single entity' has been abandoned and, although there are examples of shared software, as well as a shared IT manager, the differing levels of data security, complex pay arrangements and the need to vet any council worker who may (or may not) use very sensitive shared data proved to be too costly and risky.

The principle of reducing Welsh local authorities, more or less back to the pre-1996 model is financially attractive and would perhaps help dilute the village mentality which pervades some of our council chambers. One big downside, in my opinion, could be even less democracy than we have already. Public participation is, in general, already negligible and the opportunity and ability to get your voice heard nigh on impossible. Any re-organisation would have to ensure that accountability, as well as the representation of public opinion, was not only carried forward to potentially huge sprawling organisations, but vastly improved from the dire state it is currently in.

Anyway, for information, here's the list of Chief Executive officers' pay from the BBC;

Carmarthenshire: £189,178
Cardiff: £176,376
Rhondda Cynon Taf: £171,000
Denbighshire: £160,141
Pembrokeshire £159,462
Neath Port Talbot: £154,525
Newport: £147,142
Swansea: £144,600
Anglesey: £141,138
Torfaen: £133,749
Caerphilly: £132,653
Flintshire: £131,233
Vale of Glamorgan: £127,133
Merthyr Tydfil: £125,437
Powys: £124,407
Bridgend: £122,323
Conwy: £114,435
Wrexham: £113,000
Monmouthshire: £110,000
Gwynedd: £108,264
Ceredigion: £108,084
Blaenau Gwent: £103,050.46

BBC Wales; Caerphilly council pay row: Leader faces no confidence motion

Update 25th April;
Plaid AM, Rhodri Glyn Thomas is seeking changes to the Local Democracy Bill which would take senior pay decisions "out of the hands of council officers and put it under the remit of an all-Wales independent remuneration body" and to "abolish extra payments for returning officers at local elections"

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Ivor parks the Lexus

Sharp-eyed residents have again (see 'Ivor goes to vote') snapped County Councillor for Llandovery, Ivor Jackson parked in one of his favourite spots, on the double-yellows...Perhaps Ivor should remember that Llandovery is a very small town...and the personalised number plate is a bit of a give away...

Still, I'm sure that Ivor, (member of Cllr Pam Palmer's 'Independent' party), must be something of a parking expert as he is not only Vice-Chair of the Environment and Public Protection Scrutiny Committee (responsibilities include parking and highway safety) but a representative on the grandly named Parking and Traffic Regulations (Outside London) Adjudication Joint Committee....

Thursday, 18 April 2013

All words and no action

Aside from the politics of it all, the lesson here for Council Leaders is that if you repeatedly and publicly call for an Inquiry, its usually a good idea, at some point to at least ask the relevant authorities to carry one out.

Local Plaid Cymru politicians have been trying to find out what became of Cllr Madge's promised calls for a Public Inquiry over the PFI disaster of Ammanford Police Station.

Here's their press release;

Labour Council Leader left red-faced over Public Inquiry blunder

Despite fourteen months of ‘calling’ for an independent public inquiry into the costly Private Finance Initiative (PFI) that plagues Ammanford Police Station, Council Leader Kevin Madge has done nothing to act on his rhetoric. That was the reaction of Plaid Cymru Councillor, Deian Harries, after it emerged the Leader of Carmarthenshire Council has not taken any action to back up his public inquiry ‘calls’.

In January 2012, Councillor Madge – then Deputy Leader of the County Council - called for an “urgent independent investigation” into why the PFI contract, which costs Dyfed Powys Police Force £700,000 a year to maintain, was allowed to go ahead.

In March 2013 Councillor Madge – now Leader of the authority – stated publicly he was “surprised” that no-one had supported his call for an independent inquiry and went on to renew his call as it is the “only way we can win back public confidence”.

But Freedom of Information requests by Plaid Cymru to both the UK Government Home Office and to the Welsh Government have now exposed Councillor Madge’s calls as meaningless. Councillor Madge has not made any representations regarding a public inquiry since making his ‘calls’ fourteen months ago.

