Friday 30 August 2013

Eric v Lesley, Round 3...and a visit to Carmarthenshire

After the most recent criticism from Eric Pickles towards the Welsh Government's complacency regarding filming council meetings etc, I wrote a brief email to the Welsh Minister for Local Government, Lesley Griffiths (Lab). I asked what further steps would be taken to address these issues. I acknowledged the fact that the Welsh Government had provided funding for webcasting but felt the principle of public filming/recording should be established. The usual. I haven't had a response yet.

Judging by Ms Griffiths Twitter feed, the timing of my email coincided with her Ministerial visit to Carmarthenshire Council, to be dazzled by the best council in Wales no doubt. Maybe Ms Griffiths decided that, given the anonymous name-calling towards Mr Pickles ('Obsessive Eric') which appeared to come from her office, some damage limitation PR was in order. Maybe she took the opportunity to seek divine guidance from our very own County Hall during lunch...who knows.

Anyway, the BBC reports today (30th August) that "All Welsh councils have been urged to consider allowing filming and blogging from their meetings". So, in reality, we're no further than Carl Sargeant's 'encouragement' or even Mr Pickles 'guidance' for that matter.

Ms Griffiths adds (my underlining);

"There is no legislative barrier to councillors or the public using social media or filming during council meetings.

"Allowing filming and blogging is a matter for each local authority to decide for itself but I urge all councils to give this matter serious consideration."

Lets hope they do give it serious consideration, but of course the proof will be in the pudding the next time someone gets out their mobile phone and starts filming a meeting....

Just a reminder I also have a dedicated FaceBook page to monitor progress and track campaigns - Filming council meetings Wales 

Friday 23 August 2013

Carmarthenshire Council - Mrs Angry's post

Please click on the link below and go and have a read of Mrs Angry's post, published today about Carmarthenshire Council, the issue of transparency and also the Towy Community Church. Mrs Angry is, of course the author of the most excellent Broken Barnet blog;

#Daftarrest: new developments, as the Welsh blogger story continues

Update 24th Aug; Carmarthenshire County Councillor Sian Caiach has left a comment on Mrs Angry's post...have a read.

(Previously on this blog, 22nd August; 'Eric Pickles 'abuse of state powers as councils threaten bloggers with arrest'

Thursday 22 August 2013

Unison statement; Carmarthenshire Council and the Towy Community Church

Followers of this blog will be aware of my lengthy and ongoing Freedom of Information battle to require Carmarthenshire Council to disclose correspondence and meeting notes concerning their involvement with the Towy Community Church and the Xcel bowling alley.

In support of the disclosure of further information to enable greater public scrutiny of the 'partnership', the Carmarthen branch of Unison have made a statement;

Unison Carmarthenshire Position on Towy Community Church 
Unison Carmarthenshire is deeply concerned at the scarcity of information surrounding Carmarthenshire County Council’s funding of Towy Community Church; a concern that is only deepened by Towy Community Church’s links to the evangelical Mercy Ministries who harbour extreme views on ‘lifestyle’ issues such as homosexuality and have been accused of attempting exorcisms on people with such ‘life controlling issues’. 
Towy Community Church has stated that Mercy Ministries work was “important” and that their “vision” was to open a Mercy Ministries in Carmarthen. Towy Community Church’s links to Mercy Ministries were severed when serious questions were raised as to the wisdom giving public funds to a church with extremist partners. After the grand opening of its Bowling Alley in Johnstown, made possible only through significant amounts of council funds and land, it seems that they have reforged these links with Mercy Ministries leading to further questions about the motives of Towy Community Church and the judgement of Carmarthenshire County Council in supporting this project. The most pertinent of which is did Towy Community Church remove its links to Mercy Ministries as a PR exercise in order to stave off unwanted attention? 
As a public body, we believe that Carmarthenshire County Council has a duty to promote equality and diversity whilst ensuring that partner organisations have the same commitment. In entering into partnership with Towy Community Church without seeking or receiving assurances on their views on areas such as homosexuality, Carmarthenshire County Council has become tarnished by association and could be accused of tacitly condoning extremist views. 
Unison Carmarthenshire Branch
August 2013

My FoI request thread can be seen here.

