Thursday 28 June 2012

Settling back in the Shadows - Updated

Next week's Executive Board meeting will see the Council's Business Management Group re-formed under the 'new' administration (see In the shadows of County Hall). It will continues with the same old collection of party elite, but as usual there will be no place for any unaffiliated members (unless 'affiliated' to the Indie Group of course). This is the group which doesn't appear on the 'Decision Making Structure' of the council and doesn't publish an Agenda or Minutes. The only evidence you will see as to it's existence is when something appears on the Executive Board agenda 'as recommended by the Business Management Group' and duly rubber stamped. Led by the Chief Executive and one of his two Assistant Chief Executives, the remit is suitably vague as to be able to discuss and 'recommend' virtually any aspect of council business with very limited consultation. It's purpose is "To review and consider amendments to the Council's Constitution and other modernising issues and housekeeping matters" Perhaps the 'housekeeping matters' will include sending Pam Palmer out for twenty Bensons and a pint of milk whilst Mr James gets on with the ironing. Who can say.

Also suitably vague is the first post-election exempt report for the Executive Board, (no press or public will be allowed) the agenda lists it as 'Development at land at Trostre'. One can only speculate as to what this might be - another national retailer enjoying an attractive incentive to set up an out-of-town superstore? Another stadium? We won't know until the deal is done of course.

Update; Meeting cancelled due to lack of interest business
Caebrwyn has noticed that things are very quiet down in County Hall at the moment, well for months really. For all we know, maybe the corridors of power are echoing to the screams of internal dissent and political anarchy but somehow I doubt it. I was surprised to notice that the next meeting of full council listed for the 11th July had been cancelled, I wondered why, as the next one isn't until September (there's never one in August) and surely there were many important decisions which by now, required the attention of an elected body - out of interest I emailed 'Democratic Services', here's the reply;

"The meeting has been cancelled because of the lack of business to be transacted. This may be due to the fact that the Authority took some time to form it's Administration. Any business received in the meantime will be referred to the Council's September meeting"

It's a bit worrying that out of thirty-odd new councillors and an opposition who a month ago were bemoaning the lack of democracy, no one took the opportunity to bring forward a few issues for debate, I can think of quite a few and I'm sure their constituents can as well.  

Furnace School - Cllr Caiach writes to the paper

I see that planning permission was passed last week for the new Furnace Primary School in Llanelli. Cllr Sian Caiach's (and others) much publicised opposition to siting of the new building has been a constant irritant to the usual rubber stamp of self approval to council schemes senior officers are accustomed to. The objections, it seems, are not without good reason with access, traffic, and site stability issues being the most serious problems, and, without going in to enormous detail, the plans have already changed from a single storey sprawl to a three storey block with a 'roof garden' (not ideal for active five year olds I wouldn't have thought).

The planning committee declined to have a site visit, preferring instead a more rural spin into the countryside to visit the site of a single wind turbine and an agricultural dwelling (a cosy site visit to one of the latter being the usual precursor to approval), clearly the questionable siting of a new urban school to house 500 small children was not picturesque enough.

Cllr Caiach's concern was that there were far more suitable alternative sites and that the committee members, including the well paid Chair, would not have bothered to read the lengthy and technical environmental, hydrological and geological appraisals which accompanied the report. No Sian, I doubt if they did. Instead they relied on the Planning Officer's Summary which stated, for example "... there will be no land instability issues associated with the development " but taking a closer look at the Environmental Impact Assessment accompanying the report and we find there is a "change in ground levels causing potential instability to surrounding ground " and "The potential of ground instability due to the change in existing ground levels could have a major adverse affect on the surrounding area without the provision of suitable mitigation measures". It is probably possible, with modern methods, to build on virtually any type of land but it could double the cost. This doesn't seem to have been factored in.

With the fight to prevent the closure of Pantycelyn School, Llandovery, still rumbling away in the courts, a planning application for the new superschool on similarly watery unstable ground in Llandeilo has yet to be submitted. Displaced water will always find a new home somewhere and the local residents need to be certain it will not be in their living rooms.

