Saturday, 21 October 2017

Teflon Mark, and other news

After three months I finally had a response from the Wales Audit Office to my complaint that the chief executive had used, or had ordered others to use, council resources to gather 'evidence' for his failed complaint of harassment to Dyfed Powys Police.

The WAO have reached the following conclusion, and I have underlined the relevant bit;

Dear Mrs Thompson

Carmarthenshire County Council: Audit of accounts for the year ended 31st March 2017

Thank you for your email dated 17th July 2017 in which you raised concerns about the Chief Executive officer at Carmarthenshire County Council potentially utilising Council resources to progress a legal case against yourself.

I have now had the opportunity to review the papers you have presented to me and make some enquiries at the council. 

The powers and duties of the Auditor General set out in the Public Audit (Wales) Act 2004 are limited. Although you have a right to ask me questions as an auditor acting on behalf of the Auditor General, I can only consider questions about the accounts that are currently being audited. I cannot answer questions about the council’s policies or procedures, or anything else not relevant to the accounts. I have enclosed a link to the Auditor General’s publication ‘Councils’ Accounts: Your rights’.
This document explains: your rights to access local council body’s accounts, your right to question the Auditor General or appointed auditor about the body’s accounts, and your right to object to specific items within the accounts.

Whilst the issues you have raised do not directly relate to the 2016-17 financial statements, the Auditor General can also undertake audit work to enable him to make recommendations for improving the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of Council services.  It is under these powers that we have reviewed the issues you have raised. Having reviewed the information provided by yourself and the Council in this regard, I am satisfied that there has been no breach of Council policies by any individual member of staff.  Carmarthenshire County Council staff are permitted to access external websites and blogs during their working day.
Unfortunately, I cannot give you more help with this matter.

Yours sincerely
Jason Garcia
Audit Manager

So, apparently, no policy was breached. There is, I would have thought, a big difference between using a council computer to pop onto Facebook for five minutes during your lunch hour to conducting lengthy research, at all hours of the working day, for your own private legal case. But there you have it. Interestingly the officers' code of conduct prohibits the personal use of any council resources unless authorised to do so. I suppose Mr James authorised himself.

On the upside, Mr James has set something of a remarkable precedent to other employees; why go to the expense and bother of employing a solicitor when you can use local authority staff and resources to do the job free of charge? Well, at the expense of the taxpayer rather than your own bulging wallet.

We can only speculate whether or not any other council employee, found to have exhibited similar behaviour and total disregard for the public wallet would have, in fact, found themselves on the wrong side of a disciplinary panel. No doubt Chaired by Mr James.

The irony is that a hefty chunk of Mr James' criminal complaint against me related to the intervention of my MP and other named politicians, in his 'private' affairs. He has consistently insisted, and instructed the council press office to confirm, that this is all a private legal matter between Mrs Thompson and himself, including his relentless pursuit of his 'gutter' money. Therefore, his blatant use of precious and ever-shrinking public resources, none of which has been denied, reveals someone who cares not one jot for the taxpayer and, quite simply, a shameless hypocrite.

Using your public position to further your own ends, whether its by using council computers or having a publicly funded legal department at your disposal is one thing; directly pocketing tens of thousands of pounds of public cash, on the other hand, through unlawful pension arrangements or legal costs, for example is quite another matter.
Trust and honesty in public life? What a joke. How he's still in post is a bloody mystery.


Further to this post published in August, yesterday's Western Mail reports again on the continuing problems encountered by residents of Century Wharf, Cardiff Bay, an apartment complex under the management of the 'moonlighting' Mr James who also owns several flats. The problems concern the behaviour of hen and stag parties, Airbnb and other overnight lettings which, according to the long term residents are prohibited under the original terms of their lease. They are taking their concerns to Cardiff council. 
Mr James, in his inimitably charming way referred to the complainants as a 'cancer'.

One commenter on the article wondered  'How on earth is the chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council  allowed  to also manage a large housing complex in Cardiff, for personal gain ?'. Well, it's a question you might well ask.

I also wondered, and in broader terms, who else amongst our unelected top brass had similar potential conflicts of interest outside of the council, and how they were managed by the local authority. 

A freedom of information request was duly dispatched (it can all be seen here) and although I thought they may have a register of such declarations and interests fairly close to hand, the twenty day limit came and went.

A week or so later I emailed the ICO to say that there was no sign of a response, I also copied in the council. Twenty minutes later I had this unexpected and strange response from the council; 
"the Council does not hold any declarations of interest in relation to such matters in Carmarthenshire".

Really? None? Are you kidding me or are you deliberately misinterpreting my request? Anyway I decided to ask for an internal review, (ie look again please, before I take this further) quoting the following extract from official ICO Guidance;

"Many public authorities maintain a register of interests in which senior staff are required to record, for example, business interests, shareholdings, property ownership and other outside interests, such as membership of clubs and societies, that could potentially give rise to a conflict of interests with their position in the authority. 
A public authority may need to record this information in order to monitor any potential conflict of interest, and the scope of the register could include officers below the most senior level who nevertheless make decisions affecting the public or involving the expenditure of public money. 
If this information is requested under FOIA, the public clearly have a legitimate interest in knowing that any potential conflicts are monitored, to ensure that the decisions and actions of officials are not influenced by their private interests. There is a legitimate interest in transparency in order to foster trust in public authorities."

I await their reply.


Further to my earlier post regarding the swiftly unravelling Swansea Bay City Deal and 'Wellness Village', it seems that things are going from bad to worse. It also seems that the whole thing is now officially, or unofficially, run by Mr James.

As suggested in the previous post, the 70 page draft Joint Working Agreement (JWA), commissioned by Mr James, is now dead in the water and, as the forwarded email below confirms, Carmarthenshire Council have commissioned a new one. The cost of this is undoubtedly eye-watering. However, the draft agreement, albeit virtually useless, does exist and I'm sure Carmarthenshire Council have a copy, so to say they 'do not hold information relevant to your request' is not entirely true and perhaps the request could be pursued.

There has been no word either about the meeting which was supposed to be held last week to 'brief' Carmarthenshire councillors on the City Deal and the Wellness Village; they've either been sworn to secrecy or it was cancelled and they remain in the dark; though at the moment the City Deal has effectively collapsed with no governance structure nor a clear way forward. The biggest problem, aside from the involvement of Mark James, for us mere mortals, is the level of borrowing each council will have to undertake, and in Carmarthenshire this exposure to risk will be to fund private health care and a luxury spa hotel...

The Neath Port Talbot report exposes some of the disagreements, which appear profound, but part of the problem could be Carmarthenshire's plan to siphon off some of the funding for other projects and to charge the other three local authorities a very hefty 'administration' fee. None of which will inspire confidence in either the public partners nor any potential private investors, for more details see Cneifiwr's post.

Dear Mr D.....,

Thank you for your request for information, which was received on 15th October, 2017 and has been dealt with under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA).
The specific information you requested was as follows:

Please could you email to me, by return, a copy of the latest Joint Working Agreement of the Swansea Bay City Deal.

I wish to examine the current proposed governance arrangements relating to the initiative.
I understand that Neath Port Talbot County Council has some concerns over governance of the initiative, and I wish to be aware of any exposure that may be experienced to the council taxpayers in Carmarthenshire.

In response, we do not hold information relevant to your request as currently we do not have one since fresh instructions were sent through to our external solicitors last week for a new Agreement.

Yours sincerely
John Tillman 
(Freedom of Information Officer)

Friday, 13 October 2017

Swansea City Deal and the Wellness Village...the dream unravels?

