Monday, 5 October 2015

The evangelical boiler - Jane's prayers are answered...

As regular readers will be aware, the council's relationship with the Towy Community Church has often featured on this, and Cneifiwr's blog. 

The council played a significant part, around £1.5m, in bankrolling Phase 1 of the Xcel Centre (the evangelical bowling alley) despite questions being raised about the real ambitions of the evangelical church which is running the project. Unfortunately these ambitions became even less clear after their website disappeared a couple of years ago, shortly after earlier 'visions' for a home for 'fallen women' re-surfaced on its pages.

Back in March the church found themselves in breach of the legal agreement with the council by occupying some of the space in the building which they weren't supposed to until Phase 2 had been agreed.

Unlike the rest of us who may have been marched off to court or some such fate, the Church were instead graced with a benevolent visit from the entire Executive Board.

As I said at the time, the Board must have returned to the chamber diffused with a spiritual and biblical glow, and the chief executive, understood to be an ardent devotee of the Good Book himself, even offered to organise similar trips for the whole council.

As the Members reminisced over their trip, Exec Board Member for Social Care, Jane Tremlett (Ind) expressed a desire for the council to 'facilitate' a £20,000 grant for a new boiler..for the new part they weren't supposed to be occupying (The 'amended' legal agreement, naturally a mere formality by then, was duly rubber stamped).

This was particularly poignant as a couple of week's before this she had voted in favour of the budget which controversially slashed £18,000 off the funding for a Carmarthen special school for autistic children.

Lo and behold, those executive prayers have been answered and up for Meryl's rubber stamp later this week is a £10,000 council grant towards a new boiler. Not the full amount, but not bad considering the church was supposed to be financing Phase 2 without public cash. The glowing financial projections within the report suggest an extra income of nearly half a million pounds based on the hiring out of the meeting rooms and offices, warmed by the boiler.

Those expressing an interest in occupying space include Carmarthenshire County Council itself. This seems to be becoming a habit; facilitate and bankroll a developer, charge peppercorn rent for 100 years, then use taxpayers money to pay rent to the said developer for office space, thus providing a steady stream of revenue for the 'partner'. Parc Y Scarlets and Eastgate being two examples.

The proceeds from the bowling alley are to be ploughed back into the community, and to that end the church runs a foodbank and a furniture recycling shop. However, as I said above, Phase 2 of the development is also supposed to be financed by the bowling alley and this includes a 600 seater 'auditorium', the word 'church' is avoided. Included in the list of other parties expressing an interest in hiring space are the church itself, it's youth group, and various organisations offering evangelical leadership training days.

The issue all along with the council's involvement with the Towy Community Church was whether the generous funding was aimed to provide a truly community based venture, open to all, or whether public money was being used, with the knowledge and blessing of the council's top brass, to further the ambitions of fundamentalist Christian evangelism.

Back in March, the Herald featured a Cadno opinion piece on "God's own bowling alley" and is well worth a read;  The Carmarthenshire Herald; The fox is on the case
For further background please search this and Cneifiwr's blog.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Emlyn's Barn - Take 2...

Further to earlier reports back in August ( see Emlyn's Barn), it looks like the Leader of Carmarthenshire Council, Emlyn Dole (Plaid) is having further problems over his demolished historic barn, or 'Southfork' as one unnamed local resident recently described it.

A new, retrospective application has been recommended for refusal. Again, as before, the application is in Cllr Dole's wife's name.

You may remember that permission was granted in 2012 to convert the barn, sympathetically, to a hairdressing salon and two holiday lets for family Dole at Capel Ifan Farm, Pontyberem.

The Council's enforcement team stepped in last year when the barn, part of which dates back over 400 years, went from this;

to this;

As a result of the enforcement action, a further planning application was submitted in 2014 for a part new build. This was recommended for refusal by officers but was then approved by the Planning Committee after a site visit... However the decision was never issued as the applicant wanted to amend the permission, hence this new application which is technically speaking, still the same one.

Meanwhile, it seems from this latest planning officer's report, that things have moved on apace. The whole thing has been demolished completely and new building already started with an additional reception area and another storey over the hairdressing salon. Again, without the proper planning permission.

This is now a retrospective application for a 'new build for holiday and business purposes in open countryside', well outside of any development limits, contrary to policy, and has been recommended for refusal.

So far, the Leader of the council appears to rode roughshod over the planning system.

The application will be considered at next Thursday's Planning Committee and it will be interesting to see what happens. To start with, it is unlikely that a further site visit could be engineered, even for the benefit of the Leader of the Council.

Secondly, Planning Committee members have often been heard to deplore retrospective planning applications, regarding them as something of a cheek, never mind for controversial 'new builds in open countryside'.

The Committee needs to show consistency over planning policy, Council leader or not, and I wouldn't have thought they had any choice now other than to agree with the officer's recommendation and refuse it.
Though stranger things have happened.

Council Leader Emlyn Dole

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

A '£1m Motion' for Carmarthenshire?

A belated 'well done' to Plaid Cymru councillor Neil McEvoy for attempting to slash the pay packet of Cardiff's chief executive from £170,000 to £100,000. In a '£1m motion' to Cardiff council last week the Plaid group proposed a £100k cap on all executive salaries to help reduce cuts to services.
The motion was defeated by the Labour administration running the council. 

The row spilled over into the Senedd yesterday during First Minister's Questions as Plaid leader Leanne Wood attacked Labour over the chief executive's £170,000 pay, Labour First Minister Carwyn Jones said that he 'deplored' high public sector salaries but used that familiar get-out clause that it was a 'matter for Cardiff council'.

Interesting. In Carmarthenshire we now have a Plaid run administration albeit with one hand tied behind their back by Meryl. We also have a chief executive on £170,000 per year, sometimes higher if you add the occasional £60,000 in unlawful payments or £20,000 returning officer fees paid 'in advance'. Not to mention bleeding the taxpayer dry to fund various 'visions' and vanity projects. And the rest...

Can we now expect Leanne Wood to have a word with Plaid Council leader Emlyn Dole to suggest he proposes slashing Mr James' pay and capping other executive salaries to £100,000 per year?

Will any Plaid councillors in Carmarthenshire take the same principled stand as Cllr McEvoy? And go even further by removing the post of chief executive altogether?

Meryl and Pam would never support it, but it would give the Labour group the chance to agree with their boss in Cardiff that the situation was 'deplorable' and actually do something about it.

Or, alternatively they could continue to opt for the easy ride and all sit on their hands like they have done for years, singing to Meryl and Mark's tune. Plaid's record since June has been grim and uninspiring, the passion and principle which occasionally surfaced in opposition, such as the commitment to the Living Wage, has dissipated in a cloud of special responsibility allowances. They're singing the same bloody tune and it's time they made a stand.

Council by-election - Kidwelly

A council by-election will be held for the Kidwelly seat on Carmarthenshire County Council on the 19th November. 

The election follows the death of Labour Councillor Keith Davies last month. In 2012 the local election result saw Cllr Davies top the vote with 571, People First came second with 300 closely followed by an Independent with 238. Plaid Cymru did not contest the seat.

The current political make up of Carmarthenshire County Council is Plaid Cymru with 29 seats; the Independents with 21 and the Labour group also with 21 seats. There is one People First councillor and one unaffiliated.

