Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Council to webcast meetings (Updated with today's meeting)

According to early reports, the Council issued a press release at 5pm yesterday (Monday) with the announcement (finally, after two years) that they will be webcasting full council meetings "live and unedited" as a one year pilot. This is an improvement to the previous proposal to pre-record meetings, but should include all public meetings held in the Chamber.
Naturally I welcome the news and it's a start of course, but the cynic in me says this is a very timely PR move rather than a sudden genuine desire for transparency....

Will update as more information becomes available.

15.30pm; it would seem that the above information is about the measure of it. The press release which is now on the Council website says the same except for additional statements from the party leaders, written by the sound of it, by the press office.
There is also a BBC Wales article here.

There is also the small matter of it yet to be voted on by full council.

I would just say that whilst it is welcome, it is only a start, there's no reason why Executive Board and Planning meetings could not be part of the pilot. We should not expect to see more meetings held in private session either, that will be monitored.
The public must also reserve their democratic right to make their own recordings if they wish, the council should now respect this.
As I said, it's just a start, transparency and democracy are in a dire state in this county and it'll need more than webcasting eleven meetings to remedy it, the freedom of the local press from financial threats is a good place to start.

On the upside I expect the local gentlemen's outfitters will do well and the sales of twin-sets and pearls will be rocketing.


Today's meeting

I hope that the Council's webcasting gear will be better than the translation equipment up in the public gallery. Not for the first time, it was not working properly and after about an hour and a half into the budget meeting I gave up and went home. Perhaps someone should have hollered from the balcony but no one seemed to have the appetite.

The main event was the council budget. The Executive Board Member for Money gave a lengthy pre-amble about tightening belts, saving £7m, and 'protecting frontline services'. There didn't appear to be any really bad news and we should all be jolly well grateful that we live in Carmarthenshire under such a wonderful regime. Council Tax was only going up by 2.75%. There were a couple of the usual PR pieces popped in for effect; charges for Blue Badge holders would not be brought in and  the £20,000 taken from Menter Iaith would be kept in 'abeyance' whilst a Task and Finish Group looked at the Welsh Language. Around £50,000 had been earmarked for extra help with the changes to benefits and some of this...this is the PR bit....came from the 'Communications' budget. He didn't say how much though, it could have been a fiver.

Average rent for council houses was to go up by £3.11 per week but of course the council was shelling out cash upgrading their properties so that was that.

The Capital budget was maintaining jobs and stimulating the economy, we were told. The Eastgate and Furnace Theatre developments were truly wonderful, we were again told.
The Executive Board member finished with a warning to the opposition that there should be better collaboration between members to deliver the masterplan and tributes should be paid to the Chief Executive and Director of Resources for not putting too much pressure on the taxpayers.
Clearly the Carmarthenshire chancellor's budget speech had temporarily detached several Members from the realities of life and incomprehensibly, there was a round of applause.....

Numerous councillors then spoke in opposition. First up was the Sunday parking charges mentioned in my previous post, they were turning the screw tighter, said the councillor, this was a tax on religion and Christian beliefs! The Council's reputation was at stake over this apparently. Another raised the poor condition of the county's roads and the cut in the highway budget. Did all the Outcome Agreement Grant have to be used for capital projects? Couldn't some of it be used for some frontline services. No it couldn't we were told. What about the profits from Cwm Environmental? Why was there never any cash from this company which was after all, wholly owned by the council? No, no, no.

The leader, Kevin Madge thanked everyone at length at regular points during the meeting, apart from the opposition of course, who he accused of having a 'shopping list', there were difficult decisions... it was a prudent budget...things were getting worse...things were getting better....and on it went..

There were three main areas of concern, the decision to charge for post-16 school transport, the removal of the subsidised bus service for fare paying children within three miles of school, car parking (a mysterious entry of £10,000 for 'on street parking' turned out to be, I believe, parking metres for Lammas Street in Carmarthen, a proposal booted out over a year ago after a 3000 name petition...it had crept back in), and that old chestnut and favourite topic of discussion, (and exempt reports), the transfer of public toilets to town and community councils..

