Friday, 16 September 2022

Mark James and his secret trust - Council Leader replies to my 'open email'

I finally had a response from Carmarthenshire's Council leader Darren Price to my queries concerning Mark James and his 'secret trust' email (see link above).
It's not clear why he didn't reply to Sian Caiach's similar questions posed earlier this year. Anyway, here's his reply in full, with my comment below:

Dear Mrs Thompson

Thank you for your email relating to this matter, which follows on from an earlier email that I have received from Sian Caiach.

As a relatively newly elected Leader, I would firstly like to say categorically that I will not tolerate any criminality within the local authority on my watch, and that if any evidence of criminality is found against a current employee, then I would look to ensure that proper procedures are enacted.

In turning to the questions that you pose - we now have the benefit of hindsight. Had the Authority known about the email stating some sort of proposal for a secret trust at the time (ie. 24th October 2018) then I presume that it would undoubtedly have made enquiries. However, as you are aware, the email was sent from Mr. James’ private email account and neither the Executive Board nor the officers involved on the project knew of it until it was disclosed in the Judgment in the Marc Clement and Stephen Poole Employment Tribunal case in June 2022. 

Clearly, Mr. James had retired from the Authority in June 2019, and as you state, no prosecutions were brought, so we will never know whether any actual convictions would have been secured. 

However, what we do know is that the procurement process this Authority conducted in relation to the Wellness Village Project received a clean bill of health by lawyers commissioned by the Authority, by Wales Audit Office and by the police investigation. We also know that none of the Authority’s land, assets or funds were committed or released to the Developer Parties.

The Wellness Village project was abandoned of course and should not be confused with the project which we are now progressing, which is the Pentre Awel project. I am satisfied that robust governance arrangements are in place in respect of the Pentre Awel project via the Swansea Bay City Region.

It is important to note that the only project which the Authority’s legal personnel advised on was the Wellness Village, and that was in conjunction with external lawyers. I can again confirm that no advice was given by our legal personnel on any discretionary trust.

I would also reiterate that if you, or anyone else, feel that you have any evidence of potential criminality which has not yet been brought to the attention of the police, then I would urge you to present that at the earliest opportunity so that it can be examined.

As a newly elected Leader, it is clear to me that the development of the new Pentre Awel project is vital in terms of the regeneration of Llanelli and I am committed to doing all that I can, working in conjunction with the new Chief Executive in Carmarthenshire, the Welsh Government and UK Government, to deliver the new project as planned.

In concluding, I recognise the complicated history and difficult relationship that has developed between yourself and the Authority over the past decade. I would hope that you would recognise that as a new Leader my focus has got to be on looking to the future, and trying to develop the County. There is much to do, and I am keen to work with anybody who has the County's best interests at heart as we look to tackle some of the major challenges that face us.

Yours,
Darren.

I will, of course, respond to Mr Price in due course, for what it's worth.
 
The response was undoubtedly meant to draw a line under this whole affair, and let it never be spoken of again. Pentre Awel is, apparently, an entirely new thing, not to be confused with the Wellness Village. This is despite it being on the same site, costing the same amount of cash and being, well, the same thing. 

I don't recall Darren Price, nor any other members of Plaid Cymru expressing concerns about governance whilst key figures were planning to line their own pockets, most notably for them, the former chief executive, despite clear indications and warnings that things weren't right.
 
If he is now happy with the governance, then so be it. I trust no one would want this to happen again, but instead of public money being stolen, let's hope it's not simply wasted instead. I hope he's vigilant, because I will be watching.

We have no option other than to accept his word that the Authority was unaware of the email in question. 
Had it been aware, one hopes they would have done a little more than 'make enquiries'. It was this email which prompted Swansea University to call the fraud squad, never mind make bloody enquiries. Mark James was caught red-handed.

I can only assume that Mr Price and the officers concerned were appalled by its contents and realised once and for all what a manipulative and persistent offender Mark James was, and is. I think many of them, including Mr Price, already knew that.
 
What role Wendy Walters played in all this, as Head of Regeneration (and now chief executive) is fuzzy to say the least. Let alone Head of Legal Linda Rees Jones, whose career was built on covering up for Mr James.
 
What is unacceptable is that all the warning signs were there, detailed on this blog and elsewhere. It appears to me that no one had the backbone to challenge Mark James, about anything it seems. He was allowed to sail off into the sunset with his pockets stuffed with taxpayers' cash.

He mentions that the procurement process was given a 'clean bill of health'. Based almost entirely on the report by Acuity Law. The law firm which also happened to be Mark James' personal lawyers. It was far from independent and was designed to save his skin.

The Acuity Law report, which I wrote about in February 2019, provided a catalogue of 'unusual' events which, apparently were absolutely fine. I doubt Mr Price will link back and refresh his memory but to give an example, by November 2017 the 'council' were advising Sterling Health what to put in their submissions...
 
The tender was rigged by James, and it was only the actions of Swansea University which prevented further loss to the council. Several £mmm had already been shelled out in the three years leading up to the discovery of the corruption.

Perhaps Mr Price has forgotten that the police found plenty of evidence of criminality, it was the failing health of Franz Dickmann of Sterling Health which persuaded the CPS to discontinue. 

Mr Price mentions my 'complicated history and difficult relationship' with the authority. There's nothing complicated about it. I have consistently pointed out, amongst other things, that the former chief executive was arrogant, threatening and above all, dishonest and corrupt. And I was right. 

He was the same in his previous post in Boston and, it now seems, carrying on in much the same way in his 'management' of Century Wharf, Cardiff. Once a crook always a crook.

I can understand that Mr Price wants to move on swiftly from this unpleasant episode, forget it ever happened and maybe put James, and his idiotic puppet Emlyn Dole into a distant if uncomfortable memory. 

I don't have that luxury. I will continue to fight for justice, for an apology and for the financial burdens imposed on me by the Council, and Mark James, to be removed.

Monday, 15 August 2022

Open email to Cllr Darren Price - Plaid Cymru Leader of Carmarthenshire Council

At the end of June this year former County Councillor Sian Caiach emailed the new Plaid Cymru leader of Carmarthenshire County Council, Darren Price with a few questions relating to the Wellness scandal and particularly the email between Mark James and Marc Clement. The questions, you would think, were reasonable enough.
 
Did any council legal personnel offer advice on the project, including the 'discretionary trust' mentioned in the email; Can he confirm that, as the project is still ongoing, no one else is coining it in in a likely manner? (in so many words) and when exactly did the Plaid administration know the contents of this email and that their chief executive officer was lining his own pockets? (again, in so many words)

To date, Darren Price appears to be unable or unwilling, to answer these questions.

We will try again. Maybe it needs to be expressed in simpler terms.

So here's an open email which one hopes might get a response:


To: Cllr Darren Price - Leader

Dear Cllr Price

I write partly in reference to an email sent to you on 29th June 2022 from Dr Sian Caiach. After resending the email she eventually received an acknowledgement from your office, but no reply to her questions. We presume therefore that you actually read Dr Caiach's email.

I must also presume that you, even as a backbench Plaid Councillor at the time thought something was seriously amiss with the Llanelli Wellness Village. In fact, this whole sorry business happened under Plaid Cymru's watch.

