Thursday, 31 December 2015

Plaid's 'vision for Carmarthenshire' under fire

With Plaid's decision to spend £20m of the council reserves coming up for the rubber stamp at Monday's Executive Board meeting it has once again been picked up by the press. Putting aside the fact that the announcement (see earlier post 'A 'vision' for Carmarthenshire - Plaid embrace County Hall spin' ) pre-dates Monday's decision by several weeks, and that it largely involves capital projects which were decided twelve months ago, the decision seems to have woken up the Welsh Government.

Plaid's Exec Board Member for Cash, Cllr Dai Jenkins has been tasked with trying to explain the decision and has come up with...we'd better spend it just in case the council merger plans ever materialise and we might have to share it with Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion, and, worst of all, they've described the move as an 'anti-austerity package'.

Creating cyclepaths might be welcome but hardly compares to the current budget proposals to cut funding for vulnerable children, putting up the price of meals on wheels, increasing school dinners, charges for schools/college transport, and axing £18m from our classrooms. Not to mention cutting a the flood defence budget by a quarter...

On what planet this £20m could be described as an 'anti-austerity package' is anyone's guess and further confirms that the move was nothing more than a publicity stunt.

The Welsh Government are making noises that it might halt such 'irresponsible spending' by this council or any others considering the idea. This is an interesting concept as Cardiff have been very reluctant in the past to step in over anything else relating to Carmarthenshire Council; from governance and legal advice deemed unfit for purpose, to questionable handouts to private companies; and from the murky misuse of EU money, to illegal payments to the chief executive. And everything in between.

Still there's a first time for everything.

(There's a Llanelli Herald Facebook article here)

Bins and hypocrisy

Back in March, when the Plaid group were in opposition, they were quick to highlight the perils of outsourcing, specifically in reference to the council's arms length waste management company, Cwm Environmental which had come under fire over it's long hours/minimum wage terms of employment.

A Plaid spokesperson said;
'the obsession of the Labour council with effectively outsourcing services and reducing democratic oversight inevitably reduces the operational control the council has over our public services'

Now that Plaid are 'in power' they seem to have abandoned this principled stand and are embracing the current trend to outsource various services to arms length companies, trusts and organisations with vigour. Or perhaps they're just following orders. Affordable Housing, Social Care and Leisure are all at various stages of offloading with tenders for consultants, soft marketing exercises, etc etc. all well underway and up for grabs with plenty more in the pipeline.

Aside from the inherent risks of the lack of democratic control, and the last councillor on the Board of Directors of Cwm Environmental Ltd was declared superfluous to requirements a couple of years ago, there can be legal minefields.

Back in June councillors at a meeting of the environment scrutiny committee were surprised to learn that the council's contract with Cwm Environmental Ltd had been informally extended for another three years after the 15 year contract expired three months earlier.

The risk of legal challenge from other potential providers (this informal three year 'arrangement' was worth over £7m) was dealt with by quietly changing the Council's Procurement Policy, and the job specification of the Director of Environment had to be altered to avoid conflicts of interest during any eventual tender.

All a bit of a legal minefield as I said but despite councillors expressing disquiet that they were being asked to approve something that had already been done and dusted, they nodded it through. Bins still had to be emptied of course.

Possible changes to Welsh Government waste policy were cited as an excuse for there being no proper procurement programme in place in time for the renewed contract but the real issue seemed to be this legal problem of having, by law, to advertise the contract and treat all potential suppliers fairly and objectively whilst wholly owning the current contractor, who, along with one small company in Llangadog, manages all the municipal waste, and waste sites, in the county.

Queries over the vanishing procurement exercise cropped up again at another scrutiny meeting earlier this month (December) and councillors were fed another helping of meaningless flannel;
"a significant amount of work had been undertaken to date, especially in conjunction with the Authority’s Legal Services. Whilst no further details could be disclosed at this stage, the interim contract with Cwm Environmental was still in place and he assured members that progress was being made with respect to scoping and preparatory work to provide valuable information to inform the debate with regard to the best solution for the future."

It sounds to me as if the minefield is currently alive and well and should, along with all the other issues involved in the lack of democratic oversight, with which our Plaid leaders were once so concerned, sound warning bells for future outsourcing experiments, wholly owned by the council or otherwise.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

2015 - A brief summary, and Season's Greetings

Another year has almost passed in the weird and wacky world of Carmarthenshire Council. I'm not writing an in-depth review of 2015, everything I have covered is available on this blog so a brief summary, or, to be honest, a bit of a ramble, will suffice.

This time last year the chief executive was rubbing his hands at the prospect of a £446,000 pay off, safe in the knowledge that he, and a couple of his colleagues had got off scot free over the illegal payments scandal.

All that remained, was to mangle the 39 WLGA recommendations into something acceptable to themselves and ignore the call for a change to the toxic culture. All smugly achieved through death-by-powerpoint at the Extraordinary meeting in June.

Prior to that, as we know, the Labour group, as part of the ruling Labour/Independent administration, announced shortly after last Christmas that they (but not dear Meryl of course) would block any golden handshake for Mark James. Nothing to do with the approaching general election of course...

Funnily enough, Mr James then decided to grace us with his presence for a bit longer and decided to stay.

Entirely by coincidence, I'm sure, Kevin Madge was then knocked off the Leadership post and Labour crumbled. With Meryl and Mark refusing to countenance Labour's Jeff Edmunds as leader (slightly too honest), and with Plaid Cymru eager to take power, Emlyn Dole stepped in, did a deal with the devil, or devils, and took the poisoned chalice.

From a hopeful and promising opposition, the Plaid group soon assimilated themselves into the Mark and Meryl gang with new leader Cllr Dole even having his own little scandal, of the planning variety this time, to weasel out of. That episode brought into focus yet again the vagaries and ineptitude of the planning process in the county and did nothing to improve public confidence.

Recent opposition challenges to Plaid over their standard of leadership, as well as questions over the alleged fraudulent misuse of EU Coastal money, including the doctoring of evidence, were treated with a liberal coat of denial, subterfuge and whitewash.

My question regarding, in my opinion, the wholly fraudulent payment to the Scarlets, in the form of 'allowable expenses' fell on equally disengenuous ears. The Plaid leadership seemingly happy to trot out the pre-prepared script.

To be fair, much of this pre-dates the present Plaid administration and the reported ill-treatment of whistleblowers has been a constant issue at Carmarthenshire Council.

In fact allegations of this very nature, including, for that matter, the alteration of documents can be traced back even further into the mists of time, to events at Boston Borough Council, which I mentioned in this earlier post here.

In my view, as long as Cllr Dole doesn't decide to put the kibosh on any future golden handshake for the chief executive, or rock any boats, he'll probably cling on until 2017. The rot set in years ago but with Mark James and the political arm of the regime, the Independents, still holding firmly onto the reins it continues to fester.

The council have made moves over the year to outsource various services from Leisure to Social Care and Housing and currently have all ninety-six parks and playgrounds up for grabs. Various invitations for 'expressions of interest' are currently simmering quietly away with the aim to hive off assorted services, with no guarantees that terms and conditions for transferred staff would remain the same.

I expect this trend will continue and needs to be watched closely, Carmarthenshire is not known for it's due diligence or transparency when it comes to its 'preferred partners'. The proposed 'wellness centre' should already be ringing huge alarm bells for those familiar with County Hall vanity projects. It's also worth remembering as that council borrowing is already well in excess of a quarter of a billion, costing over £14m per year in 'servicing' and interest payments.

