Tuesday, 19 June 2018

£20,000 Returning Officer fees - time to revisit the issue?


Earlier this year I mentioned the council's pay policy and the eye-watering levels of senior pay. Prior to the March meeting when this was discussed, a Labour councillor had raised the subject of chief officers pay in the Chamber. This unholy transgression resulted in a sour and outraged email from the chief executive, clearly irritated that the subject had been brought up and picked up by the press and the "wider community'; it was, he said, "entirely unwholesome and distasteful".

The council's draft accounts have just been published and show an increase in the chief executive's salary from £170,424 to a whopping £191,699. The difference, around £20,000, is for Returning Officer fees for the Local Elections held in May 2017. The figure does not include similar fees for the General Election which are paid direct by the government, not the council. Nor do they include other perks such as free use of publicly funded resources, facilities and staff time for his own private and personal use. (Nor does it include, of course, £165 a month from me..).

Extract from Statement of Accounts 2017/18
To put this into some real-world perspective, £20,000 equates to what would be considered a decent annual wage in Carmarthenshire, and in fact the median annual pay for all council employees works out at around £21,000.

Labour have been quiet on the subject but a few years back Plaid Cymru, largely initiated by former AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas, called for the end of these additional fees, unsuccessfully it turned out, but in January 2015 stated a clear Plaid policy on the subject;

"Plaid Cymru believes there should be no additional fees paid to Council senior officers for undertaking Returning Officer duties at election time. Swansea Council does not pay their chief executive a penny to undertake election duties, and we do not see why others should pocket up to tens of thousands of pounds in addition to their very well paid jobs."

I'm not sure what's happened to this policy in 'Plaid-run' Carmarthenshire, presumably Emlyn Dole hasn't found the courage to broach the subject with Mr James...though given the latter's preoccupation with his own wallet it's fairly clear how he would react to such an impertinent suggestion...

From the accounts we also learn that the Director of Communities and deputy chief executive Jake Morgan comes in at a not-very-close second on £156,000. This figure includes pension contributions of £20,000. Mr James has not been part of the pension scheme since the tax avoiding arrangement was exposed back in 2014. Neither the pension cash, nor the illegal libel indemnity have ever been repaid.

Other figures in the accounts show £2.8m paid out in exit packages which includes £687,738 for just six members of senior staff. Altogether, in the past two years, nearly a million pounds has been paid out in exit packages for eight members of the top brass. There are 21 senior officers in the £90,000 to £191,699 pay scale.
The total pay for the 74 councillors comes to £1.23m, plus expenses, which this year have jumped from £42,702 to £50,554.

A Labour motion to marginally reduce £123,000 per year salaries for two new director posts was defeated late last year by Plaid and the Independents, helped along, incidentally, by an entirely unwholesome and distasteful intervention by the chief executive... However, at Cardiff Council, in 2015, a Plaid Cymru motion to slash chief executive pay from £170k to £100k was defeated by Labour.
Meanwhile, Cllr Dole tells us that frontline services are now 'cut to the bone'.

With the current stalemate over excessive senior pay, what about tackling those Returning Officer fees? At £20,000 a throw, it's time to revisit the issue.

Monday, 18 June 2018

News round-up - Family Court, City Deals, swamps, and more

Family Court Judgement
Carmarthenshire Council have been in the news again following the publication of a damning judgement from the Family Court. The case centred around an 8 year old child and whether or not he should be returned to the care of his mother, the council and the appointed guardian were opposing the move. The council lost the case and came under scathing criticism from the judge over the quality of both their written and oral evidence.

The judgement is well worth a read. Evidence from one "so-called expert witness", was simply theoretic and should never have been admissible. A 44-page statement from one social worker was described by the judge as "swathes" of "rhetoric and generalisations" and "inconsequential, trivial and insubstantial".

The judgement can be read in full here

Swansea Bay City Deal
Full council met last Wednesday for their monthly meeting and quietly nodded through the legal framework for the City Deal. Bearing in mind that the council is already £400m in debt, no one questioned the unknown level of borrowing which will required, or if it was affordable, or whether there were contingency plans should the mysterious investors go bust, or pull out; or, well, anything much at all really.

As chief executive Mark James is leading the whole thing, with Emlyn Dole as the mouthpiece, rebellion, or anything more that a polite enquiry was always going to be unlikely and Mr James, along with the finance director, was given extended delegated power not to trouble the pretty heads of councillors with the finer details. To be honest I'd err on the side of caution when it comes to Mr James and documents... Linda Rees Jones, Carmarthenshire's Monitoring Officer and the chief executive's legal protector is also, we learn, the Monitoring Officer for the City Deal. You may recall that Carmarthenshire's internal legal advice was once famously, and accurately described as 'cavalier' and 'incompetent'. It most certainly still is.
What could possibly go wrong?

The Agreement now has to be approved by the other three councils; Swansea, Neath Port Talbot and Pembrokeshire. I hope their councillors take a slightly more 'risk based' approach to what is, essentially, a very expensive PFI scheme. After all, it was only two weeks ago that Emlyn Dole said that "services have now been cut to the bone, and now it is almost impossible to safeguard our frontline services".

Meanwhile, down at the Delta Lakes swamp, the planning application (by Arup, on behalf of the council) for the Mark James 'Wellness Village', part of the City Deal, is not going quite according to plan with NRW threatening to object to the application unless their concerns are addressed. These concerns include "requirements for flood risk, protected species, designated sites, drainage and air quality and conditions on geoscience, landscape and pollution prevention." Which covers just about everything.

The site, which is contaminated, partially on a flood plain and part of Llanelli's creaking sewage system, is directly adjacent to several designated sites; Carmarthen Bay and Estuaries SAC, Burry Inlet Special Protection Area (SPA) and RAMSAR, Burry Inlet and Loughor Estuary Special Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI), Pyllau Machynys SSSI and Pwll Lagoon SSSI.
Nothing is insurmountable of course, if you throw enough taxpayers' money at it, or, as in the case of the council's usual preferred option, deny all and carry on regardless.

Another project, Yr Egin 'cultural hub' in Carmarthen is now complete, it is not known how much has been paid out by the council or if there are any ongoing costs. We do know though that they paid £110,000 per acre for 19 acres of land for the Carmarthen West Road to enable the development, and that S4C, the flagship tenant is having trouble tempting its staff relocate to the wild west.
It's probably only a matter of time before the council starts renting office space...

Digital divide
Three and a half years ago Carmarthenshire councillors voted to go 'paperless' and have the reams of agendas, minutes and documents delivered electronically. iPads and software were duly purchased at considerable outlay and ongoing cost, and provided to all 74 councillors.

A report to the quaintly titled Democratic Committee last Monday, see here, revealed that, after three and a half years, only four councillors had actually gone 'paperless'. The rest, we assume, are either still working out how to turn their tablets on, given them to the grandkids or becoming Candy Crush experts. There had been 'hiccups', apparently.

I don't think there are many outfits, in this day and age, public or private, which continue to use small forests of timber, buckets of ink and eye-watering postage costs to impart information to their organisation. Apart from Carmarthenshire Council.

Carmarthen West Development
As mentioned above the Council have been shelling out a small fortune to progress the Carms West development of 1200 homes and the associated Carms West Link Road. One application, for around 250 homes, originally submitted in 2013, was, despite numerous objections including lack of demand, approved in February 2017 (See my post here which gives further background) but this was conditional on the completion of a S106 agreement. Presumably that has now been agreed as the decision notice has now been released.
The developer, Carmarthen Promotions Ltd is, oddly, based in Norfolk with a Lord, no less, as one of the Directors. The last published accounts indicate a loss of £252,000 in 2016/17. What I find odd is that, according to Companies House, as of the 6th June this year the council now have a legal charge over the company on the land. The company already has a bank loan of £1.6m secured on the land.

