Sunday, 25 September 2016

Council Leisure Centres undervalued by £7.9m....and other audit news

This time last year, the Wales Audit Office highlighted problems with the council's valuation of assets, overstated to the tune of £38m. This included three sports pitches overvalued by £19m. The WAO were so concerned that they considered bringing in their own valuer. It turns out that instead of taking things into their own hands, the WAO met with the council's internal valuers in April 2016 and came to an agreement as to how certain assets should be valued.

Moving forward to this year's audit, the WAO, whilst auditing one of the council's leisure centres found that this agreement hadn't been followed and, for whatever reason, the asset had this time been undervalued. The WAO looked at two more leisure centres and found the same problem. The total understated value for the three centres amounted to £7.9m.

In addition, when the WAO requested evidence to support various valuations of council assets, for example, council owned theatres, "there was a lack of appropriate evidence to support judgements made" and the council valuers had to "recreate file notes to explain the reasons for decisions made".

The significance of all this not only questions whether the council has the appropriate level of insurance for it's assets, but impacts on the Community Asset Transfer programme, are the valuations for our parks, playgrounds and sports pitches, now offloaded, or in the process of being offloaded, to local organisations, correct?

Then there's the plan, well on it's way, to put the entire Leisure department into a trust. The risks of backdoor privatisation are real enough without cock-ups in the valuation process...there lies the rocky road to asset stripping...

The WAO, for four years running, have been critical of the council's grant management procedures and the subject of highly questionable EU property grants, after languishing in the long grass for a couple of years, also seems to have reached a rather strange conclusion.

You may recall, back in 2014, that concerns were raised over 'Meryl's Millions'. As Exec Board Member for Regeneration, Cllr Meryl Gravell rubber stamped several large EU funded grants for speculative property development. These 'meetings' were usually very brief and held behind closed doors. Questions arose over due diligence and at least one of these grants was reported to the WAO by the council's Director of Resources just before he retired.

Cllr Meryl Gravell
To cut a long story short, the council have been bickering with the WAO ever since and the council has refused to accept the WAO audit findings into two of these grants (worth nearly £3m between them) which found "significant issues".

With the council refusing to accept the WAO audit findings, they, the council, decided that the Wales European Funding Office (WEFO) would audit these grants instead, as well as the final closing audits from these property development schemes, the South West Wales Property Development Fund and Adref.
Council documents from earlier this year showed that the WAO were no longer auditing the council's EU grants at all. It is not clear whether this was a result of a falling out, or if it was an unconnected decision.

The council's relationship with the WAO has been up and down to say the least and the chief executive's contempt for the organisation, and any other regulatory organisation for that matter, is clear.

Earlier this year, Plaid leader Emlyn Dole, on behalf of Mr James, questioned the qualifications of the appointed auditor who made such a mountain out of those darned illegal payments...the WAO gave, pretty much. a two word answer, the second being 'off'.
Cllr Dole and the Plaid group once made a mountain of it all themselves, but now, as we know, the price of power in Carmarthenshire is collective amnesia.

As WEFO is the EU grant funding body, it is part of the system, rather than the supposed 'protector of the public purse', and it is not perhaps in their best interests to uncover cans of European grant worms.
Unsurprisingly, WEFO found that aside from a few minor tweaks, there was nothing wrong.

Of course the subject of EU grants might become a moot point before long, but with failures over the Coastal Social Care grants, the Supporting People grants, the myriad of issues over Pembrey Country Park, unlawful payments etc, Carmarthenshire Council's audits should not only be entirely independent, but carried out by forensic experts.

Head of legal, Linda Rees Jones has been mulling over a request from the Audit Committee for the Chair to attend, just as an observer, the officers' Grants Panel. This request arose following the long running grant management failures identified by the WAO.

After nearly two years of mulling, (to be fair perhaps she's been busy attending to her boss's legal whims) she has decided that constitutionally this is completely impossible...which is strange as usually the constitution can be interpreted in so many different ways...ah but clearly, this is only when it suits...

Friday, 23 September 2016

Police Complaints logged

My challenge to the Police Information Notice, or 'harassment warning', (see The police visit Caebrwyn, and Challenging the harassment warning) and my complaints about the police investigation itself, are now logged with the Professional Standards department of Dyfed Powys Police, as below;

1. Lack of fairness and impartiality; 
Mrs Thompson is making a complaint in relation to a police investigation involving the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council. The Complainant states that she writes a blog which is critical of Carmarthenshire County Council and its decision makers as she believes these decisions benefit from further public scrutiny. 
This has resulted in the Complainant receiving a Police Information Notice (PIN). 
Mrs Thompson is unhappy at receiving the PIN and feels that this action has been taken by Dyfed Powys Police in order to prevent her from legitimately scrutinising the decisions and actions of the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council. 
2. Lack of fairness and impartiality; 
Mrs Thompson feels the investigation should have been transferred to another force due to a conflict of interest. To support this Mrs Thompson refers to a historical investigation against the Chief Executive, which was referred to Gloucestershire Constabulary due to the close working relationship between Dyfed Powys Police and Carmarthenshire County Council. 
3. Other neglect or failure in duty; 
Mrs Thompson is unhappy with the length of time taken to investigate. She feels the complaints made against her by the Chief Executive failed to meet the evidential test for criminal proceedings, and this should have been identified by the police earlier.

The logged complaint above does not reflect the point I made in my letter in that the course of conduct complained of by Mr James does not constitute harassment. Nor does it reflect my request for the PIN to be revoked and removed from the Police National Computer.

Therefore I will be corresponding further with the police, and I will take it all the way if necessary...

*  *  *

By way of an update to the decision by Mark James and the Council to pursue me for £190,390 in legal costs, the matter has now been transferred to Carmarthen County Court.

An Interim Charging Order was placed on my home earlier this year. Naturally, I objected to this charge being made Final and a judge in Manchester (where these things are now dealt with), has transferred this final decision to Carmarthen. I will find out within the next couple of weeks (after another decision by another judge) whether I will be allowed a court hearing.
I certainly hope so, as I have much to say...

With regards to Mr James' damages, (for which he also has a Charging Order) arising from his illegally funded counterclaim, I'm still waiting to see if he's accepted my offer of £1 a week, made at Carmarthen County Court at the end of July.
Seems to be taking a while...

News in care, schools and more

As mentioned previously, the council has decided to buy the Guildhall building in Carmarthen for £250,000. Despite the state of disrepair, and unknown refurbishment costs to this listed building it is indeed a historic feature of the town centre. However it came as something of a surprise last Monday to discover that our Plaid Cymru led Executive Board had used money from the social care budget to buy it.

According to a recent report on the capital budget, 'savings' on the construction of the new Extra Care home in Carmarthen left a surplus of £232,000. Without so much as a whisper to the rest of the councillors, this cash was used to buy the Guildhall.

The current year position on the social care revenue budget is an overspend of over £800,000. Now, money for capital projects is not supposed to used to support the revenue budget but there is no reason why 'savings' on the capital budget can't be used?
According to a recent report from the director of social care the ongoing cuts, with plenty more to come, are proving to be extremely challenging and the demand described as "relentless".
To take any money from the social care budget, capital or revenue, is simply wrong.

Although the Carmarthen and Ammanford Extra Care schemes are complete, there seems to be some delay over the same development promised for Llanelli. You may recall that the then Labour/Independent administration managed to conjure up £7m for the scheme to silence those opposing the closure of the council run care homes.
It's all gone a bit quiet but rumour has it that this £7m could now be funnelled into the ARCH Wellness village, with its private health care, luxury spa and business conference suites....

A saving, or 'slippage' of £400,000 was also made on the new Ammanford Extra Care home (let's hope no corners were cut)...the mind boggles where that will go. A life size bronze statue of the chief executive adorning the grand portico of the Guildhall?