The budget consultation is underway (ends on the 3rd January) and the cuts (let's not use the word 'savings') are based on the council bean counters' prediction of a 3.3% cut in the money they receive from the Welsh Government. This turned out to be 1%. In fact the actual amount is the same as last year, just to confuse matters. How this will all translate remains to be seen but is causing confusion and uncertainty and makes one wonder if the public consultation is even more pointless than usual.

There was no uncertainty however a few weeks ago when councillors rejected a paltry 10% cut to the allowances of a handful of their executive board colleagues.

The usual budget pattern, as I've mentioned once or twice, is for a couple of red herring proposals to be initially included or, as a commentator in this week's Herald eloquently puts it; "The usual form in Carmarthenshire is for Mark, Meryl and Co to announce impending plagues of boils, famine and compulsory slaughter of the first born every year, only for them to announce in February that the first born will be spared thanks to the heroic efforts of officers and the executive board"

As not all cuts had been identified, leaving a £2.1m black hole this year, the difference between the Cardiff/Carmarthen figures may be used to plug the gap. Alternatively, a 5% Council Tax increase had been factored into this budget, so maybe there'll be room for manoeuvre here, giving Plaid some well needed PR in the new year.

The massive £18.2m cut to the education budget over the next three years was somewhat unexpected and deeply alarming, and even more surprising given the recent announcement that the Welsh government was continuing to protect this budget. There is clearly disagreement over this and recent scrutiny minutes reveal that the council have had meetings with the Welsh Government to push their agenda. The council does like to cherry pick when it comes to suggestions from Cardiff and protecting children's education is clearly not a cherry they want to pick.

In addition to this are cuts to special education, the closure of libraries and adult learning centres. At another scrutiny meeting earlier this month, a Motion put forward by Labour councillors to defer consideration of the budget proposals until the situation became clearer was defeated.

The County Hall Ministry of Spin is, as ever, likely to escape the worst of the cuts with no sign yet that the 'Carms News' will be consigned to history. As a council led publication they have managed to involve the limited resources of no less than six other public bodies, apart from the police who withdrew their funding in 2014, preferring to support media of the independent and democratic variety.

Whatever happens with the budget, and there will be more on all this in the very near future, I doubt if anything will become clear until after the festivities, in the cold light of January, or February. For schools trying to plan ahead this must be a nightmare. You can be assured however, of plenty of spin, particularly with the Assembly elections fast approaching.

On the upside, webcasts for full council are now well established and were joined this year by Planning and Executive Board meetings. It's just the starring cast which needs to change. Still no sign of the ePetitions page though, having been promised around twelve months ago.

March 2015 saw the last communication I have had with Mr James and his solicitors, demanding the counterclaim damages (with interest) with vague threats of further action. I remain resolute that I will not pay him a penny. With Mr James having secured a charge on my home, this will continue to be an issue, whether he's an employee of the council or not.
In recent months he's turned his legal attention to a couple of councillors who remain determined to ask searching questions, not something tolerated by Mr James.

The unlawful 'libel indemnity clause' remains in the constitution albeit in 'suspended' form, with, I am informed, no plans to delete it any time soon.

2015 was also notable for the appearance of the independent Carmarthenshire and Llanelli Heralds, their investigative articles and observant opinion pieces have been a very welcome development for those struggling to hold County Hall to some sort of account.

Their arrival has not been warmly welcomed by the council though, who have been, shall we say, a little uncooperative to say the least. So much for the 'revised' press protocol; the priority remains to bury bad news. At least the track record of bullying local reporters and attempting to control editorial content has fallen on deaf ears with the Herald. I wish them all the best for 2016.

We also saw the last post from Cneifiwr's blog back in June, though eagle-eyed readers will I'm sure have spotted a few articles popping up here and there in that unmistakable style...the blog is still accessible of course and who knows, it may return one day....Pat Racher's West Wales News is still going strong though, as is the blog of county Councillor Sian Caiach. It would be great if a few more Carmarthenshire residents, or even councillors, picked up the blogging pen, or keyboard.

Whilst I'm here, if you have a spare few minutes, and agree with the sentiments, please sign my petition to abolish prayers at full council, and there's another petition available to sign for a few more days to curb unelected power and restore local democracy, a particular problem in these parts.

I would like to wish all those who visit this blog (now approaching its seventh year) a very Merry Christmas and a healthy and happy 2016.

Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda
Diolch yn fawr iawn


Thursday, 17 December 2015

The Cross Hands question

The council's 'strategic economic vision' for Cross Hands appears to be becoming more of a mirage as the huge site earmarked for Sainsbury's, a new health centre, housing and 350 jobs continues to resemble a giant lunar car park.

Pic source - 'Cross Hands Re-development' Facebook page
The issue cropped up in a BBC Radio Cymru feature this morning with Labour Cllr Terry Davies leading the charge that councillors were being kept in the dark about what was being planned for the site, if anything. When Sainsbury's pulled out of the scheme a couple of month's ago they sold the site to investment company Conygar Plc for £2m, Conygar stated they would market the site for 'mixed-retail' and hoped to put in a planning application by February.

The council have refused to comment and Hywel Dda Health Board remain non-specific about timescales or budget for the new health centre. When this question was posed to them during one of their presentations to full council a few months back they refused to be drawn in to any firm commitment at all. It is also understood that Persimmon are having trouble selling the homes they have already built, let alone those they have yet to construct.

Back in October 2014 a very excited Kevin Madge welcomed this wonderful masterplan "which will bring so many benefits to Carmarthenshire, creating hundreds of much needed jobs". Roll forward to December 2015 and the diggers have gone and all that remains is a wasteland and not a job in sight.

October 2014
Moving slightly to the east and the access to the new KFC restaurant, just off one of the most dangerous roundabouts in Wales, is causing even more congestion and being described by members of the public, and councillors, as an absolute nightmare. The council's transport division has now decided to go and have a look at the problem for themselves as it seems, quite unbelievably, this wasn't done during the planning process.

The usual fuss and palaver about access, traffic flow and highway safety doesn't seem to have been fully considered prior to approval and some of us who are familiar with the roundabout have speculated that the planning officer who signed this off must have been particularly partial to a Boneless Banquet or two, wielding the rubber stamp with a Hot Wing and a prayer.

Moving south to Llanelli, the Herald video team have been touring other wastelands with Plaid Cllr Winston Lemon, and his dog. The areas in question, the North Dock Development Dream, or something like that, features a vast array of council-led office developments which, as Cllr Lemon and his dog point out, have remained largely unoccupied since they were built five years ago, not much further up the road is the equally seriously under-occupied Eastgate centre, a development much mentioned on this blog.

Pic source; Llanelli Herald
With millions of pounds of taxpayers money and EU grants pumped into the regeneration of Carmarthenshire over the years it makes you wonder who exactly has benefitted, and, for that matter, who has made the most profit...

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

December's meeting - pork pies and mince pies

Aside from an initial breath of fresh air from several sixth formers giving their views on the council's budget proposals, including a powerful case against the £18m cuts to schools, today's meeting was the usual dire mix of smugness, propaganda and grumbling ill-humour.

Several points are worth a mention.

During the 'anything to declare' part at the start of the meeting several councillors started to say they were in receipt of Single Farm Payments so they thought they'd, er, better not vote on the Motion on the UK's Membership of the EU.

Declarations should be made of course when a direct financial, prejudicial or personal interest comes up, particularly when it comes to planning or licensing, but whether Huw's sheep or Dilwyn's cows would be direct beneficiaries from a vague council motion to support EU membership in a distant referendum is surely questionable.

You may have read Cllr Caiach's recent blogpost which questions whether some of the contrived declarations and negligible connections trotted out at each meeting are absolutely necessary and in fact, deter local members speaking on behalf of their constituents for spurious reasons. This one, I'm sure, falls under that category.

