Monday, 23 January 2017

A Rotten Borough - a collection


This week's Cadno opinion piece from the Carmarthenshire Herald features a guest contribution from his friend, Melvyn the Mole. Possibly inspired by last week's national accolade bestowed on a certain senior council employee by Private Eye, Mervyn was moved to obtain permission to reproduce a small selection of the numerous Eye articles relating to our council, mainly from the Rotten Boroughs section from over the past few years. The full Cadno piece is at the end of this post.

With grateful thanks to Anon for the graphic

This reminds us of those other honours achieved by the best council in Wales. Runners up in the Legal Bullies of the year, winners of the Hellfire award and PR Plonkers of the year. As for PR Plonkers, Carmarthenshire council has had quite a rap sheet with regards to the local press, from threats to withdraw advertising because of mildly negative press...and then actually doing it. From demanding the retraction of a reporters Freedom of Info request, to having its own unique, and unlawful addition to its constitution...currently suspended...

There has been much written about the council's relationship with the local media on here and elsewhere over the years and in particular the attempts by County Hall, well, the chief executive, to exert editorial influence over the local independent press.

The former Police Commissioner, Christopher Salmon (Con), who recently labelled the council a Sicilian cartel, withdrew the police cash contribution from the council rag, the Carmarthenshire News a couple of years ago saying he'd prefer it went to independent media, trusted by the public. It is not known if the new Commissioner (Plaid) has reversed the decision.

The Cadno article stresses the importance of robust, independent local journalism, listing several examples from the latest edition of the Eye;
"One can only gasp in awe at the sheer arrogance, brazenness, contempt and disdain some people have for the general public. The very people who toil so hard and pay their taxes to keep said Council Leaders, Chief Executives and Executive Board Members of councils all over the UK in employment. They'd have gotten away with it if it wasn't for those pesky news people"
It is those pesky news people, or rather their decline (apart from the Herald), which feature in an article over on Press Gazette, an interesting read with a warning, from a former local newspaper editor, that the growth in PR officers, cushioning those in authority, is now outnumbering local investigative reporters:
"...And this is having a profound effect on society, reliant as it must be on the checks and balances that govern the relationships between its institutions and its citizens. 
“I can tell you having recently returned from that front line, with only a mild dose of shell shock, that whole areas of life that should be public and debated and questioned are now in danger of disappearing from public consciousness. Town halls, trust boards, courts, quangos all going about their business unhampered by tiresome questions with no light being shone in the corners. 
“We are in danger of losing the ability to hold people to account, speak up for the powerless, those lost in the systems. 
“It is still the case that when people are in trouble, cannot get answers, do not know where to turn, think they are a victim of injustice, have exhausted all avenues for recompense, they turn to a journalist. 
“And in places where rumbustious journalists – I call them affectionately troublemakers – still exist, the psychological effect that has on institutions cannot be underestimated. 
“How many chief exec’s, chief constables, trust chairman, communication managers, union bosses, council leaders, politicians of all sorts factor this sublimely into their decision making: ‘what if this gets into the press?’.” 
“My real fear now is those bosses and decision makers are beginning to rest a little easier, often surrounded as they are by a phalanx of communication officers (often fleeing journalists) who taken together now outnumber journalists working in the patch..."
County Hall has always considered its extensive media empire, or Department of Spin, a priority cause. There is nothing wrong with disseminating essential information of course but Carmarthenshire has always gone above and beyond with the notorious press office sometimes considered to be the first line of defence, or attack, notably against the Appointed Auditor over the unlawful payments. The press manager even joined the County Hall detachment to London for the duration of the libel trial. (However, it was Thompson, not James who featured in The Times leader on the final day ;)

Unlike schools, social care and other frontline services, the council press office has usually escaped the worst of the cuts, and with a tender just gone out for photographic and video services, it seems that it's business as usual.

