Wednesday 31 October 2012

Private Eye again - Carmarthenshire council and the evangelicals

Private Eye 31st October 2012

Yet another deserved appearance of our council in the Rotten Borough section of Private Eye....seventh time this year? I've lost count.
As I mentioned, the council and the church also featured in the Western Mail last week.

(N B The article should of course read Mercy Ministries, not Mercy Missions)


On an unrelated note I see there's a packed agenda for next Monday's Executive Board meeting, it doesn't include the report recommending the filming of meetings though, nor therefore the amendment to allow the public to film. I does include an exempt report though which considers that most secretive of subjects, and also possibly a matter of national security, the transfer of public toilets to community councils......


Have just heard that the Ombudsman will be investigating the Leader of Carmarthenshire Council, Kevin Madge for breaches of the Code of Conduct over the Sainsbury's press release. (via Plaid Cymru press officer, @cjharris85)
Previous posts relating to the complaint include 'Sainsbury's row heats up', and for the Chief Executive's opinion on the matter see Chief Executive enters the Sainsbury's fray'.

Monday 29 October 2012

Leader's letter in Western Mail - a response to my letter

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an open email to the Minister for Local Government, Carl Sargeant (Lab) which was published in the Western Mail. It concerned the entry procedures to the council's public gallery, in particular the insistence that a 15 yr old boy sign the 'undertaking'. The letter was published along with a response from a 'Welsh government spokesperson' who said that entry procedures were a matter for individual councils. (Western Mail link here 'Plea to Minister over 'appalling' council' 17th October)

Today's Western Mail has published a letter from council leader Kevin Madge (Lab) in response to mine, well, he's put his name to it anyway.

Here's the letter and I've added my comments in red;

Public are welcome at council meetings

SIR – I was surprised at the recent letter from Mrs Thompson (Oct 17) [where she referred to what she described as “the unwelcoming, undemocratic, and unlawful entry restrictions to Carmarthenshire council’s public gallery”] regarding the fact that when members of the public attend council meetings they have to sign an undertaking that they agree to abide by the rules governing those meetings.

Mrs Thompson well knows that the recent introduction of a requirement to read and agree the rules before going into the meeting was only introduced because two meetings were disrupted by herself. Prior to this we have never had to have such a requirement.

As I have made very clear over the past year or so, I strongly dispute the various statements that I disrupted any meetings at all. The dictionary definition of 'disrupt' is 'to interrupt the usual course of a process or activity'. I cannot understand how quietly filming a council meeting amounts to disruption. I'll not comment further on that at the moment.

I'm sure Cllr Madge is experienced enough to realise that the 'rules governing those meetings' are the Standing Orders, in which there is no mention whatsoever of filming or recording meetings, let alone a rule against it.

I was not aware of a 15-year-old being asked to sign in to the meeting, which Mrs Thompson claims. As it was a school day, I would find this surprising.

However, we would not expect people under 16 to sign this undertaking.

I am surprised that Cllr Madge is unaware that he was required to sign, as this is the second time this has happened, the first being in in January when the boy was 14. On both occasions the mother made his age very clear to the staff at reception, they then contacted officers by phone to clarify that he had to sign and they confirmed that he did.
The mother of the 15 year old left a comment on my previous post and I have since been made aware that her son is registered home educated. 

The background to this matter is, of course, the filming of council meetings.

I think Mrs Thompson also knows that one of the commitments of the new council, following my appointment as leader is to have a pilot project to broadcast our meetings via the council website, which I hope will start shortly.

Yes I am aware, although 'commitment' is something of an overstatement. I think the word 'begrudging' is more accurate;
"Whilst we are anxious not to waste local taxpayer’s money with frivolous or perceived populist ideas, we will shortly receive the findings of the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee review of E-Government which is recommending that the council trial the filming and webcasting of Council meetings. Such a pilot would enable us to judge whether there is a genuine interest across the County with ordinary members of the public, rather than single campaigners" (from the Forward Work Programme)

As I have reported the pilot will consist of recording full council meetings, editing the material and uploading onto the website, somewhat missing the point. I do however look forward to the Executive Board approving the recent amendment to allow the public to film meetings...

Members of the public are welcome to all of our meetings and I would dearly love to see many more of them coming along. The date and time of all our meetings are advertised and we would welcome anyone who chooses to attend.

This goes for meetings of the executive board, the “cabinet” of the council, as much as for the monthly council meeting.

Since becoming leader I have introduced a new approach where the executive board takes its meetings around the county to make it easier for people to attend, to see how decisions are made and how the council works. So far we have been to Ammanford and Kidwelly and the next two venues will be Llandeilo and Whitland.

Following these meetings we have also started having informal sessions where local representatives are invited in, not to listen to the meeting but to contribute their thoughts and have a dialogue with us, and this is an approach we are planning to develop further in the coming months.

I think that anyone who knows me will know that it is very much in my nature to hear other people’s opinions and listen to their point of view.

It is a personal commitment of mine that the council should be as open and transparent as we can possibly make it.

I am disappointed that Mrs Thompson’s letter gives an impression that we are unwelcoming to people who would like to come to our meetings.

Nothing could be further from the truth and I hope that no-one will be deterred by the rather one-sided view given in her letter. We would love to see you.

Leader, Carmarthenshire County Council
(link to Western Mail letters page here)

The remainder of Cllr Madge's letter ask us to 'feel the love'; I haven't felt it yet. Neither have I seen nor heard anything remotely committed to openness and transparency. The well publicised Executive Board trips to the outback, safely ensconced in the Jags and BMW's, appear to be nothing more than photo opportunities, providing enough pictures of grinning executive councillors and press releases to fill several editions of the Carmarthen Journal...

Sunday 28 October 2012

BBC Radio; Eye On Wales - 'The Language of Spin'

Good half hour programme on BBC Radio Wales this afternoon about jargon in politics, or 'the language of obfuscation and spin'. Introduced by @felicityxevans, it is available on iPlayer for a week or so. Have a listen, it includes an interesting challenge to the Welsh Government to provide a translation of one of their press releases.

There are many references to Carmarthenshire Council's use of jargon throughout this blog and at the last council meeting some Members mentioned the gobbledegook in the Annual Improvement Plan, they were told that it was really written for the eyes of the Welsh Government. The content was as nonsensical as the language. 

All levels of government are guilty of churning out ridiculous jargon of course, and various plain speaking campaigns have had little effect, I have read so many council documents and policies over the last few years that I find I'm unconsciously using it myself. It's a bit like a disease.

When it comes to Carmarthenshire Council, being experts in spin and obfuscation, it's difficult to pick a favourite but, "slippage due to front loading of external funds" (haven't got the cash yet) and "multi modal parking facility to provide an integrated transport hub" (car park) are in the top ten.

and you must remember the council's "draft overarching tripartite compact agreement" from earlier this year;

"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...." and on it went.

and who could forget this from the draft Local Development Plan;

"The Pre-Deposit Preferred Strategy is an important statutory stage in the LDP process and contains the spatial strategy for Carmarthenshire. The Strategy sets out key plan issues, the vision and objectives, strategic options, key policies, suggested overall level of growth and key areas of change and protection for the County. It also identifies strategic sites which contribute to the delivery of the strategy. It is a strategic document and does not therefore include detailed policies or non strategic site specific proposals."

I've even gone to the trouble of gathering a small selection out of the endless examples and created a word cloud (if word cloud is jargon, my apologies) and Cneifiwr will be pleased that I didn't forget that interesting verb 'triangulate'.

Saturday 27 October 2012

Expenses and Claim Forms

Bloggers in Carmarthenshire hoping for enlightened transparency from the council website continue to be disappointed. The abysmal effort known as the 'Councillor's Allowance search facility' has been a confusing mess of double, sometimes triple entries and missing fuel claim forms for several months. The council were alerted to all this and we're now lumbered with having to take their word for it that no one was overpaid. Several weeks on, most of the double entries and muddled figures are still there.

