Wednesday 28 March 2012

I'm a Candidate!

I am now officially an independent candidate for the County Council elections on May 3rd! I handed in my nomination papers this morning at County Hall, they were validated and signed off by the Returning Officer. The Notice of Election was published yesterday and the deadline for handing in nominations is noon on the 4th April, the full list of candidates will be published on or before the 10th April. I will then know who I'm up against.

Monday 26 March 2012

AM requests Sainsburys application call-in

A call-in request has been made to the Welsh Government concerning the proposed Sainsbury store in Llandeilo by William Powell, Lib Dem Assembly Member for Mid and West Wales. As I said in this post, this application is due to be considered by Carmarthenshire Council Planning Committee meeting on Thursday (29th March);

(I have copied the text here for clarity)
E/25041: Proposed Sainsbury Store at Llandeilo – Call in request

     Following an extensive planning period Carmarthenshire County Council will consider the above application on Thursday 29th March, 2012. Since the plans were originally made public it is clear that the case being presented has changed substantially, and as such the development’s numerous objectors have only been given three working days to consider their response and how the proposal will impact the local area. This is unacceptable and I am formally requesting the calling in of the application by your office, in order for it to be given the full oversight and consideration it requires.
     As the Carmarthenshire County Council Planning Committee Report makes clear, the current proposals represent a significant departure from planning guidance E7 and R7 and in doing so clearly states that “the proposal would conflict with development plan policy in respect [to] loss of employment land and the site’s position relative to the town centre.”
     While this conflict, and the lack of time made available for public exploration of the amended application, should be enough to justify a call in alone; I am also deeply concerned about the cumulative retail impact of related proposals to the sounding area. The Llandeilo proposal must be considered in tandem with further proposed Sainsbury’s superstores in Ammanford and Cross Hands. Given the perilous condition of rural market towns across Wales it is essential that any and all applications be considered with respect to the need to sustain small businesses and the health and viability of town centres. As such wider questions must be asked about the regional impact of these cumulative proposals and whether the damage done to, and jobs lost from small businesses as a result, outweighs the potential benefits of periphery development E/25041.

     Furthermore, the lack of time afforded to existing and other potential objectors has not allowed sufficient resources to be devoted to a full and comprehensive environmental assessment of how the amended proposal impacts on the surrounding Afon Tywi flood-plain. It is clear that any developments on such plains must benefit from a full and proper analysis, and that the Carmarthenshire County Council Planning Committee Report highlights the fact that the proposal is yet to receive a formal response from the Countryside Council for Wales. It is of principal importance that development decisions be taken with full respect given to their potential impact on biodiversity and the wider ecological impact upon the surrounding environment. It is clear that this has yet to fully occur in this case.
     Taken together it is clear that further work needs to be done to ensure that the people of Llandeilo get the best possible solution for their needs. While it is apparent that Carmarthenshire County Council is minded to accept the current proposal, I argue the necessity for calling in so that time is allowed for critics to fully respond, and that a complete picture is gained of how to best benefit the area.

William Powell AM

John Griffiths AM
Kirsty Williams AM
Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM
Jonathan Edwards MP

Update 29th March; I hear that both the Llandeilo and the Cross Hands stores were approved by the planning committee today.
I also understand that the application for Llandeilo may be referred to the Welsh Assembly anyway as it is a departure from policy (E7 and R7) and comes under the criteria of the 'Shopping Directive' for retail developments and so must be referred.

Y Cneifiwr - on the Delyth Jenkins case

A must read post on the Delyth Jenkins case from Y Cneifiwr;

"...Whereas the council could have co-operated with the BBC, apologised for what happened in Johnstown, explained what measures it has taken to ensure there is no repetition and gone out of it's way to reassure the public, it acted instead like a dodgy builder, effectively shouting abuse at the camera before speeding off in a white van, door slamming shut..."

Please read the full post here;

Abuse of adults in Council Care - what has the Council learned?

(previous posts include;

update 27th March; another post from Y Cneifiwr; Abuse of vulnerable adults and "erroneous" press reports 

Sunday 25 March 2012

'Draft Code of Corporate Governance' and it's not even April 1st yet

The Council's Audit Committee is meeting next week, it's been six months since the last meeting so there should be plenty to scrutinize although, as it's not a scrutiny committee it's doubtful. The agenda doesn't look very inspiring so we can just hope that some of the more controversial spending decisions, such as the Towy Community Church, and others, are questioned and will pop up in the minutes. (I am still waiting for a response from the Wales Audit Office to my complaint about the council's involvement with the Towy Church, see previous posts)

Under the 2011 Local Government Measure the Audit Committee now has responsibility to approve a 'Draft Code of Corporate Governance' which appears on the agenda. Up until now, the annual monitoring of whether the council is behaving itself and has been meeting the aspirations of the public and staff has been within the remit of the Leader and the Chief Executive.
There are of course multiple codes and protocols which, often required by legislation or guidance, are supposed to provide a system of standards under which a council operates, the trouble with such lists of churned out promises is, that without adequate avenues for complaint, redress or any accountability whatsoever, questioning the outcome is difficult.
As we also know, these codes are merely jargon filled paper exercises, enabling the Authority to tick the relevant boxes whilst an entirely different situation occurs in the real and bizarre world of Carmarthenshire Council.

