Friday, 30 September 2011

In the Shadows of County Hall

I have, over time, whilst trawling through council documents and agendas noticed mysterious 'referrals' from the 'Business Management Group'. It sounded, by the title, to be like some sort of financial advisory team and I gave it little thought. A few weeks ago though it came to my attention that it is actually a rather select group of party leaders and senior officers of Carmarthenshire County Council who conduct regular meetings and make decisions and recommendations. There are, apparently, no minutes, just 'decision notes' and they report to the equally 'select' Executive Board.
Not only does this group appear to operate independently of full council but, as Cllr Sian Caiach points out, it is possibly discriminatory, not even representative of all the groups and Members. Neither does it appear in the Political, nor the Organisational Management Structure sections of the Constitution. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that yet again the undemocratic way this council is run is brought into question.

Cllr Caiach has made a complaint to the Monitoring Officer;

"I would like to make a complaint about the Business Management Group who appear to be a body which is not constituted as part of the Council. This group's composition appears to be officers of the council and the leaders and deputy leaders of the three large political groups and excludes my own small group and other unaffiliated independent members. I do not know how and when and by whom this group was formed but I have never been invited to a meeting or contacted for my opinion on the matters discussed.

I believe this group acts in a discriminatory fashion as it does not consist of representatives of the whole council body and makes recommendations and decisions without consulting or being answerable to the members outside the main groups.

I am told there are no minutes, only decision notes and the group reports to the executive board.
All participants in this group are supported by public funding.

Clearly there is always concern where political groups and officers meet in a manner which excludes other elected members. This disenfranchises not only the members concerned but also their electorate. It gives unfair advantage to the large political groups and does not consult beyond the membership of those groups.

You do not need to be reminded of human rights legislation as it applies to representative elected bodies. The Human Rights Act 1998 Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) is quite clear that there should be no discrimination against person or persons on the grounds of their politics or that they are a minority.

It appears to me that this group could be practising misfeasance in public office by limiting its membership in a discriminatory manner. Please investigate this complaint.
Leader, People First Group
cc Public Service Ombudsman (for information)
    District Auditor

Update; 5th October; 

Thursday, 29 September 2011

What's a few £million?

The next meeting of the Audit Committee will be 'signing off' the council's accounts, drafts of which were prepared earlier this year. An entry for Cwm Environmental Ltd caught my eye. This is a subsidiary waste management company of Carmarthenshire Council running as a private concern and registered as such at Company House. Anyway, under the inoccuous heading 'Summary of corrections made to the draft financial statement' (by the Wales Audit office) was this;

"Value [of correction]; £4,639,000
The net assets of Cwm Environmental Ltd disclosed in the draft financial statements were amended from £351,000 to £4,990,000"

(link to report)

Now I am not an accountant but even to me this seems an alarming 'correction'. To explain the significance of the £4.6m difference I did the sensible thing and asked an accountant. A quick glance at the last set of accounts of Cwm Environmental (December 2010) clearly shows the net assets as £4,990,000 and this is the figure that Carmarthenshire's accountants should have used - we can only wonder where the figure of £351,000 came from - perhaps they haven't looked at the accounts of their subsidiary for several years? Who knows.

The other point is, does it matter? Well for a 'correction' of this magnitude to be necessary one wonders how many other 'errors' go unnoticed. And is it material to the Council's income? According to the audit office this amount is under the figure they deem material, ie which could mislead the reader or have an adverse effect; their limits are £5.7m for income/expenditure items and working capital balances and £14.5m for other balances (other issues such as legal requirements or political sensitivity are also considered)
So that's that then, even if, at nearly £5m, it's nearly 8% of the projected council tax reciepts for the forthcoming year. It seems material to me. But what's a few million?

My friend would like to know, and so would I, how on earth such an easily verifiable material error has been overlooked by both Carmarthenshire Council's own finance staff and the Auditors until now??

And another excellent post from Y Cneifiwr; Culling the White Elephants - An Armchair Auditor Writes which includes yesterday's press release from Mr Pickles and the Council code for England;

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Round of Golf? That'll be £200k please...and other news

I see from today's Carmarthen Journal that the council have finally, after a year, managed to offload the failing Garnant Golf Club after rejecting 23 other offers. It hasn't come cheap and will cost the taxpayer £200,000 over three years;

'as part of its 25-year lease, Clay's will not pay rent for six years, and give back a percentage of the profits after that. The council is to pay the company £80,000 a year for the first two years, and £40,000 the third, which is what it estimates running costs at the club will be'

It makes you wonder what possessed them to build it in the first place but that was back in the heady days of 1992  - maybe there are more appropriate places than the golf course to conduct council business these days - rugby stadiums perhaps?

I see that our Council Leader, Cllr M Gravell is fretting about the £2 million overspend in the social care department. So concerned is she that she is taking the unprecedented step of appealing to the Plaid group in the council for 'ideas' on how to deal with it. So unprecedented is this plea that one feels slightly suspicious that political tactics are afoot. With Meryl's worries that Plaid may make gains in next years local elections, and the retirement of Executive Board member Cllr Hugh Evans announced today, her hold on the Executive Board may be under threat - what better way to avoid such a catastrophe than to lovingly embrace the opposition in preparation for another Meryl Gravell administration. Maybe a better deal on the golf club may have helped or perhaps a rethink over the £200,000 going to the Botanic Garden over the next couple of years or even the £1m to the evangelical bowling alley. To name but three.

The continuing pattern of offloading council services by bunging a few quid in the direction of community councils or the 'third sector' (or 'local volunteers' as they're known) continues apace. As they wash their hands of the public toilets, the elderly day centres, luncheon clubs and the libraries (and credit goes to local people who have taken over the responsibilites)  it looks, from the next education scrutiny meeting, like the mobile library service could be under threat. I do not doubt that a review of the service is probably a good idea - to make it better of course, but once they use words such as 'streamlining' and 're-structuring' you can guess what's happening;
'There are currently five mobile libraries within the fleet; continued sustainability at the current level will need to be considered'. And there's that word 'sustainable' again.
Personally, I don't think Carmarthenshire County Council, in it's present form, is sustainable - but who listens to me...
It would be a pity in this largely rural county with it's scattered remote hamlets to lose a service like this. I am sure they are aware of their legal obligations under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 to '..provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof...'
There's a several legal challenges to library closures around at the moment and I am sure the council wouldn't want that.