The claim forms which are published show some interesting entries, back in December, Cllr Madge, then an Executive Board Member rather than Leader, attended a five hour 'press review' at County Hall and an eight hour session in January, move forward to February and he had a five hour meeting with Debbie Williams, the press office manager. I'm sure he wasn't singled out for special attention but the haphazard publication of the forms doesn't tell if he was accompanied by colleagues or not. Photoshoots are another favourite with Executive Board Members and we can, for example, see that Cllr Madge, then on £32,401 per annum, included a four mile round trip to Ammanford in his claims. Of course these are 'approved duties' and Cllr Madge is not claiming anything to which he is not entitled. 

According to the search facility, the running total for allowances, senior salaries and expenses for the current financial year is £732,115 which includes £23,206 for travelling. Quite a few councillors claim nothing at all, either living a stone's throw from County Hall or who feel that the basic allowance plus special responsibility allowance is sufficient to cover a bit of petrol. My own Councillor, Tom Theophilus regularly tops the expenses chart, despite receiving a 'senior salary' of £1825 per month, he tops this up by driving relentlessly to and fro County Hall, claiming over £300 in July alone. Locals have been asking me what exactly he does there....

Of course, these figures are for the seventy-four councillors and pale into insignificance compared to the combined salaries of the handful of senior executive officers, and as for the details of expenses claimed by the top brass, we don't know, I did ask but the council refused to tell me.

The Independent Group, as we should know by now, acts as a political party, tightly whipped and loyal to the regime, to a man, or woman. There's nothing independent about them. There are, of course unaffiliated, or 'real' independents who continue to resist the charms of Meryl and Pam. There is a furore in Pembrokeshire at the moment, (they have a similar Independent Party arrangement), that some of those councillors used council computers for the purpose of canvassing and political wheeling and dealing in the run up to the May election. Whether this is the case in Carmarthenshire, I couldn't say, but if anyone has any interesting information, there are bloggers who'd like to know, confidence guaranteed of course.

Aside from that, the sprinkling of recent claim forms which have been published, show attendance at an 'Independent Group Meeting' at County Hall on the 10th July. I couldn't find anything comparable for either the Plaid or Labour groups, who presumably meet either informally or elsewhere, and hire halls etc at their own, or party's expense. Why the Independent Party should be able to meet as a political group, in County Hall, at taxpayers expense, and as an 'approved duty' I would like to know. I'm sure someone will tell me, though I guess it's best not use a council computer to do it though....

Lessons Learned?

The sentencing of the perpetrators of the appalling abuse at Winterbourne View yesterday serves as a timely reminder of the case of Carmarthenshire whistleblower Delyth Jenkins and her efforts to report abuse against 'Sally', a lady with learning difficulties at the council run day centre in Carmarthen. The Ombudsman's two reports published in 2009 found the council to have failed catastrophically in their treatment of the whistleblower and in their duty to protect 'Sally'. You may remember the Private Eye article from February this year which pointed out that out of fourteen officers found to be at fault, only one faced disciplinary action, some have now been promoted. I also wonder what became of the management at Winterbourne View, I didn't see them in the dock, and as for the sentences, RichardBrennan's blog, Newsjiffy, sums it up well. 

In the Winterbourne View case the Care Quality Commission, the independent watchdog, were heavily criticised for failing to take Terry Bryan's (the whistleblower) complaints seriously. The fact that it was privately run should have made no difference. The Head of the CQC, Dame Jo Williams, was herself under fire for her own treatment of a non-executive board member of the CQC, Kay Sheldon. Ms Sheldon blew the whistle about poor treatment of hospital and care home patients, and raised concerns about the leadership management and culture of the CQC, in public. Ms Williams then secretly commissioned a psychiatric report about Ms Sheldon which cast doubt on her mental health, Ms Williams eventually apologised and resigned.

Carmarthenshire care homes are inspected by the Welsh equivalent of the CQC, the Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales. We can only hope that the leadership, management and culture of the CSSIW is as it should be. With more and more care services being outsourced to private companies, which are profit driven of course, we must have faith the independent integrity of the CSSIW.  Although, as Delyth Jenkins has pointed out, they do not inspect day centres for adults with learning difficulties and she has called on the Welsh government to extend the remit of the CSSIW but so far without success. These day centres are 'self-inspected' and whilst I am sure the level of care is generally exceptionally high, some will always slip through the net. Especially when there isn't a net.

One would have thought that Carmarthenshire Council would have taken part in S4C Taro 9 programme about Delyth's case back in March, if only to provide reassurance, publicly, that it had done everything in it's power to prevent anything like that happening again, it may have also gone a little way in restoring confidence in it's whistleblowing policy too. But no, they refused to take part and went to the trouble of persuading the police to follow the film crew. Pembrokeshire council were recently accused of being more concerned with preserving personal reputations than with tackling a damning report into education and children's services.

Let's hope the graphic illustration of horrific abuse at Winterbourne View reminds our local authorities and various institutions of the importance and bravery of whistleblowers, and that they deserve respect and protection, not intimidation, ostracisation or dismissal. 

Wednesday 24 October 2012

More control freakery from Carmarthenshire Council

Readers will recall that in terms of democratic debate, the last full council meeting on the 10th October was one of the worst, with, amongst other things, the prevention of the debate over the Sainsbury/press office row. The minutes of that meeting have just been published and bear little resemblance to the event I witnessed, even the approval of the previous minutes fails to mention the challenge by Cllr Caiach that her request to record meetings was not minuted. The report on the Annual Improvement Plan ensures any unpleasant challenges to the regime's questionable performance are cleansed from the record, only to linger annoyingly on blogs I suppose.

The upshot of the meeting was that the Chief Executive and the acting Head of Law decided that unless something was specifically, and literally, on the agenda it could not be discussed. For example, during the Improvement Report the pollution in the Burry Inlet could not be discussed under 'environment', and the alleged misuse of resources over the use of the press office for political purposes couldn't be discussed under 'Making better use of Resources'.

The Plaid group had also tried to bring about the debate as a Motion without Notice and under the Standing Orders, this can be allowed 'to bring an issue to the attention of a body or individual'. Despite fitting the bill, it was still not allowed of course. I assume Plaid will re-submit their Sainsbury's motion for the next meeting on the 7th November, and it will be interesting to see if another excuse can be found to refuse it or whether another tactic will be employed to stop debate, such as moving it straight to a vote without discussion....

The thorny issue of whether a Councillor has a Right of Reply when named by a senior officer, which cropped up during an exchange between Cllr Caiach and Mr James, has yet to be resolved, normally the right applies during a debate between councillors, but there doesn't seem to be a precedent for the more unusual situation when the Chief Executive joins in the banter, whose role, if we're sticking to the rules, is supposed to be non-political and confined to responding to factual enquiries.

Anyway, in a move to prevent any further drifting into the unpleasantries of democratic debate the Chair of the council, or more accurately, the legal department, has issued a warning to all councillors to behave in future in the email below. The threats of Judicial Reviews will be enough to cause alarm with some, though it would be interesting to know just how many councils, if any, have faced legal challenges through members straying from the published agenda, not many I should think. I am still mystified why the agendas for Exec Board Member Decision meetings are not published until after the event, given that, in the 'regeneration' meetings for example, hundreds of thousands of pounds are distributed in grant money, so much for ensuring that the public can see an agenda '3 clear days before the meeting'.

It would appear that unelected officers are the ones who have ultimate control over meetings, agendas, motions, petitions, public questions, etc etc and comments to the Chair at the last meeting should she "overrule officers" seem to add further confirmation. This is not a message to educate councillors, far from it. You may remember last year it became a requirement to have seven seconders to a motion, effectively silencing any minority view; two councillors were put in 'special measures' for asking 'too many questions'; ward issues are not to be brought up at meetings, etc etc This is just the latest instalment in the process.