The council's legal charge is either connected to the S106 agreement or is security for a loan. If the council have given Carmarthen Promotions Ltd a loan it would be interesting to know why, how much, and on what terms. If it's part of the S106 then any return from the development is likely to take a very long time, if ever. Incidentally, in 2016 the same directors set up another company, Carmarthen Promotions (North) Ltd which is also running at a loss.
Curious.

Public Audit
It's nearly that time of year again when the law allows you to take yourself down to County Hall and inspect the council's accounts and "all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating thereto", well, those that have escaped the Presidential Shredder anyway... The inspection period runs from the 5th July and the 1st August.
Unlike English councils, the requirement to publish monthly spending details over £500 doesn't apply to Wales and this puts the interested public on the back foot. In Carmarthenshire we are left with trying to decipher generalised quarterly budget reports or going through tortuous freedom of information requests. With the growing profusion of arms-length companies and outsourced services even these avenues are becoming blocked.

So, if you have an area of interest, or even suspect there's been some creative accounting or an unlawful payment or two, the details of how to exercise your right to inspect can be found here.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Swansea Bay City Deal 'Agreement'...and Carmarthenshire's in charge


After fifteen months of deliberation, arguments, and unknown, but no doubt astronomical legal costs, the final draft of the Joint Working Agreement for the Swansea Bay City Deal will be doing the rounds of the four participant councils over the next few weeks. If they all agree, the Joint Committee will be formally set up. The draft Agreement can be read here.

Carmarthenshire Council Executive Board will be rubber stamping the Agreement on Monday (update Monday; duly rubber stamped). It will then go to full council for the final nod of approval.

From what I can fathom out, here are a few points;

The Joint Committee will consist of the four council leaders and several co-opted representatives from the health boards and the universities. Only the four council leaders will have a vote. However, this is against a backdrop and input of the programme board, economic strategy board of business interests, finance and legal board, and other vested interests. As lip service to scrutiny, a councillor joint scrutiny board will be set up which will be run Carmarthenshire-style, ie surgically sanitised officer reports, engineered to avoid challenge and dissent.

Carmarthenshire Council will be the official 'Accountable Body', essentially then it's Mark James, aided and abetted by Linda Rees Jones and the section 151 finance officer. No, it's not April 1st. Mr James, as we know, is the lead chief executive for the whole Deal, the principal advisor to the Joint Committee, and will be known as the 'Accountable Officer'. What a joke. The other councils should be aware that the 'Accountable Officer' thinks nothing of breaching promises and was happy to renege on an undertaking to hand money over to the council, and pocketed it himself. Speaking from experience, I wouldn't believe a word he says. We wouldn't want the City Deal money ending up in the gutter would we?
I refer readers, and interested parties, to my previous post City Deal - a scandal in the making, and the wrong man for the job?

The private investment, the funding arrangements, and borrowing requirement for the four councils are still not clear but essentially, the 'Accountable Body' will be in control of the purse strings...what could possibly go wrong? A recent letter from the Welsh Minister shows that even the Welsh Government is confused as to Mr James' role in local government;



In Carmarthenshire the main project is the Wellness private-health-care hot-tub extravaganza, a Mark James vision he clearly plans to bequeath to the County when he finally moves on. If nothing else, it will be something to keep the auditors in gainful employment in years to come. The Yr Egin 'cultural hub' has already cost £16m of public money, how much of that has come from the council is not entirely clear.

The reality of the City Deal governance will be somewhat different than the tick-box legalese of the official agreement. One of the 'Principles' is for councils to be 'open and trusting in their dealings with each other'. We don't have to look very far back to see just how open and trusting Carmarthenshire was with Pembrokeshire over the speculative property grants, see 'Councils at war' leading to Pembs councillors concluding that Carmarthenshire was indeed a Sicilian cartel. These grants were administered by Carmarthenshire, like the City Deal, and the audits were shrouded in mystery, and mismanagement covered up.

The ambiguity identified by Neath Port Talbot over the past few months is still there with uncertainty around the use of capital receipts (as I read it, a council could sell any asset and use the money for a city deal project) and the divving up of funds, controlled by Carmarthenshire, is likely to set one council off against another before a once-in-a-generation brick has been laid. That's only when the government funding does start to trickle in, up until then each council, all making cuts to frontline services, will have to fund the projects themselves.

The running costs for the Deal will be met by the four councils to to the tune of £1m over five years, plus an additional 1.5% top-slice of the governments' contribution. This again will be controlled, and audited by Carmarthenshire...

As for Freedom of Information requests, once again it is County Hall in overall control, a council far more concerned with reputation than truth. My own request for an earlier draft of the JWA was flatly refused under legal privilege, which is a fine start. The Agreement mentions the requirement for a 'robust system' for declarations of conflicts of interest, yet the 'Accountable Officer' is an officer who chose not to declare his own property and business empire to his employers.

The complex governance structure for the City Deal resembles a bloated quango, filled with conflicting interests and cosy arrangements (I bet the council hospitality boxes have been busy), set up to oversee a public/private scheme likely to benefit a few short term investors, and the egos, and wallets, of council chief executives, at massive public cost.

I will be watching.

Friday, 11 May 2018

News round up - AGMs, and more


Following a very close vote at their AGM last week, the Labour group on the council elected 30 year old Cllr Rob James as their new leader, replacing Cllr Jeff Edmunds who had held the position since early 2015 after he had ousted Kevin Madge.

Early in 2015 the council was 'run' by Labour and Independents. However, former councillor Meryl Gravell (for 'Meryl' read Mark James) refused to work with Cllr Edmunds. His card was marked by Mr James when he helped spill the beans over the latter's bung to Scarlets Regional Ltd midway through 2014. This 'disloyalty', therefore, made him unacceptable as leader of the council and so 'Meryl' dumped Labour and formed a coalition with Plaid in June 2015.
Seen as the lesser of two evils, Emlyn Dole has turned out to be a remarkably loyal follower of the regime.

One of the problems faced by Labour in opposition has been an inability to challenge Plaid as many of the policies were started by Labour (and whilst Cllr Edmunds was the Executive Board Member for Resources), and merely continued by Plaid. This led to Cllr Edmunds starting every opposition statement with general agreement with whatever Plaid were doing.
As Rob James, previously a Neath councillor was only elected last May he, at least on a personal level, doesn't carry the same baggage. So, we'll see.

An interesting example of the democratic constipation arose a few weeks ago when Rob James questioned the executive decision to set up yet another arms-length company, 'wholly owned by the council'. The trend was started under Labour and, at the time, was challenged by Plaid; "The obsession of the Labour council with effectively outsourcing services and removing democratic oversight inevitably reduces the operational control the council has over our public services."
However, the tables have now turned and Cllr James' use of words such as outsourcing and privatisation were sneered at by Plaid, rubbished by the chief executive and even some of the Labour group shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Jobs and terms and conditions were all safe, they said, well, erm, for the first day of transfer anyway...oh.

Safe as houses eh? In the London Borough of Barnet, care workers were TUPE transferred to an arms-length company, 'Your Choice Barnet', 100% wholly owned by Barnet Council. Within a year, a third of the workforce had been made redundant and the care workers given a 9.5% pay cut. Hopefully this won't happen in Carmarthenshire...

