Friday, 17 January 2014

Who runs the council?

A couple of weeks ago the Plaid opposition group put forward a set of alternative budget proposals and the residents of Carmarthenshire have, according to the council, been busy, responding to the public 'consultation' and having their say on where the axe should fall. A completely pointless exercise of course.

Next month, the full council will meet and have a political debate (of sorts) and make political decisions on the final budget. Ultimately they will be responsible for whether, for instance, a respite centre for disabled children will remain open or not.

The fact is though, this 'list' has been drawn up by the unelected officers of the authority, it has little to do with political debate, or even for that matter the ruling administration, they have been tasked with pushing the whole thing through.

The budget is supposed to be a political measure with politicians debating the issues. In Carmarthenshire this is something of a joke and the farcical situation is further illustrated in the pages of this week's Carmarthen Journal.

In what appears to be a lengthy press release from the pen of the Chief Executive, whose role is supposed to be, and is in fact dependent on, being entirely non-political, he sweeps aside "point by point" the proposals from Plaid. The senior management of the council really does seem to have made the Journal their very own....

Shouldn't this response have come from the Labour/Independent coalition? Kevin Madge perhaps? The article claims, vaguely, to come from 'the council' and 'leaders' whilst concluding with a picture of Mr James.

Whilst the Journal has given the Chief Executive his own editorial opinion piece, I notice that the independently minded South Wales Guardian have recognised that this is a political issue and actually asked the Labour leader of the council for a response to Plaid's proposals. He naturally follows orders from above but it is unmistakably Kev-like. If you know what I mean.

The big giveaway is in the final paragraph of the Journal article which deals with the necessity to retain highly paid senior officers for their wonderful work. Mentioning not only St Catherine's Walk shopping centre but the 'glowing' presentation from the Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales (CSSIW) at last week's council meeting.

I have to digress briefly here. The minutes from the last week's council meeting have been published, and is, as usual, a very brief outline of the decisions made, or not made. My observations on the meeting are here.

I compared the length and content of the minutes with that of Pembrokeshire Council's last meeting, their draft minutes run to thirty-seven pages and include detailed exchanges and argument. Both meetings lasted over three hours, from Carmarthenshire's version of events you would think it was all over in twenty minutes. Fortunately, of course, the meeting was webcast (as was Pembrokeshire's for the first time).

The Carmarthenshire minutes record one brief glowing comment from the CSSIW report. It does not include any of the criticisms of the service presented to the council from the report, nor any of the points raised during the 'debate'. It is, as usual when you compare minutes to the 'real thing', misleading.

The minutes from the Executive Board of the 6th January are similarly brief, the item concerning the libel case records that the report was 'noted'. It doesn't include the inaccurate Kevin Madge waffle which was reported in the press. This is probably just as well, given what he said. As Mr James left the meeting during this item, he was forced to leave it all in the dangerously unpredictable hands of Kev....

Anyway, back to the budget and as you are aware, this blog is more concerned with trying to get some transparency over what is actually decided and spent and the council's financial mismanagement of public funds, than the political arguments over the budget, at the moment anyway.
Hence my campaign for webcasting, and next month budget debate will for the first time have a very wide audience rather than the one or two intrepid observers in the public gallery. I hope so anyway!

Unfortunately the ban on filming or photography remains which means that there is no record of any other meeting such as Executive Board, planning, scrutiny etc.

I know some budget cuts are necessary and I also know that officers and staff in each department often have a better knowledge of where savings can be made than elected councillors. But for those councillors to make informed decisions, they must have a) impartial, truthful and accurate information, and b) be in no doubt that the basic rules are being followed.

In my opinion, and as I have consistently and repeatedly reported, County Hall fails miserably on both counts.

Someone decided that it was a splendid idea to give £1.4m to an fundamentalist evangelical church (surely such generosity has to require the understanding of a kindred spirit....).

