Thursday 29 December 2011

A few thoughts...(while it's quiet)

...on cuts...allowances...churches..etc
As the thrills and spills of the council's budget cuts (previously here and here) is played out over the next few weeks there is little point in further speculation at the moment, I'm sure there'll be a few interesting meetings ahead, starting with the Executive Board on the 4th January. I have a small wager with my cynical self as to which proposal is actually a PR 'plant' and will be subject to a magnanimous last minute u-turn which we should all be jolly grateful for, currently my money's on the 'museum closures'. A sprinkling of 'efficiency' suggestions can be found in the minutes of various recent scrutiny committee meetings; for example, reducing the temperature of the swimming pools and charging schools to use them. Brrr. Whatever transpires, I predict that one eye will be kept on the election in May.

May 2012 will also see the adoption of the latest report from the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales. (link here, it's PDF and 70 pages). The Councillors' Allowance will now be known as a salary (or senior salary for those further up the greasy rungs) The new wording suggests that this is something to be earned. The IRPW will use it's powers to tell councils what to pay it's members and due to the fact that the Council's website is about as useful as a chocolate fireguard I am unable to predict the likely outcome on Carmarthenshire's Members, suffice to say that if there is any reduction in cost to the Council taxpayer it's unlikely to be much more than the cost of a full tank of fuel in the Council limo. The 'search' facility for individual councillors allowances/expenses regularly disappears for weeks at a time, and is currently offline. Other tables and lists are outdated and lack detail. The useless website is another story though.
Interestingly, claims for food/subsistence within the county boundaries will no longer be allowed; so a situation when one's own local Member is spending lunchtime relaxing in the local club tucking into a tax-payer funded steak dinner at roughly the exact time as one of his constituents is being thrown into a police cell for observing that morning's council meeting, shouldn't happen anymore...

Whilst I am in a thoughtful mood, I must make a couple of further observations regarding the Towy Community Church and, of course, Carmarthenshire Council's generosity towards this organisation. I notice, from the Church website that the Debt Counselling Service will be run 'in partnership' with 'Christians Against Poverty'. Nothing wrong with a religious organisation helping people out of poverty, the Salvation Army has been doing it for years and I suppose, unless you are so inclined, it's best to avoid an organisation with 'Christian' in the title. However, we know our Council thinks it's all a brilliant idea, to the extent of £1.4m in fact. What is slightly disturbing is that until earlier this year CAP was under the umbrella of the national (and entirely secular) debt service, Advice UK. Advice UK decided that some of the methods used by CAP were 'incompatible' with their constitution, namely that prayer was part of the debt advice. Advice UK did not think, and neither do I, that prayer is much help when the bailiffs are knocking at the door, to be honest, the lord is very unlikely to provide. Neither is it appropriate, in my opinion, to evangelise when people are at a low ebb even if it is a tried and tested method of gaining new recruits; free advice is fine but there should be no strings attached, nor promotion of a particular faith. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that CAP is also a 'partner', and associated with, the Mercy Ministries.
The National Secular Society has an interesting article on such matters; Praying in order to obtain social services is an indication of things to come. But before I incur the wrath of the evangelicals, I must emphasise once more that it is not religious beliefs of any description I have issue with but the involvement of the County Council; with local (non-religious) charities facing cuts in council help over the next three years and Council Tax going up by possibly 4%, prayers at the bowling alley may be all we have left....

Afterthought; Carmarthenshire Council are proposing to cut £32,000 in grants from the Citizens Advice Bureau over the next three years (£14,000 next year). Jeezus.


Saturday 24 December 2011

New 'vision' for Carmarthenshire.....

I have heard a rumour that a gentleman known only as 'Mr N' (apparently aged 950 years old, so could be also seeking to stand in the next local election) has approached Carmarthenshire County Council chiefs with an ambitious and exciting business proposal.

I hear it has been welcomed with open wallets arms by the executive leaders of County Hall. After the recent heavy rainfall in the county 'Mr N' has had a vision to build an enormous wooden Ark. According to initial reports from my mole (Mr & Mrs Mole are hoping for a seat on this wondrous vessel), a full business plan has been submitted, legal instructions completed and a Site Appraisal Matrix for construction has been commissioned by the council itself. It is purported to have been described by the Leader as 'one of the most important community developments in Carmarthenshire'. Although the Council are facing drastic budget cuts over the next few years this miraculous enterprise is being seen as a way of 'outsourcing' important frontline services such as flood prevention, pet care, 'back to work' schemes and 'sustainable communities'.