Anyway back to Ffwrnes and Cllr Caiach put pen to paper and wrote to the Llanelli Star;

Dear Sir,
  As a local councillor, I was distressed that the county planning committee decided to pass the current  plans for the new Llanelli area primary school in Stradey to be built behind the homes at the upper part of Denham Avenue. They refused to see the site or visit to assess the transport problems, something which should have been the minimum amount of effort made. It is now clear that the centralised school built for 480 pupils is also expected to admit children not only from all over Llanelli but Burry Port also, with no thought to the outstanding issues in the area.
   If significant planning decisions are to be made by people who have no knowledge of the area and who ignore outright the concerns of the residents, one has to ask what they are basing their descision on.
   Were they fearful that actually seeing the poor access to the site and traffic problems might have caused personal distress? Were they concerned at all about building a school, which with staff and children would house over 500 individuals, on unstable land on the side of a very steep hill?
   The planning officers are satisfied that despite the site being built on springs with artesian water collections right belown the surface of the ground that the "floating" foundations will support a three-storey building. I find this troubling.  The money is now secure and as this site has significant problems we should build on a better one.
   Why should we take any risk with primary school children? The village of Aberfan lost a generation of its children when the spoil tip behind the school moved some considerable distance and the people inside were drowned in mud. At the time the Coal Board had been satisfied that despite the presence of springs the ground was stable. They were wrong. As one of the greatest disasters this country has ever known, I feel it would be wise to learn from the experience, not risk repeating it.
   I am not predicting another Aberfan but why build such a big school on unstable wet land at all? The council have been acting as if this is an all or nothing deal: we must build now or we will lose funding (false), we must use this potentially dangerous site (false; there are many alternative, unused sites as anyone who lives in our town and has seen our collection of empty, derelict sites knows). 
   I find these aggressive attempts to rush the project deeply troubling. Extreme rainfall conditions are now much more common and the calculations commissioned by the council are just that - estimates and no absolute guarantee that complete stability of the site will last the life of the school. It is not a risk I would be confortable taking with my own children, especially considering that the committee have gone out of their way to avoid not only setting foot on the proposed site, but even taking a glance at it from the bus!
Cllr Sian Caiach

Sunday 24 June 2012

Ombudsman slams Carmarthenshire's Complaint handling

Earlier this year several residents of Carmarthenshire met with Welsh Assembly officials to raise their concerns about the Council's complaints system, particularly in relation to planning but not exclusively. Their concerns raised wider issues as to the objectivity of senior officers when handling complaints. I am aware of the cases involved, all of which were (and are currently) being investigated by the Ombudsman.

The full disclosure of emails and letters can be found on the Welsh Government FoI disclosure log here.
I do not know who requested the information but I am highlighting it here as I believe it certainly warrants greater exposure.

Following the meeting in February, the Minister, Carl Sargeant wrote to Meryl Gravell (now Ex-Leader of the Council);

"I am writing following representations that I have received over time expressing concerns about Carmarthenshire County Council's response to those submitting complaints about the service they have received. These include representations from the public and their elected representatives.

It is not, of course appropriate for me to become involved in individual cases. 
However, the accusations that have been expressed to me, if true, raise concerns about the culture and approach to complaint handling within the council. They include, for example, ignoring communications, withholding information, breaking deadlines set by the Ombudsman, placing people on a 'persistent complainer's list' without notification and, more seriously, making false statements to others in order to discredit complainants......
With this in mind I would welcome your observations and seek an assurance as to the council's committment to ensuring that it has an appropriate and effective approach to complaints.
I am copying this letter to Peter Tyndall, Public Sector Ombudsman for Wales and would welcome his observations."

Naturally, Meryl (I doubt if Meryl actually penned this) went on the defensive and wrote back in February in the strongest terms (and at length) denying there were any problems with the council's complaint system leaving Mr Sargeant with a little veiled threat to keep his nose out unless he'd got 'further evidence'. Astonishing. The letter can be read here. (pdf)

Despite this, in May, the Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall responds to Carl Sargeant's request for input. His comments are scathing despite being cached in polite and reasonable terms.
Initially Mr Tyndall responds to the Minister's office (and the Ethics and Regulation Team) via email;

I can confirm that we have experienced difficulties with the [Carmarthenshire] Council in respect of complaints handled by my office. These include delays in responding to requests for information, delays in commenting on draft reports and lengthy delays in implementing my recommendations.

I drew my concerns to the attention of the Chief Executive [Mr Mark James] some time ago and requested a meeting to which he has failed to agree. I now intend pursuing this matter with the Leader of the council.....

Then Mr Tyndall confirms this in writing....(my underlining)

....Our experience with the council in respect of complaints handling is variable. Broadly speaking, our initial contacts in respect of complaints are generally good, and their staff are co-operative with mine in accepting complaints which have come prematurely to my office and in considering early resolutions where this is appropriate.
A small number of complaints which we have investigated, however, have given rise to a number of concerns, some of which are related to their Planning Department. In some instances, there have been lengthy delays in implementing my recommendations, up to a year in one instance. Their response seemed to be lacking direction and urgency.