There are several recent posts concerning the Council and the Towy Community Church including 'Mercy Ministry coming to Carmarthen'.

Previous comment from Unison Carmarthenshire; April 2012 BBC Wales Dragon's Eye programme; Towy Community Church: Unison and politicians' funding concern

Eric Pickles; 'Abuse of state powers as councils threaten bloggers with arrest'

Update 23rd Aug;
BBC Wales; The Welsh Government have again hit back at "obsessive" Eric's criticism; Eric Pickles sparks new row over council meeting blogging 
(And I get a mention).


Eric Pickles has announced today (22nd August) that he will be issuing new guidance which will formally open up planning appeals to be filmed, tweeted and reported. The full statement from DCLG is below.

Mr Pickles also challenges the Welsh Government, yet again, to open up Welsh council meetings.

Back in June there was a bitter row between the respective Local Government Ministers (Labour Assembly Member Lesley Griffiths is currently the Welsh equivalent) with the WG accusing Mr Pickles of having an 'unhealthy obsession' with Wales. I find it quite staggering that the Welsh Government refuses to countenance the transparency agenda - as I have said numerous times it should never be either a devolved issue nor a party political one.

The people of Wales are being denied their basic democratic rights and are subject to town hall tyranny which I have personally experienced.

"The Labour Administration in Wales is openly opposing the right for journalists and bloggers to tweet, film and report meetings. It is obscene that Welsh bloggers are being handcuffed and arrested in Wales for reporting meetings because they don't have the legal rights that English bloggers now have. No amount of bluster can disguise the fact that the Labour Party are the enemies of openness and on the side of town hall tyranny."
DCLG June 2013

Planning Committee meetings, theoretically anyway, along with all other open meetings, can now be filmed in England already, this new guidance will extend this to planning appeals heard by the Planning Inspectorate, I should think so too.

I shall certainly be continuing my campaign to film all council meetings; planning, scrutiny, Executive Board etc etc. The principle desperately needs to be established in Wales. With difficult and controversial budget decisions on the horizon, the principle of openness and transparency has never been more important.

I have also set up a FaceBook page to track and report progress in Wales, please feel free to contribute.

Here is the full statement from DCLG;

Eric Pickles opens up planning appeals and lays down challenge 
Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, today (22 August 2013) warned that freedom of speech and independent journalism were under attack in local government, following local residents being threatened with arrest for filming and reporting meetings. 
In response, Mr Pickles upped the stakes, as he will be publishing new guidance which formally opens up planning appeal hearings to be filmed, tweeted and reported. He laid down a challenge to councils to open up their planning committees and other meetings in return. 
As part of the government’s review of planning practice guidance, new guidance by the Planning Inspectorate will make clear the rights for members of the press and public, including local bloggers and hyperlocal journalists, to report, film and tweet planning appeal hearings. Ministers hope this will open up a previously mysterious and rarely seen side of the planning process. 
The Planning Inspectorate determines 20,000 appeals a year, of which roughly 2,000 are via hearings or inquiries, compared to almost half a million planning applications considered by councils. The number of applications going to appeal has fallen since 2010. 
In June, Mr Pickles published clear guidance to councils asking them to open up to overt filming and social media. This builds on the rights to attend council meetings that were introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1960, following a Private Members’ Bill in her maiden speech to Parliament. 
However, since June, some councils are still continuing to oppose an independent press: 
Wirral Council has said filming a planning committee would compromise “health and safety” 
Tower Hamlets Council barred a 71 year old resident from filming due the risk of “reputational damage to the authority” 
Keighley Town Council blocked residents filming as it would amount to a “breach of standing orders” 
Bexley Council said audio and visual filming would breach its “agreed protocol” 
Stamford Town Council has placed a ban on journalists tweeting from meetings due to the risk of them “not accurately portraying a debate” 
a blogger in Huntingdonshire was removed by police for filming, and has advised fellow bloggers to “be prepared for the police to be called and the possibility of arrest” if they try to film or report council meetings 
The Welsh government has also rebuffed the suggestion that the same approach should be taken to open up council meetings in Wales, as is being pushed in England. Welsh ministers have claimed that the interest in openness is “an unhealthy obsession” and a blogger in Carmarthenshire was arrested and handcuffed by the police for filming a council meeting. 
Mr Pickles said: 
Watching television programmes like Grand Designs, viewers have been baffled as cameras are stopped from filming meetings of the planning committee. Councillors should not be ashamed or be trying to hide the work they do. I am opening up the planning appeals that my department oversees, so the public can see how the planning system works in practice. Councils should match this by opening up their planning meetings and other committees. 
A small number of councils are blocking filming because they want to suppress independent reporting, just as some councils are clinging to their town hall Pravdas. An independent local press and robust public scrutiny is essential for a healthy local democracy: without the sunlight of transparency, the flowering of localism will whither. Heavy-handed councils who call the police to suppress freedom of speech are abusing state powers. (includes further links and information)