Usefully for County Hall, the Sell2Wales Codes required for the tender are very explicit with regards to the duties which will be expected from the lucky bidder (my circling);


From Sell2Wales


Cadno - Carmarthenshire Herald 20th January;

Click to read (apols for the poor scan)

Most of the Private Eye articles, and the background to the stories can be found throughout this blog, and another, from November last year, can be found on Mrs Angry's excellent Broken Barnet blog.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Allowances, Penny-Pinching and City Deals - updated


Update 26th January - City Deal

With depressing predictability, all but two councillors (one against and one abstention) voted to plunge the council into unknown debt and unknown deals with private companies, including private health care, for the next fifteen years.
Clearly dazzled by the chief executive's presentation and the presence of other members of the 'Pitch Team', including the CEO of Pembrokeshire, Ian Westley, and Prof Marc Clement from Swansea Uni, formerly a director of Kent Neuroscience Ltd, (the company with which the council have entered an exclusivity agreement to develop the site), and the liberal deployment of some very impressive buzzwords ('Ideas harvesting' was one of my favourites), and some highly subjective statistics and figures, this was always going to sail through.
With the clear threat that Carmarthenshire would descend into medieval oblivion if they didn't agree, the questions nearly all began with glowing tributes and grateful thanks, robust scrutiny didn't come into it.
The chief executive, and the others, responded to the polite enquiries (Will there be buses to the wellness village? asked Kevin Madge) with more buzzwords and b******s until it was Cllr Caiach's turn to ask a few questions. Her questions were a little more searching and concerned the interest payable on the loans, the equity in any future assets, the suitability of the land and the fate of those currently trading from the site. At this point Mr James' mask slipped and he was reduced to snarling. I can just imagine his peptalk to the 'Team' prior to the meeting, something along the lines of  'there might be one awkward one, but don't worry, the rest'll be a walk-over'  ...and indeed they were.
If you fancy a game of bullshit bingo, or want to watch Meryl talk dreamily of sea air and wellness, the archived webcast will soon be available.

Update 24th January - City Deal

After watching the webcast of Monday's presentation of the City Deal, the Wellness Village etc to the Exec Board, by the Chief Executive, I would hope that councillors will have some very searching questions ready for tomorrow's full council.
It appears that the four constituent councils will be borrowing the money up front in the hope that it'll get fed back from central government, as I said below, Carmarthenshire is already in debt to the tune of £376m, how much more can be sustained?
There was a couple of oblique references to 'the developer' in relation to the Wellness Village, but who it was and what arrangements/deals are already in place was not defined.
There was reference to the setting up of a separate team to carry this thing through, how much will this cost the authority? Will it be a case of jobs for the boys?

Cllr Pam Palmer couldn't resist pre-empting criticism or even questioning, by saying that there are people probably blogging about all this already. Yes Pam. We all have a right to criticise but more importantly, proper scrutiny is vital, not something she can either tolerate nor understand.
Meryl seemed a little miffed that the very, very excited chief executive was so overcome he forgot to allow her to introduce the presentation.

The presentation, which will be repeated tomorrow (Wed 2pm) was full of hyperbole, scaremongering and more 'buzzwords' than you can shake a stick at. The scaremongering, which was delivered with several dramatic pauses to give the assembled Executive Board members time to gasp in horror, was that productivity had been in decline since 1999 and, without the City Deal, it would take until 2030 to reach the level achieved in 2010, or something like that, sounded like complete nonsense, as it all did.

We heard many councillors speak at length last week, from both sides, over the Welsh/English language issue and Llangennech school, I hope to hear the same attention paid to this, before the county is plunged into a twenty year arrangement with assorted, and possibly short term, private investors, it's saddled with a massive debt, and the auditors are called in.

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No doubt, after the election in May, there will be the usual unseemly scramble, back room deals, and vows of loyalty to the chief executive in the pursuit of special responsibility allowances, now known as senior salaries. Carmarthenshire councillors are allowed eighteen such positions by the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales (IRPW).

They range from £22,000 per annum for committee chairs, to £48,000 for the leader of the council. Plus expenses. The make-up of the council might change in May but the scramble will undoubtedly still happen.

Last year, when the final IRPW report went to the Executive Board, and in her usual were-all-in-it-together form, an indignant Cllr Pam Palmer (£32,250) grumbled that they were all worth far more, and the Panel's shock-horror recommendations that some Executive Board members should take a meagre 10% cut needed to be "banged on the head".

The Democratic Services Committee (not webcast, so not allowed to be filmed) were recently tasked with conveying its thoughts on the draft IRPW report for the 2017/18 municipal year, to start in May.

