Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Mark James Business Empire - Nothing to declare!


After a lengthy three month wrangle with the council, and some nudging from the Information Commissioner's office, I finally had the outcome of my request for Senior Officers' Declarations of Interests. The full details, up to the point where I asked for an internal review, can be seen here.

The review response is quite extraordinary. I did not ask specifically about the chief executive but it seems that without naming names it was his sensitivities that Ms Rees Jones was focusing on. It was unusual that it was her, the ever faithful head of legal ironing, who carried out this particular review...

Incidentally, the letter was dated 16th November but clearly needed approval, and quite possibly a contribution from the, erm, chief executive so I didn't receive it until today, the 21st, via email...and also incidentally, and unlike previous requests, I was not sent the register of interests, redacted or otherwise.

So, back to the response, and despite the fact that the chief executive runs a property management company and is a director of four companies; and aside from the fact that he owns leaseholds on several flats and is also a registered landlord, he has not declared anything.

I am told, in so many words, that this is because it's all based in Cardiff, not under the 'jurisdiction' of Carmarthenshire. An interesting, if flawed concept to say the least.

As an aside, Mr James claimed in the Western Mail that he'd had 'consent' from the authority for his extra-curricular activities down in the Bay. Seems that this consent must have been the usual nod and a wink variety from a dutiful disciple, rather than anything 'official', or something which might have surfaced on an auditor's radar. Here we have the same old problem; Mr James making all the decisions, even about his own role in the council.

The issue is whether there are any potential conflicts of interest and this can be looked at in two ways.

Whilst he is not tending to business in Cardiff or pursuing his hobby of legal posturing, Mr James manages, somehow, to squeeze in a bit of chief executive stuff, for which he's paid handsomely. According to my own sources, and Cneifiwr's recent post, Mr James devotes quite a bit of time to his business dealings and he's rather more hands-on than he's led everyone to believe. If any of this time impinges on his day job then there's a conflict.

Then there's the council's own business, which is overseen and often led by Mr James. For instance, the council are currently planning to establish a separate Housing Company which will involve contracts and business dealings outside of the county, and the authority are also part of the RentSmart register of landlords, a government scheme led by Cardiff Council.
Is there a potential for decisions taken in Carmarthenshire that set precedent to have influence beyond the county's borders?

What if the council takes a position on anti-social behaviour from short term holiday lets - Is it not relevant that the CEO operates in this industry? What guarantees do we have that he will not conduct business within Carmarthenshire? His business partner operates letting and property investment companies which operate across the UK, including Swansea.

The council are also privy to private discussions with national housing and property developers on a regular basis. Mr James is also the lead chief executive of the Swansea City Deal which involves top level discussions with government officials, developers and property management companies.

Of course, we won't even contemplate whether he uses any council facilities, staff or resources to run his Cardiff empire, that would be highly improper...

Then we can look at it from the Cardiff Bay perspective. I was told by a reliable source that Mr James claimed, to them, to be advising Welsh Government ministers on the development of landlord and housing policy. Whether he does or not we don't know, maybe Mr James was just using his position as council chief executive to impress his business associates...

We also know that Mr James business interests have made it into the press with reports of residents' complaints over raucous stag parties, overnight lets and vomit left in the corridors. This delightful scenario directly involves the chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council as Chairman of the Right to Manage company - you might think he was in danger of bringing the authority into disrepute...though he has already done quite enough of that over the years, notwithstanding the vomit.

One thing is unarguable, Mr James has a lot of contacts, in both walks of life, and surely common sense, let alone transparency would dictate that there is the potential here for conflicting interests.

Public perception is everything, so how do the public - who pay Mr James around £700 a day - know he's not using council time, council contacts, inside information on future policy, or anything else, to further his private interests? In short, we don't. And neither do the council. Do we take his word for it? Most definitely not.

The idea that interests 'out of county' are not declared seems total nonsense to me and continues the game of smoke and mirrors which shroud and protect the chief executive. The declaration of officers' interests should be a requirement as it is for councillors, not left to some sort of flimsy voluntary arrangement, wide open to abuse to those who believe they're a law unto themselves...

