Monday 31 January 2011

Building Regs - Did You Know?

I was sent a copy of a letter from a resident of Llanelli, Mr Ray Jones. Apparently, despite previously printing many letters critical of Carmarthenshire Council, the local papers are becoming 'reluctant' to continue doing so. In this correspondence Mr Jones is merely trying to inform residents of the county of recent building regulations of which, it seems, most people are unaware. In fact the couple he refers to in his letter first found out about it when a letter from the council threatening legal action dropped on the doormat. Mr Jones pursued the matter on behalf of the couple, determining that the area was less than 25%, and eventually, after eight months obtained an apology and a full refund for them from the council;

To Letter Editor Llanelli Star/Evening Post;
Residents in Sandy Road, Llanelli re-plastered the front of their home to cure dampness caused by cracks in the wall, arguably caused by heavy vehicle traffic vibration.
Paying £147 for a Building Officer to inspect, he told them there was nothing that could be done to improve emissions loss through the wall and gave them permission to carry on with the original work and contractor.
The contractor knew nothing about the law change, apparently notices only went out to Builder's Merchants, Architects and the like.
The most effective way of informing everybody of the change in the law would have been through the 'Monthly Newsletter' in laymans terms.
On April 6th 2006 a new law, 'Conservation of fuel and power in Existing Dwellings' came into being in the form of an Approved Document L1B, approved by the British government, enforced in Carmarthenshire since May 1st 2009.
'Conservation of Fuel and Power in Existing Dwellings' deals with heat emission loss from homes through three thermal elements.
If you are renovating/repairing any of these three elements over 25% of it's overall surface area, you will need to apply for planning permission from the Building Control Section of Carmarthenshire County Council.
If planning permission is required you will firstly pay a fee for an Officer to inspect and grant the necessary permission. The British government want all old housing stock brought up to a standard to eliminate as much as possible, heat emission loss, yet no grants are available.
Have you paid for planning permission for work to be carried out to a thermal element in your home? Did you really need planning permission?
The Building Regulations step by step;
What is Thermal Element? - it is a surface that directly protects your home from the outside weather conditions.
How many Thermal Elements are there? - Three (the roof, the floor and the external walls)
When do you need Planning Permission? - When more than 25% of any one of these elements needs repair or renovation, double check with your council.
What do you need to do before you check with the council -
1. Measure the area in need of repair/renovation i.e External wall (excluding windows and doors)
2. Measure the total area of the Thermal Element i.e External wall (excluding windows and doors) but do not include outhouses etc.
3. Work out the area of repair as a percentage of the total area and if it is 25% or less then no planning permission is required.
4. Contact the council's Building Control Service manager and complain.
If you are not happy with the response, contact your MP and AM and ask them to look into this issue for you, you could well be entitled to a total refund.
Ray Jones
I have also heard from other residents, and small buiding contractors who have inadvertently fallen foul of new and all encompassing building regs, it appears now essential to contact the council, and, nine times out of ten, pay a fee, before so much as knocking in a nail.

Friday 28 January 2011

Patronising Nonsense - Carmarthenshire Council 'Cuts Survey'