This week's Carmarthenshire and Llanelli Heralds feature detailed reports on the troubled Swansea Bay City Deal, as well as a scathing Cadno opinion piece (see below). As we know this all ties in with the luxury spa Wellness Village planned for the Delta Lakes Swamp in Llanelli. Listening to Carmarthenshire Council, and more particularly the City Deal lead chief executive, our very own Mark James, it's all wonderful, so wonderful in fact that neither he, nor Emlyn Dole, could be bothered to personally answer the questions posed by the newspaper.
The Herald reports that Carmarthenshire Councillors will be briefed at a meeting next week as to the progress of the City Deal - it is very likely that this will be another PR stunt like the 'presentation' back in February.

I have given my views on the Wellness thing in previous posts and reported Pembrokeshire's doubts over the City Deal last month.
Last week it was the turn of Neath Port Talbot. Their chief executive provided a damning report on the City Deal and expressed serious doubts about the level of public funding required and seemingly insurmountable governance issues.
Just in case our own chief executive doesn't furnish councillors with a similarly honest report next week, here's a link to the document - I urge them all to read it.

To summarise just a couple of points, at least six months of time, and copious amounts of external legal advice have been used to try and formulate a governance model for the 'Joint Working Agreement' to oversee the City Deal projects. The conclusion is that the 70 page draft is not fit for purpose and they'll will need to start from scratch.

Some may remember Sian Caiach being shot down by the chief executive when she asked how liable the council would be for covering interest payments on the millions of pounds worth of loans the council would be required to take out. Mr James snarled back saying it would all be covered as the government was allowing the councils to keep some of the business rates from the proposed developments.

The NPT report reveals that the government has made no such firm commitment and the four councils will, in all probability, have to stump up all the costs (£386m) without any idea if they'll get any of it back. Carmarthenshire council already has a debt of £386m costing £18m a year in interest.

Furthermore the strangely PR obsessed ARCH (A Regional Collaboration for Health) programme, essentially made up from the health boards, and a major player in the Wellness thing, was refused Welsh Government funding before the City Deal was even signed. NPT has said it will definitely not plug any funding gaps. The health boards themselves haven't got the cash to splash either.

As for the promised millions from private investors, there's little evidence of anything concrete and if there is, the governance issues around public/private partnerships are an equally tricky problem - there are plenty of costly PFI failures to draw on.

Reading between the lines it appears that the language used behind closed doors has been somewhat stronger than that outlined in the report. Rowing chief executives perhaps, and with Mr James in the lead role...well, taxpayers' money, governance issues...what could possibly go wrong? After what has been revealed to me through several years of litigation with Mr James I would question whether they've got the right chief executive in the 'lead role' at all.

This blog is primarily concerned with Carmarthenshire. The Yr Egin cultural centre which involves Trinity St David University has already gone ahead and is currently at the large empty shell stage, What this has cost the council remains unknown although as Mr James, (with his many declared and undeclared hats), is also a Director of the University, he could probably tell us.

As soon as the Wellness concept came to light alarm bells were ringing. A bit of research uncovered the fact that this is all about luxury health tourism and private health care; a concept put forward by a privately run US based organisation, the Global Wellness Institute. Then, last year, after the costs escalated, the council by-passed usual procedures to enter an 'exclusivity deal' with a private company, Kent Neuorosciences Ltd to manage the project (see also here). It's not clear if they're still on board or whether the council are committed to a contract which may never materialise. The promise of a leisure centre and care home for Llanelli has, in the words of Cadno, 'metastasised' into something else entirely.

We also know, through Freedom of Information, that the council and the Welsh Government have already spent £1.3m on the project, roughly half each, without, it appears, a clear idea whether it will even go ahead.

The total cost of the project is around £230m with just £40m coming from the City Deal. Back in January the council hoped that £127m would come from private finance. As the Herald states, 'the Council is becoming involved in what increasingly appears to be a speculative commercial venture' and dependent on a 'high level of private finance in a time of considerable economic uncertainty'. The Herald asked the council ‘how much private sector finance has been obtained to date?’ Their unwillingness to provide a specific response suggests not very much, if anything.

So, whilst the chief executive of NPT says it how it is, our councillors are kept in the dark, and always have been. Have any of them read the report? You would think its revelations might have prompted a question or two at next week's full council meeting. Instead, the leader of the opposition Cllr Edmunds (Lab), claiming to be concerned about the lack of openness and transparency has suggested a tweak to the constitution to try and get straight answers to councillors' questions.

It could possibly have been triggered by a question at the last council meeting when Cllr Madge (Lab) asked Cllr Dole if Ammanford Town Hall was now safe after the misleadingly titled 'Agile Working Plan' report had been withdrawn from a earlier Exec Board Meeting. The 'Plan' suggested that, amongst other buildings, the Town Hall would be sold off.

Instead of just saying that he couldn't give any reassurance, which would have been an honest answer, Cllr Dole decided to go on the attack and say the report hadn't been discussed so the question was 'mythological'. The report, despite being deferred had actually been through various stages of senior management approval and, although the plans to sell the buildings might be shelved, he couldn't guarantee they were safe. And despite being deferred, the report had been published on the agenda for all the world, and the staff employed at the Town Hall, to see. (update; a revised report has been published today, the 16th, and the Town Hall has been removed from the list but Parc Amanwy is for the chop instead)

It works both ways of course and Cllr Madge was equally evasive whenever he was put on the spot as leader. The day that a politician, from a prime minister to a mediocre county councillor, gives a straight answer to a mildly probing question, will be a moment to remember and unlikely to be achieved by tweaking the constitution. That said, it wouldn't hurt.
Mind you, it would be far better if Cllr Edmunds focused his concerns on removing this from the constitution.

I am digressing though, the point being that our councillors need open their eyes to the big wide world and in particular to the potential lasting drain on the taxpayer of County Hall vanity projects. Take the blinkers off. Lessons should have been learned, and the common denominator is Mr James himself. Remember the independent accountants warning against investing in the Parc Y Scarlets' stadium? It's drained the taxpayer ever since. If we go further back the people of Boston were stuck with a massive bill and an audit investigation thanks to another of Mr James' vanity projects which proved far more costly than predicted.

The taxpayer was equally shortchanged over the notorious car park deal a couple of years ago, thanks to Mr James' last minute intervention, it was nothing short of a generous bung. His own actions regarding the pension tax avoidance scam, let alone the illegal libel indemnity shows a senior public official who has less regard for the public purse than his own precious wallet.

We have yet to see how his interests in the residential letting element of the Wellness village squares with his own property interests in Cardiff Bay...

I have been following, as best I can, the various organisations involved in the Wellness thing, as well as the City Deal and there has been virtually nothing in the way of public information, from Minutes of meetings to risk reports, it's all been public relations nonsense. Emlyn Dole, our Council leader has swallowed the lot, hook line and sinker.

Mr James has committed the council to the Wellness vision, it will become one of those visions which cannot fail, no matter what; it is not just his councils' reputation which is at stake but his own. Which, in the world of Mr James, is all that matters. When councillors attend the briefing next week they should remember this, and before they commit millions (a possible £150m..or more?) to a flawed vanity project, plug any funding gaps, and leave a costly legacy for auditors to clear up, they should demand some straight answers, and they should never, ever, assume that they're being told the truth.

18th October; For Cneifiwr's analysis, see his latest post; Mark leads us to the promised land


Cadno and the Road to Wellness
Reproduced with permission from the Herald

There is a short speech in Macbeth which has always resonated with Cadno as an example of how poor decision-making can lead to worse actions.
I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.
Strange things I have in head, that will to hand,
Which must be acted ere they may be scanned.