In light of this could you clarify exactly when and how the Plaid Cymru administration realised that the chief executive officer at the time, Mark James, was corrupt and accepting bribes from the then developer of the project?

Did the Plaid leadership ever challenge Mark James when the suspensions at the University were announced, and the criminal activities involving himself were exposed?
Was the council's legal department giving him advice? If so, what was it?

What is your reaction to the judgement from the recent employment tribunal Marc Clement & Mr S Poole v Swansea University and the email correspondence arranging to set up a secret trust to funnel off funds for their own benefit, between Mark James and Marc Clement?

For ease of reference, I repeat that email here, and the relevant extracts from the judgment.

"Appreciate you are in China, but I thought I would share a few thoughts on this. Under the discretionary trust there is no absolute guarantee that you or I would actually ever get the shares, as the trustees have complete discretion who they give them to. So I suspect it would not provide an assurance for the future. This might be resolved by a separate document from the trustees Franz and Phyllis [of Sterling Health] creating in essence a secret trust in favour of us. Or a self declared trust, eg that they hold in favour of us and all we have to do is take up the positions of chair/CEO within a set period.
"This is what one might term a second best legal option. Alternatively we can go back to the solicitor for further advice on how to ensure legally that the intended shares do come to us as soon as we crystallise a particular requirement, eg taking up posts. I would appreciate your views before we respond to Franz."
(Mark James to Mark Clement Oct 2018)

Para 121
"One specific email which Ms Sen Gupta had originally intended to include amongst the documentation, and to raise with the First Claimant, was the email from Mr James to the First Claimant on 24 October 2018, referred to at paragraph 99 above. That was on the direction of the police, who were planning to arrest a number of individuals, including the First Claimant and Mr James, and to seize documents from them. The police were concerned that if the Claimants were made aware that the Respondent was in possession of the particular email, then Mr James could be "tipped off" that the police were planning on taking action against him"

Para 128
"She confirmed that her view was that the email strongly suggested that the First Claimant regarded Mr Dickmann's proposals about future roles and equity as genuine, as did Mr James, and they took them seriously. She contrasted that email to the email exchange between the First Claimant and Mr James on 10 July 2018 in which they appeared to be trying to distance themselves from any arrangement which would be regarded as improper for a Carmarthenshire or University employee to enter into, and which she noted she considered to be "self-serving".

Para 215
"There was also evidence in the form of Mr James' email to the First Claimant in October 2018, when Mr James indicated that he was concerned that the trust provisions did not sufficiently protect him."

We are all aware of the outcome of the police investigation which was that evidence of criminality was found, this email being the key evidence. The CPS decision not to continue was because the director of Sterling Health, Franz Dickmann was too ill to testify.

Therefore I would like your comments on the above and why, when it was blindingly obvious that something was seriously wrong from the very beginning, the Plaid Cymru leadership continued to rubber stamp every dodgy decision.

Was it because the former leader Emlyn Dole was too deep in the pocket of Mark James?

When exactly did Ms Wendy Walters, in her previous role as deputy chief officer and Director of Regeneration, become aware of any inappropriate arrangements?

How can County Councils such as Carmarthenshire be prevented from wasting UK City Deal public money, and indeed 'levelling-up' funds, on fraudulent schemes to line the pockets of senior council officers? 
How safe is the re-incarnation of the Wellness Village, Pentre Awel as it is now known, from the same corruption if Plaid Cymru allowed it to happen before?

The people of Carmarthenshire, and indeed the taxpayers' of Wales deserve some openness and honesty from Plaid Cymru over this whole affair.
It is unbelievable that no internal inquiry was carried out by the administration given the actions of the former chief executive and the police investigation, all of which almost scuppered the whole Swansea Bay City Deal.

The two Swansea University employees were sacked for gross misconduct, for failing to declare interests.
Have the council pursued Mark James, before or since his 'retirement', about his failure to declare the same interests?

You know full well that the council were being told the truth about Mark James on this very blog, long before, during, and after this particular scandal. He was, and is, a crook.
You, as leader, owe me an apology.

Now is your chance to respond.

I would be grateful for an acknowledgment of this email, which I have also published as an open email on my blog.
I look forward to your full reply.

Yours sincerely
Jacqui Thompson

cc: 
Wendy Walters - chief executive
Cllr Rob James - Labour group leader
Adam Price AS
David T C Davies MP
Andrew RT Davies AS
Mark Drakeford AS






Thursday, 16 June 2022

Mark James - caught red-handed - the email and the secret trust

The moment that former CEO of Carmarthenshire Council Mark James CBE has been dreading for over two years finally arrived yesterday. 

An email he had sent to Marc Clement, from his personal account, dated October 2018, surfaced in evidence at the Employment Tribunal brought by Marc Clement and Steven Poole against their dismissal from Swansea University for gross misconduct. (Update 29th June; good news, Clement and Poole lost their case)

Regular readers will be aware that all this centres around the £200m City Deal Wellness Village development, the Kuwait escapade, and allegations of bribery. 

In essence, Clement and James were offered bribes in the form of shares and jobs by Franz Dickmann of Sterling Health. Mark James then had to rig the tender for the Wellness Village to go make sure it went Dickmann's way.

Clement and James accepted. 

Mark James, as CEO of the Council, made absolutely certain that Sterling Health got the tender.




Mark James


The whole deal with Sterling was fraudulent.

The problem, of course, was not only to make sure Dickmann lived up to his promise, but where to  hide the million of pounds they would be pocketing from the bribe.





Mark James, in his email, planned to set up a secret trust (I understand it was to be offshore).

Here's the email, and it was this email which prompted the police investigation, and provides proof that James had accepted the bribe of shares and jobs and was setting up a secret trust to squirrel it away for himself. 

"Appreciate you are in China, but I thought I would share a few thoughts on this. Under the discretionary trust there is no absolute guarantee that you or I would actually ever get the shares, as the trustees have complete discretion who they give them to. So I suspect it would not provide an assurance for the future. This might be resolved by a separate document from the trustees Franz and Phyllis [of Sterling Health] creating in essence a secret trust in favour of us. Or a self declared trust, eg that they hold in favour of us and all we have to do is take up the positions of chair/CEO within a set period.
"This is what one might term a second best legal option. Alternatively we can go back to the solicitor for further advice on how to ensure legally that the intended shares do come to us as soon as we crystalise a particular requirement, eg taking up posts. I would appreciate your views before we respond to Franz."
(Mark James to Mark Clement Oct 2018, my underline)

Absolutely shocking.

I have been deliberately brief with the background details in this post. It is all on this blog, and various news reports over the past few years by some excellent journalists.

The police made clear that they had evidence of criminal behaviour. 
Mark James was always a suspect, his home (and County Hall) were raided, and, after failing to turn up for interview he was arrested and hauled in front of the tape recorder.

When Clement, Poole etc were suspended from the University, and James realised that this email was being held as evidence he had to arrange his 'retirement' from the council. He must have been sweating ever since, wondering when it would finally emerge. 

It finally has.

Due to the failing health of Franz Dickmann, the CPS decided not to continue with the case. This does not seem to me, and perhaps the police, to be a particularly good reason.