Not content with just eighteen senior salaries they wanted to extend the coveted rewards to the committee vice chairs as well. No sign of belts being tightened there then.

As sound justification to extend the quota of senior salaries has to be put to the IRPW, it's unlikely to get very far. It's pretty difficult to justify the ones they've already got.
Disappointing that it was even considered though.

Although a £100 rise in the basic allowance of £13,300 is recommended by the IRPW it states that there'll be no rise in senior salaries. But as the basic allowance forms part of the senior salary, they will receive the extra hundred quid anyway.

I'm not against a basic, reasonable allowance and the sums are relative small compared to executive officer pay, and although modest, no doubt the extra £100 will come in handy. It'll cover the new executive-board-approved £48 grass collection charge I suppose...and it will help our councillors with those increased car parking charges....

So, as Members recommend themselves a £100 pay rise and grumble that there's not enough lucrative senior positions, in another scrutiny committee, and to put things into penny-pinching perspective, a proposal was put forward to stop a planned 30p increase in the price of meals on wheels. This proposal went to a vote and was, incredibly, defeated.

The final IRPW report will go to full council in a few weeks time and I daresay, by then, some of them will have remembered that there's an election in May...

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Next Wednesday (25th) the council will be asked to give the Chief Executive and Leader delegated powers to sign off the various arrangements for the Swansea Bay City Deal (SBCD). Pembrokeshire, Swansea and Neath Port Talbot councils are also part of the deal.

This a £1.3bn package consisting of long term grants from central and devolved government, local authority, and health board borrowing, and private investment. Cardiff Council recently agreed to their city deal and other deals are in different stages of development across the UK. The Swansea City deal features, amongst other projects, the Llanelli Wellness Village which will feature private health care and involve a contribution from Carmarthenshire council of £32m.

This blog is concerned with Carmarthenshire and the report for the Executive Board can be found here. As usual it is couched in glorious, visionary, no-other-option terms, heavy on PR and low on detail.

Considering that the council 'needs' to charge pensioners an extra 30p for meals on wheels; has trouble running a small country park; an appalling track record in grant management, and a history of unlawful decision making, councillors should approach the deal with caution and an appropriate level of scrutiny before giving the CEO and Leader the power to sign off millions of pounds, or go headlong into la la land, if that is your view. The council is already £376m in debt.

Some might find it equally concerning that the SBCD has featured the, er, expertise of Meryl Gravell as a Member of the Board and the manoeuvrings of Mark James, lurking in the corridors of power.
Although perhaps confidence should be buoyed by the chief executive's recent national accolade...

A few points in the report should be of concern to councillors, not least of all the lack of detail about the various projects. The level of borrowing required by the council has not yet been calculated, nor have the terms and conditions. Governance and accountability arrangements appear to be still at the 'legal advice' stage and the long term financial commitment needs to be quantified. The aim appears to be to lock the council into the deal before the May local election.

As for transparency, the involvement of the private sector precludes openness from the start and in relation to the Wellness Village for example, the council have already gone behind closed doors and signed an exclusivity agreement with a private medical company from Kent, some background to the company can be found here.

A useful and simple general summary, including the pros and cons of the City Deal 'model', can be found here as Australia considers whether the concept will be suitable for them. The article concludes by saying "adopting the model without careful scrutiny and analysis feels more like taking a punt than backing a certainty"
At worst it could be one of the most disastrous PFI style deals in history. On a massive scale.

Friday, 13 January 2017

A New Year Honour from Private Eye


The Rotten Borough Awards for 2016 have been announced in the latest edition of Private Eye, here's one of the winners;




Sunday 15th January:

It must be heartwarming to see that the local press, the Carmarthenshire and Llanelli Heralds, have acknowledged this important national accolade....



Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The 'Wellness' Village; The cost escalates

With the news dominated by stories of our A & E departments at breaking point, patients in corridors for hours etc etc and our NHS in general facing huge funding issues a disturbing snippet emerged from some recent scrutiny minutes concerning our council's foray into private health care. 

Wendy Walters, an Assistant Chief Executive (we have two of those, and a Deputy Chief Executive) informed the committee that the cost, or 'investment' as the council prefers to call it, for the 'very very exciting' 'Wellness Village' proposed for Delta Lakes, Llanelli is now £200m. 