Coincidentally, next Monday, the Executive Board will meet to approve the business plan for the latest arms-length company, Lleisant Delta Wellbeing Ltd...but, despite it being 'wholly owned' by the council, the decision will be held in secret, behind closed doors. How very transparent...

One advantage for Labour in electing a new leader to the hot seat was that he wasn't part of the ruling Labour/Ind group during the unlawful payments scandals, even though the collective responsibility of allowing the chief executive to get away with daylight robbery, remains. Jeff Edmunds, whilst not on the original Exec Board which bankrolled the chief executive, was elected just after, in May 2012 and was in charge of resources throughout the Wales Audit Office reports etc etc. Plaid were vocal in opposition, at the time, but that all changed in June 2015, (apart from this notable effort from Plaid backbenchers).
Labour's Kevin Madge is the final remnant of the executive board who wielded the fatal rubber stamp, and has now been nominated as vice chair of the council, and will be automatically elevated to Chair the year after. Only in Carmarthenshire eh?

As an aside, it is understood that the chief executive responded to any enquiries as to whether he was going to repay the unlawful monies by threatening councillors to keep their mouths shut or he'd make that earlier Exec Board pay it back out of their own pockets, in so many words. No wonder they all kept quiet... A pity really that they didn't stand up to him, the fact that he misled and manipulated the Exec Board into giving him a blank cheque would have given them an instant defence.

I am not aligned to any party, and will leave all the political intrigue to others, but as I see it we still have a largely benign set of councillors, fearful of the chief executive who continues to bully, threaten, flout the law and rip off the taxpayer.

The power lies with senior officers, and, as we have seen, the chief executive, aided by his cabal of disciples, holds the reins of whatever 'administration' is currently in the hot seat, so a strong opposition is essential in Carmarthenshire. With the City Deal, for example, looming on the horizon, even more decision making will be taken out of the hands of councillors. I have heard that the council have already borrowed unknown millions, and are paying interest on it, without any guarantees for the taxpayer, cross-council agreement, let alone a whisper of scrutiny.

Have all councillors taken a vow of silence over the 'Wellness Village' white elephant? Or the Swansea Bay City Deal itself? Pembrokeshire, like Neath Port Talbot, remains cautious and at a Pembs full council meeting yesterday one councillor wondered whether the 'Swansea City Bay Deal' (must be a footie fan) would bankrupt the council, the webcast starts here.
In Carmarthenshire, questioning the integrity of the chief executive's vanity projects can be problematic, you are likely to be labelled a troublemaker, an obstacle to job creation and the forthcoming abundance of shared wealth, you could even be sued. He has his own agenda, and it should be challenged...jobs and abundant wealth for who exactly?
Has anyone, apart from me, flagged up whether his own business and property investment interests may conflict with the City Deal cash bonanza? Let alone the council's interests?
As I said in my previous post, the wisdom of allowing the chief executive anywhere near a piggy bank, let alone £1.3bn must be questioned.

Scrutiny is vital and, at times, far more effective on a public platform, at full council meetings, in the glare of the webcam, than at poorly minuted unrecorded spoon-fed scrutiny meetings. The farcical reaction to the Motion to introduce Epetitions a few weeks ago was a case in point. The Plaid leader demanded that the motion be withdrawn because the the decision to introduce them had already been made...despite the fact that this was FOUR years ago. The Motion should have been welcomed by the administration as a matter of democratic principle, not treated as a source of irritation from the opposition and voted down.

Next Wednesday is the council's AGM, a largely ceremonial affair but followed, after lunch by the Leader's Annual report, offering the usual opportunity for some b******t bingo, if nothing else. Following the appointment of Committee members and Chairs - none of which seem to be contested - we come to the annual tweak of the Constitution, with a minor amendment to ensure that councillors can claim extra expenses for additional 'approved duties'.
Yet again there is something missing from the annual Constitutional amendments and it's those shocking 'suspended' libel clauses which remain the elephants in the room. Unbelievable. Maybe next year eh?

Meanwhile, whether it's Labour, Plaid or the Independents 'running' the circus, it seems that some things never change. Back in March, whilst fans were shelling out for tickets and struggling to park, three Executive Board Members, Linda Evans, Hazel Evans, (both Plaid) and Mair Stephens (Ind) enjoyed a night out at Parc Y Scarlets for the Scarlets v La Rochelle match in the council's hospitality box, with designated parking. And who was paying for it all? Us of course, including you lot queuing outside. Mind you, Exec Board Member Jane Tremlett (Ind) went one better, whilst we were all shivering in February, she wangled a couple of days in Barcelona courtesy of a private telecare company...

Of greater significance however are the gifts, hospitality and fringe benefits enjoyed by the most senior officers, but, as I have discovered, you'll have to embark on lengthy battles through the Freedom of Information Act to get to the bottom of that.

County Hall, Carmarthen.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

City Deal - a scandal in the making, and the wrong man for the job?


Western Mail 27th April 2018. Click to enlarge.

At a Neath Port Talbot meeting last week the council leader Rob Jones stated publicly that, at the moment, they would not be signing the City Deal Joint Agreement between the four councils. The decision follows another critical report from NPT chief executive, Steve Phillips. An earlier report, which I blogged about last October, similarly urged caution.
As you can read from the article above, Cllr Jones said "I am not prepared to put this council financially at risk on a wing and a prayer"

This is unlike Carmarthenshire where not a word of criticism about the even bigger 'funding gap' has been voiced, or even murmured. Why is that I wonder. According to the article there have been 28 drafts of the Joint Working Agreement, I don't know if that's an exaggeration but whatever the case, there is something seriously wrong and the City Deal is a scandal in the making.

I voiced a few thoughts, and facts, in my previous post, here are a few more.
The City Deal has become, somehow or other, the latest baby of Carmarthenshire chief executive Mr Mark James. I suggest that the other three councils take a very hard look at his record and strongly consider whether he is the right man for the job.
NPT, and Pembrokeshire both express concern about financial risk, Mr James cares not one bit about 'protecting the public purse', nor his own council's budget, nor the reputation of his council. Can we expect Carmarthenshire's council leader Emlyn Dole to say anything critical? No. Forget about that option, he sold his soul for the Leadership and Mr James' hand is so deeply inserted that he can no longer think nor speak for himself.

To leave Mr James in charge of this ongoing fiasco is a risk in itself. Even if it all goes ahead, it will plunge all four councils into an abyss of debt for projects which no one in the real world actually wants, or needs.

Let's have a look at the rap sheet shall we? Firstly there was the Boston Stadium, a massive burden on the taxpayer which he said wouldn't cost them a 'penny'. Then there were the other allegations from Boston which suggested exactly what our Mr James was capable of.
Then we move to Carmarthenshire and the Parc Y Scarlets stadium. A well documented drain if ever there was one. This is a private company yet it has been allowed to occupy the stadium rent-free and not worry about paying back a £2.6m loan...how many other Carmarthenshire businesses have been given such accommodating treatment, the council even pays rent to Scarlets' Regional Ltd for 'office space'. I was told, in court that just because Mr James likes rugby, that was no reason to be critical...

Then there was the 'bung' over the Scarlets' car park where Mr James' last minute intervention went directly against the advice of his own director of finance and directly against the interests of the Carmarthenshire taxpayer.
There's the Eastgate development in Llanelli where yet again a large chunk of real estate was gifted to developers and now houses, you've guessed it, council offices.

