Monday 31 October 2011

Trapped in the stairwell....and today's meeting

I trekked down to County Hall, Carmarthen again today to observe the Executive Board meeting. The meeting itself was distinctly underwhelming but more of that later.
I am sorry for keeping on about this, but every time I go there, I am more and more disturbed by the entry/exit ritual for members of the public. This morning was no exeption, in fact it is getting worse. I was the only member of the public there but this still warranted an escort by two members of staff who, I noticed, carefully positioned themselves with one in front and one behind me. It was humiliating. This procession was reminiscent of a prisoner being led around Wormwood Scrubs rather than an exercise in democracy.
Then there was my exit. I dutifully used the special phone to summon the guards but it was engaged. I tried six times, still engaged. In the hope that I would be able to open the exterior fire exit door (now locked from the outside) at the bottom of the stairwell, I opened the first door by pressing the button on the wall. Sadly, and worryingly, the door to the outside - and freedom - was shut tight. There were four bolts and a lock and I tried for several minutes to open it. It wouldn't budge. I was therefore trapped. Fortunately I had my mobile phone with me so I phoned the main switchboard and asked to be released. The lady didn't know what I was talking about as it turned out she was 15 miles away in the Llandeilo offices. I tried again and eventually the guards appeared and I was 'escorted' out. I am going to contact the Fire Service tomorrow.

I am also failing to understand why Carl Sargeant or at least my MP Jonathan Edwards or even my AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas are not raising the whole issue with the Council - are they happy for the electorate of Carmarthenshire to be put at such risk? Should they not be challenging the whole outrageous entry procedure (yes I had to sign the undertaking yet again) on behalf of residents or perhaps on behalf of democratic engagement itself?? May I remind the two Plaid representatives that a Plaid Councillor resigned from the group on the Council last week as he was appalled by the lack of democracy within the council - if Plaid wish to make gains at the next local election I suggest they are a lot more active and vocal in challenging Carmarthenshire Council. This may gain them more support than writing letters in the local paper asking people to join them.

I had better mention the meeting which was hardly worth putting your life at stake for. Executive Board meetings appear rather pointless. First there is the pre-meeting briefing so any unpleasantness can be ironed out before the public and press get there. There then follows a series of recommendations by officers, each and every one of which is approved by the Executive Members and accompanied by little speeches and fawning tributes to the Chief Executive and the officer concerned. No one questions anything. At all. Very very cosy. I am very well aware of course that good work is done by the footsoldiers of various departments, I am not detracting from that, and of course the council itself makes sure, despite alarming budget concerns particularly in Social Care, that it spends tens of thousands of pounds every year telling us about it. The budget deficit was mentioned at length with the Deputy Leader, Cllr Madge saying that if the pressures of having such an ageing population continued at this rate some departments of the council would be "destroyed" - not sure what he meant by that, bankrupt I suppose. None of them have suggested some sort of Elderly Euthanasia Council Policy yet but it may be only a matter of time...

Anyway, the fate of Pantecelyn secondary school was further sealed this morning. There were several objections to closure but these were brushed aside ('no new issues raised'), the decision will have to go to the Welsh Minister but Mr Sully seemed to think this would be a formality. The concensus of grovelling opinion was that Carmarthenshire Council's education policy was the envy of the entire universe. It is the fault of the contorted council consultation exercise that people did not realise they would have to object for a second time in three months and it appears, raise even more new issues. Sad news for the school and the town of Llandovery. I have a feeling that even if there had been a thousand new objections it wouldn't have made any difference to Mr Sully and the executive bulldozers.

The other item which interested me was the impending decision to throw another £20,000 towards the Scarlets and the Stadium. Coming straight after the serious stuff about Social Care, the leader Meryl Gravell took the opportunity to relax and wax lyrical about the rugby world. In the event she deferred the item but not before she had told everyone that she had heard from New Zealand about how wonderful and, apparently, how well behaved the Wales team was. Naturally, I support the Welsh team and local rugby clubs and wish them all success as I do for all sports, but to be honest the preoccupation with rugby in County Hall is worrying. The last few meetings I have attended have seen more time devoted to talking about rugby, at various levels, than has been devoted to slightly more important and pressing issues. Anyway Cllr Gravell's tribute to the Scarlets and the Council's unfailing loyalty, failed to mention any concerns about the £5.5m debt (2010) or the fact they already have 122 people on the payroll costing nearly £8 million a year. Or the fact that the interest payments on the loan from the council has been slashed by half or that they have been relieved from paying the yearly £25,000 sinking fund (maintenance for the stadium) for the next three years etc etc. But this was a vision for our Council executives and I am sure they are just going to give themselves another couple of weeks to justify the payment and the employment of a 'Projects Funding Developments Officer'. Vital I'm sure.
The remaining items on the Agenda were nodded through until the exempt items came up, at which point of course I sadly had to leave.

I must just say I was a bit disappointed not to be met with a celebratory cake and a gold plated key to the Public Gallery after this blog's recent little success....

Please wander over to Y Cneifiwr's blog and enjoy his most recent post; Junk Mail and the True Meaning of 'consider' and another one with a view on one of the exempt reports; Alarm bells - Little Richard versus Cliff Richard 

(For further background on Pantecelyn, the Stadium, etc please, as ever, use the searchbox on the right)

Update 3rd November; Western Mail reports on the Scarlets £5.5m debt and how Carmarthenshire Council ignored financial warnings from the outset when embarking on the new stadium;

Sunday 30 October 2011

Back to Business

Well, back down to earth and back to business. And back to those changes to the constitution mentioned in recent posts (here and here for instance). Someone asked me yesterday whether it was a common requirement throughout Welsh councils for several councillors to have to sign a Motion before it will be accepted.
There was only one way to find out so I duly trawled through the Standing Orders for all 22 Welsh local authorities looking for that particular point. (I was only beaten by Merthyr Council's website which is either undergoing a major overhaul, or, they haven't bothered with a constitution). All of them apart from two specified that one Member, or sometimes two (proposer and seconder) can put forward such a proposal.
One of the two guilty parties is Blaenau Gwent Borough Council who require five - the other of course is our own Carmarthenshire Council with a spectacular democracy-breaking seven! Eight if you include the proposer.