Still on the subject of social care, the council are still ruminating over outsourcing the service by forming an arms length company, a Local Authority Trading Company (LATC) with particular thought to the remaining in-house home care services.
The reason why part of this service has been kept in house up until now, was due to the difficulties in persuading the private providers to cover the rural areas of the county, it's clearly not financially attractive nor profitable, in the business sense. If the current plans for back door privatisation go ahead then the same financial issues will apply and elderly and vulnerable folk in rural areas are likely to suffer.

Moving on to education, it seems that the new £23m, or £30m (depending where you read it) Bro Dinefwr super school on the Ffairfach swamp is having a few issues, I daresay the council would call it 'teething problems'. Several people have now told me that despite the best efforts of staff, long queues have resulted in pupils not having time to eat their dinner and there are also rumours of the need for portakabins for extra space.
It seems that the infrastructure of this state of the art school is insufficient to cope with the numbers. A multi million pound design fault perhaps. In addition, sandbags and pumps are also on hand should there be a shower of rain.

The issue of lengthy bus journeys for pupils from north Carmarthenshire has often been repeated in relation to the siting of the new school, and of course with the closure of village schools even our four year olds will became very familiar with the joys of bus travel. Let's just hope we don't get any snow this winter...

Local alarm bells rang earlier this year when Pickfords removal vans arrived at Pantycelyn to move the old furniture down to Ffairfach. Another shiny new school, some said, without enough money to run it. I needn't remind you that £12m is due to be slashed from the school budgets over the next two years.

Moving on, I must mention the increasingly slow publication of minutes from scrutiny meetings. Whatever the reason, and there is no such problem with the publication of press releases of course,
the council's state of the art website seems to be more cumbersome and difficult to negotiate than ever. For example, after two months, the minutes from the last Audit Committee were finally published. As a blogger, or an anorak, I rushed to see how the 'discussion' panned out on the latest draft Statement of Accounts. Ah, there was no 'discussion', it turned out that all queries had been ironed out in unminuted 'briefing' sessions earlier that week. I should've guessed.

Still on the matter of minutes, the new-fangled statutory Public Service Board, which replaces, in name, the unstatutory Local Service Board (representatives of local bodies, council, colleges, health board, police, etc which discusses strategies,,) also has an exiting new website called 'theCarmarthenshirewewant'.

One section screams 'GET INVOLVED' and includes a list of meetings since May, and there have now been three. The Agendas don't include links to any of the reports and no minutes have been published for the meetings.
With a nice friendly feedback form at the bottom of the page the temptation to GET INVOLVED got the better of me and I enquired about this lack of transparency. Over a week later I had a response, from the council, which informed me that 'The discussion on this has not yet concluded.  I will be speaking again to the Chair of the PSB and will get back to you as soon as possible."

Before I go a quick heads up for next week's full council meeting. It seems that Director of Children's Services and Education, and grim reaper of our village schools, Mr Rob Sully, handed in his resignation at the end of July. As this post attracts a salary of £135,000 per year (inclusive of pension contributions) there is a requirement to advertise the post nationally, unlike some of the more cosy arrangements which usually take place in County Hall.

Also featuring on the agenda are a couple of questions about the latest council led works at Parc Howard, Llanelli. Labour opposition leader (I use the word 'opposition' loosely) Cllr Jeff Edmunds is asking council leader Emlyn Dole about the procurement and tendering process, suggesting that, in fact, there was no proper procurement and tendering. Mind you, it needs to be remembered that it was the Labour and Independents, well, Meryl, who kicked off the whole business of selling off the family silver in the first place.

Cllr Edmunds is also enquiring about the lack of planning permission for the works and whether retrospective approval will have to be sought, still, I'm sure the Rev 'two barns' Dole will be prepared with an answer, having become something of an expert on retrospective planning himself....

Cilycwm by-election result

The results from the Cilycwm by-election were;

Dafydd Tomos - Plaid Cymru - 201
Arwel Davies - Independent - 151
Maria Carroll - Labour - 123
Matthew Paul - Independent - 106
Jacqui Thompson - People First - 64
Catherine Nakielny - Libdem - 62
Stephen Holmes - Conservative - 15

Turnout was 61%

As you can see Plaid Cymru took the seat but with such a wide field it was always a difficult one to predict. Well done all.

Many thanks to Sian Caiach and People First, and all who have supported me from the Cilycwm ward, and from everywhere's been a very interesting few weeks!

And there's always next May... 

Monday, 12 September 2016

Cilycwm by-election - Election statements

Sunday 18th September - just a reminder to voters, the by-election is on Thursday (22nd September), the polling stations are open from 7am until 10pm, the count will be in Llanwrda Village Hall and the result will be declared that night. Please #votejacqui!

* * *

With ten days to go until polling day here in the Cilycwm ward, election statements from myself and county councillor Sian Caiach are published below. The ward covers the communities of Llanwrda, Llansadwrn, Cilycwm, Siloh, Porthyrhyd, parts of Llandadog and Rhandirmwyn, and everywhere in between.
The count will be held at Llanwrda Village Hall on the 22nd September and with no less than seven candidates, it promises to be an interesting night.

Statement from County councillor Sian Caiach;
"Carmarthenshire County Council desperately needs new Councillors like Jacqui Thompson who represent the people rather than themselves or party interests. This Council has been shamed by Jacqui, as she has exposed waste,secrecy, paranoia and wrong doing in this body. Her efforts have been rewarded by the respect of many outside the Council but hostility and persecution by all of the 3 party political groups within Carmarthenshire council, Plaid, Labour and the Affiliated Independents.

They have all condemned her for her criticism as they have all been involved at one time or another in the unpopular and questionable decisions and service cuts which hurt the public but leave the local wealthy and political elites without inconvenience and sometimes personally enriched.

We need people like Jacqui, fearless champions  of ordinary folk, willing to speak out and not allow local issues to be dictated by the wealthy and powerful. The people must take back control from these nodding donkey Councillors who seem to care far too little for the people who elect them and far too much for the rich and powerful.

People First/Gwerin Gyntaf was formed  in Carmarthenshire in response to the lack of accountability, openness, integrity and honesty in the County Council. We believe in true representative democracy where the people are consulted and control their representatives, rather than Councillors making important decisions without a thought to the people affected. Jacqui will certainly put in the time and effort to help change this Council for the better. We are very proud to support her."

Statement from me, Jacqui Thompson
"I am delighted to be a candidate and to have the chance to represent all the communities within the Cilycwm ward. There is no doubt that this ward has had a raw deal from the County Council, from closing the last primary schools this year, to closing the local secondary school last year. If elected I would ensure that we have our fair share of money and resources, I won't sit back and watch it being funneled into white elephants and vanity projects at the expense of our essential local amenities and those most in need.

I'd be a wake up call to the county council, my reputation proves that I will not be silenced, and will make sure that all the interests and concerns of this entire community, are heard, with passion, very loud and clear!"

This week's article in the Carmarthen Journal

A question time event has been arranged for this Wednesday, 14th September at Llanwrda Village Hall, starting at 6pm. I understand that all the candidates will be attending.

Update 15th September; Five out of the seven candidates attended the hustings, an Independent and the Plaid Cymru candidate did not. There was a good turn out, good questions and plenty of discussion. It's heartening to see that this by-election has prompted considerable local interest which bodes well for a big change across the county council next May.

Text from 2nd leaflet (16th September)
Please also see my earlier post - A few thoughts on the Cilycwm by-election 

Friday, 9 September 2016

Keeping close to the nest

As regular readers will recall, rather than the lid being publicly blown open earlier this year, an internal audit report was commissioned which exposed serious flaws in the management of Pembrey Country Park. The report was presented to councillors as a two page summary with no details as to how exactly the mess, ranging from financial irregularities to tender rigging, arose in the first place.