Plaid Cymru County Councillor for Ammanford, Cllr Deian Harries, has said the revelation shows the Labour party is clearly out of its depth and that Councillor Madge may as well have been talking to himself considering the lack of progress his rhetoric has achieved.

Councillor Deian Harries said:

“It’s quite astonishing to be told by the Welsh Government and Home Office that they hold no information whatsoever from Councillor Madge regarding his calls for a public inquiry.

“It’s been 14 months since that first ‘call’. Councillor Madge may as well have been talking to himself given the lack of progress his rhetoric has achieved.

“I suspect the real reason the council leader has not acted on his rhetoric is because he doesn’t want to draw attention to the Labour party’s love affair with costly PFI projects that plague our public services today. However it’s just not right that any politician can make public comments but then not see those actions through.

“Councillor Madge said an independent inquiry is the only way to win back public confidence. Confidence in the Labour party is at an all time low in the Amman Valley as our communities now see how clueless the party is in turning words into action.

(Linked from Plaid Carmarthenshire, here)

The only Police 'front desk' for Ammanford is now located in a van in the car park.

April Council meeting

The Carmarthen Journal has let us know that that other great coalition, the long running Lab/Independent alliance of Carmarthenshire will continue until the next election in 2017. Readers may remember that when the pact was eventually formed after last year's vote, a review was planned after one year. Looks like that review has happened and despite Plaid's suggestion that a rainbow coalition would be a good idea, Cllr Madge and Cllr Palmer (leader of the Independent party) were clearly having none of it. 

Kev and Pam confirming rumours that 'new technology' is set to replace gas lamps in County Hall (source; Carmarthen Journal)

Anyway, back to today's meeting and just to confirm, the webcasting pilot was approved - without discussion as the meeting had overrun - and we can look forward to the first episode on May 15th. Sunday parking charges was first up with a lengthy speech from Cllr Evans (Exec Member for Parking) about how he had arranged meetings with various local church leaders, who were particularly annoyed by this measure. I'm not sure whether they had a result or not as a row broke out between the Chair and Cllr Caiach over faulty translators.

Next up was the issue of the pay rise. At the last meeting Plaid had suggested that rather than a blanket 1% across the board, a graded rise would see the lower paid workers having a larger increase than those at the top, those at the very top could probably manage without a rise altogether. (Plaid are campaigning for the Living Wage of course but the Labour administration is resisting it) This was all dismissed at the last meeting. Lo and behold, at Monday's Executive Board meeting the pay structure was changed with all staff starting on a higher rate, which, with the 1% rise, had the same effect as Plaid's suggestion would have done. The Executive Board naturally took all the credit. Plaid Leader, Peter Hughes Griffiths was not impressed.

The presence of three additional suited gentlemen soon became apparent as that annual love-fest, the Wales Audit Office Annual Improvement Report came up. They were from the WAO of course, and were there to summarise the Report, well, one of them was, the other two must have been for back up. You know the sort of jargon filled report I mean by now surely, to give an example, the Council 'Engages well with citizens in setting its priorities' or 'The Council’s governance and management arrangements have delivered a mature and embedded approach to self-evaluation'. There were several criticisms in the report ranging from the provision of support for carers to making scrutiny more robust (yes that word) by improving the knowledge of councillors, to 'still' having problems with grant management.

Things were going fairly well and the corporate preening was well ahead of the cynics on point scoring when Cllr Darren Price (Plaid) observed that officers and senior Members were very keen to accentuate the positive and "keep a lid" on the negative. (Surely not? I'd find that very hard to believe...) He gave the example of the recent finding by the Ombudsman against the Leader, Cllr Madge. He, as a backbencher, had not even been given a copy. This is not the only recent adverse report of course that has been kept in a locked drawer in the civic cellar and as for keeping a lid on the negative, you only have to remember the unfortunate episode with the South Wales Guardian last year.

The man from the WAO was briefly thrown at the suggestion that all was not well, he said something about  the reason the Improvement Report was positive was because the council was open and transparent and robust (yes, robust again) scrutiny was 'being developed'. He told Cllr Price that if he had a particular issue, he was welcome to, er, contact him. I suspect my idea of openness and transparency differs fundamentally from that of the council and the man from the WAO.