Another subtle change which seemed to pass with little comment was the removal of the usual right to present a petition to a full council meeting. This, I assume, was a reaction to the farcical way the Day Centre petition was dealt with by executive officers on the 8th June. Petitions will still have to be signed by at least 50 people and arrive at the Chief Executive's office seven day's before the next council meeting but it is at that point that things change;

The 'Rule' has been altered from;

"10.11 At a meeting of the Council any member of the Council or any local government elector of the county may....present to the Chair or other person presiding a written petition which is relevant to some matter in relation to which the authority have functions..."

and will now read;

"10.11 Any member of the Council or any government elector of the County may forward to the Chief Executive a written petition which is relevant to some matter in relation to which the authority have functions..."

As I understand it now, you do not have the right to 'present' the petition to the (elected) Chair but must 'forward' it to the (unelected) Chief Executive who will then decide whether it can be considered by Members. In other words, it's now up to the Chief Executive whether or not your petition will be heard at a full council meeting. Or at any meeting for that matter.
It is odd really that such basic elements of democracy and debate are not uniform throughout Wales -it seems that the levels of democratic accountability are a bit of a 'post code lottery'. Councils of course, need to reflect local conditions regarding bin emptying policy or road repair protocol and suchlike but when it comes to protecting the our basic democratic rights, if a Council behaves in an irrational and reactionary manner (as is the wont of Carms CC) and elected members fail for whatever reasons to defend not only our rights, but theirs too, then someone should step in. There doesn't seem to be a 'someone' out there though. It should be noted that the body who proposed these changes was the aforementioned, un-minuted, agenda-less, officer led 'Business Management Group'.

Resident's petitions, irritating Motions on Notice, members of the public, etc are all a bit awkward aren't they? They disturb the old boy's club, the 'port and cigars' atmosphere and the highly controlled pretence of debate. Like any good dictatorship, if there's dissent in the ranks - stamp it out.

Oh and I nearly forgot, Carmarthenshire Council's legal and FoI departments take note, my full name and address have been published yet again, on the What Do They Know site. This time on the response to the internal review, on both the HTML and download versions. I have reported this, along with the four week delay, to the Information Commissioner. I sometimes wonder whether this Council actually realises that request made through WDTK are on the new-fangled interweb?

Friday 28 October 2011

Best Politics Blog - Wales Blog Awards 2011!

I am really surprised and delighted that this blog won the Best Politics Blog category at the Wales Blog Awards last night in Cardiff. It was great to see all blogging in Wales celebrated and recognised - all brilliant! Good to meet fellow bloggers from Radical Wales too. Many thanks to those who nominated me and everyone who has supported this blog. By the way I won a £100 M & S voucher and, best of all, a year's subscription to Private Eye!
Link to all the winners here

I also wrote a short piece for the @ITVWales blog;

S & L Associates sponsored the Political Blog category, here's their comments;
“All blogs have displayed dedication to their causes, ensuring the public are made aware of the issues through the blogging medium. However, one stands out in its focus and tenacity in challenging the powers that be. The blog in question has been recognised in the national press, and the blogger’s dedication is such that their actions in pursuing the cause have resulted in their own freedom being denied. Therefore, the winner of the best political blog is Jacqui Thompson – Carmarthenshire Planning.”

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Councillor quits Plaid group over democracy...and round two of the golf club row

Further to recent posts (including here and here), I see in today's Carmarthen Journal that Plaid Carmarthenshire Councillor for Lliedi ward, Huw Lewis has quit the party group on the council over the recent amendments to the constitution, ironically passed during the Council's ill-fated 'Local Democracy Week';
'Huw Lewis said he resigned on the principle of democracy and the right of individuals to express themselves.
His action followed a vote to amend the council's constitution so motions coming before full meetings of the authority required the support of at least seven councillors, not just a proposer and seconder'
Member quits in row over democracy by @DConnopPrice

I understand his frustration and dissatisfaction that most of the opposition Plaid councillors voted for the amendment, but I hope that all those councillors who feel growing unease with the way this officer-led council operates, concentrate their energies to challenge the senior officers and their Executive Board puppets. Regular readers of this blog will be aware of the systematic erosion of democracy including, for example, the recent imposition of the ridiculous ritual which members of the public must endure to enter the Public Gallery, a situation which still remains unchallenged by elected members.

The Journal also reports today on the continuing row over Carmarthenshire Council's bizarre decision to offload the failing Garnant Golf Club at the cost to the taxpayer of £200,00. The secretary of a nearby club, Glynhir, is reporting the Council to the Wales Audit Office for possibly breaching competition law. He has a point. As a taxpayer, he will now be indirectly funding and supporting a rival golf club enabling them to charge lower prices.
Story here by @AlexMurraySmith 'Subsidised golf club unfair on other clubs' 

It looks like the Ombudsman is being kept busy in neighbouring Swansea Council;
BBC; Inquiry into top Swansea Lib Dems and Tory Councillor

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Transparency - One step forward and two steps back

I am pleased to see, courtesy of Alun Williams' blog, that Aberystwyth Town Council has made a small step into the world of transparency last night by allowing the BBC to film one of it's meetings;
Carmarthenshire County Council may wish to note that all the Councillors present made it out alive and unscathed.

With transparency in mind, or lack of it, I note that next Monday's Executive Board meeting of Carmarthenshire Council has a couple of items of note. They are, of course, 'exempt' and will be discussed away from the prying eyes of the public and press. Hence the 'two steps back' in the title of this post. 
The first concerns a 'proposed capital loan' to the speculative Excel Project in Carmarthen. I have mentioned this before (The Council works in mysterious ways), mainly because this project, involving a bowling alley, and run by an American based evangelical organisation, the Towy Community Church, has already had £55,000 of council grants; £45,000 grant from Cwm Environmental (subsidiary company of the council most recently mentioned here); the benefit of the council owned land worth £750,000 as well as a direct cash grant from the council of £280,000 earlier this year, this was while frontline services were being axed due to budget cuts (and of course the council's social care budget is currently in the red to the tune of £2.2 million). The Towy Community church did manage to raise £17,000 themselves towards this £2.2m project, so on that sound financial basis I am sure that the loan (amount not specified) will be approved and no doubt, at a later date, quietly converted to a grant.