Macbeth has committed himself to a course of action which he feels he cannot back out of and has plans to carry out which he must do before he has a chance to think about them.
Next week, councillors in Carmarthenshire will receive a briefing on exactly how much the Council will be ponying up towards a project, the artist’s impression of which was described elsewhere as resembling ‘a herd of white elephants gathered around a stagnant pond’. 
Yes, readers!
It’s the all-singing, all-dancing wellness thingy – the flagship project of what now appears to have changed from being a regional deal to a city deal. 
Way back in the 1990s, there was a minor American comedy drama called The Road to Wellville, which starred Anthony Hopkins as Dr John Harvey Kellogg, whose surname adorns many cereal boxes.
At Dr Kellogg’s sanatorium, his unusual methods for maintaining health include colonic irrigation, electrical stimulus, sexual abstinence, vegetarianism and physical exercise.
His wealth has given him the scope to indulge his theories and impose them on those seeking the sanatorium’s services in order to achieve wellness.
In one memorable scene, Kellogg describes one benefit of his vegetarian diet as his production of stools that have no more aroma than a freshly-baked biscuit. 
What joy it must have been to be alive in those days, readers, when all one needed to get into Wellville was ready cash and a fond belief in the unlikely efficacy of crackpot ideas. 
The Road to Wellness, starring that Savonarola of Gaol Hill Mark James CBE, is a slight variant on the notion. Using a combination of Council Taxpayers’ money, loans, and private sector funding, Mr James will be trying to persuade county councillors to get out the civic chequebook and start writing out cheques for sums involving large eight-figure sums.
After all, the argument will go, ‘we are stepped in blood so far…’ 
As The Herald reveals elsewhere in this newspaper, the Council has zero involvement in the Life Science and Educational aspects of the development. That funding is coming from the City (Region) Deal, whose local authority lead executive is none other than our own Dr Kellogg-Macbeth.
The amount of funding committed to the bits of Wellness the Council is actually attached to is – in round terms – a big fat nought. 
£150m is the headline figure for the oh so exciting speculative investment the Council is planning to be part of – which includes such exciting developments as a ‘Wellness Hotel’ and a retirement village for wealthy gentle-folk who fancy teeing off at Machynys Golf Club, just across the road, and having spa treatments administered by ever-so grateful locals working for minimum wage.
Who knows? They may even get round to actually building the leisure centre from which this whole project has spawned – or, more precisely, metastasized. £150m is the cost of this venture into property development, and the only other funding shown as coming on board is private sector funding.
Cadno has no doubt that next week there will be a series of equivocations, weasel-words, and showy graphics in order to deflect councillors from the hard truth that the local authority will be mortgaging the Council’s future at a time that cuts in public services are really biting hard. 
And all the while the clinching argument will be ‘we are stepped in blood so far’. 
The Council has chucked seven figures of public money at this project, so far. Officers and those members of the Executive Board who want to leave a legacy – one of the Seven Wonders of Wales, perhaps, should perhaps remember that a collection of tombs and derelict and apparently purposeless stonework is not the model to which the Council should be working. 
The whole concept is flawed from top to bottom. 
It is so dependent on a series of serendipitous events underwritten by hubris and a disregard for public money and cost that the plan – as mooted at this stage – is less a strategy than a recipe for disaster. 
Councillors would do well to consider, before they are bounced into handing over the money, the track record of the Council’s involvement in major developments. For some reason, the words ‘Parc y Scarlets’ and ‘fiasco’ come sprinting into view. Never in the history of Carmarthenshire has so much been squandered for so little return and at such a loss. The Council will never get repaid and may as well write off the money for that one. 
Of course, lenders who will be bankrolling the Council’s collective vanity will not write off the money ploughed into the swamp at Delta Lakes. They will want repaying. 
Moreover, private sector investors will want something more than a sales pitch which revolves around a rehash of ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’. And you might well wonder why the Council would want to plough public money into a project the fat end of which will end up in private sector hands. 
Forget the research – the Council will have naff all to do with any kudos attached to that as it will not be involved with it other than as landlord. What the Council is involved in is nothing more than a piece of property speculation involving huge sums of public money to private benefit. 
Put it another way: in Cadno’s kitchen cupboard is a collection of handy china containers of varying sizes from which he likes to drink his tea. A councillor believing that the Road to Wellness will end in anything other than a huge cost speculation for little benefit – maybe the Council will remember to build a leisure centre, though – is welcome to join the other mugs in Cadno’s cupboards. 
And all the while, the siren song shall be: ‘we are stepped in blood so far’.
Either that or, even worse, there will be an appeal to councillors’ vanity, inviting them to magnify their own to match that of those behind the whole scheme and a request that they act without thought or proper scrutiny.
It’s not only the Road to Wellness which is paved with good intentions.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

The tail wagging the dog, as usual

The involvement of the chief executive in debates at full council has become so commonplace over the years that no one appears to notice when he regularily oversteps the mark and sets out to influence the vote rather than merely offer advice. This doesn't just happen in full council in this officer-led regime, but is always more obvious under the glare of the webcam.

The July meeting saw the chief executive intervene (link here and here) during a vote to cap senior pay, not one councillor raised a point of order as he plainly expressed his opposition, even calling for back-up from the finance officer. He was not imparting advice, he was using the vague suggestion of dire consequences if they dared to tinker with senior pay, to influence the vote. He managed to mutter, through gritted teeth, that it was a decision for councillors. Which indeed it was. If they dared.

Move forward to September and the same thing happened over a motion (agenda here, Item 5.1) put forward by Labour councillor Derek Cundy to try and ensure that local members were more involved in discussions for Section 106 contributions.

Full council agendas are finalised by the chief executive and all motions, questions etc are approved by him. This means that not only does he have time to arrange the answers parroted out by the relevant executive board member or leader, but his own response as well.

The motion was reasonable and came from the premise that local members, and town and community councillors might have a better idea, in some cases, of what would be needed in the community if a significant development was going ahead, than a more remote planning officer.

The leader, Emlyn Dole opposed the motion by stating that councillors could already do this, if they had a mind to, at the pre-application stage. Opposition councillors stated that that may be so but in practice local views were often excluded and ignored and needed to be put on a firmer footing. Hence the motion being put forward. The Protocol for councillors' involvement in planning matters hardly encourages engagement.

Step forward the chief executive who used the old tactic of the threat of expensive legal challenges to sway the vote, or shall we say 'persuade'. No one wants uppity councillors getting involved with deals with developers any more than they have to. Not only would this motion require a change in policy, he said, but also a change in the Constitution, and if councillors started making S106 suggestions which were outside those set out in the policy, then there would be Judicial Review challenges and all sorts of costly court nonsense.

The Labour group leader Jeff Edmunds questioned whether this was a true reflection of the spirit of the motion, but unfortunately, with the persuasive force of a wet weekend, he was duly ignored. The Leader, currently Mr Dole, will always agree with the chief executive, as if his position depended on it, which it does of course.

Anyway, the answer is in the S106 policy itself where it states, at 1.6;
Obligations relating to matters not covered by this SPG [Supplementary Planning Guidance] may be sought where there is sufficient robust evidence to justify such obligations. Each planning application will be considered in line with Policy GP3 of the LDP.

So, sensible suggestions can be made which are not in the policy as long as this criteria is met. The policy doesn't need to change at all. In effect, the motion was lost due to a 'loose' and persuasive interpretation of policy by the chief executive. As for greater representation of the views of local people, this was also lost in the process.

This is not a party political issue, this scenario has been played out for years, no matter who is in 'power'. To give one small example of many, the chief executive even resorted to the pages of the Carmarthen Journal to denounce Plaid's alternative budget when it was a Labour/Indie administration. Plaid were, at the time, outraged.

Councillors are there, first and foremost, to represent the views of their constituents, not the chief executive's. They should recognise, and be aware, that his 'advice' isn't always quite as it seems, let alone factually correct. And if anything was to be learned from the pension and libel indemnity scandals, it should have been that.

As for the council's internal legal advice, they would do well to remember that this was accurately described in 2014 as 'cavalier' and 'incompetent' by former eminent lawyer and lay member of the Audit Committee, Sir David Lewis. The senior internal legal personnel remains unchanged...