I am glad it wasn't just me who thought Carmarthenshire Council's latest attempt to 'engage' with the public was nothing more than a poor PR stunt. Today's Western Mail reports on the ridiculous survey which appeared in the local paper, a two page spread in enormous print asking for our views regarding spending cuts accompanied by the usual patronising nonsense. There are 15 questions covering 6 areas of services amounting to approx £2.5m - naturally your views (strongly agree to strongly disagree), will be completely ignored, and that's only if you can be bothered to post two sheets of newspaper through the post. I am not sure what the local paper were thinking of by even printing this. Anyhow, by trawling through recent council minutes it is clear that the decisions have already been made. It's the familiar line of closing the care homes, libraries, children's centres, etc much of which I've mentioned before.
It is shocking that this council executive will bend over backwards to help out a rugby team and yet at the same time consider cutting services to the elderly, the young and the vulnerable.
What is very worrying is that on the back of this sham consultation, Gravell and Co will try and claim the moral authority and once again democracy will die another little death in Carmarthenshire. She should go.
There's a comment on the article, which I heartily agree with;
"Carmarthenshire County Council under Meryl Gravell, has awarded itself - its councillors and officers, some of the highest salaries and pension pots in Wales.
I suggest we go back to councillors claiming only out of pocket expenses, no monthly salaries or pension pots since most of them have outside money making interest anyway. The claim that the salaries attract younger, better qualified councillors is blatantly untrue as we still have too many of the same faces staring out of the pages of Carmarthen County Council's ego centred self publication 'Community News'.
Under Chief Executive Mark James, one of those listed among the top ten in UK earning more than the Prime Minister and appointed by Meryl Gravell, - the number of highly paid officers in middle management (those earning more than £50,000) jumped from 4 at the time, of Mark James' appointment to 49 by 2006-2007after his appointment. Their salary bill jumped from £230,000 in 1996-1997 to the staggering sum of £3,785,000 in 2006-2007. In addition, councillors salaries have added greatly to that bill.
If anything has to be cut, let it start with these over inflated, self opinionated individuals. There are far too many of them anyway. Real decision making has long become restricted to Meryl Gravell and her 'executive cabinet' with input from her CE so why do we need 70+ councillors and 40+ middle management officers cluttering up county hall and its satellite buildings? Come to that - why do we need Meryl Gravell or any of them since Mark James runs the shooting match anyway with little regard for the democratic process of decision making by the elected representatives of the local population?"

Llandeilo By-Pass on the Way?

The issue of the Llandeilo by-pass happened to crop up again last week with unacceptably high levels of air pollution reported along the main street. This notorious bottleneck, crammed with heavy lorries will only be made worse with the building of the new secondary superschool with it's extra buses and cars passing through twice a day. The by-pass has been on the cards for 40 years but progress has always stumbled over land issues, the taking of trade from the main street and of course, funding hiccups from the Welsh Assembly and the Council.
Enter, Sainsburys.
Planned for a site conveniently at one end of the proposed by-pass I would not be surprised if the financial contribution to the 'community 'is a wad of cash towards the said by-pass. The 'contribution' is called Planning gain (I can think of another word) agreed during the planning process with our ever pliant planning department...This would kill two birds with one stone; beef up Sainsburys 'green' credentials by clearing the air pollution from the main street and ensuring that, in the great tradition of Tesco et al, all roads lead directly to the store without so much as passing a corner shop. Job done!

Monday 24 January 2011

Stradey Park Development

The recent news that the Welsh Assembly has decided not to call-in the 355 home Stradey development has been met with disgust by the campaigners concerned primarily with flooding and traffic issues, and of course delight by the developers, Taylor Wimpey. I should also imagine that some local residents will also be relieved to see the end to the decaying remains of this once iconic landmark of Llanelli and world rugby. The Assembly's decision actually appears to be a result of fears of a legal challenge by the developers in the form of a Judicial Review over the call-in and so they've sent it back to the Council to approve, which will now be a formality. 
To those who are aware of the whole story, it goes back to the deals struck between the rugby club which then owned the land and Carmarthenshire County Council chiefs and the development of Parc y Scarlets stadium in Pemberton which the taxpayer continues to bail out. To get the best price for Stradey it was agreed by the Council and the Welsh Assembly that, 'unusually', there was not to be any affordable housing in this huge development. 
Anyway, the debate continues;

26th Jan;
Helen Mary Jones AM says of Assembly Minister, Jane Davidson; "I am at a loss to understand why the minister has made this decision. Back in the summer, she was very clear that any decision to build on a flood plain was a matter of more than purely local importance, and that due to the national significance of the decision, that decision should be made at a Welsh national level. She now appears to have changed her mind completely ."