Although it seems someone is having a laugh, as the meeting is not scheduled for April 1st we must assume it is to be taken seriously;

"The Council sees Corporate Governance as “doing the right things, in the right way, for the right people in a timely, inclusive, open, honest and accountable manner

Promoting values for the authority and demonstrating the values of good governance through upholding high standards of conduct and behaviour...ensure that members and officers exercise leadership by behaving in ways that exemplify high standards of conduct and effective governance...requiring the authority’s leadership to set a tone for the organisation by creating a climate of openness, support and respect..

taking informed and transparent decisions....

...use its legal powers to the full benefit of the citizens and communities in their areas...actively recognising the limits of lawful activity due to, for example, the ultra vires doctrine...recognising the limits of lawful action and observing both the specific requirements of legislation and the general responsibilities placed on authorities by public law....

engaging with local people and other stakeholders to ensure robust public accountability....

...exercise leadership through a robust scrutiny function which effectively engages local people and all local institutional stakeholders, including partnerships, and develops constructive accountability relationships considering those institutional stakeholders to whom the authority is accountable....

holding meetings in public unless there are good reasons for confidentiality....

ensuring that the authority as a whole is open and accessible to the community, service users and our staff, and that it has made a commitment to openness and transparency in all its dealings, including partnerships..."

We will endeavour that this document will be accepted, stamped, approved blah blah and then popped in a drawer to gather dust in County Hall for all eternity. (I have added this bit)

Kerching for Sainsburys!

Sainsburys look likely to make out like bandits at next week's Planning Committee meeting with two supermarkets recommended for approval, one at Cross Hands (as part of a council led 'mixed-use' project) and the other, of course, less than ten miles away, in the small market town of Llandeilo. A third application for an even larger store submitted by TRJ Ltd (and without a named retailer but with 'indicative plans based on a Morrisons design') in Ammanford is recommended for refusal.

Opinions are divided on the Llandeilo Sainsburys with, as you can imagine, local traders up in arms but local shoppers welcoming an alternative to the smaller, expensive Co-op stores currently in the locality, personally I don't feel strongly either way. What interests me is the process. Yet again our old consultant friends Atkins and Nathaniel Lichfield Partnership have done well out of the schemes with NLP acting as 'independent' advisors to the Council - these consultancies, including White Young Green Plc pop up all over the UK as either advisers to councils, or the usual giant retailers/developers, depending on which of their particular hats they are wearing.

The figures are odd to say the least with the prediction that both Llandovery and Llandeilo town centres will only suffer a 3% loss in trade and it will be supermarkets from further afield which lose out, this is clearly a tried and tested  ploy. In reality, I imagine that nearly everyone in this large rural area will flock to Sainsburys for food, petrol and whatever else they will sell. Part of the agreement is for them to provide a shuttle bus, via the train station, between the town centre and the store, which far from ensuring a thriving town centre and 'reducing congestion', will more than likely just shuttle everyone to Sainsburys. The store will also provide a base for online order deliveries further reducing anyone's need to visit the local greengrocer. And, of course, all the money spent in the store will go straight out of Wales.

I see the planning officer's report begins "taken literally, the proposal would conflict with development plan policy" (the site is supposed to be for employment rather than retail, and it is 'out of town') and then there's the 'but', and with careful interpretation of policy and figures the scheme is perfectly acceptable even to the statement that an enormous grey steel clad shed will 'not have an unacceptable impact on the surrounding rural landscape'. Another argument put forward by NLP is that as Sainsburys do not currently have a foothold in Carmarthenshire it's about time they did (or in so many words).

I would imagine that refusing the scheme will not be an option for the planning committee as they will be warned that Sainsburys will have plenty of cash ready to fight an appeal and will be armed with a favourable officer report and, as usual, objectors will be deemed as 'standing in the way of progress'. Whether or not the Llandeilo store will be popular with shoppers is not a material planning consideration and if the recommendation for approval is based on questionable figures then the committee have a duty to look further than the end of their noses.

