Friday 27 May 2011

Chief Executive's Letter; Intent or Threat, What's the Difference?

[Post removed]

Pantecelyn Closure - A Guest Post

The issues surrounding the closure of Pantecelyn secondary school and the effect this will have on the community of Llandovery do not, according to Carmarthenshire Council, appear to be a matter of debate, the decisions were made a long time ago. This 'guest post' is by somebody who understands exactly how things work in Carmarthenshire.

Pantycelyn - a community betrayed
The row over the proposed closure of Pantycelyn School in Llandovery is rapidly becoming a textbook example of how Carmarthenshire County Council shows its utter contempt for local democracy. This week's Carmarthen Journal contains two articles of interest to local people, the first being an interview with the town's county councillor, Cllr Ivor Jackson.
Cllr Jackson has just been made Chair of Council, a post which will give him an additional allowance of nearly £11,000 on top of his other allowances and expenses. Cllr Jackson says that the north of the county has been neglected by the county council, which seems to devote most of its attention to Carmarthen, but just in case anyone should interpret this as criticism, Cllr Jackson quickly adds that everything is going really well in his area, and he cites as examples a claim that the streets are looking cleaner and the success of last year's Sheep Festival.
Asked about Pantycelyn School, Cllr Jackson says that, what with the involvement of the Welsh Assembly Government, there is not much that one individual can do, but he would like to think he can make a difference to local issues.

This is pure 100% flannel. Worse than that, it is the absolute opposite of the truth. To find out where Cllr Jackson's loyalties really lie, you need to turn to another article in the same edition of the paper.

Under a headline announcing that Carmarthenshire has more empty school places than any other local authority in Wales, the big guns are brought out. Chief Executive Mark James warns that although there has been some reduction in empty school places, much more will have to be done. After that stark warning, and having ensured that readers have been softened up by the initial bombardment, Cllr Gwynne Wooldridge, the cabinet member responsible for education, says that the consultation over Pantycelyn is going very well. He praises Cllrs Jackson (Llandovery), Huw Morgan (Llangadog) and Tom Theophilus (Cilycwm), all from the so-called Independent group which controls the council, for "braving the storm for the sake of our youngsters" and for supporting us (us being the county council).

The military metaphors continue with the director of education, Robert Sully, adding that hearts and minds have been won. Mr Sully, it should be remembered, was parachuted into his current job despite his lack of expereinece in education by Mr Mark James who used his "special powers" to ensure that Mr Sully got the job without the tiresome need to ask elected councillors for their views or approval. As for the rest of the county, Mr James's message is clear. He will "invest" in more school closures and redundancies.

So there you have it. Cllr Jackson has had a massive pay rise, Cllr Morgan is now Chairman of the Planning Committee, Mr Sully shows his appreciation for being given his own top job, and Cllr Wooldridge confirms once again that the Carmarthenshire definition of consultation is, 'a tedious procedure which we have to go through by law before we bulldoze through what we had already decided.'

Let's hope that the electors in the wards represented by Cllrs Jackson, Morgan and Theophilus remember to show their appreciation for what their councillors have done at next year's elections
A few words about the generous remuneration for being Chair of Carmarthenshire Council; I imagine the next year will be a busy one for Cllr Jackson, being ferried about by the Council Chauffeur to various buffets and lunches, and as for having to chair roughly ten meetings of the county council, that works out at a little over £1000 a meeting. Poor soul.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Please Sign my New Petitions

Link to National Assembly for Wales Petitions page;  (English) (Cymraeg)
(Name of Petitioner; Jacqui Thompson)

Petition One - Filming and Recording of Council Meetings
In light of recent posts (and events) regarding the filming of Council meetings, I decided to launch a petition on the Welsh Assembly website. This does not just relate to Carmarthenshire County Council of course but includes all Welsh Local Authorities. Some, I know, are experimenting with webcasting council meetings, but this petition, in the interests of democracy and openness goes a bit further. As to the question of setting-up costs, as far as 'webcasting' is concerned, I believe this would be quite low and could be taken from the sizeable PR budgets each Council spends every year (and would be far more useful); and, of course, allowing members of the public to record and film would cost nothing at all - In the meantime, I shall be continuing my own efforts to make Carmarthenshire Council more transparent.

"We call upon the National Assembly for Wales to urge the Welsh Government to place a statutory requirement on all local authorities in Wales to record, broadcast or livestream all Council meetings which are open to the public, via their existing websites to ensure openness and transparency. This requirement should allow members of the public, as responsible observers, to record or film such meetings without the need for prior permission and to re-use the material freely to provide a direct and wider line of communication to the electorate."
(Direct link to this petition;

 Petition Two - Local Authority Spending Details over £500
I have launched this petition, which again covers all Local Authorities in Wales, in light of recent responses I have had from Carmarthenshire County Council regarding this subject. As many Councils in England have now complied with Westminster's guidance to publish this data, I see no reason why Wales should be excluded from this exercise in transparency. The information is already available on various internal council databases so would merely need to be collated centrally and in a form suitable for access and in compliance with the Data Protection Act. Initial costs would be offset by a reduction in the volume of Freedom of Information requests received by Local Authorities concerning spending details particularly if the data supplied is as specific and meaningful as it can be.