This could be interesting, and may give an inkling of which direction the voters will take in the Assembly elections next May.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Council overvalued assets by £38m...and other news

Further to my previous post, the Auditor's report on the Statement of Accounts has now appeared on the agenda for Wednesday's Audit Committee. 

The report states that the council has overrated some of it's assets to the tune of £38.5m. This includes an overvaluation of three sports pitches by whopping £19m. The Auditor has identified 'significant weaknesses' in the council's approach to asset valuation and has indicated that in future, the Wales Audit Office may bring in external valuers rather than rely on the council's own.

Of greater significance is the fact that there are currently several plans, or 'Asset Transfers', going through for town or community councils to take over local parks, sports pitches etc from the county council. Given the auditors remarks, that valuations need to be 'documented and correct', I would suggest that before they sign on the dotted line, these smaller councils get a second opinion... they wouldn't want to fall victim to creative accounting...

On a separate issue, during a sample test of asset ownership, the council could not supply any evidence that it was the owner of the Carmarthen Community Education Centre worth over half a million quid. They're currently hunting for the paperwork...

In another sample test the auditor recommended urgent action after finding that the council had been breaching it's own Contract Rules by paying for external IT support contracts in advance, two were worth around £70,000.
If faults such as these are coming up in 'sample tests', I dread to think what the full picture might be.

The Auditor also recommended that the council should take a closer look at using some of it's reserves (£122m) to ease the cuts to public services.
As I said the other day, this was exactly what Plaid had proposed when in opposition in Feburary. It was a bit disappointing to watch the Executive Board webcast today and see the very same Cllr Jenkins make no reference to his words from February, even including a specific warning about using reserves. Quite a u-turn, again.

Whilst I'm on the subject of the webcast, (all very cosy, even Meals on Wheels were scrapped without a murmur) the executive board also approved the decision to offload the leisure services to an external trust.

I use the word 'decision' loosely, as it was actually decided months ago. This was clearly illustrated by Meryl's introduction of the plan as a gift from heaven rather than as an objective appraisal.

The chief executive then joined in to crush potential future dissent by waxing lyrical over the inclusion of possible new Leisure centre for Llanelli in the tender. He informed the Board that this might not be just any old Leisure Centre though, this could possibly be a 'Wellness Centre'. The difference in cost was £16m (£9m from the council) for the former, and £60m (amount from the council not divulged) for the latter.

Mr James mentioned various vague EU grant pots, cash from the Health Board (which has so much to spare dosh of course..) and even the involvement (not defined) of the Swansea Bay City Region Board. All in all the chief executive though it was "incredibly exciting"...

Hard pressed Carmarthenshire taxpayers be warned; the Parc Y Scarlets Stadium, and before that, the Boston Sports Arena were similarly described as 'incredibly exciting' by Mr James...turned out they were just incredibly expensive. I'd keep him well away...

Cllr Derek Cundy (Lab) almost spoiled the cosy and agreeable atmosphere by exercising his newly given right for backbench councillors to ask questions at Executive Board meetings. He wondered, with all the excitement, what was to become of the less commercially viable parts of the Leisure department which were not included in this 'trust'; the museums, libraries, archives etc?
That was an 'entirely different thing' said Meryl, who clearly had no idea.

Back again to the Audit report and for the fourth year running, the auditor is highly critical of the council's ability to properly manage grants, including those EU schemes (see previous post 'Absent report') with which they've had such, er, trouble.

Significantly, but not surprisingly, the auditor's warning is not aimed at a particular department but to 'Those charged with Governance', which goes back to the dismal way this council is run;

"...For a number of years we have reported weaknesses within the Council’s grants management processes. Internal Audit has already issued a critical report on the Council’s management of the Welsh Government’s Supporting People grant to the July 2015 Audit Committee. Our 2014-15 grants work is in its early stages but we have again identified concerns regarding some of the WEFO European grant schemes..." 

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Absent reports...and news on the Archives

Notable for its absence at next week's Audit Committee is the Wales Audit Office 'one off' report into two EU property grants which was supposed to be presented at this meeting. 

Questions arose last year after one of 'Meryl's meetings' where, in 15 minutes, she approved a £2.6m grant to a dormant company for a speculative food processing plant in Cross Hands.

Cllr Meryl Gravell
As so often happens, further decidedly dodgy details began to unravel about previous grants, planning permissions and compliance with criteria (which happens to exclude primary food processing), etc. It then transpired that concerns had been raised with the Wales Audit Office by the then Director of Resources.

In fact, the WAO have been critical of the council's grant management procedures in general for three years running and the November 2014 WLGA Governance Review highlighted concerns "that some individuals had significant delegated authority regarding funding and the distribution of grants to external bodies."

There is plenty of background on this blog, and Cneifiwr's and as the media picked up on it all, the council's spin machine went into action and statements were issued that it was all just a 'health check' and everything was fine.

Clearly it wasn't, as the WAO continued to compile their one-off report.

The report appears to have been completed at least six months ago. Since then it seems the council have sat on it, arguing with the WAO and preventing its release.

We don't know what's in the report but you can be fairly certain that if it had found nothing wrong, the news would have been trumpeted in a council press release many months ago.

The chief executive said, in one council meeting, that when the WAO raise a concern, they will usually back down once 'we' (the royal 'we') have a 'word' with them. This tactic backfired spectacularly with the pension and libel indemnity scandals but it remains to be seen whether this report will ever see the light of day.

chief executive

Still on the subject of grants, last March, due to the ongoing and serious concerns raised about grants, the then Chair of the Audit Committee Cllr Jenkins asked if he could attend, as an observer, meetings of the officer-only Grants Panel.

The minutes from the Grants Panel regularly form part of the Audit Committee agenda but minutes are one thing, observing the proceedings is quite different of course.
The Head of Finance got all defensive and, as I mentioned in July (see Money Matters) didn't think is was the business of elected members to poke their noses where they weren't wanted, despite the issue being the "lack of implementation of the procedures by officers"

The most recent minutes, which actually date from May, show that the Head of Finance passed this thorny issue to head of legal, Linda Rees Jones to chew over with a view that it should go to full council;

" consult with LRJ to consider a referral of this issue to Members for determination / potential amendment to the Constitution ie should the Chair of the Audit Committee attend the Officer Grants Panel (or a part of the Officer Grant Panel meeting) in an “Observer Capacity” ?

Whether the attendance of the Chair of Audit at a Grants Panel meeting warrants a full scale constitutional crisis is anyone's guess.
However, despite amendments made to the constitution earlier this month, this particular matter, along with the libel indemnity clause, continues to languish in the long grass of Carmarthenshire's legal minds.

Lastly, the Statement of Accounts is also on the agenda to be accepted by the Committee. The document includes a reference to the Archives and reassures readers that the precious collection is currently housed in the three strong rooms.

Those who have been following the Saga of the Mouldy Archives will be surprised at this statement as the current message from County Hall is that the three strong rooms at Parc Myrddin are not fit for purpose (and haven't been for years) and the treasured documents, many of which now suffer from active mould, have been sent to the four corners of the UK for temporary storage or to be professionally cleaned. At considerable cost.