Only one councillor, Sian Caiach suggested a change of approach, did we need all these "shiny new buildings" that we couldn't afford? Eyebrows were raised. The black hole in the capital account for 'year three' was now twice as big (£4m) as it was this time last year, jobs were created, but only short term building work, people needed jobs to be able to spend money in these places, quite good jobs at that. Would it not be better to provide transport for youngsters to get to college so they could learn trades, start businesses and boost the economy from the bottom up? Was there really any point in these long term plans? Everything changed year in year out, perhaps the authority should slow down and ensure that essential services were funded before the shiny new buildings; both the Furnace and Eastgate developments were draining the revenue budget. This terrible slight on the flagship, landmark world of Carmarthenshire council caused, as I am sure you will guess, a lot of head shaking and eye rolling amongst the upper ranks.

A 1% pay rise had been factored in across the authority and the Plaid opposition suggested that this should be scaled so that those at the top of the ladder had less of an increase. For instance, a lower paid worker on say £12,000 a year would benefit to the tune of £120 a year, someone on £200,000 would have a £2000 pay rise. This was not possible apparently, I'm not quite sure why..I lost the gist.

As the multiple amendments about the car parking and subsidised buses gathered in number so did the confusion, and a series of votes took place with each group voting along with their leader (there were a couple of abstentions here and there), the Independent Group seemed to raise their hands as soon as they's seen their Labour partners doing so. In the end, further discussions were to be had about the public toilets (can't wait), and the same was decided for the subsidised bus service. The post-16 school transport matter still had to be approved as it was part of next years budget. By now the Director of Resources was frantically scribbling his calculations and the Council Tax rise was now 2.9% or 3.25%, nobody was entirely sure. (correction, it was 3%)

The translating equipment had by now, along with myself, given up the ghost completely so as the 'toiledau cyhoeddus' and black holes were still under earnest debate I left. My apologies for this rather poor report. Will do better next time.

And from the South Wales Evening Post; School travel adds to rise in Council Tax 


nightsiren said...

I'm sure they'll find a way to say that they were planning to do this all along and that it has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the bad publicity the council received during the libel trial.

I wonder if it also means that even more meetings will be deemed "too secret" to be help in public.

Lesley said...

Having just sat through two hours of the full council budget meeting and listened in awe to most councillors' ability to speak for minutes at a time while saying absolutely nothing, I've got a horrible feeling that even the most interested member of the public will give up in sheer desperation and frustration when the meetings are webcast.

Anonymous said...

nightsiren - I suspect you are right on both accounts. On the second account, hopefully the good people of Carmarthenshire will continue to fight for transparency.

Lesley - Bless you and others like you e.g. Jacqui, Y Cneifiwr for taking the time to attend these meetings and keeping those of us who are unable to attend, informed. I for one will force myself to watch and listen to the meetings when they are webcast. After all that Jacqui has gone through over the last few years to foster change, I think we, the taxpayer owe it to her and ourselves to watch the webcast.

nightsiren said...

If the councillors, and their meetings are not renowned for their public speaking, perhaps we can strengthen our resolve to watch by devising "buzz word bingo" to help. If the meetings were held outside working hours then a drinking game might help but we can't have everything. :)

Any words or phrases we should look out for?

Anonymous said...

Now that the meetings will be filmed you will be able to report that several independent Councillors voted against Exec Board Recommendations with their conscience and several Labour Councillors proposed amendments and then voted against their own amendments . Plaid Councillors just cannot add up and showed that they could not balance the books with their sums

caebrwyn said...

Anon 22.54
Now that meetings will be filmed, or some of them anyway (and as long as the full council votes for it), there will be a permanent and accurate record of who voted for what, and who said what, this will benefit not only residents but the council itself.

Anonymous said...

I think filming will be a good thing as constituents will be able to hold their Councillor to account. They won't be able to vote one way and tell us something else. Filming will definitely make Councillors and officers more accountable and that's what the public need is transparency.

Anonymous said...

Not sure why the faulty translation equipment has caused you such distress. Do you not speak Welsh? If not, perhaps you should learn?
Keep up the good work!

caebrwyn said...

Anon 12.25 My Welsh is not too good, you're right, I should learn!

Anonymous said...

Anon 12.25

I think officers of the Authority should lead the way in learning welsh. How many of them holding top jobs can speak the language fluently?
Should be essential criteria for advertising top jobs. This would at least play a part in ensuring the future of the welsh language.