This was a bribery investigation (Operation Koel) for a reason. And there was proof.

And what about the Welsh Government, could they have pushed to take it further? I'm sure they could.

So what happens now? There is now cast iron factual proof that Mark James is a crook. I always said he was, and this proves it. 

I am paying him damages every month for suggesting he was dishonest and that he had a slush fund.

Not only does this prove dishonesty, and we know the slush fund was illegal, but is reveals the stark fact that he is a crook. Apart from the numerous scandals recounted on this blog, goodness knows what else he got up to during seventeen years at the Council. He is corrupt to the core.
I am certain that this is not the first time he accepted a bribe.

The least that must happen now, in light of these facts, is that I am relieved of paying Mark James his damages and costs. His legal charge and suspended order for sale should be revoked.

As a penniless resident I would welcome any help from a lawyer prepared to take up the challenge.

I hope his management colleagues at Century Wharf Cardiff are also aware of all this. I will let them know.
The best that can happen is that he is re-investigated and eventually put behind bars, where he belongs.


Sunday, 8 May 2022

Farewell, Emlyn Dole

As the former Council leader Emlyn Dole has featured many time on this blog it would be remiss of me not to say a few words after he lost his seat last week. The vote was close but went to a fellow Plaid candidate rather than poor Mr Dole.
Congratulating the winner through gritted teeth, he was clearly humbled by the experience, and more so, the loss of fifty grand a year plus perks.
 
When Caebrwyn started following the goings on at Carmarthenshire Council Mr Dole was in opposition. He and his Plaid colleagues were very vocal, and at times quite rude, about the terrible way that the then Labour and their Independent colleagues were running the show. The things they said about the former chief executive would have made a judge blush... 

Aside from their criticism over secrecy, bad governance etc etc and the way the administration (Meryl was in charge in those days) bowed to senior officers, Plaid's big moment in opposition was the unlawful payments scandal. 

One by one they said how terrible it all was, they called for votes of no confidence and senior Plaid politicians even called plod to investigate the "dictator" chief executive. Shocking!! Using public money to bring libel cases against members of the public was not only unlawful, they agreed, but the sign of a morally bankrupt ruler, a slush fund.

Emlyn Dole, however, appeared to be a little wary of Mr James. He had obviously realised that if ever he managed to climb the greasy County Hall pole, his position in power would be entirely dependent on the whim of the chief executive. He didn't want to become the subject of one of James' infamous 'dossiers' looming on the shelf of the presidential suite...

A fine balance had to be struck. By 2015 Mark James, and Meryl, had grown weary of Labour leader Kevin Madge and felt like a change. As did a faction of the Labour group led by Jeff Edmunds who sent poor hapless Kevin packing. Meryl and Mark, however, were not so keen on Edmunds. 
He'd rattled James a year or two before by spilling the beans over one of his dodgy Scarlet's deals. 
And also, there was no better way to silence a critical opposition than to offer them the pretence of power

So, with James' approval (the Rev Emlyn was, like Mark James, a religious man, apparently), Meryl decided she wanted Emlyn.

Emlyn, meanwhile, had a little planning issue developing. The conversion of a four hundred year barn into a tanning salon and holiday let (the application was in his wife's name) had become less of a conversion and more of a full scale demolition.


 

To cut a long story short Mark James smoothed his path out of trouble, the planning committee duly obliged and nothing more was said.

Mark James, naturally, wanted something in return for all this. And for giving him the job of leader. The price Dole paid was to u-turn completely on his condemnation of the slush fund. Suddenly there was nothing wrong with it. Nor the chief executive, who, according to Emlyn had rays of sunshine shining from all sorts of places.

Emlyn went further. Even as recently as last year he, along with the head of legal Linda Rees Jones, was trying to get the slush fund clause back in the constitution, and to extend it to senior councillors like himself. The external auditors were having none of it. However, it still exists and now languishes as a power of the Cabinet. I dare them ever to use it again though. Well, Emlyn certainly won't be.

Also rumbling along shortly after Dole became leader was the now infamous Wellness Village and the City Deal. In 2016 Mark James, (along with Marc Clement) ensured that Emlyn's Cabinet gave an exclusivity deal to Kent based Messrs Dickmann and co to develop the project. The deal evaporated and the company dissolved. Only to reappear a year later under a different name.

We all thought it was a little strange back then how a company with no track record and in £137k debt was going to cope with a £200m project. And why Mr James was so determined they should have the contract. We now know why. Just a little matter of bribery.
Didn't Emlyn wonder what was going on? Who knows...


The corrupt 'Wellness Village' deal


By late 2018 the whole sorry mess was exposed, via Swansea University, and the police had been called. Mark James had no choice other than to plan his escape, so announced his 'retirement'. 

Emlyn still couldn't say a bad word about Mark. Plus, of course, he had become Mark's 'Meryl', the democratic rubber stamp for his dodgy deals and, well, criminal behaviour.
Emlyn was also, thanks to the regular appearances of Mark James, starting to get a mention in Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs column, not a good sign.

In June 2019, with City Deal nearing collapse, thanks to Mark James, and the organised crime squad beating a path to County Hall and James' front door, Emlyn outshone himself, using James' retirement to wax lyrical of the great man. Even elements of the Plaid group were squirming in their seats, it was deeply uncomfortable even for them. James of course waxed equally lyrically about himself. Both of them took a swipe at bloggers.

A couple of weeks later County Hall and James' home were raided.

Then, in mid-pandemic, there was the sorry business over THAT sign. Emlyn decided that motorists required an expensive arty 'gateway' sign alerting them to the fact they were entering Carmarthen, it turned out to be a shoddy, ill-sited collection of tin plates costing an eye-watering £136,000. 
The last time I saw it half had blown away in a storm, and the rest of it had white paint daubed all over it. Emlyn's folly it certainly was. 

Let's not even mention that 'Tywi Valley' footpath which has gone around £12m over budget....or the millions Dole has ensured pours into the pockets of consultants planning the Wellness Thing, now called Pentre Awel.

Plaid, with 38 seats have a narrow majority of one. Labour have 23 seats and the independents 14. 
Caebrwyn, by the way, came third, even behind the Tory, so I can't say much about election success...:-)

Plaid have picked Darren Price to replace Emlyn Dole. I understand that there are some sighs of relief amongst the Plaid ranks that Dole has been finally kicked into touch. I am of the view that he should have gone at the same time as Mark James.
  
As Plaid have a majority Price's appointment as leader of the council is likely to be ratified at the council's AGM later this month. He was re-elected as the member for Gorslas and works as a researcher at Welsh Parliament. He can, I have noticed, at least string a sentence together. 
We'll see how it all pans out. Expect some spiky exchanges between Price and Labour leader Rob James.
Caebrwyn will be dropping Mr Price a line in due course, over several issues...

Meanwhile, it's farewell Emlyn...enjoy your hot tub, call it a perk of the job.

Sunday, 10 April 2022

Election news, and more from my Facebook page

With local election fever beginning to break into a mild sweat WalesOnline has picked out the Carmarthenshire Councillors who are not seeking re-election; Amanda Fox, Bill Thomas, John Prosser, Shirley Matthews, Penny Edwards and Ken Lloyd (Labour); Irfon Jones, Jim Jones, Joseph Davies, Alan Speake and Ieuan Davies (Independent); and Dorian Williams, Cefin Campbell, Carl Harris and Eirwyn Williams (Plaid Cymru).