I though perhaps Carmarthenshire Council may have celebrated International Right To Know Day by answering my most recent FoI request. Already two weeks late, it looks like I'll have to wait a few more days. But I have just heard my Subject Access Request is complete, (for information held about myself) but because of the quantity, I have to go to County Hall to pick it up, I shall go on Friday. Something for the weekend.
The subject of the FoI is to request the registers of business or other interests for senior council officers. Such openness is of course vitally important to ensure that the public have faith and trust in those charged with spending our money, there's nothing like a national scandal involving 'vested interests' to further erode the remaining scraps of faith lingering in our establishments.
My FoI request is not to 'expose' wrongdoing, but to continue to encourage an embryonic culture of openness, progress is being made in a scattering of English councils including Leeds amd Bolton. How much happier I would be to know that all is above board to start with, when, for example, the Council embark on their latest search for several construction firms to join the £100m four year 'framework' agreement; and delegated power is given to officers to award Assembly/euro business investment grants to the tune of £35,000 rather than, as previously, £5000.

I have been meaning to mention for some time just how lucky this council is compared to the London Borough of Barnet with it's small army of determined bloggers trying, with considerable success, to winkle out the usually elusive concepts of transparency and accountablility from their local authority. At least they have the presumption of 'localism' and Pickles-style council 'transparency' agenda on their side - something we could do with in Wales. Anyway, Carmarthenshire Council have little to worry about - so far. There are only a couple of us at the moment and they managed to have one of us locked up...and then locked out. Let's all take a lesson from the feisty Barnet bloggers and get writing!!
I particularly like Mrs Angry's letter to Mr Pickles; If you're interested, have a search for them and be inspired!

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Democracy in Action

Well, I was very pleased with the Petition Committee's response to my petitions. (Filming meetings and publishing spending details over £500) Further evidence has been sought for both from the Minister for Local Government, Carl Sargeant which will be available by the 3rd November.
The Committee members recognised the significance of both petitions to bring further transparency and openness to local government and, if nothing else were considered 'sensible'. Good!
The Chairman stated that he had supported the Statement of Opinion previously signed by 15 Assembly members regarding filming. The success of Senedd TV in promoting accessibility and transparency of Assembly business could be mirrored accross Wales. Importantly the issue of free re-use of the material was recognised in bringing proceedings to a wider audience.
It was also recognised that the two petitions complemented each other; not only would people be aware of what is being spent but would also be able to see local authorities spending it (to a degree).
And the benefits of livestreaming? - I didn't have to go to Cardiff, I didn't have to wait two weeks for the 'minutes' and I could sit here with my coffee and watch democracy in action! Later on the meeting will be archived and I will be free to embed the video on my blog - which I will do.
Can't be bad.
I look forward, with slightly more optimism, as to how this will progress.

Here's the Meeting, my petitions start at 6 minutes 35 seconds into the proceedings;
or just click on the picture above.

(Have just done brief interview with Radio Carmarthenshire, to be broadcast (perhaps) at 1pm)

September 28th Carmarthen Journal; Council film plea debate

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Council Tax Protest

Following my August post 'Too close for comfort', the lady concerned, Tessa Finch from Kidwelly is persevering with her battle against the development overlooking and overshadowing her home and in fact, her life.
She has now contacted Carmarthenshire Council and stated that she is withholding her Council Tax payments until her property is re-valued to a Band A. She is prepared to fight this through the courts if necessary.
She holds Carmarthenshire's Planning and Enforcement department responsible for approving plans clearly at odds to the actual siting of the building. Further investigation by the department decided that it was 'in the right place' and that it was (with a spectacular example of buck passing) the Ordnance Survey maps which were wrong. Ms Finch suggests that, had the development been built on top of her home (which it very nearly is), obviously then they couldn’t argue that it should be allowed to continue as it was the fault of inaccuracies in the Ordnance Survey map!
She is currently trying to establish which senior planning officer was responsible for 'signing off' both the plans, and the enforcement decision.
All the best to Ms Finch.

In case you missed it here is Y Cneifiwr's take on last week's decision by Carmarthenshire's Planning Committee to grant permission for a large supermarket development in Newcastle Emlyn;
Big business - 1 small community - 0

Monday, 19 September 2011

Petitions now closed...but my efforts continue..

Just to say that my two petitions to the Welsh Assembly closed today. As I have mentioned, numerous times, one was to require Councils to webcast public meetings and allow members of the public to film and record meetings. The other was for local authorities to 'Publish spending details over £500'. Many thanks to all who signed. Both will be considered by the Petitions Committee at the Senedd on the 27th September. Hopefully the meeting will be live-streamed by Senedd tv so I will be able to see what is said - a good advert in itself for the first petition.
Whatever the outcome of the petitions I would like to say that theAssembly Petitions Office have been very helpful, have hosted the petitions well and even promoted them on Twitter towards the end. Kudos to them and perhaps our Councils could now consider hosting epetitions on their sites? as per the requirements of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009?

Hopefully, if nothing else, the issues over filming meetings and publishing data will further promote debate and action with regards to all aspects of transparency and accountability throughout Wales. Councils differ in their approach and levels of openness but of course I speak from the experiences I have had here in Carmarthenshire. Which, to be honest, is dire.

There are no signs of any improvements either. My previous post, 'Carry on Council - the farce continues' mentions today's Executive Board meeting (19th Sept) where, yet again the Constitution is being tinkered with, giving further powers to the Chief Executive, there are also changes to the delegation of power to the Head of Planning (I have heard further rumours of the present post holder's imminent retirement, but have heard this before...) and the referral of planning applications to the Planning Committee - this has been expertly covered by Y Cneifiwr here.