The second 'exempt' item concerns the next possible white elephant looming on the council's financial horizon, the former Technium Centre at Dafen, Llanelli. This was a Welsh Assembly venture closed last year after being branded a failure and a complete waste of money. In July it was announced that the Council had taken it over with a nominal lease with a view to buying it - the idea being that it becomes an business 'hub' to 'incubate' young people into the workplace. For some reason, I do not share Meryl Gravell's optimism in the likely success of yet another 'visionary' project but I do not wish to put a dampener on things - and the first step to success would be complete transparency, and it is unclear by the agenda what is even being discussed.

I am sure the Council legal team have come up with valid reasons for the secrecy of the discussions but I have a feeling that the reasoning is more to do with concealing the questionable use of public money rather than to spare the blushes of interested parties. This council always seems to forget that other 'interested party' - the taxpayer. 
Incidentally, this blog has had sight of the 'Exempt Report' from May when the lease and earlier grant to the Towy Community Church was approved, there was no reason, as far as I can see for this not to have been discussed in public. Rather like the various deals benefiting the Botanic Gardens, the Parc y Scarlets stadium etc etc the amount of public money concerned and the ongoing financial risks associated with these projects (or 'visions' as they are known in County Hall) warrant complete transparency.
Update; on the subject of stadiums I had noticed another request for cash from the Scarlets, this, as a commenter below points out, will not even have to be approved by full council. I am lost for words. The Evening Post picks up the story today;

Sunday 23 October 2011

Accessing the Public Gallery; Welsh Minister responds

Some time ago I wrote to the Welsh Minister for Local Government, Mr Carl Sargeant asking if he could challenge the bizarre, undemocratic and restrictive entry procedures to the public gallery implemented by Carmarthenshire Council officers after the 8th June. Prompted when another member of the public was turned away from attending a meeting. I have now had a reply and I copy my email and Mr Sargeant's (or his representative's) response below.

Despite the fact that I did not specifically ask for his views on filming I welcome Mr Sargeant's promise of encouragement to all local authorities, including Carmarthenshire, to webcast their meetings. I would prefer the word 'requirement' rather than 'encouragement' though.
My opinion, of course differs from his over the right for the public to film and record meetings, I hope he will reconsider and issue similar guidance as in England.
Unfortunately, it all rather predicts the eventual decision of the petitions committee who recently made an appeal through the local press for views on allowing the public to film.

I am also disturbed by the use of the phrase 'need for security' in this context. Patently ridiculous.

It was the matter of access to meetings I was asking about and in that respect he clearly has no control over Carmarthenshire Council, in fact I would go as far as saying that the regime in County Hall will be delighted with his response and his overwhelming support. They couldn't have written it better themselves... I am very concerned that the Welsh Government appears to be giving Carmarthenshire Council the green light to ride roughshod over the residents of this county, this does not just apply to 'access to meetings' of course but the systematic erosion of democratic accountability in all it's various forms. The situation in Carmarthenshire needs to be challenged.

After the MP's expenses scandal it has become of paramount importance that government of all levels, elected members or unelected officers, is perceived as honest, accountable and transparent. It is on this sound basis that policy can be implemented. This should not be a matter of party politics. If Mr Sargeant's reluctance to embrace an agenda of complete transparency comes from a personal moral stance then that is his prerogative, even as a Labour man, but I am concerned that this is more to do with a reluctance to engage the 'transparency agenda' of the current Conservative government in London, led by Mr Pickles and even perhaps the opposition in the Senedd. I am of no political persuasion and am merely campaigning to improve the accountability of local government, it will be a pity if such basic rights of the electorate, such as being able to freely access the public gallery, are overshadowed by misguided political allegiances.

This was my email to Mr Sargeant;

"Dear Sir

I am hoping that by now you are aware of the actions of Carmarthenshire County Council in restricting access to the Public Gallery for visiting members of the public.
Prior to the 8th of June, the public could walk straight up to the public gallery unhindered, this is how it should be in a democratic society.
The external door is now locked. The public must now go to the reception desk, read a warning on 'recording meetings', sign an undertaking, acquire a pass then wait to be escorted by two members of staff to the Gallery. The exit is now blocked requiring visitors to phone an extension number and wait to be escorted out of the building, again by two members of staff. This has never been the case before the 8th June.
Freedom of Information requests have revealed that there have been no fire risk assessments nor fire drills carried out with regards to members of the public in the gallery.
I am sure you will agree that this situation cannot continue.
A member of the public was turned away from a Council meeting yesterday for refusing to sign the undertaking, the Assistant Chief Executive failed to give an explanation as to the lawful purpose of the undertaking, I believe the member of public has now written to several Assembly Members.
Carmarthenshire Council have given several reasons for implementing these measures, none of which are lawful. I myself have been turned away but have now signed the undertaking twice in a week. I am not going to sign again and I expect to be allowed in, along with other members of the public, and these ridiculous measures to be lifted.
There was no democratic decision but was an 'operational decision' taken by Council officers.
These measures are humiliating, undemocratic and pose a threat to the safety of the public, please could you contact Carmarthenshire County Council, via email/telephone urgently to question their motives and insist, on behalf of the residents of Carmarthenshire that all restrictions are lifted with immediate effect.Please could you make your own views on this matter known to me, including whether you yourself would be happy to comply with these restrictions and please pass on to me any correspondence you may have with the Council.
Many thanks for your time and if you require further information please do not hesitate to contact me.
Yours sincerely
Jacqui Thompson"

...and this was the reply;

"Dear Mrs Thompson

Carmarthenshire Council access to public gallery.Thank you for your e-mail of 15 September sent to Carl Sergeant AM, Minister for Local Government and Communities. I have been asked to reply.
Local authorities are obliged to allow the public entry to council meetings, unless the issues being discussed are considered to be exempt (in the main, confidential or commercial matters)
Our understanding of the issues at Carmarthenshire Council is that they have had cases of filming by members of the public, which had not been agreed to by the Council and of which members were not aware. The view of Carl Sergeant AM, whose remit this falls under is that councillors nor anyone else should be filmed without being aware or having given their consent for this to happen.