Artist's impression of completed project (Phase 1)
The whole project apparently meets the Council's 'Key Objectives' and the preferred construction site, the Parc Y Scarlets Stadium, was strategically selected by the Council's Special Project Department as it met current and future transport and 'accessibility' targets. Incidentally, as 'Mr N' is a pillar of the establishment, and the building project will be only 'temporary', no planning permission will be required; it is also classed as 'permitted development' under the newly created Houseboat Policy (HB1). The Council have, I hear, earmarked a fund pot for this project and will 'do 'whatever it takes' to ensure the vision is a success. A Council hospitality cabin on the poop deck is also on the cards for corporate entertainment and 'champagne lunches'.

According to the Spacial Design Analysis, there will be room for people as well as animals on the Ark, but as places are limited to twenty souls, applicants will be required to submit Form ARK1 to arrive at the Chief Executive's office no later than 7 working days before sailing, where a fair and impartial delegated decision to select the successful applicants will be made. These successful applicants will then be required to sign an Undertaking not to film either the construction process nor the initial launch.

'Mr N' was unavailable for comment, but after some enquiries, the Council has just issued this press release;

'The Leadership of this council are delighted to announce this new venture, now named as 'The Ark Project'. Although it will probably take many years to complete and will consume the entire Council budget for the next five financial years we feel this is an invaluable asset for Carmarthenshire. Hundreds of jobs will be created and this wonderful project will be hugely important for the economic regeneration of Carmarthenshire . 'The Ark Project' will also see endless possibilities for our 'Consultancy partners' in the private sector to flourish during this economic recession; Timber Strategies, Flood Appraisals, Animal Husbandry Reports, Highway Models and Logistical Analysis will all be essential for a successful outcome.

After completion, and a successful review, there is a possibility that there may be a 'Phase 2' scheme which could see the construction of a mountain for the Ark to land on, which will address all landfill, recycling and employment targets until 2025, this will need further investment but as a Council we have given our preliminary blessing.

The Executive Board Member for Regeneration said 'We are very excited to be taking this fantastic vision forward - our executive officers are working very hard with our new partners, led by 'Mr N' to ensure this benefits all community groups within Carmarthenshire. We all have great faith in the concept of a 'wooden Ark' which, historically, has been proved to be essential in times of necessity.
We have consulted many stakeholders already, everyone so far has said that a 'wooden ark' is exactly what Carmarthenshire needs.
The proposals to provide the first 'tranche' of grants, from the newly created 'Carmarthenshire Community Infrastructure, Integration and Strategic Sustainability Fund, will be, approved considered (as an 'Exempt Report') by the Executive Board, and then by full Council early in 2012.'

(Although the above proposal is of course entirely plausible, perhaps I should point out it's a spoof!)

I wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a healthy and happy New Year and many thanks to all who have visited this blog over the past year and to all those who have given me such wonderful support.
Best Wishes, Jacqui.
ooh, must just mention that the Rotten Borough Awards is now online (via @TimMinogue, Private Eye)

Thursday 22 December 2011

Llanelli Town Council calls to scrap filming ban

I'm ashamed to say it but I missed this article from the Llanelli Star on the 7th December. I very much appreciate the support of Llanelli Town Council particularly as it  lies within Carmarthenshire and also includes a few County Councillors. Let's just hope the Minister, Carl Sargeant is making notes on this, and other calls for local government transparency within Wales, in time for his attendance at the Assembly Petitions Committee on January 10th.

Llanelli Town Council has called on the Welsh Government to take action after a blogger was arrested for filming a county council meeting.
The council passed a unanimous motion calling on the Welsh Government to require all local authorities throughout Wales to allow audio and video recordings "wherever it is reasonable to do so".
Councillor Mike Gimblett, who proposed the motion at its latest meeting, said he was appalled by the way Jacqui Thompson was treated when she was arrested at the Carmarthenshire Council meeting in June.
Four police officers were called to County Hall after Mrs Thompson, who publishes a blog about council business, was seen filming with a mobile phone in the public gallery.
The Llanwrda community councillor was arrested to prevent a breach of the peace, and later let go without charge.
While Mrs Thompson had previously found herself in hot water with the authority, which currently prohibits filming council meetings, Mr Gimblett felt the response was disproportionate.
"She was arrested and taken to the police station — it was appalling," he said.
"That started me looking at our own standing orders for Llanelli Town Council.
"I put the motion forward because I was appalled at the way and the attitude of the council towards Mrs Thompson."
Mrs Thompson welcomed the support of the council.
"It's very nice to know," she said. "I've got two petitions with the Welsh Government which are being discussed and they are very positive.
"For Llanelli Town Council to even do this I think is brilliant, it's great.
"Across Carmarthenshire a few other councils have made similar noises but anything is a bonus, especially anything in Carmarthenshire because it's putting pressure on the county council and maybe even showing them up a little bit."
A Carmarthenshire Council spokesman said this week: "A task and finish group has been set up by the policy and resources scrutiny looking at e-government in general and recording meetings is part of that. A report will be completed and will go to the scrutiny committee with recommendations and will then go to the executive board and full council."