This is twice the £100m estimate from last summer, but, she says, £127m is 'anticipated' to come from the private sector. I'm guessing no one's got a clue how much it will cost. And even if private investment materialises, that still leaves at least £70m. 

For background to this project, which is Chaired by Meryl Gravell as part of the ARCH collaboration programme and led by Carmarthenshire Council, (well, Meryl and Mark), please see my post from August; Wellness Centre - or a luxury spa? and Cneifiwr's post Merylmania - return of the undead from June. 
Otherwise, please google, there's some spectacular 'Wellness' life-coaching jargon out there.

With the £7m put by for a new Llanelli care home, and a £3m pot for repairs both being funnelled into this public/private venture it's time for some serious questions to be asked. The Welsh Government has already stumped up a couple of million for scoping exercises and consultants reports. 
Fortunately, Ms Walters has offered to arrange a seminar on the project for all councillors. This will be for their information only of course as the Chief Executive has already declared that councillors will not be making the decisions. 

So before councillors get swept away by motivational, 'futurist' conceptual b******s, and a '3D architectural visualisation' of how the vision in white might look, perhaps they should consider doing a bit of research and asking a few pertinent questions;

For example;

1. Doesn't a decision to funnel public resources into private health care fly in the face of moral and political commitment to preserve and invest in the NHS?

2. Given the financial crisis currently faced by the two health boards, the county council and the Welsh Government, where is the £70m coming from?

3. How exactly will this benefit the people of south west Wales? Would they not prefer Carmarthenshire's public money was 'invested' in helping our hospitals, extra staff for A & E perhaps, rather than meditation rooms and conference suites? Have they been asked?

4. How much of this project is based on the conceptual ideology of the Global Wellness Institute, the promotion of luxury 'health and beauty tourism' and alternative therapies?

5. Who exactly are the private investors coughing up the 'anticipated' £127m? 

6. Will this be another Parc y Scarlets, bleeding the taxpayer dry for years to come? Or even another Welsh Government Technium Project, defunct after ten years? 

7. How much taxpayers' money has already been spent? Including the value of the land?

Visualisation from ARCH
A wholly private enterprise would be a different matter but this involves public cash and at the very least, and given the current crisis in health and social care, never mind the highly questionable track record of County Hall vanity projects, the involvement of the County Council should be open to scrutiny, challenge and democratic oversight. 

Monday, 9 January 2017

'Lumpy carpets' and other comments


Cneifiwr's latest post, 'Undulating Axminster' brings us up to date with the state of play over the Pembrey Country Park scandal. Along with evaluating just how level the Axminster actually is, Cneifiwr also comments on the priority amongst some corporate bodies, and one in particular, towards reputation management rather than openness and honesty. I have covered the progress of the emerging scandal in Pembrey several times and, as Cneifiwr points out, was reported to the police early last year by the chief executive for my reference to 'lumpy carpets'.

As a footnote, and as I didn't refer to Mr James personally wielding the broom, his complaint to the police, which I suspect was drafted by a media lawyer rather than a criminal barrister, included a reference to a stock photo, and reads thus;
"This post contains a photograph of a man sweeping something under a carpet.  Mr James believes that any reasonable reader would associate the reference to “lumpy carpets” with the phrase “sweep under the carpet” with its associated implication that the carpet hides something embarrassing that he didn’t want people to know about."

I am reminded of a couple of other allegations to the police which, in Mr James's view, constituted criminal harassment and which, in my view, certainly do not.

Prior to the Police Commissioner and Assembly election in May 2016 there was something of a cock-up over the postal ballot papers, Mr James was the chief Returning Officer and the incident was widely reported at the time. More to the point, electors had contacted me because they were confused over the postal ballot papers.

Within the post I had made this comment, subsequently reported to the police by Mr James as evidence of criminal harassment;
"The Returning Officer, Mark James, is no stranger to controversy of course and it was only a couple of years ago that Plaid MP Jonathan Edwards called for 'ministerial intervention', questioning whether Mr James should preside over the European election whilst on gardening leave during the criminal investigation following the unlawful payments scandal.
Earlier, in 2012, there was controversy over an 'advance payment' of £20,000 to Mr James for the local elections, a payment made before the number of contested seats were known, and in the previous financial year."

