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.