Someone, partial to vanity projects, decided to give a large chunk of prime development land in Llanelli to a company based in Nottingham, and then agreed to give them £250,000 a year for 20 years for offices it doesn't need. The same person(s) perhaps, that decided Odeon Cinemas Plc, worth £2bn, needed £20,000 of Carmarthenshire's public money to help towards the sound system.

Someone decided that the way to save money over a loss making golf course was to give a private company £160,000 and hope for the best. It didn't quite work out that way did it?

Someone decided to risk £750,000 buy up a bit of ex-MOD land and sell it immediately to an unregistered company, councillors were told not to worry as the purchasers were 'known to officers'. One of the directors turned out to be the Chair of the Wales Rugby Union. (original Western Mail article here and the Cneifiwr treatment here)

And of course the mention of rugby brings me on to the sorry saga over that other great vanity project, the stadium and the funnelling of funds to Scarlets Regional Ltd, approximately £20m over the past seven years. I'll not repeat it all again but as well as complaints to the European Commission, someone, somewhere made the decision that it was better to spend £000s kitting out the Scarlet's shop than fixing the leaking roofs of several primary schools.

Someone also decided that it was entirely appropriate to give a senior officer a publicly funded blank cheque.

And who decided that the Returning Officer should be paid his £20,000 fees five weeks before the election giving the feeble explanation that 'the money was there'. It's not there now.

As for the 'unlawful' pension arrangement, is County Hall so entrenched in it's belief that it is so unaccountable no one would query it, or even notice? That may well have happened ten years ago, but not now.

Of course if any blame or criticism is to be made, that 'someone' will be the elected councillors. Whether it is the puppet Executive Board or a majority vote in the chamber, the responsibility is carefully passed on to give it that veneer of democracy and to absolve the unelected decision makers should anything hit the fan. All I can suggest is that they always read the small print, carefully.

I have trouble being convinced by anything which comes out of County Hall. They are, if you hadn't noticed by now, masters of spin and manipulation, more concerned with corporate reputation than telling the truth.

There is also, as I have pointed out throughout this blog, been deliberate and consistent attempts to remove the last vestiges of democracy from the authority, in all it's forms; through changes to the constitution to threats to the independent press and critics of the authority.

Most recently, and only last week, there were two examples of where 'democratic' decisions didn't go according to the masterplan. The rebellious decision by the Democratic Committee not to reduce the frequency of meetings was duly ignored and a 'seminar' arranged instead. Reminiscent of those dictatorships where dissenters are sent to camps to be 'educated'...

The proposal to avoid awkward local objections over school closures by delegating the decisions to the Executive Board alone, all went a bit wrong, you may remember. It has now gone back to scrutiny, but not, as happens to so many other issues to be swept under the committee carpet for months or even years, but it pops up next week and senior officers will be instructed to persuade scrutiny councillors that it will 'save money' and is all part of 'new legislation' which must be obeyed.

Not all our elected councillors are blind to all this and the handful who stand up to the authority deserve huge credit for battling against the odds.

As for saving money, on the strength of last week's edition alone, the council press office could quite simply shut up shop and move directly into the editorial offices of the Carmarthen Journal.


Anonymous said...

Please do not keep referring to officers. The misuse of this term to describe employees of the council, represented by elected councillors, gives credence that is not due to people employed to do a job and nothing else. If you wish to accord some degree of differentiation then it may be acceptable to describe such senior employees as officials.
P.S. Keep on keeping on with your crusade.

caebrwyn said...

Anon 18.25 Thanks for the comment. There is of course a differentiation and 'officials' is entirely appropriate.

Anonymous said...

I would be very interested to know the name of the CSSIW representative.

caebrwyn said...

Anon 19.34
The names are published in the council minutes, at Item 5;

Anonymous said...

Thank you Caebrwyn.

Anonymous said...

With regards to the assertion about the necessity to pay high salaries to recruit and retain highly talented people to senior posts in the County Council. If these people were paid by results they'd all be paupers.