Thursday 18 April 2013

April Council meeting

The Carmarthen Journal has let us know that that other great coalition, the long running Lab/Independent alliance of Carmarthenshire will continue until the next election in 2017. Readers may remember that when the pact was eventually formed after last year's vote, a review was planned after one year. Looks like that review has happened and despite Plaid's suggestion that a rainbow coalition would be a good idea, Cllr Madge and Cllr Palmer (leader of the Independent party) were clearly having none of it. 

Kev and Pam confirming rumours that 'new technology' is set to replace gas lamps in County Hall (source; Carmarthen Journal)

Anyway, back to today's meeting and just to confirm, the webcasting pilot was approved - without discussion as the meeting had overrun - and we can look forward to the first episode on May 15th. Sunday parking charges was first up with a lengthy speech from Cllr Evans (Exec Member for Parking) about how he had arranged meetings with various local church leaders, who were particularly annoyed by this measure. I'm not sure whether they had a result or not as a row broke out between the Chair and Cllr Caiach over faulty translators.

Next up was the issue of the pay rise. At the last meeting Plaid had suggested that rather than a blanket 1% across the board, a graded rise would see the lower paid workers having a larger increase than those at the top, those at the very top could probably manage without a rise altogether. (Plaid are campaigning for the Living Wage of course but the Labour administration is resisting it) This was all dismissed at the last meeting. Lo and behold, at Monday's Executive Board meeting the pay structure was changed with all staff starting on a higher rate, which, with the 1% rise, had the same effect as Plaid's suggestion would have done. The Executive Board naturally took all the credit. Plaid Leader, Peter Hughes Griffiths was not impressed.

The presence of three additional suited gentlemen soon became apparent as that annual love-fest, the Wales Audit Office Annual Improvement Report came up. They were from the WAO of course, and were there to summarise the Report, well, one of them was, the other two must have been for back up. You know the sort of jargon filled report I mean by now surely, to give an example, the Council 'Engages well with citizens in setting its priorities' or 'The Council’s governance and management arrangements have delivered a mature and embedded approach to self-evaluation'. There were several criticisms in the report ranging from the provision of support for carers to making scrutiny more robust (yes that word) by improving the knowledge of councillors, to 'still' having problems with grant management.

Things were going fairly well and the corporate preening was well ahead of the cynics on point scoring when Cllr Darren Price (Plaid) observed that officers and senior Members were very keen to accentuate the positive and "keep a lid" on the negative. (Surely not? I'd find that very hard to believe...) He gave the example of the recent finding by the Ombudsman against the Leader, Cllr Madge. He, as a backbencher, had not even been given a copy. This is not the only recent adverse report of course that has been kept in a locked drawer in the civic cellar and as for keeping a lid on the negative, you only have to remember the unfortunate episode with the South Wales Guardian last year.

The man from the WAO was briefly thrown at the suggestion that all was not well, he said something about  the reason the Improvement Report was positive was because the council was open and transparent and robust (yes, robust again) scrutiny was 'being developed'. He told Cllr Price that if he had a particular issue, he was welcome to, er, contact him. I suspect my idea of openness and transparency differs fundamentally from that of the council and the man from the WAO.

Cllr Madge then continued the love-fest. He started reminiscing about Cardiff football club's success the night before until the Chair ordered him to stick to the point, unfortunately that was his point, the Council were in the Premier League...near the top!....other authorities must be wondering 'How do we do it?' he said. He was looking forward to the webcasting...warts and all...he instructed the Chief Executive to write to all staff thanking them for their efforts which, I have to say, was an improvement on the comments by the former Leader last year when she blamed the problems at the council on the lack of hard work by nine thousand staff. Cllr Bill Thomas (Lab) defended Cllr Madge by saying the Ombudsman report wasn't serious, and maybe he'd just been over enthusiastic....

The next item was Cllr Derek Cundy's Motion for the council to express its concern over the re-organisation of health provision by the Hywel Dda Health Board. This has been much documented in the local press much of which has focussed on the downgrading of the A & E department of Prince Phillip Hospital in Llanelli. The Health Board's proposals were put out to consultation but what appears to have happened, in the well trodden path of all public body consultations, is that the 'proposals' were just that, comment all you like but this is what we're doing.

Further details of the campaign group can be found here, and all sides of the argument can be found in the local press, but there was cross-Chamber agreement that strong representations had to be made to the new Health Minister, Mark Drakeford. Press reports about queuing ambulances, lengthy trolley/ambulance/A & E waiting times, discharging patients at 2am, etc seem to be multiplying and the budget restraints on health provision were causing an alarming decline in services. The continuing centralisation and 'virtual' beds (ie your bedroom) was putting further strain on the Council's own social care budget. Cllr Caiach suggested the Motion was amended to include a request for the Minister to look at the whole picture but the Chief Executive reminded her that she couldn't amend a motion like this, Clr Caiach questioned this information but the Chief Executive told her he'd send her another copy of the Standing remind her of the rules....

Next up was the nominations for Council Chair and Vice Chair, the actual chain swapping ceremony to take place next month. As is customary, the Vice Chair automatically replaces the outgoing Chair (Plaid), so Cllr Terry Davies (Lab) will be in the hot seat for 2013/14. Each Party takes it in turns to be Chair so the nomination for Vice Chair had to come from the Independents. Cllr Daff Davies was duly eased in. It was all very jolly.

Time was ticking on and nearly three hours had passed so things speeded up. The Acting Head of Law had a couple of points to raise about the Independent Remuneration Panel Wales Report. One issue was Eric Pickles' announcement last December to end Councillors entitlement to join the lucrative Council Pension Scheme, part funded by the ever generous taxpayer. Alarm bells seemed to be ringing in Carmarthenshire as it became apparent that whilst Eric Pickles had no control over anything else in Welsh local government, public pensions were different and he could upset this particular apple-cart all the way from Westminster.

Three hours were up and it was decided to speed through the rest of the agenda. Item 13 on Webcasting sped past and at that point, I decided to go too. Soon, you'll be able to watch it yourself.

I have linked to the full agenda here.

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