Wednesday 21 August 2013

A simple planning question....

Great letter in this week's South Wales Guardian from a Llandovery resident and worth sharing below. In May I reported that the town's Heritage Centre and museum had suddenly closed to make way for a business-hub or 'hot desk centre'. The letter writer has posed a very interesting question to Carmarthenshire's planning department.

When it closed, residents had to scramble to collect their artefacts before they were plonked in storage somewhere. With the town in uproar, the Town Council were then forced to find urgent temporary accommodation for what was the only wet weather tourist attraction in the town.
Llandovery's heritage, along with its hundred year old secondary school of course, had gone out of the window and the County Council didn't have to support the museum with an annual grant any more. As with the secondary school, the local Members remained quiet.

Public opinion has wondered just how necessary a business hub is to this very small town, why wasn't anyone consulted, and the letter writer below has asked a very pertinent question - was there planning permission granted for change of use? As far as I'm aware, there was never such a planning application. When the response eventually arrives I'm sure there will be an interesting explanation...

The opening of the 'Hub' was attended by the great and good of Carmarthenshire Council, and neighbouring holiday home owner, Prince Charles, no less. I would imagine that discussions about planning permission, rather like the mention of money, would be far too vulgar a topic for such an array of regal and important ears.

Anyway, Mr Evans is still waiting for an answer;

At the meeting of Llandovery town Council in early June, where the opportunity was given to those who attended to voice our concerns about the closure of the Llandovery Heritage Centre, I asked if planning permission had been granted by Carmarthenshire County Council for this change of use and was told by Cllr Haydn Hudson that no such permission was needed. 
This reply seemed somewhat irregular to me, for in my humble opinion the heritage centre was a leisure facility and the Hub is an out-and-out business initiative. 
Therefore, on July 8th, I sent a brief email to the planning officer in Carmarthen to seek clarification. 
I received an acknowledgment the next day, together with the message that my query had been sent to the planning officer for his attention. 
I waited for a reply, and when one hadn't been received by August 15th I sent the planning officer a further email asking the same question. 
The next day I received two emails from the council, one an automatic acknowledgement from Kevin Phillips and another to say that my query had been passed to Graham Noakes for his consideration. 
Unfortunately as of today, August 19th, I still have received no answer to my question. 
Six weeks have now passed. Three thousand years ago a coracle fisherman taking the high tide on the River Towy from Carmarthen to Nantgaredig, and then continuing upstream against the flow, would have reached the present site of Llandovery in two weeks - even allowing for porterage past the most difficult sections of the river. 
A small detachment of Roman Equites leaving Maridunum at the second hour of the day would have arrived in Alabum by the tenth. 
In 1875, according to Bradshaw's Guide, a traveller could have left Carmarthen station at 12.40pm on the Towy Valley branch line to Llandeilo, where at 1.35pm he could have taken the Central Wales Line train to Llandovery, where he would have arrived at 2.01pm. 
Within that same six weeks, Vicar Pritchard would have composed a dozen verses for Cannwyll y Cymro, William Williams would have written a dozen hymns at Pantecelyn and William Rees would have printed half a dozen leaflets at the Tonn Press. 
Yet in the present age of instant global, and even inter-global, communication, the planning office at Carmarthenshire County Council cannot get a short and simple 'yes' or 'no' answer to Llandovery. 
Mr G R Evans

"Planning Permission?..Just like that!" Prince Charles entertains Mark, Meryl and the toy soldier with his impression of Tommy Cooper.