I was surprised to then see an official tender published on Thursday to recruit a company to 'remove, clean and return the records housed in the County Archive'. The tender notice informs us that, as well as the active mould, 98.5% of the collection was identified as requiring cleaning in 2005 - ten years ago.

According to the tender the total volume of the collection to be cleaned is massive 248 cubic metres...roughly six large lorry loads? This is going to be an expensive exercise and begs a few questions.

The council has neglected its statutory duty to protect and preserve this irreplaceable material. This is not the fault of the archivists or their staff but a failure by management to maintain and invest in the archive service over the past fifteen years.
Why has this been allowed to happen? This is now costing a fortune when the council can ill afford it.

I also wonder just what has been going on for the past two years if it is only now that the material is being removed and cleaned? And why, if the current noises from County Hall are that a new home is required for the archives, possibly out of county, does the tender say that the documents will be returned to the County Archive? Do they mean Parc Myrddin?

Parc Myrddin
For further extensive background to this saga, please see the blog of author and historian, J D Davies. It includes his efforts to prise straight answers out of Carmarthenshire Council.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Executive Board webcast...and a prelude to the budget.

Finally, nearly a year after the WLGA recommendation, and as from next week, Executive Board meetings will be webcast. Monday's meeting will start here at 10am. (As it is now webcast, the public will be allowed to film it...thanks to their bizarre new filming policy). Just this once, I won't mention the pre-meeting Exec Board meetings, and the post-meeting briefings and trust that it will not be stage managed PR exercise.

However, the action-packed agenda, which you can read for yourself here, doesn't look like it will leave too much time for back-slapping. Several of the items, such as the offloading of leisure services, have already been covered by this blog.

Appearing for the first time is an early prelude to the next council budget. Savings, or cuts, to the value of around £39.4m over the next three year are on the cards. £15.8m in 2016/7, £12.7m in 2017/8 and £10.8m in 2018/9.

The figures for the next two years include the proposals approved at the last budget (more or less) but the 'new' figure is the £10.8m for 2018/9 - £4.2m of that relates to cuts to education. That's in addition to the £14.1m in cuts to education already earmarked for 2016 and 2017.

The public consultation will start in November, after the details, and most of the decisions, have been finalised. The budget will eventually be rubber stamped next February.

It will be interesting to see how far Plaid will get with their 'no-cuts', anti-austerity' promises now they've joined the County Hall top brass....
In 2014 Plaid put forward an alternative budget which was roundly rejected by the chief executive in, of all places, the pages of the Carmarthen Journal.

In February 2015 the Mark James budget was again passed after he joined in the debate, sided with the administration and rejected Plaid's opposition proposals. Immediately afterwards, Plaid councillor Alun Lenny gave this statement;

The Labour-independent controlled council voted for a budget of cuts, increased charges for services such as school meals and car parking, inflation-busting 4.3% hike in rents for council tenants and a 4.85% raise in council tax. 

All the cuts and charges could have been avoided this year had they accepted a Plaid Cymru opposition group proposal to take £6.2m (under 10%) from the Earmarked Reserves of £73.5m. 

These reserves (which are in addition to the General Reserve) have doubled since 2009. 
The people of Carmarthenshire have been badly let down and have every reason to be angry. This Labour-led council has meekly followed the Tory agenda of slashing public services. Plaid Cymru says that austerity has clearly failed. 

Our people have suffered cuts and extra charges to no avail. What was truly depressing was seeing the council’s Chief Executive and Head of Resources intervening in the debate. This council is obviously officer-led, as the Executive Board is too weak to run the council."

There will be interesting times ahead as Plaid are now firmly in bed with coalition buddies Meryl, Pam and the Independent Group; the political wing of the Mark James empire.
Labour, now in opposition will, I am sure, be reminding them of their words,

Plaid's Cllr Dai Jenkins, who mirrored the words of Cllr Lenny back in February, is now part of the administration of course, and Executive Board member for Finance. What is more, he now thinks that paying-off a six figure loan for a private company was 'in the best interests of the people of Carmarthenshire'.

It seems to me that Council leader Emlyn Dole hasn't been the only one to be granted the Key to the Presidential Toilet.....


24th September; Further to my public question concerning the six figure deal referred to above, County Councillor Sian Caiach has given her views on the subject here; Economy with the Truth, Carmarthenshire Style. She describes the deal as 'immoral' and wonders whose blushes Cllr Jenkins was sparing with his misleading response.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

September meeting...a footnote

The minutes, or what there are of them, have just been published for the last council meeting held on the 9th September. The meeting was memorable for the fact that, for the first time in ten years, there were questions from members of the public. I asked my question and was given a profoundly ridiculous response which I referred to in my post, here. My additional comment, that I didn't agree with the response, was not recorded in the minutes.

The decision, by the Chair Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths (Plaid) not to read out the other two questions was quite extraordinary, as he had been asked to do so by the questioners. His interpretation of the Constitution - that it 'assumed' the questioners would be present - was very misleading, and this is not referenced in the minutes either.

The webcast records that it was agreed that the written responses to the two questions would be published in the minutes...they're not.
I'm sure Mr James must have dictated/approved them by didn't take him long to answer mine...

Later in the meeting under the 'Annual Treasury and Prudential Indicator Report', Cllr Caiach asked some questions about the council's financial arrangements. Astonishingly, the Chair made it quite clear that he didn't think that full council was the place to discuss such matters....he eventually told Cllr Caiach that he wouldn't allow her to ask such things again. In future she was to contact the relevant Director privately.
None of her questions, nor the responses are in the minutes, nor even the part where the Director was unable to figure out what the abbreviations stood for in his own report....and no one came to his rescue as no one else knew what they were either.

Scrimping on the finer details in the minutes is one one thing (I suppose we are used to that, and at least we now have the webcasts), but the dire level of debate is quite another. The whole idea of public questions is for members of the public to have their questions aired in front of the whole council, the "forum for the debate of matters of concern to the local community" whether they're present or not. This concept has either not been grasped, or been deliberately stifled.

As for trying to stop councillors asking questions about council finances....Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths is beginning to look very much like yet another pointless sidekick of Mr Mark James.

Thoroughly depressing. I hope the WLGA and the Wales Audit Office who are supposed to be 'monitoring improvement', take careful note, as there doesn't seem to have been any. Although the mystery of how anything was going to change without the removal of the top brass, was never really explained...

Ethical Investments

Update 24th September; Coincidentally, The Ecologist has surveyed all UK councils to determine the pension investments in fossil fuels. The grand total is £14bn and this interactive map shows that the Dyfed Pension Fund invests directly and indirectly, £141.3m.


One news story which pops up every now and again questions whether the investments made by public sector pension funds are entirely appropriate. ITV Wales reports today on the pension fund which covers Assembly Members with investments in tobacco and gambling companies, 'possible' fracking companies and Burberry Group. The issue over Burberry was that Assembly Members had campaigned to try and stop the closure of its Treorchy factory in 2006 with the loss of 300 jobs, without success.

Closer to home, the Dyfed Pension Fund, administered by Carmarthenshire County Council, has much the same type of investments including around £15m in Imperial Tobacco and British American Tobacco, and £3m in BAE Systems and Quinetiq, both of which manufacture weapons. Other investments include William Hill, 888 and Betfair, and not forgetting Burberry which pops up again at £1.5m. Drug companies, mining, oil and and mineral extraction groups, which includes £7m in Rio Tinto Plc, all feature in the list.