Furthermore, ICO guidance on the matter doesn't specify whether declared interests are out of county or not, what is of utmost importance is avoiding conflicts of interest, wherever they are, let alone the importance of public trust in our local authorities. Sadly though, neither of these fundamental concepts of the principles of public life appear to trouble Mr James. Ever.

"Many public authorities maintain a register of interests in which senior staff are required to record, for example, business interests, shareholdings, property ownership and other outside interests, such as membership of clubs and societies, that could potentially give rise to a conflict of interests with their position in the authority. 

A public authority may need to record this information in order to monitor any potential conflict of interest, and the scope of the register could include officers below the most senior level who nevertheless make decisions affecting the public or involving the expenditure of public money. 

If this information is requested under FOIA, the public clearly have a legitimate interest in knowing that any potential conflicts are monitored, to ensure that the decisions and actions of officials are not influenced by their private interests. There is a legitimate interest in transparency in order to foster trust in public authorities." (Extract from ICO guidance)


Pic source; WalesOnline

Monday, 13 November 2017

Misuse of council computers - One rule for one...


Last month, following my complaint to the Wales Audit Office in July, I was given the outcome of their lengthy 'investigation' concerning the chief executive's extensive misuse of council computers for private use. Specifically this related to detailed and prolonged searches of this blog to provide 'evidence' to the police for his private complaint of harassment and for evidence to pursue his 'personal damages'.

To my astonishment, the Wales Audit Office decided that there was no case to answer and said;  "I am satisfied that there has been no breach of Council policies by any individual member of staff.  Carmarthenshire County Council staff are permitted to access external websites and blogs during their working day"
Something didn't ring right.

The WAO response prompted a third party to ask the following Freedom of Information request;
Dear Carmarthenshire Council, 
I would like to know, for each year from 2010 to present, how many occasions council employees have found themselves subject to disciplinary procedures concerning the use of council IT facilities for personal use, and what the eventual measures taken against the employee were. 
I am interested in any cases which had an outcome ranging from a note being made on the employee's HR record through to dismissal for gross misconduct. I am perfectly happy for this data to be anonymised. 
Please contact me if you have any queries.
Yours faithfully,
Martin Milan.

This was the surprising response;

Dear Mr Milan,

In response, we are only able to provide information from the financial year 2012/13;

To date there has been 8 allegations that have been dealt with formally;
1 employee resigned prior to a formal investigation commencing
1 employee resigned during the investigation
1 didn't go to a hearing as the employee had already been dismissed as a
result of a separate disciplinary allegation
3 written warnings
1 verbal warning
1 disciplinary transfer to another post.

Yours sincerely
John Tillman
Swyddog Gwybodaeth a Diogelu Data
Adran y Prif Weithredwr
Cyngor Sir Gaerfyrddin
Information & Data Protection Officer 
In case there had been any confusion, the requester then asked for confirmation that the data provided above did relate solely to the misuse of Council IT facilities for personal matters, and the reply came back as 'yes'.

I think this speaks for itself. There is clearly one rule for the chief executive and one for everyone else. Yet again. I suggest that the Wales Audit Office take another look, and maybe the Monitoring Officer might care to instigate disciplinary proceedings against Mr Mark James CBE? What a joke.

To use council staff and resources to perform work for which a solicitor would have charged a small fortune is bordering on criminal, particularly as the council themselves have repeatedly told everyone that this was an 'entirely private matter' between Mr James and a resident.

After everything that has happened, what more do our councillors need, apart from a backbone, to bring a vote of no confidence against this tin-pot dictator? As for the police and the WAO, why are they still protecting him?
Outrageous.

The full thread of the FOI request can be seen here

See also this post from July; 'Evidence' accessed from council computers - the Carmarthenshire Herald. The Herald noted it would be "wholly inappropriate for any officer to use council IT infrastructure to assist another officer in the preparation of a private legal matter, and that it would also be wholly inappropriate for any officer to ask or instruct another officer to do so"

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Chief Executive threatens pensioner with legal action


The long running case concerning the dispute between pensioner Patricia Breckman and the council has been well documented. In a nutshell, the council chose to either turn a blind eye to her neighbour's developments at Blaenpant Farm or approved planning applications with no agricultural justification. The developments, which include massive sheds, the quarrying of rock, the formation of hardstand, and the running of an unauthorised haulage business have destroyed Mrs Breckman's life, her retirement and the peaceful enjoyment of the cottage which she shares with her partner Eddie Roberts.