In other instances, there has been considerable delay in providing information I have requested and in agreeing the draft of my reports. There would appear to be problems in addressing issues in respect of enforcement, in particular, where they have failed to act on clear evidence of breaches of planning consent. We were forced to issue a summons in respect of one retired planning officer due to his refusal to co-operate with my investigation and I now expect to issue a public report shortly because of a failure by the Council to agree to my recommendations.

There is some evidence that where the complainants become frustrated, and frankly are very demanding of the Council, that there is a loss of objectivity in considering their complaints. While this is understandable, it is not acceptable.

I have sought to pursue this matter in person with the Chief Executive, but he has thus far declined to meet me. I am therefore now writing to the new leader to request a meeting. 

I have serious concerns that where complaints are not taken seriously at a senior level and where issues they highlight are not addressed because of an excessively defensive approach, service standards will suffer and errors will be repeated.

I will continue to keep your officials in the picture regarding the outcome of my engagement with the council. I have thus far held back from issuing a special report as these are normally reserved for situations where a body in my jurisdiction refuses to implement my findings. However, I am open to taking this course of action if co-operation with my service does not improve

Peter Tyndall

This response from the Ombudsman, is damning, and confirms that a culture of arrogance and contempt, for a critical public (and on a personal level) thrives in senior levels at County Hall. I hope he publishes a 'Special Report'. No one who has had any dealings with the complaint system other than on the most basic level will be surprised at his comments. It is also notable that it was the Ombudsman's office who spoke out critically of the council on the recent BBC programme concerning the whistleblower, Delyth Jenkins.

The problem, of course is that whatever the Welsh Government, or the Wales Audit Office, or the Ombudsman say, basically the junta at County Hall doesn't give a toss, not even multiple appearances in Private Eye shame them into critical introspection. Surely this can't go on much longer.......?

Update 26th June; Excellent blogpost from Cneifiwr; Auditors, Ombudsmen and Councillors

Friday 22 June 2012

The Wales Audit Office and the Council pt 94

For the past few weeks I've been trying to get a simple, straight answer from the Wales Audit Office as to whether they consider the funding of a counterclaim for libel is good value for money for the Carmarthenshire taxpayer. I am not asking as an interested party but on behalf of Carmarthenshire taxpayers who are constantly being told that severe cuts to frontline services are on the cards, £8.5m of saving must be found this year and, to quote the Chief Executive, the council must 'curb spending or lose our services'.

Naturally, I am not asking them to comment on the specifics of the case, just the use of council funds.
I had initially been told by the local auditor by phone, that they were 'satisfied with the position'. I asked for confirmation in writing and how this 'satisfaction' had been weighed against (amongst other things) the 'strong warning' against such funding issued by the Welsh Minister, Carl Sargeant's office. As is usual for such organisations, a simple reply was out of the question when a far more lengthy and bureaucratic path was available, so the local auditor decided that I had asked a freedom of information request and sent it to the WAO.

Several weeks passed and eventually I had a response. Unsurprisingly the WAO told me they didn't hold the information I had requested. The person who did have the information was the local auditor, or to be precise, the Appointed Auditor for Carmarthenshire who delegates case work to the local office, in this case, Carmarthen. So we've gone round in a circle. So surely the local auditor would have known that when he sent my query to the WAO?

I telephoned the man at the WAO for some clarification. I was informed that they had no role in the spending (and securing value for money) by local authorities, the WAO merely oversees the Welsh Government. The Apponted Auditors dealt with local authorities, he said, and acted independently of the WAO, despite being appointed by the Auditor General they are only accountable to him in relation to their code of conduct. So, said I, who are the Appointed Auditors accountable to when it comes to checking whether a local authority is spending our precious cash in the right places? Ah, good question, he said. Hmm.

Conveniently the WAO is not a 'legal entity' in it's own right, and so as a body presumably immune to legal challenge. The Appointed Auditors are not classed as a public body and are therefore exempt from Freedom of Information legislation. My query aside, this is all a bit worrying and the whole system seems to hinge on the integrity and competence of the local authority, and as long as the right boxes are ticked, the local auditors are unlikely to bite the hand that feeds with awkward questions about justifiable expenditure and ethical issues -  and if you have concerns about the spending habits of your council (you may remember my recent queries  over the council's financial commitment to the evangelical bowling alley), then tough luck. That's if you know the details of their spending habits in the first place; as of course there is no requirement for councils to publish them.

