Wednesday 30 January 2013

Chief Executive received £20,000 'cash advance'

Back in July 2012 I noticed in the council accounts that the Chief Executive of the council appeared to have had a £20,000 pay rise, bringing the total up to £209,498 per annum for 2011/2012. This seemed rather generous considering the financial position of the council. However, I clarified the blogpost after Unison, understandably, as they represent many low paid council workers, contacted the council and made enquiries. A rather vague response was issued to say that it was for 'fees as Returning Officer'. A detailed breakdown was not forthcoming but I took it to refer to the Welsh Assembly elections and the Referendum held earlier in that financial year.

Plaid Cymru, who have been campaigning for a Living Wage for the lowest paid workers (rejected by the Labour led administration) have followed up this matter. It has now come to light that it was not the Assembly election at all, as those fees and expenses were paid directly by the Welsh Government. The £20,000, (a 'part payment' no less), was paid in advance of the local council elections in May 2012, which is rather novel being in a different financial year and normally paid after the event when the number of candidates and contested seats are actually known. Fees and expenses for local elections are paid by the council of course.

This payment does not figure anywhere in any meeting, agenda or minutes but surely must have been approved by Meryl and Co...apparently there were 'funds available'. Also odd is that, if this was approved just prior to a possible change in the Administration, the Members who gave the rubber stamp were effectively acting on behalf of an unknown future membership of the council. It is far from clear whether approval was sought from elected members at all and Plaid are asking questions.

Plaid Cymru Carmarthenshire have issued a press release;

Carmarthenshire County Council’s Chief Executive received a £20,000 cash advance last year Plaid Cymru has revealed. 
....Information obtained by Carmarthenshire MP Jonathan Edwards and AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas shows that the £190,000-a-year Chief Executive was paid an additional £20,000 for election activities a minimum of 5 weeks before the election took place, in a different financial year and before the number of candidates was even known. 
 .....E-mail correspondence from the Chief Executive and the Director of Resources states the payment was made in advance of the election actually taking place and because “funds were available”.
Mr Edwards said the cash advance would leave county residents asking a number of questions about the priorities of the Council’s Executive, especially how “funds were available” for a cash advance whilst services were facing unprecedented cuts. Constituency colleague Mr Thomas said the decision resembled the scandal at the All Wales Ethnic Minority Association (AWEMA) in which the Chief Executive awarded himself a cash advance on his expenses. Mr Thomas also expressed concern that the same people who approved this cash advance continue to sit on Council’s Executive Board. 
Jonathan Edwards MP said: 
“I’m sure the residents of Carmarthenshire will be asking serious questions as to how funds were available to pay the £190,000-a-year Chief Executive a cash advance of £20,000 at a time when services were facing, and continue to face unprecedented cuts. 
“More questions will inevitably follow as to how that £20,000 figure was calculated before the election took place and before knowing how many council wards were going to be contested. 
“Both the Leader and Deputy Leader of the council who would have approved this cash advance continue to lead the local authority on its Executive Board. This is the same leadership which continues to deny its low-paid employees a Living Wage. 
“This revelation will be a slap in the face to those hard-working low-paid employees and speaks volumes about the priorities of Carmarthenshire County Council’s Executive.” 
Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM added:
“Many county residents will be shocked to learn the £190,000-a-year Chief Executive pocketed an additional £20,000 before the close of nominations, let alone before the election itself.
“The whole affair seems remarkably similar to the scandal at AWEMA in which the Chief Executive awarded himself a £9,000 advance on expenses he claimed he would have earned at a later date. 
“The only difference I can see in this case is that the council’s Executive Board – the then Leader and Deputy Leader of which continue to run the council today – would surely have approved the cash advance. We have now written to the Council Leader asking for a full justification of the decision
“When so many people are relying on pay-day loans to get them to the end of the month, to learn that such a highly paid officer received an extra £20,000 weeks in advance will be a bitter pill to swallow for those struggling to make ends meet. 
“There is a need to look more widely at Chief Executives receiving these substantial sums of money for election activities on top of their already large salaries when we consider that much of the work is actually carried out during normal working hours.
“I believe the role of Returning Officer should be incorporated into the existing duties of a Chief Executive and constitute part of their job description to put an end to these hefty elections fees which are paid almost every year.
“As such, I will be presenting amendments to the Local Government Democracy Bill which is currently under consideration in the National Assembly.”
(Full press release here)

Update Feb 1st; Western Mail article here

Tuesday 29 January 2013

Filming meetings - there's no excuse now

The Welsh Government have announced that they are allocating £1.25m to help councils 'improve local democracy and public engagement'. This includes £40,000 apiece to 'promote' the broadcasting of meetings and remote attendance of meetings by councillors. It also includes a few quid to help Town and Community Councils develop their own websites.