They may also remember that this site was one selected by Atkins as suitable for the new superschool to replace Pantycelyn and Tregib, and then, for various reasons, it wasn't, as the council wanted the Ffairfach site. The reasons it was deemed unsuitable were;
1)  Green field site
2)  Poor connectivity
3)  Cost of bridge over A40
4)  Increase in bus and private vehicle travel
5)  High noise level from A40
6)  Puts infrastructure constraints on the site
7)  Detrimental impact on visual amenity
8)  Significant adverse ecological impacts
9)  High visibility from road
10) Lack of pedestrian links to the site

Clearly, as I predicted, it's all a bit different for Mr Sainsbury.

The reports and documents associated with the three applications are extensive and cover many issues which I do not have either the room nor the inclination to cover here, but for those of you interested in the contentious nature of supermarket planning applications it will be an interesting read.
(Llandeilo; Cross Hands; Ammanford)

Thursday 22 March 2012

Taro 9 - Delyth Jenkins and Carmarthenshire Council

Further to my post Well done Delyth Jenkins, and as promised, here's a link to Tuesday's broadcast of Taro 9 on BBC iPlayer, English subtitles are available.

It lasts about half an hour, if you've got time, please watch it. 

Update 23rd March; Thanks to @hyweltedwards on Twitter I am now aware of a current consultation by the Welsh Government which ends on the 30th May 2012;

'Making things better - Review of Social Services complaints - we are asking whether the existing complaints processes should be updated or amended to meet the needs of service users'
Link here

Pity they've used the phrase 'service users' but the more that respond the more likely something will be done. Worth a try anyhow. As for Carmarthenshire Council, it's going to take a bit more than a Welsh Government consultation to sort that lot out, a Public Inquiry would be a start.

Toilet Awards...

I am sure that, in desperation for some good news, Carmarthenshire Council will be flushed with pride to announce their recent success at the Loo of the Year Awards 2012. Nothing wrong with a clean loo I hear you say, and I couldn't agree more. Except these are not council toilets exactly but are supplied and maintained by a private company Danfo under contract with the council. Good for Danfo anyway. Of course it would be impossible to judge council toilets as they have been busy either closing or trying to offload them on to community councils, or anyone who will have them really. Tourists beware. (and sorry about the puns)

Today, the council's website quotes a delighted Director of Technical Services, fresh from the 2012 Awards;

These awards encourage the highest possible standards in all types of public toilets. This is the sixth year running we have been recognised in the Loo of the Year Awards which shows that not only is Danfo providing high quality facilities but maintaining them to extremely high standards.”
(Council website 22nd March 2012)

He must have a good memory because he said something remarkably similar in 2010;

(Council website 31st November 2010)

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Advice for voters...

Interesting letter in this week's Carmarthen Journal which highlights the problems of standing as an independent candidate in the forthcoming Council elections here in Carmarthenshire.  The true meaning of the word has been twisted into a complete joke by the ruling regime in County Hall who have voted, nearly always, as a tight group at the Leader's bidding and secondary as independent representative of the interests of their ward. This time there are a few real independents, such as myself, who wish to distance themselves from the Group and give the residents a real voice for once.
The Electoral Commission does not allow candidates who are not aligned to a party to put anything other than the single word 'independent' on the ballot paper so caution is advised and before you tick the box, make sure you are voting for someone who will stand up for you and your area with absolute sincerity and will not be part of the current administration.

Here's the letter;

ELECTIONS to Carmarthenshire Council will take place on May 3. I would like to draw attention to the confusion that can be caused by the use of the word 'Independent' when candidates are seeking election and after they are elected.
'Independent' pertaining to a politician means "not committed to any party", according to my Chambers dictionary.
In the past I have voted for 'Independent' candidates in the belief that, once elected, they would be free to represent their communities actively and without the constraints of having to toe a party line.
This is not necessarily the case in Carmarthenshire because the Independents have formed a group, a small party in everything but name.
I wonder if Independent councillors should change their label?
We as voters need to know that candidates are describing themselves accurately, especially as it is difficult for the public to follow the process of policy making.
Council meetings are in the daytime when many voters are at work, and interested members of the public are, in any case, discouraged from attending because of the humiliating 'good behaviour' undertakings that everyone must sign.
Given the prohibition on recording the council's meetings, and the abbreviated nature of the published minutes, the fact that 'Independent' councillors are members of a group may not be entirely obvious to every voter.
Yours, etc

In the summer before the last election in 2008 it was decided as a pilot project to give each councillor £5000 to spend on worthy causes in their ward. Not a bad idea in itself of course. Naturally, it could not be used for political purposes. However, as the 2008 election approached the local papers became liberally peppered with photos of beaming councillors (of the ruling Ind/Lab coalition) pointing to playgrounds etc and giant cheques; as far as I am aware the 'pilot' has not been repeated since then.