Mrs Breckman has, over the past fifteen years or so, provided the council with evidence, which, on occasion, they themselves had asked for, that not only were the developments unjustified in planning terms but that some of their officers were simply ignoring what was going on. This was all backed up by a now-retired planning inspector on ITV's Week in Week Out who accused officers of turning a blind eye. Ombudsman findings have been mixed and the latest findings, which found in favour of the council, are downright bizarre and recognised as such by senior politicians who are challenging the report. The independence of our one and only public service watchdog in Wales is also being brought into question.

As the police had become involved and subjected Mrs Breckman to arrest, despite the fact that her neighbours were the aggravating party, the former Police Commissioner Christopher Salmon issued Mrs Breckman with a full and unreserved apology on behalf of the police in 2015.

Last year Mrs Breckman sought a similar apology from the council chief executive Mark James for the actions of the council, and particularly the planning department. An audience was finally arranged with that master of manipulation, Mr James, who led Mrs Breckman to believe he was not only sympathetic but would also support a claim for compensation.

Mrs Breckman duly put in a claim only to receive a letter, some months later, from the insurer's solicitor that there would be no pay out, she had no claim and if she tried to go to court they would immediately apply to strike out her claim. The basis for this abrupt decision was that council officers' were protected as their decisions were discretionary and could override statutory duties. Or some such b******s.
In other words, far from being sympathetic, the chief executive had made sure there'd be no claim, and no apology.

To give just one example amongst the numerous questionable issues was the hardstand created by the neighbour which became the subject of an enforcement notice. This eventually went to court. Mrs Breckman later discovered that the proceedings had been dropped by the then head of planning as the hardstand had now been removed. It hadn't, and this misinformation had been conveyed to the court.

Mrs Breckman has continued to push for the truth and believes that County Hall continue to cover-up serious breaches of conduct, and at the very least expects the chief executive and head of legal to recognise that the actions of planning officers, including the former head of planning, Eifion Bowen, fell short of what was expected of them.

The Monitoring Officer, Linda Rees Jones has a Statutory duty to prepare a report where evidence of malpractice, negligence or misconduct in public office is apparent. In this case - and I have had sight of all of the evidence, and the correspondence between Mrs Breckman and the Monitoring Officer - it's as plain as the nose on your face, and even in terms of local government games of smoke and mirrors it warrants independent investigation. Something definitely wasn't right, to put it mildly.

The latest twist to the whole affair comes in the form of a legal threat to Mrs Breckman from Mr James. "I now place you on notice that continuation may well invite legal action". The 'continuation' being Mrs Breckman's pursuit of straight answers through correspondence which has always been factual,  dignified and well argued, and one of which relates to the supposed independence of the Monitoring Officer.

The role of the Monitoring Officer is supposed to be impartial and not to cosset, and blindly take instructions from, the chief executive. In Carmarthenshire this is something of a long running joke, the libel indemnity being a case in point and even Ms Rees Jones permanent appointment as Monitoring Officer was a decision made by the chief executive alone - that should never have happened, and she depends on him for her job. We are stuck with a chief officer who, by fear or favour, exerts insidious and overwhelming control, even to the point where he controls the Monitoring Officer.

In Mrs Breckman's case the council have rendered her home unsaleable and destroyed her life, at best through negligence and incompetance and at worst through misconduct, and she continues to search for some honesty, integrity and accountability from those who are attempting to silence her - from my own experience let alone Mrs Breckman's, those three qualities are not part of Mr James' personality, let alone his vocabulary.
Legal threats are, as we know however, his speciality and quite what this one will consist of is anyone's guess. One thing is certain, he's out of control.

