Wednesday, 8 August 2018

The unlawful libel indemnity clauses - part two


For part one, please see earlier post; Plaid Cymru seek to reinstate unlawful libel indemnity clauses...really?!

Following the CRWG meeting held at the end of July I asked Jonathan Edwards MP and Adam Price AM to clarify Plaid's stance on the subject. Their reply, which I received on Monday is reproduced below, in full;

EDWARDS, Jonathan <jonathan.edwards.mp@parliament.uk>
To: kthompson855@btinternet.com
6 Aug 9:53AM

Dear Mrs Thompson,

Many thanks for your e-mails. 

I’ve taken a bit of time to try and establish what has happened these past few days.  I respond to you today on both my and my constituency colleague, Adam Price’s behalf.

I’m afraid the information I have is based on informal discussions, rather than anything which has been published.

As I understand it: 

·         There was a suggestion by the Labour group leader at a recent meeting of the council’s CRWG meeting to remove the particular clause from the constitution.

·         The response from a Plaid Councillor was that there remains a grey area as to whether the council is or isn’t allowed to provide an indemnity following recent proceedings relating to Caerphilly Council.

·         The Plaid Councillor proposed writing to the Wales Audit Office for clarity on the matter.

·         This proposal was supported by the Labour group leader.

You’ll appreciate that my understanding is somewhat different to the noises which have been made in the press since the meeting!

 As far as Adam and I are concerned, this is not a matter which has been discussed within the party and we would not personally support the re-introduction of the clause.  Furthermore, we don’t think there is any appetite whatsoever in the Plaid Council Group to re-introduce such a clause. 

 We maintain the position that it is right and proper for a public authority to indemnify officials for proceedings brought against them in the course of their duties, but not the ability to initiate proceedings or for counter-claims.

 If I get any more information I’ll be sure to get in touch, but as far as I’m concerned there are no attempts to re-instate the clause.

 I hope that’s useful for now.

 Cofion,

Jonathan

This week's Carmarthen Journal also features an article on the subject which does not yet seem to be online, so here it is;



First of all I'd like to say that I believe Mr Edwards and Mr Price are sincere when they say they would not personally support the reintroduction of the clause. Having read their remarks over the past few years, including in correspondence I can't imagine they would think this was a good idea, to say the least.

Unfortunately, they do not run the council, and neither, for that matter, does Emlyn Dole, or his Independent colleagues.

We know who does.

I would imagine that when the Motion to remove the clauses landed on the chief executive's desk for inclusion on the CRWG agenda there was a rapid flurry of activity.

As we know, a report was written to 'advise' CRWG. That report has not been published and, according to the Journal article the whole Item was 'exempt' and confidential. There is no reason for this at all.

I am fully aware of the historic, and flawed arguments put forward by Mr James that the clauses are, in his opinion, lawful, but there also appears to have been some scratching around to include unspecified proceedings relating to Caerphilly Council. I am not currently aware of such proceedings directly related to this issue.

However, instead of simply agreeing to remove the offending and unlawful clauses, a counter-motion to reinstate was, it seems, put forward. Eventually, a vote was taken whether or not to write to the Wales Audit Office, presumably for legal clarity. I understand that the Labour leader abstained another Labour councillor voted against.
I have asked Linda Rees Jones for a copy of that letter.

As the quote from the Wales Audit Office states, their position remains unchanged.

Mr James, has, for the past four years railed against the findings of the then Appointed Auditor Anthony Barrett and I imagine his correspondence with the auditor was as arrogant and as irritatingly righteous as his correspondence with me. In 2016 he used Mr Dole to question the Wales Audit Office as to whether Mr Barrett was suitably qualified to make his findings. Mr James was sent off with a flea in his ear.
Even in his complaint to the Ombudsman concerning Sian Caiach he challenged, at considerable rambling length, the findings of Mr Barrett.

If the council were run by councillors I have little doubt that these clauses would have been quietly removed. But, as I said back in 2015, our dynamic duo, Mark and Linda, are in something of a dilemma, if they remove the clause completely, then Mrs Thompson would have won a small but significant victory - they would be conceding that it should never have been there in the first place. They would also be agreeing with the Wales Audit Office. Their positions would be untenable.

Hence the continuing prevarication, and undue, and unlawful, influence on councillors.

If they leave it in the book, in its 'withdrawn' state, never to be used, then it looks ridiculous and serves no purpose within the constitution; a permanent reminder of professional incompetence, arrogance and unlawful behaviour.

As I have said, regardless of political nuance or pointing the finger of blame, the clauses remain unique to Carmarthenshire, a memorial to local government idiocy, and in particular, the self-centred idiocy and unbelievable arrogance of Mark James.
Perhaps he's considering raiding the council coffers again, and suing someone...

Please search this blog for further background, of which there is an abundant supply.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Mark James' complaints against Sian Caiach - the Ombudsman's conclusion


After eighteen long months, the Ombudsman, Nick Bennett, has concluded his investigation into a series of complaints made by chief executive Mark James against former county councillor Sian Caiach. In short, the Ombudsman has decided that no further action is required and the file is now closed.

Nick Bennett, Public Service Ombudsman for Wales
Mr James' complaints against Cllr Caiach run to sixty-one rambling paragraphs, with numerous repetetive sub-paragraphs and a file of evidence weighing the equivalent of a large turkey. He complained that Cllr Caiach breached various parts of the council's Code of Conduct through blog posts, emails, the 'pound of flesh' protest and a letter published by the Western Mail.

In essence, it all related to the support Cllr Caiach has shown to me over the past couple of years, particularly when Mr James was trying to force sale of my home. You may recall a similar reaction to others who tried to intervene and of course his complaints to the police.

The Ombudsman concluded that Cllr Caiach was entitled to do, and say, what she did, it was political comment from an opposition councillor concerning the actions of the council and its chief executive. There was no breach found, and none of it was considered by the Ombudsman to be serious. There was one minor issue that the Ombudsman thought Cllr Caiach should reflect on, but, again, no further action was required.

The Ombudsman applied Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, and the Calver judgement in respect of the extra protection afforded to political expression and concluded that in Cllr Caiach's case freedom of expression included the right of political expression through public protest, she was also perfectly entitled to criticise council policy and show support for a cause or individual.

He added that he expected a chief executive to have a 'thicker-skin' when under general criticism.

Cllr Sian Caiach, currently Chair of Llanelli Rural Council

My personal view

There are a few points arising from this investigation which are worth making.

Mark James became personally embittered and outraged when Cllr Caiach acted as a witness for me, against him and the council, at the libel trial in 2013. It later transpired that he had tracked her emails.

Cllr Caiach, as followers of this blog will know, continued to question the legality of the libel indemnity and to criticise the council's pursuit of costs and Mr James' pursuit of damages.
However, she did not challenge the legal outcome of the trial, just the moral compass of Carmarthenshire Council.

Whether or not Mr James has a personal vendetta against Cllr Caiach is not known, but, as with me, the volume of 'evidence' and the detailed complaints also give rise to another concern. It appears that Mr James has either spent an awful lot of time (when not controlling his property empire in Cardiff) tracking quotes and comments from blogs, including this blog, and Cneifiwr's, scrutinizing emails, memorising chunks from Tugenhat's judgement, and god knows what else, or he instructed other council staff to do this laborious and repeated task.
Not once did he discuss his complaints with Cllr Caiach before going to the Ombudsman.

Incidentally, my police custody record from the 2011 #daftarrest incident was included in the 'evidence', I can't think of any reason why this was sent to the Ombudsman, its inclusion was completely irrelevant.

It seems to me that, yet again, Mr James' personal mission has not only cost the council an arm and a leg in staff time and resources but clearly an eighteen month Ombudsman investigation, including the taking of statements, interviewing witnesses, etc doesn't come cheap. This money would have better spent addressing concerns of dissatisfied hospital patients rather than the inflated ego of Mr James.

Mr James is the Head of Paid Service and his remit does not include assembling dossiers, by whatever means, on backbench councillors. Or bloggers or members of the public for that matter. It begs the question as to whether he has a similar obsessive compulsion with the musings, and the data, of any other councillors....