"We call upon the National Assembly for Wales to urge the Welsh Government to place a statutory requirement on all local authorities in Wales to publish details of all spending over £500 in the interest of openness and transparency. The details should be published online and in a format accessible to the public with the freedom to re-use the data."
(Direct link to this petition;
If you agree with either one or (hopefully) both petition statements, please follow the links. The two seperate petitions are now live and ready to sign (if you wish) and I shall be promoting them over the coming weeks. The links at the top of the post take you to the main Assembly petitions page. Further information as to how petitions are considered by the Assembly can be found on their site.
I would be very grateful if others who agree with these sentiments would kindly pass on the petition links above to like minded folk. Please remember these are issues which cover the whole of Wales, not just Carmarthenshire. If anyone wants any further information, please email me through this site, or via my Twitter or Facebook.
Many thanks in advance.
(please search this blog for posts relating to the subjects of both petitions by using the searchbox on the right, many are very recent)

Sunday 22 May 2011

Proof Reader Required and more on the Council Rag

Carmarthenshire Council really do not inspire faith when it comes to their accuracy at reporting figures, or at least they need to improve on the proof-reading before documents go online. I noticed a rather worrying slip up in part of the March progress report (Regeneration & Leisure Committee 23rd May) for the 'Collaborative Communities' scheme which has a short paragraph of impressive numbers, sadly it ends with the sentence " - these figs don't make sense?" Oh dear.
And just in case it get's edited out;

Neither can I quite understand why, in the same document, the 'Ammanford Tesco Extension' should be part of the Council's Grand Plan either, didn't they just granted planning permission to a private company? - hardly counts as Council-led regeneration surely. An additional inaccuracy could lead to disappointment if anyone turns up at the Towy Community Church Excel project for a game of evangelical ten-pin bowling as the report is written in the past tense as an 'achievement'; the report was written in March and the latest funding instalment from the Council was not approved until May, as the project is still in the design stage, aren't they're jumping the gun a bit - let's hope all of the other Council's claims of job creation, safe guarding etc are not also based on such premature and inaccurate over excitement.

Can't let the exciting arrival of my 'Carmarthenshire News' go un-commented-on. I mentioned the 're-branding' of the council rag 'Community News' earlier this year and the fact that the Council have now roped in various other cash-strapped Carmarthenshire organisations to contribute to this esteemed publication. It has rather a misleading headline on the front page, which may worry our local independent press; 'New Look for County Newspaper' (surely it should be Council not County?!) It definitely now has all the appearance of a newspaper (circa 1952) but sadly and predictably, and perhaps to the relief of the local newspapers, actually contains no news at all.
The hamster cage awaits.

Pantecelyn Closure - Community 'Consultation' Meeting

A few thoughts about the Community Consultation meeting at Pantecelyn School last week. We were graced with (almost) the same 'panel' of Carmarthenshire Council officers who attended the parents' meeting the week before. At that meeting things got a little heated especially as it became apparent that no matter how valid the objections are, there would be no swaying from the proposals to close Pantecelyn and build the new school at Ffairfach. This week the 'panel' were ready for it and a polished performance of patronising spin was trotted out; no one from the 'community' had a straight answer to their concerns - the failings in the proposals which were revealed in the previous meeting were glossed over with stock answers and the usual variations on the truth.
Campaigners certainly have a battle on their hands although evidence is emerging which may prove how badly the consultation process was flawed - and I would suggest that to ensure voices are heard in the Welsh Assembly, everyone who writes letters of objection to the Council or raises concerns about either the closure or the site selection, or both, in this 'consultation'  (by June 17th) should be sure to send a copy to the Assembly as well, because by the time Mr Sully and his department cobble together their 'report' on this little exercise, for full Council and the Assembly, your objections will bear little resemblance to, and therefore carry far less weight than you originally intended.
One would almost think that the 'panel' were selected, not for their skills in Education (we know of course that the Director of Education, Mr Sully, was slotted into this post from the 'Special Projects' Department) but for their ability to drive through unpopular and controversial plans via shiny PR skills, rhetoric, and what occasionally amounted to barely suppressed aggression.

Anyone who still believes that there will be 'room for negotiation' with Carmarthenshire Council over this matter clearly has not yet experienced the pain of banging one's head against a brick wall.
(Please also search for previous posts for background)

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Letter from Chief Executive, Mark James

apologies but I have removed the letter referred to in this post.