Monday 19 August 2013

Ombudsman reports, councillor emails...still in the long grass

The minutes of a recent Policy and Resources scrutiny meeting (July 31st) have just been published and contained within are a couple of good examples of how to kick uncomfortable and embarrassing issues into the long grass. Fortunately there must be a couple of councillors, of the more determined variety, trying to keep it at a manageable length.

Minutes of meetings always state something along the lines of; 'Responding to a question, the [relevant officer] informed the committee...' So the reader must deduce from the response what exactly the question might have been. At the previous meeting (29th May), the minutes record that 'Reference was made to Ombudsman reports and the process for reporting the outcomes. The Committee requested further information outlining the current process'.
The issue, in general, of ombudsman reports and the council's determination that they never see the light of day has been ongoing. Delyth Jenkins' case and the Breckman report being two notable examples.

So, has the acting Head of Law, Mrs Rees Jones, decided that all ombudsman reports and recommendations be made available for scrutiny by councillors? Well, she's got as far as drafting a report 'outlining' their role so I suppose that's something. Will the report go to the scrutiny committee? Er, no, it will be 'considered by the Business Management Group in September'.

The BMG doesn't publish agendas so we will not be privy to their consideration. (I have made a request for the minutes of their meetings, long delayed and now further delayed as Kev, Pam etc have to consider my request as well). They do act with consistency though and have never been known to reject anything put in front of them by the Chief Executive's Department for subsequent approval by the Executive Board.

In other words, it's not really a draft.

There was a little more to this though, and of course one favourite way of removing all trace of unwelcome discussions from un-recorded meetings is to omit any reference whatsoever to it in the minutes. When it came to approving the last meeting's minutes, from the 29th May, someone, fortunately, piped up.

There had been a discussion about the Ombudsman's findings against Kevin Madge, Leader of the Council, over the 'Sainsbury's press release' and this had not been minuted. The ombudsman had, you may remember, found that Mr Madge had breached the Code of Conduct by misusing the press office to attack the two Plaid politicians. The politicians also seriously questioned the role of senior council officers in the offending publication, see Sainsbury's row heats up and other posts.
During this un-minuted discussion, further information had been requested;
'relating to the process followed and officer involvement in preparing and agreeing the press release'.

Mr Burns, one of the Assistant Chief Executives, realised that if the minutes were going to be amended to include this discussion, he ought to mention that as he 'managed the council's press office', (surely you didn't still think that the 'Press Office Manager' managed the press office did you?) he had a declarable interest. Something he clearly didn't declare at the meeting. A 'retrospective' declaration then....

Unfortunately, the (most recent) minutes do not record whether the 'further information' concerning 'officer involvement' was ever going to be forthcoming, only that the previous minutes would be amended.

Observers of the council meeting webcast in June (still available on archive) will remember the heated discussion over the tracking of Councillors' emails. Specifically, of course was the case involving Cllr Caiach.
As the meeting had been filmed there was no denying that the 'debate' had ever happened, or that the Chief Executive, Mr James, had promised to provide a report to the scrutiny committee. It couldn't be omitted from the minutes.
The scrutiny committee must have asked for an update because Mrs Rees Jones has been busy drafting again and a 'report in relation to the members’ e-mails' would be made available to the committee. Date not specified. (I wonder if it will include correction of the misleading information given to full council; see Yesterday's webcast...almost home and dry. I doubt it).

Concerns were also raised about the lack of Welsh translation of press releases on the council website. Mr Burns explained that, as manager of the press office, he had insufficient resources and that 'the majority of press releases were prepared for the local press and there was not much appetite for welsh language versions'. (my italics).
I don't think that will wash with Y Cneifiwr.

Lastly, during a discussion about a £186,000 overspend by Technical Services, the minutes record that .may be partly to blame. Perhaps someone should tell them that its far better to be tankering the effluent away rather than tinkering with it. Applies across the board really.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

An error in the accounts

A slightly late but rather surprising response arrived this morning to my Freedom of Information request concerning a staff member listed in the Council's Statement of Accounts as earning over £150,000. The Council is required to name and give details of anyone in this bracket (listed as between £155,000 and £159,999) and I was puzzled by this mystery high earner and more particularly their job title.