Whilst on the subject of S106 matters, the Asset Transfers of parks and playgrounds to local councils etc are almost complete; the county council cannot afford to run them anymore. Apparently. The press office recently published a list of 21 which are on the doomed list where no offers have been made and whose days are numbered.

Whether any of these fall under the pot of S106 monies held by the council isn't known but I suggest this is looked into. In October 2015 the 'pot' was £3.5m which included, at the time, £1.3m for 'Recreation, open spaces and play schemes'.

Only last week a whopping £707,366.98 council grant, from a different 'pot', was given to Trustees of a wealthy pension investment fund to demolish the Jolly Tar pub in Carmarthen and develop a four storey office block.

Whilst creating employment, or even office blocks, is perhaps to be encouraged, it is equally important to keep the local swings: there seems to be plenty of money for the former, but, sadly, not the latter.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Unlawful payments - Ireland and Carmarthenshire - Compare and contrast...

Interesting report from Ireland where a government minister is repaying €16,000 she had received in unlawful payments. The money was an extra allowance which was eventually deemed ineligible and she has agreed to hand the money back to the public purse at €1000 a month. Whether it was a deliberate attempt to deceive, or not, seems debatable.


Compare that to Wales, and Carmarthenshire where the council chief executive took £60,000 in unlawful payments and refused to hand any of it back. And that was very deliberate. And no pressure from Welsh Government to pay it back either.

Regular readers will be aware of the 2014 Wales Audit Office findings so I'll not go over it all again, but half of it was the pension tax avoidance payments, a scam Mr James shared with Bryn Parry Jones, former CEO of Pembrokeshire County Council. Jones left with a golden handshake, minus the pension cash which the Wales Audit Office insisted was deducted. Perhaps they'll do the same when Mr James goes...

The other half was the illegal libel counterclaim costs. With veiled threats to sue the council, Mr James, and his legal sidekick Linda Rees Jones also managed to avoid disciplinary action.
Earlier this summer, the BBC again highlighted the fact he's never repaid it;

Carmarthenshire Council's Flag Policy

In the grand scheme of things, the business of flying flags might not be one of the most important issues facing Carmarthenshire but the refusal to fly the Rainbow flag, the universal symbol of support for diversity and inclusion for LGBT rights, from civic buildings has been something of an ongoing saga, especially as almost every other public organisation in the UK happily flies the flag during LGBT events. Some have even wondered whether or not the religious sensibilities  of certain senior officials may have crept in to public policy...

Recent background can be found here. A few weeks ago I made a Freedom of Information request for the elusive and unpublished Flag policy 'adopted' in July 2015 (deemed 'necessary' due to excessive demands for flag flying...actually there were just two recorded requests) and it's finally turned up, albeit a little late. The full thread, and the policy, can be found here.

The policy is interesting for a couple of reasons.
Last year the Carmarthenshire Herald reported on a request from a community organisation for the Rainbow flag to be flown. The request was rejected by the chief executive. He said that whilst the council might support community organisations, "We" (the royal 'we' of course, there was not a whiff of councillor involvement) "have taken a view that this does not extend to flag flying at civic buildings". 

This isn't what the policy, adopted twelve months previously, states. There is no blanket ban and it states that 'Ad hoc' requests would be considered, and although the council reserves the right to reject requests, it was a matter for the Leader of the council, and not, we must assume, the chief executive. If you're going to cobble a policy together you might at least try and stick to the basic message.

I've looked at a few other flag policies (ok, yes I should probably get out more...) and out of those, no special consent is required for the Rainbow flag at all and in general, community organisation flags are happily flown for a special event. In fact the council's Rainbow flag (they do have one) made one very brief appearance, just after the Orlando massacre, and fluttered just long enough for the press office to dash out and tweet a picture, policy or not...

The rest of the policy is largely taken from central government guidance which includes detailed protocol for flag flying on assorted royal birthdays etc. Interestingly, for us in Wales, the Union Jack "will be displayed in a position superior to any other flag", including the national flag of Wales. Who knew?!

As you can read from the Herald article, the council featured in the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index. This year the council disappeared completely from the Index. It seems, from this Freedom of Information response, that the council's senior management decided to 'pause and review Stonewall membership'. We don't know why.

Friday, 15 September 2017

News round-up; Schools and spin..other news...and more spin

The Autumn term at County Hall kicks off next week with September's full council meeting, the agenda, for your information, is here. It includes a Motion and a couple of questions from the Labour benches over the proposed cuts to the education budget over the next three years. The planned cuts, amounting to £15m, nearly half of the total cuts to be made, were rubber stamped for consultation by the Executive Board back in July.

I daresay the responses will be to say that 'nothing's been decided', there'll be some cross-party blaming and accusations of scaremongering. We'll have to see what happens. Last year's planned school cuts were lessened after the council bean counters jiggled the council loan repayments to free up some cash, which was also just happened to be prior to the council such election this time round.

Meanwhile, the council press office, or 'Media and Marketing' department as it's now known, and which, as usual, remains largely unscathed from the worst of the cuts, has been busy putting together some spin. A video appeared over the summer rejoicing in the £250m spent on new schools and refurbishments. No doubt this is all very welcome, but what the message fails to convey is that this expenditure was over fifteen years and involved the closure of over 40 schools and decimated the heart of many rural communities. Building new schools is a false economy when the actual teaching budgets are being slashed, let alone spending precious resources on pointless spin.

Anyway, do tune in next Wednesday at 10am,
Link to meeting here.

* * *

Also up next week is a meeting of the Licencing Committee where an application from Scarlets' Regional Ltd is being discussed. The application is to extend the sale of alcohol to the external area of the Parc Y Scarlets' stadium, ie some grassy areas and the car park, and to extend the hours to, well, all day, every day.

Regular readers will be aware of the controversies surrounding the development of the stadium and the ongoing cost to the taxpayers (same happened in Boston where the very same council chief executive had a similar 'vision') so I'll not repeat it again but a more recent controversy gives the application an ironic twist.

A couple of years ago a 'surplus' car park, owned by the club and the council was sold off to Marstons' Inns, planning irregularities were 'dealt with' and, thanks to the intervention of Mark James, the taxpayer ended up losing over £200,000. The details can be found on this blog, including here. Anyway, Marstons went on to build a pub and more recently a 27 bed hotel on the site...and are now the main objectors to Scarlets' Regional licensing plans, and as can be seen from the application, have put their strongly worded objections in the hands of their solicitors.

* * *
I mentioned, earlier this year that the council had managed to find £350k stuffed down the back of the corporate sofa (the precious revenue budget actually) for Llanelly House, the restored Georgian House and visitor attraction in Llanelli. The house is run by the Cambrian Heritage Regeneration Trust (CHRT) which is also supposed to be restoring the YMCA building in Merthyr. Further background to the CHRT can be found here on Jac o'the North's blog.

Clearly the trust were in difficulties and although the Executive Board decision was held in secret, Company House records show auditors' material concerns with the ongoing viability of the trust. In fact a couple of years ago Finance Wales refused to come up with any more cash and even the council changed it's mind about advancing a £200k loan. There are nine outstanding charges and, needless to say, a considerable amount of public money involved. The chief executive of the trust, who also acted as a consultant, resigned in December.

Companies House now shows that things were a lot worse and a few weeks after the council dished out £350,000, and the Lottery paid out £250,000 to fund a 'business review', the Trust called in the insolvency practitioners and entered a Company Voluntary Arrangement, a legally binding high court agreement to pay off its creditors.
CHRT's current status with the Charity Commission doesn't look too good either with the Trust having 'failed to provide information on its finances within 10 months of its financial year end'.