The WAO itself has had it's own fair share of financial hiccups too over the past few years, none of which were ever satisfactorily dealt with. (please use searchbox on the right)

So, back to my query and I pressed the man from the WAO - I asked him to forget that I was involved in this and imagine that I was phoning as a concerned taxpayer from Carmarthenshire - what would they say to me? No answer. I asked whether the Appointed Auditor could, in general terms, determine whether councils were securing good value for the taxpayer; twice he told me that the local auditors couldn't possibly check every transaction made by a council - I agreed with him, of course they couldn't but this, to be fair, is a slightly unique bit of spending.
I said again that all I wanted was a simple statement as to why the auditors believed this was good value for the taxpayer.
Anyway, we'll see if I, or more importantly the Carmarthenshire taxpayer, ever get a straight answer after wading through all this mud.

I have mentioned the WAO quite a lot recently in the wrongly held assumption, that they had the power to hold Carmarthenshire Council to account, clearly, whatever the issue, and despite their 'Making Public Money Count' motto, they don't, I don't think anyone does.
There's only one obvious solution....more bloggers.

(again, please use searchbox for further posts, including here)

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Brecon Beacons National Park Authority to film meetings

Good news from the National Park Authority, let's hope others soon follow suit. Here's their press release;

"Brecon Beacons National Park Authority is carrying out a pilot webcast of a full National Park Authority meeting on Friday 29th June which will be streamed live on the National Park Authority’s website.

At the Authority’s AGM held earlier this afternoon (Friday 15th June 2012) Members unanimously voted to go ahead with an 18 month pilot of webcasting committee meetings, starting with the National Park Authority meeting on 29th June 2012.  The pilot will also include Planning and Rights of Way and Audit and Scrutiny committees.

Recently re-elected Chairman of Brecon Beacons National Park Authority Mrs Julie James said: “The filming and live webcasting of our committee meetings is a significant step forward for Brecon Beacons National Park Authority. We are the first Park Authority in the UK to do this which shows a firm commitment to be more transparent and accountable for what we do and the decisions we make as an Authority. It also provides an important opportunity for everyone across the National Park that may not have the time to attend in person to observe the conduct and discussions of the Authority’s business and decisions in up to the minute real time.

We hope that this new approach and live access to decision making gives local people and communities real confidence in our services and that in time the webcasting of Authority meetings will get more and more local people interested and involved in the work that we are doing for the area."

John Cook, Chief Executive for Brecon Beacons National Park Authority said:  “This is a great step forward for the National Park Authority. Members of the public and local community representatives have already expressed enthusiastic support for this initiative and it will allow people to witness what I believe is a high quality of debate and decision making at the Authority.  An added bonus is that if you are unable to watch the live webcast you can view an archived version at a time of your choosing.  This is available 48 hours after the meeting finishes and will be kept online for 12 months, providing a valuable reference source for the public as well as our Members and officers.”

The live webcast will be available from the National Park Authority website from 10:00am Friday 29th June 2012 at"

Monday 18 June 2012

More Cut 'n' Paste spin

Earlier this year I noticed the use of cut 'n paste quotes on the media section of the Council website, here and here. Being a blogger, I happen to be one of their few avid readers and soon noticed that this was a common ploy covering a variety of repeated topics. Even today we have a quote from Cllr Jim Jones, the new Executive Board Member for the environment concerning a man fined for fly posting. It is a repeat, word for word, from articles on the 27th March and the 24th January this year but those were attributed to the Technical Services Director, Richard Workman.
In one way it doesn't matter, the message the council wants to get across is made as is their desire to see the offending resident named and shamed as a dire warning to others.
But why falsely attribute a quote? No, Cllr Jones didn't say 'that' at all, Cllr Jones didn't say sod all, in fact.

I have read many such 'quotes' and after hearing assorted councillors and officers speaking at meetings I find it unlikely they'd be capable of churning out these bitesize chunks of polished spin anyway. When it comes to attributing quotes to elected members, it gives an entirely false impression of their degree of involvement. And inevitably, and worse still, these none-quotes get published in the local media. I wonder how the council press office will handle the requirement to publish the annual 'record of achievement' from each councillor? Will they bear any resemblance to the truth? Eighteen days into June, we've had twenty seven press releases on the council website, but not a glimmer of the Minutes from the AGM on the 1st, I imagine the press team are giving them a final polish.

As we know, this Council and it's senior officers are self obsessed with image, but there is a fine balance to be made between maintaining a positive corporate profile and, to put it bluntly, lying. I have also heard from many employees who are 'too afraid to speak to the press', never mind the repeated tales of editorial interference from County Hall in the running of our local papers.