However, Cllr Caiach had barely begun to question the point of these declarations when she was silenced by the Chair, (Plaid's Peter Hughes Griffiths) and Chief Executive. Cllr Caiach tried to continue but the webcast audio was mysteriously switched off. This is obviously a new ploy by the dynamic duo, perhaps involving pre-arranged signals to the technicians should Cllr Caiach say something untoward, such as, god forbid, the truth.

Of course it could have been an entirely coincidental, one-off, 'technical issue'...
Perhaps discussions around the subject of declaration of interest are a sore point for the chief executive, who notoriously failed to declare a direct financial, prejudicial and personal interest when being granted his libel indemnity, making it even more illegal than it already was.

As an anecdote I can recall, several years ago, Cllr Tom Theophilus declaring an interest in Prince Charles' planning application in Llwynwormwood as the councillor's nephew worked with the protection team at Highgrove. Quite where the prejudicial or personal interest arose here was anyone's guess, but at least Tom got to reveal his distant royal credentials to the mystified crowd.

But back to the meeting and I was particularly interested (see 'December's agenda') in the responses to the two questions posed by labour leader Jeff Edmunds, expecting a smattering of that well known, (but little heard of in these parts) democratic function of 'holding to account'.

The first was to ask Emlyn Dole if councillors should maintain high standards of behaviour, follow the code, and all that. As expected, Cllr Dole's answer was a simple 'yes'.
Cllr Edmunds then asked a supplementary question which, instead of using the opportunity to make the point we were expecting, was more or less the same, adding a bit about whether Leaders, ie Cllr Dole, should set an example.

Again Cllr Dole was able to say a simple, 'yes'.

Although viewers would need a sixth sense to detect it, this was an attempt to hold the leader to account aver the barn fiasco, but, with the Plaid Chair constantly speaking over him and clearly reluctant to allow Cllr Edmunds to elaborate, it failed miserably.

Another pointless effort followed as Cllr Edmunds asked Cllr Jane Tremlett (Ind) (Exec Board member for social care) about the allegations concerning Coastal Care and the misuse of EU funds, previously reported on Cneifiwr's blog, and more recently on this blog and in last week's Carmarthenshire Herald. Everywhere in fact.

The current policy which sees council whistleblowers unexpectedly finding themselves at the wrong end of a disciplinary hearing has also been something of an ongoing issue. Cllr Edmunds was calling for a full public inquiry into the allegations.

Dear Jane was ready with her script, clearly written for her by the legal department. There was no outright denial (that would have been dangerous should the truth manage to leak out), instead there was the usual waffle about independent auditors, non-compliant claims being adjusted, (not, I add, in the sense that the whistleblowers' had reported) and that "nothing had been brought to my attention which required further investigation", but if Cllr Edmunds had any information she might look at it.

In other words, a whitewash.

Cllr Edmunds then had a supplementary question. Could Cllr Tremlett provide copies of the whistleblowers' reports to councillors? She merely repeated the gist of first answer. So no, she wouldn't.

With Cllrs Dole and Tremlett off the hook, Cllr Edmunds was reduced to squabbling with the Chair over whether he could use quotations or not.

He recently made much of how his challenge to the 'status quo', and in particular, his challenge to Mark James cost Labour power and how, in opposition he would hold the executive to account. Admittedly, this is not easy in Carmarthenshire, but I would suggest he acquaints himself how, at the very least, to attempt it with effect and determination and takes a few urgent lessons from Cllr Caiach.

Cllr Caiach had put her own 'Councillor Question' forward on the subject of the Coastal Care allegations but Mark James refused to put it on the agenda. He considered Cllr Caiach's question to be defamatory but has failed to provide details to substantiate his decision.

The Chair, or Chief Executive, (the lines are forever blurred), has also decided, in another curious interpretation of the constitution, never to throw the subject matter of Councillor's Questions (or Public Questions, I noted) to the floor for debate. Hell no!

In fact Cllr Hughes Griffiths seems to be enjoying his stint Chairing council meetings, he also seems to enjoy the sound of his own voice. It's quite clear that control-freak extraordinaire Mark James has no problems whatsoever with the behaviour of the current Chair. The Civic shin-pads can be safely stored in the cupboard for yet another year.

To view the discussion around the EU Motion and the squabble at the end of the meeting over Plaid's 'Vision for Carmarthenshire' press release, you'll have to watch the archive but I'll finish for now with the report from the Chair of the Standards Committee (who is a lay member, not a councillor).

Delivering the committee's annual report, he said that the council were all jolly good chaps and had earned a well deserved pat on the back for their marvellous whistleblowing policy...not only that, but they all deserved yet another pat on the back for their "democracy and transparency".

I nearly chocked on my tea. The only explanation I could come up with was that the poor man had wandered into the wrong council.

With that, they all, (well, perhaps not all), trotted off to the Chair's Parlour for corporate coffee and mince pies. Ho ho ho.

Llanelli Rural Council to allow filming...sort of

At it's meeting yesterday Llanelli Rural Council decided to amend it's rules to allow members of the public to film or record it's meetings. Very commendable although this will only be allowed at the discretion of the Chair. This is a slight improvement on the County Council's bizarre policy to only allow the filming of meetings which are already being webcast.

However, following the decision, the Chair, Plaid Cymru Rural Councillor Martin Davies was asked about this discretion, would it involve determining the position of recording equipment and similar practicalities?

It seems that his 'discretion' went a bit further than that and he responded by saying that there'll be no filming at all!...not while he's Chair!'

Monday, 7 December 2015

Committee rejects 10% pay cut for Executive Board colleagues

Last month I mentioned proposals from the Independent Remuneration Panel Wales (IRPW) to cut some Executive Board salaries by 10%, see Councillors' Pay.

In Carmarthenshire there are ten executive board members, five Plaid and five Independents; seven of them receive £29,000 each; the two (yes, two) deputy leaders £31,250 apiece, and the Leader, Emlyn 'two barns' Dole, £48,000 per year. These figures do not include expenses.

The IRPW suggested that executive members with smaller workloads, perhaps four or five out of the seven, should take a 10% cut.

Not exactly drastic and not altogether unreasonable, you might think, given the current financial restraints and massive budget cuts on the horizon.

However, the proposal was offset somewhat by a suggested £2000 increase in deputy leaders' pay, so Cllrs Pam Palmer (Ind) and Dai Jenkins (Plaid) would then be on £33,250 each.

The IRPW report went out for consultation and was dealt with by the Council's ironically named Democratic Services Committee at the end of November.

The minutes do not record any protest over the proposed £2000 increase, but the 10% cut for their esteemed Executive Board colleagues?

"Members expressed concern as to whether, half way through the current electoral terms, it was necessary and desirable to introduce a two tier system of salaries for Executive Board Members that would necessitate differentiating between the portfolios.

UNANIMOUSLY RESOLVED to authorise the Chair to submit a response to the IRPW on behalf of the Committee taking on board the concern raised".

In other words...sod off.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Coastal Care...a scandal unfolds?

This week's Herald takes another look at the unfolding mess over the use, or misue, of EU money for the Coastal Care programme. Although several local authorities were involved in the project, it is only Carmarthenshire's role which has been the subject of complaints and attempts to blow the whistle.

A Herald report from a couple of weeks ago outlined the issues and allegations and this week's edition includes a further report. This is timely given that this sorry saga forms the subject matter of a question to be posed at Wednesday's full council meeting.