Interestingly, this is not the first Ombudsman to suggest that Mr James grows a thicker skin. He has previous. Back in 2012 he made another set of complaints against Cllr Caiach to the former Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall, and he, Mr Tyndall, threw them all out.
Maybe Mr James should be registered somewhere as a vexatious complainant.

Come to think of it, Mr James hasn't had much success elsewhere either, his complaints to the police against me were thrown out by the CPS, and the judge who has dealt with the various civil enforcement proceedings was, shall we say, surprised at some of Mr James' actions, he was also as fair to me as he could be under the constraints of the circumstances.

As for the Code of Conduct, there's another one for Officers. As I have mentioned before, Mr James has taken payments and a pay rise which were deemed unlawful, he has used council resources and staff for his own purposes and breached an undertaking to his employers to pay the damages to the council. And more.

I think that this time, the Ombudsman got it pretty much right, although personally I wonder if he's been investigating entirely the wrong person.


Mr James doorstepped by reporters during the pension and libel indemnity scandals, 2014

Friday, 27 July 2018

Plaid Cymru seek to reinstate the unlawful libel clauses...really?!


Please read this earlier post for background; Those unlawful libel clauses - a call to arms

I understand that a meeting of the council's Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG) was held earlier today. On the agenda was an Item on those infamous and unlawful libel indemnity clauses in the council's constitution.

The matter had been raised, I understand, by the leader of the Labour group Rob James who was pushing for some sort of decision as to what the administration intended to do, it was his express intention for them to be removed completely, rather than remain as 'suspended' for yet another four years.

It seems that the Plaid and Independent majority on the group, including Emlyn Dole, out-manoeuvred the three Labour members and resolved to write to the Wales Audit Office to ask if they could, legally, reinstate the clauses, on the basis that they consider them to be lawful.

If this is indeed the case, and I have asked Plaid politicians Jonathan Edwards MP and Adam Price AM to confirm Plaid's stance, then it is astonishing.

In 2014 the same Plaid councillors voted to accept the Wales Audit Office libel indemnity report which declared that it was unlawful for officers to be publicly funded to bring defamation claims, and, in fact, legislation expressly prohibited it anyway. At that time it was the Labour and Independents who voted just to 'note' the report and suspend the clauses.
All to save the skin of Mark James and Legal Linda who have refused to accept the findings.
They have claimed that the provision is lawful under case law and the vague powers under the Local Government Act of 1972.
Neither the case law, which in fact does not support such action, nor the LGA 1972 override the express prohibition in section 6(3) of the Indemnities Order 2006.

The about-turn of Plaid 'in-power', particularly Emlyn Dole is shocking and prior to today he has informed me that he now considers the clauses to be lawful. Anyone would think he owed his position to the, erm, generosity of Mark James...

I have written many times about these clauses and the sinister, chilling effect that the provision has on critics and the press alike. I will not repeat it all again here. A senior officer can still sue of course, like anyone else, but must use their own money, apart from in Carmarthenshire.

I find it remarkable that Plaid Cymru are apparently considering such an illiberal, unlawful and anti-democratic step. Let alone the potential cost risk to the taxpayers which can be (and was) hundreds of thousands of pounds.

If they are seriously going to try and do this then of course there is a lengthy process to follow. The response from the Wales Audit Office will eventually turn up on the agenda of a CRWG meeting, a recommendation will then be made which will, in turn, go to full council. It will run and run.

CRWG could have voted today to remove them completely and recommended this to the next meeting of full council.
It seems they did the exact opposite.

Carmarthenshire Council remains the only council in the UK to have this notorious provision in its constitution, it should be an embarrassment to them all. The failure to remove the clauses, and now, apparently, to seek reinstatement, shows the length they will go to protect the illegal actions of the chief executive and Monitoring Officer.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

'Cadno and the Nightmare on Emlyn's Street' - from the Carmarthenshire Herald


This week's Carmarthenshire Herald features another observant and entertaining opinion piece from columnist 'Cadno', it's self-explanatory, particularly to followers of this blog, so here it is;


Cadno and the nightmare on Emlyn's Street

Mark James CeeBeeBies ™ is a man on a mission. Having blown public money at the Princess Royal Stadium and Parc Y Scarlets, he has now decided that his next wheeze will involve mugs from the private sector soaking up the pain of failure at Delta Lakes. 
Although, and let's face it, given Marky-Mark's way with investing gargantuan sums of public dosh in pale pachyderms it would take a small miracle for the public not to end up paying out if the great swamp proves a money pit. 
But let's all try to be positive. 
Maryl Gravell has returned like a boomerang kebab on a Friday night in Llanelli town centre to lend the imprimatur of her own spotless reputation on doling out public money to the Llanelli Wellness Thingummy. 
With Meryl the Peril back on board we cannot help but wait for the excitement to start. There will be exciting announcements of exciting news and exciting sums of money being spent on exciting things, some of which could turn out to be excitingly real, for a change. 
You can imagine, readers, there was Emlyn, fast asleep one morning at Capel Ifan's own Rancho Grande when the phone rings. A half-awake council leader stumbles out of bed and wanders to the kitchen - stops to pour himself a cup of ambition - and answers the ringing phone. 
It's Mark James. 
Quickly Emlyn stands to attention and salutes, dinging himself with the receiver in the process. 
"It's good news Leader"
For the sake of clarity, Cadno points out Mark James is the speaker of the last sentence. 
A visibly relieved Emlyn genuflects. 
"It's Meryl Gravell." 
Emlyn puts on his sombre face and begins the touching eulogy he has prepared for such an occasssion. 
"No Emlyn, Meryl's back. And this time it's Wellness." 
An ashen Cllr Dole stares unbelievingly at the handset mouthing like a stranded trout. He feels one of his headaches starting; one of the ones that end with him sitting in the corner of the kitchen with a cup of cocoa, armed with a sand wedge to repel boarders and keep the voices at bay. 
"Meryl!?" He eventually croaks into the handset. Through the earpiece, he can hear Mark James whistling 'Happy Talk' from South Pacific. 
"Yes, Emlyn. Meryl. Please try to keep up. She's a director of the company we're entering into a partnership with to build the Wellness Centre, Life Sciences Centre, Wellness Village, Wellness Resort Hotel, Wellness Golf Course, and Wellness Sheltered Housing complex for discrete and well-off gentlefolk who don't want to end up living in a cardboard box on Station Road in their declining years." 
Attempting vainly to recover his equilibrium, the Council Leader murmurs the words 'Leisure Centre'. 
The narked voice at the other end of the line snaps back, "Well if we must, Emlyn. But we're talking about big money here. Hundreds of millions pumped into Delta Lakes. I'm sure we can manage to squeeze in a ping pong table and paddling pool to keep the locals on side. After all, they'll need something to do in their lunchbreaks after a hard morning on minimum wage with a dustpan and brush or serving coffees in the Wellness Coffee Shop attached to the Wellness Conference Centre." 
"But Meryl?!" A faint plaintive note enters Cllr Dole's voice. 
"Look she was at a loose end having had the Shitty Deal gig go south when Cardiff Bay decided that she and the other mugs who fronted the deal were disposable. But look on the bright side, with Meryl on board everyone will be excited. I'm excited, Meryl's excited, it'll stop you having to bear the burden of the blame if it all goes tits up, too" 
Emlyn cannot help himself; "Blame? Tits?" 
"Listen Emlyn, this is my last big chance to enter the annals of public finance and local government as the man who delivered three whopping disasters without getting sacked. 
I've been dreaming of completing the hat-trick in order to cement my position as the man to whom the Welsh Government will be able to turn to head the Assembly Commission when the time is right. I can't risk a success. It'll go against the best traditions of local government in Wales and could ruin my legacy. It's notoriety that counts, not competence. A word in the right ear was all it took and Fanny's your aunt, Meryl is back." 
"I don't understand. Are we planning to fail?" A desperate Emlyn clutches to the prospect of disaster like it was a life preserver. 
"This is Carmarthenshire, Emlyn!" 
The exasperated tone with which the Council Leader is familiar is in CeeBeeBies' voice; "For goodness' sake, if we succeed every other county council will think it can succeed. We can't let down Cardiff Bay by allowing that. Remember what the City Deal is for; it's to ensure that when ill-costed, poorly thought out projects fail, the Welsh Government can pass the buck. They pass the buck to us, we pass the buck to Meryl. It's a win for us no matter what happens." 
"Winning?" A faint note of hope enters Emlyn dole's voice and he sits down on a kitchen stool by the breakfast bar to steady himself. 
"Yes, winning Emlyn. Everyone's a winner. Well, apart from Llanelli of course. They'll be left with a rotting building site around a leisure centre slowly sinking into the water." 
Emlyn brightens up; "You mean Llanelli loses?" 
A hollow chuckle comes down the other end of the line; "Oh yes Emlyn. That'll teach the ungrateful bastards." 
There's a click and a whirr, the audience is over. Emlyn's world begins to spin with the possibilities. He begins to feel dizzy. Everything goes black. 
He wakes up to the sound of ringing. I's the phone in the kitchen.
A half-awake council leader stumbles out of bed and answers it. 
It's Mark James. 
"It's Meryl Gravell, Leader." 
Emlyn puts on his sombre face and begins the touching eulogy he has prepared for such an occasion. 
"No, Emlyn. Meryl's back. Back again." 
Emlyn swallows and feels rising dread.
It all seems so familiar...is there no end to this nightmare?
He looks around for his sand wedge. The voices are coming again....