This time round I am beginning to wonder whether a rather more subtle approach is being taken. All of a sudden, long awaited for action is being taken to complete various small schemes, for example, locally, crash barriers have been installed after four years of waiting and in Ammanford we have already been treated several times to the not-so-subtle grins of one councillor as a row of dilapidated houses were demolished. I don't think anyone is unhappy at the demolition but, after twenty odd years of nothing being achieved, the pre-election timing says it all.
With even less subtlety, the story repeats itself this week and the smiling Kevin is joined by his boss, Leader Meryl Gravell who has, amazingly, launched herself into this little story for no apparent reason other than photo opportunity.

(via South Wales Guardian)
Kevin, Meryl and the rabble rubble

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Well done Delyth Jenkins

I hope as many people as possible watched Taro 9 this evening on S4C. It told the shocking story of the abuse of a vulnerable lady at a Day Centre run by Carmarthenshire Council and the supreme efforts of Delyth Jenkins to expose it, despite the best attempts by Carmarthenshire Council to cover it up. I use that phrase very cautiously but, after speaking to Delyth over the past couple of years, and taking into account the ombudsman's report, there are no other words to describe it. During the filming of the programme permission was sought from the Council run Day Centre to film outside the premises. On their arrival (Delyth and a couple of film crew) a police car also turned up and parked around the corner for the duration. She doesn't like the term whistleblower, she sees it as a duty of care to those who can't speak for themselves and she is a very brave lady.

I have mentioned this case a few times over the years and I am pleased that it has now had some media exposure, including a piece in Private Eye a couple of weeks ago. These cases need public exposure as the 'proper procedures' of complaint are deeply skewed within a culture of bullying, intimidation and the labelling of whistleblowers as obsessive troublemakers. I was contacted by a County Councillor today who said he was unaware of this report until six months ago (it was published late in 2009) and was angry that this had been minimalised to such a degree that those councillors that actually cared had been powerless to try and bring anyone to account over it themselves. Delyth stated in the programme that she went to see the Chief Executive after the damning ombudsman report was published; he was angry, she said, and told her to 'back off'.
The Ombudsman, Compassion in Care and Delyth believe there should be a full public inquiry over this case led by the Welsh Government so that lessons can be learned for the future safety of vulnerable adults. It should come as no surprise that both the Council's Director of Social Care, Bruce McLernon and the Chief Executive refused to speak to the programme, and, what is more, neither would the Welsh Government. The latter yet again refusing to intervene or criticise Carmarthenshire Council.
The Council issued a statement saying that things had improved and safeguards were in place; the fact that the person responsible for the abuse is still employed by the council (in an administrative position) tells me that little has changed. I have also recently been contacted by another whistleblower from a seperate Carmarthenshire council run centre who's story seems very much to mirror Delyth's.
Is this the tip of the iceberg? I hope not.

I understand the Ombudsman has quite a collection of complaints concerning Carmarthenshire County Council in his in-tray, covering numerous departments, and has done for sometime. This can't go on.

I believe the programme will be archived for a few weeks, when it is I will post a link, it's well worth watching and should have English subtitles.
update 22nd March; S4C tell me they are having 'technical' difficulties' archiving the programme. I will post a link as soon as they have the problem sorted out.

update 22nd March; It's on iPlayer here;
or follow the link here;

Sunday 18 March 2012

Jargon overload

When I noticed that last week's Executive Board were discussing a draft "overarching tripartite compact agreement", I sensed a council jargon overload. So I took a closer look and not only was I correct but the non-legally binding 'compact' itself seems entirely pointless. Incidentally, I stumbled upon on an site dedicated to detecting council b******t, based on the 2009 LGA 'banned word list', it even has a 'top ten' and Carmarthenshire is a proud number four in the hit parade. There is also a handy search box where you can enter the address of a particularly suspect council web page and the result are displayed accordingly, this particular report scored 52.
The 'compact' is supposed to be an agreement between Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire councils, the health board and voluntary ('third sector') groups to encourage better co-operation. It contains such pearls as "This compact is the overarching compact for the region, local county wide compacts supported by locally developed codes of practice will sit under this overarching compact and will be signed by Hywel Dda and the relevant CVC and Local authority. This compact subscribes to the principles of the national compact and demonstrates the commitment to nurture and develop existing relationships. It also seeks to build upon existing community strategies blah blah..." Dear me. To help matters along, and just in case anyone in these organisations has forgotten to use a phone, the compact aims to "Agree communication protocol for effective communication between partners" and if it all goes horribly wrong and everyone falls out the agreement even comes with it's self-tailored handy guide to dispute resolution.
I am not suggesting of course that collaboration in areas such as this is not useful and I would hope par for the course anyway. I would question though whether the current fad of compacts, pacts, memoranda, partnerships, service boards et al  is actually delivering a better service for those on the (eventual) receiving end (or to give them their proper titles; service users or stakeholders) or does that bit get lost amongst the myriad of Panels and Boards? Co-operation should be a matter of common sense and not subject to a whole raft of unaccountable levels of officials and terminal council-speak like this.