This council spends a small fortune on PR which includes the dire council rag, the 'Carmarthenshire News', at best the content from the Department of Spin is downright patronising to residents, at worst, it is misleading disinformation.

"Press releases will include quotes from the appropriate Chief Officer or their representative and the appropriate Executive Board member.  They will be approved before being released.....maximise the number of proactive News Releases and photographs issued to ensure that good news stories are actively promoted.......Press coverage is regularly analysed to determine % positive....." (From Carmarthenshire Council's Media Protocol)

Thursday 14 June 2012

Full Council meeting and the Constitution

Called into County Hall yesterday to observe the first actual council meeting (other than the AGM) since the election. The difference, if there was any was, imperceptible.

First up after the apologies, praying, etc was the well timed announcement that the new Furnace School in Llanelli had had the nod from Leighton Andrews (Welsh Minister for Education) - good news I'm sure, although there is the planning process to get through yet, a point raised by several members who suggested a more appropriate and accessible site should be considered. This was the point raised by Cllr Caiach in her formal objection - in Carmarthenshire, as the campaigners opposing the closure of Pantycelyn well know, you only have one option, the council's plan or nothing at all.
The furore over Furnace School has been centred around the consultation process rather than the proposal itself, you may remember the Director of Education took the highly inappropriate step of personally writing to objectors asking them to withdraw their concerns. (By the way the Court of Appeal hearing to request permission for a Judicial Review over the closure of Pantycelyn is set for the 29th June).

Cllr Williams (Plaid), representing a rural ward in north Carmarthenshire expressed his concern over the closure of his local school this year (Caio) and wondered when the council would try and regenerate our rural wasteland - I suppose that will now be in the capable hands of Cllr Pam Palmer, Exec Board Member with the newly created 'rural' portfolio. How uninspiring. There were no similar concerns expressed by those other two 'independent' champions of the northern rural hinterland, Cllrs Theophilus and Jackson who, as ever, remained silently loyal to the ruling groups.

Next was the  'Draft Code of Corporate Governance' (mentioned here), Cllr David Jenkins put forward a few questions concerning the system of reviewing the ever increasing functions and actions of the Executive Board, but the Chief Executive responded assuring everyone not to fret, all had been taken care of and all had been approved anyway at the last meeting under the guise of the 'Councillors allowances and job titles' report, and with that comforting thought, new Leader Cllr Madge felt compelled to say something, which was to assure everyone that he wouldn't interfere with the functions or actions of the Chief Executive. No change there then.

So with the Code of Good Governance duly rubber stamped and placed in a dusty drawer the meeting moved on to the changes to the constitution. Constitutional changes in Carmarthenshire are never conducive to further democracy and this was no exception; the number and power of scrutiny committees was reduced and their ability to 'call-in' decisions was to be reduced from a 'right' to a 'suggestion' The general idea was that there were eight 'amendments' and all were to be voted on as one package, Cllr Jenkins pointed out that this wasn't quite right, as there were individual concerns. It reminded me of the approval of amendments in 2008 when certain changes were hidden in documents within documents, various councillors protested that they had not received the paperwork in time to study it, Cllr Gravell had insisted they 'get on with it' and raise any concerns afterwards - when it was too late of course.

Anyway back to the present day and the proposal to have Home to School Transport appeals heard by officers instead of councillors was actually defeated, the flash of democracy coming from a primed Pam Palmer, but more of Pam's vision of democracy later.

The next thorny issue (and descent into confusion) was the changing of the word 'require' to 'request' concerning the obligation of an Executive Board member to attend, and be questioned at a scrutiny committee. This proposed change was passed off by the Acting (she's been acting for nearly a year now) Head of Law as 'we were trying to be polite to members', (Executive Board members that is) and there is no 'law' to subpoena members or officers to attend anyway, fair comment I suppose given the reluctance of anyone in the higher echelons of this authority to be accountable; eventually a vote had to be taken and (I believe, correct me if I'm wrong), the wording was changed to 'request'.

Cllr Caiach took the opportunity, as part of this report concerned 'member/officer relations, to ask the Chief Executive whether the 'special measures' he had put her under (she had committed the cardinal sin of asking too many questions and taken up to much officer time so was restricted to communicating solely with the Chief Exec) would be lifted as he was such a busy man he had failed to respond to her queries and therefore she was unable to raise the concerns of her constituents.

You will be aware from this blog that Cllr Caiach's relationship with the Chief Executive has been a little stormy, she has been one of the only councillors to dig their heels in and consistently question the anti-democratic stance of the regime. The Chief Executive responded and told her (and reminded everyone else) that 'other bodies' were currently looking into her behaviour, well the ombudsman anyway,  as he had personally reported her last year, and that he was not going to discuss this across the floor of the Chamber but would discuss it in private. I'm sure that will be an interesting meeting.