Another strange arrangement was the enormous financial gift to the Towy Community Church and the 'evangelical bowling alley'. For some reason a Christian 'social enterprise' was considered to be a suitable prop for the council's own struggling social care department. The fact that Mr James has, apparently, deeply Christian beliefs involving the literal truth of the Bible, has nothing to do with it of course...

And let's not forget the pocketing of council cash, and liberal use of facilities, resources and staff, to pursue his own private legal battles. None of which he has paid back. And while we're on the subject, what about the pension scam which gave him a nice little earner? And which he has also failed to repay.

The City Deal 'Wellness Village' looks set to be the white elephant extraordinaire, a vanity project which will leave a legacy of debt for future generations of Carmarthenshire residents. Llanelli wanted a leisure centre and a care home, not private health care and holistic therapy pods. I find it deeply concerning that councillors are not speaking out and are swallowing the spin and nonsense spouted by Mr James..have they not learned any lessons by now?

I can speak from personal experience and say, quite categorically, that the only thing that concerns Mr James is his own wallet and his own reputation, not the council, nor its residents. And as for taxpayers' money, no doubt he'd be quite happy to stuff it in the gutter. Aside from the financial aspect, there's the toxic culture, still alive and well, and the years of insidious threats to those who disagree with his world view; councillors, politicians, regulatory bodies, the press and members of the public.

Let's remember, once again, the words of the former Police Commissioner, Mr Salmon, who spent four years 'liaising' with Carmarthenshire County Council and came to the correct and inescapable conclusion that is was "Wales’ answer to a Sicilian cartel. It’s everywhere you look (thankfully only in Carmarthenshire – so far as I can tell). It extracts vast amounts of money from residents which it showers on favourites, hordes property, bullies opponents, co-opts friends and answers to no one, least of all local councillors".

My message to the other three councils is that I cannot think of a more unsuitable and untrustworthy person to be in charge of this City Deal. He has trashed Carmarthenshire, do you really want him to do the same to your neck of the woods?

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Swansea Bay City Deal...way behind schedule? A few thoughts.


The Western Mail reports that the projects in the Swansea Bay City Deal have just had a 'massive' financial boost and that residents in the four council areas will 'reap the rewards' from the various developments. The boost is in fact an agreement by the Welsh Government, 'in principle', for the councils to keep 50% of business rates from some of the various developments, should they go ahead.

As with everything else associated with the City Deal it is difficult to pick fact from fiction. To start with, the phrase 'in principle' suggests that agreement is conditional on something else, what that condition is remains unclear, is it UK Government agreement? Or agreement from councils who will 'reap' less than others in business rates?

Secondly, the actual purpose of retaining 50% of the rates is to try and offset the massive interest payments on the money each council will have to borrow. It is not some big future cash windfall to directly benefit residents as the statement suggests but will disappear into a bottomless pit. Carmarthenshire Council alone already has a debt of £388m, and rising, costing around £18m per year in interest.

The City Deal looks to be well behind schedule. Since the Deal was signed in March 2017 the four councils have failed to agree a Joint Working Agreement. This JWA will underpin the governance arrangements of a Joint Committee which will oversee the Deal. At the moment there is a shadow Joint Committee which, as it is not a legal entity until it's backed up by a JWA, cannot do anything.

One of the only objective, and critical, reports to see the light of day was the report to Neath Port Talbot councillors last October (see previous post here). It became evident that the 70-page draft JWA was being scrapped and a new one commissioned. Pembrokeshire also expressed serious doubts.

I asked Carmarthenshire Council, via Freedom of Information, for a copy of the scrapped report. This was refused under legal professional privilege ('advice' privilege as opposed to 'litigation' privilege). I appealed to the Information Commissioner on the grounds that the council were wrongly extending LPP to cover a draft report.

The ICO issued a decision notice last week upholding the council's decision, as the drafting was still 'ongoing', this was despite the £millions involved, the thousands of people who will be affected by the Deal, the requirement for transparency and the fact that the draft JWA (which, incidentally, had been made available to Neath Port Talbot councillors on request) I was asking for had been abandoned.
The full ICO decision notice can be read here, an interesting read, for what it's worth.

Meanwhile, another draft JWA was commissioned and it was hoped to be agreed and presented to councillors 'before Christmas'. This then moved to 'March'. There is still no sign of it and the leader of Swansea Council now says it will be approved 'within the coming months'.

Further signs of delay and disagreement concern the Economic Strategy Board. This will, as I understand it, representing the interests of the private investors and to 'raise awareness in the business community'. An advertisement for a Chair for the Board went out last December and so far there has been no announcement of Board membership, let alone the appointment of a Chair.

Back in January of this year a tender went out, led by Carmarthenshire Council, to appoint an events management company to plug the City Deal across the region, "to deliver high quality engagement events starting in early 2018 for an initial 1 year contract (with possibility of a 1 year extension)... ...develop a series of networking/engagement events working with the City Deal Regional Office and eleven City Deal projects, to attract and engage with a range of diverse audiences raising the profile of the City Deal and the opportunities it presents for the region."

A couple of weeks ago, two months after the closing date for the tender, and despite receiving a number of "high quality bids", it was cancelled with the notice stating that "we will not be appointing a contractor at present". Any costs for this failed exercise will be borne by the bidders.". An incredible waste of time and money all round.

One of the projects in Carmarthenshire, which I have mentioned once or twice, is the Wellness Village. The planning application has gone in, the ground prep is underway and a couple of million have already been spent. This is despite no Joint Committee, nor JWA being in place. Yr Egin, the new S4C and 'cultural' centre in Carmarthen has already been built and still hoping, presumably, for £3m from the Deal after a bid for EU cash was turned down.

Part of the City Deal involves contributions from the two health boards, Hywel Dda and Abertawe Bro Morgannwg. Hywel Dda is running a deficit of £69m this year and, as has been widely reported, planning major changes to our local hospitals, including building a big new one somewhere on the Pembs/Carms border. It would be beyond the pale for Hywel Dda to invest NHS cash into the Wellness Village, the premise for which is private luxury health tourism, at the expense of frontline NHS services.

Carmarthenshire Council is the lead administrative local authority for the City Deal and it's chief executive is the lead chief executive for the Deal. Enough said. Rumours have circulated over the last few months that the other councils have been kept in the dark...with that scenario, what hope is there that our own councillors will ever be fully and accurately briefed, let alone council taxpayers.
There is not a glimmer, so far, of where the £637m of private funding is coming from, if it's coming from anywhere. I also suspect that the job creation figures are wildly exaggerated. If an economic boost should materialise, then I doubt this will be felt in the extensive rural areas of west Wales.

The City Deal Regional Office appears to be on the payroll of Carmarthenshire Council so I sent a few questions their way. The questions, and responses can be seen in full below but provide little substance. And as for the response to question 6, with the involvement of private investment, I have little faith that anything will be transparent.
There has been nothing yet to suggest that the City Deal is anything more than one big PFI scheme which will leave council taxpayers beholden to private investors for years to come. With big private companies such as Carillion, and now Capita, on the rocks, an objective approach to future risk to the public purse is critical.

As for the 'Wellness Village', this has all the hallmarks of a County Hall vanity project, jobs for the boys and contracts and deals for the usual suspects. And don't forget, 'lead chief executive' Mark James has his own business and property interests which he didn't bother to declare...and a track record which hardly inspires trust. Whatever the case, I hope our councillors keep a beady eye on progress and developments, cut through the spin and always remember that this 'exciting' and 'once in a generation' Deal may not be all as it seems.