"Minister for Local Government and Communities Carl Sargeant said: “I want to give as many people as possible access to the proceedings of local government, just as they already have for bodies such as the Assembly and Parliament.
“In a modern democracy, the development of the communications technology means that members of the public should be able to see how decisions affecting their everyday lives are taken.”

The principle of remote attendance by Members is to encourage a wider selection of the population to stand for election, young mothers for instance. Not quite sure how that one will work out in practice. Carmarthenshire Councillors are already supplied with laptops etc so the £40,000 could be spent on broadcasting. One excuse in Carmarthenshire was that, despite having chewed over it all for 18 months and recommended some sort of filming pilot, no cash had been earmarked for it. Well now it has. A criteria for getting the money should be that all meetings are livestreamed and not recorded and censored as Carmarthenshire council is hoping to get away with.

It's a welcome gesture of course but a far greater shift in attitude is required. You would have thought that if Carl Sargeant had been so concerned about 'access to the proceedings of local government' he may have had a word with Carmarthenshire about their entry restrictions over the past couple of years. As for the entire concept of local democracy, I'm not going to repeat everything I've said for the past four years but suffice to say, the Kremlin on the Towy is in dire need of a few basic lessons.

Western Mail article here.

As a bit of an update, the minutes from the last council meeting have been published which yet again shows just how important it is to record the proceedings of Carmarthenshire County Council.

As reported on Cneifiwr's blog, at the start of the meeting, when the previous minutes were up for approval, Plaid's Glynog Davies asked why his question to the Chief Executive about the council's blacklisting of the South Wales Guardian wasn't in the minutes. An amendment was then put forward to try and provide a glimmer of accuracy. It was even voted on, but rejected, presumably by the loyal Lab/Ind members.

It goes without saying, there's no mention of any of this in the newly published minutes either.
Of course we also know that the Plaid motion on 'press freedom' didn't even make it onto the agenda.

Update 10th February;

BBC Wales has picked up the story and has asked all 22 local authorities what their plans are with regard to webcasting meetings - Carmarthenshire council, as you will notice from the article, seems to be keeping very quiet on the subject.
Councils to screen meetings online in £1.25m project

Friday 25 January 2013

Council leader - the knives are out...

Rumours have been reaching Caebrwyn this week that there may be elements amongst the Independents and possibly even in the Labour group that are not entirely satisfied with Cllr Kevin Madge's leadership. They are concerned, I hear, that he's perhaps not the most suitable choice as the 'Face of Carmarthenshire Council' ( I am choosing words carefully).

The recent defection by Cllr Teresa Bowen from Labour to Meryl and Pam's clutches Independent party (I use the word 'party' because it is) has left both the Independents and Labour groups with a delicate twenty two seats apiece.  An increasingly vocal Plaid are currently in opposition of course with twenty eight.

Rumour has it that the Independents are considering putting up a candidate for Leader, the current favourite  is apparently Meryl Gravell. Why not Pam I hear you ask, well according to sources she does not speak Welsh, a requirement for the job. You wonder whether this should have been a requirement to hold the portfolio of 'Communications' too perhaps. Another candidate could be Cllr Giles Morgan, instrumental apparently in enticing Cllr T Bowen into the fold, but his rebel vote against closing the care homes a couple of years ago will not be forgotten...

It is unlikely that such a wrangle would be held in public and would be left to the ruling group to sort out behind closed doors. Then again, the 'coalition', we were told last year, would be up for review after twelve months, and that time is coming up.

Clearly the Carmarthenshire coalition is shaky, and it looks like the knives are being drawn. Labour's Tegwen Devichand surprised everyone at the December meeting by suddenly announcing, despite no one mentioning it, that 'under no circumstances are we changing Kev as our Leader', which rather made everyone think they probably were.

Of course this is all deckchair arranging, pointless as far as I can see, and if Meryl becomes leader then we truly could have bypassed the May election altogether.
The real power, as I've said, doesn't rest with our elected members at all, and unfortunately, most of them are perfectly content for this arrangement to carry on - this is what needs to be addressed. 

