Tuesday 26 February 2013

Council to webcast meetings (Updated with today's meeting)

According to early reports, the Council issued a press release at 5pm yesterday (Monday) with the announcement (finally, after two years) that they will be webcasting full council meetings "live and unedited" as a one year pilot. This is an improvement to the previous proposal to pre-record meetings, but should include all public meetings held in the Chamber.
Naturally I welcome the news and it's a start of course, but the cynic in me says this is a very timely PR move rather than a sudden genuine desire for transparency....

Will update as more information becomes available.

15.30pm; it would seem that the above information is about the measure of it. The press release which is now on the Council website says the same except for additional statements from the party leaders, written by the sound of it, by the press office.
There is also a BBC Wales article here.

There is also the small matter of it yet to be voted on by full council.

I would just say that whilst it is welcome, it is only a start, there's no reason why Executive Board and Planning meetings could not be part of the pilot. We should not expect to see more meetings held in private session either, that will be monitored.
The public must also reserve their democratic right to make their own recordings if they wish, the council should now respect this.
As I said, it's just a start, transparency and democracy are in a dire state in this county and it'll need more than webcasting eleven meetings to remedy it, the freedom of the local press from financial threats is a good place to start.

On the upside I expect the local gentlemen's outfitters will do well and the sales of twin-sets and pearls will be rocketing.


Today's meeting

I hope that the Council's webcasting gear will be better than the translation equipment up in the public gallery. Not for the first time, it was not working properly and after about an hour and a half into the budget meeting I gave up and went home. Perhaps someone should have hollered from the balcony but no one seemed to have the appetite.

The main event was the council budget. The Executive Board Member for Money gave a lengthy pre-amble about tightening belts, saving £7m, and 'protecting frontline services'. There didn't appear to be any really bad news and we should all be jolly well grateful that we live in Carmarthenshire under such a wonderful regime. Council Tax was only going up by 2.75%. There were a couple of the usual PR pieces popped in for effect; charges for Blue Badge holders would not be brought in and  the £20,000 taken from Menter Iaith would be kept in 'abeyance' whilst a Task and Finish Group looked at the Welsh Language. Around £50,000 had been earmarked for extra help with the changes to benefits and some of this...this is the PR bit....came from the 'Communications' budget. He didn't say how much though, it could have been a fiver.

Average rent for council houses was to go up by £3.11 per week but of course the council was shelling out cash upgrading their properties so that was that.

The Capital budget was maintaining jobs and stimulating the economy, we were told. The Eastgate and Furnace Theatre developments were truly wonderful, we were again told.
The Executive Board member finished with a warning to the opposition that there should be better collaboration between members to deliver the masterplan and tributes should be paid to the Chief Executive and Director of Resources for not putting too much pressure on the taxpayers.
Clearly the Carmarthenshire chancellor's budget speech had temporarily detached several Members from the realities of life and incomprehensibly, there was a round of applause.....

Numerous councillors then spoke in opposition. First up was the Sunday parking charges mentioned in my previous post, they were turning the screw tighter, said the councillor, this was a tax on religion and Christian beliefs! The Council's reputation was at stake over this apparently. Another raised the poor condition of the county's roads and the cut in the highway budget. Did all the Outcome Agreement Grant have to be used for capital projects? Couldn't some of it be used for some frontline services. No it couldn't we were told. What about the profits from Cwm Environmental? Why was there never any cash from this company which was after all, wholly owned by the council? No, no, no.

The leader, Kevin Madge thanked everyone at length at regular points during the meeting, apart from the opposition of course, who he accused of having a 'shopping list', there were difficult decisions... it was a prudent budget...things were getting worse...things were getting better....and on it went..

There were three main areas of concern, the decision to charge for post-16 school transport, the removal of the subsidised bus service for fare paying children within three miles of school, car parking (a mysterious entry of £10,000 for 'on street parking' turned out to be, I believe, parking metres for Lammas Street in Carmarthen, a proposal booted out over a year ago after a 3000 name petition...it had crept back in), and that old chestnut and favourite topic of discussion, (and exempt reports), the transfer of public toilets to town and community councils..

Only one councillor, Sian Caiach suggested a change of approach, did we need all these "shiny new buildings" that we couldn't afford? Eyebrows were raised. The black hole in the capital account for 'year three' was now twice as big (£4m) as it was this time last year, jobs were created, but only short term building work, people needed jobs to be able to spend money in these places, quite good jobs at that. Would it not be better to provide transport for youngsters to get to college so they could learn trades, start businesses and boost the economy from the bottom up? Was there really any point in these long term plans? Everything changed year in year out, perhaps the authority should slow down and ensure that essential services were funded before the shiny new buildings; both the Furnace and Eastgate developments were draining the revenue budget. This terrible slight on the flagship, landmark world of Carmarthenshire council caused, as I am sure you will guess, a lot of head shaking and eye rolling amongst the upper ranks.