On the subject of twaddle I see that the council press office has been busy on the council website. Sadly there's still no prominent mention of the upcoming election, and the broken links and unsearchable searchboxes still abound and 'updating' seems solely confined to the 'media'section. so, unsurprisingly given the skewed priorities of this council, the page featuring the online version of the council pravda, the Community News, has undergone a sophisticated revamp...let's hope there is something of a revamp after the May election and the rag can be ditched for good.


The story of  Carmarthenshire whistleblower, Delyth Jenkins, recently featured in Private Eye (blogpost here) will be told in Taro 9, the S4C current affairs programme on Tuesday (20th) at 9pm, with English subtitles - don't miss it.

Earlier posts here;

Update 20th March; Delyth's story features in BBC Wales online today; Carmarthenshire Inquiry call over Delyth Jenkins' complaints


....And for more news from Carmarthenshire, don't forget to check out Cneifiwr's blog.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Caebrwyn's blog, three years old today

Today happens to be the third birthday of this blog. It would have been great to be able to say that things had improved and the council had developed into a public body which understood democratic debate and embraced criticism and opposition with tact, understanding and due process, then again, pigs might sprout wings.

Today's Carmarthen Journal reports on the council's reaction to the unsuccessful appeal made by the campaigners trying to save Pantycelyn School, Llandovery. Putting the specific issue of the school closure to one side, the council follows the same old pattern with which we have become so familiar, divide and conquer; giving the impression that opponents/campaigners are a small, troublesome minority, acting against the wishes of the residents; costing the taxpayer money; disingenuous; misguided etc etc - not that they could possibly have a damn good point and, as taxpayers, already fund exorbitant senior salaries, excessive Executive Board allowances and numerous council vanity projects. I despair. The article, which can be seen in full here, has a quote from the Chief Executive who mentions the 'costs';
"The judge has thrown it all out......It's cost us money so far but we will be pursuing costs. I'm fairly hopeful that we are going to get the costs. If it goes further it could potentially get very expensive and we would be pursuing our costs."
and the soon to be ex-Executive Board Member Cllr Scourfield who neither represents the area nor has any responsibility for education decided to attack the mentality of an entire swathe of Carmarthenshire;
"People have the right to appeal, but I would have thought that the people in the north east of the county would have some common sense".

I beg your pardon Mr Scourfield? Do you mean that everyone who opposes council plans lacks common sense? Or is it just those in north east Carmarthenshire who have a screw loose? Fortunately he is taking the very sensible step of not seeking re-election in May.

Someone who is seeking re-election I believe, is the Leader, Meryl Gravell who has managed to dig up a long since shelved plan for a multi-million pound leisure complex for Llanelli, and present it as 'news'. Hopefully this is just a bit of innocent electioneering and not a serious attempt to add to the council's ever-burgeoning (and taxpayer burdening) herd of white elephants. No wonder the commenters are sceptical.


Readers of the Carmarthen Journal letters page may have been a bit puzzled today, they may have been expecting a few responses to last week's letter from the Council Chief Executive, Cneifiwr explores the possible reasons for the curious silence here.

Tuesday 13 March 2012


and reply;

Petitions Closed

With a slightly different set of attendees, and with Joyce Watson AM (Labour) in the Chair, the Senedd Petitions Committee closed my two petitions this morning. To be fair, over the past few months they have been given a good airing and I didn't really expect much more discussion. As for webcasting meetings, the committee agreed with Carl Sargeant's views to 'encourage' rather than 'require' councils to do this. It would be considered too 'dictatorial' to insist - 'dictatorial' being a word Carmarthenshire Council should be able to relate to. As with the spending petition it seems to be a matter of cost which is understandable but I am not sure I agree with the Chair that in order to comply with the release of spending details councils would have to employ 'inordinate numbers of people', I don't believe this was necessary in Monmouthshire. The conclusion was reached that Freedom of Information requests met transparency requirements sufficiently. 
There was no mention of the freedom for members of the public to film or record meetings but I am assuming that Carl Sargeant's statement of 'encouragement' is the best I'm going to get from the Welsh Assembly and as the cost is nil I assume the door is now open... (2 minutes 50 seconds into the recording)

Good value for money is something we all wish to see from Councils, whether or not it's spent in the right places and they've got their priorities right, this was the basis for the petitions. With the reluctance of the Welsh Government to intervene, local authorities will have to decide how transparent they wish to be, and after the election in May, I hope such matters remain on the agenda.
When it comes to poor priorities Carmarthenshire is in a league of it's own, here's one example; the minutes for the council budget meeting (21st February) were finally published yesterday afternoon, three weeks after the event. During that time the council's press spin team (which must employ 'inordinate numbers of people') published an astonishing twenty three 'articles' on the council website since 1st March alone, the figures for February have, due to it being a remarkably useless website, disappeared.
I rest my case.