Thursday 24 January 2013

The autonomous kingdom of Carmarthenshire

You may have read about the recent row over Caerphilly Council's Chief Executive 'secret' pay rise of £35k. A special committee met in private to approve the deal to bump up the salaries of senior officers, including the £35k rise, based on a report authored by the CEO himself.  The ensuing outrage led to a council vote to cut the pay increases, and the Chief Executive's rise has been cut by £21k. Even though the whole deal could have been unlawful anyway as three days notice of the meeting was not given, not all the pay increases will be clawed back and I expect the council taxpayers of Caerphilly will pick up the bill. Gwynedd council staff are today protesting today over a 7% increase in their senior staff pay.

Putting the political banter and blame aside, this all shows how completely out of touch with real life some of our local authorities have become, not just in awarding massive pay hikes to senior directors whilst most residents are deciding whether they can afford bread and milk or a bag of coal, it is also the perception that they have a right to make these decisions away from the prying eyes of the public, press and the majority of councillors, particularly whilst all Welsh Councils are finalising their budgets, making cuts to services and shedding low paid workers. A recent debate to introduce fares for children on school buses at Wrexham council was deemed to be so sensitive that it led to a ban on local reporters tweeting from the meeting, earning the borough a coveted place in this week's Private Eye.

So what about Carmarthenshire? Caerphilly's Chief Executive, even if he'd kept his pay rise would still be receiving less than his counterpart in Carmarthenshire. And, unlike Carmarthenshire, at least Caerphilly have attempted to introduce the Living Wage for low paid staff. A £26k pay rise in 2009 for our Chief Executive was swept through with Meryl brought out to defend it saying something about monkeys and peanuts. The 2011/2012 accounts show the Chief Executive's pay, including pensions and 'fees' as £209k. The 'Remuneration of the Senior management Team' document on the council website is so out of date Meryl is still Leader, maybe this is just wishful thinking though.

It was interesting that a recent survey by Hansard of new Welsh Assembly Members showed that their priority had changed since the election from representing their constituents to trying to make government more accountable, at it's most basic level this involves the apparently insurmountable task of getting a straight answer.

Carmarthenshire Council leads the field of course in opaque decision making and lack of accountability. The public and press are excluded from Executive Board Member meetings; the 'Business Management Group' of party leaders and senior officers makes 'recommendations' yet doesn't appear in the organisational structure of the council, nor publishes agendas or minutes; the various amendments to the Constitution have led to less scrutiny and further centralised control to the Chief Executive's office. I could go on.

The press office has gained national notoriety as a bloated propaganda wing of the ruling officer-led administration, acting as the catalyst for threats to the local papers. An attempt to bring this to a head in the Chamber by the opposition was headed of at the pass by the Chief Executive resulting in the meeting I referred to in my last post, which left me speechless. And I'd like to know who decided to give Cllr Pam Palmer the portfolio of 'Communications', was this some sort of joke?

The council continues to remain in denial over negative ombudsman reports, and the strained relationship between council bosses and what is after all, our only source of redress and complaint doesn't help in the accountability stakes. The next meeting of the Planning Committee, for instance has a very rare 'Ombudsmans report' for discussion. The 'Carmarthenshire' public interest test will be applied and no doubt the discussion will be held in private. We can only assume, as we are not told in the agenda, that this is the Breckman case from last July, as featured, very publicly, on Wales This Week last October. The committee will be given an officers' report on the case which I am sure will read somewhat differently to the original and will they be told that, as I understand it, the watchdog in Cardiff is still not satisfied with the council's response?

I couldn't attend, for various reasons, yesterday's full council meeting which leaves us all with the depressing reality of having to rely on the surgically cleansed 'approved' Minutes, (the 'official' approval at the following meeting is purely cosmetic as we know any important challenges to their accuracy are completely ignored). The minutes from the Executive Board meeting of the 7th January still haven't been published which is a long time, even for Carmarthenshire and surprising given that the Board have met since.

When it comes to accountability and a moral responsibility to at least be seen to be democratic, our local authorities in Wales are becoming autonomous institutions, ruling parts of Wales like ancient fiefdoms. Leading the way as a model of dictatorial local government, and seemingly endorsed by the Welsh Minister responsible for such things, is, without a doubt, our very own Carmarthenshire County Council.


Update; The ever resourceful Cneifiwr has a rundown on yesterday's meeting - where it appears that a brand new Constitutional trick has been devised to further prevent insolent councillors from questioning the regime, (even if, as it appears to be the case here, the Chair of the meeting had been given prior notice and presumably her permission) - Just take 'Any Other Business' off the Agenda! Job done!


...and if you only read one thing today, make sure it's this post this from award winning blogger, Owen Donovan, aka Oggy Bloggy Ogwr;

Friday 18 January 2013

Secret meeting on press freedom - a new low for Carmarthenshire Council

If anyone was wondering what had happened to the Plaid group's Motion for press freedom, rejected for debate in the Chamber by the Chief Executive who referred it to a single Executive Board Member, well, now we know.