(Please search this blog - or Google - for much, much more on this subject)

Whilst I'm on the subject of transparency I have asked Carmarthenshire Council a few more Freedom of Information requests concerning;

Cwm Environmental Ltd

Details of Council officers' expenses

Shared IT services with Dyfed Powys Police

Responses can be expected towards the end of January. Incidentally, it's nearly a fortnight since I asked the Acting Head of Law, Ms Linda Rees-Jones to remove my full address from one of their FoI responses, she replied with "I will look into it" - it's still there. She's clearly taking the title 'Acting' in it's literal sense.

Update 23rd December; Recieved an email from Ms R-J at 4.30pm, she told me she has asked the website to remove address and I have just noticed my address has been removed - at long last!

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Private Eye - Hat trick for Carmarthenshire Council!

THIRD appearance this year for Carmarthenshire County Council in Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs. They must be so proud!

And congrats to @_MrMustard and @BrokenBarnet for holding the London Borough of Barnet to account. And of course South Tyneside Council for expensively trying to identify elusive blogger, Mr Monkey.

I must also thank my local paper, the Carmarthen Journal and reporters @AlexMurraySmith and @DConnopPrice for following events of this year, and for a mention in 'Review of 2011' in today's edition.

Private Eye 2011;

Monday 19 December 2011

Towy Community Church - Declarations of Interest

Just a brief post relating again to the decision made at the last full council meeting to 'fill' the latest gap in the funding for the Towy Community Church's 'bowling alley' project. The Minutes were published today and I note that two County Councillors, G Thomas and T Davies had declared an interest in this item as they were 'Christians'. Clearly they felt their religious beliefs possibly precluded them from making an impartial decision. I suppose the same could also be said for any atheists, agnostics etc amongst them all. Taken to the nth degree, there would be no one left in the Chamber. A couple of  Executive Board Members professed their general faith including Gwynne Wooldridge stating that the most important book was the Bible, and Cllr Pat Jones claimed she saw her 'role' as carrying out 'God's work' in the community. Another became almost emotional as he mentioned how he had contacted the Towy Community Church to give them some furniture and had been hugged by an extremely grateful recipient. Officers also spoke in support of the project.
As the 'financial' and 'faith' aspects of this partnership seem to have become blurred, one could almost reach the conclusion that the Council's involvement with the Towy Community Church was entirely inappropriate altogether, particularly given the intention of building a church and the link to the Mercy Ministries (removed last month).


Update 20th December; Mrs Angry (@BrokenBarnet) with an excellent post on the whole subject; Rewriting the Bible; Mrs Angry on God 

Another Update 20th December
I have now been informed that neither of the two Councillors who declared an interest left the meeting. (I was surprised when I saw the declarations as I could have sworn I didn't hear them - I hadn't because they were never spoken) In fact, Cllr G Thomas (Plaid) actually proposed the Motion to fund the Church and Cllr T Davies both spoke and voted on it. They would have had to clear all this with the legal department I presume??
The issue here is one of predetermination - all but a few (the 'few' being Cllrs Caiach and A Davies and a couple from Plaid) had clearly made up their minds to go for this long ago; the two declarations of interest, if I was being kind, could be interpreted as a show of honesty. if I was being cynical, in a master stroke, the ruling Executive managed to get the Plaid opposition to propose the motion, thereby being able to wash their hands of any blame when it all goes t**s up.

Friday 16 December 2011

Mercy Me!

It was drawn to my attention this morning that the Towy Community Church has an article on it's website to enlighten it's followers of the 'real truth' behind the 'Misleading news story' which featured in a south Wales newspaper (They are referring to the Western Mail article I assume). According to the Church's article 'one individual' disagreed with the council's decision to spend so much cash on an organisation which had professed links to the Mercy Ministries. Actually I can count more than one individual. And it was not just the issue of the Mercy Ministries either.

Y Cneifiwr has responded fully to the inaccuracies within the church's article here; Please have a read.