Only one sitting councillor in Carmarthenshire has been returned unopposed, Cabinet member Jane Tremlett (Laugharne) a remnant of Meryl Gravell's old gang. The total number of councillors will be seventy five, one extra this time round, now covering fifty one wards.

In Pembrokeshire however there are nineteen councillors being returned unopposed, but Gwynedd tops the charts with twenty eight. Across Wales seventy four councillors are unopposed which means around 107,000 voters won't have a say. (more analysis on WalesOnline).
It doesn't appear that efforts to boost numbers, such as a whopping pay increase this year of 17%, are being particularly effective. 
The latest edition of Private Eye gives this generous rise a mention in its Rotten Boroughs column (a column which Carmarthenshire Council is very familiar with...)
WALES
Councillors across Wales can look forward to a pay rise of nearly 17 percent in May, while local government employees are receiving just 1.75 percent.
The good news is that for the first time, 16 and 17 year olds will be able to vote. Maybe this earlier democratic engagement will encourage more to stand in years to come.

Incidentally out of the 72 Town and Community Councils (with 134 community wards) 95 councils/wards were returned uncontested. Numbers look low, and on my own Community Council only three out of the required eight of us stood. Town and Community Councils, as long as they're quorate, can co-opt members after the election. If they can find willing volunteers.

Anyway, for those who haven't already done so, the last day to register to vote is Thursday 14th April.

For local voters (and anyone else) here's the latest message on my Facebook page;


Vote for Jacqui Thompson;

"As I said in my previous post, I intend to be a powerful voice, for you, in County Hall. 

To have that voice, some wider knowledge and observation of council affairs is perhaps a good idea... 

Did you know, for example, that the council are planning to blow £200m of public and private cash on a vanity project in Llanelli - an upmarket 'Wellness Village' - and whilst this was progressing, (and, incidentally, was under investigation by the organised crime squad), our corner of Carmarthenshire was stripped of it's local recycling centre...
So, what about fly-tipping? 

A scathing report last year noted that fly-tipping incidents in Carmarthenshire have risen 400% from 2015 to 2020. In 2021 there were an astonishing 4500 incidents.

The report noted that the council currently has "no clear plan to fundamentally address the root causes of the county’s fly-tipping problem" 

You may be forgiven for thinking that re-opening a recycling centre or two might help...! 

More cash is being splashed on the Tywi Valley footpath between Carmarthen and Llandeilo. 
The cost was supposed to be around £5m. It's gone so over-budget that the £16.7m it will now have from the 'levelling up' fund will only contribute *towards* the final sum. 

More 'Levelling up' cash is being blown on the now defunct Debenhams store in Carmarthen, essentially to turn it into more council offices. 

Where is the 'levelling up' and investment for Cilycwm, Llanwrda and all our village communities? It doesn't exist. 

At a time when the cost of living is pretty much out of control, when families are really struggling and a record number (9,199) of Carmarthenshire's children are living below the breadline, Plaid's priority is to spend millions on consultants, PR companies and vanity projects.

Where is the investment in rural housing for the next generation of farmers, plumbers, carers, electricians etc?
If covid showed us nothing else it proved the value of family and community. 

Plaid Cymru, meanwhile, chose to spend an eye-watering £136,000 on a sign saying 'Carmarthen'. What a mindless waste, and worst still, half of it blew away in the last storm. 

Another damning report issued last year, (not mentioned in Plaid Cymru's glossy leaflets), concluded that the planning service was in meltdown, and had been for several years. 

Plaid Council leader Emlyn Dole, and his Executive councillors, failed miserably to keep an eye on the service and ignored the systematic failings. They continually let senior management off the hook, causing catastrophic damage to the department and public confidence 
The planning backlog of was so big that from 2020 to 2021 they quietly spent £114,000 to a private company to process planning applications... 

I have campaigned for many years to raise interest in local government, improve the openness of the council and its decision making, regardless of who was in power, and kept an eye on the finances. 
Incidentally, the council's debt is fast approaching half a billion quid, this costs the taxpayer around £18m a year in interest. 

As I said, I will be an independent and strong voice for you, not tied to party politics. If I'm elected you'll hear me loud and clear, and I guarantee that whoever is running the council will hear me too."

Please #votejacqui on your postal ballot or in person on the 5th May

Facebook page; Vote for Jacqui Thompson 

Wednesday, 30 March 2022

Vote for Caebrwyn - County Council election 5th May



I have decided to stand for County Councillor in the forthcoming election to be held on the 5th May. 

My nomination papers have been validated so my name - Jacqui Thompson - will be on the ballot paper as an independent candidate for the ward of Cilycwm, Carmarthenshire.

The Cilycwm ward covers several communities in north west Carmarthenshire; Llanwrda, Llansadwrn, Cilycwm, Ffarmers, and everywhere in between, and borders Llandovery, Lampeter and Llangadog.

The full list of candidates for the whole county will be published on the council's website on Wednesday 6th April after 4pm.

Sunday, 13 February 2022

Carmarthenshire Residents Alliance

I'm posting this brief mission statement (below in bold), of a new pressure/campaign group, the Carmarthenshire Residents Alliance, to gauge the level of interest.

To those who have followed this blog the scenario of an officer-led council is all too familiar. Let alone the waste of precious resources on vanity projects, the numerous personal injustices, and of course, the gross mismanagement.

Profligate spending still continues unchallenged. For example, the amount paid to Arup Plc alone, consultants for Pentre Awel (the Wellness Village), would be enough to construct, staff, and maintain an average sized primary school, or a much needed care home or two. And let's not forget the £136,000 spent on a sign, mid-pandemic. 
I could go on and on, but regular readers will be well aware of the mind-boggling waste.

Residents of this county were ruled, for seventeen years, by a tyrant, a bully and a criminal - former chief executive Mark James. He made a career out of destroying any remnants of democracy, wasting and pocketing public money, accepting bribes and helping out his friends.
 
Even though he retired in June 2019, the toxic legacy continues with his loyal followers of his Sicilian cartel still in post. These are both the elected; including the sycophantic idiot Emlyn Dole, and the unelected; which includes the current CEO, the S151 officer and the dishonest and unprincipled Monitoring Officer. They've even preserved James' very own illegal slush fund for their own use.

Anyway, above all else, it's time for a clean sweep of County Hall.

Please have a read of the mission statement below and use the comments section, or contact form, to let me know what you think.


Carmarthenshire Residents Alliance

It is the intention of this group to be independent of both politics, and political parties, its remit, and philosophy, to be free from political influences, to be for the benefit of the voters, and residents of the community, and their welfare.

The County of Carmarthenshire was formed in April of 1996, under the provisions of the Local Government Act of 1994, taking control of local government functions previously provided by Carmarthen District, Dinefwr Borough, Llanelli Borough Councils, and the Carmarthenshire area of what was Dyfed County Council.