The issues are twofold; firstly the project was never the success that the council claimed and, as the Herald reports in detail, glossy brochures, massaged figures and unverifiable targets disguised the fact that by 2011 the aims were being missed by a mile.

By 2012, the Welsh European Funding Office (WEFO) was investigating, but despite their own doubts over the programme's success, their remit seemed to be to 'bend over backwards' to accommodate the shortcomings, rather than ensure proper governance and value for money.
For instance, they decided that in-house, non-accredited courses could be classed as 'positive outcomes' even though the participants were never externally assessed to determine whether they had in fact learned anything.

The second issue concerns the allegations that evidence was 'doctored' by the council, actions which would have only been sanctioned by the highest authority. The purpose, to put it simply, was to cover-up the fact that the EU money had not been spent correctly.

This EU money, meant to be directed at finding jobs for vulnerable people, was instead being used to create council jobs by funding duties which the council, by law, was supposed to be providing anyway. Furthermore, clients who were ineligible for the Coastal scheme were seen by workers under it's scope.

During the WEFO 'investigation' the council conducted it's own internal enquiry, which is where things get muddy, The Herald has seen a council document which states that “Evidence has been found to show that claims submitted to the COASTAL project were not always consistent with work documented on client files.”

The Herald continues;
"The solution proposed by the Council was drastic: “A decision has been taken to revisit all timesheets and claims.” 
And the purpose of revisiting them was to: “ensure that these reflect work that was undertaken.” 
In other words, doctoring evidence."

Reading between the lines of the most recent (2015) council report suggests there was indeed something of a problem, and the 'amendments' to files continued;

"...It was essential that each participant's file was scrutinised to ensure compliance in every aspect of work. There were significant risks during the closure process that had to be identified to minimise the potential for future claw-back of the ESF [Coastal] grant"

It will be interesting to see how this matter is discussed on Wednesday....the webcast starts at 10am.

Interestingly, the subject of timesheets also cropped up at a meeting of the council Grants Panel in June, this was in relation to the final grant claim for The Works' development in Llanelli. The WAO were taking a closer look at these documents after a 'Qualification' (in other words, a massive question mark) appeared in the Accountant's Report.

The long wait continues for the WAO report over the two EU property grants dished out by Meryl last year, and, as revealed in an internal audit in July, a £3m payment to the council from the Welsh Government Supporting People grant was delayed due to 'fundamental weaknesses'.

These 'weaknesses' included the failure to comply with procurement rules and a failure to ensure that the money was being spent where it should have been. In this case, the appalling lack of an adequate paper trail seems to have been miraculously 'resolved' and the grant subsequently paid.

The Wales Audit Office, for four years running, has expressed disquiet over the council's grant management procedures but it seems that 'encouraging improvement' and 'health checks' should have been ditched long ago and given way to either an investigation into possible fraud, or at least a full public inquiry. 

'A vision for Carmarthenshire' - Plaid embrace County Hall spin

Must just mention a press release issued by the Plaid administration on Friday, never a particularly good time to attract worldwide attention. However, the press release, picked up by the Carmarthenshire Herald, claims that Plaid will take £20m (over five years) out of the council's £100m+ reserves to fund various projects across the county.

This 'strategy' for jobs and the well-being of residents is described as a 'vision', no less, suggesting that Plaid have finally wrestled free from the clutches of Mark and Meryl. On closer inspection the list of projects and developments are largely those approved in the Capital budget back in February.

The £2m towards the archives became necessary due to fifteen years of neglect by County Hall and the £286k towards the Carmarthen velodrome has merely puzzled and irritated those communities campaigning to stop the 96 parks, sport fields and playgounds being sold off.

The planned spend on Pembrey Country Park was authorised last year (also in the process of being sold off) and the 'new' care home in Llanelli relates to the 'Extra Care' scheme already in development. The £750,000 for Oriel Myrddin Gallery (offloaded to a trust) is the same £750,000 which appeared in February's capital budget. The same goes for the Disabled Facility Grants and the rest of the list.

So broadly speaking, there is no 'new' spend.

In February, and there's a reminder here, Plaid were in opposition (in their anti-austerity days) and their alternative budget called for a moderate, £6.2m transfer from the reserves to help prevent some of the more unpopular cuts to frontline services. The chief executive entered the political debate, as he does, and told them not to be so silly and sent them to the back of the class.

Promises were then made that although their 'hands were tied' Plaid would look at the reserves this year and see what could be done. Quite clearly their hands are still tied firmly behind their backs.

I suspect a few quid will find their way out of the reserves for PR purposes for one or two predicatable red-herrings but £18m cuts to schools, etc, and the offloading of anything not tied down remains.

No one is arguing that the cuts facing local government are easy but this press release smacks of typical county hall spin and propaganda and the only 'vision' Plaid can lay claim to is to have been fully assimilated into the Mark James Media Empire,

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

December's Agenda

Next week's full council agenda has been published and includes a couple of interesting questions from members. 

Further to my previous post, which refers to the report in the Herald about allegations concerning the EU funded Coastal Care programme, opposition leader, Cllr Jeff Edmunds (Lab) poses the following question;

“In the light of the recent report in the Carmarthenshire Herald regarding allegations of financial and management irregularities in the County Council's management of the Coastal Care programme, will the Executive Board Member for Social Care and Health facilitate a public enquiry into this allegation as a matter of urgency”

Executive Board Member Jane Tremlett will be responding. One gets the impression that for the question to make it on to the agenda at all, the answer will be that there is nothing wrong and the numerous whistleblowers are entirely mistaken. Rather like my question regarding the misuse of public funds by the chief executive to pay off a loan for the Scarlets.

In the case of Coastal Care, I have heard these allegations for nearly three years, and from separate sources. A public inquiry is required but failing that, this matter should be referred immediately to either the Wales Audit Office, to add to their current investigations over EU Property Fund grants, again administered by the council, or the police.
Whilst they're at it, the Wales Audit Office needs to revisit the council's treatment of whistleblowers and refuse to accept tick-box assurance from management; the reality is that the opposite is true, there is no assurance, the culture remains toxic, at the highest level, and staff are frightened to come forward.

By coincidence, Cllr Emlyn Dole has put forward a Motion urging Carmarthenshire residents to vote 'yes' in any future national referendum to remain part of Europe. As it happens I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment. Cllr Dole cites the financial advantages to west Wales of our membership, but these financial advantages need to be administered properly and as we have seen, particularly within the top brass of the council, good governance, transparency and due diligence is, as ever, sadly lacking.

Cllr Edmunds also poses an interesting question directly to Cllr Dole;

“Councillors have a very important role to play; we are the interface between citizens and the council.  We are also seen as community leaders, democratically elected to represent our communities and are accountable to them, especially at the ballot box.

Cllr. Dole as leader of this council my question is, 'Do you believe that we as councillors should hold ourselves responsible for a higher standard than anybody expects of us?”

Unless I'm mistaken this question actually refers to the recent furore over the council leader's barns down on the farm in Pontyberem. Or maybe there's something else. We wait to hear the response and more importantly, Cllr Edmunds supplementary question. Accusations of political attack will undoubtedly fly and I suspect it forms an element of the question. After all, Cllr Edmunds was very quiet during that other furore, the illegal payments to the chief executive, when the council was under the leadership of his hapless colleague, Kevin Madge.

However, which ever way you look at it, the council leader riding roughshod over the planning process did nothing to restore public confidence in this deeply flawed service and, in more general terms, 'holding ourselves responsible for a higher standard' should include challenging the poisonous culture of this officer-led council along with it's cash-cow and mouthpiece in the form of Cllr Meryl Gravell, joined now, it seems, by Cllr Dole.