You may also recall that a representative of the Evangelical Alliance, (who is also, I believe on the TCC management board) left a rather sinister comment on a recent post of mine ; Y Cneifiwr again responded . Strangely, none of the organisations involved have felt the need to 'correct' nor mention the article in Private Eye.

The last paragraph of the Church's article mentions that the have a 'very good working relationship' with their funders, including cash-strapped Carmarthenshire Council (£1.4m and 'flexible' planning permission). Neither is the bank loan secured on the non-existent fixtures and fittings of the bowling alley as stated by Mark Bennett, the Pastor, in his email (to which Y Cneifiwr refers), it's secured on the lease from the council.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

'Cut' - The Forbidden Word

Contrary to what you may think from my last couple of posts concerning the miraculous generosity shown to the Towy Community Church, Carmarthenshire Council is having to make around £8.6m worth of cuts from next years budget. The proposed cuts are outlined here, (the page is a bit odd, you may have to scroll down a bit), I daresay, over the next few weeks the Council will be doing their 'public consultation' bit and asking a few simple 'tickbox' options like last year, nothing too detailed for the peasantry. Various Scrutiny Committees are chewing over the details at the moment too. Before I mention some of the highlights, I have been wondering if there is some unwritten rule amongst Council Resources/PR departments not to actually use the word 'cut'. If so then it must have been quite a challenge to think of so many alternatives, is there a special council Thesaurus specifically for this purpose? The document uses the following;
review, rationalise, re-structure, re-negotiate, re-configure, re-develop, re-provision, re-align, recharge, re-model, regionalisation, delete, efficiency, decommission, externalise, decrease, terminate, close, reduce and phase out...

A few items which may be of interest at this early stage include several that didn't make it through last year's budget deliberations. The raising of school meals over the rate of inflation and reducing choice in secondary schools meals is on the cards again (making them the highest priced in Wales) and the removal of free transport for sixth formers; the slashing of the school's music budget by £250k next year and public library funding slashed by £145k over the next three years. Parking charges for Blue Badge holders appears again along with increased car parking fees to raise £150k next year. I am sure the traders at the new Carmarthen market will be delighted to know their rents are in line for an increase too. Cuts are proposed for the Citizens Advice Bureau, community and youth club grants, Welsh language grants and Women's Aid and it looks like they're doing away with the museums altogether. Three day centres for adults with learning difficulties will be 're-provisioned' and 48 posts in 'home care' will have the 'hours externalised' - I imagine the council is looking to the private sector in these areas. Of course the elderly care homes are up for closure again and a respite home for 30 disabled children is earmarked for the axe in 'year 3', saving £373k. Over £500k in roads maintenance will possibly be cut over three years so it looks like the potholes may be here to stay. A mere £5000 is proposed to be cut from 'Civic/Ceremonial' over three years so I imagine the limos are safe for a little longer. That's lucky then.

I could be wrong but I can't detect any pruning of the PR and Press department either within these proposals nor the axing of the council rag but I suppose Carmarthenshire Council needs all the pointless self-promotion they can get these days. Maybe there will even be some spare to webcast meetings. Neither are any cuts to top management or their associated top salaries apparent. Perhaps I could suggest a few things; cut down on the hotels...cut down on evangelical bowling alleys....cut down on the heating in County Hall (it's like a sauna and is probably breeding all sorts of unhealthy germs) and how about, as a really magnanimous gesture, the Chamber could complete it's near transformation into a day centre for the elderly, the presidential suite given over to a soup kitchen and all the top brass could set up shop in the nuclear bunker.

Carmarthenshire Council Nuclear Bunker for when the s**t hits the fan

I know I'm beginning to ramble, and I realise all councils are faced with 'tough decisions', and I am sure similar proposals are on the agenda for heated council budget debates throughout the UK. Let's just hope Carmarthenshire handles it all with transparency and fair debate. There's a first time for everything.

Monday 12 December 2011

Evangelical Alliance and the Towy Community Church continued..

Further to my previous post; Towy Community Church - Full Council meeting , and particularly the comment left by a representative of the Evangelical Alliance, Y Cneifiwr has posted an interesting piece this morning, please have a read;

Having you cake and eating it - the Evangelical Alliance

In relation to this subject a Freedom of Information request has been submitted to Carmarthenshire County Council for copies of their Equalities Impact Assessment, a response is due by the 10th January;

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Towy Community Church and Full Council Meeting

As usual I went to Carmarthen this morning to observe December's full council meeting. There were several items under discussion and assorted exchanges, more of which I will mention on a later post. The main event of course was the decision on the £270,000 loan to the Towy Community Church.