As many Welsh Councils make tentative steps to open up meetings, decisions, spending, etc it appears that our entirely unaccountable and officer-led Carmarthenshire Council is reverting to the Dark Ages. I also note that my latest Freedom of Information request, mentioned here, is now delayed, apparently they will answer it when it is 'practically possible'.

My efforts to bring transparency, accountability and democracy to Carmarthenshire County Council shall continue.

Single Status Struggles

(please see today's update further down this post)
Further to my previous post, 'New pay proposals - resistance growing...' I copy below a letter (which I have anonymised) from a member of the support staff at a large comprehensive school in Llanelli sent to all Carmarthenshire County Councillors last week. It concerns the new single status and job evaluation proposals. As I said before I am aware that this is a delicate and difficult issue for all concerned but for such fears to be expressed so late in this process clearly indicates that further negotiations between management and staff are paramount;

Dear Councillor
I am the longest serving member of the support team at *** School and I write to you, as a county councillor in respect of a recent letter the support staff have received from Carmarthenshire County Council regarding Single Status.
The County Council Management are proposing to unilaterally alter wages and terms and conditions of service under the Single Status agreement without full consultation and agreement with unions and employees.
All members of our admin team and many other members of staff at the school have lost a considerable amount of money, some of them, thousands of pounds – these are people who are not highly paid, have worked for the school for years, always gone the extra mile allowing the school to run smoothly. Letters were sent to our homes for us to open when we returned home from work on Friday night 2nd September, many people spent the weekend distraught worrying about how they were going to meet mortgage payments, household bills etc.
At the same time many of the offers have inconsistencies in them such as incorrect job titles, incorrect scorings, incorrect hours - some people have still not received their pack so are unable to even begin assessing their situation.
Yes, there is an option to appeal, but surely the obvious errors should be put right first.
The Council is insisting that we sign the agreement by 30th September or we will forfeit the £1000 plus £250 sweetener awarded to gainers, losers will lose the offer of compensation (they have not been offered the extra £1000 sweetener).
The method of Job Evaluation used is not able to address the functions of staff in schools where it is commonplace for them to take on multiple roles and it would appear that the assessments are only reflecting the lower skills. Also, it varies greatly from school to school as to skill levels required within individual roles.
In short, the loyal, long, serving support staff at the school feel they are being bullied into accepting this agreement.
I hope you find this situation as appalling as I do.
I understand that there is a full council meeting this week and I ask that you and your fellow councillors ask that the matter of Single Status be reviewed, that the Chief Executive reopens negotiations with the unions and most importantly that the 30th September deadline is extended to allow time for all the errors, anomalies and inconsistencies to be rectified so as employees can make a balanced, rational choice.
I trust I may rely on your support in this matter and look forward to your early response.
Thank you for support

There are worries, for example, that even those who stand to gain from the changes will, on close inspection of the small print, realise their terms and conditions have been attacked meaning they will lose out anyway.

The Carmarthenshire branch of Unison issued this message on the 16th September;

"Today, Paul Thomas (Assistant Chief Executive) sent an email to all staff.

It urges you to hurry up and sign.

UNISON’s advice still stands: this scheme may be unlawful.
Don’t rush to sign away your terms and conditions, or
your right to bring an equal pay claim against your employer.

UNISON, Unite and GMB meet the Chief Executive next Wednesday
to discuss Job Evaluation issues, including;

 - employees not seeing the job description they have been graded for
 - employees not seeing the local conventions used to grade jobs
 - not seeing a sample of the COT3 agreement
 - a clear explanation of how the COT3 will affect your employment rights
 - the short amount of time you have been given to consider your position.

Job Evaluation has been going for over ten years. But the Council gives you
less than a month to decide to sign away your rights.

Many councillors are concerned over these timescales and how cuts
in wages and terms & conditions will affect lives.

The Labour Group has expressed its fears to the Chief Executive.
They have asked for the deadline to be postponed.

And it’s not just councillors. MPs Jonathan Edwards and Nia Griffith and
AM Keith Davies have all made a statement.

To quote Llanelli’s MP, "Staff feel they’re being bullied into signing. They
have had less than a month, which is just not long enough for everyone
to have the chance to take advice and
think about the implications."

UNISON urges you not to rush into signing your rights away.
Support the unions and an increasing number of county councillors,
in calling for the deadline to be postponed for two months and for the
Council to meet with trade unions and councillors to discuss a
more equitable way forward.

UPDATE 19th September;

I have copied below an email sent this morning from senior council officers to all County Councillors urging them to refuse to help any members of staff who may come to them with their concerns over the new proposals - it even includes a draft letter for them to use to refuse any requests. How such advice conflicts with the right of residents to contact their elected representatives I have no idea.

"Dear councillor

You may well receive communication from individual members of staff seeking your assistance with their results under the job evaluation scheme.

We are aware that one of the trade unions at least has prepared standard letters for their members to send to elected Members. I know that some Members are also being asked to attend meetings with groups of staff (for example, in your role as a school Governor). I have provided text for a standard letter of response which you may find useful as a basis for your reply if you so wish, below.

Please be aware that the authority has a duty to treat all of our employees equally. At the moment they have all been assessed in exactly the same way by independent panels of officers who have been trained in how to use the agreed evaluation scheme. The trade unions were involved in these panels also.

If elected Members seek to become involved and to influence the outcome in favour of some staff, when others may not have had this same facility, the independence and fairness of the process will immediately come under challenge. The authority - and individual Members - could be subject to complaints in these circumstances.
This is particularly the case since, as elected Members, you are effectively the ultimate employers of all our staff.

I should point out that we as Chief Officers need to exercise just as much caution. Directors and Heads of Service have not carried out the assessments. They were undertaken by independent panels, including trade union representatives. Chief Officers are not responsible for individual assessments because consistent, fair treatment for everyone requires independence and the certainty that the same approach is taken in every part of the authority. We too have to ensure that we could not be accused of favouring some groups of staff over others.