Anyway, according to the response it seems the Council have admitted they'd made an 'error', let's just hope there aren't any more;

'We have now been able to look into this matter and can confirm that there is an error in the notes to the Statement of Accounts.  The actual remuneration received by the individual in question was not in excess of £150k as reported.
We are therefore grateful that you have brought this to our attention via your request as this has enabled us to identify this error, which will be raised with our external auditors'.

The response also politely points out to me the difference between 'salary' and 'remuneration', which I am aware of. Let's hope then, as a result of FOI, it has been politely pointed out to them the difference between getting the accounts right, and getting them wrong...

The full thread of the request can be seen on the What Do They Know website. 

A council petition? That's a bit rich.

Leader of the council Kevin Madge (Lab) has been busy recently promoting an epetition to make Western Power lay undergound cables joining the Brechfa wind farm to the national grid rather than overhead lines and wooden pylons. This started off as a Plaid motion at the last council meeting and was enthusiastically supported across the Chamber. As a .Gov petition, 100,000 signatures could spark a debate in the Commons, so far it has nine.

The subject is neither here nor there, underground cables would be preferable no doubt and I'm sure Western Power could afford it, I'm sure the profit they make on Caebrwyn's electric bill alone would meet the cost of a few hundred yards.

The press release on the council website doesn't just want us to sign the petition, it suggests that Wales 'protests' against the wooden pylons...Carmarthenshire Council sanctioning the power of protests? Getting all militant? No, of course not, although it'd be a good photo opportunity for Kev as he chainsawed through an offending pylon...

Sorry to sound so unenthusiastic about it all but I find the idea of the council promoting a petition a bit rich. Of course, being on the receiving end of petitions is an entirely different matter for the council, and they are largely ignored and the petitioners described and dispensed with publicly as a 'misinformed' minority. It is the Chief Executive who now decides the fate of petitions brought to the Chamber. After the debacle of the 8th June 2011 when a group of frail elderly folk were unceremoniously snubbed after reading out their petition against the closure of their day centre, the constitution was amended to remove the right to present a petition to the elected Chair and to require it to be 'forwarded' to the Chief Executive seven days before the meeting.

That 'amendment' was at roughly the same time as it became a requirement for seven Members to second a Motion rather than the usual one. Again the seven day process must be followed. You may remember at the beginning of the year, the fate of a motion concerning press freedom. Anyway, we know that democracy has never been a strong point.

Perhaps this new found love of the 'people's voice' could start a new trend. Maybe Kev could promote a petition to insist the Living Wage is introduced across Wales, starting with Carmarthenshire? Of perhaps a call to oppose the cutbacks coming from Westminster? And with a Plaid FoI revealing a 63% increase in those seeking help over the Bedroom Tax in Carmarthenshire, a petition opposing benefit and disability changes? I think not.

The council could also start hosting epetitions of their own, many local authorities already do. Where a percentage of the local electorate can trigger a debate in the council Chamber on an issue. Unfortunately the council would still determine what was 'appropriate', but would have to give good reasons for rejection. Will this happen anytime soon in Carmarthenshire? Of course not, but if they did, goodness me, I wouldn't know where to begin....

Update 22.06; The council Twitter account has been promoting Kev's petition today. As a councillor he can launch a petition of course but he should promote it himself. As he considers twitter to be 'dangerous' he doesn't have an account and council officers should not be promoting it for him. It shouldn't even be on the council website.
As I have said above, residents' petitions are not even welcomed by County Hall, let alone promoted using council resources.

Monday 12 August 2013

'Real progress' - Aren't we the judge of that?

Carmarthenshire councillors' individual Annual Reports are beginning to trickle out of County Hall. It's not compulsory but the council is now required by the Local Government Measure (Wales) 2011 to publish them if any exist.