One Carmarthenshire resident tweeted this morning that the City Deal "is a scandal of epic proportions, there seems to be lots of stuff for non-elected people spending money they don't have on stuff no "real" people want". 
Sums it up pretty well.

City Deal Regional Office Qs & As

1. Current status of the Joint Working Agreement and governance and accountability structure.

 The Joint Working Agreement is currently being finalised. We expect it to go to all four regional councils for approval by the early summer.

 2. Why have several projects commenced, including the Wellness Village, without a JWA in place?

 Apart from site preparation works, no work has started on the Village. Subject to planning consents and the approval of the City Deal business case, work is earmarked to start on site towards the end of 2018.

 3. Membership and governance arrangements of the Joint Committee

The Joint Committee will be made up of the leaders and chief executives of the four regional councils, as well as non-voting, co-opted members from Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board, Hywel Dda University Health Board, Swansea University and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

4. Membership and governance of the Economic Strategy Board. An advertisement for an ESB Chair went out in December 2017 - who was appointed, when was the individual appointed, and who made the appointment.

The ESB chair has not yet been appointed.

5. Current status with regards to private investment for each City Deal project, the companies/private investors currently involved and the level of financial commitment secured so far. 

Subject to what we have said in response to question two about the need for business case approvals for City Deal projects from the UK and Welsh Governments, we are working towards our target of £637m from the private sector. There is no suggestion or indication that the money will not be forthcoming.

6. What specific measures will the City Deal partners and the Joint Committee take to ensure full public transparency and accountability?

Usual rules regarding public access to meetings will apply to Joint Committee. Minutes from Joint Committee meetings will be published online.

* * *

Update 30th April; It has been reported over the past day or two that, 5 months after the 'advert' went out, a 'preferred' Chair for the ESB (see post below) has been selected. The appointment of US businessman, Mr Edward Tomp, a director of Valero oil based in Pembrokeshire is conditional on the four councils agreeing to the Joint Working Agreement, currently in its umpteenth 'fluffy' draft and most recently rejected by Neath Port Talbot council (see later post, which I hope Mr Tomp will read and inwardly digest...)

Friday, 20 April 2018

Caerphilly news...


With the news that the long-running Caerphilly council pay scandal, involving three of it's most senior officers, including its chief executive, is set to rise to £3.6m, today's editorial in the Western Mail questions the system which has allowed this to happen, it's worth a read.

I have mentioned the situation in Caerphilly numerous times on this blog, and made parallels with Carmarthenshire, most recently here, and both situations arose following 'unlawful' findings by the Wales Audit Office.

The difference in Carmarthenshire, where there was a secret pay rise via an unlawful pension 'arrangement' and the unlawful libel indemnity, was that the council leadership were (and still are) so firmly in the pocket of the chief executive that they refused to suspend him, it was only when the pressure from outside the council began to mount that he eventually, and 'voluntarily', 'stepped-aside' whilst the police gave it all a cursory glance. On that point I find it incredible that the police spent a mere three months chewing over some paperwork (and did not correspond with either County Hall or the CPS) yet found a spare 18 months to investigate, question and eventually charge me, all of which was entirely fruitless.

Anyway, in some ways we are fortunate that no 'official' action has been taken against Mr James as the taxpayers of Carmarthenshire would be footing a similar bill.
At the end of the day it is cheaper, and easier all round, to allow him to get away scot free with the audit office findings, and the substantial associated costs of the scandals; allow him free use of council resources for his private interests; take no action over decisions which deliberately disadvantage the taxpayer; ignore the fact he has undeclared business interests; allow him to pervert the constitution to appoint his loyal disciples; allow him to economise with the truth, threaten the press, mislead and threaten councillors, interfere with and block democratic debate, etc etc.

As has been shown, with the farce in Caerphilly, getting shot of senior officers is such an extraordinarily tortuous and expensive process, it's virtually impossible. The protection afforded to senior officials is more or less total and way above the usual employment protection rules, and as the editorial says 'Our councils are simply unable to manage senior staff when things go wrong'.

It's also a matter of semantics. What is politely termed 'unlawful' in world of senior council officialdom, is quite simply illegal, fraudulent or downright immoral to the rest of us.

The editorial concludes by speculating on whether Mr O'Sullivan will be given a pay out and if so, it would, in general terms "be a shameful day for the politicians in Cardiff Bay and Westminster who have been unable to deal with the problems that undoubtedly exist in the most senior ranks of local authorities across the UK."

The "problem" certainly exists in the senior ranks of Carmarthenshire. It's time for the system to change and County Hall Carmarthen would be a good place to start.

FOI news - Office costs


A Freedom of Information response arrived today which shows that the Plaid/Independent executive spent over £8,000 on refurbishing their offices since August last year;

Click to enlarge

We can all recall those 'difficult decisions' made in February's budget yet this decision didn't seem particularly troublesome did it? £8,000 could have been spent on some books for our schools, fixed a few potholes or contributed to the care of a vulnerable resident or two, the list is endless.

And another point, during a discussion over the council's new Local Housing Company at last week's council meeting, Cllr Dole argued that it would help local builders 'prosper' and Executive Member Linda Evans said "We want to keep the Carmarthenshire pound in Carmarthenshire".
With at least three of the providers in the above FOI response based out of the county, it seems that these noble gesture are little empty, unless of course there are no carpet fitters, printers or furniture suppliers in Carmarthenshire....

Monday, 16 April 2018

Council epetitions - is the four year wait nearly over? - updated


Update 18th April;

It would seem, from the webcast, that my post below had been read and noted.
Cllr Rob James presented the Motion and noted that approval had been given for an epetition page in June 2015 although it was first recommended in 2014, but we were still waiting. He cited recent examples of a lack of transparency including the incident with the BBC reporter last week.

Plaid leader Emlyn Dole demanded that the Motion be withdrawn as a vote had been taken 3 years ago. The proposer refused to withdraw. Mr Dole went on to say about the inadequate software (as I mentioned below) which didn't allow for a bilingual service. Cllr James noted that a member of the public (me) had been told (two years ago) that a solution to this issue was being looked at 'in house'.

Other Plaid councillors, and the chief executive, then claimed that an epetition page was not possible without a procedure to back it up. This is not only nonsense (paper petitions can already be presented) but merely a ploy to stall and frustrate further moves toward transparency.
If constitutional tweaks were necessary, then the council have had four years to sort this out, and to find a bilingual service. It's inexcusable.

Instead of embracing and reinforcing an an important principle of public engagement and transparency, Emlyn Dole chose to put it back in the long grass where it has languished for four years and his party, along with the Independents voted to reject the Motion by 31 votes to 22.

Why would anyone vote against this at all? Unless they were following orders... Shame on them.

Let's hope this particularly prolonged case of municipal constipation gets moving soon.

The debate can be seen here.

In a few other developments, Labour's Kevin Madge was nominated as Vice Chair of the council for 2018/19 (he will then be Chair the year after that), presumably this was a reward for years of loyal service rubber stamping the chief executive's unlawful activities. There was a long argument over whether or an amendment to another Motion was admissible or not, and the meeting ended with councillors voting unanimously to accept the Independent Remuneration Panel's recommendations and give themselves all a 1.49% pay rise.

* * *

Wednesday's full council agenda includes a Motion put forward by Cllr Rob James (Lab), elected last May, asking the Executive Board to introduce an epetitions facility on the council website.