We have a responsibility to ensure that this fair, equal and consistent treatment for every single employee is maintained.
Please also be advised that there is a danger that if you give advice to an employee and they subsequently feel that this advice was wrong and disadvantaged them that you could well find yourself subject to a complaint.
I hope this information is of assistance and I do appreciate that these contacts from staff may put you in a difficult position. If you need any further information or advice please do not hesitate to ask."

Draft letter:

Thank you for your letter regarding your Job Evaluation results.
I am afraid that as individual councillors we are not able to assist individual employees or groups of staff in the process. All jobs must be assessed by an independent panel who have been trained in the assessment scheme. If individual councillors were to start to engage in dialogue with individual employees or groups of employees, or seek to influence the results, then it could call the whole exercise into question. The entire purpose of job evaluation is so that everyone is assessed equally and fairly. Once individual councillors seek to interfere in this process on behalf of some individuals or groups of staff that independence and fairness is lost.
You will be aware that there will be an appeals procedure designed to ensure that if someone feels there has been a mistake that it can be challenged and rectified.
I hope you will appreciate my reasons as to why I am unable to become involved.
Yours Sincerely
Cllr .................."

Update 24th Sept; Doesn't look like the meeting on the 21st September between management and Unions went too well, the Council refused to extend the deadline and the unions now considering strike action;

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Saturday Night Smile

with grateful thanks to @publicwatcher on Twitter

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Carry on Council - The Farce Continues...

A few words about today's visit to the full council meeting at County Hall (turned out to be quite a few words). I was yet again asked to read the laminated A4 warning and sign the undertaking etc etc, even though I had signed one last Monday. Once everyone was duly processed the two members of staff were again deployed to escort us to the Gallery. This time I asked whether the door (which has the phone by it to call for release) could be opened by pressing the exit button, the officer said no, it was locked. After about ten minutes the officer came into the public gallery to tell me it could be opened but the next door along couldn' locked in then. When you leave the gallery (and not everyone leaves at the same time of course) and phone to be let out, the two members of staff seem to be on permanent standby and emerge from what appears to be a cupboard somewhere up towards the roof, (there must be an office up there somewhere...I hope...) you are then escorted back to reception. The undertaking and newly needed passes are also a useful way for the council to monitor who exactly is attending the meetings.

Before I mention the meeting, I see that another Carmarthenshire blogger, @Towy71 attempted to view our wonderful democratic process today but he refused to sign, was not given an explanation, and was turned away. He was shocked and has now written to seven Assembly Members to voice his concerns.

Here is his blogpost;

"Open Governance
This morning I tried to get to see my county council in action but was refused entry until I had signed some piece of paper which I refused to do. I asked under what rule they were restricting my access to the public gallery but they could not or would not answer; however they said someone would come down and explain to me why I had to sign this undertaking.
Chris Burns identified himself as deputy chief executive, he told me that council rules dictated that I sign the form but he could not or would not specify which rule, under the constitution or standing orders, restricted access to the public gallery.
It is the first time I have ever been turned away from a council meeting and I have to say that I am not best pleased. I shall be writing to my MP, AM and I will be talking to my local councillor."
(An Oik What Blogs)
I will not be signing another undertaking, the whole palaver is appalling, unlawful and totally misguided. This all needs to be looked at urgently by whoever it is that has the power, Carl Sargeant I presume?? I will be contacting my AM, MP and Mr Sargeant tomorrow.

On to the meeting and I attempted to tweet and did my best, but it is difficult in the gloom of the oppressive Public Gallery...I need to return to other methods. The first thing that was said (somewhat out of the blue) came from Llanelli Plaid Councillor Winston Lemon; "could the Chair please control this meeting rather than the Chief Executive?", the eminent Chair, Cllr Ivor Jackson couldn't believe his loyal ears, rattled his chain, and asked the errant Member to repeat what he had said, the Member duly obliged and added that the Chief Executive prompted the Chair throughout all the meetings. There were a couple of oohs and aahs but I have to say, little disagreement with what he'd said.

The decision to keep monitoring the excessive pollution in Llandeilo was passed still without any practical steps being promised other than a letter to the Welsh Government about the by-pass (ongoing for 25 years but it appears the Council have decided to build the new superschool on one of the preferred routes and of course the school itself will add to the problem).

Next up was the issue of single pay status, (there was an article in today's Carmarthen Journal). As I said previously, Cllr Sian Caiach had submitted a Notice of Motion which, recognising the difficulties of the situation, merely requested negotiations be re-opened with the Unions, as Councillors, as employers, were being approached by many council employees with desperate concerns. The Motion was rejected before the meeting. As I have said, it is the Chief Executive who has the discretion whether or not to allow Motions to Full Council. You would think this was an entirely appropriate proposal for all councillor to consider wouldn't you? Anyway, the Chief Executive had a pre-prepared, lengthy speech on the subject then closed the debate. (More on this soon).

With regards to procedure, next week's Executive Board meeting has an interesting item which includes Constitutional changes to Council Procedural Rules (Standing Orders), Firstly attempts have been made to deflect the recent flurry of Motions for full council (an almost spontaneous expression of democracy made by councillors with resident's concerns at heart - none of which have been frivolous nor inappropriate for full council), Motions will now have to be signed by at least seven Members to even be considered. Spontaneous democracy out of the window then. I also wonder whether the Chair/Chief Executive had the power to adjourn a meeting following a disturbance by a member of the public (putting aside, for the moment, the fact that I did not disturb the meeting on the 8th June) as one of the amendments is to change;

'If a member of the public interrupts proceedings, the Chair will warn the person concerned. If they continue to interrupt, the Chair will order their removal from the meeting room'to (underlined);

'If a member of the public interrupts proceedings, the Chair will warn the person concerned. If they continue to interrupt, the Chair will order their removal from the meeting room. The Chair may adjourn the meeting for as long as he/she thinks necessary'

Oh well the meeting on the 19th September should prove interesting.