The curious subject of whipping was next with the ban on the use of party whips in scrutiny committees, a requirement of the Local Government Measure 2011. Walnut whips I believe, are still allowed. Plaid took the opportunity to accuse the Independents of acting like a political party, one even producing a letter dated last year from Pam Palmer to her 'group' ensuring they voted 'as we had discussed'.
Everyone knows that they act and vote as a Party but have the advantage of not having to declare any party policy or manifesto promises which they may have to stick to, but of course Cllr Palmer was having none of it. "Pathetic" she shreiked and went into a tirade about how she hoped the Chamber wouldn't become like Westminster with childish laughter, jeers and I suppose, heated democratic debate, god forbid that might happen Pam. She then went on to explain (about the letter I suppose) that she always kept her group 'fully informed', this was a bit of a give away and resulted in jeers and laughter from the opposition. She sat down frowning in distate.

Questions about the publication of the Executive Board Forward Work Plan (would it be online or on paper? Some councillors clearly still have a problem with the mysteries of the interweb) necessitated another speech by Leader Cllr Madge who declared that they would all soon be informed one way or another of the "very exciting programme ahead", presumably when the Chief Executive had given him a copy.

Further noises were made about the exclusion of the public and press from Executive Board Member decision meetings, and if they couldn't be 'open', couldn't other councillors be present? These are meetings between one Exec Board Member and relevant officers (not the fortnightly Executive Board meetings) and as far as I know, have never been 'open' to anyone. Usually, but not always, dealing with the bestowing of grants, no agenda is published, only an after the event 'Decision Record' with the recipients largely identified only in code. There is no input nor opportunity for questions from other elected members, and quite clearly that's how it will stay.

That was about it for the Constitution which will be popped into the dusty drawer next to 'good governance'.

The meeting rumbled on with various reports from assorted pre-election committees up for approval.
One question arose over the council's recent purchase, for £152,000, of the old police station in Ammanford (not the PFI one). Although generally welcomed, Members were keen to know what exciting plans the senior officers had in mind for the site, the Director of Regeneration, Mr David Gilbert, was tasked with replying and er, he didn't know, didn't have a clue in fact. He mumbled something about it being 'early days' and selling it on the open market with er, maybe 'mixed use planning' on might provide a couple of jobs and er, there might be some residential use...where's a press officer when you need one? Either the council have a plan and they're not letting on or they've invested £152,000 of your money with no plan whatsoever. Who knows.

I had to leave before the end, I had a headache, I requested my release by phone and was personally escorted out by two members of staff. Nice.

the special public gallery release phone

Evangelicals attack; Cneifiwr responds

Back briefly to the Council's involvement with the evangelical Towy Community Church, most recently raised by BBC Dragon's Eye. Cneifiwr has responded to a couple of articles, one from the Evangelical Alliance here and another here, which are critical of the 'two bloggers' (me and Cneifiwr), the articles also slam the BBC, the MP, Jonathan Edwards, Unison, Wales on Sunday and anyone else who has raised so much as an eyebrow at the massive financial support this council has bestowed on this glorified evangelical recruitment centre, or 'bowling alley', depending on your view. It also seems that the message from the Evangelical Alliance has reached the House of Commons.
I'm not going to reiterate the whole saga again here but the question still remains as to why this particular organisation, as opposed to all others, has been so successful in acquiring the generous support of the council junta.

Over to Cneifwr then;
'Demon bloggers - when Evangelicals attack Part 1 and Part 2

current HQ of the Towy Community church (via BBC)

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Libel Case - Trial date

Update; The trial date has now been listed for the 13th February 2013 with a time estimate of seven days


A date for trial has been set and is due to begin on Monday 3rd December 2012 at the Royal Courts of Justice in London.

For information, please see earlier notices here and here.

As before, all comments strictly moderated.

Monday 11 June 2012

PFI - Dyfed Powys Police in Private Eye

Thanks to @rlloydpr for spotting Dyfed Powys Police in a recent edition of Private Eye - The article concerns the failed Ammanford Police Station PFI fiasco, which is now up for closure in an attempt to slice £13m off the budget. (I imagine the rapid response team at the beck and call of County Hall will remain unaffected by the cuts, you just never know when someone might wield a mobile phone in the public gallery)

"As forces "adapt" services to meet the funding cuts, Dyfed Powys has decided to close seven police stations to reach its £13m target.
One of them is the £2.5m Ammanford station in Carmarthenshire, built under a PFI scheme in 2001, complete with its state-of-the-art custody suite with see-through toilets to retrieve, for example, drugs.
Unfortunately, according to insiders, the custody suite has been woefully underused since a death in custody not long after it opened.
A half-used building was perhaps an obvious target for closure; but it leaves people in swathes of north Carmarthenshire without access to a police station - while still facing the staggering £15m bill for the white elephant before the PFI deal ends in 2030. Brilliant!"