Here's the email from the 'Chair', (clearly the council's penchant for making up the rules doesn't stop at grammar; the word 'agenda' has been strangely transformed from a noun to a verb) and perhaps I should add, the email didn't include the cartoon at the end;
Note to all Councillors from Cllr. Sian E. Thomas, Chair Carmarthenshire County Council in Relation to “Urgent Items”.
“Following member interventions regarding discourtesy shown to the role of Chair at the County Council meeting of the 10th October 2012 I write to clarify my expectation in respect of any requests by members to have non-agenda’d items considered at meetings by reason of urgency.
The law provides that an item of business may not be considered at a meeting unless:
a)      a copy of the agenda, including the item, is open to inspection by the public for at least 3 clear days before the meeting; OR
b)      by reason of special circumstances, which shall be specified in the minutes, the Chair is of the opinion that the item should be considered at the meeting as a matter of urgency.
Considering a non-agenda’d matter at a meeting is susceptible to challenge in the Courts by means of Judicial Review. Therefore, the abiding expectation must be that items should be agenda’d.  Agenda items normally flow naturally from the cycle of meetings but any items outside of that process may be suggested to the Chief Executive, who is the Proper Officer charged with setting the agendas for meetings.
Where a member considers that a matter which has not been agenda’d should be considered urgently at a meeting the member should consult me or the Chief Executive (or the Chair of the relevant meeting) in advance of the meeting on his or her item and state the reasons for the urgency of the item. “Urgent” is commonly understood as being something “compelling or requiring immediate attention”. In the context of Council business matters may be important but not necessarily urgent in that they can wait until the next meeting. Members will therefore need to be able to demonstrate to the Chair why an item must be considered at a meeting outside of the usual public notice provisions, including explaining what the consequences of not hearing an item at the meeting could be.
The responsibility for justifying the special circumstances for allowing an item to be discussed without public notice of it having been given, and of recording that special circumstance in the minutes, is the Chair’s and because of the potential for legal challenge it is imperative that the Chair be given the courtesy of being consulted in advance of the meeting in order that he or she can consider the request, and take advice upon it if necessary. Advice may need to be taken on whether the reasons given in support of urgency are likely to be justifiable in law, whether the subject matter can be heard in an open meeting or should be held in camera, whether the item should be taken at the end of the other items of business or should be accelerated up the agenda because of its urgency and the actions which may need to be taken in consequence of any likely resolutions made on it, and indeed on whether the nature of the item is one which legally falls within the remit of the meeting in question, bearing in mind the difference in law between Council and executive functions.
It is difficult to specify a time period for consulting the Chair because urgent items, by their very nature, are matters which arise at short notice. However, I consider that there will be very few occasions where a member is unable to consult the Chair at least 1 or 2 days before a meeting. On occasions when a matter only becomes known on the day of a meeting the Chair, or Chief Executive, must be consulted before the commencement of the meeting.
The Chair’s decision on whether to allow an item on grounds of urgency or not is final and should not become a matter of debate across the Chamber.
Cllr. Sian E Thomas
Chair of Council 

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Towy Community Church - back in the news

Back to our council's 'partnership' with the evangelical Towy Community Church Ltd. In December I mentioned that 'Christians Against Poverty', the outfit which will be running the debt counselling service within the bowling alley and church project Excel, had, er, parted company with Advice UK, a secular umbrella organisation for such services. The offer of prayer as a practical step to beat off the bailiffs was considered to be incompatible with Advice UK's constitution. Clearly, Carmarthenshire Council, perhaps in fear of eternal damnation, feels it is entirely compatible with theirs, to the tune of £1.4m and the axing of £32,000 to the Citizens Advice Bureau (where prayer is not compulsory) over the next three years.

Today's Western Mail features the story here, Evangelical church given £1.4m in public funding and looks at the issue of whether the use of public money in this case, which also includes funding from the Welsh Government and lottery, is remotely compatible with equalities legislation. The fundamentalist church, which is also a limited company, comes under the auspices of the Evangelical Alliance, and believes in the literal meaning of the bible and “the eternal conscious bliss of the believer and the eternal conscious punishment of those who reject Christ”.

It looks like Kevin Madge, Leader of the Council has taken over the baton from Meryl in proclaiming the Excel project as the best thing since sliced bread, forming an essential part of the delivery of social care in the county, despite, for instance, the links to the discredited Mercy Ministries who believe that exorcism is an appropriate treatment for anorexia and drug addiction in young girls. Those links were suddenly removed from the church website late last year. By association, the council are also are embracing anti-gay propaganda, a belief that devotion to christ will provide physical healing, and that it was possible to live to the ripe old age of 969. We can only hope that the council doesn't decide that the church will also 'ease the budget' in the health and education departments too.

Religious tolerance is of course part of equalities legislation itself and rightly so, but the council's promotion (most recently on their website) and generous funding of this fundamentalist group does not sit comfortably with the remit of a local authority.

As a limited company there is also a question of liability should the whole thing go pop, the bank has first charge on the two 99 year leases on the land, the council comes in at a poor third. There may also be an issue over the numerous grants acquired by the church, EU laws regarding unfair competition state that great care should be taken when allocating public money for private enterprises which could result in the creation of unfair competition. This is a criticism also levelled at the council in its similar generosity with the Scarlets rugby team and the stadium.

Still, despite a few stoic councillors who have spoken out about it and the BBC, Unison, Private Eye etc, Carmarthenshire Council does not appear remotely uncomfortable with the criticism over its partnership with the church.

The Evangelical Alliance has voiced its displeasure with the two Carmarthenshire bloggers, Cneifiwr and I, and, in addition, Jim Stewart, a spokesman for the organisation left a vaguely worded 'legal' threat on one of my previous posts.

In the Western Mail, Carmarthenshire MP, Jonathan Edwards said;

“As the former head of policy for Citizens Advice I know that an integral part of debt counselling is that advice is impartial and unconditional. It is therefore worrying to me that an organisation which has had to leave the Advice UK umbrella will be given taxpayers’ money for activities I believe should be delivered by specialist advisors with absolutely no strings attached.
At the end of the day we are talking about extremely vulnerable people, and the advice they receive has to be of the best quality.”

Saturday 20 October 2012

Eastgate and the developers

The Odeon cinema complex, the latest phase of the council led project, Eastgate leisure development was opened the other week. Promoted as the saviour of the dwindling fortunes of Llanelli town centre, (after the other council-led retail, and of course stadium, development at out-of-town Pemberton bled the town dry), let's hope it does and doesn't just benefit the usual array of national retailers and fast food outlets such as Nandos and Costa which the council have been enthusiastically advertising on their website.

The proposals for the development were approved back in 2008. A previous plan to build something similar to St Catherine's Walk fell through when Debenhams pulled out so a revised plan was put forward. Details of the deal with developers and leasing company Henry Davidson Ltd are sketchy with the relevant council reports having been 'exempt' of course. The developers, Henry Davidson Ltd, once a subsidiary of the Fiducia Group but now a subsidiary of the even larger Development Securities PLC, are locally based, well local if you happen to live in Nottingham anyway.

The package was presented to council back in 2008 as the usual fait accompli, there was 'no other option' and questions over the deal and how the identity of Llanelli would be preserved were given the usual heave-ho. In fact the deal, or what we can glean from the scraps of information, is quite interesting. Basically the council purchased all the properties on Upper Park Street, the Island House pub, Mallard House, demolished the lot and threw in their public car park - the whole lot, estimated to be worth around £3-4 m, was then 'gifted to the Nottingham based company. They were then given a grant of £4m to develop the cinema and 'landmark' building.

The middle floor of the  'landmark' building has been designed as a 220 person open plan call centre and the council has committed itself to paying £250,000 per annum for the offices for twenty years, so not only do the developers get a nice guaranteed income back from their original sponsors, the council, but they get to keep the lot for ever.
The open plan office space is of course unsuitable for council purposes and will have to be re-designed, at cost unknown. The current council offices at Ty Elwyn, Llanelli, owned by the council so rent free, look set to be mothballed, conveniently described as 'not fit for purpose'.