11th November;
Good to see this story on the front page of Friday's Carmarthenshire Herald, and an excellent article (print only) which concludes "The resort to law in a bid to silence critics and criticism is, however, nothing new in Carmarthenshire"


12th November;
For further comment and detail on this case see Y Cneifiwr's excellent post published today - Natural Justice 

The Burn family and Natural (In)justice


I am publishing below a brief statement from Mr Robin Burn, in his own words, in relation to recent calls for 'natural justice'. This blog has reported several times, (most recently here) on the failure of the authorities, including the council which led to the desperate situation which Mr and Mrs Burn found themselves in, and the profound effects these failures had on their severely autistic daughter, Carina.
Last year, Carina's solicitor issued the following statement; “This was a horrific case and Carina and her family were let down by every authority that should have been helping them, with devastating consequences… the family did their best to raise their concerns through appropriate channels but it was only through legal proceedings that the police, local authority and a psychiatrist engaged by the local authority all finally admitted their catastrophic failures.”

As you can see below, the fight for a full investigation, and natural justice, continues to this day.

Natural (In)Justice 
The recent departure, allegedly by his own hand , of Carl Sargeant, has led to an outpouring of national displeasure into the handling of this affair by the leader of the Welsh Government. The cries of anger in the lack of natural justice, and calls for investigations are extremely loud. 
The lack of clarity into what were the allegations of his misdemeanours, apparently led to his own actions. 
What a difference to the situation faced by the Burn Family when on October 15th 2010, allegations were laid against the parents of Carina Burn for sexual assault against their disabled autistic. daughter. 
We were denied any explanation by Carmarthenshire County Council and Dyfed Powys Police until the end of October after we had been arrested for the alleged assault. 
There was no national outcry and we here parents who knew we had committed no such offence, were never given any support by anyone save for two brave County Councillors. 
There were no cries of natural justice not being applied, and still to this day both the Authority and the Police have denied the Burn Family a statutory Safeguarding Investigation into the conduct of the authority and the police. 
Natural Justice has never been applied in our case, unlike the vociferous requests for a government minister. 
This is the real injustice.    
Perhaps now is the time to reflect and improve attitudes and procedures as a result of these unfortunate incidences? 
Mr Robin Burn

Sian Caiach has supported the Burn family throughout and provides a detailed account of their ordeal at the hands of the authorities on her blog in three parts; here and here and most recently here. She names all those who should be held accountable for their actions.

Carina at home with her parents, November 2017

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Response from the Police Commissioner - updated


Update 16th November; I have now had a response from the chief constable most of which is the same as below. He also tells me that that the harassment warning (PIN) has expired but as he is of the opinion it was reasonably issued, he is refusing to remove the record of its issue from police systems. He is so wrong but as I can't afford to fight it in court, it looks like I'm stuck with it 'on record'. So much for innocent until proven guilty.

---------------------------------------------

Previous post; Meeting with the Police Commissioner

After liaising with the chief constable of Dyfed Powys Police, the Police Commissioner, Dafydd Llywelyn has sent me a response which can be read in full at the end of this post.

The most interesting and significant part, amongst the flannel which I will deal with below, was a little more detail on what the CPS said when they threw out the charge of harassment back in July; Mr James is a public figure and criticism goes with the job, the 'comments' were not oppressive and did not amount to a course of conduct.

  • So, the essential ingredients of a criminal charge of harassment were completely absent - how the police couldn't see this is one of life's mysteries. 
  • The harassment warning, or 'PIN', appears to have expired at some point last month. According to police guidance it stays on record for fourteen months. Throughout this time I've been trying to have it removed. I will be seeking confirmation that it has now been removed from police databases.
  • When the PIN was issued I had no option other than to receive it, and, more to the point, had no avenue to challenge the allegations made by Mr James with which I strongly disagreed. A PIN is a verdict without trial. The PIN was then used as evidence following his second complaint, which was as nonsensical as the first, and again related entirely to the blog, as well as, bizarrely, Private Eye and the actions of various senior politicians. 
  • A conflict of interest? Undoubtedly. A close working relationship applies whether the chief executive is a suspect, or if someone is being investigated at his bidding - particularly in a case like this. Mr James made his initial allegations against me via a letter to the chief constable, not by dialling 101 like the rest of us. If that didn't raise a 'close working relationship' flag when it landed on the chief constable's desk I don't know what will.
  • Mr James has absolutely wasted police time, two years of it. His allegations have been unfounded, malicious and menacing at a time when he was pursuing me through the civil courts for money. Even the police wondered if he was trying to have "two bites of the cherry" over his allegations of perverting the course of justice.
  • As for misconduct in public office, What further evidence would they like? I would have thought that cheating the taxpayer by tens of thousands of pounds would have been sufficient, and there's already plenty of documentation available; Deliberately misleading your employers with dodgy legal advice? Dishonesty over your intentions? Using public resources to further your own personal agenda? I could go on. 