So far there's no more than a handful for this year but council officers have produced a handy template for Members to follow. Apparently the 'guidance' to local authorities recommends that they must tell members how they should prepare their reports, and;

"It should also be noted that Annual Reports should only include factual information regarding activities undertaken and events attended" (My underlining)

Unfortunately, as part of the template, Carmarthenshire council officers have recommended that this distinctly non-factual opinion (underlined) should be included;

"Dear Resident, The purpose of this report is to keep you informed of some of the issues I have dealt with on your behalf during 2012/13. Real progress has been made in respect of these and I hope that you will find this information of interest"

So far I have seen four reports which have used this exact introduction, across all parties incidentally. Cllr Palmer's is used below for illustration purposes.

Can I just suggest, to future authors of these reports that the electorate will be the judge of whether 'real progress' has been made?

Sunday 11 August 2013

Co-opted members...and generous fees

Trawling through the Remuneration Schedule for Carmarthenshire Councillors and Co-opted Members 2013/2014, (as you do, and especially if you're a blogger and it's the middle of August), I looked at the bit about co-opted members.

Their allowances are in the form of a fee. Co-opted members are not councillors but sit on the Standards and the Audit Committee to provide, I suppose, an independent view. Two vicars and two parent governors also sit on the Education and Childrens' Scrutiny Committee.

The fees are set by the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales and are rather generous. The Co-opted Chair of the Standards Committee commands a fee of £256 per day, or £128 per half day. A full day is over four hours, and a half day is under four hours. The remaining five co-opted members on the committee can claim £198 or £99 per day or half day. Fuel expenses can be claimed and also 'subsistence' (dinner) if they live out of the county.

Bearing in mind that the council changed to constitution to ban people who do not live, work or have a business in the county from asking questions, it seems remarkable that people who don't live in the county can be co-opted as voting members.

The Standards Committee, which deals almost entirely with applications to speak/vote by Members with declared interests, has met nine times since the end of April 2012. Only one meeting stretched to an hour and twenty minutes, four were under an hour and the last one was ten minutes long. Does that mean each co-opted member can claim the 'under four hours' fee? £128 or £99 for a ten minute meeting? Surely not!

Friday 9 August 2013

Kev tears his hair out...

.....and attempts to replace it...

The South Wales Guardian reported last week that Cwmamman Town Council had received a letter from Carmarthenshire Council asking them if they'd like to take over a local building which houses the Glanamman Community Education Centre. It's unlikely that such a small council would be able to do this and I suspect, as the provision of adult education is not a Statutory Duty of the local authority, a quick sale is on the cards.

Whilst the summer recess lingers on we assume that the bean counters at County Hall are busy, and all leave is cancelled as they come up with a plan to deal with the £12m cuts for next year. Or is it £18m, or is it £7m? Nobody knows. Especially not Cllr Kevin Madge, leader of Carms council, who was quoted in the papers as 'tearing his hair out' and not having any 'answers' to the troubled councillors of Cwmamman.

Although this is supposed to be a 'Labour run council', (it's supposed to be a councillor-run council at the very least...) they appear to have not even attempted to come up with an alternative plan other than following orders from Westminster. The bean counters are already shaving off the non-statutory duties whilst what little scrutiny there is, shuts down for August.

Incidentally, the cuts have been described by Carmarthenshire Council as 'biblical', in Newport their cutbacks have been called 'seismic'. Does this indicate that one council will approach the problem in a scientific and logical manner and the other will depend on mass prayer?

Anyway, it seems that Kev's desperation and the unsurprising revelation that he really didn't have a clue what was going on didn't go down too well somewhere and he's hastily backtracked in this week's paper. I don't suppose this was quite the image of the leader of the 'best council in Wales' that readers were meant to conjure up. (Meryl would never have let the side down, you'll remember she simply blamed the 'problems in the council' on the laziness of 9000 staff). There is no plan to sell the centre, said Kev, not yet anyway, and trotted out that old reassuring chestnut that 'we are looking at all options'. Which translates as 'there are no other options'.

Kev is clearly beginning to understand that whatever plans County Hall comes up with neither he, nor any other elected member will have a say in them. His role, as always, will be to pay tribute to the officers as he rubber stamps the plans.