The Planning department have lost no time in passing the Stradey application, it didn't go back to committee; (previous link didn't work so here's link to 'Applications decided' search page
I see from the WAG website that Taylor Wimpey threatened High Court legal action against the Welsh Assembly in the form of Pre-Action Protocol letter on the 4th January. (follow link to 'Called in applications...', it didn't take the Assembly long to cave in.

I see that the campaigners are considering launching a Judicial Review and pressure is being put on Jane Davidson to fully explain her curious u-turn.

Saturday 22 January 2011

Cosy Chat (part 2)

With regards to the new secondary school site selection process referred to in my previous post, Cosy Chat?, a selection of email correspondence has come my way which confirms that there was no formal guidance or remit issued to the consultants from the Council when the process started. It is clear from the exchanges between various senior officers in the Education Department that when this issue was raised by campaigners last May, the officers were thrown into a panic to 'cobble' something together make one up, here's a selection just to give you the gist;
Officer A; "...the remit was a stickler again last week and Rob [Director of Education] indicated that there must be something available. Do you know of anything?..."
Director of Education;"...Was a letter issued, if not a full blown specification?....I have had an assembly member in my office this morning who raised this very question and it is evident that until we provide a clear and definitive answer the question is not going to go away. Can I ask you please to get together and draft something?"

A Shambles.

Incidentally, I also notice that it was not until the consultants had decided to take the Beechwood and the old builders merchant's sites forward as the final two options that council officers suddenly decided that, in true professional style, the Ffairfach site was, and I quote, a "goer".

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Cosy Chat?

Following on from Sainsburys, Llandeilo...and the New School Site , I had a response today to my Freedom of Information request for the Council's 'brief' to the consultants to select a suitable site for the new school. Given the local controversy over the selected site (at Ffairfach) many have been wondering about the whole process;

Here's the FoI response;
"I can confirm that no written instruction or brief was given, sent or otherwise provided to Atkins regarding the siting/selection of a new school site. As such, no such letter (or email) exists. Instructions were communicated verbally at meetings, however, these were not recorded or minuted"

and in full here;
and the costs, so far, are here;

I find it quite unbelievable that Council bosses gave no formal written instruction, and that the direction this whole expensive and important exercise took, was dependent upon a few cosy chats behind closed doors. I should expect this by now though shouldn't I?

To clarify, I hold the Council responsible for ensuring transparency in such matters, not Atkins.

Previous posts include;
Pantecelyn and Tregib Superschool Design - Already?
Pantecelyn and Tregib School Merger - New Site

Later post 22nd Jan;  Cosy Chat? (part 2)

Also here;

Tuesday 18 January 2011

County Hall 'Pravda' Expands..

For those of us (including the local independent press) concerned about the relentless and costly march of County Hall spin across Carmarthenshire, mainly in the form of the 'Community News', it looks like it's expanding. At a recent Policy and Resources Scrutiny meeting Assistant Chief Executive (Customer Focus and Policy),
"informed the Committee that it is also proposed to develop Community News into a wider public sector publication and that discussions were currently on-going with Local Service Board partners."
Currently funded out of other council department budgets rather than the press office (to give the false impression that less is spent on PR than it actually is), it looks like the Local Service Board 'partners', which include the Hywel Dda Health Board, the police and Coleg Sirgar (FE colleges) will now be parting with a little of their decreasing budgets to fund this nonsense as well.

Still, soon we will be able to see our Executive Board members and of course, senior officers, brandishing a ceremonial shovel, donned in high-vis and hard hat, wherever we look and, after all, what would we do without our bi-monthly dose of the reassuring 'Message from Meryl'? Or, for that matter, what would I light my fire with?
Also there are further posts throughout the blog regarding the Community News etc