Calls for the damning findings to be investigated by the police were rejected and it seems this scandal, which had been ongoing for a number of years, is still being investigated and kept 'in house'. No surprises there.

However, further evidence emerged in June this year, reported by the Herald, which suggested that there had been attempts by senior officers, at the time, to cover-up wrongdoing. This evidence included transcripts of recorded conversations, and one senior officer is heard demanding to know what information is held by a third party, adding "For f**** sake don't go to the police".

The report stated that it had been commissioned following the departure of the previous Director of Regeneration and Leisure in 2015 who's responsibility covered, amongst other things, Country Parks.

That Director Of Regeneration and Leisure was Mr Dave Gilbert OBE, who was also deputy chief executive and right hand man for Mr Mark James CBE, standing in for him when the latter was under criminal investigation by the police in 2014. The Executive Board Member with the equivalent portfolio at the time was Cllr Meryl Gravell, OBE

Mr Gilbert then became a Ministerial adviser to the Swansea Bay City Region Board, of which Cllr Gravell is a member. The Board, and particularly Meryl, is currently 'very excited' about the Council led (by 'council' I mean Meryl and Mark of course) project to funnel scarce resources into private health care and a luxury spa in Delta Lakes, Llanelli, the 'Wellness Village'.

However that's by-the-by, I was most interested, surprised even, to see that back in January this year, the former Director, Mr Gilbert, had been appointed as a non-executive director of Cwm Environmental Ltd, which manages the council's recycling and waste facilities, a service which is shortly to come up for tender.

Incidentally recent whispers have been heard of financial irregularities and senior sackings over waste management agreements in the council's environment department, including one linked to the Cwm Environmental site at Nantycaws. Again it seems that this matter will not go to the police as, it has also been whispered, the council itself has been a little over enthusiastic with the categories of waste it has been dumping...

Anyway, Cwm Environmental, you may be aware, manages these facilities as an arms-length company, and is wholly owned by the council, and whilst the role of non-executive director doesn't command a massive salary, it can certainly attract a very decent allowance.

It seems that sometimes, retiring senior officers are reluctant to stray far from the nest.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

A few thoughts on the Cilycwm by-election

Update 7th September; Carmarthen Journal;
Blogger Jacqui Thompson to fight election for Carmarthenshire councillor seat 

*  *  *
What prompts and encourages someone to stand as councillor? It is, or it should be, a desire to embark on public service and become a voice for the people you represent. It is this, the experience I have gained and the observations I have made which bring me to this point today. I conclude, from my observations over seven years, that this area of north Carmarthenshire has had a raw deal from the County council. It has largely been ignored. There are also wider issues, most notably the way the county council has, and is being run, which still needs to be addressed.

So where do I start. How about our councillors, the democratic wing of the empire. Let's go local, as it's by-election time. What happened to our local primary schools, to Pantycelyn secondary school? I have not spoken to a single soul who wanted these to close. Senior council officers had a plan though, and nothing was going to get in the way, least of all public opinion. The public believed that their local county councillors would champion their cause, instead there was a deafening silence. No passion, no threatened resignations if the school closed, no presenting public petitions, no bugger all in fact. And worse still, no one was the least bit surprised.

Let's go back further and consider the Parc y Scarlets fiasco. The same, a bit of flannel from the chief executive and like nodding dogs, the councillors ensured that the taxpayer became saddled with a vanity project which would never break even, let alone make a profit. The fact that the auditors had been called in to Mr James' previous stadium vision, in Boston, seemed to pass everyone by. And as for our local sports facilities, playgrounds and parks, they're being offloaded, charges increased and failing that, potentially sold off to developers.

I say everyone, that's not quite true, over the years there have been persistent, vocal campaigners, one or two councillors, most notably Cllr Caiach, of course. From protesting over the closure of care homes to trying to bring some element of scrutiny to the more barking mad decisions, ombudsman and audit reports, how have they all fared? Badly. Smear and division is the preferred tactic, supported by whatever puppet executive board is currently courting favour, and whoever can be bought with the promise of a special responsibility allowance.

Critics, not just me, have had their say, most recently it was the former police commissioner, Christopher Salmon who, after four years, reached the conclusion he'd been dealing with a "Sicilian cartel", not a county council, adding "It extracts vast amounts of money from residents which it showers on favourites, hordes property, bullies opponents, co-opts friends and answers to no one, least of all local councillors".The former lay member of the audit committee, Sir David Lewis also observed that the council's internal legal advice was "cavalier at best, incompetent at worst" .

Only yesterday, another candidate for this election, Matthew Paul mentioned the chief executive in the same breath as North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, this was published in the Herald, and the Herald itself hasn't minced it's words over the past year.

I have not, therefore, been the only critic of the council and manner in which the chief executive conducts business. One of the most bizarre incidents had to be the #daftarrest episode back in 2011, a perfect example of the misuse of power. Mr James called the police because I was quietly filming a meeting. On his authority I was only released from custody after I signed an agreement not to film any more meetings. I don't know who was more puzzled by the whole business, me or the police. They did contact Mr James some weeks later and told him, in so many words, that they wouldn't do his dirty work again.

But then, back in early April this year, they found themselves in the same position. With, I'm sure, more important things to do, they found themselves having to spend months trawling through some woman's blog. In the end they could do nothing more than give me a letter, which, I am now publicly challenging.

At the moment we're heading for Parc Y Scarlets Mark II, the funnelling of council money (and the already depleted resources of the NHS) into private health care and a luxury spa, the Wellness Thing. In classic style, no one was asked, no one consulted. And by no one, I mean you and me. Shiny plans and exiting artists impressions may pad out the pages of Mr James' CV for when he moves on, I'm sure the Boston Stadium plans impressed Meryl back in 2001, but it'll be a costly CV for the rest of us.

But still, the show rumbles on. The desperately dysfunctional Labour group made the unforgivable error of speaking out against a massive golden handshake for Mr James (there was an election round the corner). Sometime later Plaid mysteriously joined with Meryl and Pam as Labour crumbled. Plaid, up until that moment, had been a fairly vocal opposition, some of them were causing problems for Mr James, what better way of dealing with a problem than by bringing it into the fold, with conditions attached naturally, and in the case of Emlyn Dole, having your memory erased.

The Labour/Independent Group administration, responsible for the whole unlawful payments scandal, a private company having its debts cleared with public money, the mysteries of Meryl's grants, the chief executive's attempts to threaten and control the local press, the dire treatment of whistleblowers, the contempt for regulators, the snooping of emails, the cosy arrangements, and the spin....moved seamlessly into the Plaid Cymru/Independent Group coalition.

Council services from social care to leisure are being outsourced by the back door which will not only remove democratic oversight but will also see amenities which run at a loss, for example the swimming pool in Llandovery, quietly close. Massive cuts to education are on the cards, over £12m over the next two years. The council is in debt to the tune of £376m, (even more than me), and that costs £17.6m a year in interest, £100 per man woman and child in the county, per year. The top rank of senior officials costs £1.2m a year and that's without any legal expenses they may be inclined to incur.

Which all brings me back to the reasons for standing as a candidate. For instance, every penny of public money being poured into the latest addition to the Mark and Meryl Empire is a penny less to spend where it's needed, for example, in this very ward.
Someone, hopefully me, needs to fight our corner. Enough is enough.

I believe I have exposed much that is wrong with our democratic arrangements here and there, and shone a light now and again. As a result of my campaigning, meetings are now being webcast for one thing. I am what it says on the tin, to borrow Council leader Dole's catchphrase. No one, not even council by-election candidates can, or indeed should, promise to perform miracles, they can only offer to do their best and be open about themselves.
Funnily enough Kevin Madge had a catchphrase as well, waking up and smelling the coffee. It must be a Council leader thing, sadly Cllr Dole is wrong, things in County Hall are never quite what they are on the tin and Cllr Madge never really woke up.