A 1% pay rise had been factored in across the authority and the Plaid opposition suggested that this should be scaled so that those at the top of the ladder had less of an increase. For instance, a lower paid worker on say £12,000 a year would benefit to the tune of £120 a year, someone on £200,000 would have a £2000 pay rise. This was not possible apparently, I'm not quite sure why..I lost the gist.

As the multiple amendments about the car parking and subsidised buses gathered in number so did the confusion, and a series of votes took place with each group voting along with their leader (there were a couple of abstentions here and there), the Independent Group seemed to raise their hands as soon as they's seen their Labour partners doing so. In the end, further discussions were to be had about the public toilets (can't wait), and the same was decided for the subsidised bus service. The post-16 school transport matter still had to be approved as it was part of next years budget. By now the Director of Resources was frantically scribbling his calculations and the Council Tax rise was now 2.9% or 3.25%, nobody was entirely sure. (correction, it was 3%)

The translating equipment had by now, along with myself, given up the ghost completely so as the 'toiledau cyhoeddus' and black holes were still under earnest debate I left. My apologies for this rather poor report. Will do better next time.

And from the South Wales Evening Post; School travel adds to rise in Council Tax 

Reminder to Councillors

Inserted into the Councillors' documents for council meetings is a short note reminding them how to behave. One can only wonder what fate would befall any faithless atheist councillor who decided to linger at the back of the classroom to avoid the prayers, and was not seated 5 minutes before the entry of the Chair and Vice-Chair, accompanied by the Chief Executive (at which point all must stand, although there are one or two in the public gallery who do not observe this tradition). In any case, it's a timely reminder that when the country is sliding into economic chaos and the council's debt runs to £248m, respect for the Chair and Officers remains a priority.

I'm sure, of course that such additional monthly reminders are necessary for orderly meetings and add to that the recent removal of Any Other Business, the recent addition to require seven seconders to any Motion, the ban on Councillors tweeting, no Public Questions etc etc all mean it's probably best just to keep quiet and do your time....

Councillors' cooperation in observing the following protocol at meetings of the county council will be very much appreciated

Councillors are requested to take their seats in the chamber at least 5 minutes before the meeting is due to start. Group meetings, if they are held in the chamber will need to finish 15 mins prior to the formal start time.This will allow sufficient time for all members to be seated prior to the chair and vice chair of council entering the chamber and formally commencing the meeting.

When the chair declares the meeting closed or in the event of an adjournment members are requested to stand and remain standing until the the chair and vice chair leave the chamber.

Sunday 24 February 2013

Tuesday's Budget meeting

On Tuesday (26th) the council Chamber will yet again echo with the unique sounds and deviations of democracy, in the style we've grown accustomed to here in Carmarthenshire, as the annual budget debate takes place. The council will attempt to balance its books for the years ahead and increase your council tax. The agenda can be found here and the cuts, or, 'efficiency savings' (badly formatted like last year, you'll have to scroll down) can be found here. The most recent mention on this blog of the rationalising, realigning and restructuring and even more Rs, can be found here; 'Cost-shunting and the council rag'. And it appears, so far, that the Council's very well resourced Department of Spin remains unscathed as does 'Civic and Ceremonial', both fine examples of our Council priorities.

Also untouched is executive pay; not even a token pay cut as an empty 'we're all in it together' gesture. With seven senior officers on a shade under £1m between them and our councillors running a total this financial year of £1.16m (which includes £390,619 'senior salary') there's still not a whiff of the Living Wage.

Hidden deep amongst the raft of budget documents is a proposal to rake in £56,000 by introducing Sunday car parking charges, and with charges going up year after year, this little extra will not go down well amongst town centre traders, the parking public, tourists and the like.

As if anyone needed reminding, the meeting will not be webcast, recorded or otherwise relayed to the public. Local reporters will be there of course and the Minutes, for what they're worth, will appear a couple of weeks later. Whether the proposed filming pilot will happen any time soon is anyone's guess, nothing in the budget has been set aside for it although there is now money available from the Welsh Government for that very purpose.

A recent survey of Welsh local authorities by the Electoral Reform Society, (also reported in the Western Mail) revealed that Carmarthenshire Council has banned councillors from tweeting during meetings so there will be no contemporaneous reports from elected members to their constituents either. The survey also reports that Carmarthenshire Council's Twitter account comes one before last for the number of followers - a sign that actual interaction with the public is negligible.