 


(From The Carmarthenshire Herald, 21st July 2018, reproduced with permission as currently in print ony)


Please search this blog for background, including here, here, and previous post here.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Wellness Village 'private partners'...something oddly familiar?


A minor flurry of press releases yesterday announced the identity of private sector partner who will be developing the 'Wellness Village' at the Delta Lake swamp, Llanelli, with the council and Swansea University, all part of the PFI-style Swansea Bay City Deal.

The 'Sterling' photoshoot
The company is called Sterling Health, trading as Sterling Health Security Holdings Ltd. The company was set up in 2015 and has sister companies called Sterling Health Security Property Ltd, Sterling Health Security Operating Ltd and Sterling Health Security International Ltd, set up last year.

There is something oddly familiar with all this.

In 2016, in secret session, the council's Executive Board entered a twelve month 'exclusivity agreement' with Kent Neurosciences Ltd to 'develop' the Village.
By May last year the 12 month agreement had not been renewed and had been quietly dropped. The company subsequently dissolved itself in May 2018 with the last set of accounts showing a deficit of £128k. Professor Marc Clement (who is the Swansea University part of the deal, pictured above on the right) was a director until 2015. Other key directors included Mr Franz Dickmann, James Dickmann and Phyllis Holt-Dickmann, clinicians and business people.

Carmarthenshire blog, West Wales News Review took a good look at Kent Neurosciences in 2016 and there were some interesting connections, not least of all to a loss making private hospital in Kent and offshore tax havens in the British Virgin Islands. The hospital opened in 2014 but by 2016 required a £20m refinancing deal due to heavy losses. Most of the original directors had, by that time, moved on.

The 'official' reason why the 12 month Wellness Village deal with Kent Neurosciences Ltd was not renewed was that the project was SO BIG that a wider net had to be cast to incorporate a more diverse developer.
They also had to be able to come up with £127.5m to chip in to the project...

It was somewhat surprising therefore to see that Sterling Health appears to be Kent Neurosciences by another name and includes the same directors, ie the Dickmann clan. The 'Sterling' group of companies have yet to submit any detailed or useful accounts. However, as the council press release states, it "leads a prestigious consortium of global companies", whoever they may be, and searching Companies House certainly takes you down an endless rabbit warren of linked companies and directors, and the Kent connections.

A very recent addition to the list of Directors of both Sterling Holdings, and Sterling Operating is none other than our old friend, former council leader and loyal rubber stamper of the chief executive's unlawful behaviour, Meryl Gravell. Meryl has been loitering in the background ever since as Chair of the 'Arch' health board collaboration thing.

How the same company re-emerged under a different name within a myriad of companies, and the consequential lack of clarity over business track records, will probably remain a mystery, under the helpful shroud of 'commercial confidentiality' and all that. As will the secretive procurement process and the details of the financial deal which has been struck with the council.
Clearly, as has been said before, the emphasis is on private health care, and a luxury health spa, in which the council, under the lead of Mr James, will be investing heavily.
All quite remarkable.

West Wales News Review ends its 2016 piece with another important point; "..could the Wellness Centre be a conduit for public money to flow through networks of companies into far-away entities registered in the British Virgin Islands and other tax havens?"

I would imagine that is entirely possible.

This blog is not suggesting, not for one moment, that there is anything wrong with the arrangement, merely suggesting that it might benefit from some democratic scrutiny... Unsurprisingly there has been none at all so far, and, as ever, Carmarthenshire's taxpayers deserve better.


For previous posts on the Wellness Village and Swansea Bay City Deal please use the search box on the right hand side of this blog

Monday, 9 July 2018

Audit reports, and more


A couple of reports, worthy of a mention, are on the agenda for Friday's Audit Committee. First up is an internal audit report identifying 'fundamental weaknesses' in the council's management of its leased property. As usual the report lacks detail, it is not even clear if the reference is to residential or commercial property, or both.

A sample test of leased properties was taken and the report "identified concerns in the management and administration of the Authority’s assets" and found that "agreements were not always up to date", neither were they reviewed or renewed on time" and furthermore "evidence was not always available to demonstrate that best value had been obtained for the authority"

The report concluded that the procedures and controls were not "sufficiently robust" to "demonstrate adequate clarity and accountability over the lease of the Authority’s properties...Adequate monitoring of properties with agreements / leases is not always undertaken. In particular, the finance element of leased properties is not being managed appropriately".
Income isn't being collected promptly (if at all perhaps?) and records are not being properly maintained.

It is remarkable that that the council, with it's apparently shrinking budget; raising council tax, cutting services and shedding jobs, has failed to collect or properly manage and record the valuable income it gets from leased properties. Let's hope the Audit Committee will be given some honest detail for once, and can determine whether there have been and fraudulent or unlawful transactions and/or financial losses to the taxpayer.

As I have mentioned, Carmarthenshire Council and it's chief executive are currently the 'Accountable Body' for the City Deal, administering and managing the finances...they may want to get their own house in order first. Then again, deals enabling corporate entities and business associates to suck the lifeblood out of the taxpayer for years to come are right up Mr James' street...

Obtaining 'best value for the authority' does remind me of a certain deal with Scarlets' Regional Ltd where the chief executive, Mr James, certainly secured 'best value', unfortunately this was for Scarlets' Regional, not the authority...

The second report is from the Wales Audit Office which is also difficult to decipher. It appears to stem from two cases where "failings in people management had led to employee dismissals; losses in revenue or assets; and negative publicity for the Council.". One of the cases might well refer to the fiasco and cover-up at Pembrey Country Park (please search this blog for background, including here) though this is not stated in the report.

To 'review' what had happened, the council raided the Dictionary of Council Jargon and put several random words together, creating a "Corporate People Performance Management Review Working Group". The WAO have helpfully called it the 'review group'. The group met and discussed 'lessons learned' (of course) and, presumably, the management of people performance, whatever that might be.

As an aside it is worth remembering that there are a plethora of working groups, review groups, 'task and finish' groups, strategy and policy boards and other similarly titled bodies within the council who, by their nature, are not required to publish any agendas, minutes or decision notes, the most notorious being CRWG, set up to make the council 'more transparent'. This trend is growing and is a convenient way to subvert transparency and public engagement.

Anyway the WAO seemed pleased with the process of the 'CPPMRWG' review which made no less than ten recommendations. One of the recommendation was to review and update the guidance on declarations of interest, which is something we can all agree on...

However, despite the recommendations being formally proposed seven months ago, none of them had been implemented. The WAO concluded that this delay meant that the failings identified in the two review cases could be repeated.
Oh dear.

You can read the report here

* * *

The latest version of the council's Social Media policy was up for approval at last Monday's Executive Board meeting. The policy is nothing out of the ordinary and is an updated version of those which have been in place for the last ten years or so.

The policy, which is specifically for employees, restates a certain clause which prohibits the use of the internet for personal use during working hours. No one will mind, presumably, if you pop in to check twitter for five minutes in your lunch break, but hours of trawling blogs to acquire 'evidence' for your own private grudge, for instance, is not allowed and could lead to serious disciplinary action.