Sunday 16 January 2011

Sainsburys, Llandeilo...and the New School Site

In my earlier post titled Sainsburys for Llandeilo?  I mentioned that the proposed Sainsburys site and it's environs, near the Beechwood Industrial Estate, had been considered for the new 'Dyffryn Twyi' secondary school planned to replace Tregib and Pantecelyn, and was dismissed as unsuitable.
Private consultants appraised thirteen sites for the new school and decided upon the council's preferred option which was in Ffairfach. The other side of Llandeilo. Not a popular choice with many in Llandovery and beyond who hoped that, should the fight to save Pantecelyn be lost, that at least the new school would be nearer than Ffairfach!
So, for the sake of all those wishing to collect their Nectar points (and yes! I daresay I'll be one of them!), if and when Mr Sainsbury reaches the usual farcical 'Carmarthenshire Style' planning stage, I hope he can overcome all these obstacles that the consultant's report identified as preventing this Beechwood site being considered suitable for the new school;
1)  Green field site
2)  Poor connectivity
3)  Cost of bridge over A40
4)  Increase in bus and private vehicle travel
5)  High noise level from A40
6)  Puts infrastructure constraints on the site
7)  Detrimental impact on visual amenity
8)  Significant adverse ecological impacts
9)  High visibility from road
10) Lack of pedestrian links to the site

Oh well, perhaps it's different for a mega-store.....

On the subject of the closure of Pantecelyn (Llandovery) it seems that parents, children and maybe even teachers are being kept in the dark about what is going on, but apparently, and without any further consultation, the Council aims to have 'one school on two sites' by 2012 (at Tregib and Pantecelyn, 15 miles apart). This would be a transitional period perhaps whilst the new school (on the great flood plains of Ffairfach) is built. The authority have also been asked whether there is a Plan B should the funding, on which all this depends, fails to fully materialise from the Welsh Assembly. Apparently...they haven't. We await further developments.
(There are posts throughout this blog concerning the closure of Pantecelyn School)
With the 'Modernising Education Programme' muddling along with morale-sapping uncertainty and many rural primary schools facing amalgamation, 'federation' and closure I was lifted by the Western Mail's Spin Doctor column with his spoof predictions for 2011..I thought 'January' was particularily apt!;

Eyebrows are raised when Education Minister Leighton Andrews announces plans for all schools in Wales to merge.
Describing those opposed to the move – which would see all headteachers but one sacked – as “entrenched in old-fashioned thinking,” Mr Andrews proposes siting the new 15-mile-by-20-mile super-school in Mid Wales “as I’ve looked at a map, and there’s not much there”.

Later post, 28th Jan;

Saturday 15 January 2011

Transparency Please?

Out of curiosity and in my quest for openness in local government, I decided to ask Carmarthenshire County Council whether they were going to publish details of spending over £500 in line with UK national guidance for transparency. Of course not! and they've no intention of doing so unless their hand is forced by the Welsh Assembly. (Ok, I know local government issues are devolved) but I wonder if any other Welsh councils will be the first to take the initiative and publish this information without any prompting from above? 
We'll wait and see.
On the subject of transparency I was impressed by the efforts of a blogger from Lichfield who is in talks with his local authority to arrange the filming of certain council meetings for his local blog. He appears to have a well-informed and co-operative council - I wonder if Carmarthenshire Council would be so accommodating?!! Many councils have various committee/council meetings 'live-streamed' on their websites, including some in Wales,
I think it's something we should be demanding from County Hall - ditch the endless, expensive propaganda (including 'Carmarthen TV' which has gone strangely quiet and of course the cheesy 'Community News') and invest the money in some reality democracy and transparency instead!

I also hear that some people, using council computers, are having trouble accessing this blog - even in public libraries. I would appreciate it if anyone who is experiencing such difficulties could kindly contact me.

Sainsburys for Llandeilo?