Cllr Madge then continued the love-fest. He started reminiscing about Cardiff football club's success the night before until the Chair ordered him to stick to the point, unfortunately that was his point, the Council were in the Premier League...near the top!....other authorities must be wondering 'How do we do it?' he said. He was looking forward to the webcasting...warts and all...he instructed the Chief Executive to write to all staff thanking them for their efforts which, I have to say, was an improvement on the comments by the former Leader last year when she blamed the problems at the council on the lack of hard work by nine thousand staff. Cllr Bill Thomas (Lab) defended Cllr Madge by saying the Ombudsman report wasn't serious, and maybe he'd just been over enthusiastic....

The next item was Cllr Derek Cundy's Motion for the council to express its concern over the re-organisation of health provision by the Hywel Dda Health Board. This has been much documented in the local press much of which has focussed on the downgrading of the A & E department of Prince Phillip Hospital in Llanelli. The Health Board's proposals were put out to consultation but what appears to have happened, in the well trodden path of all public body consultations, is that the 'proposals' were just that, comment all you like but this is what we're doing.

Further details of the campaign group can be found here, and all sides of the argument can be found in the local press, but there was cross-Chamber agreement that strong representations had to be made to the new Health Minister, Mark Drakeford. Press reports about queuing ambulances, lengthy trolley/ambulance/A & E waiting times, discharging patients at 2am, etc seem to be multiplying and the budget restraints on health provision were causing an alarming decline in services. The continuing centralisation and 'virtual' beds (ie your bedroom) was putting further strain on the Council's own social care budget. Cllr Caiach suggested the Motion was amended to include a request for the Minister to look at the whole picture but the Chief Executive reminded her that she couldn't amend a motion like this, Clr Caiach questioned this information but the Chief Executive told her he'd send her another copy of the Standing Orders...to remind her of the rules....

Next up was the nominations for Council Chair and Vice Chair, the actual chain swapping ceremony to take place next month. As is customary, the Vice Chair automatically replaces the outgoing Chair (Plaid), so Cllr Terry Davies (Lab) will be in the hot seat for 2013/14. Each Party takes it in turns to be Chair so the nomination for Vice Chair had to come from the Independents. Cllr Daff Davies was duly eased in. It was all very jolly.

Time was ticking on and nearly three hours had passed so things speeded up. The Acting Head of Law had a couple of points to raise about the Independent Remuneration Panel Wales Report. One issue was Eric Pickles' announcement last December to end Councillors entitlement to join the lucrative Council Pension Scheme, part funded by the ever generous taxpayer. Alarm bells seemed to be ringing in Carmarthenshire as it became apparent that whilst Eric Pickles had no control over anything else in Welsh local government, public pensions were different and he could upset this particular apple-cart all the way from Westminster.

Three hours were up and it was decided to speed through the rest of the agenda. Item 13 on Webcasting sped past and at that point, I decided to go too. Soon, you'll be able to watch it yourself.

I have linked to the full agenda here.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Tomorrow's Council meeting

Item 13 on tomorrow's full council agenda is 'Webcasting of council meetings' which, if approved, will mean that the first live webcast will be the council AGM on the 15 May, if all goes according to plan.  Although there shouldn't really be a problem, as the council itself says, it is in a 'better  position than most other authorities in Wales as it has already conducted a detailed review', indeed it has, for nearly two years. It is of course a twelve month pilot and only full council meetings will be filmed and after appropriate 'Member awareness' training has been undergone. Without a doubt there was also a public interest case to have included both Planning Committee and Executive Board meetings in the pilot too.

Included in the agenda are the usual reports from various committees and it will be interesting to see whether any issues are raised when the report from the planning committee meeting on the 28th March is brought up. Both the new superschool in Ffairfach and the 289 home development in Penybanc, Ammanford were driven through against enormous public opposition.