When Carmarthenshire council name and shame those who have made fraudulent benefit claims on the 'News' section of their website, the same stern line is trotted out by the appropriate executive councillor;

"These offences take money from the public purse that could otherwise be used for funding essential services. It is taking money from every council tax payer.”

What's the difference? It's been going on right under their noses for years.

I have no issue with the Police Commissioner and I am grateful to him for meeting with me. I do have issue with the police and have found the whole experience to be simply unbelievable, but for now I'll repeat an observation (another observation memorably, and accurately, likened the council to a Sicilian cartel) left by the outgoing former Dyfed Powys Police Commissioner, Christopher Salmon from his list of "what I won't miss";

"The police mob. By far the majority of officers are wonderful...But there’s a strain of police thinking, present in all forces and – at least in part – at all ranks, which, frankly, still does not understand who the police work for."

For Mr James, they've dutifully applied an extra coat of Teflon.

Here's the letter;



Friday, 27 October 2017

The Caerphilly farce continues. And then there's Carmarthenshire...


The three suspended Caerphilly Council senior officers, still on full pay, are back in the news today, (WalesOnline and BBC) reporting that two of them are set to receive substantial pay offs, and so will the third, the chief executive Anthony O'Sullivan, eventually. The dispute, which started with a Wales Audit Office finding of unlawful payments, in the form of pay rises, and included a lengthy police investigation, is said to have cost the authority over £3m since 2013, which includes half a million in legal costs.

I have drawn parallels with the situation in Carmarthenshire and this blog has followed the dispute in Caerphilly, but, unlike Caerphilly, our CEO was allowed to carry on regardless. Pembrokeshire managed to get shot of theirs but only with a golden handshake of £330k

As I said back in 2015, essentially the three from Caerphilly were alleged, in 2012, to have 'wilfully' prevented proper scrutiny of a pay rise for senior officers, they were alleged to have;

- wilfully misconducted themselves in relation to securing Caerphilly County Borough Council’s approval of a remuneration package for the council’s chief officers from which they stood to gain for themselves. 
- deliberately failed to publish agenda and reports for a meeting of the Council’s Senior Remuneration Committee in advance of a meeting. 
- deliberately introduced gratuitous material into one of the reports that was to be considered at said meeting so as to provide an apparent justification for exempting that report from public consideration. 
- deliberately applying a public interest test notice to the reports that were to be considered at said meeting when none was merited, thereby exempting the reports from public consideration.

In Carmarthenshire, the circumstances surrounding the unlawful, illegal, ultra vires payments, exposed by the Wales Audit Office in 2014, were equally shocking and deliberate. Proper governance was manipulated to avoid the possibility of scrutiny and challenge;

- The chief executive failed to leave the meeting, or even declare an interest when directly gaining personally and financially from the decision to approve his libel indemnity. And discussed and amended the report with the 'author' prior to the meeting. 
- The wording of the minutes of a meeting deliberately masked the true nature of a 'pension arrangement'. The report was authored and presented by a senior officer, the assistant chief executive, with a personal and financial interest in the decision. 
- Failing to publish the pension 'pay supplement' on the executive board agenda, again to avoid scrutiny and challenge. 
- The libel indemnity was omitted from the published agenda on the erroneous grounds it was 'urgent' and thereby removing any possibility that it could be questioned. 
- Misleading the executive board by misrepresenting advice given in a previous legal opinion and so knowingly exposing the authority to the risk of legal challenge and censure. 
- Insisting that the lawyer representing the chief executive and the council in the libel litigation was a source of 'independent' legal opinion - commissioned to give 'impartial' advice to the executive board.

Mr James went further and reneged on an undertaking to his employers, refused to repay the unlawful payments and continues to use council facilities and resources, at will, for his own private purposes.