I left today's meeting after a couple of hours during a lengthy discussion (over half an hour and still going strong) over the closure/transfer of public toilets. I had to go (so to speak). An important issue of course and a penny pinching cost cutting move which affects quality of life, tourism etc. The amount to be saved (about £200k) is slightly less than was given to the evangelical church towards the speculative bowling alley a few weeks ago, or the cost of refurbishing the council offices in Spilman Street.

Update 15th September
I have now emailed Jonathan Edwards MP, Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM and Minister for Local Government Carl Sargeant AM to contact Carmarthenshire Council and insist that all the restrictive measures for accessing the Public Gallery are lifted with immediate effect. I shall post any replies on this blog.

Monday, 12 September 2011

The unspent Section 106 money

Pleased to see the crossing finally installed outside Llandeilo's two primary schools a few weeks ago. I assume it was paid for with the Co-op supermarket Section 106 money which the Council had previously admitted had 'gone missing'. The supermarket was built at least ten years ago. I mentioned this last July and I suppose as the schoolchildren had waited so long, another year made little difference. ('A case of the missing section 106 money')
A recent meeting of Regeneration and Leisure Scrutiny considered a report on the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) to be introduced to largely replace the Section 106 system. The idea being that a rate is levied, by local area on square footage of development rather than negotiated with each individual developer who will now know the ultimate cost from day one. The rate will differ from area to area based on factors such as the local economy and development potential. Where this system is already in place (in some areas of England) the levy is higher in rural areas that in towns, and already causing problems. Apparently, the scheme requires 'robust' public consultation before it is adopted and we all know how 'robust' they are in Carmarthenshire. The CIL does not include, as far as I understand, a levy on wind turbines nor does it requires any contribution towards affordable housing. (For further details and opinions on CIL please google it).
The Council's record on negotiations and insistence on affordable housing provision is already poor, for example the Stradey development in Llanelli of 355 homes contains no affordable housing provision, this was, of course, to maximise profits. An unusual deal was struck whereby this obligation was fulfilled by a contribution to community usage of the facilities at the new Parc Y Scarlets stadium, across town from Stradey, (S106 money is supposed to be spent directly on the area affected by the development) Unsurprisingly, the 'community useage' does not appear to be very forthcoming and concerns were raised to that effect at this meeting with particular reference to difficulties faced by the local Atheletics Club

One would hope that the Council's management of the CIL will be more efficient and beneficial to communities than their current system. I notice the amount the Council hold in unspent Section 106 money varies by £400,000 depending on whether you read the Planning officer's report to the Committee....

or the Minutes of the same meeting...

Whatever the correct amount, it's an awful lot of money which I am sure would be gratefully welcome in local communities where developments have taken place and the demands on infrastructure have remained un-mitigated for years. 

Oh, and before I go and in case you missed it, here's Y Cneifiwr's views on the (as yet unused) brand new £10m HQ for Dyfed Powys Police; Dyfed Powys Police - the Major Incident Mystery

Friday, 9 September 2011

The Burning Issue

Returning again to the burning issue of the apparent lack of fire and safety assessments for the Public Gallery, County Hall, I have had sight of the latest, and I imagine final, response from the council through Freedom of Information correspondence. It confirms that there are no assessments, for fire or anything else, in relation to the Gallery and furthermore, the dangers have not been tested as it is confirmed that no members of the public have been involved in fire drills. The council also claims that the exit door from the gallery can be opened by pressing a button, if this is true (and I wonder why the staff members I had to summon to release me, and escort me out on Monday needed to use a swipe card?) then why mislead everyone that they needed to phone through to a 'central control'? This could clearly delay a response to an emergency.
There is only one way to find out and I shall be pressing buttons next week. I will not, however, be setting the fire alarms off which apparently releases all the locks for a quick getaway - we'll just have to trust their technological skills on that one. Despite this, the actual advice to those souls smouldering in the gallery is to remain seated and wait for an officer to lead you to safety. A further contradiction arises when it is claimed (in another unrelated assessment) that everyone can get out of the building in 3 minutes. I think not.

Once again the lengthy and contorted explanations merely confirm the fact that public safety was not even on the horizon when the 'operational decision' was hastily made to restrict entry, the officers were clearly completely focussed on nothing other than preventing anyone filming a meeting.

Perhaps the next meeting will see the implementation of an additional 'undertaking'? - "I hereby promise not to hold the Council responsible for injuries sustained by fire and/or smoke inhalation in the public gallery nor from broken limbs in an attempt to leap to safety from the balcony"?

Let's just hope the issue never becomes a reality and the statement that a fire assessment is 'not needed' for the mere mortals in the Gallery doesn't come back to haunt them.

County Hall, Carmarthen
Previous posts include; Fire assessments - or lack of them , Locked Out, etc etc

Thursday, 8 September 2011

New Pay Proposals - resistance growing...

This week's Carmarthen Journal  reports on the proposed changes to pay and conditions for Carmarthenshire Council staff. The Council naturally, gives a certain amount of spin on it all, emphasising that some pay will increase, equal pay claims are almost settled, there will be no impact on Council Tax and the unions are entirely happy with the new arrangements. This doesn't appear to be the reality of the situation with many thousands of staff facing pay cuts, and some workers expressed their disquiet. They didn't want to be named either which is worrying in itself (council employees are prohibited from talking to the press without a 'chaperone' from the press office). The Chief Executive claims that some senior officers pay will also drop, but Mr James' own salary was increased by over £26,000 a couple of years ago, conveniently before a 'two-year freeze' was announced. I am sure both he and other very well paid senior officers affected will cope. Incidentally, Mr James' travel/business expenses have risen from £4,157 in 2009, to £4801 in 2010 to a generous £6,238 for 2011, so it's swings and roundabouts for some.

As the negotiations with the unions have stalled the council is now contacting individual staff members by letter. Controversially all are being offered an ex-gratia payment to accept a compromise agreement by which they would lose their normal employment rights and be unable to legally challenge the change in pay and conditions, retrospectively and prospectively.
 The Unions believe this is one of the worst deals in Wales. It also appears that the ruling coalition have accepted the new proposals without adequate consultation with full council. The unions are concerned, as are opposition councillors from Plaid and People First, that the threat of dismissal with re-employment dependent on acceptance of the new terms may force staff to accept the changes.