The process that a local authority follows to allow public access to meetings is a matter for them, as they have to take into account the need for security in today’s society.

Welsh Government Policy is to support local authorities trying to engage with the public and a number of provisions within the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011 are designed to encourage this. However it is a matter for the local authority to decide what methods and resources should be employed to make their meetings more accessible

Whilst the Minister has not issued any advice or guidance on this matter, he encourages all local authorities to make the maximum effort to enable the public to engage with their proceedings. I understand that Carmarthenshire Council are due to vote shortly on the public broadcasting of their meetings. This development is welcomed by the Minister who hopes other local authorities will consider doing the same
Yours sincerely
Scrutiny, Democracy & Participation Team"

It looks to me like my concerns were neatly side-stepped, I am beginning to wonder what the point of the Welsh Government is if they have no power, nor inclination, to intervene when a local authority behaves in this manner towards the electorate.

Carmarthenshire planning complaints - double the Welsh average

I note, from the Ombudsman's 'annual letter' (2010-2011) that complaints about Carmarthenshire's Planning Services are nearly double the Welsh national average, for the second year running. If my email inbox is anything to go by, I am not surprised.
The figure (20) is of course tempered by fluctuations in the number upheld, partially upheld, dismissed etc. In fact, the Ombudsman's office is particularly proud of it's 'Complaints Advice Team' which aims to 'close investigations early', ie 'nip that one in the bud'. Anyone familiar with the whole turgid procedure knows that before you get anywhere near the ombudsman you have to go through the various debilitating stages of complaint with the council itself. The first line of defence (for that is the impression), in planning anyway, is the local planning office - if that fails you then you are referred to the Head/Director of the department. The final stage is to take your complaint to the Chief Executive. Of course, your complaint may be well dealt with successfully and off you go happy and content. If not, and after expending copious amounts of blood, sweat and tears and you still retain the will to live, you can then approach the ombudsman. By then though you may written a letter or two and been classed, (if not actually placed on the now all encompassing Unreasonable Complainants Policy) as a 'pain in the a**'. This label well may be conveyed either directly, or subliminally, to the ombudsman. You are now on the back foot. The next nightmare is to get the ombudsman to actually investigate your complaint, let alone uphold it.
The point I am trying to make is that if Carmarthenshire's figures are nearly double the Welsh average, that's is certainly saying something.
The last meeting of the Council's Standards Committee 'recieved' the ombudsman's report. Did anyone raise the issue of these figures? Did anyone say 'what's up with planning?' or were they happily fobbed off with 'oh well planning is always controversial' or 'complaints are high because we have an excellent, well publicised complaints procedure'? (The latter is a common excuse but in the several years I have been observing these things, I have not noticed any effort by the Council to improve or raise 'awareness' of the complaints system, in fact I've noticed quite the reverse). 
Anyway, according to the minutes of the meeting, no one said a dickie bird.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Wales Blog Awards - today's Carmarthen Journal

Pleased to see great article by @AlexMurraySmith in today's Carmarthen Journal about my nomination for the Wales Blog Awards, the finals will be on the 27th October;

Council Critic now running for top award

(Link to Wales Blog Awards)

Also in today's Journal is a letter from another Carmarthenshire resident equally concerned about the way things are heading within our council;

"Dear Editor
In common with other local authorities, clubs, societies and countries, Carmarthenshire has a constitution which sets out who is responsible for what and the rules by which the County Council runs its business.
This document is only a few years old, and it is therefore surprising to find that it has nevertheless been subject to frequent changes.
In most democratic institutions, constitutional changes are not undertaken lightly and are rare or infrequent events, and countries which frequently change their rule books are usually banana republics and dictatorships.
The declared aims of Carmarthenshire’s constitution are to set out "how decisions are made and the procedures which are followed to ensure that these are efficient, transparent and accountable to local people." In reality, what we have seen is a sustained assault on the principles of democratic accountability, with more and more powers being delegated by elected councillors to unelected officers, and a steady flow of rule changes designed to silence criticism and reduce transparency.
I could quote many examples, but four are enough to give readers a flavour of what has been happening, usually unreported and with little or no public debate.

1. Rules allowing the votes of councillors in committees to be recorded were abolished, and only councillors who specifically request to have their votes recorded now have their names noted. In practice this means that councillors who do not wish to let their electors know how they voted on controversial matters (e.g. major planning applications) can effectively vote anonymously.

2.The council’s Executive Board approved proposals to sell one of the Newcastle Emlyn’s public car parks without consulting the Town Council or any local residents or businesses. Protesters were told that the rules had been changed, and that consultation was no longer necessary.

3.Planning officers are to be given more powers to decide applications without referring them to elected councillors.

4.Recently several motions submitted by opposition councillors critical of various aspects of the way the council is run, including cuts to services for the elderly, have been rejected and debate not allowed.

This has been done under the Constitution which gives powers to the Chief Executive and the Council Chair to decide what may or may not be discussed. To make it even harder for such motions to be heard, more rule changes are now being brought in, raising the thresholds needed and so ensuring minority voices will be silenced.

The net impact of these changes is to undermine local democracy and make it harder and harder for voters to hold the council to account because real power is being concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite of officers we cannot vote out."

There is also a letter published today by Carmarthenshire County Councillor Sian Caiach who I have mentioned in several recent posts;
Our group is being silenced
and a further article on the changes to the constitution approved last Wednesday - nine of the councillors voted agasinst (including two from People First), so that's seven more than usual, and nine abstained - all from Plaid, I believe - is there a wind of change in the air? Another 53 to go though;

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Council scare tactics..oh, and three excited Councillors

I read in today's Evening Post that Cllr Sian Caiach is under fire again, this time for having the temerity to object to the council's proposals to build a new primary school in Furnace, Llanelli. This is all part of the Modernising Education Policy and the objections (a parent governor has also objected) will mean the decision will be referred to Leighton Andrews at the Welsh Assembly.
I am not familiar with the situation in Llanelli or how popular, or not, the proposals are. I am more interested by the threats made by the Chief Executive that if interested parties exercise their right to formally object to Statutory proposals put forward by the council, the Welsh Assembly will get fed up with waiting and withdraw the funding, funding which has already been made available. As a 'call-in' such as this is part of a legally binding process this seems unlikely and maybe even unlawful, and is typical of the scare tactics used to drive through controversial council proposals with negligible consultation.
Cllr Caiach said that she felt the Council failed to consult people properly over it's plans and there were many concern about the project.