It remains unclear whether Mr James reported Mr Edwards to the police for harassment in 2014, or those who flagged up the returning officer fees in 2012. I suspect not.

Interestingly, recent controversy over the blocked Notice Of Motion put forward by Cllr Alun Lenny, with the curious reasoning that it might constitute contempt of court, has led to several suggestions, here and there, whether the role and remit of Head of Administration and Law/Monitoring Officer, Linda Rees Jones, includes sheltering the chief executive with an occasional legal umbrella.

I suggested that this might be the case back in March when Ms Rees Jones refused to consider a complaint I had made following the chief executive's remarks, to the Western Mail, falsely accusing me of lying over offers I had made regarding the damages from his unlawfully funded counterclaim.
Given her involvement in every aspect of the case so far (and since), it seemed odd that she suddenly decided that the matter was 'private'.
My comment, in the same vein as that umbrella effect, was also reported to the police.

As per the format of the harassment warning I received back in August, the police made no judgement as to whether Mr James's complaints were worthy of not only their own time, but also the council resources and facilities it took to cobble them together. However, they were happy to issue it, and the warning still stands and could be used in court should Mr James make further criminal allegations.

In effect the warning is akin to a high court injunction against legitimate comment concerning the business of a local council, without the accused being able to dispute or formally counter the allegations.

And, unlike the accuser, I am not in the position of having a publicly funded legal department at my disposal.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Rhodri's Return?


The announcement earlier this week that former Assembly Member Rhodri Glyn Thomas (Plaid) intends to stand for the St Clears seat in the May council elections is an interesting one, the seat is currently held by Independent Group member Cllr Phillip Hughes (who, I hear you ask? Ah, former member of the executive board during the pension and libel indemnity scandals).

Mr Thomas remarked to the BBC that he wants to challenge the "democratic deficit" where "officials run the council", adding, "We need to ensure elected members run the council."

This is in contrast to the corporate world view adopted by his Plaid colleague and leader of the council Emlyn Dole who, bathed in the warm embrace, or, perhaps, clutches, of Meryl and Mark, has convinced himself, but no one else, that everything is now fine.

Perhaps Mr Thomas noticed that only last month, the 'ruling', and largest group on the council, Plaid Cymru, couldn't even get a Motion on the council table and, worse still, didn't seem to have the bottle to try and assert their authority.

In May, Plaid will be hoping, clearly, to break the grip of Pam's Independents and their cosy relationship with the chief executive, defeat Labour, and assume full control In my view the current Plaid leadership is not helping matters, quite the opposite in fact. Meryl is standing down in May and the chief executive is rumoured to be off at the same time, though whether this rumour is based on anything more than collective wishful thinking we'll have to wait and see. A £20,000 returning officer fee might stall him for a while.

To the observer the Plaid politicians outside the council have been a little more forthright in their views over the years than their councillor colleagues; joining the toxic culture in County Hall rather than defeating it was a bad error of judgement. Maybe Mr Thomas has been brought in to try and pick up the pieces for Plaid...

He is, however, regarded by Mr James as a very unwelcome irritant. He (Mr Thomas, not Mr James, obviously) has consistently supported calls for inquiries into the planning department, most notably in regards to the Breckman case; he has called for the council to be put in special measures over the democratic deficit; called for Mr James to resign over the unlawful payments scandal called for his formal suspension as returning officer and along with Jonathan Edwards MP called for the police to investigate. He has also campaigned for some level of control over chief officer pay and was openly critical over the dodgy payment to the Scarlets and the proposed half a million golden handshake to Mr James.

None of this has endeared him to Mr James, as you can imagine. If elected, it will be interesting to see if he follows up his words with actions, we might even see a leadership challenge to Emlyn Dole, better still would be to see the chief executive finally held to account; if Mr Thomas seriously wants to end the democratic deficit then Mr James has to go.
If nothing else, I can't see our chief executive's bullying tactics, legal posturing and bluff having the desired effect on Mr Thomas.

Interesting times ahead.
Oh, and someone has started a petition, please sign if you wish.

And with that, a Happy New Year to all.