Tuesday 21 February 2012

Council budget meeting....and a sleeping councillor

Well, after looking at accounts of recent council budget meetings around the UK, I imagined today's meeting to be a lengthy, detailed debate on Carmarthenshire council's budget, I was somewhat surprised that it was all over in a couple of hours with the budget zipping through in slightly less than 45 minutes.
The public gallery was almost empty, one member of the public had requested an agenda from reception but 'this wasn't allowed'. With the place pretty much to themselves, not being filmed that is, and most people too busy to attend, (I notice many councils hold their meetings in the evening) it all went through as smoothly as a diktat from soviet Russia
First up, after the prayers, (dear god give me strength) was the Leader's introduction to the budget proposals. Fortunately someone had the foresight to write this speech for her and this time she was positioned on the executive podium so presumably she could be kept on a tight rein. Best buddy, Cllr Pam Palmer looked a bit lost sat in the stalls without her. Meryl rambled on for about 15 minutes about the 'tough times ahead' and how she and the officers had managed to cut the proposed 4% council tax increase down to 1.97%, she repeated the little concessions, all temporary mind you, which had popped up a few weeks ago, museums, school dinners etc (much to everyone's surprise as there had been no meeting nor minutes). It appears the officers had been tasked to twiddle the figures for the benefit of the Executive Board but by the time Plaid had asked (see later) there was no more twiddling to be done.
She also went on to emphasise how much consultation had taken place with the various scrutiny committees etc and also with the public, I can't remember being asked my views but apparently a single event had been held at those other expensive council offices, the Parc Y scarlets stadium. Anyhow the speechwriters from the department of spin had done her proud and she was even able to say that she was pleased to confirm that rent for council houses had gone up by 5.4% - this was now at national levels and was necessary to maintain the high standards of Carmarthenshire homes - everyone in the county was now healthy and 'feeling fine' thanks to her and Mark. Great. She concluded, as you may imagine, with tributes to the Chief and the Director of Resources.

Next up was the Director of Resources himself who repeated much of what Meryl had said and that he 'lived in hope' that things would get better (I presume he was referring to the economic situation and not life in the employ of Carmarthenshire Council) The outlook was 'gloomy' but he made re-assuring use of the words 'robust' and 'diligent' so everyone felt better.
He seemed to have spent much of the preceding weeks and months trying to explain the intricacies of complex council accounts to councillors, and judging by the yawns and expressionless stares from most, he'd clearly been wasting his time. (I am no expert either, but I'm not making spending decisions am I).

The only thing then which stood in the way of an Executive 'trebles all round' moment was an amendment put forward by Meilyr Hughes of the Plaid opposition group for 0% raise in Council Tax. Other councils had managed it, so why couldn't we? The 'squeezed' middle earners were mentioned as earning too much for benefits but too little for comfort. I guess everyone is squeezed apart from the top earners, several of whom were sat opposite me today. With everything going up, including the charges the council itself makes for car parks, leisure centres, rent etc,  it was all about quality of life and to up the council tax on top of all that was unreasonable. Plaid had come up with a reasonable method of funding this which included the further use of reserves (eg £1m from the £9.1m 'insurance fund') but that was dismissed by the Resources Chief as the reserves were predicted to become dangerously low over the next three years anyway
Other sources of funding included a hope that Cwm Environmental may eventually return a dividend to it's one and only shareholder, the council. This was greeted by nothing more than a few giggles. Why, someone else asked was the Welsh Assembly 'Outcome Agreement' (extra money for reaching an assortment of 'targets') used by other councils for their revenue budgets but here in Carmarthenshire it went straight into capital projects and possible extra white elephants, couldn't a couple of hundred grand not come out of that? Peter Hughes Griffiths, the Plaid Leader remarked that Menter Iaith, whose funding had been cut by 10% at a time when a new report estimated that the Welsh language was losing 3000 speakers a year, he pointed out that the Council were supposed to be committed to the Welsh language, how had they managed to have just found £20,000 for the Scarlets and extra £15,000 for the Botanic Gardens etc? We could also mention a few other things here such as the evangelical bowling alley...

Deputy Leader Cllr Madge (Lab) then rose to his feet and told Plaid they were living on hope, who know what might happen? What if there was another war? he said. They were clearly mad, Labour and the Independent Tories were great, look at all the wonderful things they'd done...the envy of the world blah blah.. you get the drift.

At this point I noticed that one councillor sitting quite close to the front, for all to see, (I'll not name him but there were witnesses and he knows who he is) was sound asleep, not just nodding off, but semi-recumbent on the seat. Filming meetings?......where's my camera.....at that point I was wondering whether anyone was going to wake him up for the vote....