There is nothing illegal in any of this of course but the problem for government bodies, and particularly when elected members are part of the scheme, is the conflict between their stated aims and the nature of the investments. For example, councillors have spoken out in the past against the proliferation of online gambling sites yet the pension fund, administered by the council, invests heavily in at least three.

In another example, the council leader gave a statement at the last council meeting welcoming refugees fleeing war, yet the pension fund invests in weapons manufacturers. Concerns over social exploitation and environmental impact will naturally concern elected members but not, it seems, the fund they pay into, nor administer.

I don't think the Dyfed Pension Scheme, nor the Assembly scheme are unique, each hold a portfolio of investments which are typical of pensions funds everywhere. Good returns (and, understandably, the prospect of a good, secure pension) will always outweigh ethical, environmental or social issues. So the Dyfed Pension Scheme is probably not alone in paying little more than lip service to these considerations;

"The Pension Panel recognises that social, environmental and ethical considerations are among the factors which investment managers will take into account, where relevant, when selecting investments
for purchase, retention or sale..."
(Statement of Accounts, Dyfed Pension Fund)

Saturday, 19 September 2015

The 'Libel indemnity clause' - The council's dilemma

Regular readers will be aware that I have a particular interest in the unlawful 'Libel indemnity clause' currently languishing in suspended animation in the council's constitution.
The unlawfulness of the clause, and its use, also formed part of the trial in February 2013, and the appeal last year.
The offending item has been suspended since the Council held the Extraordinary meeting to discuss the pension and libel indemnity scandals, 20 months ago.

If the recent council bluff and bluster about 'culture change',were to be believed, which it isn't, let alone the recent 'review' of the constitution, you might have expected this oppressive but legally impotent clause to be quietly airbrushed from history.

As it hasn't been airbrushed anywhere, I thought I'd ask Ms Rees Jones for an update on its fate;

Dear Ms Rees Jones, 
Following the recent amendments to the Constitution I was surprised to see that the  'libel clauses' remain, albeit in suspended form in Part 3 of the Constitution. 
I understand that as the clause is currently 'withdrawn', it cannot be used. However, you are fully aware that the legal position was clarified long ago and you will also agree that the clarification determined the clause to be unlawful, both in theory and in practice. Furthermore, it cannot ever be legally reinstated. 
Will you please explain why this 'suspended' clause remains and what steps are now being taken to remove it completely from the Council's Constitution. 
I look forward to your reply,
Thank you
Jacqui Thompson

A mere 48 hours later, and after (I detect from the tone of the first paragraph) a hasty consultation with Mr James, I received this reply;

Dear Mrs. Thompson, 
You persist in saying that “libel indemnities” are unlawful, but only a Court can determine whether they are still lawful following the 2006 Order or not. I am of the view that they are still lawful and nothing that Wales Audit Office had to say on the matter has persuaded me otherwise. As you will know, Council “agreed to disagree” with Wales Audit Office’s view, just as I have to agree to disagree with your own view. 
The “libel clause” remains on the face of our Constitution but is marked “withdrawn“This is because I have kept the Constitutional amendments arising from the Constitutional Review Working Group’s consideration of the recommendations in the Peer Review Report separate from any other amendments to the Constitution. The Constitutional Review Working Group will continue to meet and any other amendments required to the Constitution will follow. But no libel indemnities can currently be granted, and I am not aware of any proposals to resurrect the ability to grant them.
Yours faithfully,
Linda Rees-Jones Head of Administration & Law & Monitoring Officer

Of course, what all this does is put the council, by which I mean Ms Rees Jones and chief executive, Mr James, in something of a dilemma. If they remove the clause completely, then Mrs Thompson would have won a small but significant victory - they would be conceding that it should never have been there in the first place. They would also be agreeing with the Wales Audit Office.

If they leave it in the book, in its 'withdrawn' state, never to be used, then it looks ridiculous and serves no purpose within the constitution; a permanent reminder of professional incompetence, arrogance and unlawful behaviour.

Hence the continuing state of frosty denial and talk of courts.

Finally, I asked Ms Rees Jones if the Constitutional Review Working Group, (the 'long grass') would be considering its removal. A terse one-liner came back to say that they would be looking at the 'matter', though she didn't say when, which is significant as they are only due to meet once a be advised by her good self and Mr James of course.

It's time for the Working Group to refresh their memories and have another read of the Wales Audit Office report. Or perhaps we'll all have go back to court.

(For further background, please search this blog, or Google. For example, Played them like a fiddle or WAO reports - a year old today

Friday, 18 September 2015

Cross Hands and a £1.1m 'oops'

Members of the Council's Community Scrutiny Committee were surprised to learn on Monday that the Cross Hands East strategic employment site was going to cost the taxpayer an extra £1.1m as the council had lost a Land Tribunal hearing. The court costs remain unknown.

The Tribunal made a revaluation ruling after two pieces of land became the subject of Compulsory Purchase Orders put forward by the council back in 2013. The land in question was to form part of the road within the site.

Cllr Meryl Gravell was quick to express her 'disappointment' in the local press last Monday with the statement that "the cost was more than it should be" which rather suggests she felt the Tribunal got it wrong.

The detailed judgement, actually published last November and which can be read here explains that it was the council who undervalued the land in the first place. The main argument revolves around the council's flawed decision not to allow at least part of the land for housing, a ploy which enabled them to try and get the land as cheaply as possible.

In another example, part of the land falls outside the development limits of Cross Hands, and the ruling found that the head of planning's reliance on an exemption which permits 'small scale employment undertakings' was laughable as the actual permission granted was for an Industrial Park, offices, business incubator units, a hotel, a business central hub, resource centre, energy centre etc etc, hardly, the Adjudicator remarked, 'small scale'.

Not that I'm suggesting the council were trying to play fast and loose with their own planning rules of course...

One councillor called for a review of the whole scheme in light of the financial strain on the council but as with all council 'masterplans' and 'visions' nothing must get in the way of developments, even £1.1m which hadn't been budgeted for. Not only that but the Cross Hands development now also forms part of the Swansea Bay City Region plan which involves Meryl's latest hero and billionaire, Sir Terry Matthews.

Meals on Wheels - the end of the road?

One of the most unpopular proposals in February's council budget was to scrap the Meals on Wheels service. The Executive Board, at the time, decided out of the kindness of their hearts, or perhaps the impending general election, to retain the service.

As is so often with these things, the reprieve turned out to be merely temporary and a lengthy report has been prepared which proposes to replace the hot meals with a far less appetising 'Community Nutritional Strategy for Carmarthenshire Integrated Services'.

The report states that 'The current service of meals on wheels should continue as long as it is practicable to do so and people wish to receive the service.'

However, do not be fooled, the two bullet points above this sentence tell councillors to 'note' the decline in numbers using the service (still a sizeable 328), and to adopt the new strategy to 'replace the limited impact' of the meals on wheels service. Not exactly encouraging.and of course the other key phrase is 'as long as is practicable to do so'...