This is exactly what happened in 2016 when the chief executive trawled, or, more likely, instructed staff to trawl, through this blog for hours to cobble together his failed complaint to the police. I happened to save the hit logs from a couple of these unusually lengthy visits.

There have been many more instances where clearly Mr James has saved himself the tiresome expense of instructing a solicitor to do this lengthy exercise and used council staff and computers instead, but as I had happened to have saved this particular evidence, I raised it with the Wales Audit Office. After while they replied and said that what he had done was acceptable, staff were allowed to do this.

You may think this was unusual, being able to pursue your private interests using publicly funded resources, bloody astonishing really, but more was to come. Further enquiries, via freedom of information revealed that this generous money-saving perk didn't actually extend to any one else other than Mr James.

In fact, in the past few years, no less than eight members of staff had been disciplined for using council computers to pursue their private interests.

Astonishing.

Anyway, from unlawfully pocketing tens of thousands of public money, to breaching an undertaking to his employers, we know that Mr James prefers to spend other people's money, he said so himself....


Click to play

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

£20,000 Returning Officer fees - time to revisit the issue?


Earlier this year I mentioned the council's pay policy and the eye-watering levels of senior pay contained within. During the budget debate a month earlier, a Labour councillor had raised the subject of the chief executive's pay in the Chamber and its remarkable generosity compared to that of the prime minister. This unholy transgression resulted in a sour and outraged email from the chief executive, clearly irritated that the subject had been brought up, and picked up by the press; it was, he said, "entirely unwholesome and distasteful"...

The council's draft accounts have just been published and show an increase in the chief executive's salary from £170,424 to a whopping £191,699. The difference, around £20,000, is for Returning Officer fees for the Local Elections held in May 2017.
The figures do not include similar fees for the General Election which are paid direct by the government, not the council. Nor do they include other perks such as free use of publicly funded resources, facilities and staff time for his own private and personal use. (Nor does it include, of course, £165 a month from me..).

Extract from Statement of Accounts 2017/18
To put this into some real-world perspective, £20,000 equates to what would be considered a decent annual wage in Carmarthenshire, and in fact the median annual pay for all council employees works out at around £21,000.

Labour have been quiet on the subject but a few years back Plaid Cymru, largely initiated by former AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas, called for the end of these additional election fees, unsuccessfully it turned out, but in January 2015 stated a clear Plaid policy on the subject;

"Plaid Cymru believes there should be no additional fees paid to Council senior officers for undertaking Returning Officer duties at election time. Swansea Council does not pay their chief executive a penny to undertake election duties, and we do not see why others should pocket up to tens of thousands of pounds in addition to their very well paid jobs."

I'm not sure what's happened to this policy in 'Plaid-run' Carmarthenshire, presumably Emlyn Dole hasn't found the courage to broach the subject with Mr James...though given the latter's preoccupation with his own wallet it's fairly clear how he would react to such an impertinent suggestion...

From the accounts we also learn that the Director of Communities and deputy chief executive Jake Morgan comes in at a not-very-close second on £156,000. This figure includes pension contributions of £20,000. Mr James has not been part of the pension scheme since the tax avoiding arrangement was exposed back in 2014. Neither the pension cash, nor the illegal libel indemnity have ever been repaid.

Other figures in the accounts show £2.8m paid out in exit packages which includes £687,738 for just six members of senior staff. Altogether, in the past two years, nearly a million pounds has been paid out in exit packages for eight members of the top brass. There are 21 senior officers in the £90,000 to £191,699 pay scale.
The total pay for the 74 councillors comes to £1.23m, plus expenses, which this year have jumped from £42,702 to £50,554.

A Labour motion to marginally reduce £123,000 per year salaries for two new director posts was defeated late last year by Plaid and the Independents, helped along, incidentally, by an entirely unwholesome and distasteful intervention by the chief executive... However, at Cardiff Council, in 2015, a Plaid Cymru motion to slash chief executive pay from £170k to £100k was defeated by Labour.
Meanwhile, Cllr Dole tells us that frontline services are now 'cut to the bone'.

With the current stalemate over excessive senior pay, what about tackling those Returning Officer fees? At £20,000 a throw, it's time to revisit the issue.

Monday, 18 June 2018

News round-up - Family Court, City Deals, swamps, and more - updated Carmarthen West

Update 23rd June
Carmarthen West (see below)
The Carmarthenshire Herald has asked the council for details of the planning agreement with Carmarthen Promotions Ltd and reports in this week's paper that;
"The council has declined to release the full text of the planning agreement, some of the provisions of which it is only keen to trumpet to its own ends, claiming that its content is - remarkably in the circumstances of its own press release on the topic - subject to commercial confidentiality"
As for the details of the legal charge, the Herald reports that its value is £1.6m and suggests that the council have possibly taken over the bank loan, which was also £1.6m, but the council is only third in line for payment. As I mentioned below, the company's last accounts showed a net current liabilities of quarter of a million pounds.
This whole project, (not just these 250 homes), including the link road, has been ongoing for several years now, dogged by delays, legal wrangles and compulsory purchase orders and as usual, there has been precious little information, including the overall cost, or the deals done, released to the public.
Like many County Hall projects, it would no doubt benefit from the attention of external forensic auditors...

* * *

Family Court Judgement
Carmarthenshire Council have been in the news again following the publication of a damning judgement from the Family Court. The case centred around an 8 year old child and whether or not he should be returned to the care of his mother, the council and the appointed guardian were opposing the move. The council lost the case and came under scathing criticism from the judge over the quality of both their written and oral evidence.

The judgement is well worth a read. Evidence from one "so-called expert witness", was simply theoretic and should never have been admissible. A 44-page statement from one social worker was described by the judge as "swathes" of "rhetoric and generalisations" and "inconsequential, trivial and insubstantial".

The judgement can be read in full here

Swansea Bay City Deal
Full council met last Wednesday for their monthly meeting and quietly nodded through the legal framework for the City Deal. Bearing in mind that the council is already £400m in debt, no one questioned the unknown level of borrowing which will required, or if it was affordable, or whether there were contingency plans should the mysterious investors go bust, or pull out; or, well, anything much at all really.

As chief executive Mark James is leading the whole thing, with Emlyn Dole as the mouthpiece, rebellion, or anything more that a polite enquiry was always going to be unlikely and Mr James, along with the finance director, was given extended delegated power not to trouble the pretty heads of councillors with the finer details. To be honest I'd err on the side of caution when it comes to Mr James and documents... Linda Rees Jones, Carmarthenshire's Monitoring Officer and the chief executive's legal protector is also, we learn, the Monitoring Officer for the City Deal. You may recall that Carmarthenshire's internal legal advice was once famously, and accurately described as 'cavalier' and 'incompetent'. It most certainly still is.
What could possibly go wrong?

The Agreement now has to be approved by the other three councils; Swansea, Neath Port Talbot and Pembrokeshire. I hope their councillors take a slightly more 'risk based' approach to what is, essentially, a very expensive PFI scheme. After all, it was only two weeks ago that Emlyn Dole said that "services have now been cut to the bone, and now it is almost impossible to safeguard our frontline services".

Meanwhile, down at the Delta Lakes swamp, the planning application (by Arup, on behalf of the council) for the Mark James 'Wellness Village', part of the City Deal, is not going quite according to plan with NRW threatening to object to the application unless their concerns are addressed. These concerns include "requirements for flood risk, protected species, designated sites, drainage and air quality and conditions on geoscience, landscape and pollution prevention." Which covers just about everything.

The site, which is contaminated, partially on a flood plain and part of Llanelli's creaking sewage system, is directly adjacent to several designated sites; Carmarthen Bay and Estuaries SAC, Burry Inlet Special Protection Area (SPA) and RAMSAR, Burry Inlet and Loughor Estuary Special Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI), Pyllau Machynys SSSI and Pwll Lagoon SSSI.
Nothing is insurmountable of course, if you throw enough taxpayers' money at it, or, as in the case of the council's usual preferred option, deny all and carry on regardless.

Another project, Yr Egin 'cultural hub' in Carmarthen is now complete, it is not known how much has been paid out by the council or if there are any ongoing costs. We do know though that they paid £110,000 per acre for 19 acres of land for the Carmarthen West Road to enable the development, and that S4C, the flagship tenant is having trouble tempting its staff relocate to the wild west.
It's probably only a matter of time before the council starts renting office space...