As a candidate I am aware that the machine must keep turning, bins must be emptied and our children educated, and the issues I have with the council are by the by, I will sort them out in my own way. However, I feel that the Chamber needs new voices, and sometimes those that decide to play monopoly with your money should be held to account and ensure that everything is being done for the benefit of residents, and no one else, and most of all, if I am elected, for the benefit of residents of my area.
And the one thing I can promise, is that I will do it with passion.

(Later post 12th September 2016: Cilycwm by-election - Election statements

Monday, 29 August 2016

Cadno asks for answers - this week's Carmarthenshire Herald

Another excellent opinion piece from Cadno, in this week's Carmarthenshire Herald;

Cadno asks for answers 
Time is a great healer, or so the well-meaning lie goes. However, there are some things that the passage of time cannot heal. It is certain that once severed a leg will not regrow, while quite how UKIP and Labour will stitch themselves back together remains beyond Cadno’s confused vulpine mind. 
Even worse, readers, is the perception of injustice. 
Once something appears to be unjust, then there is very little that can be done to dispel the idea that injustice has taken place. It does not matter whether or not the act is unjust in and of itself, it is the appearance that matters. 
‘Justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done’ runs the well-known dictum, dating from an otherwise obscure case from 1924. In that case, the Clerk to the Justices did not disclose that he worked for a firm of solicitors involved in a civil suit arising from a road accident for which the Defendant, a Mr McCarthy, stood trial in the criminal courts 
The then Lord Chief Justice said that he accepted that: "the justices came to a conclusion without consulting the clerk, and that the clerk had scrupulously abstained from referring to the case in any way. But while that is so, a long line of cases shows that it is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done". 
It was the perception of potential injustice which resulted in Mr McCarthy's conviction being overturned. 
So, readers, the appearance of fairness is of fundamental importance. 
Pop quiz time, then, readers. Let’s exercise the old little grey cells. 
Imagine you are an ever so humble council employee. You rather foolishly publish come indiscreet comments and find yourself being sued for libel. You make an offer to settle the claim against when, spontaneously, your employer decides to indemnify you for defending the suit and funds a counterclaim. 
If your employer had not bankrolled either course of action, you would have apologised and coughed up costs and – in all probability – very modest damages. 
With the backing of your employer’s open cheque book and a very friendly judge, you win the case. 
You have received an award of damages, with the costs incurred the responsibility of your employer to recover. 
Now, readers, Cadno does not want to revisit the dead past. The judge made a decision, an appeal did not succeed. Whether or not one agrees with whether or not the decision was right, it is now final. 
In addition, the question of recovery of damages is, for Cadno, a dead letter. All Cadno can say is that a litigant who is aware, or who should be aware from previous correspondence that has passed between his solicitor and the losing party in litigation, that his opponent has no means to speak of is doing little more than racking up otiose costs by pursuing the matter in the effort to get blood from a stone. And one would hope, of course, that the costs for so doing are being borne by the successful litigant and not by his employer. 
And the same goes for costs, whether they are sought to be recovered by the litigant or the impecunious and unprincipled employer that acted unlawfully in bankrolling its employee, especially when he had offered to settle the case. Those offers to settle would have been done on the basis of what is called ‘the litigation risk’. That calculation is not only based on the likelihood of success in a particular action, but also the costs of proceeding to either prosecute or defend a suit. 
So, readers, we have laid the ground work, with which most of you will be familiar. 
Now, it is one thing for the defendant to feel aggrieved at the outcome of litigation. It is quite another for a successful litigant in a civil case to go running to the Police and make a complaint of harassment when the unsuccessful party draws attention to the way in which he conducts his employer’s business. 
Cadno eschews the suggestion that such a person is motivated by little more than petty vindictiveness and spite. That would unfair, as it would require the almost metaphysical step of peering into the soul of the person concerned. 
But what does it look like, readers? 
Does it look like the use of public authority to pursue a private complain? Does it look like bullying? In fact, readers: does it look like harassment? 
It isn’t, of course. It can’t be. But a reasonable person in possession of all the facts in the public domain could consider (but are not bound to conclude) that is what it looks like.
That is quite bad enough, but when one factors in a version of Lieutenant Columbo’s ‘just one more thing’, it looks far worse. 
Way back when Dyfed Powys Police was charged with investigating allegations of criminality involving direct payments made in lieu of employer’s pension contributions, it recused itself on the basis that it had a close working relationship with the local authority. Another police force investigated. 
How then, in light of that close working relationship, did it feel able to investigate a complaint made by the Chief Executive of that authority against a third party with whom he had been engaged in litigation? 
When that same question has been put – on more than one occasion – to Dyfed Powys Police it has refused to answer. So, Cadno has a challenge for Police Commissioner Dafydd Llywelyn: answer the question. And respond to the question below, as well, if you can: 
1. How can the public have confidence in the independence of the Police to act impartially if on the one hand they cannot act when an allegation is made against a public authority and a senior employee, and on the other hand are able to investigate a complaint made by the same senior employee against a third party, the same complaint arising from the third party’s criticism of the performance of that employee’s public duties? 
2. Do you think scarce public resources should have been committed to pursuing what - it could reasonably be suggested - is a private matter? 
Those questions are at the very centre of what it means when it is suggested that justice needs not only to be done but to be seen to be done. 
Over to you, Commissioner.
(Article republished with permission - Carmarthenshire Herald)

*  *  *

...And in case you missed it last week, here's the latest instalment from the occasional series, 'Council of Despair', by fellow blogger Cneifiwr.

And, from the 18th August, on this blog, The police visit Caebrwyn

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Jacqui Thompson - Candidate for the Cilycwm by-election

Just to say that I am standing as a candidate for the Cilycwm seat on Carmarthenshire County Council. The by-election will be held on the 22nd September and if elected I intend to be a very strong voice for the communities within this ward.

It looks like it might be quite a lively campaign, I've already had one political party threaten me with a dirty campaign if I didn't withdraw my nomination by last Thursday's deadline. Charming!


People First- Fighting For The
Gwerin Gyntaf Ymladd
Dros Y Gymuned

More in due course...

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Challenging the police harassment warning

Update 26th September 2016 - Police complaints logged

I would like to make it clear from the start that I have no problem with the police, I respect them for doing a very difficult job with very limited resources. It seems that not everyone takes this view, Mr James dumped his bag of dirty laundry on the doorstep of the chief constable and expected him to do a full Dot Cotton.

However, I have no other option other than to file a complaint. As it happens, this is also one of the only courses of action available to challenge a Police Information Notice.

So further to my earlier post, The police visit Caebrwyn, I have sent the following email, and hard copy, to Dyfed Powys Police to challenge the Police Information Notice (harassment warning) and file a complaint regarding the investigation.
If the response is unsatisfactory, I will take the matter further.
As for this blog, as I said in my previous post, it will be business as usual.

Here's my letter;

"To the Chief Constable
Dyfed Powys Police

Dear Sir,

I wish to make a formal complaint in relation to the Police Information Notice (PIN) issued to me by your force on Thursday 18th August 2016 and I am requesting that the notice is revoked without delay. The PIN reference is ACT/1094/18/04/2016/01/C.

I am also making a formal complaint about the manner in which Dyfed Powys Police conducted the investigation.

The PIN relates to allegations of harassment made via a complaint to the police by Mr Mark James. As I told the police officers who issued this warning notice, I deny categorically that these allegations constitute harassment in any form, the allegations are totally without merit.

I write a blog which is critical of Carmarthenshire County Council, and its decision makers, when I believe those decisions or actions would benefit from further public scrutiny.

I have a legitimate right to comment as a member of the public, and a Community Councillor, on matters which concern public decision making in a local authority.