I wonder what those plans will be? And what chance will a small underfunded community education centre have as County Hall continues to heavily subsidise far more glossy projects; a stadium, a global cinema company and an evangelical bowling alley to name but three? Senior management remains intact and did you know that not only are we lucky enough to have two assistant Chief Executives, but we are blessed with a Deputy Chief Exec too!
County Hall will always have its way, and what is worse, when the Propaganda Department, which remains the envy of minor dictatorships around the globe is given its orders, (and unless you can see through the spin), you'll end up feeling grateful....

Tuesday 6 August 2013

Stradey saga - the early years

As the Stradey saga continues and the Scarlets are given headline billing for October's council meeting it's perhaps worth looking back again at a few of the early twists and turns of the whole debacle. The development was initially called-in by the Welsh Government back in 2006 but the odds were always stacked against local residents, the council's dream for the "won't cost the taxpayer a penny" Parc Y Scarlets stadium was well underway (and continues to cost the taxpayer a lot more than that) and despite the club being in enormous debt nothing was going to stop the dream progressing.

By August 2006 the pressure was on in earnest to drive on with the plans. Carwyn Jones AM (Lab), now First Minister, was the Minister in charge of planning and had to consider the call-in. Seasoned followers of the saga will remember the unfortunate episode of the 'Stradeygate' email.  As reported at the time by the Western Mail, an email which appeared to come from the council press office urged Scarlets fans to pressurize the Welsh Government over the call-in through a chat-room forum;

"The message sent to us in error appears to come from the email address of Debbie Williams, head of Carmarthenshire County Council's press office. The message seems to try to exert huge pressure on Assembly politicians on the matter.

It says in full, Please can you post this on the thread 'email our politicians': Agree HMJ is waste of space, she's already spoken out publicly in favour of the stradey nein [a reference to the scheme's opponents].

it is catherine we need to get support from - she needs to know that her small winning majority of 21 will be a huge losing majority come next may if she ignores the massive numbers of the scarlet army. anyone got her email address?

The 'HMJ' in the message is Helen Mary Jones, the Plaid Cymru AM for Mid and West Wales, while 'Catherine' is Catherine Thomas, the Labour AM who defeated Ms Jones by 21 votes at the last Assembly election in 2003."

The council naturally denied all knowledge of the email. And Helen Mary Jones was not amused. She said, "Carmarthenshire County Council has handled this matter in a very peculiar way from the outset. I am shocked at what could appear to be an attempt to manipulate public opinion using taxpayers' resources". As if they would do such a thing....

Barely a month later, in September 2006, Welsh Assembly politicians received more pressure from a slightly different source. The Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain, Labour MP for Neath wrote to Carwyn Jones dropping a not very subtle hint to reject the call-in. In fact, Mr Hain, "As a keen rugby supporter" seems to suggests that, if the development didn't go ahead, the Welsh government would be responsible for the demise of the club and possibly even Welsh rugby as we know it. What self respecting Welsh Minister would want that on their conscience eh?

"I understand that you have decided to "call-in" the planning application to redevelop the site of the current Stradey Park stadium. This is, of course, entirely a matter for the Welsh Assembly Government and it is right that all issues are properly considered. 

However, there are concerns about the possible implications of an undue delay in the planning process and I would welcome your views on whether this can be avoided.

I understand that the application will allow the Llanelli Scarlets Rugby Club to both sort out its financial problems and contribute towards the construction of a new state-of-the-art stadium and training facilities.

As a keen rugby supporter, I believe that Welsh rugby should have four commercially viable teams, and the Scarlets, with their proud history and tradition, are of vital importance to the future of Welsh rugby. The outcome of the planning application and the timescale involved could have significant financial implications for the Scarlets, and I feel that these also need to be carefully considered, together with the protection of local concerns, when deliberating the application.

I hope that it is possible to come to an early decision on this matter and I should also be grateful if you would keep me informed of progress"

Cneifiwr has also posted on the subject of Stradey and the men in suits....

Monday 5 August 2013

Community bulldozers

Another fine example of Carmarthenshire Council's 'community engagement' has yet again raised its dictatorial head. It concerns the latest 'draft' Supplementary Planning Guidance (part of the LDP 'Focussed Changes') for the site of Pantecelyn secondary School, Llandovery.