As for retaining the distinctiveness of Llanelli, it is rumoured that, apart from the Scarlets (naturally) and national chains, no locally owned pubs, restaurants and businesses were 'eligible' to apply for leases in the new development. The national chains who had first refusal on the units are also rumoured to have a two year 'rent free' period.
The preparation for the site, which involved the annoying presence of vociferous opposition, is rumoured to have cost around £4m in legal battles and compulsory purchase. The row of Georgian buildings along Park Street, the demolition of which was required for a taxi turning circle, were once part of the old coaching route between Swansea and Carmarthen and described as one of the earliest examples of Georgian commercial properties in the town. The Council press release, which made no reference to any objections said they (I presume they mean the buildings, not the objectors) 'Offered little resistance to bulldozers clearing the way for the dawning of the £25million East Gate said they were poorly constructed and collapsed in little more than 30 minutes with little encouragement '. That was the end of that then.
The new bus station had to be improved by the council only a couple of months after opening to provide weatherproofing and seating for waiting passengers, something no one had clearly thought might be needed in the tropical climate of Llanelli.

The total costs to the taxpayer are unknown and, rather like the Parc Y Scarlets, they look set to continue for a number of years. Henry Davidson Ltd were paid over a £1m last year alone in consultants fees.

The opening of the cinema had the usual council fanfares out to proclaim the wonders of 'moving pictures'. All 74 councillors and the council's senior management team were offered free tickets and a drinks reception. For the benefit of public relations, each secondary school in the area also had tickets for a small group of children and a couple of teachers.

Clearly the decision to show Madagascar 3 at the opening night was deemed appropriate for the visiting dignitaries, complicated plot lines always best avoided when entertaining tipsy council guests. The rest of us, however, are left wondering how much our council tax will increase next year..

Update; According to today's SW Evening Post, passengers queuing at the new bus station are still getting wet and falling off the benches, and still waiting for the Council and the Eastgate contractors (who, incidentally, are based in Cheltenham) to provide more glass for the shelters. The council also confirm that, in their wisdom 'horizontal seating' would have been more opposed to the near vertical I imagine.

Breaking point....

The fall out from the Week In Week Out programme rumbles on and has attracted much discussion and a general disbelief that the council, any council, could act the way it did. But probably the most encouraging news is that Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM is requesting a public inquiry into the senior decision making process within the planning department as a whole.

Planning, of course, is only one problem with this council. The tip of the iceberg perhaps. Aside from the various questionable spending decisions, we know from the Delyth Jenkins saga, and I know from others who have contacted me, that the Social Care department, for example, could do with a more detailed examination that the sort carried out by the inspectorate, the CCSIW. The press office and it's spin, and the legal section, which both come under the umbrella of the Chief Executive Department have also been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, not least of all the attempts to control the local 'free press'.

Then you have the blogs, both I and Cneifiwr have now been joined by a couple of others who realise things are not quite right, who have also noticed the last crumbs of democracy being gradually swept under the presidential rug. The national press have picked up on stories and the council has been regularly featured in Private Eye's Rotten Borough's. Scratch the surface and there's something rather unpleasant underneath.

The council, and by 'council' I do not mean the vast majority of hardworking frontline staff, nor the handful of councillors who regularly try and challenge the system, has become subjected to public scrutiny as it has never had to before, despite attempts to put as many obstacles in the way as possible. The 'rap-sheet' is lengthening and becoming more and more visible to the big wide world and the way in which the senior management deals with criticism is also being met with disbelief. There has always been a desire to stifle debate and prevent negative stories appearing in public and the tactic usually employed by Carmarthenshire Council is to go on the attack and smear opponents, campaigners and critics by labelling them as troublemakers and scaremongers, and the like. The old divide and conquer method. Unfortunately, with the council's tenuous relationship with the Ombudsman deteriorating rapidly, they seem to be turning their attacks towards him too.

So just how long can this go on for before we reach breaking point? Is there some sort of imaginary line across which the council must not step? And if it does will the Welsh Government or someone (anyone!) suddenly leap in and have a look at what's been going on? Clearly that line is a lot further away than any of us thought, and I have my doubts that it exists, and in truth the council appears free to carry on as it wishes.

It boils down to accountability. As we know the 74 county Councillors have been unable to hold the senior decision makers to account when necessary, despite some valiant attempts. They do not run the council as they are supposed to and the Executive Board, for the past ten years has dutifully rubber stamped, without question, every whim of senior officers.

So whatever your political colour can I suggest as many residents as possible, who have concerns about the way Carmarthenshire Council is run, in all areas, not just planning, support Rhodri Glyn Thomas' call for an Inquiry.
It would certainly be a start.

Thursday 18 October 2012

Chief Executive enters the Sainsbury's fray

The Sainsbury's/misuse of council resources row continues and the Chief Executive has responded to the complaints from the MP and AM, Jonathan Edwards and Rhodri Glyn Thomas. Their complaint has also gone to the Ombudsman. Mr Edwards has also accused the Chief Executive of blocking the debate and attended last week's full council meeting where attempts to introduce some democratic debate on the subject were further prevented.

As I have said, both the AM and MP have complained that the offending council press article was inaccurate, misleading, possibly defamatory and an inappropriate use of council resources.

The Chief Executive however, has now entered the fray and responded with a denial that there was anything wrong with the article at all, and that it's publication on the council website, as a joint statement by the Leader of the Council in conjunction with the applicants, Sainsbury's, was a perfectly reasonable use of council resources....

As reported in yesterday's Journal, Mr Edwards begged to differ.

Council boss speaks out in stores row

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

THE chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council has entered the row over a Welsh Government decision to call in two planning applications for Sainsbury's stores in Llandeilo and Cross Hands.

Plaid Cymru AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas and MP Jonathan Edwards complained to the council after Labour leader Kevin Madge issued a statement via its press office blaming them for playing a part in the delay.

They said it was not appropriate for Mr Madge to have used the council's press department to issue the statement and disputed they had made representations about the Cross Hands store — which they said was not in their constituency.

This week chief executive Mark James replied saying he disagreed the release was misleading, inaccurate or contained false accusations.

He also defended the role of the press office in releasing it. "It is my view that the leader of the council, acting in that capacity, is quite entitled to use the council's press office to give such views," he said.

But speaking to the Journal this week Mr Edwards said: "You can't make very controversial statements using public funds and then not back it up. My advice to anyone who finds themselves in a hole is to stop digging"

The South Wales Guardian, unlike the Carmarthen Journal, is still bravely resisting the hostile take over bid by County Hall. The council's recent threats were featured, back in August, in the Rotten Borough section of Private Eye. Plucky journalist Steve Adams (who must have been in the Chamber last week, maybe in disguise) has given an accurate account of the attempt by Plaid to introduce the Sainsbury's debate, which as we know was thwarted at every turn by the Chief Executive and the Head of Law;

"...........Plaid Cymru had attempted to question the role of the Labour led council's press office in the debacle at last week's full council meeting only to be told their motion failed to make the agenda due to an error in the accompanying documentation [no date].
Undeterred and with MP Jonathan Edwards watching from the public gallery, Plaid's Darren Price tried to raise the issue during talks on the County Council's annual report and improvement plan.
In what was expected to be a rubber stamping of the report, Cllr Price looked to use the section entitled 'Making Better Use of Council Resources' to lambast the authority's media mouthpiece for "facilitating inaccurate and party politically motivated attacks"
"This was a misuse of council resources" claimed Cllr Price.
However. council Chief Executive Mark James and monitoring officer Linda Rees Jones acted swiftly to halt Cllr Price in his tracks.
"This does not relate to the performance plan" said Mr James....."