I shall be there of course, back in the public gallery. If anyone else is curious to see how their money is being spent, by public servants in an open public meeting in a public arena, I suggest they join me at 10 am in County Hall.
If, like me, you're interested in the questions posed to the First Minister at the Senedd that afternoon, you can go home, put your feet up, have a coffee, and watch it live on your laptop.

Update 25th Feb;
A letter in today's Western Mail from Independent Caerphilly Councillor, Mrs Anne Blackman;
Webcast councils
"The Local Government (Democracy) (Wales) Bill is now progressing its way through its stages at Welsh Government.
I have asked both of Caerphilly’s AMs, Lindsay Whittle and Jeff Cuthbert, to ask for an Amendment to the Bill. To include a requirement for all the 22 unitary authorities in Wales to webcast their full council, cabinet, scrutiny and planning committee meetings.
I would hope that the general public throughout Wales will write to their AMs and councillors requesting the web casting of their council’s meetings.
It is only right in this 21st century that the public can watch these proceedings from their home computers. It’s not expensive for councils to install this facility. Already £1.25m has been allocated by the WG to help councils to explore methods of involving the public via social media, but web casting must be the one that would have the most impact and influence upon voters."

Thursday 21 February 2013

A Message of Thanks

The libel case concluded yesterday after a six day trial at the high court in London and the judgement was reserved until a later date. I hope readers understand that I cannot comment. However I would like to express my very grateful thanks to my legal team from Simons, Muirhead and Burton and Christina Michalos from 5RB.

I would also like to thank those who went out of their way to support me in court, and of course those who tweeted from the public gallery including Mrs Angry, Cneifiwr, Heather Brooke and David Allen Green.

My sincere thanks also goes to all those who have sent messages of support to me through Twitter and email, there are far too many for me to respond to individually but every one is very much appreciated. It has been overwhelming and humbling, thank you.

Normal blogging will resume as soon as possible.

Friday 8 February 2013

Public Toilets - still top secret

I had a slightly delayed response the other day to my recent Freedom of Information request for three 'exempt' reports. 
I asked for the 'Public Convenience Transfer Position', 'Cross Hands West Development' and the report leading to a £20,000 grant to the new Odeon in Llanelli ('Costa Fortune').
The full, mixed response can be seen here.

The remaining thirty or so public toilets (apart from the Danfo 20p-a-go ones under contract) are being offloaded or 'transferred' onto Town and Community Councils with a small cash contribution for some paint and minor repairs. The council wants to save £90,000 a year. If they're not taken over by April, they're closing which doesn't auger well for the tourist season.

Why details of the transfer of public toilets from County to Town/Community Councils should be considered behind closed doors has been a source of puzzlement to local bloggers for some time. There has been much discussion in council meetings (hours in fact) and the matter has been rumbling on for over a year. However, my request was refused.

The constipated refusal concludes with the 'public interest test';

"I accept that there is always likely to be a public interest in information concerning publicly owned property and the expenditure of public funds. 
Nevertheless, in this case, there is in my view a stronger, countervailing public interest in ensuring that the Council is able to complete transactions in private, up to the point that agreements are concluded. This in turn ensures best value for the taxpayer, which is clearly in the public interest."

So decisions on public buildings, between two public bodies with the use of public funds is considered suitable for 'exemption' and will protect the taxpayer. Dear me. And it's toilets for goodness sake.

Incidentally, although the report regarding the £20,000 to the Odeon was released, I can still see no reason why a £2bn global company couldn't manage without it.

Wednesday 6 February 2013

February council meeting

I managed to spare a couple of hours this morning to go to County Hall for the first of this month's meetings of full council. The next one is the budget meeting on the 26th February. The side fire door was, I'm pleased to say, open and my access to the public gallery was almost clear apart from a man noting down my name by the gallery door. He announced that no one was allowed to film or make recordings of the meeting or, he said with a smile, throw tomatoes. I offered to leave the tins by the door but he said it was ok, he was sure they were for cooking use. (joke)

I don't suppose anyone will be brought to book for locking the public in, putting their lives at risk and the notorious undertakings etc for the past eighteen months but what do we expect?

I then missed the first few minutes due to a duff set of headphones. Around ten Members were absent and the Chamber was later informed by Cllr Pam Palmer that Meryl had been struck down with norovirus. Things got underway with a presentation from the brand new Police and Crime Commissioner for Dyfed Powys Police, Christopher Salmon (Con). He was there, essentially to ask for a 3.9% rise in the precept, a lower rise than in previous years, he pointed out. Prior to the money plea was a drearily predictable 'Priorities' speech, and as he launched into it with number one, 'preventing crime' everyone seemed to zone out until he'd reached the end of point five, last and hopefully not least, 'police accountability'. So zoned out were they all that the Chair and the Chief Executive began passing notes to each other. The Assistant Chief Executive was doodling on his papers for the duration.