I wish the place every success and I'm sure that after such an expensive 'business review' it will be turning its fortunes around...but, given the precarious finances it would be interesting to know exactly what the terms of the £350k grant were, and what CHRT actually did with it. Given the council's stance on Parc Howard, maybe some of our councillors might like find out.

* * *

Finally, rather like the email snooping story, I am reminded of another Carmarthenshire saga from elsewhere in the UK. Public interest journalists at 853London report that Greenwich Council have threatened to withdraw advertising from a new weekly paper for publishing critical news stories. The article is well worth a read and of course no such story is complete without a link to Carmarthenshire's efforts to control the editorial freedom of the local press.

The link related to events in 2012 when advertising was withdrawn from the South Wales Guardian after a mildly critical article raising the concerns of Ammanford traders. The proof of the pudding appeared in a leaked email from the council press office. A subsequent Plaid motion (Oh how things have changed..) for full council to support the freedom of the local press was blocked by the chief executive...'Council Chief accused of gagging free speech' screamed the Plaid the time.

There was, of course, more to it than that and council pressure on newspapers, or complaints to the corporate owners often had the desired effect. I provided a summary back in 2015. In another instance, a call from County Hall led to a reporter's freedom of information request concerning senior officers expenses being withdrawn. You can guess who was behind the call and who's expenses they were... The Mark James Media Empire also ensured that the council's press manager attended the duration of the libel trial in London. Despite this, there was much courtroom consternation amongst the other side on the last day when The Times published it's leader...

Another sinister threat, a sword of Damocles if you like, to any enthusiastic investigative reporters was the threat to sue for libel, unique to Carmarthenshire Council and enshrined in the constitution in 2008... and suspended due to being entirely illegal in 2014.

As time has moved on, the internet has proved to be one step ahead of Mr James; a quiet word, an invitation to lunch to new editors, or a fatuous complaint don't usually go unnoticed any more and become the story itself. A pop at the Herald when it was first published in Carmarthenshire resulted in a headline story which reached well out of county.

The council propaganda rag, the Carmarthenshire News is now down to two hard copies and two electronic editions a year. It is run by the council but funded by several other equally cash-strapped public bodies which make up the talking shop Public Service Board. According to the PSB the e-editions 'had not worked the way it was intended' (at cost unknown) and all was to be reviewed, with better use of existing social media a possible way forward. Yes, and cheaper.

In what appears to me to have been a desperate and last ditch attempt to have a go at the press, Mr James CBE went to the police to say I was harassing him by republishing critical articles, most notably from the Herald and Private Eye. In what can only be described as cowardice he never troubled the publications themselves, both of which would have had the means to put up a fight.
Fortunately the CPS decided he was a lost cause.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Email snooping; from Liverpool to Carmarthenshire....and complaints up by 45%

There's a row brewing in Liverpool Council where a resident's email to her councillor was snooped on by senior officials. Reported by the Liverpool Echo, Libdem Cllr Andrew Makinson was shocked to discover that an email sent by Ms Josie Mullen, who is a former councillor and a campaigner against certain council developments had been intercepted - finally arriving in his inbox, complete with comments added by the customer feedback manager located in the chief executive's office. Incidentally, Liverpool's chief executive is currently on bail under suspicion of perverting the course of justice.

Afterwards, Cllr Makinson tweeted 'They're just diverting emails sent by anyone they think complains too much or asks too many questions.'

Naturally, all this sounds rather familiar and reminds us of a similar occurrence here in Carmarthenshire. You may recall that former councillor Sian Caiach had her emails monitored a few years back. She recounted the experience on her blog a few months ago.

The wider issue is that in general, residents, or even campaigners, email their local councillor in the mistaken belief that their communication, which may include very personal matters, eg health and family issues, will only be seen by said councillor, not passed around every Tom, Dick and Harry in County Hall, whether it's Carmarthenshire, Liverpool, or anywhere else.

Sian Caiach wasn't aware that her emails had been tracked until the evidence popped up in the disclosures after the libel trial in 2013. She had no idea what had been going on, she would never have been told, and had to then advise her constituents to use her personal email, not her council account.

Given the circumstances in Carmarthenshire, the order to track was clearly made by the chief executive. Asking junior officers to carry out questionable tasks may have become a bit of a habit for Mr James, from allegations in his previous employment that a member of staff had been 'persuaded' to backdate a document, to the liberal use of council computers to provide evidence for the police in a private complaint.

As with the case in Liverpool, where the correspondent was a campaigner, Sian Caiach was also considered 'problematic' by County Hall, ie someone who asks questions. We will never know how many other councillors have been subjected to the MI5 tactics from Jail Hill.

Aside from the automatic filtering out of spam etc, a council has powers to intercept communications where serious crime or matters of national security are at stake but to monitor councillors and residents communications on the basis that they are a outspoken and persistent is patently wrong.

Any campaign against a council decision/project is likely to involve a degree of persistent communication, it's the nature of peaceful protest, and councillors, or residents have a right and even a duty to ask 'awkward' questions; as long as the contact remains polite there should be no problem. Such snooping in Liverpool, or Carmarthenshire, could quite possibly be unlawful under data protection law and Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, let alone unethical.

The email episode in Carmarthenshire led to a review of the council's email usage policy where, after three years, it was decided that the chief executive and the monitoring officer, ie Mark and the dutiful Linda could authorise the tracking of a councillor's emails.
They might as well have not bothered with the review.

It will be interesting to see what happens in Liverpool, Cllr Makinson, like Sian Caiach, has now advised his constituents not to use his council email account. In Carmarthenshire, residents should always be aware that their emails might be being read by anyone, long before it arrives in your councillor's inbox.

In not entirely unrelated news, council complaints in Carmarthenshire have risen by 45% in just one year. A report to the Standards Committee next Friday (update; I've just noticed it's been cancelled until a later date)) shows that the jump was largely due to the changes to refuse collection last Autumn. At best it shows a failure by the council to adequately convey the changes to one of the most basic of council services to its residents. There's also a jump in complaints relating to children's services.

Some of the complaints are also outlined in the report. The summaries leave much to the imagination. To give an example, under 'Administration and Law' it 'was acknowledged that a conversation could have been handled more effectively'...
One complaint regarding the conduct of Carmarthen Market security staff was upheld and a complaint made regarding the tender of sale of property was partially upheld. A Blue Badge renewal pack was sent to a deceased person, and there were complaints related to social care.
There were lots of misunderstandings, explanations and apologies.

Figures are also provided for compliments with quotes from satisfied customers; there are no quotes provided from the complaints, sadly.

Obviously it would be a rare thing for a large organisation to have no complaints and I am not, and never have, criticised the vast majority of staff. The problems arise when complaints become complex and come up against the notorious County Hall culture of defensiveness and there is plenty of evidence of that over the years.
I remember the chief executive, at the libel trial stating with some satisfaction that most people write one or two letters 'then give up'.

Complaints concerning 'properly made policy decisions' are not classed as complaints at all. This all depends on the wide interpretation of the word 'properly' and the degree of deployment of  smoke and mirrors. Anyone complaining about the introduction of a £48 charge for garden waste collection, for example, would have been politely ignored despite the lack of consultation. The same goes for schools closures or council vanity projects.

I made a complaint last year that the chief executive had been economical with the truth in a statement to the Western Mail, and had used the council press office in the process. Apparently this did not meet the criteria of a formal complaint either...

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Swansea Bay City Deal - Pembrokeshire having doubts?

Update 4th October; BBC Wales reporting that Neath Port Talbot are also having concerns over governance and the potential borrowing required. The borrowing will be at least £360m between the councils, probably far more at a time when, for instance, Carmarthenshire Council can't even afford to run local playgrounds.
Interestingly the report states that the Welsh Government have told ARCH, (involved in the Wellness thing) to look for 'alternative sources of funding'. NPT have said they won't plug any funding doubt Carmarthenshire will oblige.
Taxpayers' money, poor governance, Mark James a key player...what could possibly go wrong?