Digital divide
Three and a half years ago Carmarthenshire councillors voted to go 'paperless' and have the reams of agendas, minutes and documents delivered electronically. iPads and software were duly purchased at considerable outlay and ongoing cost, and provided to all 74 councillors.

A report to the quaintly titled Democratic Committee last Monday, see here, revealed that, after three and a half years, only four councillors had actually gone 'paperless'. The rest, we assume, are either still working out how to turn their tablets on, given them to the grandkids or becoming Candy Crush experts. There had been 'hiccups', apparently.

I don't think there are many outfits, in this day and age, public or private, which continue to use small forests of timber, buckets of ink and eye-watering postage costs to impart information to their organisation. Apart from Carmarthenshire Council.

Carmarthen West Development
As mentioned above the Council have been shelling out a small fortune to progress the Carms West development of 1200 homes and the associated Carms West Link Road. One application, for around 250 homes, originally submitted in 2013, was, despite numerous objections including lack of demand, approved in February 2017 (See my post here which gives further background) but this was conditional on the completion of a S106 agreement. Presumably that has now been agreed as the decision notice has now been released.
The developer, Carmarthen Promotions Ltd is, oddly, based in Norfolk with a Lord, no less, as one of the Directors. The last published accounts indicate a loss of £252,000 in 2016/17. What I find odd is that, according to Companies House, as of the 6th June this year the council now have a legal charge over the company on the land. The company already has a bank loan of £1.6m secured on the land and there are two further legal charges which have priority over the council.

The council's legal charge is either connected to the S106 agreement or is security for a loan. If the council have given Carmarthen Promotions Ltd a loan it would be interesting to know why, how much, and on what terms. If it's part of the S106 then any return from the development is likely to take a very long time, if ever. Incidentally, in 2016 the same directors set up another company, Carmarthen Promotions (North) Ltd which is also running at a loss.
Curious.

Public Audit
It's nearly that time of year again when the law allows you to take yourself down to County Hall and inspect the council's accounts and "all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating thereto", well, those that have escaped the Presidential Shredder anyway... The inspection period runs from the 5th July and the 1st August.
Unlike English councils, the requirement to publish monthly spending details over £500 doesn't apply to Wales and this puts the interested public on the back foot. In Carmarthenshire we are left with trying to decipher generalised quarterly budget reports or going through tortuous freedom of information requests. With the growing profusion of arms-length companies and outsourced services even these avenues are becoming blocked.

So, if you have an area of interest, or even suspect there's been some creative accounting or an unlawful payment or two, the details of how to exercise your right to inspect can be found here.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Swansea Bay City Deal 'Agreement'...and Carmarthenshire's in charge


After fifteen months of deliberation, arguments, and unknown, but no doubt astronomical legal costs, the final draft of the Joint Working Agreement for the Swansea Bay City Deal will be doing the rounds of the four participant councils over the next few weeks. If they all agree, the Joint Committee will be formally set up. The draft Agreement can be read here.

Carmarthenshire Council Executive Board will be rubber stamping the Agreement on Monday (update Monday; duly rubber stamped). It will then go to full council for the final nod of approval.

From what I can fathom out, here are a few points;

The Joint Committee will consist of the four council leaders and several co-opted representatives from the health boards and the universities. Only the four council leaders will have a vote. However, this is against a backdrop and input of the programme board, economic strategy board of business interests, finance and legal board, and other vested interests. As lip service to scrutiny, a councillor joint scrutiny board will be set up which will be run Carmarthenshire-style, ie surgically sanitised officer reports, engineered to avoid challenge and dissent.

Carmarthenshire Council will be the official 'Accountable Body', essentially then it's Mark James, aided and abetted by Linda Rees Jones and the section 151 finance officer. No, it's not April 1st. Mr James, as we know, is the lead chief executive for the whole Deal, the principal advisor to the Joint Committee, and will be known as the 'Accountable Officer'. What a joke. The other councils should be aware that the 'Accountable Officer' thinks nothing of breaching promises and was happy to renege on an undertaking to hand money over to the council, and pocketed it himself. Speaking from experience, I wouldn't believe a word he says. We wouldn't want the City Deal money ending up in the gutter would we?
I refer readers, and interested parties, to my previous post City Deal - a scandal in the making, and the wrong man for the job?

The private investment, the funding arrangements, and borrowing requirement for the four councils are still not clear but essentially, the 'Accountable Body' will be in control of the purse strings...what could possibly go wrong? A recent letter from the Welsh Minister shows that even the Welsh Government is confused as to Mr James' role in local government;



In Carmarthenshire the main project is the Wellness private-health-care hot-tub extravaganza, a Mark James vision he clearly plans to bequeath to the County when he finally moves on. If nothing else, it will be something to keep the auditors in gainful employment in years to come. The Yr Egin 'cultural hub' has already cost £16m of public money, how much of that has come from the council is not entirely clear.

The reality of the City Deal governance will be somewhat different than the tick-box legalese of the official agreement. One of the 'Principles' is for councils to be 'open and trusting in their dealings with each other'. We don't have to look very far back to see just how open and trusting Carmarthenshire was with Pembrokeshire over the speculative property grants, see 'Councils at war' leading to Pembs councillors concluding that Carmarthenshire was indeed a Sicilian cartel. These grants were administered by Carmarthenshire, like the City Deal, and the audits were shrouded in mystery, and mismanagement covered up.

The ambiguity identified by Neath Port Talbot over the past few months is still there with uncertainty around the use of capital receipts (as I read it, a council could sell any asset and use the money for a city deal project) and the divving up of funds, controlled by Carmarthenshire, is likely to set one council off against another before a once-in-a-generation brick has been laid. That's only when the government funding does start to trickle in, up until then each council, all making cuts to frontline services, will have to fund the projects themselves.

The running costs for the Deal will be met by the four councils to to the tune of £1m over five years, plus an additional 1.5% top-slice of the governments' contribution. This again will be controlled, and audited by Carmarthenshire...

As for Freedom of Information requests, once again it is County Hall in overall control, a council far more concerned with reputation than truth. My own request for an earlier draft of the JWA was flatly refused under legal privilege, which is a fine start. The Agreement mentions the requirement for a 'robust system' for declarations of conflicts of interest, yet the 'Accountable Officer' is an officer who chose not to declare his own property and business empire to his employers.

The complex governance structure for the City Deal resembles a bloated quango, filled with conflicting interests and cosy arrangements (I bet the council hospitality boxes have been busy), set up to oversee a public/private scheme likely to benefit a few short term investors, and the egos, and wallets, of council chief executives, at massive public cost.

I will be watching.

Friday, 11 May 2018

News round up - AGMs, and more


Following a very close vote at their AGM last week, the Labour group on the council elected 30 year old Cllr Rob James as their new leader, replacing Cllr Jeff Edmunds who had held the position since early 2015 after he had ousted Kevin Madge.

Early in 2015 the council was 'run' by Labour and Independents. However, former councillor Meryl Gravell (for 'Meryl' read Mark James) refused to work with Cllr Edmunds. His card was marked by Mr James when he helped spill the beans over the latter's bung to Scarlets Regional Ltd midway through 2014. This 'disloyalty', therefore, made him unacceptable as leader of the council and so 'Meryl' dumped Labour and formed a coalition with Plaid in June 2015.
Seen as the lesser of two evils, Emlyn Dole has turned out to be a remarkably loyal follower of the regime.

One of the problems faced by Labour in opposition has been an inability to challenge Plaid as many of the policies were started by Labour (and whilst Cllr Edmunds was the Executive Board Member for Resources), and merely continued by Plaid. This led to Cllr Edmunds starting every opposition statement with general agreement with whatever Plaid were doing.
As Rob James, previously a Neath councillor was only elected last May he, at least on a personal level, doesn't carry the same baggage. So, we'll see.

An interesting example of the democratic constipation arose a few weeks ago when Rob James questioned the executive decision to set up yet another arms-length company, 'wholly owned by the council'. The trend was started under Labour and, at the time, was challenged by Plaid; "The obsession of the Labour council with effectively outsourcing services and removing democratic oversight inevitably reduces the operational control the council has over our public services."
However, the tables have now turned and Cllr James' use of words such as outsourcing and privatisation were sneered at by Plaid, rubbished by the chief executive and even some of the Labour group shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Jobs and terms and conditions were all safe, they said, well, erm, for the first day of transfer anyway...oh.