This, of course, has a very familiar ring to those opposing the closure of Pantecelyn Secondary school and the decision to build a new one 15 miles away in Llandeilo. Formal objections have been made regarding the closure and, as long as we can trust the impartiality of the Welsh Government, this decision will now be called in and a fair review of the Council procedures etc undertaken, presumably without Mr Andrews getting stroppy and taking the money 'off the table'.

The objectors to the Furnace proposals however, will now be 'written to', urging them to withdraw their concerns. I wonder if anyone will have letters from the council asking them to withdraw objections to the closure of Pantecelyn, that would be interesting! Of course, in Llandovery there were no awkward county councillors, all remained completely silent in the face of public opposition and supported the council's decision to close the school. Apparently they excused themselves by quoting the code of conduct and if they uttered one word about it, they wouldn't be able to discuss the planning application at a later date. However, this was no reason not to publicly oppose the closure of the school and would only apply, perhaps, to the siting of the new one. (see many previous posts)

Concerns over issues of partiality do not appear to have troubled other county councillors. I was quite amazed to read, in the council's media pages, the hearty endorsement and gushing devotion to Tesco Stores Plc expressed by the Executive Board Member for planning, Cllr Clive Scourfield and the barely contained excitement of Cllrs Pat Jones and Stephen James as they met with Tesco representatives to discuss the arrival of the store in Burry Port. Tesco have already been chosen as the preferred retailer by the Council when they sold the land earlier this year (another Executive Board decision). I do not live in Burry Port and as far as I know the entire town is clamouring for a giant Tesco, who knows?
According to Cllr Scourfield, they're positively champing at the bit;
"This is wonderful and long awaited news for Burry Port that will help enrich and develop the community",

Cllr Jones similarly enthuses; "I am excited Tesco are engaging with the community, planning a two-day public consultation about their proposals in the coming weeks to bring the community on board with the wonderful development."

Cllr James gushes; "Attracting Tesco is a really bonus. It will do wonders for the vibrancy and economic wellbeing of Burry Port. Our town and its people are really deserving of an enhanced shopping opportunity..."

An 'enhanced shopping opportunity'? 'enriching the community'? Where on earth has all this eloquent spin come from? The Tesco rep no doubt.
I wonder if Tesco will be successful in obtaining full planning permission? Sounds like they most certainly will doesn't it? I realise that, rather like the proposed Sainsbury's for Llandeilo, local opinions are split on the impending arrival of giant superstores but one would hope that the those making decisions about privately run enterprises would be a little more objective. By the way, a Google search for 'Tesco planning tactics' throws up some interesting results...

The three excited councillors

Update 19th October;
Just adding this post from Y Cneifiwr, another 'must read'; Foregone Conclusions

Sunday 16 October 2011

Taking Stock of Democracy Week...and more FoI requests

As Carmarthenshire Council's 'Local Democracy Week' fizzles to an ignominious end, and is probably best quickly forgotten, I wonder whether anyone in County Hall will take stock of it's success? I doubt if anyone could care less. Naturally it will have cost money and, as a European 'initiative' maybe they even received funding, who knows. Anyway, predictably, the week was marked by further reducing the power of elected members; a public attack on two councillors; the continued appallingly unwelcome treatment of visitors to the public gallery and the bizarre and embarrassing Twitter experiment. All of which I have mentioned in the previous couple of blogposts.
Was there any evidence that younger people were more 'engaged' with local politics? Do the Council care?  The announcement of a 'poster competition' to promote the May elections is hardly groundbreaking. In fact, if any more powers are delegated to senior officers it will become pointless having an election next May, the way things are going, the £1.3m a year it costs to keep 74 councillors might as well be spent elsewhere - perhaps a full body scanner for members of the public entering County Hall? with cattle prods for the guards in case they go astray?

The twitter experiment was a perfect opportunity for the council to directly communicate with people. Perfectly reasonable questions were asked, yet whoever was controlling the account (and I don't think it was Cllr Pam Palmer) completely failed to recognise the opportunity, or maybe suddenly realised the alarming possibility of critical tweets and lack of control - clearly the expensively well staffed press office couldn't handle that. Then again, perhaps it was the impossibility of providing a succinct 'council-speak' answer in 140 characters which was the problem. As the press office itself is on twitter, perhaps tweeters should be directing enquiries towards them? (@CarmsCCPress) Does the Council realise that even Freedom of Information requests can now be made via twitter etc? The Council also have a Facebook page of course, crammed with press releases, there is a comment facility, but surprise surprise, this facility is not available to me. Perhaps the other 'ignored' tweeters should try and pose their questions on there?

On the subject of FoI requests, I have asked a couple more.
The Western Mail reports today on Pembrokeshire Council's £15m credit card bill and the Daily Telegraph has been collecting data for sometime on UK figures and so far, there is nothing listed for Carmarthenshire. I can understand there will be advantages to this method of payment, especially to small local suppliers struggling with cashflow who will receive their money a lot quicker than by invoicing the council. The downside, according to the newspaper articles, is excessive use and lack of control. I am requesting the information on the basis that 'open data' means greater transparency, increased accountability, the possibility of public scrutiny, and maybe more thoughtful spending in the first place.