Carmarthenshire Council would rather you saw Executive Members beaming at a liposuction machine than where your money is being spent. (from Media Section, CCC website)

Sunday 11 March 2012

Pantycelyn Update.....and other news

Further to this post; Pantycelyn School - The Last Stand, I understand that Thursday's oral hearing for permission for a Judicial Review to save the school from closure was unsuccessful. However, without going into the legal arguments, it appears that the campaigners may have a good case to take to the Court of Appeal - I hope they do. They will be considering their position over the next week or so.
I am surprised that even with an election fast approaching, Cllrs Ivor Jackson and Tom Theophilus have still not publicly voiced any strong opposition to the closure of the school which is of course at the very heart of the community they hope to represent. Primary Schools are closing at a rate of knots and, in this area, it looks like Llansadwrn and Llanwrda Schools will be next on the list - and I can guarantee I will put up damn sight more resistance than the current incumbents, whether I'm elected or not. In fact, on reflection, my cat could have put up a better fight.

I am pleased to see that Cllr Steve Lloyd-Janes has stated his support for recording council meetings on his blog ('Sleeping councillors and electioneering tactics', you have to scroll down a little) but I notice he has gone for the decidedly less transparent 'audio' rather than 'visual' format, but that's probably understandable given the, er, background to his comments....(and he still hasn't accepted my follow request on Twitter...ah, correction at 6.30pm, he has)

My 'filming' and 'spending' petitions are back before the Senedd Petitions Committee on Tuesday morning for what must be the last time, the agenda for the full meeting can be seen here. The transcript from the last meeting where the Minister for Local Government discussed the issues can be read here (PDF document). I do not wish to pre-empt anything but I think it is unlikely that councils will be formally required to webcast meetings and the choice will be up to individual authorities but a statutory requirement to allow members of the public to film and record would not be beyond the realms of possibility - costs would be nil and I can assure councils they would not be acting beyond their powers by welcoming such a move, after all, as we have seen in Carmarthenshire, there are no rules against filming anyway...

On the subject of transparency, as I have mentioned (Little Boxes), my request for the details of senior officers' expenses was refused on costs grounds and the 'internal review' was unsuccessful (as they always are), the full correspondence can be seen here. I have now appealed to the Information Commissioner.
An interesting post from a couple of week's ago on a journalist's blog, (David Higgerson - FOI - when MPs have to use the Act, there's clearly something wrong) rang a few bells here in Carmarthenshire where I have heard of similar problems. I have now asked the council for some figures and await their response.

Update; I had a response to my 'MP requests' FoI request, which can be seen in full here;
For once the response was early. As for the stats; 50 requests were attributed to 'Assembly Member', 29 to 'Member of Parliament' and 5 to 'town/county councillor'

I had cause the other day to drop a letter into my local police station in Llandovery, I ensured it was secured in an envelope to drop through the letter box as, due to the stretched resources of Dyfed Powys Police, attendence in Llandovery is meagre to say the least. Consider my surprise as I popped round to the back door to find several cars and what appeared to be half of the entire force - the purpose of this concentration of the law soon dawned as I realise my visit had coincided with the arrival of Prince Charles, who'd dropped into the town to visit his Welsh 'seat'.
I should think that just about takes care of the 5% increase from the taxpayer on the police precept.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

The Final Countdown

Back to County Hall again this morning for the last full council meeting before the election on May 3rd. After  having given names and addresses etc and promised not to film on pain of death, three members of the public (including me) were escorted by two staff to the Public Gallery. It was rather subdued as between 10 and 15 councillors were absent (I lost count), I think several had gone to the Senedd to deliver a petition to try and preserve emergency A & E services at Prince Phillip Hospital, Llanelli (I wish them luck - you may remember the last peacful demonstration).
The Chair, Ivor Jackson reminded everyone of his forthcoming charity Curry Night in Llanelli, (I am not sure if this was a demotion from the equally forthcoming and grander Mayor's Ball which was under threat due to lack of interest) still, perhaps 'anyone for a curry?' may prove more successful for Ivor.

Cllr Caiach then attempted to raise the matter of the Executive Board minutes from the 23rd January  which had been whizzed through with no questions allowed, at the last meeting. She felt that many members wished to ask some questions about this, and I would like to add, there have been several letters to the local papers expressing concerns - but, it was not to be, as if he'd been poked with a sharp stick from someone sitting close by, Cllr Jackson immediately (and loudly) demanded no more be said as it had been dealt with at the last meeting, Cllr Caiach tried to appeal to his discretionary right as Chair and his better nature but neither quality was apparent today.