Rules is rules of course and the only reason the Caerphilly saga has gone on so long is that it is probably easier to unseat the queen of England than a council chief executive in Wales. In most walks of life their behaviour, and that of Mr James, would have resulted, potentially, in instant dismissal for gross misconduct. No one would have pussyfooted around with words like 'unlawful' payments, it would have been 'illegal'; theft and fraud.
The investigation by Gloucestershire police lasted three months during which time they didn't speak to Mark James, or anyone at County Hall, or the CPS for that matter. It took Dyfed Powys Police eighteen months, and a charge, for the CPS to decide there was no case against me.

In part it is the mechanism of the disciplinary process for chief officers which is at fault, a tortuous system of special disciplinary panels, designated independent persons (probably a QC) and basically a lengthy, expensive legal fight. They should, of course have all the usual protections as employees, but it should be the same as it is for everyone else, the 'special protection' afforded to chief officers needs to be urgently reviewed. The expensive farce in Caerphilly is testament to the fact that it can't come quick enough.

* * *

The last full council meeting included an interesting item concerning the council's constitution. To be honest the constitution could be something of a niche interest, but here in Carmarthenshire it has often been suspected that there are two versions, the one published on the website and an official version locked in a drawer in the presidential suite to be tweaked and interpreted by Mr James and Legal Linda lest an awkward matter arises. It also contains the spectacularly unlawful, but currently suspended, unique libel indemnity clause.

Labour opposition leader Jeff Edmunds proposed amending the Standing Orders (meeting rules) to give equal importance to the answer to a councillor question as is currently given to the question. In effect, an answer should be brief and directly relate to the question, ie a straight answer.

Council leader Dole (Plaid) protested that a) it wasn't necessary, b) it was a matter for the Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG) and c) although he didn't necessarily disagree, Plaid would vote it down so Jeff might as well withdraw it. The chief executive then joined in to say that in all his 15 years at the council, Standing Orders had never been amended by full council, muttering that they could, if they dared wanted...

Once it was confirmed that a CRWG meeting would be held the following week Cllr Edmunds threw in the towel and withdrew the motion. Personally I'd have ploughed on, and asked for a recorded vote.

The background to CRWG, readers may recall, arose originally from the scandalous WAO public interest reports and the damning WLGA review into failed governance in 2014/15. All of which was treated with hostile contempt by the chief executive, and by smug self-satisfied complacency by most of the councillors.

Anyway, part of the 'aim' was for Carmarthenshire Council to be the most 'open' in Wales and toward that aim, you might think that agendas and minutes for these relatively infrequent CRWG governance meetings would be routinely published on the website.

I have been asking the head of legal, Linda Rees Jones, about this since CRWG first evolved, I have requested, and been sent copies of the 'Action Notes' but nothing is published.

The latest reasoning was that as this is a working group, technically speaking, publication is not required.
Never mind good practice, or the farcical aim to be 'transparent'.

I also asked, yet again, when the suspended clause (for well over three years now) would be permanently removed. Ms Rees Jones stated "As you know, we do not regard the libel indemnity provision to be unlawful; we consider it to be lawful. However, as you also know, the provision is marked as “withdrawn” on our Constitution."

I have asked her to define exactly who she means by 'we'. Her and Mr James? The entire council? He's played them like a fiddle and I'm guessing it's staying put, until Mr James goes.

As Cllr Emlyn Dole is the Chairman of CRWG, I have asked him to confirm his agreement with the WAO and the Welsh Government that the clause is indeed unlawful, (you may recall him becoming suddenly and inexplicably 'unaware of any unlawful payments', the u-turn oddly coincidental with his elevation to the position of leader), and to place the issue of its complete removal on the agenda for the next meeting of CRWG.

I await their replies.


As you will be aware, this blog has mentioned the WAO reports, the WLGA review, CRWG and the Caerphilly saga several times on this blog, all can be found by using the search box on the right hand side.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Hazardous chemicals and a history lesson


An interesting planning application caught my attention the other day, not just because it was seeking consent to store highly toxic chemicals (Arsine and Phosphine, six tons and one ton of each respectively, with regular lorry movements) at the former MOD site, now Stradey Business Park, in the middle of Llangennech, Llanelli but also because the applicant, R & A Properties rang a bell.