Interesting to see the new leader of Pembrokeshire council, Cllr David Simpson, expressing caution and real concern over the Swansea Bay City Deal at a Pembs Committee meeting webcast (around 40 minutes in) this morning. He claimed that it was not all it seemed; he had "difficulties with the Board"; no one knew what they were letting themselves in for, and it "didn't quite stack up".
He also hinted that Pembrokeshire could pull out of it, though it was not for him to say.
He was also concerned about the 'substantial amount' the council would have to borrow - and whether it would ever be repaid. Commercial interests should self-supporting.

I have no idea what Pembrokeshire will do in the end, but it was refreshing to hear someone question the whole deal. Carmarthenshire, Neath Port Talbot and Swansea councils are the other three local authorities involved and it will be up to the lead representatives, in our case the chief executive of course, to convince their council that enticing, and propping up commercial ventures by borrowing, and risking millions of pounds worth of public money is a great idea.

Carmarthenshire is well down the City Deal road with the hard-sell being presented to council earlier this year by our own expert second-hand car salesman, Mr James. The presentation included the luxury spa Wellness Village and the only councillor to raise some sort of challenge was Sian Caiach who was, as usual, shot down by the chief executive with barely concealed rage. Who will ask the questions now I wonder?

The problem with the City Deal, from a scrutiny perspective is that's impossible to challenge anything without being fully informed as to what's going on. The private investment element ensures that, even given the amount of public money involved, it is all considered confidential or 'sensitive'. The level of transparency is nil. Your average backbench councillor will be the last to know who's involved or what's at stake.

The Pembs council leader mentioned the 'Promotional material' and so far this is all we have. By the bucket-load. The City Deal has a flashy new website which tells you absolutely nothing other than the spin which has been doing the rounds for the last couple of years. If it looks and smells like b******t, then it most probably is; or at least demands a degree of inquiry. We don't want another Circuit of Wales fiasco or a questionable Welsh Government land deal.

As I said, who will ask the questions in Carmarthenshire, which is already £388m in debt and has a track record of putting the interests of taxpayer somewhere near the bottom of the priority pile? As the chief executive has said he has a lead role in all this, then he is the one to provide answers. Councillors could also ask him how his own business affairs in Cardiff Bay square with his involvement with the City Deal, and while they're at it, how he manages to find the time to be a £171k a year chief executive...or does he run it all from the same office?

Anyway, as for the 'Deal', and the Wellness thing, I suggest councillors get themselves fully informed...before it's too late.

The City Deal promotional 'signing' launch in March (pic; WalesOnline)

Car park at Parc Howard

Anyone who has submitted a planning application will know that if justification is required for something or other, then justification you will have to provide. The consistency with which this is applied can vary a great deal, depending on the identity of the applicant, or whichever party political whip is being wielded at a planning committee meeting.

One example of this is for the new car park at Parc Howard where the applicant is the council itself and justification seems remarkably thin on the ground. Controversy over the future of this Grade II listed building and grounds in Llanelli has rumbled on for years, (see previous posts) and although it remains, for now, in public ownership, the council have decided that private investment is the only option and have already invited 'expressions of interest' for wedding venues, conference organisers and the like.
No one knows, of course, who will be (or who already has been) selected, we just hope that the ridiculous fiasco from Meryl and co a couple of years ago isn't repeated.

Any suggestion of commercialisation, sensitive or otherwise, will be of concern itself and will, by its nature, inevitably limit access for the public to the house and grounds, bequeathed to the people of Llanelli by the Stepney family in 1911. The proposed car park, which is not a simple car park but a two-level affair requiring the destruction of a tennis court and numerous mature trees, will cost around £100k (I think this is optimistic) and is clearly for the benefit of the prospective private investors the council hopes to attract rather than for visitors to the park.

If we look at the application itself (S/35541), it's full of holes, or, as above, a lack of justification. The submission from CADW states that it is 'inadequately documented' and does 'not provide any justification for bringing cars into the public park or for the proposed car park', and will have a 'direct adverse impact on the historic character of the registered park'.

The council's environmental health department has also issued a warning. The site is adjacent to an area of high air pollution, now a designated Air Quality Management Area. It states that 'No information has been provided on the likely or anticipated vehicle trips that will be made to the car park or the turnover rate of the spaces. It is therefore very difficult to determine what
impact the proposal may have on the AQMA'. As it stands, the proposal may have a 'significant adverse impact' on air quality, which is already exceeding safe levels.

The ecologist has also warned that where some areas are to be grassed over, the wizard plan to poke holes in the tarmac and cover it with topsoil and seed is likely to fail...I think he might be right.

The play area, heralded by the sudden arrival of bulldozers, was started without planning permission at all and had to be sought retrospectively. This is unlikely to provide anyone with any confidence that due process will be followed. In the case of the current proposals I would suggest it's a case of going back to the drawing board. According to LlanelliOnline, campaigners have asked the Welsh Government to call-in the application and take it out of the hands of Carmarthenshire council.

Gorsedd Circle sandwiched between zip wires and the play area started without planning permission...thoughful landscaping courtesy of Carms council.
Justification will be another interesting element for the Wellness Village vanity project planned for Delta Lakes, Llanelli and it remains to be seen how private health care, luxury spas, 'Wellness Tourism' and assorted conceptual buzzwords are portrayed in the planning application, when it eventually appears. Of even greater concern is the cost to the authority with upfront borrowing likely to be in the high millions (no one seems entirely sure yet), with little or no assurance that it will ever be paid back, or be financially sustainable.

How strange then that a very popular historic public park, and museum, which encourages access through walking, cycling and public transport should fail to be properly maintained by the council. You might think that it ticked all the 'Wellness' boxes without costing an arm and a leg (or future work for forensic auditors), so to speak. As for culture, the council are redeveloping the Oriel Gallery in Carmarthen given its 'rich history dating back to the 19th Century'.

Parc Howard, it seems, will be handed over to the wedding planners.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Meeting with the Police Commissioner

Update 14th October; The wait goes on and to date there's been no news regarding the removal of the harassment warning. The Police Commissioner's office emailed yesterday with the following update;
"Further to your meeting with the Commissioner and recent communication with this office, I write to advise you that the Commissioner has received some updates on your case, however, awaits a final response from the Chief Constable directly.  We hope to be in a position to provide you with a full and substantive reply soon."


Just in case you thought I'd gone away for good I thought I'd better get back to the blog. The silly season is nearing its end and the wheels of democracy, Carmarthenshire style, will soon rumble back into action. Not that Caebrwyn has been sitting on her laurels, having made a few enquiries via the Freedom of Information Act, including this one currently languishing in the County Hall in-tray.

Before we eventually wander back into the world of budgets, spin, dodgy decisions and assorted extra-curricular activities I must mention, briefly, a meeting I had yesterday at Police HQ with the Dyfed Powys Police Commissioner, Dafydd Llywelyn.

To cut a long story short, after I contemplated, on social media, whether the current strains on the police budget might have been a little less painful without the chief executive wasting 18 months of their time and money, Mr Llywelyn offered me a meeting. As my concerns and questions were related directly to the police I had asked for the chief constable to be present. Unfortunately he was otherwise engaged.

However, it was a positive meeting and Mr Llywelyn appeared open and honest and seemed interested to hear my side of events from over the past 18 months, and asked many questions. He seemed genuinely surprised at some elements of the saga, a bit of an eye-opener perhaps. In fact he also turned out to be an occasional reader of blogs, giving Cneifiwr and Jac o'the North a name-check...

I decided to focus my concerns and complaints into a brief document, suspecting that, given the remit of the Commissioner, much of the content would have to be placed before the police themselves.