Cllr Sian Caiach and Cllr Marie Binney have proposed a motion to re-open negotiations with staff and unions, the trouble is that in the last two meetings (June and July), of full council, as I have mentioned, opposition motions have been refused by the independent chair, Cllr Ivor Jackson and referred back to the Executive Board (Labour/Independent) where they have been dismissed without debate. So it remains to be seen how this one will fare;

"Carmarthenshire County Councillors are the employers of all council staff and responsible for their terms and conditions of employment. We have no wish to unfairly disadvantage our staff or ask them to give up their employment rights.
The job evaluation scheme and single status proposal has resulted in many of our staff being offered significant cuts in their pay and expenses. Our staff have also been asked to sign a compromise agreement in return for an ex gratia payment. The compromise agreement, when signed, gives away the worker’s employment and equal pay rights and prevents them making legal claims against us both prospectively and retrospectively.
It is now clear that economic recovery will be, at best, slow and lengthy. At worst, we may have recession and future austerity packages imposed upon us as public employers. Our pension payments will also rise significantly.
Our negotiations with our staff Trades Unions have not been easy and have now stalled. As a result we are asking our staff to make independent decisions by offering them single status agreements and extra money to give up employment rights.
This council proposes that the Trades Unions be urgently invited to a meeting including all county councillors to discuss a way forward more equitable to both the councillors, as employers and the unions as representatives of our workers".

The proposer, Cllr Caiach has also said;

"It is time the Carmarthenshire councillors had a proper debate on the future of our staff rather than letting the senior council officers dictate policy for us on behalf of Council Leader Meryl Gravell. The motion drafted by opposition members merely asks that we step back and involve the Trades Unions and listen to our workers. There could be many waves of austerity measures in years to come and cutting deep at this time and asking our staff to give up employment rights should be an open and reasoned decision involving all councillors, most of whom have only been made aware of the consequences when their constituents, many of whom work for the council, have raised the issues with them. We are all jointly employers of our staff and I hope that a full consultation of my elected colleagues with input from the staff representatives will lead to much fairer settlement."

Filming in courts; news from Pembrokeshire, and public health priorities

Yesterday's recommendations to film inside UK courts didn't go unnoticed by Caebrwyn, who feels yet again that there is no excuse not to allow the filming of local Councils. I would have thought that filming court proceedings, even if it just the judges remarks/sentencing, would involve a fair degree of caution, not least of all the risks of sensationalism and theatricals - definitely not something which should worry most local Welsh Councils.

Following on from 'Pembrokeshire Council Slated', our neighbouring Authority are in the news again with the Chief Executive surviving a Vote of No Confidence on Monday (the point being that they actually held one) and yesterday's news that the Wales Audit Office are launching a 'special investigation';
'The WAO said the weaknesses highlighted were particularly in the areas of leadership, political oversight, management and human resource management.
It said the failures were of such a scale and significance that there was a risk the council was failing to comply with legal requirements. The WAO said it would complete its inspection by the end of the year as "a matter of urgency". (BBC Wales)

When they've finished in Pembrokeshire, can I suggest they pop over the border to Carmarthenshire? Also as a matter of urgency?

I see that Public Health Wales are offering a 'free' 'Health Walk Leader' training day to various health workers, charity leaders etc etc. Nothing wrong with a good brisk walk of course and I am sure the sentiment is well intentioned, although whether we need 'Leaders' is debatable, and of course it is not exactly free, it is funded through health resources.
This 'offer' also found it's way to a retired GP who, after a recent experience at Prince Phillip hospital in Llanelli, clearly felt strongly that resources could be better prioritised;

"I was admitted to the Clinical Decision Unit at Prince Phillip Hospital with atypical chest pain last Friday at 4pm. After 4 hours I saw a junior doctor: and after 7 hours, a registrar (after announcing that I would discharge myself at 11pm), being in the fortunate position to read my ecg tracing. I am not dead yet, and tomorrow never comes. I took off my monitor several times to go to the toilet and the monitor bleeped, no-one appeared to be the slightest bit interested. A consultant did a ward round at 6pm, I was not presented to him. I might have had a coronary thrombosis, or another serious cause of chest pain, dissecting aneurysm, pulmonary embolus etc------which is why I was there.
Then consider walking therapy, join the ramblers!! at no cost to the NHS


Improvement Grant Troubles - Carmarthenshire

Having read of many complaints and problems regarding the improvement grant system across several Welsh Authorities, it was only a matter of time before an example from Carmarthenshire Council was brought to my attention. A Mr Ian Dakin contacted me with a series of complaints dating back over the past twelve years. The complaints have involved the failure by the Council to monitor and administer, exterior, interior and disabled alteration grants. It is Mr Dakin's elderly mother, who is 84 and still hasn't had the correct facilites installed (deemed necessary many years ago and recently updated), who is bearing the brunt of the failure. The details are complex but, in my opinion, fully justify his complaints.

They refer to inferior work passed off as 'satisfactory' by the Council year after year . To give a few examples; the external stone walls had to be pinned after a kango hammer was used to remove render, the render had to be re-applied five times in some places; new windows were two inches too small, patched up with thin strips of PVC but declared unsafe and had to be replaced; a path was dug up unnecessarily and he is now heading for the eigth attempt to properly re-concrete; many attempts to repair the roof revealed old wood which was supposed to have been replaced and the removal of an internal wall in the loft threatening the very integrity of the structure; it goes on and on.