And so it went on and finished with a quote from Mr Edwards who claimed the meeting was "a clear indication that the chief executive was going out of his way to stifle debate on the issue"

(The full article is now online and can be read here)

Another point of confusion arose at that meeting over the councillors right to reply. In normal circumstances a councillor has a right to reply if another councillor names them. But the rules are not clear whether a councillor has that right when named by an officer. This was the dilemma faced by the Chair when Cllr Caiach requested the right after Mr James went on the attack because she raised concerns about the state of the economy in the county. The Chair refused, but of course, and again under normal circumstances, and as I understand it,  the chief executive isn't supposed to join in the political slanging matches in the Chamber, he's just supposed to offer factual advice, if asked.
Carmarthenshire breaks the mold yet again....

Public Inquiry? - long overdue

Pleased to see that, further to the Week In Week Out programme, Plaid AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas is calling for a public inquiry into Carmarthenshire's planning department. Like Mr Thomas, I have also been contacted by countless residents who have been on the receiving end of inconsistent decisions (allegedly) from the department. Many contacted me yesterday.

Numerous calls were made to the previous Minister in charge of planning, Jane Davidson, three years ago, particularly after she promised to intervene 'wherever it was evident that the public had lost faith in the planning system'. She never did and readers may also remember 'rooftop campaigner' pensioner Iori Jones starving himself outside the Senedd, whilst the Minister was inside, refusing to meet with him. I also accompanied Iori to court a couple of years ago where a jury found him not guilty of criminal damage to the roof of the Council offices in Llandeilo. Despite several hours of video evidence showing Iori carefully removing the slates - the jury decided he had 'Lawful Excuse' due to his treatment by Carmarthenshire's planning department going back thirty years.

How will the Ministers for Local Government and Environment (planning), Carl Sargeant and John Griffiths react to Mr Thomas' request? Mr Sargeant repeatedly states his reluctance to 'micro-manage' councils, particularly Carmarthenshire it seems, but intervening where there is a lack of faith, spearheaded by an Assembly Member is not 'micro-managing'.

Press release from Plaid Cymru;

Rhodri Glyn Thomas said:

“The television programme has shown beyond any doubt the difficulties my constituents have faced over the past few years with next to no support from the local authority. The Ombudsman himself has stated the local authority has failed to carry out its duties properly.

“Unfortunately, but characteristically Carmarthenshire County Council has now questioned the integrity of the Ombudsman.

“Having met with the Ombudsman last week, and having received a catalogue of representations from constituents regarding planning matters in the county, I have this week written to the Welsh Government Ministers for Local Government and Sustainable Development to request a public inquiry on this case.

“The conclusions of the Ombudsman, the evidence shown in the television programme and the local authority’s decision to question the integrity and impartiality of the Ombudsman present a clear need for a full public inquiry”.

The Leader of the Plaid Cymru Councillor Group on Carmarthenshire County Council, Councillor Peter Hughes Griffiths added:

“As the Leader of the 28-strong opposition party in the County Council I cannot express the level of disappointment we have in the leadership of the authority regarding this case.

“Despite the Ombudsman’s report being published at the start of July, Councillors have yet to be provided with either a copy of the report or an opportunity to discuss the findings openly in the council chamber. This lack of discussion is a direct contravention of the Ombudsman’s recommendation.

“What is clear from the Ombudsman’s comments is that the authority lost all objectivity in this case and subsequently failed Carmarthenshire residents.

“The leadership of this authority must do better and never allow such an injustice to happen again. I expect the Leader of the Council to present the Ombudsman’s full report at the next meeting of the Council.”

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Email to Carl Sargeant in the Western Mail

Thank you to the Western Mail for printing my letter today, it was the open email I sent to the Minister of Local Government, Carl Sargeant about the Council insisting that a 15 yr old boy sign their 'filming undertaking. My earlier blog post is here and a link to the letters page is here (first letter).

The newspaper also went to the trouble of extracting a response to the letter from the Welsh Assembly;

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: The Local Government Minister, Carl Sargeant has placed on record his support for the principle of recording and broadcasting council meetings. Modern technology enables this possibility without prohibitive expense. It should be seen as a means of increasing public engagement with their local government.

Local authorities make their own arrangements concerning access to their meetings. What is important is that the public must be given access other than when confidential matters are under consideration.

Sadly Mr Sargeant does not share my outrage at the council insisting a minor signs a legal undertaking and he yet again leaves the Local Authority to do as they wish, no matter how appalling their actions are. His reluctance to intervene is again a disappointment. Of course it is important that the public are 'given access' to meetings, but they should be welcomed and encouraged, not made to sign (and print name and address) on weird and wonderful undertakings, escorted by wardens and locked in.

The long suffering reception staff have to deal with the 'orders from above' and it is patently obvious that they are embarrassed whenever the ritual is questioned, they are being asked to go over and above the call of duty.

Clearly if the public are allowed to film, which is far from certain, the entry rigmarole should be scrapped, of course it should never have been implemented in the first place. But we'll have to wait and see about that.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Week In Week Out - The truth is out

I hope everyone watched Week In Week Out, if you missed it there's a link to BBC iPlayer at the end of this post..

It was an excellent, truthful and very accurate account of the catastrophic failure of Carmarthenshire council over a ten year period. Criticism was also levelled at Dyfed Powys Police, Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM has asked them to re-open the case.
The Assembly Member has also called for a Public Inquiry into the whole planning process in Carmarthenshire, he rightly recognises that there are many people in this county who would like some answers from this authority in an open, public arena.

The evidence from the retired Planning Inspector and the statements from the Ombudsman were particularly telling. The Planning Inspector had not seen a case as bad as this in 25 years in the job and neither it seemed, had the Ombudsman. The Council, it was said, repeatedly 'turned a blind eye' to developments.

The couple were entirely vindicated by the Ombudsman's report but the council's attempt at an apology has been rejected by the Ombudsman, it's not good enough.

I hope Carmarthenshire County Council are deeply ashamed by the revelations in this programme. The question is, do they care? Once again, like the Delyth Jenkins case, instead of appearing on the programme, holding their hands up and saying 'sorry, we got it wrong' they prefer to go on the attack. They deny any wrongdoing and I hear they have now turned their venom on the Ombudsman.

It will be interesting to see how this is reported in the Carmarthen Journal, if at all.....

BBCiPlayer; The Good Life Gone Bad (available until 23rd October)

Here's an article from BBC Online, 16th October;

Carmarthenshire Council failed harassed couple, Ombudsman says 

Public to film Carmarthenshire Council meetings?

As you may recall from my post the other day, Carmarthenshire council misses the point, the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee were on the verge of recommending to the Executive Board a 12 month pilot to film full council meetings. The broadcasts would not be live and would be uploaded, probably a couple of weeks later after being carefully censored, with all the appeal of reading a two week old newspaper. Whether this unsatisfactory proposal would actually happen, and what would become of the idea after 12 months is anyones guess.

The meeting was held yesterday, and the recommendation approved. Caebrwyn was unable to attend but rather wished she had as Cllrs Darren Price and Alun Lenny part of the Plaid Cymru group on the committee put forward this amendment as an addition;

"Council allows the filming of council meetings by members of the public"

Amazingly, although I don't know whether it was unanimous, it had cross party support and was accepted.

The idea, as if I haven't gone on about this enough, being that the public can take their own recordings irrespective of whether the council is doing it too, and to ensure a true record can be made rather than an edited form. Readers are also aware that there has never been a Rule/policy/anything against it anyway, but the council and I seem to disagree on that point, along with the unlawful undertakings etc.

Anyway, with cross party support, including Labour and Independents of course, the Executive Board will have difficulty in refusing it - I can only imagine that this is going to go down like a lead balloon with the Chief Executive, Pam Palmer, Meryl and Co - the next meeting of the Executive Board is on a memorable date, November the 5th, so they have until then to mull it all over.

I will, of course, be there.

As for democracy in Carmarthenshire, there's still a long way to go yet.

Here's the press release from Plaid Cymru Carmarthenshire;

Plaid leads the way to open government

The Plaid Cymru group on Carmarthenshire County Council has started a process which could lead to the public being allowed to use their mobile phones and other recording devices to film council and committee meetings.

A key point in the long-awaited report on e-Government, presented to the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee, recommended that the Council should pilot both audio and film broadcasting of Council meetings.