That Executive Board Member turned out to be none other than Cllr Pam Palmer, leader of the Independent Party, an outspoken critic of anything transparent, who had rushed to defend her Chief Executive in last week's Carmarthen Journal.

You may have missed the meeting as it was held yesterday and the Agenda was only published today.

The Agenda says it was to be held in Llanelli town Hall (Room 3) but the minutes say it was in Carmarthen...who knows, perhaps it was held in a layby somewhere between the two. It makes no difference, the public didn't know about it anyway.

The 'Decision Record' was also published today which shows that those present were; Cllr Palmer, Colin Davies (Democratic Services) and the press manager, Debbie Williams (author of the email sent erroneously to the SW Guardian).

You will be mightily reassured to know that Cllr Palmer gave the matter her consideration.
This meeting lasted a whole 25 minutes and as you may imagine, there were no issues worth troubling full council with, everything was just fine and the matter was closed.

The reason for the call for a full debate in the first place was to highlight and debate the well documented problems between the local press and the attitude of County Hall to negative reports, requests for information and the like, reported on both this and Cneifiwr's blog.

The recent publicity over the decision to withdraw advertising from the SW Guardian was a culmination of events, and it was the adverse national publicity, (which also included a slot in the 'big' Guardian), beyond the reach of County Hall, and nothing else, which led to the end of the 'boycott' last week.

It doesn't really bear thinking about how anyone could consider that a secret meeting between these three people was an appropriate and transparent way to address such an important issue.
Says it bloody all really.

Update; I have been reminded that, to make decision making even less transparent than it already is, the Constitution was amended last June to ban the public and press from Executive Board Member Decision meetings. Effectively to set up meetings to make decisions behind closed doors. Apparently Cllr Palmer spoke in favour of this little gem.
Other amendments over the last year have included the requirement for seven Members to second a motion, effectively silencing individuals or small groups.
For the record, I have kept track of these Decision meetings for well over three years and the agendas have always been published after the meeting.

Thursday 17 January 2013

Another planning problem...

I am approached by many residents of the county who have had a bad experience with Carmarthenshire Council's planning, in their own words, is another one;
"Carmarthenshire planners are refusing to enforce what they have stated in writing are breaches of its planning guidance.
Here is a picture of a fence being created adjacent to a Grade II listed building. It is more than 2m in height, standing at more than 3m in the neighbouring garden. It looks ludicrous: two fences in one garden.
However, rather than telling the owners of the second fence to take it down, planners have said the breach is 'not expedient to pursue'.

The property lies in a conservation area and in the curtilage, formerly the garden, of the listed building.
Here's what Carmarthenshire Council's website says of conservation areas and listed buildings:

 Curtilage and Setting

Although some ancillary buildings and structures will be considered to fall squarely within the "curtilage" of a listed building (whether specifically mentioned in the Statutory List or not), other developments may be considered to affect its "setting". "Setting" may be affected, for example, by proposals for free standing buildings within garden-ground, alterations to walls or approaches, sightliness to or from the building and associated landscaping. A consent, or permission, may be required in these instances.

It goes on:

You will need consent for:

Where your proposal does not directly affect the Listed building but is close enough to potentially affect the 'setting' of a listed building. Your proposal may need to be sympathetically altered to suit the circumstances.....

The problem has arisen where the owner of the new development has created a new ground level, on a raft foundation -all approved by the authority, even though no side elevation drawings have ever been submitted to show this new level. (This has been established via a request under the Freedom of Information Act)

It raises serious questions as to why the council is allowing the breaches - which are clearly to the detriment of the property which the authority itself chose to list for conservation!

The tragic irony is that the very same listed building is not allowed to have double glazed windows or doors because the extra 4mm of glass would affect its character, even though that would ensure a hugely more energy efficient home. 
To rub salt into the wound, they have stated that the owners of the listed building will need planning permission to create a fence to hide this one (all at their own expense and not mention the obvious breaches of guidance relating to a listed building)."
As for listed buildings, readers may remember the council's relentless pursuit through various courts of Mr Humphries of Felin Wen who had carefully removed some dangerous machinery from his mill, whilst, at the same time they approved the restrospective flattening of another one a couple of miles away, where they had, it turned out, acted unlawfully. As for enforcement, you might remember BBC Wales This Week back in October. Repeated calls over the last few years by local politicians for ministers in Cardiff to take a closer look at planning in Carmarthenshire have continued to fall on deaf, or reluctant, ears.