The latter had previously been refused (against officer recommendation for approval) by the committee last December but the 'cooling-off' period meant the decision was not ratified until it was sent back to the committee. By which time the application had been amended but had not, according to opponents, addressed all the issues of concern. From reading the officer's report to the committee it is clear that the overriding concern of the local authority was not the views of the local people but the avoidance of a costly legal challenge if the application was refused. Fortunately, for the Authority and the developers but not the objectors, this seemed to be the priority of the majority of committee members too, and the development was approved. Whether there was a breakdown in council communication or a misunderstanding I couldn't possibly say, but the Penybanc Action Group who opposed the development were apparently reassured by planning officers that no decision was going to be made at the meeting. PAG were under the impression that the committee would just be discussing the amended plans, so naturally they didn't go and air their views. I hear a request has now been made to the Welsh Government to call the plans in and campaigners have arranged to hold a protest on Saturday morning (Cneifwr has details).

Eric Pickles was on the warpath again yesterday criticising councils for obstructing journalists. The article, from Hold the Front Page, cites two examples from Wales including the meeting in Llanelli where the Llanelli Star reporter was thrown out and his notes confiscated. As we know, Mr Pickles jurisdiction on these matters doesn't cross the Severn Bridge and legislation requiring councils to publish 28 days in advance, notice of, (and good reason for) holding meetings in secret doesn't apply to Wales, and it especially doesn't apply to Carmarthenshire. Let's hope the prospect of live streamed meetings doesn't shunt even more decisions behind closed doors.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

A stab in the back for Llandovery

A week last Thursday, planning permission was granted for the new 'superschool' in Ffairfach, Llandeilo...in fact nets were being thrown over the hedges the day before the meeting presumably to prevent birds nesting, prior to removing the hedges...Anyway, the significance of this proposal to the people in the Llandovery and surrounding rural area was always the closure of the secondary school, Ysgol Pantycelyn, and a lengthy hard fought battle by local residents, parents, children etc including a Judicial Review, was eventually lost.

For reasons best known to themselves both the Councillor representing the town and the Councillor representing most of the catchment area, (both members of the Independent Party), remained silent throughout the closure process. In the face of such mass local opposition, I found their inaction incomprehensible, this was the single most important community asset the town had.

By December 2011, after the whole process had largely been rubber stamped, they both spoke out about their objections to the 'preferred' location in Ffairfach, 13 miles away in the press, saying "we've all been against this from the word go". They excused their previous silence by saying they were concerned that if they did say anything, it would compromise their position on the planning committee whenever the application came before them. However, many local people felt that there had been nothing whatsoever stopping them speaking out against the closure of Pantycelyn.

Move forward to last week's Planning Committee meeting and a last ditch attempt by the town's mayor to highlight the unsuitability of the location was to no avail. The application was passed, only three voting against. The Mayor must have hoped, at the very least, and particularly after their comments, that the two local Members would have supported her, but unfortunately they were not even amongst the three, as one of them had apparently decided to go on holiday and the other abstained.

Here's a press release from LATRA, the Llandovery Area Tenants and Residents Association which currently has over 300 members;