The strategy has noble aspirations and the all round nutritional and social wellbeing of our elderly and vulnerable citizens should, in an ideal world, be addressed through education, advice and an endless supply of willing volunteers.

A quick look at the 'financial implications' of adopting the report show that there are 'None'. So, on a practical level, there is no extra funding for any strategies, integrated or otherwise

Meals on Wheels, the report states, 'does not provide the social support around eating or monitor consumption', perhaps not, but this is not a reason to axe one of the most 'frontline' services you can get, it is a lifeline and an important point of contact for many and demand is likely to increase. It is not free either, at £3.70 per meal. Unfortunately the option of socialising in luncheon clubs or day centres has dwindled due to council policy to offload them all and cut transport.

On the subject of lifelines, the Executive Board Member for Social Care, Cllr Jane Tremlett (Ind) who contributed to this new strategy, was the very same Executive Board Member who said, in February, when announcing the u-turn;

“This is a service which is highly thought of and provides a lifeline for many, we have to continue it. There has been no support from anyone to stop it.” 

Even Pam Palmer piped up in February saying that the money, around £100,000, saved by axing live CCTV cameras would be used where it was 'desperately needed' and specifically to "save the Meals on Wheels service"

With another cut masked as an 'improvement', it looks like both CCTV and Meals on Wheels will be lost after all...

The report can be found on the agenda for the Social Care Scrutiny Committee held on Wednesday, 16th September. 

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Pulling the strings

This week's Herald features interviews with Labour group leader Jeff Edmunds and former leader, Kevin Madge. For the full details you'll have to buy a copy.

The most significant comment, as the headline suggests, is from Cllr Jeff Edmunds who claims that Labour lost power as a result of his challenges to the 'status quo'.

By 'status quo' we of course mean the cosy arrangement whereby the chief executive runs the council and calls all the shots, as opposed to the councillors.

To be honest, aside from Cllr Edmunds revelation over the Marstons' deal, I have to say that he has been keeping his 'challenges' and apparent transparency credentials well hidden from public view...

However, he says;
"I told Mark James that there would be a different direction to this council if I became leader. I told him that the policy would be directed by me and that he would be appraised bimonthly on how he would be delivering on the objectives that we would be setting. It is the councillors who should be running this council..."

For Meryl, Pam and Mark such a radical view, as well as showing something bordering on honesty, , meant that Cllr Edmunds was highly unsuitable as leadership material for the council; and, as we know, Labour were then ditched and Plaid taken into the fold.

The sad fact remains that it doesn't really matter who is 'leading' the council - it is still led by one officer and, as Cllr Edmunds confirms, even the political structure is not safe from unelected interference. Worse still, it seems that aside from one or two councillors, they have opted for an easy ride, content to let Mr James pull all their strings...

As for Kevin Madge, after 30 years in Carmarthenshire politics has he finally managed to grow a pair?

Council prayers

In my opinion, council meetings are not the place for prayers, of any persuasion. We are supposed to be in a democratic, inclusive 21st century state and prayers are divisive and unnecessary. Councillors are paid to be there to represent you and I, not to pray for divine guidance. It hasn't done them any good in Carmarthenshire anyway.
However, with several Revs on the benches, and a devout chief executive ruling the roost, they are likely to stay for now.

Last week, as I was allowed briefly into in the Chamber to ask my question I had the dilemma of trying to avoid the prayer, and, for that matter, standing for the entry of the Chair and chief executive (the Chair? ok, but the CEO? Unheard of I believe elsewhere). 

Not taking part in prayers, I discovered, entails lurking at the back of the Chamber until it is over then making your way to your seat with the minimum of fuss. For me, it didn't matter but for councillors who would prefer not to depend on divine guidance, it gives the appearance of being perpetually late.

Prayers are not on the published agenda but form part of every full council meeting. If an unsuspecting member of the public should ever venture into the chamber again to ask a question, they could find themselves forced, out of politeness, to pray to a god which they do not believe in.

Pembrey Paradise

The council press office has clearly been busy trawling the national press and unearthed an article praising the delights of Pembrey Country Park.

By 'national press' I mean, of course, the 'VW Bus T4 & T5' magazine.

The council's excitement over the write-up, (even featuring a quote from Meryl who was delighted with this global recognition), may suggest an element of desperation, but there could be an ulterior motive....with the current plans to sell off of the 'closest thing to paradise', the council press release looks, strangely, more suited to an estate agent's window...

Thursday, 10 September 2015

£250 post-sixteen transport charge on its way - updated

September 24th; Despite councillors at the scrutiny meeting asking to defer the consultation until further information could be gathered, it's gone ahead anyway and can be found on the council website should you wish to add your views. However, you are only presented with two options; lose it or pay for it.

September 18th; The Carmarthenshire Herald reports that councillors at today's scrutiny meeting decided to defer the start of consultation until they have received more information. Apparently Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths hair was 'standing on end'.


A joint scrutiny meeting next week will kick start a consultation on the introduction of charges for home to college/school transport for youngsters over sixteen from September next year. This was a budget proposal controversially approved by the council in Feburary after being rejected in previous years. The council hopes to save around £400,000 by 2018.

The charges will be between £200 to £250 per year and payment will be required before a travel pass is issued. The charge, as it stands at the moment, will also be imposed on pupils with Special Educational Needs. The proposal is to exempt pupils receiving free school meals from the charge, and also pupils who are currently at Pantycelyn School in Llandovery, until it shortly closes it's doors for good.

The consultation will not be offering the option of actually rejecting the charges, it will be asking for comment on the finer details, which it can then choose to ignore.

As it is not a Statutory service, the council can choose to withdraw support and introduce these charges, they claim that as EMA is available to post-16's, this will help cover the cost. The problem is that whilst the council have ticked their 'equalities' boxes, it discriminates against those who live in the vast areas of rural Carmarthenshire, particularly in the north and east, and also against families on low incomes but who are not eligible for free dinners.

The decision to continue post-16 education should be encouraged as much as possible, even by the council, and speaking from local experience the introduction of these charges will simply tip the balance for many 16 year olds and their families against continuing with full time education at all.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The Public Questions...and the 'best interests of the people of Carmarthenshire' - updated

Update 10th September;
I asked Plaid Cymru AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas for a reaction to the reply I received yesterday from Mark James deputy leader Cllr Jenkins (Plaid). Mr Thomas' comments in June that 'serious questions' were 'inevitable' had formed part of my question to Cllr Jenkins.
He replied promptly and disagrees with the claim made yesterday by the deputy leader that the deal was in the best interests of the people of Carmarthenshire;

"I maintain my position that taxpayers should get the best possible return on the sale of any assets, and I don’t personally believe that getting the equivalent of 25% for an asset is the best return the council could have achieved."
That said, when the decision has been scrutinised by the Wales Audit Office, I'm not in a position to disagree that the sale wasn't ‘above board’ as it were.
With local government funding being cut to the bone, I sincerely hope that any sale of public assets in the future gets a better return for the taxpayer than the deal in question."
Rhodri Glyn Thomas

Although I can understand that Mr Thomas is not in a position to disagree with the Wales Audit Office, I can disagree with them and as a footnote to this, I firmly believe they got this one badly wrong. The whole thing stank and bordered on fraud, as outlined below.