(Private Eye)

Carmarthenshire Council crawls into action

Carmarthenshire' full council meets next Wednesday (13th) for the first time after the long drawn out AGM. I suppose with all the, er, excitement of the election/torch/jubilee they need to ease themselves in gently. This is the first meeting for three months, with no meeting in August it looks like the council senior management are having quite a free rein on decision making without the inconvenience of meetings or Minutes.
The Constitution comes in for it's usual amendments which largely deals with the re-arrangement of scrutiny committees (cut from seven to five) and other previously approved measures such as the revised protocol for planning matters.
Nothing very earth shattering but it should be remembered that the most damaging  undemocratic amendments have already been approved last year and will be quietly inserted now that everyone's forgotten about it all, I am referring to the requirement for seven members to 'second' a council motion (it's usually one) and the removal of the right to present a petition to the Chair of the Council, it now has to be considered by the Chief Executive first, who will then decide it's fate.
Also up for the rubber stamp is the Draft code of Corporate Governance, essentially a meaningless box ticking exercise in council waffle (See post 'Draft Code of Corporate Governance and it's not even April 1st')

It will be interesting to see if anyone questions whether the theories of good 'governance' will ever be put into practice; take, for example;

[The Council must]..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....

......take informed and transparent decisions.....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..." Blah Blah....

Clearly a long way to go yet...

I have noted, of course that there are no changes to the meeting rules (Standing Orders), therefore there is still no rule against a member of the public filming or recording a meeting. I imagine that to regulate now, would be to shoot themselves in the foot after insisting that every visitor to the public gallery, since last July, has had to sign an agreement under false pretences to abide by the non-existent rule before being escorted in. And out.
So what will happen next? After an entire year deliberating on the feasibility of webcasting meetings, the 'Task and Finish Group' (once led by the enthusiastic Cllr Dyfrig Thomas, who has now lost his seat) must be reaching a conclusion - I suspect that Meryl's little pre-election statement to 'pilot webcasting' if she was re-elected into power was based on a nod and a wink from the group. However, we now have a Labour led council who have not, to my knowledge ever said anything supportive of greater transparency in the context of Carmarthenshire Council.
I trust that if webcasting is piloted, a corresponding rule against public filming is not dropped into the Standing Orders; the freedom and opportunity for the public to record proceedings will always act as a check on the editing 'skills' of the council.
Also, judging by some of the more bizarre recent spending decisions by the Executive, cost will not be an issue either.

Sunday 3 June 2012

'Democracy in Action' Photo Competition

The National Assembly for Wales has launched a photo competition called 'Democracy in Action', the details of how to enter can be found here.
It will be interesting to see how diversely the theme is interpreted.

Personally, I think this one sums up the situation in this neck of the woods, I hope @AlexMurraySmith sends it in;

Friday 1 June 2012

Handing round the sweeties...

Called into County Hall for Part two of the AGM today. Usual unwelcoming procedure, the guards were late so the meeting had got underway when all four members of the public got to the gallery. Sadly there wasn't an army of newly outraged councillors protesting at the way their visiting constituents are treated. At the last meeting the translating equipment in the public gallery didn't work, this time the councillors microphones failed and the only translation for the public was from the great and good on the podium, who's mikes did work but it was then difficult to hear the whispery translator over the booming voice of the Chair. Perhaps it had something to do with the extensive refurbishment of County Hall (at unknown cost), hopefully it hasn't interfered with the fire alarm system too. While I remember, perhaps a few copies of the agenda could be provided for the public? It would be common courtesy to at least offer...engaging the public and all that? Ha what a joke. 

Anyway, on to the meeting which was, in a nutshell, further procedural waffle about who had what, and the extra cash that went with it. The new Chair Cllr Sian Thomas, gave a little speech in the manner of a headmistress, years of teaching coming into it's own. She told the class that the first names she would learn would be those of the 'naughty ones', so woe betide anyone who speaks out of turn. She then had a Gerald Ford moment giving class something ethical to ponder; 'not the promises we make today but the promises we keep tomorrow' she quoted. Unfortunately she had to correct herself by saying she meant promises to constituents and not, as she had originally said, promises to councillors. Oops.
To be honest, promises to constituents seemed to be the last thing on most minds as the spoils were carved up. The sweetie sharing was clearly being taken literally and several times during the meeting sweets were passed round, but only within each group, there was no coalition sweetie's rather a pity they hadn't supplied the public, or me anyway, with popcorn...