Of course many residents who are at the sadly inevitable 'banging head against brick wall' stage with Carmarthenshire planners say that the department appears to make up the rules as it goes along....and by the look of this from the Council website, it certainly seems to have developed its very own language......

I have recently learned that the Ombudsman, who is being kept very busy with our local authority, has decided to investigate Carmarthenshire Council with regards to the 'Magnolia Monstrosity' affair, I believe it is still in the early stages and preliminary enquiries are underway.

Saturday 12 January 2013

'Cost-shunting' and the Council rag

As I have mentioned, the budget proposals are currently going through the various scrutiny committees in what passes in Carmarthenshire for consultation, eventually to be 'debated' by full council on the 26th February, in what passes in Carmarthenshire for 'democracy', and with the motion for the next meeting 'to respect the local press' rejected, we seem to be heading for new low points in the democracy stakes.

Just before Christmas a meeting of the Policy and Resources Committee met and discussed the budget. The list of concerns included the continuing overspend within Social Care and whether this was partly due to the Health Board transferring care into the community resulting in the council picking up the bill. The Director of Resources warned that this was called 'cost-shunting', and was 'being closely monitored' by the WLGA and the council.
A little further down the list someone asked about the funding of the sacred cow of County Hall, the press office and its 20-strong team as it appeared, in the document, that this department been overlooked for 'efficiency savings' along with 'Civic and Ceremonial' eg chauffeured cars and similar outdated trappings of municipal life.

One of the Assistant Chief Executives, you'll remember that here in Carmarthenshire we're lucky enough to have two, "reassured" the committee that, in respect of the 'Communications Team' it had not been overlooked, I suppose he could have added that the decision to withdraw adverts from the South Wales Guardian over negative reporting may have saved a few bob. Instead, the committee were 'reminded' of the income generated by the press office from 'organisations external to the council' which props up the council rag, the Carmarthenshire News.

These external organisations are, in the main, publicly funded bodies; the health board, the police and the colleges. The decision a couple of years ago to 'expand' the publication to include these members of the Local Service Board (another talking shop in case you were wondering) seems to have been quite an efficient example of 'cost-shunting' in itself, I don't suppose the WLGA is looking at that though. 'Adverts' are also placed by other departments of the council but requests by the Assembly Member for invoice details etc drew a blank and led to accusations of 'creative accounting'.

The Acting head of legal soothed concerns that there could possibly be 'Civic and Ceremonial' waste and referred to car leases, fuel costs and hospitality, clearly essential frontline services. In fact the proposals allow for an increase in expenditure over the next three years for both this and that of Communications.

So whilst the propaganda team will remain intact and the chains of office will be polished by Statutory Brasso; spending on roads, social care and elderly services are taking a hit. And what will become of the pilot to film meetings? Many council budget meetings throughout England will be filmed due to the direct public interest involved, but not in Carmarthenshire. According to the Director of Resources when this was raised at the meeting, this cost hadn't been 'factored-in' to the budget and would have to be met through reserves, it was not included in the E-Government report apparently, which is odd given that they'd spent eighteen months considering it and recommended its approval. 

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Pam and press freedom

Further to this post, Chief Executive censors debate on press freedom', that well known exponent of transparency, leader of the Independent Party, Cllr Pam Palmer has rushed to the defence of the Chief Executive in today's Carmarthen Journal.

She says " he has done nothing wrong" and was just following normal procedure, "The Plaid group are aware of the council's constitution and the responsibility placed on the chief executive....It's unfortunate that the leader of the group has chosen to attack the chief executive for doing his job in accordance with the constitutional duties placed on him by the council itself."

Remember, this Motion, which the Chief Executive refused to put on the agenda was to ask councillors to support a free press, coming after the exposure of the council's withdrawal of advertising from the South Wales Guardian after negative reports. This is a pattern of behaviour by County Hall which is affecting the entire county and there are fears that the only the defiant SW Guardian and a couple of blogs will remain free from local authority editorial control.

The Editor's opinion piece in today's SW Guardian has emphasised the real affect of the council's unofficial boycott; readers have been disenfranchised, the Christmas refuse collections were not advertised and nor was the planning application for the new 1200 pupil school destined for the swampland of Ffairfach.

So what is Pam Palmer saying? Which of the many variations of the Constitution has she been looking at? The officers' version, the councillors? or the one on the website? The one on the website says (my underlining);

12.7 Every motion shall be relevant to some matter in relation to which the authority have functions, or which affects the area of the authority, or part of it, or the inhabitants of that area, or some of them.