(Please click on each image to enlarge and view)
In the interests of openness I am publishing, on this blog, the letter above, along with an attached 'undertaking' (which I am 'required' to sign and return), I recieved from the Chief Executive of the Carmarthenshire Council.
With reference to the third paragraph, I, unlike Mr James, will not comment further on the Police investigation. The matter is now with the Crown Prosecution Service. For the record I find Mr James' comments inappropriate and offensive, with an intimidating and threatening innuendo that I should 'back off'. 
Disregarding the factual inaccuracies in this letter, which I will address at a later date, and to me, beggar belief, I am quite speechless at the lengths this Council are prepared to go to prevent anyone recording a meeting, particularly someone who is publicly critical. It must be remembered that it is not against any law, or even a by-law to film or record a public meeting - it is merely against Council policy, which, mindful of the possibility that his words may reach a wider audience, Mr James states will be reviewed 'shortly'. I can't wait...
The last paragraph of the letter is bizarre, particularly as he suggests that the Police were involved over the issue of filming, which they weren't of course. This is the spurious reason put forward to require me to sign an 'undertaking'. I will do no such thing.
Everyone who carries a mobile phone should be alarmed by his use of the word 'suspicion' - does this give the Council the right to eject anyone they are not comfortable with from a public meeting? Most people carry a mobile, so, have the Council given themselves a perfect excuse to eject unwanted critics? - even to the extent to calling the police? From my visits to the Public Gallery I note that many Councillors in the Chamber use their phones during meetings - may we reasonably 'suspect' that they are recording the meetings too?

May 19th; The Photon Blog; Carmarthenshire Council and the Alleged Assault.

Previous relevant posts;
Distressing Incident in the Public Gallery
Public Gallery Incident Update
Stopped from Filming a Council Public Meeting
Filming in the Chamber - and the Care Homes Stay Open
Recording Council Meetings
Recording Council Meetings, a Response

On a slightly related note I include here, for your information, the Council's response to my Freedom of Information request regarding the Council's Media and Social Networking Protocols. Please scroll to the top of the page that appears, to view my full request. I note that the Council  'Continue to maximise the number of proactive News Releases and photographs issued to ensure that good news stories are actively promoted' and ensure that 'Press coverage is regularly analysed to determine % positive'
You bet they do, it's a priority.
Oh, as for their Facebook page, 'The Council cannot control access to its Facebook page, but may manually remove any posts which contain inappropriate comments.' Although I am not aware that I have ever left 'inappropriate comments' The comment facility, for me, has been completely removed.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Pantecelyn Closure Row Heats Up

It became very apparent on Moday night's meeting between parents and County Council education bosses that feelings are running high over the proposed closure of Pantecelyn school and the selected site for the new 'superschool' in Ffairfach. It also became apparent that Mr Sully (Director of Education) and Co were ill prepared for the questions, assuming, in true Carmarthenshire Council style that they could dictate rather than consult. I have mentioned many of the issues in previous posts, so please use the searchbox for background. The 'unsustainability' of the school, which was one of the main reasons for closure was blown away when it was admitted that Pantecelyn was already offering the necessary number of subjects required by the Welsh Assembly. It was also very concerning that the practicalities of running the interim arrangements until the new school is built hadn't been thought through and none of the officers had any idea how it would work. There were many issues raised by parents and prospective parents which went unanswered or were deliberately avoided and it will be interesting to see what happens at the 'community' consultation meeting on the 17th May.

I eventually noticed, towards the end of the long and heated meeting that the three local County Councillors, Ivor Jackson, Tom Theophilus and Huw Morgan, were actually there (talking amongst themselves for most of the time) they had not said a word and I took the opportunity to point this out - these parents expect these three to represent their views and raise their concerns, not only at the meetings such as this but in the chamber of County Hall, and are drawing handsome allowances for the priviledge - what a complete waste of money. Their silence remains as deafening as ever.
BBC; Carmarthenshire schools: Flood fears over Ffairfach site 

Monday 9 May 2011

Carmarthenshire Council Refuse to Reveal Spending Details

I recently asked, through the Freedom of Information when Carmarthenshire Council would be publishing details of all spending over £500, in an accessible format, in line with English councils who have now nearly all complied. To date the Welsh Assembly hasn't issued similar guidance so Welsh Councils are not obliged to release the data.
Those that don't disclose the information continue to incur ongoing costs by having to answer individual requests for specific items of expenditure. So to publish, with little in the way of set up costs, would not only improve transparency and accountablility and perhaps make some a little more mindful of what is being spent, but reduce costs of FoI in the long run.