There were three public questions at today's full council meeting, one from me and two others, the first for ten years. I was there, but the two other questioners were unable to be present. Their questions concerned the plight of elderly vulnerable people in Carmarthen and also the lack of provision for teaching Welsh to children who have recently arrived in the area.

Unbelievably, the Chair, Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths (Plaid) chose, undoubtedly 'in conjunction' with the chief executive, not to read the other two out at all. They will receive a written response in due course.

He claimed that the constitution "expects that the questioner will be there", this is not strictly true as the constitution also gives him the choice to read the question out. A response could have been given and the matter aired.

After all, the very same constitution describes the council as a "forum for the debate of matters of concern to the local community" and that it should "support the active involvement of citizens in the process of local authority decision-making". What a joke.

This was a missed opportunity, and makes public questions pointless unless you are able to take time off work, or other commitments, and goes to the very heart of the 'culture change' which was so desperately needed, and which clearly hasn't happened.

As I was there, I was able to pose my question (sent in ten days ago), which was;
“Plaid Cymru AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas stated in June that “serious questions” will “inevitably” be asked over the decision to shortchange Carmarthenshire residents over the sale of a council asset and pay off a £274,000 loan on behalf of a private company, Scarlets Regional Ltd.   
The club ended up with £650,000 and the taxpayer £200,000 from the deal.   
Documents disclosed by the Council under the Freedom of Information Act revealed there was disagreement among officers within the authority over the deductions but their objections were overruled by a senior officer.   
Given that many other private businesses in Carmarthenshire are struggling to stay afloat and pay off their loans, will the executive board member agree that the decision was not in the best interests of the people of Carmarthenshire and finally ask those serious questions?”

I had, of course, predicted what the response would be, but it was even worse than expected. In fact, I do not think that Cllr Dai Jenkins (Plaid) himself believed what had been written for him to read out. Surely not.

He responded by saying that the District Valuer had been responsible for the split and that the Wales Audit Office had ok'd the deal. I was well aware of the WAO's view as I had made the complaint to them.
The District Valuer's role, although involved in negotiations between the parties, was to determine the final split, after the deductions.
His response had nothing to do with the 'allowable expenses' I'd referred to in my question.

The unexpected remark was that this deal WAS in the best interests of the people of Carmarthenshire and that he wouldn't be asking any 'serious' questions. It doesn't bear thinking about. Not sure what his colleague Rhodri Glyn Thomas (here he is in the Western Mail a few weeks ago) will make of it all either.

I know I have written about this many times but given my question, and the response, today I think I need to make it clear exactly why I believe this was a very, very dodgy deal. And I know I wasn't the only person in that Chamber today who feels the same.

Cllr Sian Caiach had tried unsuccessfully to obtain the details of the deductions in 2013. Eventually, Cllr Jeff Edmunds (Lab), who was, at the time, the Executive Board Member for Finance, decided to give Cllr Caiach the details, against the wishes of the chief executive. This was to his credit.

I then made a FOI request for correspondence between the parties leading up to the deal. This was initially refused. I appealed the refusal, the decision was reversed and I was given the information. This reversal happened to coincide with the chief executive's enforced absence during the criminal investigation last year.

I believe the disclosure was a deliberate move to exonerate (rightly) the (now retired) Director of Resources and the Head of Corporate Property, who had been delegated to finalise the deal, from blame.

The full FOI response can be seen here, and shows that the two officers were determined to secure a good deal for the taxpayer and to try and stop the 'allowable expenses' to pay off the loan. They also argued against thousands of pounds worth of other 'allowable expenses', eventually in vain.

The Head of Corporate Property's submission to the District Valuer. HDD are Henry Davidson developers to whom the Scarlets owed the loan.

The view of the Council's director of Resources

The final email shows that despite their efforts, and despite being delegated to finalise the deal, they were overruled by the chief executive.

The day before the deal

So today, according to Cllr Jenkins, deputy leader of the council, and of course your chief executive, £200,000 to the council and £650,000 to Scarlets Regional Ltd was in the best interests of the people of Carmarthenshire. I find that staggering. As I said, I do not believe Cllr Jenkins wrote the reply today, but I think I know who did. It was disappointing that he was happy to read it out.

In simple terms, the council sold off your land and paid off a loan for a private you think they'd do that for your struggling business? I suggest you ask.

The Western Mail have published a comprehensive report this afternoon; Council deputy leader denies that taxpayers were 'shortchanged' over Scarlets land deal

I got back from Carmarthen just in time to catch the end of the meeting and the Chair joking with a councillor that "as long as you praise the council, I'll allow you to carry on". It may have been meant as a joke but it says it all really.

The meeting has now been archived and 'public questions' starts at 00:38:16.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

The Constitution and siege mentality

Next Wednesday's council meeting (9th Sept) is set to approve the limited changes to the Constitution decided at the Extraordinary meeting in June.

Readers will recall the background to this. The changes follow the recommendations of the Council's cross-party group which was set up (and met behind closed doors) to deliberate the WLGA Governance recommendations....

The WLGA Governance Review was required following the Wales Audit Office reports exposing the pension and libel indemnity scandals relating to chief executive Mark James.

The process has been unnecessarily tortuous and long-winded.

The WLGA recommendations, hardly revolutionary in themselves, were supposed to be all implemented within a three to six month time limit. The report was issued last November, so you can see there's been no great rush...

The constitutional changes to be approved on Wednesday, (agenda here, to save you attempting to locate it on the council's new website), are likely to be seen as the final stage in the process, whereas they are actually just the start.
In part, these changes reverse some of the more bizarre rules brought in over the past few years to silence debate, and were not going to survive even the most cursory inspection.

The 'seven seconder' rule for councillors to submit Motions on Notice to council will finally be reversed back to the normal proposer and seconder. In other words two instead of an astonishing eight. Just in case there's a sudden onslaught of Motions (unlikely) councillors will be limited to one each per meeting.

Councillors will now be able to ask questions at open Executive Board meetings. As for remaining for, or receiving, exempt reports (such as top secret public toilet dossiers..), after a lot of moral grandstanding at the Extraordinary meeting, this will be now limited to Chairs and Vice Chairs,..

The chief executive will no longer be able to avoid airing public petitions by sending them off to distant committees, they will now have to go to full council, or at least full council will be made aware of them should the petitioner wish to present it to another committee.
However, we're still waiting for the promised council's petitions page to materialise on their website...

Neither will the chief executive be able to refer Members' Motions on Notice elsewhere, they must go on the council agenda and not be passed quietly to Pam, Meryl or similarly obedient disciples. Although I'm sure, with Mr James' extensive experience, he will be able to find a way round that one, if necessary...

Any three councillors will now be able to call-in an Executive decision rather than a majority of scrutiny committee members, and they will now have five days from when the Executive decision in question has been published on the council website to make their request.

As we know, Public Questions' is now an official slot for full council meetings. From now on the Executive Board and Scrutiny Committees will also have PQs on their agenda. The rules for submitting and asking a question remain the same despite the WLGA recommending that the procedure should be simplified.