Councillor Darren Price, Plaid Cymru member for Gorslas, moved an amendment that the public should also be allowed to make their own recordings. The amendment, supported by Labour and Independent councillors, will now be considered by the Council’s ruling Executive Board.

Speaking after the Committee meeting, Councillor Darren Price said:

“I’m extremely pleased to have cross-party agreement on my calls to allow members of the public to undertake their own filming of council meetings.

“The report on e-government noted the importance of ensuring proceedings are more transparent whilst understandably not wanting to add further substantial costs to the authority’s budget.

“In a digital age where most mobile phones already have camcorders built in, I think it’s sensible to allow members of the public to undertake their own recordings should they wish.

“I'm hopeful that the Executive Board will support the idea, given the cross-party support it received at the Scrutiny Committee”.

In seconding the amendment, Cllr Alun Lenny pointed out that giving people the right to film council meetings has been strongly advocated by Eric Pickles, the local Government minister for England, who said that council openness needs to be updated for the 21st Century. More and more news about what happens in council meetings comes from internet bloggers.

“Unfortunately, this council has a reputation for being less than open and transparent in its proceedings,” said Cllr.Lenny. “That is the perception amongst many people. Allowing the public to record proceedings would go a long way towards banishing that perception.”

Monday 15 October 2012

FoI - the cost of a can of worms

More Freedom of Information scaremongering today on the BBC from Steve Thomas, Chief Executive of the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA). If he's worrying about cost perhaps I could suggest, when the WLGA delegation returns from their jolly in Brussels, they look at the cost of their own quango.

There are no figures available for the WLGA but I imagine it equates with the English version, employing 28 executive staff between £70,000 - £170,000 per year, plus offices, staff and expenses etc. Then you've got the various councillors who frequent this talking shop, Carmarthenshire's own Kevin Madge is one of four deputy Chairs; Meryl  was Chair for a few years, how much was forked out in expenses remains a mystery.

Mr Thomas doesn't seem to like transparency, he spoke against both the requirement to film meetings and to publish spending details. Is it the cost of FoI's that's really worrying Councils? I asked Carmarthenshire Council how much they spent, they said they didn't know. We do know they have ten staff in the PR department and two in FoI and Data Protection, which says it all.

The Freedom of Information act should be protected at all costs and open to all, it's the only thing that members of the public have got to continuously hold public bodies to account, albeit subject to endless 'exemptions', and albeit dependent on the body deciding that the risk of reputational damage doesn't outweigh their legal obligations. The WLGA is supposed to promote democracy and 'improve the reputation' of our councils, the latter is clearly the priority.

Mr Thomas frets that with; 'cuts in public expenditure councils could not afford to spend huge amounts of money on "unnecessary" FoIs. "Every pound and every shilling is required at the moment to push into frontline services,"

'Unnecessary FoI's'? what would those be then? Perhaps Mr Thomas would like to give a definition, and if he can maybe he could quantify the number and cost of those 'unnecessary' requests.

The real problem perhaps is not the cost but the accelerating ability for Joe public, almost at the click of a mouse, to find out more and more information. The fig leaves are slipping. With diminishing budgets it has never been more important for us to be able to judge if it's being spent correctly. How many councils have cut expenditure purely to avoid bad press - instead of sending five officers on a pointless far flung 'fact-finding' mission first class maybe now, with uncomfortable FoI's in mind, they'd only send two, or even abandon the idea altogether.

FoI should also, like the NHS, remain 'free at the point of entry' and councils should publish far more information online instead of using resources to tell us the correct way to address the queen.
Welsh Councils need to get a grip, they are not a selection of exclusive clubs protected and cosseted by quango bosses like Mr Thomas, they are spending your money and making decisions which affect you, and you have a right, and you should continue to exercise that right, to know how, why and what is spent.

Saturday 13 October 2012

Parallel Universe

I found further evidence this morning of the parallel universe inhabited by Carmarthenshire Council. Members of the public, and bloggers for that matter, have long given up any hope that the council website, or the council, will provide spending details, registers of Members' business interests, a Freedom of Information disclosure log, etc etc. However, a whole new web page appeared yesterday which instructs us on the correct way to address royalty. Worst still, it comes under the section 'Council and Democracy'.

The page concerns the Lord Lieutenant of Dyfed, who's mystifying and silent appearance appeared at the Council's AGM back in May, along with several other unknown dignitaries, led Caebrwyn to believe she'd stumbled upon a fancy dress party.

It appears from the information our Council has so usefully supplied that he is yet another brick in the wall of our impenetrable civic establishment with a duty to 'uphold the dignity of the Crown'. Dear me.

As if this information wasn't enough we are informed that if we require his services to escort royal visitors around Carmarthenshire we should contact the 'Clerk to the Lord-Lieutenant', a Mr Mark James at the Carmarthenshire Lieutenancy Office, Spilman Street, Carmarthen, Ruritania.

An extremely handy FAQ section follows where we are instructed as to the correct address for the esteemed gentleman covering no less than four different scenarios, we also discover, under the heading 'How does one get appointed as a Lord Lieutenant' that as long as one is resident in the County, one may be chosen by one's sovereign....

Just in case one bumps into one's sovereign the Council also advises us how to address their royalnesses,

"For the Queen: Your Majesty on the first occasion and Ma’am thereafter. Other female members of the Royal Family who hold the title of Her Royal Highness: Your Royal Highness on the first occasion and then Ma’am.
For male members of the Royal Family who hold the title His Royal Highness: Your Royal Highness on the first occasion and Sir thereafter."

Unfortunately there's no video demonstration on extreme forelock tugging, which I'm sure would have come in handy.
And just in case anyone feels that any more of our civic dignitaries should be honoured, knighted or made a peer of the realm, commonwealth and empire, they have supplied an indispensable guide to this too.

One is flabbergasted.


Award-winning blogger Owen Donovan has written a brilliant piece this morning on his blog, Oggy Bloggy Ogwr. I can't do it justice in a summary so I strongly suggest you all have a read....there is particular interest to those of us living in the feudal kingdom of Carmarthenshire;

BBC Wales; Week In Week Out

BBC Wales Online 16th October; Carmarthenshire Council failed harassed couple, Ombudsman says)

Next Tuesday's edition of Week In Week Out is one to watch.

Earlier this year one of the most damning reports by the Ombudsman was completed. It catalogued ten years of failure from the planning and enforcement sections of the council. In addition to this was a failure of the complaints system and misuse of the Persistent Complainants Policy.

The complaint, brought by Trisha Breckman, concerns the failure to control developments at a neighbouring property. The council's failure to act appropriately, which actually began with earlier occupants of Mrs Breckman's property, not only caused years of distress to Mrs Breckman and her partner Mr Roberts, but was pivotal in causing and exacerbating a dispute between the two neighbours which eventually involved the police. In 2010, during a Public Inquiry into the case, the planning inspector accused council officers of 'turning a blind eye' to the developments. That planning inspector, now retired, was interviewed for the programme.
The Ombudsman's report also features a letter from the former Head of Enforcement. No longer employed by the council he had to be officially summoned to give evidence. The first part of his letter is an outright attack on Mrs Breckman, which merely confirms the Ombudsman's finding that the council exercised a subjective view against the complainant. The second part is an outright attack on the Ombudsman, accusing the watchdog of self-rightousness and unprofessionalism, and for having the gall to investigate the matter at all. 

The report, which runs to 190 pages, is not in the public domain, but can be obtained on request from the Ombudsman's office, which I have done. It is a very detailed and thorough investigation; too lengthy to detail here as are all the numerous recommendations to correct the very serious 'injustice and shortcomings' within the report. To give an example, with regards to the Persistent Complaints Policy, within three months the council should "ensure, by means of appropriate awareness training that its procedures are actually followed", it should also review it's complaints procedure concerning planning and enforcement cases. 

The Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall, who also takes part in the programme, recommended that within three months, the council "ensure that the concerns identified in this report are brought to the attention of Members, and to send me details of the Members’ consideration of those concerns."
The deadline for complying with the latter recommendation passed at the beginning of October and I hear that the council have asked for a two week extension. We can only assume that it is taking a long time for the council to write their own report, which will aim to remove the worst of the criticism.

The programme, which will be aired at 10.35 on Tuesday (16th October) on BBC1 Wales also features an interview with Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM who calls for a Public Inquiry into the whole debacle and for Dyfed Powys Police to look at the case again.

I have also heard that the Council have refused to take part in the programme.

Friday 12 October 2012

Open email to the Minister, Carl Sargeant

To: "" <>
Sent: Friday, 12 October 2012, 14:14
Subject: Carmarthenshire Council - Access to meetings

To; Mr Carl Sargeant AM
Minister for Local Government and Communities
National Assembly for Wales

Dear Minister

Further to your suggestion, via twitter that I contact you in the 'usual' way I am contacting you via an open email.

I know you are aware of the unwelcoming, undemocratic, and unlawful entry restrictions to Carmarthenshire Council's public gallery. Including the fact that visitors are escorted to, and locked into, the gallery. You have made your views clear in earlier correspondence that, despite being Minister with responsibilities for access to public meetings, you are content for this appalling practice to continue.

I note also that the Council's continuing actions fly in the face of your own guidance which was to encourage Local Authorities to welcome members of the public who wished to record meetings.

However, last Wednesday, for the second time I am aware of, a 15 year old child, accompanied by his mother was forced to sign the unlawful undertaking not to film or record the meeting, and give his address, before being allowed into the public gallery to observe the council meeting. As you are also aware, there is no clause within the Council's Constitution prohibiting the recording of meetings.

Whilst you are clearly, for whatever reason, reluctant to intervene and lift the restrictions for adults, I cannot believe that you are not outraged by this treatment of a child. Can you imagine what impression of local 'democracy' this leaves on a youngster? Never mind the myriad of human rights and Data Protection issues this raises?

Please do not advise me to make a complaint to Carmarthenshire Council. As you will be aware it was an 'operational decision' by senior officers to implement the measures in the first place, there was no democratic debate nor any decision by our elected representatives.

I cannot believe you are not appalled by this latest development involving a youngster and I trust you will agree with me, act within your remit, and bring this unlawful behaviour by Carmarthenshire Council to an end.

I look forward to your reply.

Yours Sincerely
Jacqui Thompson

I have also sent this email to the Western Mail

Thursday 11 October 2012

Evangelical bowling alley a 'Mecca' says Kev

I am not going to repeat all I have said about the Council's  involvement (and £1.5m) in the Towy Community Church Excel project, you may remember BBC Wales Dragon's Eye programme earlier this year . According to a very enthusiastic council press release today, it looks like things are progressing down at the old creamery site.

Despite the rather religiously muddled use of the word 'Mecca', the council Leader enthuses that it is a "magnificent project...something the whole county will be proud of....I am very proud of the council’s partnership working with Towy Community Church to deliver such a valuable and multi-functional project." Clearly the links to the Mercy Ministries for 'fallen women', the construction of a church and er, 'therapy rooms', and a debt counselling service which uses the 'power of prayer' tick all the right boxes for Carmarthenshire Council.

Meanwhile, my request for correspondence between the Church and the Council which was refused as it would cost too much to look for it all, now languishes with the Information Commissioner.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Today's meeting - Democracy dies another death...

Back to County Hall today for the monthly instalment of 'how not to do democracy', or the full council meeting if you prefer.

I needn't remind readers that the entry ritual remains in place and for the second time I witnessed a 15 year old being forced to sign an unlawful legal undertaking not to film. His mother was with him and asked why he had to, as she was responsible for him, enquiries were made to a higher authority by reception staff but 'orders were orders' and he had to sign. This cannot be right. The lad happens to be doing a project on 'Democracy' so I imagine it will give him an alternate view of the concept.

Also signing in was Jonathan Edwards MP who was there for the main event - whether Plaid would manage to shoehorn in a debate over the Sainsbury's row despite the Council refusing to allow the motion to be placed on the Agenda, because it didn't have a date (no other reason naturally).
Do you think they managed it, even with a member of their group Chairing the meeting? Not on your life, not even with three attempts.

Anyway the meeting kicked off with the usual parish notices and congratulations passed on to Cllr Roy Llewellyn for becoming Chair of the Mid and West Wales Fire Authority, as vice-chair last year he coined in an extra £7278.96, as Chair it should be even more generous.

The Chair also welcomed the MP, Mr Edwards who was in the public gallery, there was no welcome for the brave members of the public locked in there though, there never is of course.

Cllr Caiach was the first to get short shrift as she disputed the previous meeting's minutes. There was no mention of her request to make an audio recording of the meeting, nor the refusal she was naturally given. She asked again, and enquired whether there were any rule in the Standing Orders to prevent her from filming or recording. Clearly this was not up for discussion, as there is no rule of course, and she was reminded that the Policy and Resources committee were discussing these unpleasant matters next week.

The non-controversial motion on educational standards slipped through, uncontroversially. The only slight thorn was a comment, again from Cllr Caiach that with all the spending on school buildings maybe a little though and extra money should go towards actual teaching.

The main item was the 'Improvement Report', introduced by Kevin Madge. It blathered on about the great achievements of Carmarthenshire Council; despite finances being 'tight' the officers were wonderful, St Catherine's Walk was great and busloads of pensioners came all the way from Bridgend to spend their meagre allowance there, in, I suppose, Frankie and Benny's and River Island. He ran out of tributes in the end and sat down.

Annoying questions were raised as to how on earth the council could make promises, such as 'Improving the Emotional, Mental Health and Wellbeing of all people in the County' or 'Safeguarding all people from abuse, victimisation, neglect and exploitation', there was a general feeling that it was all nonsense. Which it is.

The report was dealt with in sections, and first up was 'Making better use of Council resources'. Plaid took their chance and Cllr Darren Price leapt in with the Sainsbury's row and the 'misuse' of council resources concerning the website article. The Chief Executive then attempted to silence the Councillor who battled on bravely, it was not on the Agenda, said Mr James; it was relevant to the topic under discussion, said Cllr Price. In a flash of inspiration the Chief Executive said that although Plaid were being very 'clever' it had to be on the Agenda for the public to be aware it was going to be discussed, I don't think anyone had heard this one before and we never knew he was so concerned, he did concede that the Chair actually did have the final decision but he had 'given her his advice', and, despite protests from the floor, he ordered the her to move on. That was attempt number one.

As the meeting progressed the various topics within the report were discussed and numerous other issues were mentioned such as the price of photocopying and local fly tipping problems, none of which were on the Agenda either, that was different though. Cllr Caiach tried to raise the problem of pollution in the Burry Port estuary under 'Environment' but the 'not on the Agenda'  ploy was suddenly re-introduced and she was shut up, she was silenced at the last meeting over this controversial issue too. When it came to the topic of Social Care another councillor asked the Leader whether it was true (knowing full well it wasn't) what he had said about the AM and MP jeopardizing a new surgery in Cross Hands by their Sainsbury objection, the Leader gave the Chair/Chief the nod to indicate he 'didn't want to respond'. Attempt two failed.

Cllr Caiach was joined by a couple of Plaid Councillors in stating that any 'Improvement' needs to start with an improvement in democracy, she tried at that point to second the Plaid Sainsbury motion but didn't get very far. She also pointed out that the thriving economic boom in Carmarthenshire, as described in the Report, was not quite accurate, in fact it was far off the mark.
Anyway, this was all too much for the Chief Executive who launched into Cllr Caiach telling her that she 'must be going round with her eyes shut', what about all the various cinemas and expensive shopping malls they'd built? he would 'take her round them all', he had had enough of her criticism, she was 'disingenuous'. Cllr Caiach was refused her right to reply.
Hopefully Cllr Caiach will call his bluff and take him up on his offer..