Back in 2008/9 the MOD wanted to sell off the 37 acre site, a well established military depot with buildings and infrastructure. Negotiations with the council came to an unexplained abrupt end and the MOD decided to sell at auction. Immediately prior to the auction, the council bought the site and sold it straight away to R & A Properties for, it was reported, around £845,000.

The proposal went to full council where councillors' doubts (eg why didn't R & A buy it directly from the MOD, and who were the investors behind R & A) were soothed by the chief executive who told them not to worry as the investors were "known to some officers", ie him and possibly a couple of others. How reassuring...

It certainly seemed to be a bargain for the investors, after all only a couple of years later the council's 'independent' valuers reckoned an undeveloped 1.1 acre site at Parc Y Scarlets could be sold to Marstons for roughly the same price.

Cneifiwr's post from April 2014, here, gives a far more detailed account of the dealings around the Llangennech site and more, and is well worth a read. At the time, the council claimed it was being entrepreneurial, if by that they meant making pots of money for those 'known' to them, rather than the taxpayer, then they certainly were. Incidentally, in 2011 the council gave R & A a £281k grant to  'refurbish' a couple of buildings.

Later in 2009 R & A Properties, who were "known to officers", revealed themselves as David Pickering, who, at the time, was Chairman of Welsh Rugby Union, and his business partner, Nigel Lovering. All this was reported in the press at the time.

Although no one is suggesting that there was anything untoward in the deal, one can only wonder whether the council would have brokered a similar arrangement for anyone who wasn't fortunate enough to be "known to officers".

Cneifiwr's post mentions some interesting 'gatherings' and photo opportunities between senior council officials and R & A and associated companies, and my efforts over the years to extract information regarding hospitality showed, for instance, that the chief executive accepted an invitation from the Chair of WRU, Mr Pickering, to attend an international rugby match a couple of weeks after the deal was sealed. Entirely coincidental I'm sure.

I can only assume, and I could be wrong (as R & A are a partnership not a limited company so does not have to reveal its information on Companies House) that R & A are still the same gentlemen who were "known to officers" back in 2009. This makes the current planning application interesting and illustrates the importance of maintaining and publishing a senior officers register of declared interests, gifts, hospitality.
No one is suggesting that anything is wrong but public perception is everything, and it's best for a public body, in the interests of transparency to at least try and remove all doubt.

I happened, for an entirely unrelated reason, to be surveying the declared interests of some Welsh MPs, and one entry for Stephen Crabb, Tory MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire was for four tickets to an Autumn International rugby match, with hospitality late last year, worth £833.36. The invite was from Hydro Industries Ltd based at Stradey Business Park, Llangennech. The Directors of Hydro Industries Ltd include the same two gentlemen who make up the partnership of R & A Properties.

No one wines and dines MPs or council chief executives for the simple pleasure of their thrilling company...well, it's remarkably unlikely. And, more to the point, these gifts and invitations are not accepted naively, but in the full knowledge of the implications.

As for Carmarthenshire Council and its senior officials, this behaviour has traditionally revolved around the world of rugby and its hospitality boxes, it has involved exposing the taxpayer to unquantifiable risk, and behaving, in the words of ex-police commissioner Christopher Salmon, like a Sicilian cartel.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Teflon Mark, and other news


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

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

Dear Mrs Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely
Jason Garcia
Audit Manager

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

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

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

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

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

---------------------------------------

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I await their reply.

------------------------------------------------


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

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

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

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

Dear Mr D.....,

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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely
John Tillman 
(Freedom of Information Officer)

Friday, 13 October 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---------------------------------

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

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

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

Sunday, 1 October 2017

The tail wagging the dog, as usual


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, 28 September 2017

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


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

                         

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

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

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


Carmarthenshire Council's Flag Policy


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

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

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

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



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

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



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

Friday, 15 September 2017

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


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

I daresay the responses will be to say that 'nothing's been decided', there'll be some cross-party blaming and accusations of scaremongering. We'll have to see what happens. Last year's planned school cuts were lessened after the council bean counters jiggled the council loan repayments to free up some cash, which was also just happened to be prior to the council elections...no such election this time round.

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

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


* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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