Next up was the new Leader Kevin Madge who rambled on with the report on his new cabinet, everyone's attention was beginning to waver, (including the Chair and the Chief Executive who began writing notes to each other) mainly because everyone had read the details in the newspaper last week, much to the annoyance of one councillor who pointed out that such information had to be approved by full council before being issued as fact, Cllr Madge could muster no more than a mumbling apology. Hmm, leaks eh.
The seating arrangement was interesting with the Labour and Independent ruling Groups sitting opposite each other and with Plaid and the couple of unaffiliated councillors in between, things didn't look exactly harmonious.

Next was the approval of the allowances and expenses. According to the chief Executive the members had "no option" other than to accept the rates laid down by the snappily titled Independent Remuneration Panel Wales. I can't quite understand how, if that is the case, that the Leader of Powys Council (Powys is in the same IRWP 'band' as Carmarthenshire) accepted a bit less than the amount recommended, as did his cabinet, £34,500 for the Leader and £24,000 for each cabinet member rather than £47,500 and £28,780 respectively for Cllr Madge and crew. Clearly Carmarthenshire's Executive don't believe in tightening their belts (even by one notch) as an example to the hard pressed constituents, already burdened by paying for the various ongoing follies such as the bowling alley, to name but one. Priorities, priorities.
Mr James told them that there were only a couple of points up for debate, one of which was whether or not to pay fuel expenses to councillors going about council business within the county (rather than just back and for County Hall), Cllr Pam Palmer (who no longer sits by dear Meryl) rose to her feet to suggest that it might be 'open to abuse' and she was very aware that those pesky constituents (the word pesky was implied, not said, I add) kept a close eye on councillors expenses. Some of us do Pam, some of us do. She also thought it may require extra employees, which is nonsense, perhaps she's unaware that they are already employing an extra four paralegals for six months to bolster the strength of that most important of council departments, the legal squad.

The report on the political make up of the committees was next with the unaffiliated councillors stating that they had been left out of the 'dealings', then our Pam got up to moan that her members were disappointed too and some of them were only now speaking to her - and, not one to be left out, Leader Madge joined in with more of the same. I detect discontent, as did the Plaid Leader Peter Hughes Griffiths who jumped up to say he was 'willing to talk'. Anyway, the headmistress waded in at this point to remind the unaffiliated that there were 'forms available' if they wanted to join a party..... Confusion ensued as John Jenkins (unaffiliated) proposed that his nomination was deferred but the Chief Executive was having none of this warning it could effect the political balance and they'd be back to square one. Cllr Jenkins eventually withdrew his amendment. I think he'll be heading for the Chair's naughty step. It seems that outspoken and 'troublesome' councillors will no more be tolerated in this Administration than the last.

Next up was the handing out of Chairs and Vice Chairs. Plaid got a few Scrutiny seats. There were then numerous recorded votes for the (mainly) Vice Chairs and other committees. All became a bit confusing for us poor mortals in the public gallery. Out of the 74 councillors, nine have the surname Davies, another nine are Thomases, there are five Evanses, five Joneses and four called Williams. As the Chair didn't even give the names of those nominated unopposed (the public weren't supplied, as the press and the councillors were, with a handy list of nominees) and along with the failing translating equipment, dud microphones etc it was a bit difficult to decipher. The gist became clear as the Plaid councillors who were nominated were defeated one by one. I noticed that our local 'independents' Cllrs Theophilus and Jackson voted for Labour/Independent group members unfailingly. They were rewarded however as the favour was returned and Theophilus regained the quasi-judicial Chair of the Licensing Committee (living in a tiny village in rural north Carmarthenshire should stand him in good stead for tackling the difficult issues of extended drinking hours in the urban areas) and Jackson got Vice-Chair of, I think, Environment. This all went on for some time; every time a Member had to vote for him or herself there was a ripple of amusement, rather like small children laughing at the same joke over and over again.

The meeting concluded with the handing out of large brown envelopes by the Head of Democratic Services, I presumed they contained the lists of committee members, I have no idea. Could have chosen a different colour though. The Chamber emptied, with the squabbling reduced to quietly seething discontent.

The next full council meeting is on the 13th June, why don't you pop along to see our wonderful council in action.