A stab in the back for Llandovery 

Carmarthenshire County Council decided to close Ysgol Pantycelyn despite furious and almost unanimous protests from the people of Llandovery and surrounding areas.    
Carmarthenshire Council then decided to rub salt in the wound by recommending that the new school should be sited 13 miles away on the other side of Llandeilo.  For some children east of Llandovery, it meant return journeys of over 45 miles a day and up to 3 hours a day travelling.  
The planning application for the new school was heard by the Carmarthenshire Planning Committee on March 28 and despite almost 100% opposition from the Llandovery area, and a valiant effort from the Mayor of Llandovery on the day, the application was approved.    
What is the point of public consultation? How can Council leader Kevin Madge describe this decision as ‘a significant investment in education in the Dinefwr area’ when it means the destruction of an excellent school and leaves 400 square miles of West Wales without a senior school? Added to this, the decision to charge children from their 16th birthdays for their school travel costs will place an intolerable extra burden on the families of this beleaguered town. 
Where do our two local county councillors stand in this debacle?  We know that they supported the decision to close Pantycelyn which, in itself, was a bitter pill to swallow – but we felt sure they would fight tooth and nail to have the new school built within easier reach of the children and parents of Llandovery.    
The planning meeting on March 28 was, therefore, an incredibly important meeting for them - and all the people they represent.  
The reality?  Cllr Tom Theophilus (Cilycwm) decided to abstain from the vote.  Cllr Ivor Jackson (Llandovery) decided to go away on holiday 24 hours before the vote and did not attend. We cannot think of a worse example of a betrayal to the electorate on such a desperately important issue. Letters will be sent to both these local county councillors asking them to explain themselves.  
Maybe they should both resign and stand again with an honest campaign so that electors can have a chance to show how many still support them.  Nothing is surer than if electors had known about this last May the election results would have been very different.   
The Mayor is quite right when she claims the local authority had not adhered to statutory policies with regard to the new ‘superschool’. Forget the health and wellbeing of the children; turn a blind eye to carbon footprints and the Welsh Governments policies for sustainable local development; ignore the financial hardship for hundreds of parents; forget the fact that the chosen site is on a notorious floodplain.  In fact just do whatever you want to do and hang the consequences.  
The people of Llandovery will not forgive or forget the damage that has been inflicted on them.  Well done to all who fought so valiantly – and shame on our county councillors.  
Chair:  Llandovery Area Tenants and Residents Association (LATRA)

Friday, 5 April 2013

Friday news round-up

You will be aware from this blog and Y Cneifiwr's, that the council propaganda rag, the Carmarthenshire News is not universally popular, alternative uses have often been suggested, from comfortable bedding for pet rodents to emergency supplies for the smallest room.
A couple of years ago the council brought five other public bodies on board, including the police and the health board to contribute to the publication which is issued every two months. The council announced that it would be 'self-financing' through advertising revenue but as I have said before, private adverts always seem a little thin on the ground and the impression is that other council departments and the other five equally cash-strapped public bodies contribute financially.
The council website claims;

Each edition costs an average £23,000 to produce and distribute. The average costs and income currently are:

Print = £5768.26
Distribution = £17,400.73
Advertising and sponsorship revenue: £18,000
Net cost: £5000

The local Plaid politicians have been looking at this and have recently highlighted their concerns about other aspects of the council's financial management with the Wales Audit Office. A FoI request for advertising/sponsorship invoices for one issue produced four, amounting to £1680. This falls a little short of the £18,000 claimed by the council. This figure will vary from month to month but seasoned readers of the 'Carms News' will be aware of the usual format. Of course the website doesn't specify exactly where the 'advertising and sponsorship revenue' comes from, and so anyone that might naturally assume it is from private companies would not, of course, have been misled.

A quick mention of a story from a couple of weeks ago concerning a parking row at the council's new 'flagship' Eastgate development. Not only have the council, controversially, promised £5m in rental for new offices for the next twenty years to the developers but, to the annoyance of other workers at the site, have commandeered, with red marking paint, 20 free parking places in the limited and otherwise 'short term' Eastgate car park. The council's response to the rest of the furious Eastgate workers who have to pay £8 a day? "There are proposals in hand to erect an automatic barrier gating system to manage the use of the 20 private parking spaces to avoid any future confusion." Charming

The Agendas and minutes for Executive Board Member Decision meetings, as we know are not published until after the event ('bringing the constitution in line with legislation') and the public and press are excluded. One of these, a Regeneration meeting, recently approved the council's masterplan for our museums. One councillor and no less than eleven officers were in attendance and the documents included an 'Organisational Review of the Carmarthenshire Museums Service 2012-2020'. I couldn't find it anywhere on the website and the only clue to its contents was the resolution to 'acknowledge and endorse the content of the review of Carmarthenshire Museum Services which supports the concept of focussing resources around one main museum site supported by satellite facilities and services'. 

As a non-statutory duty, the council doesn't have to maintain museums and the responsibility, which also includes libraries, has now been shifted from the Directorate of Education and Children's Services, to Leisure and Sport, which also suggests a shift in priority. Museums, and even libraries are not, of course, the most vital service the council delivers but hugely important nonetheless and should it not be a matter of principle that future plans such as this are open and accessible from the start?