The next three items were passed in the blink of an eye; setting the Council tax, a 12 month extension to the Severance scheme and the 'Localism Bill'. The latter was a reference to the pay policy statement to be issued by the end of March, dealing mainly with Chief Officer pay, which has been frozen at it's satisfactorily large figure for a couple of years, although I notice that expenses have increased. Quite how the full council will approve this statement as it will not meet again until May is a mystery.

Next up was the 'Cumulative Impact Policy' for Station Road, Llanelli. This was in response to a high level of alcohol related anti-social behaviour in the area. In a nutshell, an extra process to be gone through before further licenses are issued in the area. Nobody disagreed with the importance of trying to limit the sale of alcohol to prevent bad behaviour (in the street, not the Chamber) and many lengthy speeches were made about the evils of the demon drink with one or two interests declared from the various licensees in the Chamber, including the Executive Board Member for planning, Cllr Scourfield who remembered the days when alcohol could only be bought in the pub or the chemist - I'm not sure what type of alcohol he used to but at the chemist mind you. Everyone, quite rightly agreed that alcoholic excess was a problem, Cllr Madge, never missing the opportunity to have his say, reminisced about his past drinking habits at the 'Top Rank' and how times had changed. One issue of concern was the selling of cheap booze by the numerous large supermarkets which now sprawl across Carmarthenshire, thanks to the council. Anyway they decided to write to the Welsh Government to express their concerns. That'll have an effect then.

The next item, the licensing of venues providing sexual entertainment caused the smirks and giggles usually reserved for the school assembly, Clr Caiach asked how many such venues were in Carmarthenshire - none apparently. Perhaps this untapped market could be an opportunity for an enterprising ex-councillor or two after the May election?

The 'Strategic Equality Plan - Evidence Report and Engagement Reports' was next, a lengthy document (can be seen an the agenda) Cllr Caiach made the point that children from gypsy families continued to suffer discrimination in schools from their fellow classmates and while the curriculum dealt briefly with the history and issues relating to other ethnic minorities, the lack of education about the history of the Romany and gypsy tradition led to children inheriting the prejudices of their parents. This was lost on the 'Children's Champion' Cllr Gwynne Wooldridge who missed the wider point and defended the council and insisted that gypsy children had been fully integrated in a 'special unit' - well integrated then. Cllr Caiach also mentioned the fact that, faced with the usual row of 'suits' on the council podium, there were very few women in senior positions in the council. Meryl rose to the challenge to insist that women had every opportunity to climb the council career ladder - yes it looks like it!

The last item due for rubber stamping was the Supplementary Planning Guidance for the Carmarthen West Development Brief. (search for previous posts). Cllr Arthur Davies questioned whether sufficient consultation had been carried out as nearly everyone he had spoken to was against this enormous proposal which would almost double the size of Carmarthen he also requested a recorded vote, other raised concerns over flooding issues, lack of infrastructure, traffic problems etc. The Head of Planning was ready though and deflected all this with a complicated speech about the UDP, the LDP and SPG's all which seemed to overlap and extend into the distant future and any blame for inaccurate population projections was laid squarely with the Welsh Government. The Chief Executive,  stated that SPG's such as this actually protected areas of Carmarthenshire from unscrupulous developers as 'we' were in control. Cllr Anthony Jones echoed the Chief's remarks and added that Carmarthenshire was beautiful and we had to protect it - funny then that he didn't make so much as a murmur when an opencast mine (92,000 tons) was approved in December in his ward despite enormous opposition. He didn't even request a site visit. There you go. Cllr Davies's request for a recorded vote was quietly ignored and it was passed with a few abstentions.

That was about it really. As this was the last meeting before the election the Chair used his discretion (unlike earlier) to add a few comments thanking everyone for their support especially the Chief Executive who had been invaluable prompting him throughout the year. He was also pleased that he, and they, had survived the year unscathed, he's clearly forgotten about the multiple appearances in Private Eye.

Oh, before I forget, I'm pleased to announce that, unlike the previous meeting, Cllr Steve Lloyd-Janes remained awake for the entire duration. To save his embarrassment, I had not named Mr Lloyd-Janes in my previous post but as he has gone to some lengths to name me twice in a letter to the local paper today, the gloves are off.

and, of course, Y Cneifiwr has given an excellent account of today's proceedings; Last Chance To See - March Meeting Part 1

Democracy was never a strong point...

Recent minutes of the Regeneration & Leisure Scrutiny Committee brought up a subject which some council officials would rather was forgotten. A couple of years ago the Council asked residents to vote for their favourite name for the new theatre being built in Llanelli from a shortlist of six. Votes were definitely invited as the article in the council rag at the time shows;

The new name was duly announced.
Shortly afterwards a FoI request revealed the embarrassing fact that the new name which was chosen had 37 votes less than the one which had recieved the highest number. I know democracy is not a strong point with this council but this was clearly ridiculous. But, true to form, instead of admitting failure, the Council tried to blather it's way out of the mess.