The PIN is an attempt to stifle public debate and is in breach of my human rights, namely Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

I believe the complainant; Mr Mark James, chief executive of the council, has used the Police to serve what essentially an attempt at a civil injunction which has no right or means of appeal, nor is there, of course, a proper civil judicial procedure where I would have had the right to a defence.

This is an abuse of power by the police and the chief executive and interferes with my Article 6 right to a fair hearing. The fact that the PIN is kept on official police file for 14 months, this further interferes with my Article 6 rights.

With regards to my complaint about the police investigation, Dyfed Powys Police were called up on to investigate Mr Mark James and Carmarthenshire County Council in February 2014 following two Public Interest Reports from the Wales Audit Office. In that case, due to the close working relationship between the two authorities they passed the matter on to Gloucestershire Constabulary. In other words, there was a conflict of interest.

That same conflict of interest was present throughout the time that Dyfed Powys Police were investigating myself, on behalf of the chief executive of that same local authority, this year. The matter should have been transferred to an outside police force, neutral to both parties.

I am also making a complaint concerning the length of time the matter has taken. As I was informed by Mr James, via his solicitor, that I had been reported to the police in early April this year, I was aware of the investigation. This has caused me severe stress when it appears that the documentation relating to both complaints by Mr James were readily available.

Mr James' complaints, both harassment and perverting the course of justice failed in their entirety to meet the evidential test for criminal proceedings, and this is something the police should, and could have identified early on; police time has been wasted.

Please regard this communication as a formal complaint which I expect to be logged and treated as such.

Please acknowledge receipt of this email, which I am also sending as hard copy, and I look forward to your very prompt reply.

Yours sincerely

Mrs Jacqui Thompson"

Monday, 22 August 2016

The council and the Rainbow flag - this week's Cadno

This week's Cadno piece in the Carmarthenshire Herald takes a look at the council's continuing reluctance to fly the Rainbow flag; the symbol of equality, solidarity and inclusion for lesbian, gay and bisexual rights. During Pride celebrations and LGBT history month the colourful symbol proudly adorns the headquarters of most public bodies across Wales, including the Welsh Assembly.

As we discovered in February 2015, (see No fly zone for the Rainbow Flag), despite the council appearing in the top 100 of Stonewall employers, they refused to fly the flag to celebrate LGBT history month, this just happened to coincide with an unfurling and raising of the Duke of York's flag instead, as a birthday tribute. Wry commentators at the time wondered if this was to increase the odds of additional CBEs, OBEs etc being showered on the great and good of county hall.
It was established at the time that the council actually possessed a carefully folded Rainbow flag, pristine and unused.

Questions were raised by members of the council's own diversity group who were initially told that as the council had sooo many requests to fly flags for various groups, it flew none. Not a problem for the Welsh Assembly or other councils it seems.
A direct appeal to the chief executive met with refusal.

Move forward to February 2016, another mention in the Stonewall rating, and this time it was the Herald which enquired about the absence of the flag during LGBT month. The council 'had a procedure', the newspaper were told. Enquiries to other public bodies as to whether they too had 'procedures' were met with derision.

Cadno noticed that the flag was again absent from the turrets of county hall during recent Pride events held in the county. The Herald asked the council for an explanation last week and received no reply. The newspaper then learned via other sources, that the 'procedure' involved 'applicants' making a formal request twenty eight days beforehand to be considered by the Leader and Chief Executive.

Further enquiries were made, including the question as to why a procedure was necessary at all when other bodies managed without one. Again there was no reply, despite, as Cadno says "the council is well used to defending the indefensible, or at least unlawfully funding the defence of its officers", so he had expected a fairly swift response.

And as Cadno also points out the Council's Rainbow flag made a brief appearance over County Hall following the Orlando massacre, without any procedure at all. This, I noticed at the time, was prompted instead from a plea on Twitter, and presumably the threat of a PR disaster played out on social media.

Cadno then recalls the council's long standing indulgence of another organisation, the Towy Community Church and is reminded, that 'some rum religious types have inveigled their way into County Hall over the years'.

Regular readers of this blog, and Cneifiwr's, will be aware of the considerable support, around £1.4m, in land, loans and grants to the evangelical church bowling alley. One such grant was, as Cadno reminds us, 'almost simultaneous with a cut to the funding of a school for children with special needs' and featured, in March 2015, a visit by the council's executive board to iron out some planning difficulties and express a desire to bless them with a new boiler.

Cadno penned this piece at the time.

The Towy Community Church, as with some other evangelical groups, put their faith in the literal truth, the living word if you will, of the Bible and this includes elements, and links to other organisations which are at odds with the advancement of the inclusive society we cherish today. An additional bonus is that eternal conscious punishment awaits all non-believers.

It was on this basis that the council funded, and 'partnered' with the organisation back in 2011/12, relying on the church's own equalities policy rather than creating their own.
Requests for copies of correspondence between the two organisations were not just refused by county Hall, but resisted with particularly dogged determination.

Cadno concludes the piece by denigrating, naturally, 'any suggestion that those involved with the formulation of a policy in relation to the Rainbow Flag would - in any way - allow their personal beliefs to over come and affect the performance of their public duty...."

Thursday, 18 August 2016

The police visit Caebrwyn

(See also later post, 24th August Challenging the police harassment warning)

After four and half months I had a visit from two Dyfed Powys Police CID officers today. I was not arrested nor spoken to under caution. The investigation into perverting the course of justice has been dropped as the evidential test was not met. I am not surprised. As I suspected, this criminal complaint, which was also made by Carmarthenshire Council chief executive Mr James, related to the libel judgement of High Court judge, Justice Tugendhat in March 2013.

The judge, in 2013, made this finding on a balance of probabilities, and in a civil court. That 'balance' was not based on any factual evidence whatsoever and was made simply on the whim of the judge as to who he decided to believe. It was this finding, a total miscarriage of justice, which led to the withdrawal of my legal insurance.
There is further comment, an extract from my closing statement in 2013, on the sidebar of this blog.
I now feel completely vindicated.

In March 2013 a local paper asked the police if they were investigating me for this alleged offence following the judgement, the police said "they were not aware of having to do anything around this".
Clearly, at some point since April 2016, over three years later, the chief executive decided that they did.

As for the complaint of harassment, I was issued with a Police warning notice. This was for alleged harassment of the chief executive, entirely in respect of this blog. It is utter nonsense. The alleged harassment appears to refer, in the main, to my reference to the unlawful payments scandal and wider comment and opinion. This is not harassment.
The warning takes effect from today (18th August 3.15pm).

As this is not a legal notice nor a caution, there is no direct way to appeal it, or defend myself, however, I told the police that I did not accept the allegations, nor agree to any part of their 'warning'.

It will be business as usual.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Caebrwyn - In this week's Carmarthenshire Herald

Later post 18th August; The police visit Caebrwyn

As you can see from the front page, this week's Carmarthenshire Herald carries a couple of articles relating to Caebrwyn.
This opinion piece below which considers the current involvement of Dyfed Powys Police, is well worth a read, see also my previous post, Police investigation - where's it heading? which is now updated, and includes comments.

By Matthew Graham Paul
There is also a full report on recent, and not so recent matters relating to Caebrwyn, here;

Reporter; Pat Racher
The council has responded to a couple of questions put to them by the Herald...well, I say responded, a question concerning the (still) ongoing police investigation and whether the council were concerned that they themselves might appear 'excessively hostile to criticism' was quietly ignored.

In what appears to be a novel concept for our senior officials in County Hall, the council informs the Herald that it has a 'responsibility' to the taxpayer to recover the money.
Of course, had my name been Mrs Scarlets Regional Ltd, or Pastor Thompson of the Church of the Literal Word things might have been different. And anyway, as I have mentioned before, an early settlement had been on the cards until the opportunity arose for Mr James to be unlawfully bankrolled to bring the counterclaim.
I can only wonder at the mounting cost to the taxpayer of Mr James' very lengthy involvement of the police. I'm sure they must have better things to do than this...