12.11 The Chief Executive shall in consultation with the Chair of Council refer, where appropriate Notices of Motions upon receipt to the Executive Board, Executive Board Member or the relevant Committee unless the content requires consideration by the Council.

The motion certainly fits 12.7, the crucial bit is 12.11 which raises the following points;

Has the Plaid Cymru Chair of the Council been consulted and happily agreed that this Motion should not be aired at full council? Could we have a statement?

Who has decided, and why, that it is not "appropriate" for this to be debated by full council?

Which Executive Board Member will it be referred to? None as far as I can see has the Portfolio for Press Censorship...will Pam Palmer discuss it with herself?

And who decided, and on what basis, that the content does not require consideration by the council?

Cllr Palmer says that Plaid are aware of the rules of the constitution, I'm sure she's right, in fact they, and the casual observer, seem to have a much better grip of it than Pam and the rest of them.

(See also 'Ad blackout' council accused of stifling free speech' from Hold the Front Page)

Tuesday 8 January 2013

Wrexham Twitter ban

Carmarthenshire Council must have been training Wrexham Council in the dark arts of press control, or PR disasters perhaps. Reporters in the north Wales borough were shocked to discover today that they were banned from tweeting updates from a council meeting discussing the budget and council tax.
What on earth Wrexham Council thought they would achieve by this, other than a lot of bad press, I can't imagine.
Wrexham Council proudly, and hurriedly, produced it's Constitution where 'Standing Order 45' states that all communications with the outside world are prohibited without the express permission of the Chair. The Chair has refused permission.

You would think that any self respecting, democratic, 21st century publicly funded body would be ashamed to admit to having a Standing Order like that. That is my view of course.

Councils in Wales really need to open up. I am reminded of the words of Trawsfynydd Community Council who responded to a call for evidence for my transparency petitions, they "wished to state that the council does not agree with adopting the proposals ....the existing procedure is sufficient and has been in place since 1896" Yes, 1896.

Carmarthenshire Council have never let the little problem of not having a Standing Order like Wrexham get in their way, as we well know, and are quite content to make it all up as they go along. What makes it worse is the majority of our councillors are equally content to let them carry on....

I see the latest escapade, 'Chief Executive censors debate on press freedom', is reaching a wider audience....

Militants and Extremists

To anyone who has ever met either myself or fellow blogger Y Cneifiwr, 'militant and extremist' are probably the last words to spring to mind; 'anoraks' being far more likely. The blogs, whether you like them or not are hardly the stuff of guerilla cyber-warfare by any stretch of the imagination.

I was reminded by Cneifiwr's recent post about councillors' access to certain blogs being blocked, of a Freedom of Information request I made in April 2011. I had heard similar reports that, as usual, councillors were having great difficulty in reading any opinion which varied to that of the Department of Spin. At the time, if the plucky Member managed to get past the sirens and warnings that visiting the blog may impair their minds and corrupt their souls, their visit would be logged and monitored for posterity. There is clearly still a problem.

The Council sent me a list of categories under which headings, sites are blocked by council policy. By a process of elimination, and as neither blogger is a 'botnet', a 'phisher', an illegal arms trader, nor a distributor of pornography, there is only one category left;

"Militancy and Extremist - Sites that offer information about or promote or are sponsored by
groups advocating antigovernment beliefs or action."

Anti-government? Of course this is perfectly in line with the frequently trotted out sentiment, from the highest level, that critics of Carmarthenshire Council are somehow opposed to the whole concept of local government. I suppose that notorious organ of anarchy, the South Wales Guardian now comes under the same category......

The truth is, of course, that the criticism is about the way it's being run, again at the highest level. Yesterday's post said it all.

(Link to the 2011 request here)

Monday 7 January 2013

Chief Executive censors debate on press freedom - yes, really

Censorship from County Hall takes yet another turn for the worse as an attempt by the Plaid Cymru group to have the issue of press freedom debated in the chamber has been blocked by the Chief Executive.

The recent revelation over the 'leaked' email concerning the withdrawal of advertising from the South Wales Guardian for 'negative reporting' seems to have been the tipping point and has galvanised the 28-strong opposition group into action. As regular readers of this and Cneifiwr's blog will know, this was far from an isolated incident. Plaid are correct that this issue is of public importance, not something to be discussed in secret with a pliant Executive Board Member loyal to the culture of spin and censorship.

In an effort to thwart 'controversial' motions you will remember that the constitution was altered to require a unprecedented seven seconders to a Motion. This was no problem for the group but, despite Plaid making sure that the variety of obstacles to getting the motion on the agenda had been overcome, there was clearly no way on earth that this was going to be discussed in the Chamber.

