Wednesday 7 November 2012

November Council meeting - short and not so sweet

Today's meeting was a relatively brief affair lasting exactly one hour and fifteen minutes. There were, of course, no uncomfortable ombudsman reports to discuss nor awkward Motions to debate, all shoved in a drawer until, it is hoped, things have blown over. Since the last meeting it appears that those in charge, have ensured there is no more nonsense, nothing will be mentioned unless it is specifically on the agenda, apart from items which do not reflect badly on the authority of course.

After the usual hatched, matched and dispatched announcements it was time to sign off last month's minutes. No one appeared to have the will to put up a fight, apart from Cllr Caiach who asked why her request for councillors to make their own recordings of meetings was not minuted for the third time, she made the point that this was separate from the filming proposals, and was there anything in any of their rules which prevented her from doing so anyway? Her last point was politely ignored. The Chair again said she was waiting for the report from the Task and Finish Group (who, we now know, weren't looking at this anyway).

Cllr Madge, the Leader said that the Executive Board will be supporting the filming recommendations at their next meeting (19th November) and blustered on about how 'open' this council was. Plaid Cllr Lenny, sensing perhaps that Cllr Madge had forgotten about the public filming amendment welcomed the leader's support and the fact that the public would be able to come in and film or record freely.

At this point Meryl Gravell and Pam Palmer looked very alarmed and Meryl rose to speak, they had to think of the cost, she said, so it had to be a pilot of only full council meetings and they had to make sure that no one would be able to just come in and film parts of the meeting and possibly misrepresent the situation. Unlike the Minutes, I could have said. Pam Palmer seemed perturbed that the great unwashed may be about to burst through the doors wielding mobile cameras and said that this discussion was a 'non-event' as it had to be sanitised at the Exec Board meeting and then discussed at full council.

It will be very interesting to see what happens over the extra amendment, and I shall be at the Executive Board meeting to find out.

Cllr Caiach also brought up the question of 'off-agenda' items, you may remember the email circulated after the last meeting which warned of possible legal challenges should such items be discussed, she asked whether this had ever happened. The acting head of law didn't divulge whether it had. Strangely, this didn't stop lengthy debates and political grandstanding over the Living Wage proposals, cuts to EU funding or the public sector pension Bill. None of which were on the agenda.

Unlike the last meeting where the attempt to bring up the  Sainsbury's debate under the 'Improvement Plan' was silenced under 'procedural rules', this time, again under the same 'Plan' the  'procedural rules' were forgotten as the Plaid Leader challenged Labour's Cllr Madge over his party's support to cut EU funding, quite a lot of which makes it's way to Carmarthenshire. The debate carried on despite not being on the agenda and Cllr Madge responded that it was all a matter of Westminster politics, they were in a 'bubble' up there and Cllr Griffiths was just playing politics, and he didn't want jobs threatened, etc..

Cllr Caiach attempted to say that they were more likely to be penalised by the EU anyway for non-compliance with EU environmental directives,  and mentioned the Burry Port estuary pollution, at this point she was silenced. The agenda had suddenly been remembered.

The next non-agenda item up for discussion was the Living Wage. This, as well as the EU funding issue, and pension cuts (the Plaid leader asked Cllr Madge to apologise for his party abstaining against the public sector pensions bill, Plaid had voted against it, Cllr Madge skirted the issue by accusing Cllr Griffiths of playing politics and talked about Westminster bubbles again) are all important of course and discussion is welcomed; but these are clearly fairly countrywide issues and are not likely to result in red faces and awkward questions about ombudsmen, for instance.

Unlike several other Welsh Councils, Cardiff, Neath Port Talbot and Swansea, Carmarthenshire's Labour led lot don't seem quite as committed to the Living Wage, Cllr Madge, with one eye on the Director of Resources questioned whether they could afford it, people might lose benefits, it will mean job cuts, what about benefit reforms etc. Plaid insisted that the least they could do was help their lowest paid staff, a couple of thousand of whom were paid £1.26 below the proposed minimum wage, a thirteenth the salary of the most senior officer. I happen to agree.

During all this chat about low wages, benefits and the peasantry, the podium of mostly silent senior officers started to look a bit distracted....

Rural problems were raised next and primary school closures. Cllr Williams who represents a north Carmarthenshire ward was concerned that, should the council proposals to 'reorganise' go though, it would mean 4 year olds travelling 15 miles to school, another said that due to closures, their remaining school was oversubscribed and village children had to go elsewhere. The Chief Executive said that it was all very difficult and they couldn't please everyone and Cllr Madge waded in to say he now fully understood rural problems and was currently touring the wilderness visiting them all.

Next was the interesting puzzle of how the Cross Hands Sainsbury deal tied in with the extension to Maes yr Yrfa school, hinted at in the controversial Sainsbury's press release. Cllr Caiach asked how the land transfer would affect the school. Unfortunately we're still in the dark but it appears that the council have made a deal with Sainsbury's over the land, the revenue from which, I assume, will be funding the extension, perhaps it will be called the Jamie Oliver Canteen? All we learned from the Chief Executive was that if the store is refused through the call-in then the extension is back to the drawing board.

Clearly the council are funding the education budget on the basis of planning permission for major retailers.

The last gasps of the meeting brought some awkward moments as a few councillors questioned the Vision of Eastgate, Llanelli; the latest vanity project currently dominating the council press office.

As I have said the council have committed £250,000 per annum for twenty years for office space, and on Monday will rubber stamp £450,000 to redesign the floor plan. Was the move permanent? What would happen to Ty Elwyn (the old offices). Apparently it was well, sort of permanent but if any private businesses came along the council would move out, one had almost moved into part of the offices but had pulled out, another was considering a move.

The Executive Board Member for Money said that footfall and spending in the town centre would increase as council staff would now be there, I guess they're hoping it won't be the low paid ones though.  Cllr Caiach asked how much of the £450,000, and £250,000 rent would be paid by the private company? The Chief Executive didn't say, maybe the private company were only going to rent a small cupboard, who knows.

Cllr Caiach mentioned that the aim was to attract footfall from outside Llanelli and by simply moving the stadium, the theatre and the cinema from one side of town to another wasn't achieving this. The Chief Executive was not pleased of course at this criticism, and seemed almost on the brink of offering Cllr Caiach a tour of the council's achievements around the county again, fearing perhaps she may of finally taken him up on his offer and provide the sandwiches if he brings a flask.

And on that wonderful note the meeting ended. I took the opportunity during the escorted exit to go and check along with a fellow inmate to see whether the 'Keep Clear - Fire Exit' door to the outside world was still locked. It certainly is.

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