In the opinion piece above, Matthew Paul quotes the words of the former Dyfed Powys Police and Crime Commissioner;
"It was not Jacqui Thompson, but the outgoing Police and Crime Commissioner Chris Salmon who very publicly described Carmarthenshire Council as being “Wales’ answer to a Sicilian cartel. It’s everywhere you look (thankfully only in Carmarthenshire – so far as I can tell). It extracts vast amounts of money from residents which it showers on favourites, hordes property, bullies opponents, co-opts friends and answers to no one, least of all local councillors.”"
Oddly there's still not a whisper about recovering the £41,000 unlawful counterclaim costs, yet. Perhaps they're reluctant to raise those scandalous skeletons in court, or at least until a few key players have departed.

They also state that the question of whether or not I have the means to pay £190,390 (plus Mr James' £30k+) will be 'something for the court to consider', despite already placing an interim charge on my home. Perhaps Mr James could pass his newly gleaned information on to his colleagues and let them know that although I have an elderly microwave, I don't have a video player or a dishwasher. Nor £220,000.

Update 17th August
Re previous post;
I have been informed by the chief constable's PA, via email, that I will receive a "full response" to my letter in "six weeks' time".
Obviously the letter from the chief constable (reproduced in my previous post) was not a full response, so what exactly is going to take another six weeks is anyone's guess...
The situation is becoming beyond ridiculous.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Police investigation - where's it heading? - Updated

Updates, 13th August and 17th August at the end of this post

As I have mentioned, I was informed, via Mark James' solicitors at the beginning of April this year, that he had made an allegation of harassment against me to the police.

I was further informed, on the 12th July, following enquiries made with the Police Commissioner's office that an additional criminal allegation of perverting the course of justice had also been made against me, at some point, and that "officers are currently carrying out an investigative assessment of the complaint details".

Four and a half months have now passed since April and we are now heading towards the middle of August, and so far the police have made no contact with me at all.

That letter, from April, also informed me of Mr James' intention of taking me back to the High Court alleging a complaint of contempt of court. Again, I have heard nothing, so far.

I do not believe there were, or are, any grounds for criminal complaints, in fact I find it ludicrous and believe that the actions of the complainant(s), and the use of the police in this way amount to nothing more than intimidation. This has gone on long enough.

I have sent the following email, and a hard copy to follow, to the Chief Constable of Dyfed Powys Police this morning;

Simon Prince, Chief Constable
Dyfed-Powys Police

Dear Chief Constable, 
I am writing in connection with Dyfed-Powys Police’s investigation into allegations of harassment and perverting the course of justice, which it is suggested I committed between January 2009 and April 2016.  
Your investigation began in April, and I have received no information as to its progress. I am unaware of the precise nature of the complaints, although I presume they relate to comments made on my blog, ‘Carmarthenshire Planning Problems and more’ concerning the activities of Carmarthenshire County Council and of its Chief Executive. 
I do not consider that there are any grounds to investigate me for these alleged offences. It is furthermore my view that the investigation is not being conducted expeditiously.  
I would therefore be grateful if you would provide answers to the following: 
i) Are you actively seeking any further evidence in the investigation? 
ii) If you are seeking further evidence, when do you expect your investigation to be complete? 
iii) Do you intend to send a file to the Crown Prosecution Service? 
iv) If you do intend to send a file to the CPS, when do you expect to do so? 
Your investigation is having a chilling effect on my ability to report the activities of Carmarthenshire County Council. 
If you are in possession of any evidence capable of supporting a case in respect of either of the alleged offences, it should be passed promptly to the CPS so that a decision can be made as to whether it passes the evidential or public interest tests. Otherwise, please inform me without delay that there will be no further action in respect of these complaints. 
Yours Sincerely,
Jacqui Thompson


Update 13th August

Response received today from the Chief Constable;

* * * 
This week's Herald features this opinion piece which is relative to the police investigation, and well worth a read.

Update 17th August
I have been informed by the chief constable's PA, via email, that I will receive a "full response" to my letter in "six weeks' time".
Obviously the letter above was not a full response, so what exactly is going to take another six weeks is anyone's guess.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Carmarthenshire County Council seat up for grabs - Cilycwm by-election - updated

*  *  *

Update 22nd August 2016 - Pleased to confirm that my nomination papers have been accepted and I am now a candidate for this by-election.
Vote for Jacqui Thompson!

*  *  *

A by-election is on the cards for the County Council seat of Cilycwm. The vacancy has arisen following the death of the sitting councillor and the first Notice has been published to request an election.

The 2012 local election result for Cilycwm was;

Jacqui Thompson - independent - 264
Matthew Graham Paul - Conservative - 136
Tom Theophilus - Independent - 307 (elected)

I will definitely be dropping a line to Mr James to request an election.....

The next local council elections across Wales will be held in May next year.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Wellness centre - or a luxury health spa?

With the summer hibernation descending on County Hall for the month of August, it seems there's no stopping the very, very exciting plans for the 'Llanelli Wellness Village'.  At a single Exec Board Member meeting tomorrow (Friday) the council will by-pass it's Contract Procedure Rules and commission design and engineering consultants Arup Ltd to create another masterplan for the project. This isn't any old masterplan though but a  "feasibly [?] and sustainable project specific master-plan".

Back in February Welsh Government minister Ken Skates provided £1m to develop an initial 'Scoping Report', also by Arup Ltd, with more funding announced at the end of June. This seems to be the funding for the latest masterplan, although the council report doesn't specify who is paying.

The report comments that Arup are well placed to create the latest document, which of course they are, but yet again, public money is spewing forth before a brick, even a wellness brick, is laid. This, unfortunately is par for the course these days, the Welsh government have paid £7m over the past few years to Arup (it could be any company) for various reports and appraisals over the M4 relief road without an inch of tarmac making an appearance.

With the project led by Carmarthenshire Council (which should be concerning in itself, and, as recently reported, can't even conduct a small scale catering tender properly), it was surprising that back in February, the chief executive claimed that it was unlikely that any decisions would be a matter for full council yet the land itself has already been gifted to the project.

A few months back the executive board agreed, behind closed doors, to enter an exclusivity agreement with a private company, Kent Neurosciences Ltd, locking out any other contenders to develop the project. Recent documents also show a £25,000 council contribution to the new project manager's salary.

When there is little in the way of detail, or even data, but merely an endless procession of concepts and visions it is time to take a closer look. A little scrutiny, a few facts and figures, and even a healthy dose of cynicism, can be useful at this stage, rather than waiting for the whole thing to go pop (god forbid), the mysterious investors disappear, the auditors being called in, and the council having to do a cover-up exercise like never before.

The only efforts so far have been from Councillor Caiach who asked Meryl earlier this year how much the council was likely to have to cough up - her question was ignored, and another councillor asked if it might possibly feature a care home for the elderly, the enquiring councillor was treated to a barrage of PR waffle when the simpler response would have been 'no'.

With so many 'partners' involved, including universities and our hard pressed health boards, it is difficult to determine what exactly is in store for the health and wellbeing of Llanelli or even Carmarthenshire. It's even more important that public money is wisely spent.

The council's own Special Planning Guidance for this Delta Lakes site included, unusually for such a document, the potential for private healthcare, and rarely has a project attracted so many press releases, so much visionary waffle, with so little substance.

The total cost has ranged from £60m to £100m. Therapy clinics, conference suites, a Wellness primary school, a Wellness sports and wellbeing centre are just some of the plans mentioned, and no doubt, just to provide the investors with a guaranteed income, 'wellness council offices'.