There is, however, some history to this. The damning WLGA governance report published in 2014, stated, amongst the 39 recommendations, that an epetition page should be set up within three months.

In November 2014 the council's own IT Strategy fully supported the recommendation;

"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
E-petitions are not a new feature of Local Authorities but are not common in Wales. Carmarthenshire Council has a chance to get ahead in digital communication as e-petitions are introduced."

The WLGA recommendation was eventually accepted and approved by full council at an Extraordinary meeting in June 2015.

Several months later, in February 2016, I asked the Monitoring Officer, Linda Rees Jones when the epetition page was likely to appear and I was told that their software providers couldn't supply a bilingual service so in-house options were being considered, this was despite the website itself being bilingual and the Assembly providing a bilingual service for several years...

The process, if ever it should materialise, would be similar to the Assembly and parliamentary  epetition systems. Petitions with a certain number of signatures would trigger a council/committee debate, this might be a percentage of the electorate, or a fixed number. Guidance would be provided on the webpage and any rejected petitions, ie those which did not meet the approval of the chief executive, would be listed with brief, valid reasons why they were unacceptable.

It's all quite straightforward and would, quite simply, provide residents with a direct voice to raise issues, or even new ideas, with the council. Epetitions are, as I'm sure you are aware, increasingly popular and a quick and easy way for us to register our agreement, comment on and support a particular cause.

As this epetition page was recommended four years ago and the council has already agreed to do this three years ago, a vote next week is not really necessary. All that is required is a date when it will finally be up and running.
The 'inadequate software' argument is wearing a bit thin.

As regular readers will be well aware, even small measures to improve transparency, public engagement and accountability have been quite an epic struggle, and as Friday's shameful treatment of a BBC journalist shows, the nonsense continues. The obstacle to progress has always been, and still is, the control freak at the top.

We'll see what happens.

Friday, 13 April 2018

BBC reporter barred from council Executive Board Member decision meeting


An interesting issue developed this morning over press access to Executive Board Member (EBM) Decision meetings.
A BBC reporter had been covering a story about plans to reroute a public footpath which happened to pass through the midst of a nudist campsite up in the hills of Llanllwni, the story had even featured on the news. There were various objections and arguments put forward and a full report, which also included all the names and addresses of neighbours and objectors, had been published on the council website prior to the meeting. In other words, there was no exempt information.

However, the reporter was barred from attending and tweeted;


Under present legislation it seems that there is no requirement for a council to allow access to these meetings, which is rather different to saying that the public and press are actually barred. The 'no requirement' loophole is being used by the council as a barrier to transparency, and should be closed.

It was only after the WLGA report in 2014 on the dire state of the council's governance arrangements that non-executive councillors were finally allowed attend individual EBM meetings, prior to that it was virtually impossible to call-in or scrutinise, or even observe, a decision taken by an individual Executive Board member and was a convenient route to a quiet rubber stamp.

There have been some very odd and secretive EBM meetings, including a notorious one in 2013 on 'press freedom', and a whole series where Meryl Gravell dished out millions of pounds in questionable grants.
These meetings make decisions on RIPA/Data Protection policy, social care charges, HR policy, housing policy, fixed penalties, more grants, to name but a few

The subject of this meeting this morning had already been reported in the press, the report was on the council website, and even included directions of how to get there. The council's constitution, for what it's worth, allows public access to all open meetings, so unless there is exempt information, there is no reason whatsoever why these EBM meetings should not be designated as public meetings and open to all.

I hope the reporter makes a formal complaint. 

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Town Hall rich list - Carmarthenshire


With the annual Taxpayers Alliance Town Hall rich list published yesterday Carmarthenshire's entry, for senior officers pocketing over £100,000 per year, with pension contributions, looks relatively brief, even with two over £150,000:




However, the figures were taken from the 2016/17 council accounts which showed a somewhat confusing picture, muddled by in-year restructuring and retirements. A more realistic picture can be found in the annual pay policy approved last month:

Chief Executive, £171,539
Corporate Directors, £123,218 x 5 (one is also deputy chief executive)
Assistant Chief Executive, £102,917
Heads of Service, £90,709 x 14

If we add the annual pension pots, roughly about 12%, the 14 heads of service hover towards £100,000 apiece, and so the total bill for the 21 top brass, (at the top end of the pay scales), in this largely rural county, is somewhere in the region of £2.4m, give or take a few grand.

The chief executive is not part of the local government pension scheme, not since the unlawful pension pay rise 'arrangement' exposed by the Wales Audit Office, and bloggers, in 2014. The second officer over £150,000 is the Director of Communities, Jake Morgan, who receives an extra 10% for being deputy chief executive, a deputy is essential of course as Mr James is a busy man.

The chief executive's pay is bumped up by returning officer fees and the fees for the May 2017 local elections will show up in the next accounts. In 2012 it was £20,000 and, controversially, paid in advance and before the number of contested seats were known. And more than many residents could hope to earn in a year. Fees from other elections (and there's been an election bonanza over the past couple of years) are paid to him direct by Welsh or Westminster governments, so do not show up in council accounts.

Mr James also enjoys the fringe benefits of having publicly funded staff, resources and computer facilities at his disposal to pursue his private legal battles, as I have discovered.
When he nearly retired a couple of years ago he almost walked off with £446,000, a remarkable reward for a rap sheet which included illegal payment scandals and the creation of a toxic, bullying, anti-democratic culture. In the end, he decided to stay.

So, as the potholes grow and multiply, so do the wallets of the top brass. If nothing else, this is probably one of the arguments for reducing the number of councils as these figures, in greater or lesser degrees are replicated across 22 local authorities in Wales, serving a total population roughly the size of Greater Manchester.

The Welsh Government are still considering a £95,000 cap on exit packages, and a few years back Plaid tried unsuccessfully to stop the extra cash for returning officers for local elections, arguing that it was part of the job description anyway. Attempts by the Labour group to reduce the pay of two new directors, to about £110,000, were defeated last year. The CEO joined the 'debate' in the council chamber and proceeded, shamelessly, to influence the vote.
Any post with a remuneration of over £100,000 requires the approval of full council, so although we have seen this process manipulated more than once in Carmarthenshire, control over senior pay, whilst subject to national pay scales, ultimately lies with the councillors.

When a Labour councillor raised the subject of eye-watering levels of chief officer pay a few weeks ago Mr James took to his keyboard to write an angry email berating the councillor for publicly embarrassing him and his colleagues. Presumably Mr James is burning the midnight oil sending another one to the Taxpayers' Alliance...

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Those unlawful libel indemnity clauses....a call to arms


The council AGM, coming up next month, often provides the opportunity to 'update' the council's constitution with any amendments which may be deemed necessary. As we know this is currently the remit of the 'cross-party Constitution Review Working Group', aka, chief executive Mr James and Legal Linda.

Back at the AGM of 2008, buried within a mound of papers and assorted subsections was the libel indemnity clause. This went unnoticed by council despite, in 2006, having adopted the Order preventing the public funding of defamation claims by officers.

My attempts to highlight this anomaly fell, for a while, on largely deaf ears. This was until a simpler, and indeed more accurate description was suggested to me to describe what was, essentially, an unlawful fund, or a public resource if you will, which could be used to try and silence critics, and the press.

Mr James, as has been recorded in depth, then availed himself of this unlawful facility in his 2012 counterclaim, suing me, as a defence tactic, for referring to this very facility in terms which he found distasteful ...though not for several months after I had published the two words...