Cllr Caiach was then allowed to speak, she supported Plaid's amendment and added that it was the small cuts to organisations such as Breakthro' Llanelli for disabled adults and kids which were suffering (there's a whole lot more in the documents - Item 5.1 and reports).
It wasn't a debate about this sort of awkward detail though, you've no hope of a good headline then have you?...

The general gist of the Plaid Cymru amendment was - the residents of Carmarthenshire are getting screwed enough, why screw them further?

Cllr Pam Palmer rose angrily to her feet called Plaid foolhardy and (to paraphrase) 'unco-operative'. She then glared in the general direction of the labour bench and blasted Peter Hain MP (Lab) (he wasn't actually there) for calling all the independent Coucillors 'Closet Tories' - 'I am certainly not a Tory', she said, with her best Margaret Thatcher tone...nor was she, she said, 'past her sell by date' - I am not sure who had had the audacity to say such a thing....perhaps it was Peter Hain being specific about Cllr Palmer...perhaps she should have been a bit clearer....she ended her little tirade quoting 'Old Mother Hubbard' (I think as a metaphorical warning rather than self-reflection...)

The Resources director put the amendment to death by dazzling everyone with figures, the 'council had not met it's efficiency targets for last year yet, never mind this year', he issued forth with further percentages and weird accountant talk, which, for all anyone knew, was complete b******s. It appeared that any hope of further dipping into the reserves had been dashed as Meryl had beaten Plaid to it with the vote winning move earlier last month. The early bird...as they say.

As the time came for the vote on the amendment, as usual, Chairman Cllr Ivor Jackson became thoroughly confused, and so the Chief Executive came to the rescue and explained, as if to small children, how to vote. The vote was recorded and the amendment was lost by 37 vote to 27.

I expect we can all look forward to a glowing prediction for the future in the next edition of the council rag - as long as you vote for Meryl and co that is....

Carmarthenshire Council 2012

Next came a report on  'Creating Quality homes and Healthy Communities'. Executive Board Member Huw Evans gave a retiring speech as he's stepping down in May. Concerns were raised about the lack of social housing with 7500 on the waiting list, Meryl  interjected and said, mysteriously, that she'd had an 'influential' meeting with Edwina Hart AM  with her 'new ideas' for social housing...tents...shanty towns perhaps? We were all left wondering. A Plaid councillor wondered why energy efficiency targets in council homes were stated as 100% when only 8607 out of 9072 had been complete - apparently it was not misleading as they were unable, for structural reasons to adapt 400 of them.
Further tributes followed with Cllr Madge again on his feet saying how lovely all the housing estates were with lots of flowers....er....er....bit like Pobl y Cwm (popular Welsh soap opera)...he went on briefly about polytunnels then ran out of steam. Anthony Jones (Lab) proceeded to give a party political speech but he was soon rumbled and sat down.

Lastly was the Local Development Plan. the Head of Planning's moment. It was all going to plan, he said...yes they had quite a lot of extra work to do, it was a bit behind schedule (or, in jargon; 'revisiting the Delivery Agreement')...more on the Welsh language, more on flooding...but now it was time for the next 'consultation' for all the 'alternative sites' put forward at the last consultation. Someone asked him to explain this disjointed sentence from the bottom of the report; "LDP this report seeks authority to produce and adopt 6" (there was no '6' in the report) The response was not clear, something about looking again at six areas of special guidance and adding another one, Welsh language making it seven. I think. No one was sure.
Not placated about the special reference to Welsh, the Plaid opposition re-iterated the call among many Welsh councils that the LDPs should be postponed until more up to date (and I have to say, more realistic) population figures could be obtained. John Edwards wondered why this process, seemingly without-end, costing £1000's, still failed to deliver homes that ordinary people could afford....what was the point?
On that rather awkward note, the Head of Planning swept aside all criticism and blamed everything on the Welsh Government for bringing out endless guidance, and he added a warning that if the new LDP was not 'adopted' by 2016 there would be no 'plan' and they won't be able to process planning applications at all . I'm not sure that would be a bad thing......

The unlawful undertaking; I had to have permission from the Democratic Services Manager to have a blank copy

With my earlier reference to the Council rag, the Carmarthenshire News (no mention today of this colossal waste of money - see many previous posts), Y Cneifiwr has written an interesting post relating to this and other things here; Freedom of the Press and Carmarthenshire County Council


Cneifiwr said...

Thank you for keeping us all informed.

The Big Brother entry procedures, the refusal to give members of the public copies of the agenda, the near-empty public gallery for an important meeting held at a time when most members of the public cannot attend and a sleeping councillor neatly sum up this council's attitude to the public.

Anonymous said...

the picture can't be 2012 council, in fact can it actually be Carmarthen? They all look too young and they are all awake.

Anonymous said...

Great post - good read - really funny!
And re the presentation of the budget? Well, "Bullshit Baffles Brains" as my late mother - God rest 'er soul - used to say.