The County of Carmarthenshire is one of the larger counties, with a low population density being largely rural to the north, and, west of the county, with the south east being previously intensely industrialised. This demographic split has led to control of the governance of Carmarthenshire being in the hands of elected Councillors from three groups, two of which have political leanings and one with no allegiance to any political party of a UK standing.

This has led, from the formation of Carmarthenshire, to a Council governance of no overall control, with a necessity of formation of an alliance of two groups to govern, the independent councillors being the controlling factor.

The consequences of this have been evident for as long as Carmarthenshire County Council has been in place, and remains so in spite of the departure of the Chief Executive Officer Mark James in control since 2002.

It has been self evident for many years, that the elected county councillors have never really been in control of the management of the affairs of the County, due to the differences of opinions of the Councillors, religious adherence to party political doctrines ruling, instead of practising common sense in their duties to the welfare of the residents.

Too many vanity projects have been allowed to proceed at the behest of Chief Executives, past and present, as a result of the incompetence and lack of knowledge of elected Councillors.

This has resulted in the gross misuse of scarce public funds leading to the County holding a huge financial deficit.

The solution to this persistent gross injustice, and mismanagement, lies in the hands of the electorate at the ballot box.  
   
The Caebrywn blog, Carmarthenshire Planning Problems of January 1st 2022, 'Operation Koel' featured two comments postings on the 6th January echoing similar reflections on the suitability and inability of County Councillors to be able and willing to hold the Senior Officers to account.


The  Carmarthenshire Residents Alliance

Saturday, 1 January 2022

Operation Koel

Back in July I made several separate FOI requests for documents relating to the Wellness Village bribery investigation. Due to the scandal the project was later renamed Pentre Awel.

This criminal investigation was undertaken by Tarian, the regional organised crime squad and was given the name Operation Koel.

The CPS decided not to pursue this highly complex case as one of the key witnesses was deemed unfit to be questioned further, or to testify. The police issued a revised statement to make it crystal clear that there was, indeed, sufficient evidence.

“There was evidence of potential criminal offending identified and secured against individuals and companies subject to this enquiry and this was submitted as part of the file of evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service, who made their decision that it was not in the public interest to proceed with any prosecutions.”

The whole squalid episode has been covered on this blog many times but, for new readers, here’s the gist: Mark James, when CEO of Carmarthenshire Council, rigged a council tender to ensure that Kent based company Sterling Health won the job to develop the Wellness Village, Llanelli, which was also to be funded by the Swansea Bay City Deal. 

Both he, and others, including former Swansea University academic Marc Clement had accepted the promise of bribes worth millions from the director of Sterling, Franz Dickmann. The plan was to squirrel away the cash into offshore trusts.

Clement, and others, were sacked by the Uni for gross misconduct but James managed to ‘retire’ without the council daring, as per usual, to raise an eyebrow. In effect, of course, he was the council.

Marc Clement and Mark James
                                                                                    
There is a significant amount of further background and detail on this blog, if you wish to search.

Anyway, back to my FOI requests which were made to the CPS, four police forces, Kent, Gwent, South Wales and Dyfed Powys, Swansea University and Carmarthenshire Council, for documents, correspondence, reports, evidence, CPS decision etc etc, and all were refused. Out of the police forces only South Wales held information, which was also refused.

To be honest there’s enough in the public domain, and information I have had from cast iron sources to know exactly what went on, as I described above and on this blog.

However, FOIs can be interesting, not just for any information released but equally for what is withheld.
The main thrust of the refusals were under Section 30 and Section 40, with the balance of whether to release information based on the usual public interest tests.



The CPS and the police were able to use Section 30 which basically means that they have a right to withhold operational details which could compromise their ability to investigate future crimes. It also covers information held which refers to whether a person should be charged with an offence or whether the person charged is guilty of the offence.
Section 40, data protection exemptions were also deployed

Swansea University were able to use similar exemptions as they had carried out internal investigations and, interestingly, confirmed that Employment Tribunals are still ongoing. We don’t know whether Mark James’ partner in crime Marc Clement is continuing with his, or whether it is one or more of the others who had previously threatened such action. 

Whatever the case, as Swansea University said in their statement back in March “the evidence compiled by the university will obviously come out during the employment tribunal, which will take place in the public domain, should the individuals still wish to proceed.”

In other words, the evidence will be made public, one way or another.
(Update; Clement, former Vice-Chancellor Richard Davies and two other former academics all of whom were sacked for gross misconduct will have their claims considered at a hearing in the summer.)

Which bring us to Carmarthenshire Council, the last to respond, just before Christmas. The delay, I was told, was due in part to the volume of information. Once the relevant documents had been unearthed, the council had to then ask the police whether it could be disclosed, as it was the latter who had carried out the investigation. A rather useful get out clause.

There were I am told, a ‘variety’ of records including:

Emails between council officers

Emails between council officers and the police

Court and other legal documents provided to the council by the police

Email and other correspondence between council officers and third parties

Unlike the other public bodies the council couldn’t use Section 30 as it hadn’t investigated anything. The council relied on the general data protection exemption, and also "some of the personal data falling within the scope of your request relates to the alleged commission of offences by some of the data subjects and therefore constitutes criminal offence data by virtue of section 11(2) of the Data Protection Act 2018"...

Mr Edgecombe, the council solicitor told me in his response that if I appealed against this refusal to the Information Commissioner, he had other exemptions ready to deploy, but wouldn’t say what they were.
Anyone would think this was an elaborate game.

As for the public interest test, Edgecombe said
“I do not believe that the council has any legitimate interests which make it necessary for it to process the personal data of these data subjects in this way
"I do not believe that you have a legitimate interest in respect of which it is necessary for this disclosure to be made. In particular you were not a victim of any alleged criminal conduct which was being investigated as part of Operation Koel”.

It's worth remembering at this point that not only were the homes of the former CEO Mark James, and former Leader Meryl Gravell raided by the police but so was County Hall. Documents and electronic equipment were seized from all three. At one point Mark James was arrested for failing to cooperate with a police investigation.

I’d argue that the residents and taxpayers of Carmarthenshire, including me, were all victims. A CEO of a council is a position of trust, he really shouldn’t be rigging tenders or accepting bribes from a developer. Of course, even prior to all this, James career was built on corruption and a contempt for the law.

I will argue, when I appeal to the information Commissioner that the public, and indeed the councillors, have a very legitimate interest, a right in fact, to see this withheld information.
Further to that is the involvement or knowledge of this fraud from those close to, and in the pocket of Mark James; leader Emlyn Dole, Wendy Walters, head of legal Linda Rees Jones, finance chief Chris Moore, and others.
I also, undoubtedly, have a personal interest in this matter. I am paying James every month, as he has a suspended order for sale on my home from his illegal publicly funded counterclaim. He is as much a dishonest crook today, as when I said it back then. I will have justice.

All the FOI requests and responses can be read here, (the first seven in the list).

(Update 1st Feb; The ICO got back to me to say that I needed to request a second internal review from the council. That has now been sent in so I'll let you know how that pans out, eventually.)

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy 2022

Wednesday, 8 December 2021

Old friends - Mark James' new venture...