Safe as houses eh? In the London Borough of Barnet, care workers were TUPE transferred to an arms-length company, 'Your Choice Barnet', 100% wholly owned by Barnet Council. Within a year, a third of the workforce had been made redundant and the care workers given a 9.5% pay cut. Hopefully this won't happen in Carmarthenshire...

Coincidentally, next Monday, the Executive Board will meet to approve the business plan for the latest arms-length company, Lleisant Delta Wellbeing Ltd...but, despite it being 'wholly owned' by the council, the decision will be held in secret, behind closed doors. How very transparent...

One advantage for Labour in electing a new leader to the hot seat was that he wasn't part of the ruling Labour/Ind group during the unlawful payments scandals, even though the collective responsibility of allowing the chief executive to get away with daylight robbery, remains. Jeff Edmunds, whilst not on the original Exec Board which bankrolled the chief executive, was elected just after, in May 2012 and was in charge of resources throughout the Wales Audit Office reports etc etc. Plaid were vocal in opposition, at the time, but that all changed in June 2015, (apart from this notable effort from Plaid backbenchers).
Labour's Kevin Madge is the final remnant of the executive board who wielded the fatal rubber stamp, and has now been nominated as vice chair of the council, and will be automatically elevated to Chair the year after. Only in Carmarthenshire eh?

As an aside, it is understood that the chief executive responded to any enquiries as to whether he was going to repay the unlawful monies by threatening councillors to keep their mouths shut or he'd make that earlier Exec Board pay it back out of their own pockets, in so many words. No wonder they all kept quiet... A pity really that they didn't stand up to him, the fact that he misled and manipulated the Exec Board into giving him a blank cheque would have given them an instant defence.

I am not aligned to any party, and will leave all the political intrigue to others, but as I see it we still have a largely benign set of councillors, fearful of the chief executive who continues to bully, threaten, flout the law and rip off the taxpayer.

The power lies with senior officers, and, as we have seen, the chief executive, aided by his cabal of disciples, holds the reins of whatever 'administration' is currently in the hot seat, so a strong opposition is essential in Carmarthenshire. With the City Deal, for example, looming on the horizon, even more decision making will be taken out of the hands of councillors. I have heard that the council have already borrowed unknown millions, and are paying interest on it, without any guarantees for the taxpayer, cross-council agreement, let alone a whisper of scrutiny.

Have all councillors taken a vow of silence over the 'Wellness Village' white elephant? Or the Swansea Bay City Deal itself? Pembrokeshire, like Neath Port Talbot, remains cautious and at a Pembs full council meeting yesterday one councillor wondered whether the 'Swansea City Bay Deal' (must be a footie fan) would bankrupt the council, the webcast starts here.
In Carmarthenshire, questioning the integrity of the chief executive's vanity projects can be problematic, you are likely to be labelled a troublemaker, an obstacle to job creation and the forthcoming abundance of shared wealth, you could even be sued. He has his own agenda, and it should be challenged...jobs and abundant wealth for who exactly?
Has anyone, apart from me, flagged up whether his own business and property investment interests may conflict with the City Deal cash bonanza? Let alone the council's interests?
As I said in my previous post, the wisdom of allowing the chief executive anywhere near a piggy bank, let alone £1.3bn must be questioned.

Scrutiny is vital and, at times, far more effective on a public platform, at full council meetings, in the glare of the webcam, than at poorly minuted unrecorded spoon-fed scrutiny meetings. The farcical reaction to the Motion to introduce Epetitions a few weeks ago was a case in point. The Plaid leader demanded that the motion be withdrawn because the the decision to introduce them had already been made...despite the fact that this was FOUR years ago. The Motion should have been welcomed by the administration as a matter of democratic principle, not treated as a source of irritation from the opposition and voted down.

Next Wednesday is the council's AGM, a largely ceremonial affair but followed, after lunch by the Leader's Annual report, offering the usual opportunity for some b******t bingo, if nothing else. Following the appointment of Committee members and Chairs - none of which seem to be contested - we come to the annual tweak of the Constitution, with a minor amendment to ensure that councillors can claim extra expenses for additional 'approved duties'.
Yet again there is something missing from the annual Constitutional amendments and it's those shocking 'suspended' libel clauses which remain the elephants in the room. Unbelievable. Maybe next year eh?

Meanwhile, whether it's Labour, Plaid or the Independents 'running' the circus, it seems that some things never change. Back in March, whilst fans were shelling out for tickets and struggling to park, three Executive Board Members, Linda Evans, Hazel Evans, (both Plaid) and Mair Stephens (Ind) enjoyed a night out at Parc Y Scarlets for the Scarlets v La Rochelle match in the council's hospitality box, with designated parking. And who was paying for it all? Us of course, including you lot queuing outside. Mind you, Exec Board Member Jane Tremlett (Ind) went one better, whilst we were all shivering in February, she wangled a couple of days in Barcelona courtesy of a private telecare company...

Of greater significance however are the gifts, hospitality and fringe benefits enjoyed by the most senior officers, but, as I have discovered, you'll have to embark on lengthy battles through the Freedom of Information Act to get to the bottom of that.

County Hall, Carmarthen.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

City Deal - a scandal in the making, and the wrong man for the job?


Western Mail 27th April 2018. Click to enlarge.

At a Neath Port Talbot meeting last week the council leader Rob Jones stated publicly that, at the moment, they would not be signing the City Deal Joint Agreement between the four councils. The decision follows another critical report from NPT chief executive, Steve Phillips. An earlier report, which I blogged about last October, similarly urged caution.
As you can read from the article above, Cllr Jones said "I am not prepared to put this council financially at risk on a wing and a prayer"

This is unlike Carmarthenshire where not a word of criticism about the even bigger 'funding gap' has been voiced, or even murmured. Why is that I wonder. According to the article there have been 28 drafts of the Joint Working Agreement, I don't know if that's an exaggeration but whatever the case, there is something seriously wrong and the City Deal is a scandal in the making.

I voiced a few thoughts, and facts, in my previous post, here are a few more.
The City Deal has become, somehow or other, the latest baby of Carmarthenshire chief executive Mr Mark James. I suggest that the other three councils take a very hard look at his record and strongly consider whether he is the right man for the job.
NPT, and Pembrokeshire both express concern about financial risk, Mr James cares not one bit about 'protecting the public purse', nor his own council's budget, nor the reputation of his council. Can we expect Carmarthenshire's council leader Emlyn Dole to say anything critical? No. Forget about that option, he sold his soul for the Leadership and Mr James' hand is so deeply inserted that he can no longer think nor speak for himself.

To leave Mr James in charge of this ongoing fiasco is a risk in itself. Even if it all goes ahead, it will plunge all four councils into an abyss of debt for projects which no one in the real world actually wants, or needs.

Let's have a look at the rap sheet shall we? Firstly there was the Boston Stadium, a massive burden on the taxpayer which he said wouldn't cost them a 'penny'. Then there were the other allegations from Boston which suggested exactly what our Mr James was capable of.
Then we move to Carmarthenshire and the Parc Y Scarlets stadium. A well documented drain if ever there was one. This is a private company yet it has been allowed to occupy the stadium rent-free and not worry about paying back a £2.6m loan...how many other Carmarthenshire businesses have been given such accommodating treatment, the council even pays rent to Scarlets' Regional Ltd for 'office space'. I was told, in court that just because Mr James likes rugby, that was no reason to be critical...

Then there was the 'bung' over the Scarlets' car park where Mr James' last minute intervention went directly against the advice of his own director of finance and directly against the interests of the Carmarthenshire taxpayer.
There's the Eastgate development in Llanelli where yet again a large chunk of real estate was gifted to developers and now houses, you've guessed it, council offices.

Another strange arrangement was the enormous financial gift to the Towy Community Church and the 'evangelical bowling alley'. For some reason a Christian 'social enterprise' was considered to be a suitable prop for the council's own struggling social care department. The fact that Mr James has, apparently, deeply Christian beliefs involving the literal truth of the Bible, has nothing to do with it of course...