Here's how the Llanelli Star reported the story in April 2011;
"The council invited members of the public to express a preference from a shortlist of six names...
To quote a council press release at the time: "Wide ranging consultation was carried out to choose the name, and people were invited to vote for their favourite."
It was then announced that Y Ffwrnes/The Furnace was "the preferred choice", with the press release declaring, as reported in the Star: "The judging panel said the name was a clear favourite."
However a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the council has now shown that Canolfan y Stepni/The Stepney Centre received by far the most votes from members of the public, 88, compared with 51 for The Furnace.
John Tillman, the council's information and data protection officer, in responding to the FOI request appeared to try to point the finger at the Star saying: "The council did not commit to select the name with the highest level of public support.
"The wording in the Star, which refers to a judging panel, is therefore misleading, as there was no such panel selected for this process."
On being questioned over the apparent discrepancy, council spokeswoman Debbie Williams said: "There was extensive consultation with stakeholders and the public to suggest names for the new theatre and arts complex.
"From these suggestions the project team drew up a shortlist, which was then subject to further extensive consultation.
"The decision was not subject to a public vote, however the support given for each short listed suggestion was a consideration when the final name was chosen."
(Full story here)
Fast forward to the minutes of last month's meeting (Feb 2012) referred to at the start of this post, and;

Disappointment was expressed at the choice of the name, “Y Ffwrnes”, for the new theatre in Llanelli. It was asked if it could be changed to something that had a stronger historical link to the site. It was also felt that the public voice had been ignored in naming the theatre. The Head of Leisure & Sport said that the public had been asked for further suggestions and to comment on a short list of names. This process was never promoted as public vote.


Saturday 3 March 2012

Nothing to Declare?

As regular readers will be aware I am interested in issues around Codes of Conduct and Declarations of Interest. Of course, if declarations of financial or prejudicial interest are made by Councillors or Council officers at meetings these should be (and usually are) dutifully minuted, so as to remove any shadow of doubt in the minds of the public that any undue influence may have been exerted and therefore codes of conduct possibly breached. Whether or not certain interests are declared should be a matter of judgement, and the general principle that officers and councillors should consider when exercising that judgement is 'public perception'.

We can then conclude, if it is not in the minutes, then no declarations were made and the Councillor or officer was present when the discussion and decision concerning themselves took place. In fact the minutes of the particular meeting I am thinking of clearly state that 'no declarations of interest were made' and, as per usual, the minutes were signed as correct at the next meeting.

and if you were wondering which meeting I was thinking about, it was this one;

an afterthought;
The minutes for the Executive Board meeting (above) were then put forward to full council on the 8th February for approval and in case anyone wanted to raise any questions. As time was running out after the vote of no confidence, the remaining items, including this Executive Board report for the 23rd January, were rushed through with no questions or discussion allowed. Again, no one present declared an interest.

Awards...and council spin

Could help but notice our Council has won another 'award' (which I'm sure will look splendid alongside the one from Private Eye). This time it is for the 'new' Carmarthen Market (opened in April 2010). I am very much in favour of supporting the small, local businesses who rent the units I am sure they need all the positive publicity  they can get, particulary as they are in direct competition with the swathe of national retailers the Council decided to plonk in St Catherine's Walk right next door.

However, on closer inspection the awarding body is the 'Consortium of Local Authorities Wales', made up of, as you may imagine, local authorities, and the Vice-Chair of CLAW (nice acronym) is none other than our very own Cllr Ivor Jackson, currently Chair of the Council. The Council press release, which will no doubt appear in the local papers soon has an interesting, but 'uncharacteristic' quote (and photo of course) from Deputy Leader Kevin Madge - interesting because he doesn't appear to have actually said it, He states"The Market overcame considerable site, local community and logistical challenges to deliver an outstanding landmark building"  but a quick peek at the CLAW website shows a similarly effusive article which states exactly the same sentence; "...providing a new market hall, external shops and public space around the historic clock tower, the development has overcome considerable site, local community and logistical challenges to deliver an outstanding contemporary landmark building." Oh dear.

The Market itself is pleasant enough but awards such as this are merely slightly incestuous PR tools to promote Council 'image' and are not designed to help struggling market traders. The council budget, which was passed last week promises to continue the £60,000 three year 'efficiency' programme by 'Increased income from New Carmarthen market units' and include the loss of one member of staff.
In other words, the rent is going up - quite considerably I imagine, so let's hope these traders don't find themselves priced out of the shiny new market.