Before I begin I must point out that I have no issue with anyone's community spirit, nor anyone's religious beliefs, what I have issue with is the degree of involvement by this local authority.

You may have read posts here and elsewhere on some of the rather searching questions this whole project has raised, you may have also read the Wales on Sunday and  Private Eye articles. Perhaps at this point I should mention that the head of this church contacted me last week to express, er, disquiet shall we say about what had been written on the blogs and was keen to meet with me to dispel any 'misconceptions'. I assumed the concern was surely based on the well publicised link between the church and the Mercy Ministries. I asked him what his concerns were and I was somewhat surprised that it had nothing to do with that, it was the perception that that they had 'influenced' the Council that was troubling the Pastor. I declined a meeting but pointed out that what had been written was already in the public domain.

Back to today's meeting and unsurprisingly, the item on the church was exempt. There then followed a very unusual decision (unusual for Carmarthenshire anyway), the exemption was overturned as there had been 'rumours' in the press, and the matter was to be discussed in public. Now one would think this was an ideal opportunity to ask some very searching questions as, with the addition of this loan, the council funding, in it's various forms, was now over the £1.3 million mark. How wrong could you be! With the Pastor himself present to dispel any worries this was clearly stage management at it's best.

First off though was Cllr Caiach who tactfully proposed that due to the financial climate etc and the financial risks to taxpayers money, the council's involvement, at the very least, should be mothballed.
It also became quite clear that there had been considerable officer time (and therefore money) spent on this venture already, meeting it's leaders and management board and securing grants etc
One or two others questioned the wisdom of the council's investment but the atmosphere then gave way to complete support and I could almost hear the rattle of tambourines.

Not one person asked about the Mercy Ministries.

Executive Board member Cllr Pam Palmer actually said that she couldn't understand how anyone could possibly be opposed to this venture (glaring at Cllr Caiach) and even the Chief Executive gave a little speech. He mentioned that at 3% interest, this was a good return 'they wouldn't find that anywhere else', he also mentioned that there were those  who hadn't had faith in his vision for the cinema in Carmarthen (and one in England apparently) were all proved wrong as they had both been a roaring success, other projects, which hadn't been quite as successful weren't mentioned. I won't go into that now though. Neither did he correct any of the councillors who understated the financial commitment of the council. This was all tied in with the bowling alley idea which had been scotched for the St Catherine's Walk development and of course this was the opportunity to have one. In fact, according to several councillors, who I am sure are completely in touch with the leisure preferences of Carmarthenshire teenagers, this bowling alley is every child's dream. (as long as they're flush enough to afford a few rounds of bowling and can negotiate a couple of roundabouts and a busy dual carriageway to get there)

The exempt report for today's meeting is of course no longer exempt, and I would like to point out a couple of things as precious little was pointed out today. The original bank loan was for £730,000, this didn't happen and all the church could get was £300,000. They needed £570,000 as they had managed to do some 'value engineering' (?) and reduce the amount required (at this point the Chief Executive used the word 'merely' £570,000). Now I had asked the Pastor last week via email what the assets were that the bank loan was secured on, he replied, and I quote,
"The bank loan will be secured on the equipment and fittings that will be installed into the building (eg bowling alley, kitchens, counters, furniture etc)"
Even in my financial ignorance I found this a little odd - the exempt report however says differently - the bank loan is secured one of the 99 year leases provided by the Council. In fact the bank and the Lottery fund have 1st and 2nd charges on the lease which leaves the Council in 3rd place for a payback if it all goes pop. They'be lucky to get the money back. The councillors were advised to accept this risk. In addition, the council had to accept a 'variation' in the Authority's Treasury Management Policy to allow the loan to run over 15 years as opposed to the usual three year limit.

If that wasn't sufficient 'bending over backwards', the planning permission was also now 'varied' on the pretext that 'flexibility' was necessary to please the bank. Along with the Bowling Alley, Debt Counselling etc "other assembly and leisure or non-residential institutional uses are to be permitted" This answers one of the questions asked today as to whether they were actually planning on building a church - or maybe a non-residential Mercy Ministry?

Returning to the Pastor's email correspondence, he described the Mercy Ministry idea as a 'seed' that had not grown, I for one hope it doesn't. The sudden 'missing link' from the church's website was explained as just something the web designers had done. MP, Jonathan Edwards has expressed concern about this, I hope he continues to investigate.

The figures given by the Church to the council in May also differ markedly from those given seven months later - the total contribution by the church in May when they had the £280,000 grant was £17,000, this has now increased to nearly £390,000 in fundraising, revenue and 'volunteer time'.