However, it should be becoming increasingly obvious to all concerned exactly where the biggest obstacle lies.

Plaid press release;

The Plaid Cymru group on Carmarthenshire County Council has accused the authority’s Chief Executive of stifling free speech by blocking a debate in the council chamber on press freedom. 
Plaid had drawn up a Notice of Motion asking councillors to express support for a free press following allegations by a local newspaper that the council were operating a ban on advertising in the paper, due to adverse news reports. 
But Chief Executive Mark James has refused to place the Motion before the full council, referring it instead to an Executive Board member for consideration in private. 
“It is very alarming that a motion asking Carmarthenshire County Council to support press freedom has itself been censored,” said Plaid group leader Cllr Peter Hughes-Griffiths. “How ironic that, in trying to stand up for free speech, we find ourselves being gagged. Elected members have been barred from discussing a matter of public concern by the Chief Executive. It is exactly this kind of obstruction to democratic debate that gives this council such a bad name.”
Plaid Cymru, with 28 members, is the largest political group on the Labour/Independent controlled council. Plaid attempted to raise the issue after the South Wales Guardian published an e-mail, sent in error by the council’s Communications Unit, giving an instruction that the council should not place adverts in the paper due to ‘negative publicity’. The Plaid motion reads: “This council respects the freedom of the press and recognises the essential role of local papers in communicating, educating and sharing information about the council’s activities and services amongst local communities.”  
Plaid Cymru maintains that the Notice of Motion is not an Executive Board matter, as it refers to the wider relationship between the council, press and public – a relationship which is currently under considerable strain due to the authority’s attempt to control, not only the news it chooses to release through its Communications Unit, but the content of reports in local newspapers
(Source Plaid Cymru Carmarthenshire)

Saturday 5 January 2013

A link to Y Cneifiwr

I have been aware for some time that Councillors have been having problems accessing Carmarthenshire blogs on their council computers....Y Cneifiwr discusses the matter here;

Friday 4 January 2013

State Aid and the Stadium

The Western mail reports today that Carmarthenshire Council could possibly be in breach of EU State Aid rules in their controversial funding of the Scarlets and the stadium, Scarlets Regional Ltd.
Cllr Sian Caiach has raised the question before and has been told by the Chief Executive that a 'legal opinion'  had been sought in 2007 which had apparently confirmed that the council were exempt on this issue. So far, a copy of this 'legal opinion' has been elusive and Cllr Caiach has now had to resort to the Freedom of Information Act.

She said;
"There are strict EU rules as to how much any arm of government, including councils, can give to private companies called the EU state aid rules. The purpose is to prevent government subsidies from allowing private institutions unfair trading advantages. 
The huge amount of public money used to help the Scarlets appears to be well over the amounts normally allowed and the regulations seem to include private sporting clubs. For over two years I have formally asked many times, in writing and in council meetings, for information on whether these transactions do or do not contravene EU state aid laws as the Scarlets are certainly a private company. 
The total subsidy amounts to many millions of pounds, depending on exactly what is assessed as a contribution to the club. I think most residents of Carmarthenshire would agree that however important rugby is, considering the magnitude of our support, the millions were not worth it, especially in view of our dire financial situation today."
(Western Mail article here)

I mentioned this back in December (The Council, the rugby club and the stadium - back door subsidies?) when my own FoI request revealed that, through rent, hospitality. conference fees. grants and expenses, Scarlets regional Ltd were also receiving around £1000 per week in income from the council.

The issue of State Aid was raised last May over the council's £1.4m funding of the Towy Community Church, again a private company, for the 'bowling alley'. The Wales Audit Office were, like Cllr Caiach, told of a similarly favourable 'legal opinion'. As for the controversial funding of the Stadium, any scrutiny by the Wales Audit Office has been conspicuous by it's absence. Back in 2007 the Audit Commission in England investigated the continuing cost to the taxpayer of a similar long running stadium saga, which, while no blame was apportioned, found 'significant shortcomings' in the way the project was handled.

I see that Cllr Winston Lemon's attempt to break Llanelli away from Carmarthenshire Council was rejected by the Town Council. The practicalities and cost of establishing a new Authority would have been difficult to overcome but I think the principle of local decision making would have been welcome. Investment by the county council in the town has been, by and large, a series of vanity projects benefiting multi national development companies, and out of town retail centres all offering low paid jobs. Cllr Lemon was, I believe, making a stand against the real danger that the spending habits of County Hall could leave Llanelli with the economic legacy of expensive facades like a cowboy town of the old wild west.