Update 16th September 2022
In an interesting development, Century Wharf Estates Management Ltd (Director Mark James) has employed the services of one of James' other companies Ffynnon Consultancy Ltd to the tune of £45k. As I've said, Century Wharf residents should keep a very close eye on Mr James and where there money is going...

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

Back in July 2020 I wrote a post about an interesting connection between former Council CEO Mark James, his 'management' of Century Wharf, Cardiff and his old friend from Llangennech, Nigel Lovering. More specifically the fact that invoices from Lovering's telecoms company, ETS Ltd happened to appear in Century Wharf's accounts.

The post is worth a read for the extensive background between the two men. Alarm bells first rang over ten years ago when James quietly arranged for the council to buy land at the old MOD site in Llangennech and immediately sold it to Lovering and business partner David Pickering, avoiding the impending auction where the land had been valued at a much higher price. 

Councillors were told that the council were at no risk over the deal as the (then unnamed) individuals were "known to officers". You bet they were.

If that wasn't dodgy enough, a £281k council grant was arranged by James to further develop the site.

Moving forward a few years and the path became paved with City Deal gold. James, and Wendy Walters had several cosy meetings in the Llangennech HQ immediately prior to welcoming another of Lovering's companies, Hydro Industries, to Marc Clement and the 'opportunities' of the Swansea Bay City Deal.

By then or course we now know that James and Clement were knee deep in their fraudulent deals with Dickmann and co and the Wellness Village scandal.

Both Lovering, and James, are directors of several companies, they've chopped and changed over the years, rather like Marc Clement. My post 'Tangled webs' from November 2020 attempts to explain the movements of the disgraced key players from the City Deal scandal.
It can be a very small world....

James, in something of a complete take-over of Century Wharf is not only Chair of the Right To Manage company (RTM) but also a director of CW Estates Ltd set up to manage the site. Mr James has never been concerned about conflicts of interest, nor declaring them when employed by the council.

One of Lovering's companies, Lancehawk Ltd (which sounds like it makes missiles or something but is listed on companies house as yet another telecom firm) has sprouted another company, Lancehawk EOT Trustee Ltd and the two directors are none other than Mark James and his old friend Mr Lovering.

Now Caebrwyn's understanding of such business arrangements are sketchy to say the least but google tells me that an EOT is an Employee Ownership Trust and is non-trading. This is an arrangement whereby shares from a company, in this case Lancehawk Ltd, can be sold to the EOT, and then held by them, and payments for Capital Gains Tax can be, legally, avoided.
Obviously great care needs to be taken when forming such companies.

The key word being 'trust'.

As the EOT then wields considerable control over the parent company it is essential that the trustees are, well, trustworthy. I have no opinion on the trustworthiness of Mr Lovering and no reason to doubt his integrity. 

I do, however, have reason to doubt Mr James' trustworthiness and honesty in anything, let alone as an actual trustee.

The first thing that springs to mind was the second of the two Wales Audit Office public interest reports from 2014 (the first being the illegal pocketing of legal fees by Mr James) which found that cash payments trousered by James in lieu of employer pension contributions were unlawful and deliberately designed to avoid paying tax.

So James has form in tax avoidance.

As this blog has detailed over the years, James also has form for dishonesty, lying to his employers, theft of public cash, tampering with official documents, failing to declare conflicting interests, helping out his friends with public cash and destroying anyone who opposed his various cosy deals.
His crowning glory was being made the Rotten Boroughs Shit of the Year 2016 by Private Eye.
 
It all began to fall apart when he tried the same nonsense with the bigger fish in the City Deal.

As I have said in previous posts, before his hurried 'retirement' in 2019 he had rigged the council tender for the Wellness Village, accepting the promise of bribes worth several million quid. His home was raided and he was later arrested. Despite the police filing sufficient evidence, the CPS discontinued the case as one of the key figures was deemed too unwell to testify.

So, business associates, and Century Wharf folk be warned, Mark James is a crook, and cannot be trusted with a piggy bank.

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

New flood maps - the undersea world of Pentre Awel (the Wellness Village)

As from 1st December all Planning Authorities must adhere to new flood maps and the revised advice in TAN 15. The revised maps and guidance have now, finally, incorporated the effect of climate change on future flooding events and coastal erosion across Wales, and not simply the current risk.

New developments of homes, the emergency services, schools and hospitals, must not be located in areas of high flood risk without strong flood defences.

One big chunk of Llanelli now comes under these new rules. See the crosshatch in the picture below. And one would assume that The Mark James Luxury Spa, the Wellness Village (now called Pentre Awel, for shame's sake) will, as objectors predicted, be under water in the next ten to fifteen years.

Pentre Awel will surround Delta Lake (the elongated lake in the picture) and further plans for housing and the 'Wellness Hotel' encroach further into the prohibited area.
All that's between the sea and Delta Lake at the moment is a faulty sluice gate. Flood defences are insufficient. Putting a few feet of topsoil to raise the area isn't going to help, this is the Carmarthenshire Canute Approach to building on flood plains.
 
Click to enlarge

Of course the plans for the Wellness Village were driven through by Mark James, and concerns about flooding, which were repeatedly raised, were rubbished. Other concerns, that the development was currently under criminal investigation and riddled with corruption, were also ignored.

And we also know that Mr James had a rather different agenda to everyone else.



 
As an objector I was present at the Planning Committee meeting in January 2019 when the decision was made, and Sian Caiach, a County Councillor at the time voiced her objection. I wrote an account of the event here, plus some background... Our presence in County Hall coincided with the announcement of Mr James' hurried retirement, which also enabled Sian to publicly wish the "arrogant control freak" her warmest wishes. 
By July Mr James was having his door kicked in by the organised crime squad.

The Wellness Village, or Pentre Awel, was approved under the old maps, but with the current lack of any serious private investment, a history of corruption, a planning department not fit for purpose, the council already in debt by nearly half a billion, and the prospect of major flooding, perhaps it's time to take another look at the sauna-on-the-swamp...


Monday, 13 September 2021

Croydon Council and libel funding, Carmarthenshire style...

There is growing anger amongst the council taxpayers of Croydon that their hard-earned cash has been spent unlawfully. After obstruction and delay and the involvement of the ICO, Inside Croydon, a news site based in the borough, obtained information that around £25,000 had been spent on top lawyers to issue libel threats against them.

The threats came after two articles on Inside Croydon got up the nose of the then chief executive and council leader. The Monitoring Officer appears to have given the rubber stamp to the illegal expenditure, but it all came to nothing as Inside Croydon, quite rightly, stood their ground, and demanded to know who was funding the threats. Finally, they have their answer.

"Which appears to mean that Negrini [the then CEO] was acting in contravention of that Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) Order from 2004 which states, “No indemnity may be provided under this Order in relation to the making by the member or officer indemnified of any claim in relation to an alleged defamation of that member or officer…”.

Whoops.

Some might regard such actions by someone in public office as being an abuse of their position."

Furthermore, the Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers Ltd [1993] ruling, held that local authorities may not sue given that they are government bodies and should therefore be open to “uninhibited public criticism”, the House of Lords determined that allowing a council to sue, or to use an officer as proxy, would be incompatible with the Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

All of which should sound very familiar to those who have followed this blog.

Individual council officers, or Members can of course sue as individuals, like anyone else, with their own money. 