The concerns I have are with the council, their support over this is inexplicable, some might say a miracle. This church, has a very small congregation and, like other evangelical organisations of this nature, a very specific and fundamentalist set of beliefs. One can only wonder whether a similar venture proposed by, for example, a mainstream Muslim organisation or for that matter a mainstream Christian establishment would have such support. I am certainly not against any project which aims to help the community, there are many, including church groups, already in existence, and already running furniture recycling centres and food banks which struggle for funding and may be lucky enough to get a grant for a couple of thousand if they're lucky. As I have said, I have no issue with anyone's personal beliefs, nor anyone's community spirit - what I do have issue with is a local authority, with it's budget apparently stretched to the limit and having to consider closing care homes again etc etc, embarking on a financial venture with absolutely no guarantee of success.


Although this is turning into a rather lengthy post, as promised, here, in brief, is the rest of the meeting.
I won't bore you with a repeat of the entry ritual, other than there was another lady there who was mystified by the whole procedure and pointed out to staff that she had never encountered anything like this anywhere else, including the Welsh Assembly, she was told they'd had "er...a bit of trouble". She assumed there had been a problem with belligerent youths or violent protestors, or even a threat to national security which had passed her by to warrant all this. I explained.
Anyway, on to the public gallery (there is a strange smell in the building which intensifies as you approach the Chamber, I can't quite define it but it's like a mixture of old cigars and boiled cabbage). The meeting started with the usual round of announcements of new granddaughters (never any grandsons it seems) etc and the signing off of the last meeting's incorrect minutes. Cllr Pam Palmer leapt to her feet (sort of) at some point to remind the 'minute taker' that it was not just her and Meryl who had made cakes for some event or other but Cllr Stephens had made some too - God forbid that that vital fact wasn't included in the next minutes!

Continuing with their parallel universe, and prior to sherry and mince pies in the Mayor's parlour there was something of a Christmas spirit pervading the Chamber with little anecdotes here and there, with my own local member, Cllr Theophilus even regaling everyone with how he'd got a speeding ticket in Cross Hands one morning. Hilarious. The Christmas theme continued with several references to Dickens, (presumably triggered by the impending excitement of sherry and mince pies in the Mayor's Parlour after the meeting) the low point of which was probably the deputy leader, Cllr Kevin Madge in one of his blustery speeches calling Cllr Caiach 'Scrooge' (if you remember she was one of several objectors to the new plans for Furnace school) I think Mr Sully, the Director of Education may have shifted uncomfortably at this point recalling his odd letter mentioned here asking a resident to withdraw their objection - it would be like the planning department asking a resident to withdraw an objection to a planning application, not really proper procedure eh?)

One of the main items under 'discussion' was the new 'Compact' from the Welsh Government to encourage shared services and to create a regional tier of committees and boards to oversee it all. Not such a bad idea perhaps to save money as long as we don't just have yet another level of beauracracy. Cllr Gravell took centre stage on this one assuring everyone that as both she and the Chief Executive were highly influential within the Welsh Government (and I lost track of the number of Boards and Committees they sat on), so Carmarthenshire had nothing to fear. In fact, between them it sounded like they were running Wales. Concerns were raised that such moves could mean loss of local democracy and accountability, the Leader and Chief Executive, clearly leading the field in such matters gave reassurance that with their influential expertise they could defend the local authority against such undemocratic centralisation. You future in their hands.
The £20,000 grant to the Scarlets came up again. Recently approved by the Executive Board, it didn't need to be ratified by full council, but came up in the report. Cllr Caiach wanted reassurance (multiple frowns from the usual suspects) that this grant, meant for charitable purposes, did not breach European law as it had been given to a private company. She didn't really get an answer. A few others pointed out that exactly the same amount had been slashed off the schools' music budget so while the Scarlet's now had a project manager to draw funds for the Stadium, the kids didn't have any music lessons. There we are, such is the importance of sustaining the Stadium.