Councillors will now be allowed to ask a Supplementary question. You may recall that the Mark James and Legal Linda double-act decided that because the constitution did not mention follow-up questions for councillors, then they weren't allowed.
It could have been interpreted the other way of course (after all I don't think there's a democratic institution in the western world which doesn't allow this) but why make things easier? The effect was that councillors have had go through the palaver of voting to suspend standing orders every time they asked a question, just so they could ask a follow-up.

The WLGA recommended that the public should be able to film or record all open meetings, quoting the decision from Pembrokeshire. This, as we know, was a step too far for some, resulting in the ridiculous decision to only allow filming of meetings which are already being webcast. Hardly in the spirit of transparency.

Attempts by the Plaid leadership to embrace the spirit of the recommendation were defeated. Currently, only full council and planning meetings (and, in the near future, apparently, Executive board meetings) are webcast which leaves around fifteen other committees which cannot be filmed and which are not recorded.

The public questions on Wednesday's agenda - see Caebrwyn asks a question - are nothing revolutionary, the ability to ask has always been in the constitution. The great unwashed have been discouraged, in a passive aggressive, and sometimes, as I discovered, a very aggressive way, from entering the Hallowed Halls, let alone asking a question.

The problem at the moment is that eyes are on Carmarthenshire, including those of the Wales Audit Office who are carrying out a full corporate assessment, not least of all on matters of governance. I'm sure it would have been noticed and challenged if those properly worded public questions had disappeared into the Presidential Shredder.

The dire relationship between County Hall and the press was also recognised in the WLGA review. A revised Press and Media Protocol finally emerged; a missive from the Ministry of Spin which I covered here.

The unlawful libel indemnity clause looks likely to remain in the Constitution in suspended animation. As I said in February, it will linger for evermore as an impotent but lasting memorial to local government idiocy.

I thought perhaps, with the 'legal position' long since 'clarified' as quite simply, 'illegal', the suspended libel clause would be quietly removed, its final deletion hidden, without mention, amongst the raft of changes; rather like the method used when it was first brought in; unnoticed and unmentioned within hundreds of pages of amendments. It seems not.

Both this blog, and Cneifiwr's of course, have tracked the snail like progress since the WAO reports, and both made lengthy submissions to the WLGA Review panel. The piecemeal and reluctant developments are detailed throughout both blogs. Another significant submission to the panel came from the lay member of the Audit Committee.

The 39 recommendations should have been implemented in full after the WLGA report instead of which they were diluted and twisted, and overseen by the very people responsible for the mess in the first place. It was a rather different 39 which finally emerged.

The recommendation for a change in culture, including an end to the officer-led regime, was swiflty and smugly brushed aside many months ago.
The chief executive made no secret of his contempt for the review, and for the Wales Audit Office. The logical conclusion is that he considers scrutiny of governance and democratic participation with the same patronising contempt.

We must be thankful for small mercies I suppose, and some of the changes are indeed very welcome, but what we actually have is transparency, Carmarthenshire style. If there is a theme which emerges from all this, it is defensiveness, mistrust and the council's siege mentality. The public are not to be trusted, and neither are backbench councillors.

It falls a very long way from bringing in the promised change of culture and the self-professed aim of becoming the most open council in Wales.

Carmarthenshire Council - Another six red cards

As I reported back in February, (see Six Red Cards) the claim, often made by our Glorious Leaders, past and present, that Carmarthenshire Council is the 'Best in Wales' and the envy of the western world continues to be something of a fantasy.

Data Unit Wales has just published it's latest Local Government Performance tables for 2014 -2015 and grades local authority performance and improvement by selecting twenty four specific areas of service (Indicators) for comparison.

Overall, for Carmarthenshire, the results are a mixed bag and can be best described as 'average', and certainly not the best in Wales. If the targets had included poor governance and corporate spin, then they'd have been out on top.

The council press office has already been at work trumpeting improved school attendance figures from Welsh Government data released last week. They are unlikely to trumpet this week's figures for delays over issuing Statements for Special Educational needs, in which they are bottom of the class;

There's has been another press fanfare this week over the Council's empty homes policy which has brought 135 homes back into use in the last year, this is good although disappointingly only a quarter of them were 'affordable'. But if this chart below is anything to go by, the fanfare should really go to Neath Port Talbot Council.

So, for the information which won't be available on the Council's 'Newsroom' website, Carmarthenshire has six red cards, and out of 22 local authorities is amongst the worst performing in the following;

Issuing final statement of Special Educational need within 26 weeks; 22nd (bottom of the league)

Adult social care clients supported in the community; 17th

Timely annual review of care plans; 20th

Delayed transfer of care ('bed-blocking'); 18th

Roads in overall 'poor' condition; 18th

Public participation in sports at local authority venues; 19th

A further five indicators are 'amber'.

A link to the full report can be found here.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Caebrwyn asks a question - the September agenda

Well, for the first time in living memory (almost) there are three Public Questions on next Wednesday's (9th September) full council agenda, and this one is mine;

"Plaid Cymru AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas stated in June that 'serious questions' will 'inevitably' be asked over the decision to shortchange Carmarthenshire residents over the sale of a council asset and pay off a £274,000 loan on behalf of a private company, Scarlets Regional Ltd. The club ended up with £650,000 and the taxpayer £200,000 from the deal. 
Documents disclosed by the Council under the Freedom of Information Act revealed there was disagreement among officers within the authority over the deductions but their objections were overruled by a senior officer. 
Given that many other private businesses in Carmarthenshire are struggling to stay afloat and pay off their loans, will the council leader agree that the decision was not in the best interests of the people of Carmarthenshire and finally ask those serious questions?"

Regular readers may recall the background to this which was a deal between the Council and Scarlets Regional Ltd to sell off a piece of land, and particularly the controversy of the 'allowable expenses' deducted prior to the split.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas raised the issue again a few weeks ago in the Western Mail.

The documents I received under the Freedom of Information Act last year were at odds with the council's claim that it was the District Valuer who made the decision, and showed, as the Western Mail reported;

"They showed that Jonathan Fearn, the council’s head of corporate property, and Roger Jones, the council’s director of resources, were unhappy with the Scarlets’ proposal that around £260,000 of the proceeds should be used to pay off the loan it had taken out to fit out the Red Room. 
But the council’s chief executive Mark James overruled their objections."

I have confirmed with the council that I will attend the meeting to put my question to Cllr Dai Jenkins (Plaid) and I understand that he will be present to answer it. I can also ask one supplementary question, should I wish.

Disappointingly there are no questions from Members on the agenda even though there has been a summer break and there are fifteen committee reports for 'noting'.

There is, however, another dreaded Powerpoint presentation, this time about Superfast broadband.

Finally, the amendments to the constitution agreed at June's Extraordinary meeting make an appearance.
More on that in due course.

Offloading Leisure Services - No opposition? - updated

Update 8th September;

The agenda for the Community Scrutiny Committee (14th Sept) has now been published (here) and includes the detailed 'Alternative Management Options for Leisure' report by RPT Consulting.

It looks like the recommendation is to initially offload Sports & Leisure and theatres to an existing trust company following a procurement exercise. There appears to have been little interest in taking over the less commercially viable archives and museums, but these will be considered at a later date.


The Carmarthen Journal and the Llanelli Star have this week picked up on the council's plans to outsource leisure services to charities, trusts or arms length companies.
I have been reporting on developments since October last year, and in February, and last Friday.