There were three specific complaints regarding the police action against me. First and foremost was for the Police Information Notice (harassment warning) be removed from the record immediately. This was nonsense when it was issued last year and became even more nonsensical, and completely devoid of legal force when the CPS dropped the case against me a few weeks ago. It remains an insidious threat though, which shouldn't be there.

I have also queried why the police decided to prosecute given the basis and nature of Mr James' complaints, eg me asking my MP for help when I was losing my home, an article from Private Eye, etc, (a great summary can be found over on Cneifiwr's blog). The CPS decision confirmed that the police were wrong and I want this looked at.

Then there is the Conflict of Interest matter. As we know the 'close working relationship' between Dyfed Powys police and Mr James was acknowledged in 2014, and Gloucestershire Police were hauled in to investigate Mr James rather than Dyfed Powys.
According to the police, with regards to their investigation of Mr James' complaints against me, there is no conflict of interest.
I have asked for an investigation into this mysterious and inexplicable leap of logic.

In addition to the complaints above, I have also asked the Commissioner, who has control and oversight of police resources, to support my request that the police investigate Mr James for wasting police time and I have also asked the police to investigate Mr James for misconduct in public office.

With regards to the latter, and despite being spoilt for choice, I am asking the police, following the additional information revealed at the county court hearing on the 23rd March this year, to re-investigate the matter of the Wales Audit report highlighted by Jonathan Edwards MP in 2014. And also the misuse of public resources to provide evidence for the police.

As for wasting police time, I have provided factual details as to why I do not believe Mr James' complaints were genuine or correctly motivated. I believe there was an abuse of the criminal justice system, and a 'close working relationship' with the police, to pursue criminal complaints which either lacked any evidence whatsoever or were essentially civil matters, and were known by him to be so. The CPS decision confirmed this.

I am not holding my breath but let's just hope that the police treat my complaints as seriously as they did for Mr James. I have the evidence so we'll wait and see. Mr Llywelyn has assured me that all this will be passed on to the relevant departments, including the chief constable and that I will be kept informed.

The meeting concluded with Mr Llywelyn asking me, with a smile, what I thought of the departing words of the previous Commissioner, Christopher Salmon in May 2016;

"Carmarthenshire County Council. 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, hoards property, bullies opponents, co-opts friends and answers to no one, least of all local councillors."

I said he was spot on. Mr Llywelyn was non-committal....
Give him time...

Monday, 14 August 2017

Mr James and Cardiff Bay - the Western Mail reports

20th August;
The next instalment of Cneifiwr's long-running series, the 'Council of Despair' has been published today featuring an exclusive interview with Sir Ephraim Jams...and we are introduced to a couple of new characters, including a Ms Ludmilla Legova...

Council of Despair - An exclusive interview


Mark James' property dealings down in Cardiff Bay seem to have reached the ears of the Western Mail today, with an interesting article about residents' concerns over the management of their flats.

WalesOnline 14th August 2017

Blogger Jac o'the North recently went into a lot more detail in two posts, Baywatch 1 & 2, both of which I linked to here and urge you to read.

Mr James is a director of various Right To Manage (RTM) companies for Century Wharf flats and is also a director of a private company Building and Estate Solutions Today Ltd (BEST) set up in March 2017 with two business associates. All this information is freely available on Companies House website.

Aside from his burgeoning management empire, Mr James' property portfolio includes at least one flat in Century Wharf and two in another complex in Cardiff Bay, and he is also a registered landlord. (He also has a £250 per month hold over Caebrwyn's humble abode for his damages from his illegally funded counterclaim).

Amongst the issues some residents have with Mr James and the management of the Century Wharf complex is that flats are let for overnight stays, Airbnb, etc which is contrary to the terms of the leaseholds, as well as disturbing for the long term residents.
I am also told that Mr James and his business associates seem to have 'taken over' the RTM Board, with Mr James a 'self-appointed' Chairman, and there is some speculation that the new company, BEST, may be seeking to contract maintenance and management work for themselves, and expand their interests elsewhere, not just Century Wharf.

The other issue is the appointment as a manager in the complex of a young lady, a former tenant of one of Mr James' flats, who, according to sources, has little or no experience in the field of property management and was introduced to the post by Mr James himself...

Then there is the manner in which Mr James has dealt with criticism, and I am told that he runs things in the Bay in an extraordinarily similar fashion to the way he runs the council. Needless to say, this is not a good thing. There are claims to legal advice which are never disclosed, claims to ministerial 'contacts', and veiled legal threats to those who question his actions.
Having been involved in litigation with Mr James myself for a number of years I have absolutely no reason to doubt any of the claims and allegations I have heard, and I've heard quite a few.

His responses to residents, as reported in the Western Mail article are quite revealing. He dismisses their concerns over the short stay lets as having no evidential basis; stag parties and hen-dos are no more disturbing that long term lets..says he, from the comfort, and quiet, of his home in Carmarthen...

He then goes on to claim that there is not only a 'cancer' in the complex (presumably this is a charming reference to dissatisfied residents) but the young lady's appointment was all above board; having a personal knowledge of the 'candidate' was an advantage, apparently, and avoided all the fuss of advertising for the post...

I'm sure readers are getting the drift by now, and that Mr James has quite a time consuming 'hands-on' approach to his affairs in the Bay...

With that in mind, and let's not forget the many months spent chasing myself through the civil and criminal court, let alone his extensive involvement with the Swansea City Deal, isn't it time he was asked how he squeezes in his £170,000 a year role as chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council? And, for the avoidance of doubt, has anyone asked about any potential conflicts of interest yet?

And a final point, if Mr James is content to take public money to pursue his legal affairs, and use council facilities as if they were his own, who's to say he hasn't furthered his own business (or other) interests in exactly the same manner, and with exactly the same arrogance?

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Freedom of Information - the difference a Review can make...

Freedom of Information responses from Carmarthenshire Council can be a mixed bag.
Sometimes they try to baffle you with b******t, (appointment of Monitoring Officer, Linda Rees Jones) and sometimes there are bizarre refusals (top secret transfer of public toilets to community councils).

Occasionally, a few interesting beans are spilled, (the, er, 'car park deal', released whilst the chief executive happened to be confined to his potting shed courtesy of Gloucestershire police) whilst sometimes they're met with hellfire, brimstone, and raging defensiveness (asking for correspondence between County Hall and an evangelical church).

My latest FOI request concerned the Wellness Village thingy at Delta Lakes, Llanelli. More specifically, how much the council has spent on the project so far.

My request was clear and asked for information from 2013 to date. I also asked for the cost of any 'works' to be detailed in the response.

The response duly arrived, scant in detail (a hallmark of the whole project so far) but, aside from the match funding from other partners, the figure for the council itself was £32,597.50.

Unfortunately the information only went back to 2016, not 2013 as I'd requested, and didn't include any of the 'works' such as preparing and raising the site so the whole thing doesn't get washed away. It's not called Delta Lakes for nothing.

Given the omissions I asked the council to review their response, the outcome of which arrived yesterday with a new figure, slightly erm, higher than the first at £564,427.72...

At some point soon the council might even get round to submitting the planning application, which in itself has cost £34,000...

The full thread of the FOI request, and responses, can be seen here. There will be more on the Wellness venture in due course, and I've also asked Welsh Government for some figures, but this is an illustration of how, when a council doesn't routinely publish spending details, and has a culture of defensiveness; scrutiny and monitoring can be problematic.

Whilst I'm on the subject, the Freedom of Information (Extension) Bill is slowly wending its way through parliament and, as the title suggests, hopes to extend the reach of the FOI Act. The Statement of Purpose (in full here) sums up the aims;

'The Freedom of Information (Extension) Bill will seek to make housing associations, local safeguarding children boards, Electoral Registration Officers, Returning Officers and the Housing Ombudsman public authorities for the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, whilst making information held by persons contracting with public authorities subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000...'