Update 4th February; I have learned that Cllr Caiach's request for the legal advice concerning the State Aid rules has been refused. The 'legal privilege' exemption has been used. The advice was supposedly given in 2007, six years ago, the funding of the stadium has also been a point of contentious debate - on those two grounds alone I'd conclude that the exemption had been misapplied. Either that or the senior officers are not comfortable with the 'legal opinion' itself or there wasn't any in the first place.

Wednesday 2 January 2013

Carmarthenshire; Are Plaid going to walk the walk?

Today's South Wales Guardian features an article from Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths the leader of the 28-strong Plaid Cymru group on Carmarthenshire Council, (not yet online);

"Plaid Cymru is calling on Carmarthenshire County Council to make a New Year's Resolution to be open and accountable to the public in 2013...It is an alarming fact that a culture of secrecy and non-accountability is perceived to exist within the administration of Carmarthenshire county council. 
It is also a matter of dismay that any criticism of the authority often results in a disproportionately hostile reaction via the council's publicity department. 
There is a strong public perception that the council is arrogant and autocratic with too many decisions being made in private. 
This perception has been reinforced by the council's refusal to allow people to film and record open meetings, to release critical Ombudsman reports to councillors or to advertise in local papers that criticise the council. 
Plaid Cymru firmly believe that the public have a right to film council meetings and that elected members have a right to see critical reports by the Ombudsman before they are reported on television. 
Plaid also believes that any attack on the freedom of the press is deplorable and dangerous in a democratic society. 
Plaid Cymru is of the view that the authority's behaviour is bringing the authority into disrepute.
We believe it should urgently investigate means of engaging the public in it's democratic process"

These are strong words from Plaid. They are in opposition of course, but I suspect these words are not just aimed at the ruling Labour/Independent coalition but at the senior management of the council. The ruling coalition are guilty of utter complacency and active encouragement in allowing this situation to happen and carry on. To be honest, how the Independent group had the gall to stand as 'independent' candidates in the elections baffles me, as a political party it was nothing less than false advertising.

Anyway, I digress. There are 28 Plaid Members who are beginning to talk the talk - their Motion to allow filming was admirable and its defeat was a mockery of the system - lets' just hope they walk the walk too....there's a long way to go.

As I mentioned, the planning application for the controversial new 1200 pupil secondary school went in just before Christmas, when it was hoped nobody would notice. A major development such as this should be advertised in the local paper covering the catchment area but with the Council's ban on advertising in the South Wales Guardian, and tantrums in County Hall, local residents are being denied their democratic rights.
I'm pleased to say though that the editor of the paper, through his opinion piece, remains defiant.

Tuesday 1 January 2013

Happy New Year

A Happy New Year to you all and many thinks for visiting the blog. Looking forward to the new term at the Towy Kremlin and an action packed year of decisive democracy, complete accountability and such brilliant rays of transparency I'll have to wear sunglasses in the public gallery. Not.

My review of the year was a brief rap sheet only touching on a fraction of the past events. Cneifiwr has a far more comprehensive two part account and the South Wales Guardian, bless it, stands alone amongst the local press for including the slightly less than complimentary tales from County Hall in its reflections on 2013....

I'm sure there was disappointment, even puzzlement, amongst council worthies that there were no gongs to be had this New Year; never mind. The council's repeated confirmation as a Rotten Borough and a Private Eye award to boot should help fill the presidential mantelpiece and provide sufficient corporate consolation for one year. The bloggers will be looking forward to the announcement of this prestigious award at January's full council meeting. They've even won Caebrwyn's top blogpost for December for 'Council email reveals truth behind blacklisting of South Wales Guardian', 2500 hits and rising. Will the new term see some sort of investigation into the council's attitude to the local press? It's about time don't you think?

With the unelected still in firm control over the eleced, the political facade of Carmarthenshire Council has rumbled on over the festivities, the Llanelli Star reports that there's been a 'defection' from the Labour group, and sources inform me that Cllr Theressa Bowen, elected in May, may have gone the whole hog and joined Meryl's gang on the Independent benches - seating arrangements at the next council meeting will be interesting.
Plaid Cllr Alun Lenny has given the Labour leadership a roasting in the letters page of today's Western Mail over their rejection of the Living Wage, (County's wage shame) and called into question the principles of a labour leader who can ignore a union picket and accuse Plaid of 'playing politics' for supporting an end to poverty wages.

2013 will be a very interesting year I'm sure.

Happy New Year