So who exactly is going to benefit should the project ever materialise? Will it be the residents of Llanelli as Mr Skates said, or will this in fact be a luxury health spa, merely creating low-paid jobs for locals who will ill-afford the facilities on offer? Who's economy is it likely to boost?

Aside from ARCH, the Swansea Bay City Region Board thingy, and indeed Carmarthenshire Council (or, to be specific.Mark and Meryl) there are other, more international organisations involved, notably the Global Wellness Institute which suggests its end use won't be for you and me.

At a 'Global Wellness Summit' held last year the managing director of Lisner Hospitality, specialising in the 'luxury wellness industry', and based in Austria, advised the 'team' early on to concentrate on the 'spa' concept, and the PR company for all things Global is Kyricos & Associates, a 'boutique advisory firm' providing 'strategic guidance to hospitality, tourism and lifestyle companies', based in Maine, USA.

Other 'Wellness' projects in the pipeline include one in China 'targeting the high-end Chinese community', one in Dubai and one in Tampa, Florida.

However, it is not private companies, nor private investment that should concern us, but the use of public money. With local Carmarthenshire health services stretched to their limits, and poverty levels requiring a record use of foodbanks, public cash in and around Llanelli is probably best spent on the basics rather than a speculative luxury spa destination.

Though to be fair, the Council chief executive has yet to make his usual, if inaccurate declaration, that the latest wheeze 'won't cost the taxpayer a penny', probably because it already has. (I am reminded here, amongst other things, of Cadno's poem from last October.... ). Vanity projects, and white elephants, don't come cheap.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Ombudsman tells 'brawling councillors' to behave in future - update from 2015

Back in April 2015 the Llanelli Star (article has now gone but I blogged about it here) reported that the police had to be called to a meeting of Llanelli Rural Council after an'altercation' between two councillors on the 8th April 2015.

The ladies concerned, Cllrs Tegwen Devichand (Lab) and Theresa Bowen (Ind) also happen to be Carmarthenshire County Councillors as well as rural Councillors.

At the time, in April 2015, Cllr Devichand was deputy leader, no less, of Labour/Ind led Carmarthenshire Council. Cllr Bowen had parted company from her Labour colleagues and had joined Meryl and Pam on the Independent benches.

The police took no further action but one of the ladies reported the other to the Ombudsman for breaching the code of conduct by 'blocking her pathway' and behaving in a 'threatening manner'. The Ombudsman, given the conflicting statements which suggested that both were quite possibly as bad as each other, decided to investigate both councillors on his own initiative and this was concluded last month.

The outcome was that even though the bust-up had occurred on rural council premises, neither had been acting in their 'public capacity' at the time and so the 'respect' and 'bullying' elements of the Code had not been engaged. Presumably, had they come to blows over the re-positioning of a litter bin, it would have been engaged.

Whilst he concluded that they may well have brought the council into disrepute, and warned them both about their future behaviour, it wasn't in the public interest to refer them to the standards board for further action.

In another case looked at by the Ombudsman last month it seems that Carmarthenshire Council are still having trouble apologising - it's always been an unnatural concept for the top brass at County Hall.

Due to the council's failure to repair a central heating system a gentleman went without heat in his home from October 2015 until February 2016. He complained to the council who apologised - 'Carmarthenshire style'. The Ombudsman clearly judged the apology to be inadequate and told them to try again, re-issue a proper apology, and give the chap £280 for his hardship during those winter months.

You may recall the council were rapped for failing to issue a proper apology to the Breckmans following a damning Ombudsman report in 2012, and in the same year were slammed by the Ombudsman for the way they handle complaints.
In February 2015, in another example, the Ombudsman again took them to task over their complaint handling, describing it as "very poor.... defensive and lacked objectivity", it was also 'inadequate and ineffective' .
Nothing changes....

Friday, 22 July 2016

Carmarthenshire Council enforce £190,390 legal costs

4th August; My objections against charging order being made final now filed with court and council.

Further to the Executive Board decision to pursue me for legal costs, I received an Interim Charging Order today for £190,390 against my home. I have 28 days to object to the Charge being made final. As I understand it, following any objection, and I will object, the matter will be then be decided by a judge, possibly at a court hearing. A hundred and ninety grand...
The Council have transferred these proceedings to Carmarthen.

Council chief executive Mr James already has a Charge on my home in relation to his damages of £30,913 and as I have already said, I have been ordered to attend court next week (on the 29th July - this linked post is now updated) to be questioned on my finances regarding this matter before a judge.

There has been no enforcement, to date, for the costs (£41,000) of Mr James' counterclaim, which was illegally funded.

As for other matters, Dyfed Powys Police are still assessing complaints made against me, and I have not heard anything, as yet, about Mr James' threatened High Court action for Contempt of Court.

Whatever happens, I'll fight to the bitter bloody end.

Further posts, for background, can be found on the sidebar of this blog.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Executive Board Agenda - Questions, budgets, Masterplans and the Guildhall - updated

Update 26th July
After a very lengthy meeting, most of which concerned the changes to Llangennech schools to Welsh medium, the Board voted to accept the council's proposals to be sent out to formal consultation. Each side of the argument will have a further say on the matter and the final decision will eventually be made by full council.

Following the inadvertent release of the Guildhall report it was decided to discuss this in public. The Board decided to buy the building for the sum advised by the district valuer, £225,000. The report, with the other options and implications, should now be published (or re-published) on the agenda.

I've heard that work on the new shower block planned for the Pembrey 'Masterplan' actually started a couple of years ago. Construction was stopped when it emerged there was no planning and no building control, and was stopped completely when the newly purchased boilers mysteriously disappeared... (See also Pembrey Park scandal - where does the buck stop?)

*  *  *

There's quite a packed agenda for our executive board councillors to nod through next Tuesday. The Member for education, Cllr Gareth Jones (Plaid) will be particularly busy as the raft of public questions, both for and against council plans to change Llangennech schools from bilingual to Welsh medium, deferred from June's Executive Board meeting, (see post here) have reappeared on the agenda and will be put to him.

The deferment was required as Cllr Jones had apparently gone to watch the Euro footie in France. A 'long standing arrangement' which, unfortunately or otherwise, hadn't been conveyed to the twenty-odd folk who turned up at the last meeting.

The answers will have been carefully prepared, particularly as a judicial review challenge has been mentioned by those opposing the plans, and the priority will be to control any potential outbursts, but whatever your take on this whole matter, it is refreshing to see members of the public exercising their democratic rights to speak.

Also on the agenda is a taster of the next budget which won't actually go through until next February so it's early days yet. There's plenty of time to chop and change but as signalled back in February this year, school budgets are in for a hammering. £6 million to be axed in 2017/18, another £6 million in 2018/19 and £3.4m in 2019/20. How this will impact on educational standards remains to be seen but at a rough guess, it won't be positive. Valuable teaching staff will be lost - there is a limit to how much can be saved through 'back office efficiencies'.

In general terms 576 jobs have been lost across the council over the last three years, 374 of them from the bottom rung of the pay scale and exit packages have cost a total of £11.2m. Out of the 374 (which accounts for £2,4m in exit packages) 142 have been compulsory redundancies.

On the subject of education I took a brief look again at the 'Education through Regional Working' website, ERWs being the regional education 'consortia' of officials and councillors, and the relevant body in these parts covers Carms, Pembs, Ceredigion Swansea, Neath Port Talbot and Powys. A brief delve into the minutes show a great deal of talking, and, surprisingly, given the topic, several spelling mistakes...I noticed, for example, there were numerous 'observors' at these meetings.

Presumably these regional arrangements were a Welsh Government precursor to council mergers which are now on the back-burner, in the short term anyway, so each authority is still a Local Education Authority. As with any extra tier of government the ERW is a multilayered organisation of bureaucratic expense and its main existence seems to be as a vehicle to dish out the WG education cash to its constituent parts.