Agenda here.

Friday, 27 November 2015

The case of the disappearing email...and more from today's Herald

This week's Carmarthenshire Herald takes a look at the shelved 2010 investigation into the Council's planning services with reference to an email published on this blog a few week's ago in which council chief executive Mark James informs colleagues that following his 'challenge', the Auditor had 'backed down' and any formal investigation duly quashed.

The email also reveals that he planned to press for confidential information, including a questionable use of FOI.

The Herald reports that Freedom of Information requests were recently made to the Wales Audit Office and the council for all the correspondence relating to this potential investigation, the request to the council would have included this email. The WAO produced a couple of brief items of correspondence.

The council, however, claimed it no longer held any of the emails, not even those disclosed by the WAO.

This, as the Herald points out, is odd;

"Setting aside why a local authority would want to dispose of such important documents about its interactions with a statutory body, it rather begs the question of WHEN the documents were disposed of and on whose authority".

During the electronic disclosure stage of the libel case, which produced this email, keyword searches were made by the council on it's databases, servers, back up systems, PCs and laptops, including Mark James' laptop. The email itself had been written in January 2010 and was clearly still available in the Autumn of 2012 and was added to the bundle of documents.

Now we find that the email, along with the council correspondence with a regulatory body, namely the WAO, has mysteriously disappeared. Does this mean that all internal and external emails are now customarily deleted? Or is it just the dodgy ones on Mark James' corporate laptop?

Makes you wonder what else has been shredded...


The Herald lead article concerns claims of systematic misuse of European funds in relation to the Coastal Care programme. This programme ended last year and involved several local authorities, however, the allegations centre on Carmarthenshire Council. I was contacted myself around three years ago about these very same allegations which just goes to show how adept this council is at keeping things under wraps...

The allegations involve the use of EU monies, meant for young clients, to fund services the council is obliged to provide, this is not allowed under the EU criteria. The Herald has examined documents which suggest that 'time sheets and young people's NI numbers were manipulated to show that council employees had been working with Coastal clients when they had not'.

Further allegations were made to the Herald, from the council's Adult Services department, that despite senior managers being well aware of the issues, the practice still continues. The newspaper has an internal council document which acknowledges that the issues, which include the 're-creation' of records of interactions with vulnerable teenagers by Council staff, exist.

Unison representative Mark Evans is quoted as saying;
"We are aware that members have made allegations to the local authority in the past including falsifying of time sheets and working hours on Coastal Care and that they were using money from Europe meant for Coastal clients, which was used for statutory purposes instead, illegally".

As for the matter of whistleblowing, claims by Unison representative Mark Evans that members of staff are 'too frightened' to come forward come as no surprise to me. This is a problem across the authority. Mr Evans adds that members who have whistleblown in the past have 'ended up facing disciplinary action themselves'. A coincidence? No, not in my experience.


Finally, on a lighter note, another excellent Cadno this week with a special Christmas pantomime special. It includes several interesting contributions from the likes of The Reverend Gremlin Vole, Kevin Muggs and Dame Muriel Chippings, whoever they may be, and last but not least, there's this heartfelt appeal below.....

Click to read

For further coverage on these stories and more, The Llanelli and Carmarthenshire Heralds are available across the county, and can be found on Facebook here and here.

Persimmon permission goes to Committee

Update 3rd December; The Committee decided to go on a site visit to look at the development below so the decision was deferred until then.

Despite the fact that the Persimmon development in Hendy for 91 homes, is currently the subject of a call-in request to the Welsh Government by Nia Griffiths MP the application is up for consideration at next Thursday's Planning Committee (S/31228). You will recall that the developers had already started work on the site and had inferred, at a public meeting that they understood permission was already in the bag. 

The County Councillor eventually called for the application to go to committee, and the number of objections and local outrage over the premature mass clearance of the site made this inevitable. The chance of a quiet rubber stamp under delegated power has passed. It is put forward as 'partly retrospective' and, as you might expect, with a recommendation to approve.

The committee can, of course, be 'minded' to approve, or refuse whilst the Welsh Government are considering the call-in request although the final rubber stamp can't be applied until that decision is made.

One concern is that part of the development, the access road is outside the limits of the LDP. These limits are supposed to be strictly adhered to, and any departures reported to the committee. However, in Carmarthenshire these rules, most rules in fact, can be flexible depending on whether the applicant is a 'pillar of the community' or a favoured developer. In this case, planning officers gave the nod for this incursion into the forbidden zone prior to the application even being formally submitted.

Another concern is the increase in traffic, including the junction with the M4. The concern is summarily dismissed and is a classic case of officers relying on a desktop exercise provided by the developer rather than listening to the people that live there and deal with the traffic every day, and of course some cash in mitigation.

Aside from the merits or otherwise of the application the question remains as to why the developer commenced the works, was permission merely a formality as they reportedly suggested? This is not the only site in Carmarthenshire which Persimmon are developing which suggests close contact with the council. As this is now going to committee, the report describes Persimmon's actions as 'unfortunate'..

It will be interesting to see how the committee deal with this, (it will be webcast) and whether the S106 sweeteners and the fact that 'Emlyn's Barn' has set something of a precedent when it comes to retrospective applications will be enough to override the numerous local objections and concerns....

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Council budget - Hypocrisy, done deals and red herrings - with an update to the 'done deal'

Update 30th November below

Just a few more words about Carmarthenshire's budget consultation which kicked off last week with an online 'twenty questions' for your deliberation.

As I have mentioned several times the most striking cut is to the schools' budget, £18.26m over three years. This is despite promises from the Welsh Government, as recently as Monday, that the education budget would again be protected, for now anyway.

You may also recall that earlier this month the chief executive accused schools of playing fast and lose with their money and saddling the authority with redundancy costs. A case of the pot calling the kettle black of course and described by Cadno in this week's Herald as the 'highest paid failure in Wales'; we assume his own golden handshake, scuppered earlier this year, along with curious payments to the favourite rugby team, his illegal pension and libel indemnity payments, returning officer 'advanced' fees, and all the rest of it, is not 'fast and lose'. Criticism of spending by others, and the remarks were greeted with astonishment by the schools, is always better coming from a credible source, otherwise it simply smacks of blatant hypocrisy.

Anyway back to the twenty questions and included in the list is a £20,000 three year saving on Youth Services through a 'Review' of the use of the Quay Centre, Carmarthen. This is currently the base for the Carmarthenshire Youth Service and other organisations. Back in 2010 much was made of the decision to base the service there and according to press releases at the time there was nowhere else suitable in Carmarthen. It also enabled another youth group, Dr Mz's, to set up a base elsewhere in the town.

A 'review' would mean that alternative accommodation would now have to be found for the Youth service and the other organisations, and you are asked for your views. However, Monday's Executive Board meeting includes an item which suggests that your views might be superfluous to requirements.

A Swansea based company has already approached the council with a view to buy the centre and develop the site and the Exec Board is being asked to consider whether the talks should continue, exclusively, and privately, between the company and the council, or whether alternative accommodation for the organisations should be found and the site put on the open market.

So much for consultation then. Maybe County Hall's evangelical friends down at the bowling alley might help out with the 'alternative accommodation', being particularly keen on attracting young recruits. Just a couple of months ago they said they were already getting expressions of interest from the council for their newly heated office space...

[Update 30th Nov; The Exec Board decided today that the company, the developers behind the Ethos building in Swansea, should progress with their business case for the Quay to the exclusion of anyone else.
It also turns out that several councillors including the leader have already visited the building in Swansea, and Meryl has been discussing all this with the developer since 2012. No surprises there.
The words 'iconic', 'sustainable' and 'gateway' were used extensively, as you might expect. Perhaps we'll have a Carmarthen Shard on the skyline.
I'm not sure what the Town Council think of all this as they wanted first shout on the site should the county council ever wish to dispose of it...]