You will recall that the former chief executive, Mark James illegally used public money, or the 'slush fund' to fund a tactical counterclaim for libel against myself. The Wales Audit Office subsequently confirmed, in their Public Interest Report that this was unlawful.

He was never brought to book over the illegal legal expenditure, and neither was the crooked Monitoring Officer Linda Rees Jones who aided and abetted him. I hope Inside Croydon have more success.

Mark James was determined to shut this blog down, and despite the outcome of the libel case, he failed. More to the point, the words he sued over, 'slush fund' and 'Pinocchio' were spot-on accurate; it was a slush fund and he was, and is, a liar. Worse still was his seventeen year reign of bullying, pocketing public cash, greed and, let's face it, downright corruption, culminating in the acceptance of £mms in bribes shortly before his hurried departure.
I remain resolute that he will not get away with any of it.

I also remain resolute that I will get rid of his suspended order for sale from the £46,000 charge on my home, and that the monthly payments I struggle to make to this nasty piece of work will stop - I will use any damn means possible....
It simply cannot go on.

The article from @InsideCroydon, can be read here, an interesting read. 

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Full council next week - and that damning report into Planning Services - Updated

Update 15th September 2021
Following a heated debate this morning the Labour motion outlined below was defeated by the Plaid/Independent administration.

What stood out amongst the criticism was the total lack of transparency from the Plaid administration over all this, and of course from the corporate management.

It is quite remarkable that Plaid Cymru have refused to acknowledge that the catastrophic failure of the planning department has happened under their watch, and their refusal to accept the reasonable steps within the Motion is simply playing political games, to the detriment of the residents of the county.
Shame on them.

Update 10th September 2021
I've had a response to the FOI request detailed in the post below.

The council have been offloading planning applications to private company called Prospero Planning Ltd, and paid them the handsome sum of £114,609 from September 2020 to date. Blimey.

The company which carried out the council commissioned review was Solace in Business - the business arm of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives. They were paid £17,587

* * * * * *

Just a brief heads up about next week's (15th September) full council meeting. The damning Audit Wales report into Carmarthenshire's Planning Services hasn't gone away, or found the long grass just yet.
The Labour opposition group have tabled the following motion;

We propose that Carmarthenshire Council agrees:

In order to prevent the serious backlog of both planning applications and planning enforcements accruing in the future and to make the Planning Service fit for purpose and to prevent the acknowledged risk to our Regeneration plans that we:

1.    Strengthen our Scrutiny and Risk Management Processes, Procedures and Reporting by fully implementing the recommendations from the reports from the Welsh Audit Office “Review of Risk Management Arrangements – Carmarthenshire County Council – July 2019” and “Review of Planning Services – Carmarthenshire County Council – July 2021”.

2.    That the Internal report into the Planning Department, ‘Strategic Review of the Planning Service’ be made available for scrutiny by all Councillors and prior to the Audit Committee meeting of the 24th of September.

3.    That a Plan to resolve the current backlog of the many hundreds of applications and even more hundreds of enforcements as well as making the Planning Department Service fit for purpose to allow us to meet our Regeneration targets in a timely manner, is presented to this Chamber at our next County Council meeting by the Interim Head of Planning.

4.    That the practice of using private companies to clear the backlog of planning applications ceases and is brought in house.

5.    That an adequate budget is set to provide for any change required to provide for an effective and sustainable service provision of the Planning Department.

6.    Calls on the Chair of the Planning Committee to publish a monthly report indicating the current state of awaiting applications and enforcements.

All seems very reasonable but no doubt the Plaid majority ruling group will present some sort of nit-picking amendment, we'll wait and see. Let's hope the Labour group doesn't allow Plaid to get away with the usual whitewash response.

Just to hedge their bets, Plaid have planted their own question later in the agenda with Plaid stalwart Cllr Dai Thomas asking his mate Emlyn Dole to outline how wonderful everything now is in the Planning division.

You note that the Labour Motion also calls for the earlier council commissioned report to be shared with all councillors before it appears on the Audit Committee agenda later this month. This report made no less than fifty recommendations, and has been kept in a locked drawer ever since.

Historically, Carmarthenshire's planning department, and the planning committee has had notoriety for much more than systematic failure.... 

As for point 4, a response to my Freedom of Information request (below) is now overdue;

"Audit Wales published it's Review of the council's Planning Services yesterday. The report refers to a private sector company which has been handling planning applications, apparently to reduce the backlog.
Could you please tell me the name of the private sector company, and the cost of this so far.
Could you also provide the name of the external company/consultants which carried out the council commissioned review of Planning Services completed in December 2019, and the cost."

I'll let you know if I get a response (see update above).

This long-term failure in the planning service is the fault of the corporate management, primarily under the rule of Mark James. However, politically, it was all under the watch of Emlyn Dole and his Plaid and Independent buddies, and they will go out of their way to avoid all accountability.
Sadly this is common practice, in many areas, in both corporate and political circles. As I know full well. 

Incidentally my FOI request to the council for correspondence and documents held by the council relating to the Llanelli Wellness Village bribery investigation is now two weeks late. 
More on all that, and the former CEO, the bribe-taking liar, thief, and all-round crook Mark James CBE, and friends, in due course.

The council-owned waste company Cwm Environmental Ltd (mentioned above) also pops up on next week's agenda and it seems they are nowhere near settling the insurance claim for the massive fire six months ago. You may recall that the large shed and it's contents of blue recycling bags was razed to the ground. 
In fact, searching questions are currently being asked by the insurers, so Cwm are not even in a position to make the claim yet.

The council are now providing Cwm, their own company, with the convenience of a million pound, 12 month short-term loan to tide them over until the insurance cash comes in, unless of course they are found to have been negligent...
The council must be awash with cash.

Finally, I have noticed that the 'Executive Board' is no more...well actually it's still there, it's just been renamed as the 'Cabinet', sounds more stately perhaps, pity they're such a dim-witted, twisted bunch.

Update 14th September 2021
The council have come up with a novel way of dealing with the backlog of over 700 planning enforcement cases, seems they're going to simply erase most of them from history.
A new protocol will be approved by a single executive board member on Friday detailing the type of cases which will be binned.

Sunday, 22 August 2021

News round up - planning tales, and more - updated

Following the damning Audit Wales report on Carmarthenshire's Planning Services, the Ombudsman has also found the council lacking. 
A brief report, from June 2021, shows that the council's approach to planning, enforcement and complaints is still dire. 
The Ombudsman upheld a complaint, by 'Mr A', concerning planning enforcement on a neighbouring property. The council investigation had been 'inappropriate' and biased, and the council's initial investigation contained 'omissions and discrepancies'.
 
The council now have to pay Mr A £250, and appoint an independent consultant to investigate all aspects of Mr A's complaint and review the council's handling of the matters complained about.
Oh dear.

Which reminds me of an enforcement complaint I made early last year on behalf of several residents. They were concerned that Plaid council leader Emlyn Dole and family had ignored several planning conditions on the notorious 'two barns' development leading to issues with highway safety. 
I've still heard nothing. It's either been ignored, like the planning conditions, or is the 761st in the backlog list, and will likely stay there.