I see in today's Evening Post that Sainsbury's are planning to build a 25,000 sq ft store in Llandeilo, well, just outside Llandeilo of course, along with petrol station, etc. It will be just off the Rhosmaen roundabout towards Carmarthen. The arguments for and against big supermarkets and their effect on small market towns are much documented and not doubt that this proposal will have it's fair share of opponents and supporters. Some will be horrified and some delighted.
The big supermarkets have a new tactic in small towns; they state that a new store will prevent people from travelling to larger towns to supermarkets and will attract shoppers to the existing, local, high street retailers. This is nonsense, Llandeilo has one small 'high street' three existing small supermarkets and a garage serving a population of around 2500 and the surrounding rural areas. The siting of the proposed Sainsbury's is roughly a mile from the nearest shop. The effect on Llandeilo's existing retailers will undoubtedly be devastating -apart from anything else, who's going to pay the ever inflating charges in the council run car park when free parking and convenience beckons a mile away?
And as these 'big four' supermarkets nestle into the more rural parts of Carmarthenshire it means that even more of the money spent in Wales will go straight over the Severn Bridge and beyond.
I daresay the arguments will intensify as the proposal moves into the planning application stage and I should imagine the financial inducements to the council will ensure it enjoys it's full support.
It may also explain why suggestions to the council to site the new secondary school to replace Pantecelyn and Tregib here were dismissed some time ago! That, subject to flooding, will be in Ffairfach.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

'People First' Ruffles Feathers

It appears that 'People First' is beginning to ruffle a few feathers. At a recent meeting of the Environment Scrutiny Committee, Cllr Arthur Davies (People First) had the temerity to speak out and ask officers and Members why a promised seminar on cold weather resilience had been dropped and why Llanelli Town Councillor Bill Thomas, (anti-pollution campigner) was not a 'suitable candidate' to speak on environmental issues in the Loughor Estuary.  Cllr Davies finally walked out after his request that discussions over budget cuts be held in public rather than in secret was refused.
This, believe it or not, was all too much for some Members and an apology was demanded to which Cllr Davies, in the interest of good working relations, was happy to oblige. Apparently this was not quite enough and now, as 'punishment' for such daring behaviour and speaking his mind Cllr Davies has been the subject of a vote of censure which will now be on the public record.
It is disturbing that this committee should feel it has to censure one Member for asking valid questions. And how on earth is he bringing the committee into disrepute? - it's supposed to be scrutiny committee after all!
Whether members are driven by party loyalty over public interest, or whether kow-towing to officers is the preferred easy option, neither bodes well for healthy robust debate nor the democratic interests of the local elector. 

Saturday 8 January 2011

Mark James Apologises on behalf of the Head of Planning!

[post removed]


Friday 7 January 2011

People First Wales Launched

Good to see Carmarthenshire's new political movement, 'People First' (Gweryn Gyntaf) being officially launched today. Organised by two Carmarthenshire Councillors, Sian Caiach and Arthur Davies. Cllr Caiach has also announced that she will be standing for the National Assembly elections in May, representing Llanelli.
The group aims to be a movement for truly independent representatives, and not a political party;

'Membership is open to all who wish to help and serve their communities outside the traditional political party system as true independents.
"Independent" can mean many things as a political label. We are truly independent and see representing the people as our primary aim.
Each issue has to examined and judged in the interests of our communities and action taken as necessary. We will help like minded activists and ordinary folk to find solutions to problems and improve our society.'

There is much more information on the website including the 'Bell Principles' upon which the code of conduct is based. These adhere to Lord Nolan's 'Seven Principles of Public Life'; selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership and being free from political pressure. Something not only some councillors but several senior officers could do with reading up on.
Today's Western Mail also has a full report -Activists to launch new force in politics
Hopefully the idea of being a true independent, willing and determined to voice residents' concerns loudly and persistently, will appeal to a growing list of possible candidates for the 2012 local elections, especially those disillusioned by the increasingly irrelevance of party politics at local council level and those unhappy with the current officer-led, undemocratic regime in Carmarthenshire.

Whatever your views, People First Wales is worth a look, the principles are sound and the messages is clear and as I have said before it could be a very welcome injection of fresh air into the junta at County Hall.