My second request follows on from this one, ('Just the Ticket') which is now the subject of an internal review. I am now requesting the Members' Registers of interest, gifts and hospitality. As several Welsh Councils already publish this information on their websites I am hoping for a positive response. I am aware that these registers are (or were, anyway) available for inspection, by prior arrangement and appointment, at County Hall - although it is a little difficult to establish this as the appropriate links on their very shaky website pointing to this information have been broken for months. As these registers are within the Council's FoI 'Publication Scheme', good practice should indicate that information within the Scheme be as widely available as possible and in this modern world, which has so troubled Carmarthenshire Council, this should include 'online'.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Local Democracy Week; Carmarthenshire Council and #pambot

Carmarthenshire County Council circa. 2011
Before I turn to 'Local Democracy Week', a few points of interest from today's full council meeting (yes I had to sign the undertaking again). And, incidentally, one of the councillors asked whether she would have to sign the undertaking to access the Public Gallery, she didn't, so I am not sure what that's all about! She also asked what the meeting record was for using the two members of staff to 'escort' the public up and down from the gallery, 18 times apparently for one planning committee meeting. This is a farcical situation.
Anyway, back to the meeting, Chaired mainly by the Chief Executive and occasionally by Cllr Ivor Jackson.
There were many self-congratulations over the latest Audit Report but the Plaid leader did manage to point out that if you turned to page two there were a raft of recommendations for improvement.

The £2.3m overspend in Social Services was mentioned but seemed to be adequately dealt with by several more pats on the back and lengthy speeches by both Cllr Gravell and Cllr Kevin Madge (I though there was a time limit?) Cllr Gravell managed to have another swipe at the Councillors and campaigners who managed to keep the care homes open but failed to mention the herd of Council concieved white elephants plundering the public purse, Garnant Golf Course being the latest in a long and unstoppable line.

The Chief Executive spoke at some length regarding the Single Status pay and conditions issue and (after more back patting) announced that 99.9% of employees had agreed to the terms, (see previous posts) I suppose there's one stubborn soul somewhere they're in the process of breaking.

The vote on the changes to the constitution came next, passed with a majority, despite several opposition councillors expressing their deep concerns over the dire state of democracy in the council, one said, "To remove the right of an individual councillor to bring motions to council is attacking democracy and a blow to the freedom of the individual." Further power is now delegated to the Chief Executive and Councillors will now only be able to put forward a proposal (Motion) if at least seven others support it, effectively cutting out the minority voice. Shameful.

Interestingly though, the amendment did not appear to be backdated and Cllr Arthur Davies has again put forward a motion of No Confidence in the leader Meryl Gravell - unless the council bosses can come up with another excuse to block it, it may be on the agenda for the next full council meeting in November. Watch this space.

Lastly, someone asked whether, prior to the planning committee on the 15th September, a 'pre-meeting' was held between the Independent and Labour group to arrange to vote against (and vote politically) the controversial supermarket application in Newcastle Emlyn. The eminent members were shocked and rose their feet to deny that this sort of thing even happens, even Exec board member Cllr Pam Palmer felt compelled to deny rumours (apparently heard in the gents toilet - what??) that such things happen, in fact she said that if she were going to do something like that she'd use the phone. (she hurriedly retracted this freudian slip by the way)

Please do go and read Y Cneifiwr's excellent account of today's ridiculous farce; Council of despair Part 1. Which reminded me about Cllr Wooldridge's thoroughly nauseating ramble about his (and Mr Sully's) trip to see royalty.
And now (13th Oct) we have Council of Despair Part 2 - Brilliant!

With some excitement that Carmarthenshire Council were forging ahead into the modern world, some of us Carmarthenshire tweeters noticed on Monday that the aforementioned Exec Board member Cllr @PamPalmerCCC was on twitter (for a week).
It's all part of 'Local Democracy Week', apparently, where youngsters are encouraged to engage with local politics and I presume, democracy is generally promoted. Naturally a very worthy cause. Unless it is in the hands of the increasingly undemocratic Carmarthenshire Council of course. I wonder whether the unsuspecting Cllr Pam Palmer even knew she was on twitter 'micro-blogging' as they put it, so far we have had a handful of very carefully crafted, and perfectly bilingual council PR tweets straight from the press office I suspect.

Several of us tried to 'engage' with the 'tweeting' councillor, whose extensive portfolio includes 'Communications' and 'Modernising local government' (some of you may remember he good lady from the 8th June #daftarrest incident when she famously asked, in a Chamber largely occupied by middle-aged/elderly men, whether 'permission was needed to film children'), anyway we asked a few democracy related questions. Nothing. Not a tweet back to anyone. Even the press office failed to come to her rescue. Another PR disaster.

Fellow Carmarthenshire bloggers have also commented on Cllr Palmer (or #pambot as we have given her as a handy hashtag);

Update 13th October; Excellent post from @mjmilan; The Strange Case of the #pambot 

Petitions Committee call for evidence

My petitions were, of course, for the filming of council meetings and the publication of local authority spending details over £500. The petitions committee at the Senedd has written to the local papers (not sure if it appears elsewhere) including the South Wales Evening Post and the Carmarthen Journal asking for interested parties and individuals to submit evidence for consideration by November 3rd. (number 3. is not mine);

"The Petitions Committee of the Assembly has recently received petitions on wind turbines, the filming of council meetings and local authority spending. These petitions have now finished collecting signatures and are before the Petitions Committee for consideration. We are interested in receiving views from individuals, groups and organisations on the subjects of these petitions. They are as follows:

1. Filming and recording of council meetings. This petition calls for councils across the country to allow the public to film proceedings. We would like to know whether it is felt that the actions called for in the petition are reasonable and/or feasible.

2. Local authority spending details over £500. This petition calls for details of local authority expenditure over £500 to be made public. Do your readers feel that this information should be published? If so, should this be mandatory or encouraged as best practice? What barriers could there be to providing this information publicly? Do people feel that £500 and over is the appropriate level of spend to be published?

3. Control of noise nuisance from wind turbines. This petition calls for restrictions on the noise caused by wind turbines in Wales. We would like to know what the public and those with particular knowledge of wind energy have to say about this issue.

Any views received will be used as evidence by the Petitions Committee in its consideration of the petitions — and I would just like to emphasise that we are looking for evidence on the subjects of these petitions, rather than support, or otherwise, for them.