I followed up my initial request by asking for spending details, over two years, narrowed down to four areas of council expenditure; Chief Executive's Department (including Legal), Regeneration and Leisure (includes Planning), Democratic Services and the Media/Press Department. Unsurprisingly, considering the previous response, my request was refused. The predictable reason for refusal was the cost of the work involved which exceeded the limit. I would not wish to incur the council taxpayer great expenditure in answering my request and I can understand that, at the moment the information is not centrally held, in which case I will also assume it is not being particularly well monitored either. The Council gave me examples to back up their refusal ie 6,257 items over £500 in Regeneration and 900 items in the Chief Executive's department. This is a lot of cash. I was also informed that even if I narrowed my request to one department, the details, eg invoices etc would not be released.

I think, from now on at least, this information should be collated in a form which will be accessible, subject to data protection etc etc to the general public. If you give someone several millions of pounds, as the taxpayer directly or indirectly gives the Council, you should expect to see exactly how, where, when (and to whom), it was spent, after all if you give someone a couple of grand to build an extension you would expect to see, if you wished, an itemised bill. This is no different.
I am not suggesting that anything untoward has been going on..but I am sure the Council would prefer full and open disclosure of data rather than face a possible drip feed of scandalous excesses hitting the headlines in a manner akin to (even more from) the Wales Audit Office.

I now expect the Welsh Assembly to at least consider issuing guidance to Welsh Local Authorities recommending that such data is published from now on.

1st request;
2nd request;

Friday 6 May 2011

Turning a Blind Eye?

You may just be able to make out a 95 year old lady's bungalow in this recent picture. I have previously mentioned that the lady's nephew complained to Carmarthenshire's Planning department, last August, after they decided there was a case for planning enforcement to step in then suddenly decided there wasn't, I quote from the nephew's Facebook page "Impinging just a bit on visual amenity? I've just sent a reminder to the Carmarthenshire Planning Department that I've not yet had a reply to my complaint last Autumn that there are no grounds for acting in this instance!" Carmarthenshire planners were accused by a Planning Inspector at a separate inquiry last November of, and I quote, "turning a blind eye" for seven years! - this is yet another classic example - they haven't even bothered to reply to his complaint. . 

Senedd 2011 Carmarthenshire Results

Local results for Carmarthenshire;
Plaid's Rhodri Glyn Thomas held on to Carmarthen East and Dinefwr with a reduced majority;
Plaid  12,501
Labour  8353
Conservative 5635
Lib Dem 1339

Carmarthen West and S Pembrokeshire was retained by Tory Angela Burns;
Conservative 10,095
Labour 8591
Plaid 8373
Lib Dem 1097

Llanelli had the most interesting result with Plaid' Helen Mary Jones losing her seat, after a recount, to Labour's Keith Davies by 80 votes. Mr Davies, who's in his 70's stated he would have expected more votes but apparently Labour voters 'don't go out in the rain'. Llanelli, what have you done? Well done to Sian Caiach (Llanelli First) for getting over 2000 votes, putting the Lib Dem into fourth place, I wonder how many of her votes came from disillusioned Plaid defectors? 
Labour 10,359
Plaid 10,279
Conservative 2880
Putting Llanelli First 2004 
Lib Dem 548

There will be endless analysis, comment etc as the rest of the results come in (including North Wales who rather spoilt the party be not counting until today) and the political make up of the Assembly is determined. One early casualty is Nick Bourne the Conservative leader who has lost his regional seat.

Update AV Referendum results:
Carms East & Dinefwr           Yes;  9447
                                             No;  18,243

Carms West & S Pembs       Yes; 8632
                                             No; 19197

Llanelli                                 Yes;   8643
                                            No;  17,003
Looks like the Noes have it.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Another News Round Up...

I see Carmarthenshire Council have come top of the league for the highest amount spent, by Welsh Councils, on 'mystery shoppers', or more specifically a consultancy firm, Cwmni Iaith, which contacts council departments to test whether reception staff are capable of communicating in Welsh and English. This has cost over £25,000 over three years. Monitoring of bi-lingual policy is perhaps necessary for some sort of 'compliance' but is also something that both the police and the health board have managed to do in-house, at no cost.

On the subject of Council spending it will be interesting to see what response I get, if any, to this;

The closure of five Day Centres for the elderly is looking certain despite a delegation of ladies trying to present their 1500 name petition at County Hall the other day. Shamefully no one wanted to recieve the petition and the ladies were left waiting until an embarrassed minion was sent out to take it. They were particularly upset that Cllr Kevin Madge, Executive Board Member and the Council's 'Older Peoples Champion' didn't come out to greet them.
Hopefully a few Councillors will raise their concerns over these closures at the Scrutiny Committee meeting on Friday.

It hasn't escaped my attention that there is an election tomorrow, I am also sure there is enough coverage of this without my pennyworth. Personally I am looking forward to the local elections next May which will hopefully see the introduction of a few new faces, one of which may even include mine!