Just a day or two prior to the 2012 meeting, (in which he remained whilst the then Labour/Independent Executive Board kindly, and illegally, bankrolled him for whatever he wanted), he had discussed and amended the report, recommending his own funding, with Linda Rees Jones. As a sweetener, he added that if he won any damages, the award would be handed over to the council, he didn't want to personally benefit. Bless.

The rest, of course, is history. I got stuffed in court and Mr James immediately started pursuing me for his damages. They have always been 'his' damages by the way, the promise to his employers in 2012 meant nothing.  The damning Wales Audit Office libel indemnity report was published in January 2014 (there were two, let's not forget the secret pay rise pension scandal) and led to the criminal investigation and the Extraordinary council meeting the following month when it was decided to 'suspend' the offending clauses from the constitution, but not remove them.

The matter of the indemnity came up last year at the hearing where, due to my inability to pay and his rejection of offers, Mr James was attempting to take my home. To date, his pursuance of these damages has cost more than the damages themselves.

The judge, last year was, shall we say, surprised that Mr James had promised to hand over the damages elsewhere, and led him to comment that he clearly wasn't in urgent need of the money. There were more surprises as it was revealed he'd changed his mind and was, in fact, keeping the money himself.

Move forward to last month's hearing and it happened to be in front of the same judge, and he had remembered the indemnity stuff.

Once again he remarked that Mr James was not in need of this money.
This wasn't a reference to his large salary of course, nor his business and property empire, that would be inappropriate, but his promise (now broken) to hand the cash elsewhere.

Anyway I am digressing.
Next month is the ideal opportunity for any strong minded and law-abiding councillors to call for the final removal of these illegal, and profoundly unhealthy clauses, currently in their fourth year of suspended animation. It is only the arrogance of Mr James, not the law, which keeps them on this important, defining document. The removal might give him a bloody nose, metaphorically speaking of course, but it won't be the end of the world.

The clauses, which remain unique in local government circles, can be found here, but to clarify, they are as below, giving the Chief Executive (he is also the Head of Paid Service), the Director of Resources and the Monitoring Officer the delegated power to sue, and for the good taxpayers of Carmarthenshire to pay for it.



The 'legal position' has long been 'clarified'; it was unlawful, illegal, ultra vires, however you want to put it, and given that money was indeed involved, potentially fraudulent. As it backfired so spectacularly last time, it will never be used again. We hope...

Emlyn Dole, firmly under the guiding hand of the manipulative Mr James, has refused to remove them. Unless someone puts their head over the parapet they will remain as a lasting legacy to local government idiocy and a chilling memorial to that toxic culture, bred and lovingly maintained by the chief executive.

I look forward to a Motion appearing on the agenda of the AGM to remove these clauses once and for all.

* * *

Whilst I'm on the subject of lasting legacies, and in other news, the planning process for the latest County Hall vanity project, the Wellness Village, is well underway. As part of the Swansea Bay City Deal, this vision of private health care, drug trials and holistic therapy pods looks set to form, potentially, one of the biggest PFI-style taxpayer-draining misadventures we have seen for a while. It also involves our cash-strapped NHS health board.The business case for the project is currently with the UK government.

As for the planning permission, this, well, interesting graphic from the official documents reassures us that we can look forward to a state of deep spiritual joy and enlightenment down on the Delta Lakes swamp, or a weird cult...I'm not sure which..!


Saturday, 17 March 2018

County Court hearing - the outcome


My application to reduce the monthly instalments which I am paying to chief executive Mark James was heard at Carmarthen County Court yesterday. I was asking to vary the Order made on 23rd March 2017 when Mr James was granted an Order for Sale of my home, the Order was suspended as long as I made monthly payments to him of £250 for fifteen years.

I represented myself at the hour long hearing yesterday, along with my husband.

Mr James, who was opposing my application, and was not present at the hearing, was represented by a legal team of three from Cardiff Bay.

I am pleased to say that the judge decided to reduce the instalments from £250 to £165 per month; it's still a lot, and wasn't quite what I'd asked for but this reduction helps us a great deal.

Attempts were made, a few days before (see letter below), and immediately prior to the hearing to persuade me to withdraw my application under the threat of costs. However, after the ruling the judge decided that I only had to pay £500 towards Mr James' £2500 costs bill, to be added onto the total debt. (See also below)

Mr James will have to pay the balance of £2000 to his lawyers himself.

I am pleased with the outcome of the hearing.

In light of the whole case, is was, perhaps, a small victory, but a hard fought and significant victory nonetheless.

* * *

Letter from Mr James' solicitors dated 5th March;


Mr James' Statement of Costs (extract) dated 12th March;




The Court Order following the hearing on the 16th March;


* * *

I won't be publishing comments on this post, but once again, many thanks for the messages of support.

Posts on the March 2017 hearing can be found here and here. Please search this blog for further background to the libel case and unlawful indemnity.

Update 27th March; The Carmarthen Journal has reported on the hearing here.



The total amount I am to pay Mr James is now around £43,000. As I have said previously, he broke his promise about handing over the damages to the council and neither has he repaid the unlawful public funding of £30,000.
The Journal asked Mr James for a comment but he has not provided one, to date.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Happy Birthday Blog - Nine years old today


I can't let this moment pass without a brief comment. When I first started writing this blog I expected it to last a couple of months, not nine years and it's as much a surprise to me as anyone else, including, I guess, Carmarthenshire Council.

As I said when the blog reached it's seventh year, it's certainly had it's ups and downs, to put it mildly and there were, and are, times when I think it's come to an end. Can't quite seem to do it though, not just yet, there's always, in the words of Lieutenant Columbo, just one more thing...

On the plus side it has shone a light into some of the dark recesses of County Hall, I also think it was influential in bringing about the webcasting of Carmarthenshire council meetings. It has exposed a scandal or two, or three, or four, and given a platform to some of those on the receiving end of the toxic culture and sharp practice exercised by County Hall. It even won an award.

It has also, by partially prising the lid off, engendered an interest for some in the workings of the council, encouraged public engagement and wider press interest, though not always in the manner most welcomed by the authority. Endless reading and deciphering of minutes and reports, and use of the freedom of information act has meant that sometimes, well, you read it here first.

The aim has been to improve, in a simple way, transparency, accountability and democracy for the residents of Carmarthenshire, but it has been an uphill struggle. Political 'power' might have shifted slightly but the toxic culture flourishes; the malign influence of the chief executive remains as strong today as it ever was. You may have observed, over the years, that I am not alone in this view.

It was the South Wales Guardian, not me, who summed things up pretty well a couple of years ago "...his reign will ultimately be remembered for libel actions, pension deals, Wales Audit Office condemnation and one of the most unpleasant, unproductive atmospheres ever witnessed at County Hall.
The council's leadership claim they are seeking to turn over a new leaf. That cannot happen while Mr James remains in post..."

So, despite attempts to have me locked up, take the roof from over my head and relieve my purse of it's very last shilling, I'm still here, just about and I'll carry on for now.

With grateful thanks, as ever, to those who read this blog, for the positive support, and for the input,
Cheers,
Jacqui

Friday, 9 March 2018

March meeting...and other news


Update 16th March - With regards to the use of Welsh Government cash for free parking pilots being spent by the council on new pay-and-display machines instead (see post below), the council, in a very embarrassing U-turn, have now reversed their decision, it seems that Welsh Government had a word....