And let's not forget the pocketing of council cash, and liberal use of facilities, resources and staff, to pursue his own private legal battles. None of which he has paid back. And while we're on the subject, what about the pension scam which gave him a nice little earner? And which he has also failed to repay.

The City Deal 'Wellness Village' looks set to be the white elephant extraordinaire, a vanity project which will leave a legacy of debt for future generations of Carmarthenshire residents. Llanelli wanted a leisure centre and a care home, not private health care and holistic therapy pods. I find it deeply concerning that councillors are not speaking out and are swallowing the spin and nonsense spouted by Mr James..have they not learned any lessons by now?

I can speak from personal experience and say, quite categorically, that the only thing that concerns Mr James is his own wallet and his own reputation, not the council, nor its residents. And as for taxpayers' money, no doubt he'd be quite happy to stuff it in the gutter. Aside from the financial aspect, there's the toxic culture, still alive and well, and the years of insidious threats to those who disagree with his world view; councillors, politicians, regulatory bodies, the press and members of the public.

Let's remember, once again, the words of the former Police Commissioner, Mr Salmon, who spent four years 'liaising' with Carmarthenshire County Council and came to the correct and inescapable conclusion that is was "Wales’ answer to a Sicilian cartel. It’s everywhere you look (thankfully only in Carmarthenshire – so far as I can tell). It extracts vast amounts of money from residents which it showers on favourites, hordes property, bullies opponents, co-opts friends and answers to no one, least of all local councillors".

My message to the other three councils is that I cannot think of a more unsuitable and untrustworthy person to be in charge of this City Deal. He has trashed Carmarthenshire, do you really want him to do the same to your neck of the woods?

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Swansea Bay City Deal...way behind schedule? A few thoughts.


The Western Mail reports that the projects in the Swansea Bay City Deal have just had a 'massive' financial boost and that residents in the four council areas will 'reap the rewards' from the various developments. The boost is in fact an agreement by the Welsh Government, 'in principle', for the councils to keep 50% of business rates from some of the various developments, should they go ahead.

As with everything else associated with the City Deal it is difficult to pick fact from fiction. To start with, the phrase 'in principle' suggests that agreement is conditional on something else, what that condition is remains unclear, is it UK Government agreement? Or agreement from councils who will 'reap' less than others in business rates?

Secondly, the actual purpose of retaining 50% of the rates is to try and offset the massive interest payments on the money each council will have to borrow. It is not some big future cash windfall to directly benefit residents as the statement suggests but will disappear into a bottomless pit. Carmarthenshire Council alone already has a debt of £388m, and rising, costing around £18m per year in interest.

The City Deal looks to be well behind schedule. Since the Deal was signed in March 2017 the four councils have failed to agree a Joint Working Agreement. This JWA will underpin the governance arrangements of a Joint Committee which will oversee the Deal. At the moment there is a shadow Joint Committee which, as it is not a legal entity until it's backed up by a JWA, cannot do anything.

One of the only objective, and critical, reports to see the light of day was the report to Neath Port Talbot councillors last October (see previous post here). It became evident that the 70-page draft JWA was being scrapped and a new one commissioned. Pembrokeshire also expressed serious doubts.

I asked Carmarthenshire Council, via Freedom of Information, for a copy of the scrapped report. This was refused under legal professional privilege ('advice' privilege as opposed to 'litigation' privilege). I appealed to the Information Commissioner on the grounds that the council were wrongly extending LPP to cover a draft report.

The ICO issued a decision notice last week upholding the council's decision, as the drafting was still 'ongoing', this was despite the £millions involved, the thousands of people who will be affected by the Deal, the requirement for transparency and the fact that the draft JWA (which, incidentally, had been made available to Neath Port Talbot councillors on request) I was asking for had been abandoned.
The full ICO decision notice can be read here, an interesting read, for what it's worth.

Meanwhile, another draft JWA was commissioned and it was hoped to be agreed and presented to councillors 'before Christmas'. This then moved to 'March'. There is still no sign of it and the leader of Swansea Council now says it will be approved 'within the coming months'.

Further signs of delay and disagreement concern the Economic Strategy Board. This will, as I understand it, representing the interests of the private investors and to 'raise awareness in the business community'. An advertisement for a Chair for the Board went out last December and so far there has been no announcement of Board membership, let alone the appointment of a Chair.

Back in January of this year a tender went out, led by Carmarthenshire Council, to appoint an events management company to plug the City Deal across the region, "to deliver high quality engagement events starting in early 2018 for an initial 1 year contract (with possibility of a 1 year extension)... ...develop a series of networking/engagement events working with the City Deal Regional Office and eleven City Deal projects, to attract and engage with a range of diverse audiences raising the profile of the City Deal and the opportunities it presents for the region."

A couple of weeks ago, two months after the closing date for the tender, and despite receiving a number of "high quality bids", it was cancelled with the notice stating that "we will not be appointing a contractor at present". Any costs for this failed exercise will be borne by the bidders.". An incredible waste of time and money all round.

One of the projects in Carmarthenshire, which I have mentioned once or twice, is the Wellness Village. The planning application has gone in, the ground prep is underway and a couple of million have already been spent. This is despite no Joint Committee, nor JWA being in place. Yr Egin, the new S4C and 'cultural' centre in Carmarthen has already been built and still hoping, presumably, for £3m from the Deal after a bid for EU cash was turned down.

Part of the City Deal involves contributions from the two health boards, Hywel Dda and Abertawe Bro Morgannwg. Hywel Dda is running a deficit of £69m this year and, as has been widely reported, planning major changes to our local hospitals, including building a big new one somewhere on the Pembs/Carms border. It would be beyond the pale for Hywel Dda to invest NHS cash into the Wellness Village, the premise for which is private luxury health tourism, at the expense of frontline NHS services.

Carmarthenshire Council is the lead administrative local authority for the City Deal and it's chief executive is the lead chief executive for the Deal. Enough said. Rumours have circulated over the last few months that the other councils have been kept in the dark...with that scenario, what hope is there that our own councillors will ever be fully and accurately briefed, let alone council taxpayers.
There is not a glimmer, so far, of where the £637m of private funding is coming from, if it's coming from anywhere. I also suspect that the job creation figures are wildly exaggerated. If an economic boost should materialise, then I doubt this will be felt in the extensive rural areas of west Wales.

The City Deal Regional Office appears to be on the payroll of Carmarthenshire Council so I sent a few questions their way. The questions, and responses can be seen in full below but provide little substance. And as for the response to question 6, with the involvement of private investment, I have little faith that anything will be transparent.
There has been nothing yet to suggest that the City Deal is anything more than one big PFI scheme which will leave council taxpayers beholden to private investors for years to come. With big private companies such as Carillion, and now Capita, on the rocks, an objective approach to future risk to the public purse is critical.

As for the 'Wellness Village', this has all the hallmarks of a County Hall vanity project, jobs for the boys and contracts and deals for the usual suspects. And don't forget, 'lead chief executive' Mark James has his own business and property interests which he didn't bother to declare...and a track record which hardly inspires trust. Whatever the case, I hope our councillors keep a beady eye on progress and developments, cut through the spin and always remember that this 'exciting' and 'once in a generation' Deal may not be all as it seems.

One Carmarthenshire resident tweeted this morning that the City Deal "is a scandal of epic proportions, there seems to be lots of stuff for non-elected people spending money they don't have on stuff no "real" people want". 
Sums it up pretty well.

City Deal Regional Office Qs & As

1. Current status of the Joint Working Agreement and governance and accountability structure.

 The Joint Working Agreement is currently being finalised. We expect it to go to all four regional councils for approval by the early summer.

 2. Why have several projects commenced, including the Wellness Village, without a JWA in place?

 Apart from site preparation works, no work has started on the Village. Subject to planning consents and the approval of the City Deal business case, work is earmarked to start on site towards the end of 2018.

 3. Membership and governance arrangements of the Joint Committee

The Joint Committee will be made up of the leaders and chief executives of the four regional councils, as well as non-voting, co-opted members from Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board, Hywel Dda University Health Board, Swansea University and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

4. Membership and governance of the Economic Strategy Board. An advertisement for an ESB Chair went out in December 2017 - who was appointed, when was the individual appointed, and who made the appointment.

The ESB chair has not yet been appointed.