(earlier post here

Thursday 6 January 2011

Budget, Blue Badges, and School Closure Consultations

In my previous post I mentioned that I asked Carmarthenshire Council when the public consultation periods would start for the Budget Proposals, the introduction of parking charges for blue badge holders and the Modernising Education Programme.
I also asked whether these consultations would be featured on the 'Consultation' section of the Council's website.
I have had a response which I publish here for your information. (I am a little uncomfortable as I rather feel I've given a 'press release' - I sense spin - I suppose they realised it would appear on the blog) Anyway, attempts have been made to show that the minimum legal requirements will be met, eventually. Pretty standard stuff. However I see no mention of the consideration of petitions.
And whether anyone will listen of course, is quite another matter.
I would have thought that the website would be the first of port of call to publicise such exercises but it seems such suggestions will have to be 'considered';
(The italics are the Departmental responses and the Customer Focus and Policy Officer's comments are in blue)

1. Budget proposals
In November / December 2010 we utilised our our regular Residents' Survey (survey of 1,000 Carmarthenshire households) to prioritise a list of services in light of the efficiency savings we will have to make. The results of the Residents Survey are currently being analysed and we are expecting them shortly.
In addition, we will be featuring a public consultation via local newspapers.
We will also be holding a face-to-face consultation event in Llanelli later on in January. We will be inviting representatives from established groups such as the Carmarthenshire Citizens' Panel, 50+ Steering Group and Youth Forum to discuss our proposal and offer suggestions.

I will raise your query regarding featuring the consultation on the Internet site with the Assistant Chief Executive (Customer Focus and Policy).
I will e-mail you again to let you know when the newspaper consultation is 'live' and please contact me if you would like to attend the face-to-face consultation event in Llanelli.

2. Introduction of parking charges for blue badge holders
An Equalities Impact Assessment has to be undertaken to assess the impact of introducing charges for blue badge holders. Representatives of the Council have met with the Carmarthenshire Disability Coalition Group and they have nominated representatives from the group to work with the Council on undertaking such an assessment.
Subject to the outcome of the assessment, the next step would be the drafting of a Traffic Regulation Order which is required to implement any charging proposals. A prescribed process has to be followed in the making of any Traffic Regulation Order, which includes consultation with statutory consultees. If objections are received they have to be formally considered by the Executive Board. If the Executive Board wish to proceed, the proposals have to be formally published with a 21 day objection period. Again any objections received will have to be formally considered by the Executive Board.
On 4th October 2010, the County Council's Executive Board resolved "to commence consultation on the Blue Badge proposals set out in the report and that a report be submitted in due course". Therefore, in due course a report will need to be submitted to the Executive Board, but in view of the process that has to be followed, it is likely to be some months before we are in a position to report back to the Executive Board.

I will raise your query regarding featuring the consultation on the Internet site with the Assistant Chief Executive (Customer Focus and Policy).

3. Modernising Education Programme
The new Strategic Outline Programme (SOP) which is an update of the MEP was submitted to the WAG by 10th December 2010. This followed a period of intense consultation with all the relevant stakeholders and ultimately county council approval via the committee process. The WAG will collate all the submissions from all 22 Local Authorities in Wales and probably provide feedback (an indication of the projects we can take forward) sometime after the Assembly elections in July 2011. Full consultation will take place on an individual project basis as the MEP moves forward. There is a statutory formal consultation process which we must follow when reorganising schools. We have also introduced an informal consultation phase before the formal stage to engage with stakeholders earlier in the process.

Following your comment, the Education and Children's Services Department have agreed to consider using the consultation webpage for consultation purposes in the future.

I wouldn't normally link to the Council website but the 'Budget Consultation' form has appeared, it is pathetic and patronising but better than nothing; there are 15 questions covering 6 areas of services amounting to approx £2.5m - naturally your views will be completely ignored, but pleasingly there is a 'comment' form - a nice blank space for you to add your views and suggestions and you can be assured that Caebrwyn will be making full use of that facility.