There was a failure to ensure contractors were properly insured; a lack of written records and schedules of work; problems with the disclosure of documents ( a file was initially available, then, when seen again, was somewhat slimmer, and then became completely 'lost' in the system) Some years ago Mr Dakin requested a copy of the contract between the council and a building contractor relating to the 'envelope scheme' to improve the whole street - after 20 months of requesting disclosure, one finally appeared signed and dated the day before it was released.
Mr Dakin had been to court numerous times as a result of the Council's refusal to release grant monies to contractors, the council required 'signing off' certificates from the contractors to do so, these were not released and no one seemed to know if they even existed. Mr Dakin had signed the progress statements in an attempt to complete the lengthy and tortuous work but only to 75% satisfaction, despite being actually far less than satisfied, and troubled by how much taxpayers' money was being wasted on substandard work possibly throughout the County - the council, of course had stated they were 'satisfied' with the work so the release of funds shouldn't have been an issue anyway.
Eventually the Council decided they didn't really need the signing off papers after all and settled. They have also agreed that there is work outstanding. One would assume, in that case, they would then also settle the legal costs for which Mr Dakin was still being pursued, so far they have refused other than to offer him a 'loan'.

The trouble is that Mr Dakin is guilty of the cardinal sin of persisting with his questioning of the council's role in all this. Recent FoI disclosures revealed emails going back several years from the council to various contractors and other organisations branding Mr Dakin a 'bad payer' and 'difficult'. He believes that it is this consistent and entirely unfounded blackening of his and his family's name that has been the cause, unbeknown to him at the time, of many problems with the contractors and agents who have carried out work at the property. Mr Dakin has discussed these issues, over the years, (and sometimes with his solicitor present), with his local Councillor. The Member has now been told that he is not allowed to contact Mr Dakin, nor Mr Dakin approach the Councillor, for vague 'legal reasons' - as usual, this has the desired effect and the Councillor obeys orders. One would have thought the position should be the other way round with the Member insisting on representing his constituent's interests.
From the details I have seen I believe that Mr Dakin has a clear cut complaint against the Council which I am sure will be of great interest to the Ombudsman. He is pursuing both.
Here is a statement from Mr Dakin's 84 yearold mother which has been included in the recent 26 page complaint, drafted by his solicitor and sent to the council;

"I am horrified by the way members of officialdom in Councils can behave towards us the public. They are public servants who are paid from the public purse. No longer it seems that officials are there primarily to help and advise. We used to call them public servants. It seems however that they are answerable to no one which gives them huge powers. They have become arrogant in their approach to the rest of us and they have no respect for us. they are fine if they are left alone but ask them to attend to what needs to be done or ask in our case for answers or paperwork they become confrontational and some have been, and are, rude and vindictive. We are then branded awkward, difficult and unreasonable"

The Photon blog; Anglesey Grants: Report due soon.
Alice in Blunderland; More Welsh Housing Hell - Improvement Grant Troubles in Carmarthenshire 
This complaint is far too complex for me to provide full details here so I include Mr Dakin's email address should anyone require further information or wishes to substantiate my comments;
If you have had similar experiences or complaints regarding the council's role in grant work, please leave a comment.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Executive Board Whitewash - the farce continues...

Well I am back home after this morning's trip to County Hall (just to re-assure the Council that although I failed to 'sign out' I am not still lurking in the darkened corridors). As you may imagine the entire meeting was a complete farce and lasted a whole 10 minutes. It took me twice as long as that to actually get into the public gallery.

Firstly a few words on the entry procedure. To attend, I had to sign the undertaking - this was not easy as you may imagine but I was left with no choice. I believe it is unlawful and I do not consider that I, or anyone else, are bound by it's terms. Of course it was not just the undertaking; there was the laminated A4 warning on filming (the receptionist said that she had to see me read it); the 'visitors pass' palaver; then there was a mysterious phone call to announce my arrival, whoever was on the other end needed to know how many of me there were, I assured them that there was only one of me. Then there was the wait to be escorted, along with two other members of the public, to the gallery. I can now confirm that the escape route is indeed blocked by a locked door which requires a call to the front desk to release you. There is now a special phone for this purpose placed neatly on it's very own little table by the door.

The meeting itself was over in a flash, two Executive Board members were absent, only one of whom had sent apologies, it was then assumed that the other, Deputy Leader Cllr Kevin Madge was 'still on holiday'. Oh well. So that left just seven members and an array of , bored looking senior officers. Then commenced what can only be described as 10 minutes of mutual back slapping. The decision to issue the Statutory Notice to close Pantecelyn secondary school was 'ratified' along with the rest of the Modernising Education Programme  Not a breath of opposition or discussion. Mr Sully, the Director of Education did say they had had a few recent further letters of objection but had come too late so could safely be ignored.

Next came the two Motions put forward by Cllr Caiach and Cllr A Davies. The elderly care and day centre motion was first, the motion was ignored and more pats on the back were administered all round as to how wonderful the new 'rationalisation' was.

The 'motion on filming' item was so quick I almost missed it trying to tweet the previous item. Meryl Gravell stated that the Task and Finish Group was dealing with it so there was no more to be said. And there wasn't.

What a wonderful tool a Task and Finish Group is to put something off for months. The motion could have been heard at next week's full council meeting but apparently it is the senior officer's decision whether it goes to the Executive Board or the Council, and clearly full council could not be entirely trusted not to vote in favour (or even, God forbid, debate it). Even Councillors who are unsure may have voted in favour so not to appear they had something to hide in the face of transparency. We couldn't have any of that could we? Nothing safer than one's own Executive Board, especially with the private 'briefing' held before the public meeting where any unlikely little 'difficulties' can be swiftly ironed out.

There is no stronger argument in favour of filming council meetings than the whitewash I witnessed this morning.
As I said, there is a full council meeting next week and I shall be there...

and previously; More Carmarthenshire 'democracy' (with link to the agenda items) and much more of course from recent weeks, on the blog.