Having observed the budget process (as best one can) over the years there always seem to be a couple of red herrings, a couple of low cost controversial proposals which the council executive can reject in a fanfare of magnanimous glory just after Christmas, claiming to have listened to the people.
This year my money's on a three year, £50,000 budget cut for respite care/short breaks for disabled children. This will mean, the survey says, 'the likely closure of two Breakthro' services which serve the needs of children with disabilities, particularly supporting them through holiday periods'.

We'll wait and see, after all, Carmarthenshire's councillors claim that in expenses in one year, never mind three, and somewhat less than was spent on defending the chief executive's unlawful activities.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Carmarthenshire County Council; Kidwelly by-election results

Labour secured a narrow victory over Plaid in yesterday's county council by-election, retaining the Kidwelly seat by just 40 votes. The turnout was 31% and the results are are follows;

Ryan Thomas - Labour  288
Dilwyn John-Jones - Plaid Cymru  248
Fran Burke-Lloyd - Independent 177
Stephen Royston-Bowen - People First 58
Stephen Andrew Davies - Conservative 53
Viv Summers - Independent 28

As for the 74 council seats; Plaid remain on 29 and their Independent group colleagues on 21. The Labour group now have 22 seats. There is one People First councillor and one unaffiliated.

Earlier post here.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Council budget - Education bears the brunt

Further to my earlier post, Budget time again..and £18m axed from schools, a few words about this morning's ten minute Executive Board meeting which saw the council's budget rubber stamped for public consultation. The process starts later this week.

Given that nearly half of the proposed £40m savings over the next three years are to come from education I expected this to be given a mention. I expected a comment, or note of concern from the Executive Board member for education, Plaid Cllr Gareth Jones that slicing a whopping £18.26m from schools, around 16% of their budget, would lead to even more teaching redundancies and without a doubt have an adverse affect on our children, let alone the risks of putting all your efficiency eggs in one basket, well half of them. There was not a mention.
The financial strain will be doubly compounded should the chief executive, following his insinuations at the last meeting, have his wish that schools should fund their own redundancy costs as well.

Back in July the Welsh Government claimed it was protecting the national education budget and was committed to 'sheltering schools from the worst of the cuts'. It looks like Carmarthenshire council have decided the exact opposite and schools will, in fact, bear the full brunt.

With the leader, Cllr Dole, away doing something important in Brussels it was left to Plaid's Dai Jenkins to present the budget report, a far cry from the anti-austerity promises from their pre-June opposition, they have certainly grasped the poisoned chalice; firmly following the traditions of their predecessors. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see how the Labour opposition shapes up over the next few months, if at all, but I noticed that none of them were there today, fielding a 'Councillor Question' or two.

18th November;
The council's online budget consultation can be accessed here and runs until the 3rd January.

Persimmon call-in request...

This week's Llanelli Herald takes another look at the shady world of Carmarthenshire's Planning Services and confirms that Nia Griffiths MP (Lab) has asked for the Persimmon application for 91 homes in Hendy, Llanelli, to be taken out of the hands of the council and called-in by the Welsh Government.

As reported earlier this month, Persimmon have carried out extensive works to the site despite the fact that the application has not been decided. Of further concern were reported comments made by Persimmon, at a public meeting, that they'd been led to believe by planning officers that permission was already in the bag.

This specific concern is included in her call-in request and she also adds, in her letter to the Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab);

"This follows hot on the heels of the planning committee giving permission to an application by the Leader of the Council’s wife, in spite of the officers’ recommendation for refusal. This has clearly undermined the credibility of Carmarthenshire’s planning process, and left people wondering if there is one rule for some, and different one for the rest. I should be grateful if you would look into what is happening in Carmarthenshire."

Ms Griffiths is not the first person to question the capabilities of Carmarthenshire Council to make proper planning decisions, on officer and councillor level. Both Jonathan Edwards  and Rhodri Glyn Thomas have a wealth of experience in dealing with the wild west world of Carmarthenshire Planning and both have called for investigations.

I suppose that with the (nominal) change in political leadership in Carmarthenshire Council in June, we can now expect a more critical public stance from Nia Griffiths. The Herald asked Plaid's Jonathan Edwards for his views on the planning system and, as you might also expect, with Plaid now 'in charge', his comments were a little more guarded about current issues. But that's politics for you.

His criticism was reserved for the previous policies of the Labour administration yet, as the Herald pointed out, little seems to have changed, and the one councillor with the responsibility for planning was, and still is, the 'Independent' Meryl Gravell, never more than a whisper away from Mark James.

Which brings us back to that toxic culture of defensiveness and arrogance. Never a good mix when it comes to controversial and sensitive planning decisions and complaints.

We now know what happened when the Wales Audit tried to take a closer look back in 2010.

From the Breckman case to the Sainsbury's saga that culture is all pervading. One of the most controversial developments in recent years was the housing development on the old Stradey Park site, which tied in with the Parc Y Scarlets stadium. In court, a couple of years ago, Mr James was asked whether the Stradey development was controversial; he didn't really think so, there were a couple of articles in the press, nothing more...

In reality, as he well knew, there was a right stink and Mr James regularly featured in the press himself pouring scorn on objectors and critics as being anti-council and anti-rugby.

His criticism of Cllr Caiach and Cllr Bill Thomas, over their continued opposition to council planning policy relating to pollution in the Burry Inlet has been well documented. Recently Mr James claimed to have amassed a dossier on Cllr Thomas to support proceedings against him in the High Court. Cllr Thomas has also claimed to have been the subject of covert surveillance by the authority.

It also emerged, in the summer that it was the usual suspect who had his hands on the cheque book to join with the developers and take the Welsh Government to court over the Grillo application in 2012 (and lose), without a whiff of reference to any elected members.

As for the councillors, the Herald has described, with some sympathy, the Chair's problems in controlling the planning committee as akin to herding cats. Yet the Chair, Cllr Alun Lenny (Plaid) himself wrote a letter to the Herald attacking their stance over 'Emlyn's barns', using a separate but similar application as some sort of justification - debunking the supposedly cast iron planning rule that 'every application must be considered on its own merits'.

Recent events alone should warrant a closer look at the planning system in Carmarthenshire, perhaps the new Director in charge of planning should welcome a complete and thorough audit, starting from scratch so to speak;  and it will be interesting to see if Mr Sargeant now concludes that the only realistic way to restore a semblance of public confidence is to take planning out of the hands of Carmarthenshire council altogether.

Llanelli Herald on Facebook here.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Petition; Abolish Council Prayers

I have mentioned the subject of council prayers several times on this blog and the issue has been the subject of some debate and controversy across the UK. I am now petitioning the Leader, and the Chair, of Carmarthenshire Council to cease the practice at meetings of full council.

If you agree with this petition statement below, please click HERE to sign.

"Prayers are held at the start of every full council meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council. This is not listed as an agenda item. I do not believe that prayers, from any religion, are appropriate in the setting of a supposedly secular democratic institution.  
Visitors to the Chamber, perhaps members of the public present to pose a question, have no warning that a prayer will take place. Councillors who do not wish to take part in prayer have to remain at the back of the Chamber giving the appearance of being late. If Councillors wish to pray, this should be done prior to the meeting in a separate location. 
I believe that the expression of religious belief in a secular setting is inappropriate, divisive and challenges equalities legislation. 
I call upon the Leader, and the Chair of Carmarthenshire County Council to cease prayers and religious observance at full council meetings."