If your readers would like to submit evidence, we would be grateful to receive it by November 3. Further guidance on the submission of evidence can be found at

William Powell
Chair Petitions Committee
National Assembly for Wales"

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Just the Ticket

Well I finally had a response to my request for 'officers' interests' which can be viewed here;
(you will have to open the link to the PDF document.)

The response was nearly a month late, I am not sure what they've been doing to come up with such a poor response, I have requested a review as they do not appear to have read my request correctly, I asked for business interests as well,  not just a list of 'gifts and hospitality'.
As for the information which was supplied I am not sure whether the Director of Regeneration, Dave Gilbert, should really have accepted an invitation from Mott Macdonald (consultants to the Council) to attend 'with hospitality', the FA Cup final in Wembley in 2008 even if he was 'representing the Chief Executive'. Neither am I sure he should be accepting hospitality from a firm of property developers to attend an Ospreys v Scarlets rugby match in 2007.
You will notice there is quite a sporting theme running through the document, with particular connections to the Scarlets and the WRU, it was nice of the Chief Executive to give the Head of Finance two tickets to see the Scarlets play Connaught in 2008. The Director of Resources, whilst a Scarlets season ticket holder (another common theme) must also like a game of footie, he enjoyed the hospitality (VIP no less) of the Football Association Wales at the Wales v Estonia match at the Parc Y Scarlets in 2009. Mind you, earlier that year the Head of Corporate Property gratefully accepted  two tickets for the Wales v Ireland rugby international from David Pickering (WRU). The Head of Housing and the Head of Social Services both enjoyed tickets ('plus lunch') to a Wales v Australia International courtesy of the CEO of another consultancy, must have been a jolly day out.

I suppose these are perks of the job, and I have a feeling they may have left a few out but I'll never know, and as long as they are 'declared' it's all ok then. But one should, for just one example, remember the protracted, controversial and continuing planning issue over the new Scarlets stadium/Stradey development as well as the continued taxpayers bailout of the new stadium itself.

Update; After I complained to the Information Commissioner the Council 'discovered' some more declarations;

Thursday 6 October 2011

Councillors warned for trying doing their job

Disturbing news has reached me that an attempt is being made to restrict the actions of a tiny minority of county councillors who are becoming more vocal in challenging the undemocratic way this council is run. They have recognised, and tried to stand up for what they believe is right. Also the press seemed to have received a copy of this letter (below) before Cllr Caiach, and the first she knew about it was when a reporter phoned this morning and asked her for a comment. Arthur Davies had not been sent a copy despite featuring in the letter and listed as a recipient. He had to go to County Hall to get one.
I have been asked to reproduce the letter which I am happy to do as it is widely believed by those who know the two councillors concerned to be an unwarranted step to prevent them questioning procedure and representing the wider concerns of all residents of the county.

Cllr Caiach has stated;

"For information, the time the Chief Executive reported Arthur Davies to the ombudsman [2005 ish] was for the offence of speaking on a planning issue while unaware that his brother in law had written a letter of objection - at that time he needed to check all objections for people he knew. This, under the new rules would probably not be regarded as prejudicial.
It is true that I recently asked the new acting head of the legal department what her legal qualifications were, She has not replied.
What sort of democracy is it when an unelected officer arranges total supervision of our contact with all council officers and appoints himself as arbiter of what he will allow us to do and has restricted the actions of 2 councillors and their ability to represent their electorate"

I am sure there will be plenty of comment but I would just like to add that if these two councillors are really using up more officer time than the remaining 71 put together, then, to my mind, it begs the question as to what exactly the other 71 are doing?

Must just add this excellent post from Y Cneifiwr on the many changes to Carmarthenshire's Constitution and the erosion of democracy; Tweaking the Rules - Subversive Questions  (with the next batch of 'amendments' coming up for approval at next Wednesday's full council meeting) ...

Update 10th October;

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Oh the Irony

Further to last week's post about my petitions at the Welsh Assembly, there is an article in today's Carmarthen Journal. I am very pleased to see that the irony has not been lost on them!

'Web petition handover is shown online

IT was not without a sense of irony that Jacqui Thompson watched her petition being handed into the Welsh Assembly live on the internet last week.
She was watching a live web-cast of a meeting of the Welsh Assembly's petitions panel.
Mrs Thompson, from Llanwrda, handed over a 233-name document calling for Carmarthenshire Council to record and broadcast its own meetings — the very system with which she watched the action in Cardiff Bay.
She said: "I was quite pleased with the reaction it received from the people on the committee.
"I had the pleasure of watching it on the web, broadcast on their website. They seem to do most of their meetings like that."
She said the petition would now be passed on to Minister Carl Sargeant with a recommendation from the committee.
Mrs Thompson added: "Carl Sargeant has previously said these things are up to the councils themselves. I am hoping now he'll say something more positive."
The petition was started after Mrs Thompson was refused the right to film meetings of Carmarthenshire Council and its planning committee.
In June, she was arrested and led away in handcuffs after refusing to stop filming a meeting. She was later released without being charged. The council has always said filming and recording meetings is prohibited'
Carmarthen Journal 5th October

Council Motion Blocked by Chief Executive

Further to Monday's post Motion of no confidence in Meryl I hear that Cllr Arthur Davies, the proposer, recieved an email this morning from Chief Executive blocking the motion. Sadly I am not surprised that, given a couple of days, a way would be found to get round this.
Cllr Davies' colleague, Cllr Caiach, responds;

"Cllr Arthur Davies received an email this morning from chief executive Mark James saying that he is rejecting the motion of no confidence in the council leader because some of the matters raised in Cllr Davies' motion will be discussed later in the same meeting.

It for the chair to decide what is acceptable and legal .I have never heard such a pathetic excuse to reject a properly constituted motion submitted in good time.

What is relevant is that although he offers Cllr Arthur Davies the opportunity of putting the motion in again next month, the council will be asked by Cllr Gravell to change the rules of debate this month to increase the number of proposers of a single motion to at least 7 councillors. Mark James is counting on Cllr Davies not being able to get six signatories behind him next month.

Mark James has his salary reviewed by the leader and Meryl Gravell is responsible for him earning more than Carwyn Jones and also for the best paid directors of services in Wales with all of them over £100,000 p a.