In other news, the council's 'wholly owned' housing company, Cartrefi Croeso, set up in 2018  is now being mothballed and made 'dormant'. Apparently there is now no need for it as council borrowing rules have changed. I doubt that that is the full story and I suspect smoke and mirrors are in full use. 

You'll recall that Delta Wellbeing Ltd the council owned call centre was nearly struck off  Companies House earlier this year. The council waste company, Cwm Environmental is currently in dispute with the unions as, seemingly, it prefers to retain poorer pay and conditions for its staff than those employed by the council, despite the fact that the council owns it. 

Anyway, I noticed that one of Cartrefi Croeso projects, which has planning consent for 16 mixed tenure homes 'does not make the best use of the site' and 'a value engineering and design review' is required. A review of the planning consent is now required...which the Council granted for themselves in the first place...
It's clearly a shambles.

Incidentally another reason given for mothballing the company right now is that the Managing Director of the company, Robin Staines, who was also the Council's Head of Housing, has recently resigned from the council.
Fortunately he has just set up his own consultancy company, should they happen to need any advice.....for a small fee.

Mark James' consultancy company Ffynnon Consultancy is still turning a modest profit, one wonders who is consulting him, and why. Maybe it's for expert advice on tax avoidance, or scamming the taxpayer, or setting up offshore trusts to squirrel away a few bribes...who knows.

Incidentally, Caebrwyn has been making FOI requests for documents and files relating to the criminal investigation into the Wellness bribery scandal involving the aforementioned Mr James, and others. Requests have gone to the CPS, four police forces and the council. So far only the CPS have responded, and that was a refusal. We'll wait and see what the others come up with.
As I've said before, I'll make sure Mr James is held to account, one way or another. That's a promise.

Finally Burry Port's asbestos-strewn beach is back in the news. Earlier this year photos appeared of children's sandcastles decorated with bits of asbestos. The toxic substance comes from the old Carmarthen power station. Unfortunately, when it was demolished twenty years ago the debris was just buried where it lay and coastal erosion has unearthed the crumbling, flaking asbestos.
 
What is remarkable is the council's response. A warning sign was eventually put up but the beach was not closed. The council have continued to play down the problem as 'low-risk', as if asbestos isn't really that bad. They have reluctantly agreed to remove any visible bits, perhaps it's those bits decorating the sandcastles.
A local campaign group resorted to paying for its own tests, which all came back positive, and alarming. They are pushing for a proper clean up before the asbestos spreads even further afield.

The reason why the council are playing down the problem is their desire to flog parts of nearby land to developers, including 360 homes on the nearby Grillo site, another highly toxic legacy of the industrial past.

Interestingly, one wonders why the council is so determined to build so many new homes as figures published today reveal  that Carmarthenshire is top of the list for empty homes, with nearly 3000 in the county. So much for the council's Empty Homes Policy, which, we are told, has been a roaring success!

Burry Port update 15th September: 

There has been a partial clean up of the beach but unfortunately, as this recent picture shows, asbestos is still present;


Despite the partial clean up the signs now only warn of coastal erosion, and the footpath barriers can be easily moved, and have been.

                                       

Tuesday, 10 August 2021

Audit Wales report - Carmarthenshire's Planning Service in meltdown


As anticipated on my previous post, the Audit Wales report into the council's planning services has now been published.

It is a damning report and it is clear that the planning department is in total meltdown; "Significant and long-standing performance issues in the planning service need to be urgently addressed" 
As usual, these reports are 'politely' written, but it doesn't take much to read between the lines, not with this one.

The external consultants report, as also mentioned in the previous post, was commissioned by the council themselves and completed in December 2019. 

It has never been mentioned in any committee, let alone ever made publicly available, despite making no less than FIFTY recommendations for improvement - this current Audit Wales report notes that the council, apart from dithering about with a customary 'Action Plan', has failed to improve on any of them.
What a waste of money that was.

What is also clear is that the blame lies with the corporate management and executive councillors. 

We understand that following the Audit Wales report, the head of planning, Llinos Quelch left the council...'for personal reasons'. However the chief executives (present and former) and the Director of Environment, Ruth Mullen (£130k+ per year) are also, and ultimately, responsible. 

Plaid Council leader Emlyn Dole, and his Executive Board, have failed miserably to keep an eye on the planning service and ignored the systematic failings. They've continually let senior management off the hook, causing catastrophic damage to the department and public confidence.  What a shambles.

Of course it must be remembered that not so long ago Emlyn was embroiled in his very own planning scandal, emerging unscathed with the able assistance of Mark James, a favour for which he was duty bound to return...

For years the council has been seeking empty headlines with their various and vacuous 'ambitious regeneration programmes' whilst not even having a properly functioning planning department to actually deliver it.

This systematic failure was all under Mark James' watch. Sadly and as we all know, he was more concerned with his own wallet, his ego, and, it turns out, accepting bribes, than a functioning, decent council.

It's also clear from the report that the massive backlog (847 planning applications and 761 enforcement cases as of March 2021) is impacting on the regeneration visions, and vice versa, the time spent on 'strategic visions' is making the backlog pile up to an unmanageable scale.

The report notes that the council has no plan to deal with the backlog, some of which go back over five years. 
The council is also misrepresenting it's data for the time taken to determine applications, Audit Wales points out that "performance may potentially be worse than currently recorded and reported".

It also notes that every year there's a massive overspend, in 2019/20 it was £512,000.

The planning department is also unable to manage the growing backlog and increasing number of enforcement cases. This is leading to more retrospective planning applications, a failure to follow planning policy and a loss of confidence from the public in the service altogether. Nothing new there mind you.

Remarkably, "Delivering effective planning enforcement" was quietly removed from the Council's Risk Register in September 2020. 
I suppose if you delete the problem it no longer exists...

The report notes a total lack of transparency on any attempts by the council to act on recommendations or improve the service, possibly because it hasn't. It certainly hasn't been transparent over the external consultants report, nor this one. 
It is also noted that the planning division has not been transparent, nor shared information, about complaints. Significantly it has also failed to respond to complaints; the public have had to resort to contacting their local councillors. 
 
And who knew they were passing on swathes of planning applications to a private sector company to deal with? No one.

All this indicates a failure of a critical system, a system which is fundamental to economic recovery, addressing climate change, and of course to the public. It also leaves a system open to abuse. Failure to 'perform' is a failure to function.

Let's hope that this report doesn't find itself in the County Hall long grass, out to pasture for a couple of years in a dreaded 'Task and finish group'. It must be debated at full council without delay.

As the title of this blog suggests,(it expanded its interests a long time ago but the title stuck) there have been historic problems with Carmarthenshire's Planning Department for many years, and not necessarily related to 'performance' per se....there have been countless questionable decisions, some very curious behaviour from the planning committee and senseless council planning decisions pushed through regardless of  public opinion or the environment, let alone actual policy.

As with the rest of the Mark James hangers-on still in the top brass, Rees-Jones, Wendy Walters, Chris Moore etc, it's about time there was a clean sweep of the upper echelons in this department too. 
Sack 'em all.
It might just get somewhere then.


The report can be found on the Audit Wales website.  It should come as no surprise that there's no link on the council's website.