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Shh! Library for Sale

Earlier this month the Council's Executive Board turned off the webcam, threw out the press and public and went into private session. What was the top secret issue at stake? National security? No, it was the future of Llandeilo's small purpose built library, a public asset. There was no discussion at all (there never is) whether the public interest test to exempt the report was met, or not.

Back in March a 'consultation' was launched to gather views on whether it would be a good idea, or not, to sell the library and move its contents into the council offices a few hundred yards away to be run on a self-service basis.

The press office, when announcing the consultation, jumped the gun and described it as a 'development opportunity'. This was soon changed and this clear reference that the decision had already been made was removed.

The consultation came and went. We don't know if anyone responded, or what the responses were. Perhaps all were in favour, or all against, we'll never know.

All went quiet until this 'exempt' report appeared at the Exec Board meeting. The decision, recorded briefly in the minutes, was for the library to be relocated to the council offices (sweetened with the latest buzzword, a 'hub') and the existing library building disposed of.
Hardly surprising as this was the intention long before it got anywhere near a public consultation.

To be honest, given the council's three year budget plan, the library's days are numbered anyway, whether in its own little building, or in a spare corner of the council offices with an automatic till.

The question remains though, given the WLGA recommendation that the council review its questionable use of 'exemptions', was there any reason whatsoever for this quiet disposal of a community asset to be decided behind closed doors?

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Budget time again....£18m axed from education, and Custard Creams take a hit.

The planned council budget cuts of £40m over the next three years come up for their first airing on Monday. It's early days but the Executive Board (see Appendix A) will approve a raft of proposals which will form part of the public consultation starting on the 18th November.

In a combination of administrative and service cuts, there are a lot of 'structural realignments', remodelling and 'new ways of working', which, aside from job losses, for leisure services and the bulk of social care means further outsourcing to trusts and private companies. 'Savings' of £1.4m are planned for private sector residential homes and private home care through a reduction in placements and home care packages, despite a clear and steady rise in demand.

Also, despite an increasing reliance on the 'third sector' to deliver care in the community grants to organisations such as MIND, Mencap, Llanelli Association for the blind, Shelter and Care and Repair are being cut.

Many of the planned cuts are a continuation of proposals from the last budget such as the 'deferred' increase in parking charges and of course the post-16 transport charges which is currently under a separate consultation. Highway maintenance and flood defences again take a big hit but by far the largest cuts over the next three years are to education and children's services.

The risk assessment team for children's services will be discontinued 'saving' around £80,000 and the usual increases in school dinners hope to bring in around £300,000 by 2018. The Quay centre, the base for youth services opened in 2010, looks likely to be mothballed.

However, the delegated school budget, the money the council gives to the schools, is to be cut by an astonishing £18.280m over three years;

"Education is a significant area of spend for the Council. This proposal is to reduce the total budget to schools and support schools in achieving a number of cost savings, for example, further collaboration between schools, reducing "back office" costs to prioritise classroom provision, etc."

How that vague plan will pan out without directly affecting educational standards remains to be seen.

The added complication of course, for our political parties, is the impending Assembly elections next May. The budget will eventually be passed in February, and will be fresh in the minds of voters as the campaign trail begins in earnest...

On a lighter note we see that there will be a £2000 reduction in spending on refreshments for meetings. It's always a little difficult to gauge things like this when the total cost is unknown (the council doesn't publish any spending details), for all we know they may spend £10m a year on tea and biscuits, so £2000 isn't much of a sacrifice...

...and there's worrying news that there'll be a £30,000 reduction in the support budget for Chief Executive's office....this could mean the loss of the Presidential Pastry Chef and possibly even the butler...Mr James may be forced to polish his CBE himself...

Monday's meeting will be webcast from 10am.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Welsh Town Hall Rich List

As reported by several newspapers, the Welsh Town Hall Rich List was published today. The figures for our favourite basket case, Carmarthenshire Council, are based on the 2013 to 2014 financial year and show that the council topped the chart for the highest number of senior staff on over £100,000 per year.
Chief Executive Mark James' over inflated salary for that year also includes some of his ill-gotten pension and libel indemnity payments.

The Western Mail's article on the report can be read here

Click here to access the @WalesOnline article

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Councillors' pay

The Western Mail has reported on the latest draft report from the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales (IRPW). This is the body which recommends the level of councillors' pay across Wales.

In a newly acquired function, due to years of excess, it can also now make recommendations (but not set) the level of pay for chief executives in Wales, Unfortunately it doesn't apply to the current postholders.

The draft report is up for consultation but remains pretty much the same as last year. One small difference is a recommended 10% pay cut for those Executive Board councillors who have smaller 'workloads' than other Executive Board councillors. Not exactly pushing the boat out and off-set by a £2000 increase in the deputy leader's pay, of which we have two.

Anyway, as can be read in the Western Mail article, the move is not exactly being welcomed with open arms.

So what would it mean for Carmarthenshire? Back in May's full council meeting, when the last IRPW report was accepted, there was a general all round back-slapping on how they were all worth every penny, even more in some cases, not a pleasant experience for us webcast watchers.

There are ten Executive Board Members, seven of whom currently each receive £29,000 per year. The two deputy leaders, Cllrs Pam Palmer and Dai Jenkins each receive £31,250 (why we need two isn't clear, neither is it clear why we need two Assistant Chief Executives) and council leader Emlyn Dole, £48,000. Plus expenses of course.

Backbench councillors get £13,300 per year and Chairs £22,000. The total cost, including expenses, for all 74 councillors for the first six months of this financial year is £642,511.

The new recommendations, which may not get past the consultation stage, propose that the pay for some Executive councillors is reduced to £26,100, offset, as I said by an increase for deputy leaders to £33,350 apiece.

Should this get through to the final report in the new year, I expect we will witness something of an Executive bloodbath as our esteemed Members claim to do more work than the others.
It will be interesting to see whether any of them, in light of 'difficult decisions' take a nominal cut to show 'we're all in this together'...

I rather liked the suggestion put forward by one of the Barnet bloggers as one of their councillors responsible for massive cuts and wholesale outsourcing spouted forth on how lucky they were to have such hard working willing volunteers, now required to carry out essential services.

The blogger suggested that the Member might like to consider reflecting this spirit of public goodwill by exercising his own civic duties on an entirely voluntary didn't go down well.

To try attract a diversity of councillors a reasonable allowance is necessary of course, you wouldn't want a Chamber full of elderly retired farmers I'm sure... As for the calibre of our elected members, that's a different matter. With only a handful currently cutting the mustard, that little matter will be up to you dear voters, but not until May 2017. Unless there's a revolution.

As for cutting the cost of politics, I doubt that will happen until the number of councils are reduced, an enormously costly exercise itself. For now, and aside from the few, the gravy train rolls on.

Personally I'm in favour of slightly more radical changes in Carmarthenshire; the immediate removal of the post of chief executive and a stab at that £1m Motion put forward by Plaid councillors in Cardiff.

Persimmon permission - a nod and a wink?

This week's Herald puts the spotlight yet again on Carmarthenshire's notorious planning 'process'. One of the articles concerns a planning application for 91 homes in Hendy, near Llanelli. With the planning application not yet decided, locals were shocked a couple of weeks ago when Persimmon Homes brought in the bulldozers, clearing the ground, felling trees and preparing the road entrance.

By anyone's imagination the works were over and above anything allowed under permitted development. Others claimed to have seen the 'houses' advertised on the Persimmon website.
Some wondered, with the recent approval of the council leader's barn conversion, if planning permission, prior to starting work, is still a requirement in Carmarthenshire....