Much was said about the incomprehensible jargon and aspirational spin contained within the report, The Chief and one of his two Assistant Chiefs, Mr Burns, told them it was not really for our eyes, it was for the special eyes of civil servants in Cardiff and many of the aspirations apparently came from the Community Partnership Strategy and the 'Shared Vision' launched at that other great council office, Parc Y Scarlets, I bet that was thrilling.
Cllr Caiach made the point that this was, in fact, a draft report and their concerns should be included, or at least considered, before the final version. There were, I noticed, sneers from the podium.

The meeting rumbled on through several more reports until we came to Plaid's last stab at the debate. Primed with a copy of the Standing Orders Cllr Darren Price tried to move a motion without notice and introduce it as an urgent item, there was uproar again and barely concealed fury from the Chair, well not the Chair exactly. The same nonsense was trotted out about it having to still be on the agenda, even an urgent item had to be agreed by the Chair. This clearly only applies to meetings where controversial items may crop up.

To be fair I think the Plaid Chair was beginning to waver towards the end and was faced with a difficult decision, she had to placate Members and deal with the threatening noises in her ear from Mr James and hard stares from Kevin Madge. Mr James conceded again, that it was up to the Chair if she wanted to 'overrule her officers'; faced with a possible roasting in the corridor after the meeting she finally announced, to shouts of 'moving the goalposts' and 'brick walls' that she 'had been told to close the meeting'. Pity, she didn't seem the type to give in to bullying tactics.
Attempt three failed.

Once released into the fresh air, the immediate conclusion is that there is something very wrong with democracy in Carmarthenshire, you're unlikely to read anything like this in the local paper but that was what it was like, go and see for yourself. Today's meeting was an appalling display of deliberate manipulation of procedure to avoid controversial debate, about anything, not just the Plaid motion. I fail to understand why this increasingly acrimonious political row could not have been aired and possibly diffused. It's incredible. No wonder they don't want to be filmed.

Update 11th Oct;
I asked Carl Sargeant, Labour Minister for Local Government, via Twitter, whether he thought it lawful/ethical for a 15 yr old child to have to sign an unlawful legal undertaking not to film/record a council meeting before being allowed into the public gallery.

@carlsargeant1 has yet to tweet back.

@carlsargeant1 has now tweeted back;  "as your aware this is my private twitter account, maybe you would like to tweet/contact me like you normally do ...this doesn't anyone preference in correspondence".

OK, there we are then, a simple yes or no would have done. I've lost the will. So much for local government engagement via social media. Incidentally, Mr Sargeant does appear to use his twitter account to promote Welsh Government policy.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Sainsbury's row heats up

Ahead of tomorrow's full council meeting, Plaid Cymru Carmarthenshire have issued a statement (as below). which includes the publication of the paper trail of documents concerning the whole Sainsbury call-in row.
It also includes a letter of complaint from the MP and AM copied to the Ombudsman, against Council Leader Kevin Madge (Labour) and the Chief Executive, Mark James, I have linked to that letter at the bottom of the press release

With the situation growing more politically acrimonious by the day, tomorrow's council meeting promises to be an very interesting one.

Here's the Plaid press release;

"Recent weeks the political debate has been dominated by an unsavoury political row initiated pre-emptively by the Leader of Carmarthenshire County Council.....The initial press notice was issued jointly by the Executive of Council and Sainsbury’s via the press department of the Council.

Since the original story broke the Leader of the Council has been embroiled in an exercise of political spin, using the publicly funded press department of the Council, to rival Tony Blair’s Iraq dodgy dossier.

Tomorrow, Wednesday, October 10, the Full Council will meet for the first time since this sorry episode began.

Nobody goes into politics expecting not to receive a couple of low blows from your opponents, especially when your main rival is the Labour party. However, at the heart of any democratic system there has to be political integrity. This means that on no occasion should elected members and civil servants issue statements that are blatant lies and have no basis in fact.

We have therefore taken the extraordinary step of publishing our paper trail on this whole saga. These documents are the basis of a complaint we have made this week to the Local Government Ombudsman against the Leader of Carmarthenshire County Council and the Chief Executive, which can be found at the bottom of this post.

Jonathan Edwards MP and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM"

Included in the letter of complaint is Mr Edwards reaction to the refusal to allow the Plaid motion at tomorrow's meeting;

"The latest twist in this sorry saga is of course your refusal, without referral to the Council Chair, to rule the Plaid Cymru group motion presented last Friday out of order as it did not have a date.  We appreciate 
that Standing Orders state a date to which the motion is intended should be noted, but your decision has done nothing but perpetuate the opinions of some county residents that the council has lost all sense of openness and willingness to debate."

Link to the Letter of complaint

The full press release and list of documents can be seen here; Jonathan Edwards MP - Sainsbury's

(Recent posts on this blog include; MP accuses Council Leader of defamatory comments, and Carmarthenshire chief Executive 'blocks' debate - says MP)

Carmarthenshire Council misses the point

Finally, at long last, Carmarthenshire Council have completed their report on the mysteries of 'e-government', which includes the recording of council meetings. It's due to have an airing at next Monday's Policy and Resources Scrutiny meeting.

There is no mention, at this stage, about members of the public filming and recording meetings so the fact that there is no policy, nor any rule against this, remains, and, in theory, you are free to record. The council and I seem to differ on this point so it would be at your own mortal peril, of course.....

Anyway, the report deals with several 'e' issues but I'll start with the filming.
A pilot project has been recommended to make audio and film recordings of full council meetings only. I gather from the report that webcasting has been excluded as an option so any recordings will not be live, they will be edited, cleansed of anything the 'editor' may not want you to see or hear, then uploaded onto the council website. The council will therefore retain full control of the output and have conveniently missed the entire point of the exercise.

The report also misses and fails to consider the central point that the recording of all meetings, by whatever method, provides a true record of what was actually said.

This is disappointing and predictable. There is no mention either of the free use of the recordings once they are edited and uploaded nor why the pilot should not include other meetings, especially the Executive Board and the planning committee.

And don't forget, the council films you, via CCTV, from the minute you enter County Hall.

Part of the report states that (my italics);

"the main potential advantages of webcasting are said to be that it makes meetings more accessible to the public, has the potential to reach a wider audience and increases transparency in the decision-making processes of a council."

The advantages of live webcasting are not potential, nor said to be, they are fact. Neither does there appear to be any mention that recording, by whatever method, would provide an unarguable record of exactly what was said.

The other main issue is cost. We all understand the tight budgets councils are under but Carmarthenshire Council does have a slightly different set of priorities, number one being reputation management and spin which includes, amongst other expenses, the £138,000 a year propaganda rag, not to mention £1.4m on an evangelical bowling alley. If we also consider the fat cat wages of the senior management team at over £1m, £20,000 to webcast meetings, even with costs of translation, cabling etc, is a drop in the ocean.

Other recommendations in the report include urgent improvement of the planning section of the council website, it is a complete nightmare and prevents all but the most intrepid from viewing and commenting on planning applications in their area.
General recommendations to improve communications via the website are to be welcomed, as is continued lobbying to improve broadband in Carmarthenshire. But the use of the site to publish spending details, registers of interests and gifts etc are not considered. Neither is the questionable use of the news section to score political points, promote the planning applications of major international retailers or malign opponents to council led projects.
The Council provided me some time ago with their 'internet usage policy' but this report mentions a more specific Social Media Strategy and recommends to;
"Continue to monitor the use of social media throughout the Council to ensure compliance with the Social Media Policy" I shall have to see if I can find a copy. I wonder if it encourages the use of twitter during meetings? Unlikely.

The full report and further details can be found here, and the section relevant to recording meetings is at 5.6. There is a list of relevant links at the bottom of the report, including various newspaper reports.

The recommendations will now go before the Executive Board and then full council - with, I expect, a few added dampeners from the legal department.

I would be interested in your comments.

Update 10th october
An excellent blogpost on the subject from Madaxeman, here; Daft response to #daftarrest