On that note the meeting moved on to the Towy Community Church, and I've already said my bit about that.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Pantycelyn Update

With yesterday's announcement by the Welsh Government that funding will now be available for the (re-prioritised) school building programme it has brought mixed blessings. For some it will mean welcome essential repairs and refurbishment but for the people of Llandovery it will mean the closure of the town's secondary school, Pantycelyn. (please search this blog for background)
I am therefore posting this update on behalf of the Ysgol Pantycelyn Action Group;

December 2011 Update
The YPAG has been very fortunate in gaining the pro-bono services of an excellent barrister.
He has examined the material we have gathered regarding the tri-level consultation process and proposed closure of Ysgol Pantycelyn and in his opinion we have a 65% chance of ‘winning’ the review which would then require Carmarthenshire County Council to run the consultation process again. A successful judgement would raise the profile in the media of this ill-thought through strategy, and delay the school closure, thus giving the opportunity for the newly elected Welsh Assembly to re-visit their policy on small schools such as Pantycelyn.
We are already have personal experience of visitors to Llandovery looking to buy homes in the area opting to buy nearer Llandeilo when they hear of the impending school closure, and you will need no explanation of how detrimental this will be to our businesses and community and tourism in the long term.
You will already have heard all the arguments against the closure including added burdens on both school children and parents regarding both time and expense.
The barrister we have working for us lives in the locality, although his work base is London. He has already put in many hours work for us for free and because of his commitment the costs we would have to find in the unlikely event of losing would now be as low as £12,000 which we feel is achievable. They could well be even less as costs are often not awarded to the losers in such cases. It is within the courts discretion.
YPAG members have also committed many hours to meeting, collating the evidence and keeping our profile in the media. Whilst some members are also able to commit financially, others are not in a position to do so, however, they would be held equally responsible by the court and we cannot place that burden of anxiety on them. Therefore we are making this one last effort to raise a pledged contingency fund from the businesses and people in and around Llandovery.
This contingency fund needs to be in place by the beginning of January. We therefore hope you have an excellent Christmas period that helps you decide that you can make a pledge to this crucial action.
If the school goes – so does Llandovery!
Thank you,

Further information can be found on the YPAG Facebook page here

Access to emails....and a response to my RIPA request

At a meeting of the Council's Standards Committee in September, further information was requested about senior officers' access to employees emails. The legal department has come back to this month's meeting with this brief summary which I am finding a little puzzling;

(2) The authority’s email usage policy makes it clear that emails generated by, or accessed via, council owned equipment will not be considered as the private property of their creator/recipient, and that the authority may access those emails at any time without an individual’s consent or knowledge.

(3) Individual senior officers cannot directly access the emails of others in the authority, unless they have been permission to do so by that person.

(4) A senior officer can request that an individual email account be examined by the IT department, but will be expected to give good reasons why this should take place.

I can understand that, in the public interest, the ability to monitor communications, either manually or automatically, may be necessary to detect fraud, inappropriate/offensive behaviour, or during the course of a criminal investigation etc etc and to those ends, there is the aforementioned 'email usage' policy. What puzzles me is the distinction between 'the Authority' and 'senior/individual officers'. Who, or what, is the 'Authority'? Is this a collection of named individuals eg a group of senior officers/Councillors? or is it one senior officer delegated to represent the authority? or is it a shape-shifting entity who's definition depends on the intended purpose? Permission is then required for an individual officer to access the emails of another, unless I suppose they are acting on behalf of the Authority? And, in (4), 'good reasons' need to be given - so what would they be then? and on what criteria would they be based? And what of  'council owned equipment', I assume that means all staff and Members with Council computers, but does it include schools, libraries, other entities owned or contracted to the council? It's all a bit vague really...something to chew over anyway...

I have had a response to my Freedom of Information request for information on the Council's use of the Regulatory and Investigatory Powers Act and surveillance;

I haven't had time to fully assess the response yet but will do in due course. At first glance there doesn't seem to be anything untoward. The last inspection report by the Surveillance Commission in April 2010 is included (pdf), it appears this is done every two years and overall, apart from a couple of recommendations, everything seemed fine. Unfortunately, according to the report, even though the visit was pre-arranged, the Council's CCTV operations room was out of bounds and the Chief Executive was 'unavailable'. Incidentally I can't, so far, see any mention of the use of private detectives, mentioned here.

Sunday 4 December 2011

The Sacred Parchments

Further to my Freedom of Information request and earlier post, 'Mrs T - request register of members' interests' I duly visited County Hall last Friday. I (and an assistant) spent a very claustrophobic hour or two in a small overheated office under the close and ever vigilant eye of Mr Colin Davies, Democratic Services Manager, or 'Mr D' as I am sure he'd like to be known. Maybe Mr D was fearful that I would tamper with the sacred parchments or perhaps he thought I was feeding the next release of wikileaks cables. I was, of course, interested in the more 'influential' Members, for want of a better word. He had nothing to fear, the register was rather sterile and the information skeletal and cosmetic. There was an mass declaration of an 80p cup of tea at Pembrey Airport a couple of years ago, just so we know how diligent and honest they are. As you may imagine, the Council has also been generously providing Members with free tickets to Parc Y Scarlets and the hospitality box, with numerous declarations of visits and receptions, similarly Ffos Las was also a popular venue for those who like a flutter on the horses, you may remember recent comments from the Leader Meryl Gravell who vowed to do 'everything in her power' to ensure the privately owned venue succeeded... The only other items of interest were little gifts of silk scarves and boxes of tea from a mysterious and unpublicised meeting with a Chinese delegation back in August, Y Cneifiwr has explored several theories on this here.