5. Current status with regards to private investment for each City Deal project, the companies/private investors currently involved and the level of financial commitment secured so far. 

Subject to what we have said in response to question two about the need for business case approvals for City Deal projects from the UK and Welsh Governments, we are working towards our target of £637m from the private sector. There is no suggestion or indication that the money will not be forthcoming.

6. What specific measures will the City Deal partners and the Joint Committee take to ensure full public transparency and accountability?

Usual rules regarding public access to meetings will apply to Joint Committee. Minutes from Joint Committee meetings will be published online.

* * *

Update 30th April; It has been reported over the past day or two that, 5 months after the 'advert' went out, a 'preferred' Chair for the ESB (see post below) has been selected. The appointment of US businessman, Mr Edward Tomp, a director of Valero oil based in Pembrokeshire is conditional on the four councils agreeing to the Joint Working Agreement, currently in its umpteenth 'fluffy' draft and most recently rejected by Neath Port Talbot council (see later post, which I hope Mr Tomp will read and inwardly digest...)

Friday, 20 April 2018

Caerphilly news...


With the news that the long-running Caerphilly council pay scandal, involving three of it's most senior officers, including its chief executive, is set to rise to £3.6m, today's editorial in the Western Mail questions the system which has allowed this to happen, it's worth a read.

I have mentioned the situation in Caerphilly numerous times on this blog, and made parallels with Carmarthenshire, most recently here, and both situations arose following 'unlawful' findings by the Wales Audit Office.

The difference in Carmarthenshire, where there was a secret pay rise via an unlawful pension 'arrangement' and the unlawful libel indemnity, was that the council leadership were (and still are) so firmly in the pocket of the chief executive that they refused to suspend him, it was only when the pressure from outside the council began to mount that he eventually, and 'voluntarily', 'stepped-aside' whilst the police gave it all a cursory glance. On that point I find it incredible that the police spent a mere three months chewing over some paperwork (and did not correspond with either County Hall or the CPS) yet found a spare 18 months to investigate, question and eventually charge me, all of which was entirely fruitless.

Anyway, in some ways we are fortunate that no 'official' action has been taken against Mr James as the taxpayers of Carmarthenshire would be footing a similar bill.
At the end of the day it is cheaper, and easier all round, to allow him to get away scot free with the audit office findings, and the substantial associated costs of the scandals; allow him free use of council resources for his private interests; take no action over decisions which deliberately disadvantage the taxpayer; ignore the fact he has undeclared business interests; allow him to pervert the constitution to appoint his loyal disciples; allow him to economise with the truth, threaten the press, mislead and threaten councillors, interfere with and block democratic debate, etc etc.

As has been shown, with the farce in Caerphilly, getting shot of senior officers is such an extraordinarily tortuous and expensive process, it's virtually impossible. The protection afforded to senior officials is more or less total and way above the usual employment protection rules, and as the editorial says 'Our councils are simply unable to manage senior staff when things go wrong'.

It's also a matter of semantics. What is politely termed 'unlawful' in world of senior council officialdom, is quite simply illegal, fraudulent or downright immoral to the rest of us.

The editorial concludes by speculating on whether Mr O'Sullivan will be given a pay out and if so, it would, in general terms "be a shameful day for the politicians in Cardiff Bay and Westminster who have been unable to deal with the problems that undoubtedly exist in the most senior ranks of local authorities across the UK."

The "problem" certainly exists in the senior ranks of Carmarthenshire. It's time for the system to change and County Hall Carmarthen would be a good place to start.

FOI news - Office costs


A Freedom of Information response arrived today which shows that the Plaid/Independent executive spent over £8,000 on refurbishing their offices since August last year;

Click to enlarge

We can all recall those 'difficult decisions' made in February's budget yet this decision didn't seem particularly troublesome did it? £8,000 could have been spent on some books for our schools, fixed a few potholes or contributed to the care of a vulnerable resident or two, the list is endless.

And another point, during a discussion over the council's new Local Housing Company at last week's council meeting, Cllr Dole argued that it would help local builders 'prosper' and Executive Member Linda Evans said "We want to keep the Carmarthenshire pound in Carmarthenshire".
With at least three of the providers in the above FOI response based out of the county, it seems that these noble gesture are little empty, unless of course there are no carpet fitters, printers or furniture suppliers in Carmarthenshire....

Monday, 16 April 2018

Council epetitions - is the four year wait nearly over? - updated


Update 18th April;

It would seem, from the webcast, that my post below had been read and noted.
Cllr Rob James presented the Motion and noted that approval had been given for an epetition page in June 2015 although it was first recommended in 2014, but we were still waiting. He cited recent examples of a lack of transparency including the incident with the BBC reporter last week.

Plaid leader Emlyn Dole demanded that the Motion be withdrawn as a vote had been taken 3 years ago. The proposer refused to withdraw. Mr Dole went on to say about the inadequate software (as I mentioned below) which didn't allow for a bilingual service. Cllr James noted that a member of the public (me) had been told (two years ago) that a solution to this issue was being looked at 'in house'.

Other Plaid councillors, and the chief executive, then claimed that an epetition page was not possible without a procedure to back it up. This is not only nonsense (paper petitions can already be presented) but merely a ploy to stall and frustrate further moves toward transparency.
If constitutional tweaks were necessary, then the council have had four years to sort this out, and to find a bilingual service. It's inexcusable.

Instead of embracing and reinforcing an an important principle of public engagement and transparency, Emlyn Dole chose to put it back in the long grass where it has languished for four years and his party, along with the Independents voted to reject the Motion by 31 votes to 22.

Why would anyone vote against this at all? Unless they were following orders... Shame on them.

Let's hope this particularly prolonged case of municipal constipation gets moving soon.

The debate can be seen here.

In a few other developments, Labour's Kevin Madge was nominated as Vice Chair of the council for 2018/19 (he will then be Chair the year after that), presumably this was a reward for years of loyal service rubber stamping the chief executive's unlawful activities. There was a long argument over whether or an amendment to another Motion was admissible or not, and the meeting ended with councillors voting unanimously to accept the Independent Remuneration Panel's recommendations and give themselves all a 1.49% pay rise.

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Wednesday's full council agenda includes a Motion put forward by Cllr Rob James (Lab), elected last May, asking the Executive Board to introduce an epetitions facility on the council website.

There is, however, some history to this. The damning WLGA governance report published in 2014, stated, amongst the 39 recommendations, that an epetition page should be set up within three months.

In November 2014 the council's own IT Strategy fully supported the recommendation;

"Detachment from the political process is a big issue, with election turnout being as little as 23% in one area of Carmarthen in the last Council Election. Everyone can view e-petitions online and they are easy to sign. They encourage transparency when petitions are debated and increase public engagement with the Local Authority
E-petitions are not a new feature of Local Authorities but are not common in Wales. Carmarthenshire Council has a chance to get ahead in digital communication as e-petitions are introduced."

The WLGA recommendation was eventually accepted and approved by full council at an Extraordinary meeting in June 2015.

Several months later, in February 2016, I asked the Monitoring Officer, Linda Rees Jones when the epetition page was likely to appear and I was told that their software providers couldn't supply a bilingual service so in-house options were being considered, this was despite the website itself being bilingual and the Assembly providing a bilingual service for several years...

The process, if ever it should materialise, would be similar to the Assembly and parliamentary  epetition systems. Petitions with a certain number of signatures would trigger a council/committee debate, this might be a percentage of the electorate, or a fixed number. Guidance would be provided on the webpage and any rejected petitions, ie those which did not meet the approval of the chief executive, would be listed with brief, valid reasons why they were unacceptable.

It's all quite straightforward and would, quite simply, provide residents with a direct voice to raise issues, or even new ideas, with the council. Epetitions are, as I'm sure you are aware, increasingly popular and a quick and easy way for us to register our agreement, comment on and support a particular cause.

As this epetition page was recommended four years ago and the council has already agreed to do this three years ago, a vote next week is not really necessary. All that is required is a date when it will finally be up and running.
The 'inadequate software' argument is wearing a bit thin.

As regular readers will be well aware, even small measures to improve transparency, public engagement and accountability have been quite an epic struggle, and as Friday's shameful treatment of a BBC journalist shows, the nonsense continues. The obstacle to progress has always been, and still is, the control freak at the top.

We'll see what happens.