Anyway, the papers have a quote or two and Council leader Emlyn Dole doesn't sound particularly averse to the idea and neither does the opposition. It's just as well really as the wheels are already in motion, £30k+ is being spent on an external consultancy to sift through the interested parties and the award process is due to start in February.

Cllr Dole also states that, whilst they need to think 'creatively' (this is the latest buzzword instead of the less publicly palatable 'outsourcing') 'no assets' will be sold off. Given the current policy of selling off anything which isn't tied down this is a promise which will be difficult to keep. Presumably if (or rather 'when') they are, he will ensure a better deal for the Carmarthenshire taxpayer than the chief executive did over the Martson's deal.

Just to remind readers, 'Expressions of interest' have been invited for the whole leisure department and includes leisure centres, theatres, country parks, museums, libraries, the archives, etc.

It is a pity that not only is there no effective opposition - vital for scrutinising executive decisions - but the new leadership seems willing to remove the leisure department from the auspices of democratic control and proper scrutiny (albeit Carmarthenshire style), to trusts or arms length companies.

More importantly, it is becoming increasingly obvious that neither Cllr Dole, nor the weak opposition have any effective say in the future of council services, nor the many council jobs which will be at risk. Neither do they have the stomach, nor even the desire, to rock the officer-led regime.

There are murmurings of dissent and one Labour councillor has promised to 'demand reassurances' at the next council meeting that Pembrey Park will not be offloaded (the agenda has just been published and there's no sign of a demand). Anyway, as part of Mark and Meryl's original Masterplan, plans to offload the country park have been around for years.

The final decision will be based on an officer's report which will offer no other 'realistic' option aside from the one which has been happily germinating for the past eighteen months.
That officer's report is now doing the rounds of various committees before heading to full council later in the Autumn.

The council needs to make savings, we are aware of that, and it is likely that non-statutory services will be the first to go, whatever the massive up front costs of setting up trusts, charities or companies are. But the real worry is that if the Parc Howard and Archives fiascos (and all the other fiascos too numerous to list) are anything to go by, transparency, good governance and due diligence are unlikely to be particularly prominent.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Solar panels and historic settings...

A recent row over the council's refusal to allow a homeowner to keep solar panels on his barn roof continued today on BBC Wales news (not online). The row centres around the fact that the dwelling is a listed building and although the barn is not listed, it is within the curtilage. The homeowner, a Mr Bazalgette has also lost a planning appeal and will eventually be forced to remove the panels.

The question is whether or not solar panels are detrimental to the historic setting, something of a subjective view, and this case has highlighted the inconsistent and muddled approach taken by different local authorities. Carmarthenshire council, meanwhile, has said that it will continue to take a 'balanced' approach, whatever that might mean.

I'm not quite sure what the council's current interpretation of 'balanced' is, but perhaps, as a basis, they should take into account their decision in 2011 to let the chief executive put solar panels on his cowshed roof, also in the curtilage of a listed building, and in a Conservation Area. The application was in his wife's name.

Surely, on balance, that should mean the all-clear for Mr Bazalgette. Or are chief executives' curtilages different from everyone else's?

Friday, 28 August 2015

Affordable Homes - The 'Journey'

The Autumn Term at County hall kicks off on Tuesday with an Executive Board meeting. The new (well, not so new now) Plaid leadership can settle in for the long winter warmed by the company of new buddies Meryl and Pam, with Mr James still firmly in charge. It will be hoped that talk of demolished barns will fade with the last remnants of summer, along with the dimming memories of that Extraordinary meeting where toxic cultures and failed governance were quietly disposed of via Powerpoint...

Talking of warmth, or hot air, Tuesday's meeting includes a report titled, comfortingly, 'Our Commitment to Affordable Homes 2015-2020' and follows on from an earlier report that among Welsh local authorities, Carmarthenshire Council ranks second from bottom in the delivery of affordable housing units.

The cosy theme continues inside with Cllr Linda Evans (Plaid) inviting us all on a 'Journey' (presumably in the Carmarthenshire Council Robin Reliant) of discovery, and reads more like a manifesto than a policy document, peppered with bullet points, cliches and promises, but little meat.

The Council predicts that around 2000 affordable homes will be needed over the next five years, with the supply over the previous five years averaging around 69 per year. There are currently 7000 on the register for social housing.

The report admits that little is understood with regards to demand for affordable housing in rural areas. Given the largely rural nature of the county this is inexcusable. In addition, the Local Development Plan, along with its Supplementary Guidance on Affordable Housing finally made its tortuous way to adoption last December after several years of development and scrutiny; local rural housing issues must have passed it by.

However, demand for affordable homes are obviously highest in the urban areas, Llanelli in particular, and yet the LDP guidance is that only 10% of homes on new development should be affordable. In contrast, in the rural north for instance where there is less demand and any developments are usually very small, the quota is 30%.

The delivery of affordable homes through the planning system is something of a joke and as the report states, the obligation to provide below market-price homes is only insisted upon "as long as this is financially possible". As previously reported (and also an example in London here) 'viability appraisals' are being used more and more to reduce S106 contributions.

The council themselves hardly set a 'committed' example. Only a couple of weeks ago the council put forward it's own plans appearing to split a small site in two to avoid providing an affordable dwelling. The Stradey development in Llanelli of 350 homes had no affordable housing at all despite local demand; the S106 contribution went to Scarlets Regional Ltd and the stadium.

The current mishmash of methods to deliver affordable housing, rented or owned is not going to deliver the numbers required. The lengthy saga of the Brynmefys Estate, also in Llanelli saw the potential for affordable housing drop from eighty in the council's 'empty homes strategy' in 2005 to a meagre fourteen earlier this year, and the report only devotes one line to the council's own attempt to build council homes - you might remember Kev's 11 bungalows which went massively over budget - which suggests that further attempts in that direction are unlikely.

No aspirational report such as this would be worth its salt without the phrase 'developing innovative and creative ways to deliver more' This typically translates to 'we haven't got a clue at the moment but hopefully someone will come up with something' and it usually infers a trip into outsourcing territory.

In fact it has already been decided to put together a business case with a view to set up an external company, wholly owned by the council, to deliver affordable housing. The council contends that such an organisation could attract funding which the council couldn't. If it was capable of attracting extra funding and investment this suggests it would need to be run at a profit; so not necessarily compatible with local and sometimes sensitive and specialised housing needs, and far from transparent.

Companies are currently expressing their interests in the running of the entire Leisure Department, from swimming pools to the Archives; country parks to libraries. The award process, possibly a trust, will start next February. To make it even less transparent the council have even outsourced the company to sift through the interested parties.
It looks like the Housing Department may well be next in line...

Back briefly to the agenda and despite news of record parking profits, the long awaited 'free parking pilot' which was 'urgently' referred to the Board, after cross-party approval, around four months ago is notable for its continued absence. Maybe next time eh?

I also note that Tuesday's meeting is not being webcast, despite a promise back in June. Along with a raft of other WLGA recommendations, this was supposed to be implemented within three months, ie January 2015. Let's hope its sorted for the next one. Although with the actual decisions being taken in the pre-meeting meetings and post-meeting briefings, the bit in the middle, for public viewing, is essentially cosmetic.