Carmarthenshire has become a dictatorship. There is no point in having elected councillors if the rules change at the whim of the Chief Executive.

Where else would an unelected chief executive refuse to allow the councillors to debate a vote of no confidence. I understand his loyalty to his cash cow, Meryl Gravell, but where is democracy?"

Following on from 'In the shadows of County Hall'   Cllr Caiach has had a charming response to her complaint from the acting Head of Law and Monitoring Officer, Carmarthenshire Council. Cllr Caiach has as you will read below, replied.

Dear Cllr. Caiach,
This is not a Monitoring Officer matter.

The Business Management Group (known at one time as the "Modernising Local Government Group") is an informal Advisory Panel appointed by the Executive Board and advises on constitutional, modernising and housekeeping issues. It has 6 members (and 3 permanent substitutes). Although it does not need to be, it is in fact politically balanced. Sorry to be so blunt, but with your group being so small you would not be represented on it.

You are not "disenfranchised" in that the BMG has no decision making powers in that it merely "advises" the Executive Board. Constitutional reform is a Council function and whilst the Executive Board can make recommendations to the Council on constitutional matters the actual decisions can only be taken by the Council, so your group has its say and vote at full Council.

You are not "discriminated" against nor are your "human rights" breached in that it is the small size of your group which stops you from having representation on it, not any discriminatory practices.

Linda Rees-Jones
Acting Head of Administration & Law

and the reply;
Dear Ms Rees Jones,

Thank you for your reply. I am seriously concerned that you dismiss Human Rights Law and discrimination so casually and even refer to human rights in inverted commas. In my own profession, as a forensic physician, which is governed by the Human Rights Act, a written statement by myself which mentioned human rights in such a fashion would lead to severe reprimand not only by my superiors but by any defence counsel or judge in any case where I gave evidence.

It is interesting that the group apparently does not make decisions other than the decision on how to advise the executive. However, in council minutes there has never been to my recollection a case of their advice being rejected, simply a record that they have requested or formulated whatever to be done and it has been agreed. If they are merely advisory there must be many occasions where their advice has been amended or rejected and I would like some exemplar minutes to show that their advice is debated and not simply accepted every time.
I would like to see the documentation of the Modernising Local Government Group, how it was constituted and the minutes of the meeting at which it was formed as well as any mention of timescale and review period.

Also can I see the documentation of the name change to BMG and the council minutes related to this, whether there was any change of remit etc or change of composition.

Is there a chair of this group who delivers the report to cabinet and does the chair stay the same or rotate and if there is one, who is it? When I have observed the executive board meetings the reports of the BMG are not formerly presented there by a representative of the BMG. When does this happen?

Could you please list all the members of the BMG and state which officers attend the meetings. Is a legal representative present who checks the legality and probity of what is discussed?
If the meetings are not minuted how do the members scrutinise what is being passed on to the executive board?.

What is the legal position under local government law on advisory bodies set up in this manner which consist of members of the council who are not specifically elected to these posts by the full council. Who appoints the members of this group?

This group is using public funds, is unrepresentative, probably in reality does make decisions as I am unaware of incidences where its advice has been rejected by the Executive Boards, and is discriminatory to individual councillors and small groups.

Finally, addressing you as Monitoring Officer, please make a statement on your own position as regards the Human Rights Act 1998 and exactly how you see this legislation impacting on a county council. You imply that a small group has less rights in your eyes than a large group and I presume therefore that unaffiliated members are similarly regarded by you, Madame Monitoring Officer? At what level of number of councillors do legal Human Rights become significant to our monitoring officer? Also, what is your consideration of the rights of the several thousand electors that myself and cllrs A.Davies and John Jenkins represent?

Cllr Sian Caiach
People First Group

Monday 3 October 2011

Motion of no confidence in Meryl

It has been brought to my attention that Cllr Arthur Davies (People First) has delivered a motion of no confidence in the Leader of Carmarthenshire Council Meryl Gravell ('Independent'). It has, I believe, been accepted as valid for inclusion in the Agenda for the full council meeting on Wednesday, October 12th (10am County Hall).

I assume there will be a vote and it will be very interesting to see how it goes. I have no further details at the moment as the agenda has yet to be published. I also wonder which way the Plaid members will vote this time? Ten years ago she survived a previous no confidence vote with their support.

Meryl under Fire

UPDATE 5th October; Council Motion blocked by Chief Executive surprise surprise,

Saturday 1 October 2011

Filming meetings - A ray of hope from Pembrokeshire?

Have just noticed this rather positive article from today's Western Telegraph, fingers crossed that these discussions over the county border will prove fruitful! Hopefully the next door neighbours, Carmarthenshire Council will take note;

Pembrokeshire County Council will discuss future filming of meetings 

"Members of the public could be allowed to film County Council meetings in the future.
Proposals to allow filming by the public, or to introduce web cams to the council chamber will be discussed as part of Pembrokeshire County Council’s new constitution.
Councillor David Howlett had submitted a notice of motion to the Corporate Governance Committee that;

“members of the public be allowed to film public council meetings as long as they do not impede or obstruct proceedings”.

In June, a member of the public was arrested for filming a Carmarthenshire Council meeting on her mobile phone.

Cllr Howlett said that allowing the public to film meetings would add “confidence, transparency and openness” as the council “moved with the times.”

Council leader, Councillor John Davies, agreed that it was reflection of the changes in how people communicate.
He agreed that the matter be further discussed as part of constitutional changes with a “positive marker at this point that we accept the principle of what the notice of motion intends to achieve”.

(Source; Western Telegraph)

I am trying to monitor developments regarding the filming of meetings from around the 22 Welsh local authorities as well as the National Parks and would be grateful if any sharp-eyed, agenda- reading observers could let me know of any progress in their area - in case I miss it.

Wales Blog Awards 2011 - Caebrwyn Shortlisted!

I feel very honoured, and delighted, to have been shortlisted as a finalist for the Wales Blog Awards 2011 in the political blog category. Many thanks to those who nominated me.
The final will be held on the 27th October and this year features an online *Peoples Choice* vote as well, also to be found on the website. voting closes on the 21st October. 
Good luck to all the finalists.