The outcry from local residents, some of whom were now dealing with water run-off into their properties prompted a public meeting held last week. Unfortunately Persimmon threatened to walk out of the meeting if the Herald and the BBC filmed it, but luckily, careful notes were taken. No one was present from the planning department although the local councillor, who has, rather late in the day, asked for it to go to the planning committee, was present.

Image via Hidden Carmarthenshire and the Llanelli Herald - for video click here
What transpired during the meeting was that Persimmon claimed to have been given the nod from planning officers that planning consent was a done deal, just a matter of signing off the delegated approval.

The Persimmon representative said;
"We had been promised delegated approval for several weeks leading up to this. From our perspective, we thought that planning consent had been approved...As far as we were concerned we were going to get planning consent for that site.."

They also claimed that this 'preparatory work' was carried out with the full knowledge of the council. Interestingly, the council do not actually contradict this statement but since, and only since, the outcry first reached the press have the council told Persimmon to cease the work, for now.

I wouldn't like to hazard a guess how Persimmon were promised planning approval as they claim, but this is big business, courted by County Hall, and I am certain they can recognising a nod and a wink when they see one.

Whether or not this application makes it to the wonderful planning committee remains to be seen and of course, that will be another story...

I'm not sure how much of a shambles the Carmarthenshire public are supposed to tolerate, at some point maybe the Welsh Government will decide that enough's enough and finally put the planning department, and it's committee, into special matter how much the chief executive stamps his feet.

Also in the Herald is another excellent Cadno piece which reflects on the events above, the latest episode in the long running comedy show, Meryl and Mark's Wild West World of Planning.

Carmarthenshire Herald

Coca-Cola, the Christmas icon

I'm sure it won't have escaped your attention that the Coca-Cola lorry is visiting Llanelli. An overexcited, breathless press release announced that Council leader Emlyn Dole "has exclusively revealed that the iconic 38-tonne truck has been secured for a one day show-stopper in Llanelli town centre".

Whilst the event will no doubt bring a welcome, if brief, boost to town centre trade, those marketing geniuses at Coca-Cola have, somehow or other, not only made this illuminated truck an integral part of Christmas, and an "iconic" part at that, but have secured taxpayer funded advertising from councils across the UK in the run up to Christmas. Fair play to them.

However, it would be interesting to hear Cllr Dole's explanation as to how this all fits in with Plaid Cymru's pop tax policy (recently endorsed by the seemingly less than 'iconic' Jamie Oliver) and the council's own role in tackling childhood obesity...after all, their Annual Report tells us they have set up a "multi-agency, multi-disciplinary childhood obesity prevention group, which focuses on current environment, services and policies which addresses community based prevention for childhood obesity." (The writer has clearly overdosed on sugar)

Anyway, I'm no humbug and was disappointed to hear that despite finding a perfect match to play King Herod, casting for an iconic open air Council Nativity Play in the town centre was abandoned when no one was able to find three wise men...

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Monday's Executive Board, in brief.

We are very fortunate that the Executive Board meets before its official meetings, and after, to ensure all are in happy cosy agreement before the great unwashed are allowed in. Should there be anything other than harmonious bliss between Plaid and their Independent pals, on everything, the long, detailed agenda might have taken a little longer than the record breaking 45 minutes it took on Monday.

The record was helped by switching off of the webcam to discuss the highly sensitive, top secret future of Llandeilo Library. There was no open discussion on whether the public interest test to exclude the press and public was met. There never is.

The agenda itself concerned a wide ranging and important variety of topics from the prevention of Radicalisation (introduced by Pam Palmer..) to rural planning policy (that was very brief...), and a Charter for Children's Rights sped past as rapidly as the current levels of overspend in the council's accounts.

One issue in overspend was given a brief airing when the £1m in school redundancies came up. The chief executive helpfully pointed out that the county council corporate budget picked up the tab for these costs, it didn't come out of the school budgets. This he said, was wrong and 'something needed to be done'. He went further to say that these naughty schools often got rid of staff on higher salaries, replacing them with staff on lower salary bands; "We know it goes on.."
I guess, when it comes to financial chicanery it takes one to know one.

It might well 'go on' but surely the county council's own Modernising Education Programme to close, merge and federate (mainly 'close') Carmarthenshire's schools has played a part in the increased redundancy bill. Back in July figures showed that there will be 59 agreed redundancies for school staff, including 36 teachers, over the next twelve months.
The council are also planning to squeeze education further by chopping £14m off the delegated school budget over the next couple of years.

It's also a bit rich coming from an employee on upwards of £180,000 per annum (with the occasional addition of various unlawful payments) who was quite happy, this time last year, to sail off with a redundancy package of nearly half a million quid himself from the council's precious corporate budget.

Should you be so inclined, the archived webcast can be viewed here. There's another Exec Board meeting on the 16th November which I am guessing will launch the start of that thorny issue, the budget consultation.


Further to my post from last month, '96 parks and playgounds up for grabs', it turns out that the Council currently has £1.3m in Section 106 money, specifically for 'Recreation, open space and play schemes', languishing in the vaults. Presumably this would have gone some way towards keeping at least some of the parks and playgrounds, which are now being dumped, fit for purpose for years to come.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Petition; Curb unelected power and restore local democracy

If you agree with the following petition statement, which is so highly relevant to Carmarthenshire, please click here and add your signature;

Petition for Democracy in Local Government
"In recent years we have observed a trend in Welsh local government that has seen unelected officers effectively take control of local authorities. 
This is invariably achieved with the connivance of a small group of councillors who commit their loyalty to senior officers rather than to the council to which they were elected and those living within the local authority area. 
A phenomenon that raises a number of concerns.  
1. When power is exercised by senior officers and elected representatives are, effectively, excluded from the decision-making process then, clearly, the democratic process has been undermined, and democratic accountability lost.  
2. Excluding the majority of the elected representatives from any role other than the cosmetic must call into question why cash-strapped councils need to pay so much money in various forms to political eunuchs.  
We therefore call on the Welsh Government to be aware of this threat to local democracy and where it becomes clear that senior officers are exerting an unhealthy and undemocratic influence over the running of any local authority to warn that authority publicly that decision-making powers rest solely with the elected representatives and, where such a warning is not heeded, to take that authority into special measures. 
Senior local government officers, no matter what their qualifications or how inflated their salaries, remain employees of the council and servants to the electorate and the wider population. That they should subvert democracy by taking over the running of the local authorities that employ them is both unacceptable and dangerous. 
Yet this is the situation we find in a number of our local authorities, but for reasons best known to itself the Welsh Government has turned a blind eye to the situation, even though the problem of officer domination has been obvious for a number of years."

Click here to access the petition on the Welsh Government website


Whilst I'm on the subject of petitions, there's not a glimmer yet of the promised ePetition page on the council website. This facility, common in English councils (along with publishing spending details and allowing the public to film all open meetings etc....) enables residents to directly petition the council, (as long as it passes the inspection of the chief executive..) triggering a debate if sufficient signatures are collected.

This is something I've called for for a few years and the WLGA, following the publication of the Governance Review in November 2014, expected its recommendation for an ePetition page to go live within three months.

It was not only the WLGA who thought this was a good idea but so did the council's own IT strategy, also dating from last November;

"Detachment from the political process is a big issue, with election turnout being as little as 23% in one area of Carmarthen in the last Council Election. Everyone can view e-petitions online and they are easy to sign. They encourage transparency when petitions are debated and increase public engagement with the Local Authority".

A year on, we're still waiting.

I'll let you know if it ever appears.