September 6th; Filming council kicked into long grass (South Wales Evening Post)

BBC; 'Carmarthenshire Council urged to allow meeting filming'

With regards to today's Executive Board meeting there is an article on BBC Wales Online this morning;

"Ruling members of a council which called police to eject a blogger recording one of its meetings are being urged to allow filming in the future.
Carmarthenshire council's executive will consider a motion calling for the public to be allowed to film meetings.
Jacqui Thompson of Llanwrda was arrested in June when she refused repeated requests to stop.
The council says it has a task group looking at the issue as part of a wider review of new technology.
Monmouthshire was found by the BBC Wales news website to be the only one of the 22 local authorities in Wales to currently allow people to film its meetings.
Councillors in Pembrokeshire will consider the issue next month.
A few councils such as Powys say they have no specific policy so if someone did want to film it would be up to the individual committee chairman.
But the vast majority do not allow their meetings to be filmed.
Carmarthen councillor Arthur Davies has submitted the motion to Monday's meeting in Carmarthenshire.
He said any member of the public showed be allowed to record meetings from the public gallery as long as they are not disruptive.
He also believes the council itself should record meetings, either on video or using the existing sound recording system in the council chamber.
He told BBC Wales: "Part of our role as councillors should be to try and get the public more involved.
"I think we should be transparent and I don't think there's any excuse really for not allowing the public to film."
In June Mrs Thompson was arrested after she refused repeated requests to stop filming a meeting at which the closure of day centres was being discussed.

The 49-year-old community councillor has been writting a blog in which she has been critical of Carmarthenshire council since 2009.
Her arrest sparked debate online and among national media commentators.
Carmarthenshire council said it has since launched a review of the use of new technology in the way it provides services to residents.
One of the issues the committee is looking at is the possibility of video streaming council meetings via the council's website.
A spokeswoman said: "Filming at public meetings will be considered by them as part of this work."
Source BBC Online; 'Carmarthenshire Council urged to allow meetings to be filmed'

I'll let you know what happens later on today, please see previous posts;

Thursday, 1 September 2011

More Carmarthenshire 'Democracy'

Following on from Friday's post about next Monday's Executive Board (5th Sept) meeting, a statement has come my way from County Cllr Sian Caiach (People First Group). As I said, there are two motions being submitted concerning elderly care and filming council meetings.
Anyway, over to Cllr Caiach;

"CCC's Executive Board are giving a decision on two motions submitted by the People First Group, (submitted correctly for consideration in the June and July full Council meetings) on the 5th of September. Both motions were judged unsuitable for debate in full council by the Chief Executive and the Chair, Ivor Jackson and referred to the Executive Board. We, (Cllr Arthur Davies and myself) have been told we are not allowed to present the motions to the Board or speak at all in this meeting. We are allowed to watch proceedings only, just as members of the public are.

If you open the link below you will see that a decision has already been made to reject my motion to stop closing day facilities for the disabled and sick elderly on the grounds that the council wishes to concentrate finances on those elderly with most need. It has therefore closed a facility for the sick disabled elderly (Noddfa Teilo Day Club based in Llandeilo) and taken the transport facility away from those disabled people living outside Llandeilo and replaced it with an ordinary luncheon club run by the WRVS, open to all elderly living in or near the town only.

I see this as abandoning the disabled rural elderly who are left with either no facilities or a less frequent charity run luncheon club without specialist care.
This is seen as an improvement in service by the Council Executive Report.
Forgive me for pointing out that the net effect here is to transfer facilities from the sick and disabled elderly to those less sick and disabled and downgrade the service in the process.

I believe a proper debate would not only have saved Noddfa Teilo and the other day clubs by bringing out the full impact on these disabled and sick elderly. Unfortunately, removing these facilities may lead to those who managed at home with day care support now having to go into residential care. I believe the motivation for closing day clubs and centres is to reduce the numbers of council care staff and to shift responsibility for elderly care to charities who may not be able to provide the same standards long term.

In the case of Cllr Arthur Davies' motion which I seconded there is as yet no decision statement on the council website. As there rarely is any debate in the public meeting of the Council's Executive I presume a statement is being prepared. I have had a letter from the Welsh Government approving in principle filming of all council meetings if the members approve and mentioning that CCC have promised the Welsh Government that they are to consider filming meetings and streaming them on to the internet.

Councils such as Cardiff start each meeting with a proposal allowing filming of their full meetings - they film them themselves. We should do the same and allow amateur filming until our own system is established. At present the time consuming process of forcing every member of the public to give their details and sign an undertaking not to film the meetings has led some to miss the items they came to watch as they have to queue make their declaration of good behaviour.

I understand that there has been a quiet consultation with my fellow councillors by the ruling group which has established that although some councillors would not like to be filmed they realise that to decline filming would look like they had something to hide. I believe this was the reason the matter was not debated as the argument would have been lost"

Previous post; Why Carmarthenshire Council Needs to be filmed, by Cllr S Caiach

I finally received a reply to my queries (sent August 10th) about the Council's undertaking. Mr Lyn Thomas has now retired so the response is from the acting Head of Administration and Law. There is nothing very new to report only the continued rather garbled explanations of the "not required to permit" practice. It's all getting increasingly contorted with, as I understand it, the council needing to benevolently bestow special 'additional rights' if we are to be allowed to film;
"...the effect of this [Local Goverment Act] is that the public cannot record or film meetings as of right. This authority has never introduced any additional provisions permitting filming or recording so in effect this means that in the absence of having given the public additional rights the Authority's "policy" [not my quotation marks] is to allow the public the rights specifically given to them by the Act.."
I have a feeling they will soon make 'additional provisions' to prohibit it.

And as for human rights
"..the fact that it has been deemed necessary to impose a condition upon that admission [to the public gallery] does not breach human rights"
As we do not have a 'right' to film we are not protected by the Convention.

Was a democratic decision taken to introduce the undertaking? The answer to that was clear - no.
"The decision to introduce the undertaking requirement was an operational decision made by officers"
Operational?? That's a new one.

Interestingly, half way through the letter, the incorrectly applied, and overtly legal term 'Undertaking' is replaced by the phrase 'Terms of Attendance'.
I am going to the Executive Board meeting on Monday and will be faced with the dilemma (it is a matter of principle for me of course) of signing the undertaking or not.
It doesn't look like I'll have much choice.
Any ideas?

I wonder whether, had my blog been titled 'In Praise of Wonderful Carmarthenshire County Council', there would have been any of this palaver? I doubt it.
Incidentally, I noticed the Council looked at my blog for over three hours today. Just saying.