* * *

I'm not sure what it is about full council meetings...perhaps it's the prayer at the start, a desperate plea for a higher being to bestow some guidance upon the gathered crowd, or just the crass hypocrisy from certain quarters. It rather sets the scene. Yesterday's webcast started with a problem with the colour, everyone had a yellow tint and so it resembled an episode of the Simpsons, in more ways than one.

The main event was the power point presentation, now a regular part of each meeting eating up time which would be better spent on some actual debate. However, this particular two hour extravaganza was delivered by Hywel Dda Health board and provided some detail (for more, see the archived webcast or an earlier news report here) to their forthcoming shake-up, or, 'Transforming Clinical Services Programme'. The Health Board is currently running at a deficit of £70m.



The plans, which will go out to public consultation next month, involve various options - essentially shifting the patients who use Prince Phillip Hospital in Llanelli to Morriston in Swansea, turning Glangwili into a community care hub, with no doctors, and building a big new 'state of the art' hospital, with a trauma unit, somewhere between Narbeth and St Clears. A long way to travel if you are in north Carmarthenshire and sadly, none of the councillors from that neck of the woods could summon up the energy to ask a question or raise a concern.

The delegates, which included clinicians, gave the options the hard sell, the current arrangements were at breaking point and were unsustainable as they were. In some respects the concepts were sound, ie a hospital environment should be the last port of call and care should start in the community, that sort of idea. In reality we have seven health boards in Wales, servicing a total population roughly the size of Manchester, all vying for extra funds.

One councillor, Deryk Cundy (Lab) asked where all the money was coming from for these plans, including the new hospital, the response was that once they had everyone's support, they would put a business case forward to Welsh Government, which, to be honest, didn't seem to be an entirely watertight plan.

The Board promised that the public consultation would be far reaching, and would ensure that all voices would be heard, although the options, whilst not finalised, all appeared remarkably similar...

After the visiting Board departed there was a brief comfort break and they were back in the chamber to deal with the usual raft of councillor questions and motions on notice, of which there were two, and one, respectively.

I occassionally glance at the council agenda for Pembrokeshire council whose list of Member topical questions extend over two, three  or even four pages, and unlike Carms, they are generally high on quality as well as quantity.

First up was a question from Cllr John Prosser (Lab) over school dinner prices. They've gone up regularly over the years, started by Labour and continued by Plaid, and they went up another 10p in February's budget although the Plaid Exec Board member has promised to 'revisit' the rise.

The question, from had, therefore, already been answered. They were still in the process of 'revisiting'. Perhaps it would have been better to look at the figures, school dinner take up has been gradually declining in proportion to the price increases and in the period April to December 2017, the drop in income was £37,000 with the council document itself stating that this was "possibly due to the price increase". He could even have suggested consideration of Scotland's approach - free school meals for the first three years for all children.




The next question concerned the new 'wholly owned by the council' telecare company Lleisant Delta Wellbeing Ltd and repeated the question which the Director at the last meeting was unable to answer, which was how much had been spent on consultants, Care & Health Solutions Ltd, to set up the company.

Exec Board member Jane Tremlett, responded to Labour's Bill Thomas and said that it was £28,000. This is an interesting figure, as in the previous two financial years the same consultants were paid £62,000 to develop future delivery options for social care services. This suggests that the real figure is closer to £100,000. He may have also enquired why the new company was registered on Companies House (here, minus the Welsh, oddly) a week before it was approved by the executive board. But he didn't.



Next up was the Motion put forward by Plaid's Carl Harris for the council to support the Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) campaign. This was fine of course and had full support, as expected. Another motion however, which was rejected and never made it onto the agenda was to present an online petition to fly the Rainbow Flag, and query why the council epetition page, promised nearly three years ago, has never materialised. It is something of a standing joke that officially it's the 'Chair' who decides the agenda..unofficially, it's someone else entirely.

Some cross party squabbling ensued over the 'Setting of the Council Tax', all of which can be seen on the webcast. To the casual observer the Labour group, at each meeting, appears by and large to be disjointed, ill-informed and far from what you would expect an opposition group to look and act like. Plaid, on the other hand, particularly the leadership group, appears smug, self-satisfied and a little pompous. I suppose they can rest on their laurels now they're in 'power' and dutifully following orders from above.

Next up was the Pay Policy statement which required the mass declaration and exodus of officers (even the chief executive, who doesn't usually bother with such formalities...) and, as the Chair was left to flounder like a startled goldfish, Exec board member Mair Stephens (Ind) purred through the annual policy statement. It has, she said, some additions, including a short bio of Mr James, which, I presume is an attempt to justify the £171k a year, plus extras, and a pay ratio to the lowest paid staff of 11.16:1.

The Labour leader, Jeff Edmunds, mumbled his support for the policy for the sake of the staff but expressed "reservations" about the high levels of senior pay. Reservations?! Fat lot of good that is, and rather sums up the timbre of the opposition. There is, in fact, a cross-party group which discusses the Pay Policy but with Plaid in power, propped up by the Indies, those senior pay packets are safe for now...

At the budget meeting last month Labour Cllr John Prosser cited the excessive salary of the chief executive, "more than the Prime Minister", and other senior salaries, in his opposition speech, and this was reported in the Carmarthen Journal. According to sources, broaching this sensitive subject, out loud, prompted a somewhat frosty email landing in the inbox of Labour group members from the chief executive. It included, apparently, a reminder that it was the previous Labour/Independent executive board which approved these massive pay scales in the first place. All of which might explain Cllr Edmunds' muted response on Wednesday.
(Update 14th March; I have now seen the email, which was certainly frosty...outraged in fact. The reference to salaries obviously touched a raw nerve and described as 'entirely unwholesome and distasteful'. There was clear irritation that the matter had been picked up by the press and spread to the wider community. Who knows, maybe Mr James is embarrassed by the size of his pay packet.)

As I said, the whole thing, and last month's budget meeting, can be watched on the archive.

A couple of other things caught my attention this week, one was to spend a £180,000 Welsh Government grant for 'piloting town centre free car parking' on snazzy new Pay-and-Display machines. Great. Apparently it will 'improve customer experience'. Why wasn't it used for free parking? Why not give the smaller market towns such as Llandovery and Newcastle Emlyn one day a week free parking? That would definitely improve customer experience. (Now reported in the press, but you read it here first ;-)

'Improving customer experience' is often, as we know, a euphemism for cuts and the mobile library service was a recent victim. The vans used to rumble around the rural hinterland stopping at farms and hamlets and, aside from lending books, was a useful and friendly a point of contact for all and ticked all the 'Wellbeing' boxes.

The routes were then 'rationalised' last year and now just stop at fixed points in the main villages around the county.  New vans were bought, equipped with Wifi (when they can pick up a signal), and, well, hopefully they still carry books.

However, as Private Eye pointed out this week, there have been teething problems...

Private Eye, #1465 'Library news'


Finally, talking of inappropriate purchases, a planning application has gone in to replace the trees and shrubs planted a couple of years ago at the new secondary school in Ffairfach, Ysgol Bro Dinefwr. It appears that many of the original plants are dead; either waterlogged or ravaged by rabbits. The new planting will use 'native species' and use rabbit guards. The school was constructed right in the Towy valley basin, wet pretty much all year round.

Why 'native species' weren't planted in the first place is anyone's guess, surely with river flowing happily nearby, and the pumps running every time there was a shower of rain, the ground conditions were obvious. And furthermore, the council, who should know better, approved it. The Executive Architects, Austin Smith Lord have submitted the application, but it's not clear who is paying for the mistake.