All very welcome and interestingly it includes Returning Officers. A request I made some years ago concerning fees paid to our Returning Officer/chief executive was considered by Mr James to be an outrageous invasion of his personal space...I might as well have been asking for his bank details and PIN number.

(all previous FOI requests mentioned in this post can be found by searching this blog, they're there somewhere!)

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

News round-up - budgets, selling the silver, and a new Director..

Yesterday's Executive board meeting included the first glimpse of the next budget, which will not be determined until next February. The last budget was passed earlier this year, just as the campaigns for the local elections were underway. There is no such 'pressure' to please anyone this time.

The figures take us up to 2021 and include various unknowns, for example, the effects of Brexit, and how much will come from Welsh Government (a 2% funding reduction is assumed). All in all £36m is likely to be cut over the next three years and by far the largest casualty, nearly half of the 'savings', is yet again the schools budget at £15m.

After tinkering with the council's debt repayment plans (council debt now stands at £388m) last year's planned cut to schools was reduced to a 'cash neutral' position, which sounded better than the £2.4m which was actually cut. Next year this figure is £5m.

One of the great 'unknowns' within the budget report is the future expenditure on interest payments to cover the unknown loans, from government, for the City Deal projects, including the Wellness Village at Delta Lakes, Llanelli. This project, as I have mentioned several times on this blog is led by the council and includes assorted partners such as the health board, universities, the Welsh Government, the ARCH project, the City Deal people and unknown private investors.

So far it has been high on spin and low on facts, a problem likely to continue as monitoring such a development, with so many interested parties will be a difficult one to unravel.
The budget report repeats the vague promise from Government that the cost to the authority in interest payments for the project will be offset by allowing the council to keep half of any future business rates which (may or may not, given the likely incentives to attract the private sector) become payable.

To allay anyone's fears that the council and health boards are funding a luxury private health spa on the Llanelli Riviera they've come up with a novel way of presenting the spin in a set of FAQs.

By far the most misleading and manipulative question, and answer, is;

'Will I have to pay for my health care if I am referred by the NHS to be seen in the Wellness Village?'

..and the answer?

'No. The Local Health Board is a partner on the project and is working closely with the council to identify services that could provide better outcomes for patients if they are delivered in the community rather than in a hospital environment, for example, some nursing and therapies assessment and treatment. This will enable space in the hospital to be freed up for patients who need to be seen in hospital.'

Also on the agenda, albeit briefly, was the 'Agile Working Investment Plan'. This seems to be a plan to make the workforce more 'agile' in terms of reducing office space and the use of tech, although even by Carmarthenshire's standards this is a particularly awful report.
As the council scratches around to fund the 'plan' it not only plunders most of the 'Development Fund' (waiving aside the 25% limit) for new enterprises, but proposes the sale of Ammanford Town Hall, the council's main customer service centre in the east of the county, and several other offices and buildings. Rumours are also rife that the recently refurbished Llandeilo offices are shutting up shop, leaving no customer services in the entire eastern area.

Ammanford Town Hall
It was less than transparent to have included the proposed sell-offs, let alone the implications for staff (none of whom have been consulted) within a report with such a misleading title. Smoke and mirrors, as usual.

In the event the Item was deferred, hopefully to have a rethink. Not least of all because these proposals, which included the sale of public buildings, were for an Exec Board decision only, with no reference to full council at all.

The Executive Board...and the chief executive, just catching up with Cneifiwr's blog ;-)

You will recall, at the last council meeting, that the chief executive was very, erm, persuasive about requiring a new Director, mainly to oversee all these 'exciting projects' and his assorted 'visions'. The post of Assistant Chief Executive (Regeneration and Policy) was to be made redundant to make way for the new Directorship of White Elephants.

An amendment was put forward by Labour to cap the new salary (and that for a new Director of Education) to £112k per year from the proposed £123k pa.
The chief executive, Mr James, became even more 'persuasive' and the vote was lost.

No time was lost and the advert went out immediately (all posts over £100k must be advertised nationally) only to strangely disappear a few days later. Even more mysterious was an urgent convening of 'Appointment Committee A', which met today.

According to several reliable sources I was spot on with my earlier prediction as to who strolled, permanently, into the new Directorship post with an extra £20k per year. Apparently there were a few other enquiring applicants (who must have been remarkably quick off the mark) but they were rapidly deemed unsuitable..leaving a shortlist of one, Ms Wendy Walters, and a recommendation from the chief executive.

Whether this was a cosy arrangement, with the advertisement of the job merely a brief rubber stamped pretence I wouldn't like to say, although Mr James' 'arrangements' for Linda Rees Jones' post of Monitoring Officer were certainly a constitutional sight to behold...

It's amazing how quickly the wheels of Carmarthenshire local government can turn when a 'new' directorship is on the cards... to the casual observer it might appear that the whole exercise was pre-planned, it was certainly depressingly predictable. I am not, of course, suggesting that the new director is not capable.
Oddly, there's no rush to appoint the new Director of Education and that process will take place later in the year, maybe there's no one in the pipleline for that one...
For what it's worth I also understand that the vote was not entirely unanimous.

But back to the vote at the last meeting of full council over directors' pay. To most observers, aside from political activists and point scorers this was a rare opportunity for councillors to reflect the views of most residents and make a small stand against the eye-watering salary levels of our little rural county's top brass. As I said, it was lost by 32 votes to 18, with 14 abstentions.

Here are the 32 councillors who voted against tackling fat cat pay;

Plaid Cymru;

Glynog Davies, Quarter bach
Handel Davies, Llandovery
Emlyn Dole, Llannon
Hazel Evans, Cenarth
Tyssul Evans, Llangynderyn
Ken Howell, Llangeler
Peter Hughes Griffiths, Carmarthen Town North
David Jenkins, Glanamman
Alun Lenny, Carmarthen Town West
Dorian Phillips, Llanboidy
Susan Phillips, Hengoed
Emlyn Schiavone, Carmarthen Town West
Dai Thomas, Pen-y-Groes
Gareth Thomas, Hendy
Gwyneth Thomas, Llangennech
Elwyn Williams, Llangunnor
Dorian Williams, Abergwili
Eirwyn Williams, Cynwal Gaeo

Independent Group;

Sue Allen, Whitland
Arwel Davies, Cilycwm
Anthony Davies, Llandybie
Ieuan Davies, Llandybydder
Joseph Davies, Manordeilo and Salem
Rob Evans, Dafen
Phillip Hughes, St Clears
Andrew James, Llangadog
Giles Morgan, Swiss Valley
Hugh Shepardson, Pembrey
Mair Stephens, St Ishmael
Jane Tremlett, Laugharne
Edward Thomas, Llandeilo

The abstentions included several Plaid Cymru councillors, and one independent voted with Labour. The full list will appear in the Minutes.

Update 2nd August;
Also on Monday's Exec Board agenda was an exempt item about the Guildhall in Carmarthen town centre. This was bought by the council last year for £225,000 from the Crown Court service after the court closed. The Carmarthen Journal reports that an heritage funding bid of £100k to repair and maintain the listed building has now failed.
What is worse is that the £225,000 came out of the social care budget. It was an Exec Board decision with no reference to full council.
Whether the county council will step in and cough up the necessary cash, given the current drive to flog off public buildings, remains to be seen, but, as I reported last year when they bought it, the warnings signs were already there.

Update 10th August;
The minutes for the Exec Board meeting have now been published and the item on the Guildhall reads thus;

'RESOLVED to progress with current private sector interest, whilst seeking to ensure the heritage and cultural aspect of the building are maintained'

It would of course be helpful to know, given all the fuss about maintaining the building as an asset exactly what that private sector interest might be.