I cannot imagine why this register is not online (like Swansea and Pembrokeshire) and only remains accessible by strict appointment, and, as it now appears, under guard - quite enough to deter only the most resolute members of the public. Also, as many decisions made by this increasingly officer-led council do not come anywhere near an elected member (or only to the unquestionably loyal) it's all a bit immaterial as the role of the majority of Members becomes less influential in direct proportion to the frequency with which the constitution is undemocratically amended.

Of course, the intricacies and grey areas of the rules of declaration, particularly when it comes to the business lobby can often become a bit blurred, as the 'back door' encounters between Number 10 and Rupert Murdoch recently proved, many meetings/lunch/quiet chats can always, if they want them to be, classed as 'private' so, shh, no need to mention....

I was quite amused to note the next 'consultation' announced by the Council involves the registration of lap-dancing clubs and the like - not that there is a single one in Carmarthenshire. But I wouldn't like to speculate on who the next 'partner' organisation of our council will be. Of course that would then necessitate important 'site visits' by whoever was unfortunate to land a seat on the Licensing Committee and they would then have to endure similar sacrifices to their English counterparts....

In my efforts to encourage interest in the wondrous workings of Carmarthenshire democracy,  I would like to remind everyone that there is a full council meeting on Wednesday 7th December, 10 o'clock, County Hall. Don't forget to arrive in plenty of time so that you can be monitored, escorted, strip searched and electronically tagged. (I am joking about the last far) 

Thursday 1 December 2011

The Runaway Train

It's that time of year again when Carmarthenshire Council attempts to struggle with it's shrinking budget. The Chief Executive has blamed the 'runaway train' of social care costs as the prime problem, and it looks like the two care homes for the elderly in Llanelli will be once again under threat of closure. There are a couple of things I fail to understand. Firstly, why have there not been accurate predictions over the past five or so years that demand on social care services would increase to such a level as to be, apparently, bankrupting the council. This Council, like others, is very fond of commissioning (at great expense) population predictions, retail surveys, housing projections etc etc so surely it should come as no surprise that this was a very predictable trend and financial contingency plans could have been earmarked years ago. Secondly, the Chief Executive stated that £2m could be saved by closing 100 empty care home beds - am I missing something? If there is such a demand on services why are there 100 empty beds?
The decision, back in February to keep the two Care Homes open was a small flash of democracy which appears to have stuck in the craw of the leader, party leaders and officers who had recommended closure. They, for once, didn't get their own way. Have there been deliberate moves since then to ensure the homes stayed empty and underused? Who knows.
Clearly there are financial problems facing Carmarthenshire council, and all other councils, which will have to be addressed, hopefully in a fair, transparent and democratic fashion over the next few months....

It goes without saying really but anyone who has read this blog will find numerous examples of profligacy and waste, and so I hope it will not only be 'runaway trains' under consideration but those containing the gravy will too.
Our councillors have, in the past eight months, cost us £897,281 and included in that figure is £184,956 'Special Responsibility Allowance' and £29,950 in travelling. The six Directors and the Chief Executive have coined in £971,037 between them, inclusive of pension contributions and, along with the Assistant Chief Executive have claimed over £20,000 in expenses. That figure doesn't include the Chief Executive's fee as Returning Officer for elections. Add some of the slightly inexplicable travelling costs and hotel stays revealed in the credit card expenses and one wonders just which runaway train is out of control.

In brief, I hear that the action group (YPAG) fighting to save Pantycelyn secondary school, Llandovery, from closure has completed the pre-action stage of correspondence prior to seeking permission, from the courts, for a Judicial Review against Carmarthenshire Council. Should it go ahead I imagine a bottomless pit of cash will be unearthed to ensure a victory for the council. Watch this space.

The 'Magnolia Monstrosity'

The 'Magnolia Monstrosity'
As an update to previous posts 'Too close for comfort' and 'Council tax protest' , you can now see the development in question is complete. I wish the lady the best of luck with her continuing battle to cast a glimmer of light on, a) how our Carmarthenshire planners allowed it to happen, and b), her tiny back yard. She has called it the 'Magnolia Monstrosity'.