Several questions were then posed including concerns that the relationship between the PCC and the Chief Constable was 'too cosy' (I'm sure the councillor meant cosiness in the professional sense). Not so, said the PCC in dulcet Tory tones, it was full of 'healthy tension'. This concern may have arisen due to the fact that the new PCC office is based in Police HQ in Carmarthen. Anyway he went on to say that the nominations were due in tomorrow and he was looking forward to appointing a new Chief Constable, he said he was looking forward to working with him. Not a her then.

Someone then asked about the police helicopter, the future of which has been in doubt for some time. Although it's services include the taxpayer funded protection of Charles Windsor and entourage when visiting Llandovery, one of many country retreats, it is also a vital part of the police service in this very rural area and is used on occasion as an air ambulance when the real one is unavailable. Our PCC was non-committal, couldn't promise anything but was 'optimistic'. Mmm.

A riveting 'thank you speech' from the Leader, Kevin Madge followed, and a few more questions were asked including Mr Salmon's plans for 'public engagement' ( he'd run surgeries 'By Appointment', he said) and the use of Welsh? He was learning, he said. The closure of the custody suite and court in Carmarthen cropped up (this means there is now a long trek to Llanelli, as I am aware), but Mr Salmon was in favour of centralisation to cut costs so nothing happening here.
Cllr Tremlett (Ind) matched the PCC's dulcet Tory tones as she raised her concerns about substance misuse. Very valid of course but Mr Salmon was a bit pessimistic about that too and informed the Chamber that the easy availability of meow-meow on the interweb made policing difficult.

Another difficult point arose when Cllr Jenkins (Plaid) asked what was being done about the Ammanford police station PFI fiasco. This large town is now served by a police van in the car park as the police station has been mothballed, Private eye picked up the tale here. Could the lease be re-negotiated? Could it be sub-let to someone? 'Oh gosh...nightmare' and a bit of a mess, said Mr Salmon. They were legally bound by the lease and it was unlikely to be any demand for another occupier. I suppose it will linger like an enormously expensive white elephant for years to come.

Mr Salmon's moment was over and he left to a round of polite applause. The Plaid Leader, Cllr Hughes Griffiths then raised the point that the 'Approval of Minutes' from the last meeting was missing from the Agenda, apparently it was due to 'staffing problems' and the double-postponement of the last meeting until the 23rd January.

The defection of Cllr Theressa Bowen from the Labour group to the Independent Party caused a reshuffle of committee seats to maintain political balance, essentially, Plaid have gained one, Labour have lost one and the Indies gained four. This was approved.

Next up was a report advising the roles and protocol relating to county councillors who attend their local community council meetings as observers. If an exempt report comes up, the advice is that they can remain in the meeting but must keep the information confidential. None of this really applies to my locality as we haven't seen the county councillor since the May election.
Cllr Hazel Evans (Plaid) asked whether the same applied to county council meetings if a Member attended as an observer and there was an exempt report. The acting Head of Legal said it was a 'bit different' but any requests to see exempt reports would be treated on a 'need to know basis', it all sounded a bit MI5.

It now became apparent that the 'Declaration of Interests' sheet, passed around during the meeting with the register, had gone missing.

The Director of Housing announced in today's Llanelli Star that the council would be suspending the Right to Buy council houses for a year to try and free up some much needed homes, he also revealed that Carmarthenshire is the second worst county in Wales when it comes to provision of affordable homes. Not helped, I would imagine, by approving developments such as 450 homes in Stradey with no affordable homes at all. Back in September 2009, the then Leader, Meryl Gravell said affordable housing had been a priority for many years, not a top priority it would seem though.
There was the small matter of a decision of course which was actually taken today. The suspension was approved as there are currently 7000 households on the waiting list. The Assisted Mortgage Scheme to aid first time buyers was encountering legal difficulties and the criteria meant it couldn't be restricted to Carmarthenshire residents. With the changes to the council tax benefit system as well as an increase in council rents to look forward to in the budget, things are looking a bit bleak.

As the conversation turned to flooding I had to go. As I was leaving I could hear Cllr Bill Thomas saying (he was shouting actually) that it wasn't the officers who made decisions at all - it was the councillors! Poor misguided soul.

Although I had left, I must assume there was no urgent business as this item has now been removed from the agenda since the last meeting when two intrepid Plaid Councillors tried to have the Breckman report brought up for discussion. Just in case the £20,000 referred to in my last post came up this time, I imagine it was decided to do away with this inconvenient agenda item altogether. It still features in Executive Board meetings though, but of course none of them are going to bring up a controversial issue....

At last. Thanks to a concerned public and the Fire Officer