Prior to the ERW, this money was paid direct to each LEA but now there's an additional layer of middle men and red tape. It's not cheap either costing over half a million to administer per year, In last years accounts, the figures included a Managing Director on £70k and another unnamed employee on £100k. £221k was also shelled out on consultants.

Another purpose of the ERW is to improve, or at least maintain, educational standards and a network of Challenge Advisers are employed to support and monitor local standards.  This is on top of each councils' own scrutiny committee. The challenge advisers are not employed by the ERW though but by each local authority.

Carmarthenshire is currently advertising for three of them (£55k - £58k pa) though have limited this to internal applicants only. Perhaps this arrangement will provide an opportunity for those senior teaching staff displaced by the council's mammoth education cuts. Personally I'd prefer teachers in the classrooms to 'challenge advisers' with clipboards.

Back to the agenda and what better way of persuading people to forget about dodgy deals, clandestine meetings, hidden agendas, cover-ups and alleged corruption, (see previous posts), than a Masterplan or two.

The future visions for Parc Howard and Pembrey Country Park are reproduced in glorious glossy technicolour graphics. £150k has already been dug out of the reserves for the play area at Parc Howard, much to the surprise of town and county councillors who have been told that the council can't afford to maintain their own local playgrounds so they must take them over, or else...It was an 'exceptional circumstance' apparently. No one begrudges a playground but the rest of the vision appears to be highly dependant on private investment so let's hope things are a little more transparent this time round...

The plans for Pembrey park are even more visionary with the estimated cost put at £1.5m, but unfortunately there's only £80k left this year after some emergency work. Again, 'sympathetic' private investment is required. Again, given the scandals, and the mess over a relatively small catering tender,  the words brewery and p***up spring to mind. See also my previous post.
I suspect, in the long run, the dreams of Mark and Meryl and their Grandmasterplan will be realised... it's just a roundabout way of getting there.

There's a small but quiet hint of what's to come with regards to the Wellness Centre, or Wellness Shed, as Cadno recently dubbed the project with a £25,000 'contribution' to the project manager's salary. So far none of the payments to this project have to be signed off by the council, just Mark and Meryl by the look of it. Exactly how many £millions will be involved remains to be seen..

Finally I must mention the report on the council's prospective purchase of the Carmarthen Guildhall. Obviously this grand old building, the former court, is a central feature of the town and calls have been made for the council to buy it from HM Courts. The report appeared on the agenda for about 20 minutes until someone decided it should be exempt and discussed in private. However,  the deletion wasn't complete and, at the time of writing, it still remains on the full report pack.
I have kept a copy if anyone's interested, and in case it disappears completely.
(Update 17:41 - after 24 hours online, the report has now been removed and is a 'restricted' document)

The decision whether or not to buy the Grade 2* listed building, for £225,000, is up to the Executive Board only, not full council but the cost implications (running costs estimated at over £100k per year), options, potential uses and negotiations should be of general interest. I particularly favour the option to turn part of it into a police station, with bars on the windows to boot, combined with council offices...preferably the chief executive's...

The report adds that HM Courts "claim" (sounds like the council don't believe the courts) to have spent £1m on refurbishments since 2009. It does seem a little incredible and appears to have amounted to little more than a lick of paint, a bit of polyfiller and some rewiring. It sounds like it could actually do with a new roof. The costs could be astronomical.

The disability access is poor and the restrictions from the listing and involvement of CADW could prove problematic as well as lengthy. Various council owned historic artefacts are currently in the building and in danger of damage, these would have to be removed and stored.

But it is certainly a grand old building and a historic centrepiece of the town and, as the report states, HM Courts might go and sell it to someone "unscrupulous" (there's irony there folks) and, more to the point, there might be "public criticism" if they don't accept the valuation and go ahead with the purchase. For those who cherish the Guildhall, even with the potential cost in capital and maintenance, the other option, to hold out until HM Courts, out of desperation, accepts the council's lower offer, might be a gamble too far.

An interesting one to watch and given its inadvertent publication, maybe it'll be put back on the open agenda and considered in public.

Guildhall, Carmarthen

Monday, 11 July 2016

Pembrey Park scandal - where does the buck stop?

Update 13th July at end of this post.

Previous post; Pembrey Park scandal - an update

The council's Audit Committee met on Friday and discussed, amongst other things, the Pembrey Country Park scandal. It wasn't called that of course and appeared on the agenda as the innocently titled 'Coastal facilities'. The Audit Committee is not webcast (it should be) and so filming/recording is banned, however a short report has appeared in the Llanelli Star.

As I have mentioned in my previous post (link above), there is an opposition question from Cllr Jeff Edmunds to Cllr Dole on this very topic scheduled for Wednesday's (13th July) full council meeting, which will be webcast. Worth a watch perhaps although there has been plenty of time to script the response... (Update 13th July below)

The Head of Leisure, Ian Jones, presented the damning report on Friday and appeared to blame the chaotic failures on cutbacks and departmental restructuring. On that basis we can expect similar reports from every other council department. The 'lessons had been learned' line was trotted out and one middle manager has been suspended pending an investigation.

Whatever happens next, the most significant aspect of all this remains the fact that the 'issues', ie possible fraud and blatant breaches of nearly every policy and procedure, were flagged up long ago but were never acted upon, and as the Herald revealed, were actively covered up by senior officers. The internal audit report was commissioned following the retirement of the previous director.

The Star article quotes Cllr Bill Thomas (Lab) who demanded to know who was responsible and said that given that this was one of the worst example of corporate failure he'd seen, the buck stops with the Head of Leisure. Cllr Thomas, being one of our more outspoken councillors, has the dubious honour of being a subject of the Mark James Intelligence Service and have his own file in the presidential suite.

During the time which encompassed many of the 'historic issues', the Country Park was also under the general responsibility of the Director of Regeneration and Leisure, Dave Gilbert OBE, he is now an adviser to the Swansea Bay City Region Board. He was also the deputy chief executive of the council, with all that that might entail...

We know, of course that the buck actually goes higher than a mere Head of Department, or even a Director; as I said, it's the failure to act on earlier warnings, and attempts at cover-up, which is so damning. This was corporate knowledge. and to say that this knowledge didn't go right to the very top is simply laughable. In addition, the entire Pembrey peninsular, including its 'coastal facilities' have been the subject of one of Mark and Meryl's numerous 'Masterplans' which now includes the hiving off of leisure facilities to an arms length trust.

Incidentally this all seems to have happened (along with the pension and libel indemnity scandals) on the watch of Head of Law/Monitoring Officer Linda Rees Jones, who's appointment was made permanent in a curious interpretation of the constitution, ie, hand picked by the chief executive.

Heads tend not to roll in the corporate fortress of county hall, no matter what. From illegally bankrolling lawsuits to tax avoidance pension scams to shortchanging the taxpayer to benefit a private company. From snooping on councillors emails to emasculating the democratic process into an officer-led toxic culture. From threatening the local press to economising with the truth when speaking to them. To name but a few.

The only heads to roll are those belonging to the people who blow the whistle, those that criticise. or those that uncover something nasty in the woodshed...

Update 13th July;

Cllr Dole responded to Cllr Jeff Edmunds' question to full council by saying it would be inappropriate to comment whilst an internal investigation into a member of staff was taking place.

Cllr Edmunds' supplementary question enquired as to the fate of the whistleblower, to whom they should all be grateful, and the current situation regarding their employment. Cllr Dole merely repeated his first response.

Cllr Dole's response was to say as little as possible, a classic council PR exercise in containment....
There was no further discussion. Discussion is possible at the discretion of the Chair but this never happens. For 'Chair' read 'Chief Executive'.