To give a little background, although much has been documented on this blog, the council drove forward it's plans to close the school and build a 'super school' thirteen miles away in Ffairfach, Llandeilo. Various sham 'consultations', petitions, court hearings, call-in attempts etc etc and overwhelming public opposition failed to make a dent in the council's original plans. Surprise surprise. There is little sign yet, mind you, of a brick being laid. But as with all great council plans, the assorted 'framework' of preferred consultancies have done very well out if it all so far, thank you very much.

Any residents who put their faith in the local Members to voice their opposition and stand up for the town, the local area, and the largest and most important community amenity, were bitterly disappointed. Neither Cllr Jackson nor Cllr Theophilus (representing most feeder primary schools) raised a murmur. When the vote for the new school was before the planning committee there wasn't even a token 'no' from these two; Cllr Jackson was on a cruise and Cllr Theophilus abstained.

With the town defeated, one of the remaining questions was what would become of the site. There has been speculation of course, including various ideas for a community centre. It came as something as a surprise therefore when the glossy 'draft' SPG appeared on the council website for 'consultation'. The 'plan', we now know, is to demolish the school, apart from the sports hall and swimming pool (not part of the school) and build 45 houses on the site and the playing field. I doubt if either the hall, nor the swimming pool will survive in the long run.

To me, the demolition of the school is little short of criminal damage, and as one group of residents put it, 'money raised for decades by townspeople to improve and enhance facilities in the school will be bulldozed into oblivion'. Again, the issue is not one of sentimentality but the complete lack of engagement with the community, it has all been the usual blatant pretence. This latest 'consultation' is not to determine whether the town thinks the plan is a good idea or not, it's merely to give it all a stamp of cosmetic democracy.

The 'Guidance' which is aimed at future developers, makes much use of the 'sustainability' of the site, eg the closeness to shops, public transport and other amenities. Conveniently ignored, of course, is the fact that all secondary school-age children in Llandovery and its surrounds will be burning the fossil fuel all the way to Ffairfach and back. As for the identity of Llandovery as a small but historic thriving market town, it is gradually being eroded into the vision preferred by Carmarthenshire County Council and the increasingly influential neighbour, Prince Charles and his Duchy of Cornwall.

Still, if you have an opinion, let the council know. The consultation runs until September 13th and the links can be accessed here.

Saturday 3 August 2013

Carmarthenshire Planning Tales

Back again to Carmarthenshire Council's planning department. Yesterday's BBC Wales news included a feature on the thorny issue of listed buildings and prosecutions, with special reference to Carmarthenshire County Council. The piece featured a restored Manor house at Maesycrugiau. Quite clearly the owners, a couple from Belgium, have sympathetically brought the place back to it's former and original glory and are currently running a successful B & B. They have spent £500,000 and are part of the county's tourist industry our council professes to hold so dear.

Maesycrugiau Manor (source; BBC)

During restoration a major leak suddenly developed and emergency contingency work was carried out to prevent further damage. This resulted in the council taking enforcement action against the couple for unauthorised works. The couple appealed and won but despite that, the council is now considering prosecution. Their planning consultant described the council's stance as 'completely unreasonable', they refused to sit down and discuss the matter despite being able to see the water pouring in.

Carmarthenshire is one of five councils (it used to be three) who have delegated power from Cadw (protects listed buildings, castles etc  in Wales) to deal with listed building matters. With the power of delegation also comes the responsibility to use appropriate discretion and to act in the public interest.

The BBC reporter asked the Council's Head of Planning whether he really thought that prosecution was in the public interest. He declined to answer this particular question as the case was 'live'.

The BBC also made Freedom of Information requests to enquire how much all Welsh local authorities spent on legal action with regards to listed buildings. Although the BBC didn't provide all the responses (I wish media organisations would link to full foi responses, but that's another gripe) most spent nothing, or very little. Out on top though was Carmarthenshire Council having spent over £55,000.

Most of this, as regular readers may remember, related to the pursuit of the owner of Felin Wen Mill in Llandybie. He had also carried out emergency works during sympathetic restoration and was prosecuted. The magistrates court cleared him but the council were having none of it and appealed. They won on one point and the owner was eventually fined £3000 and acquired a criminal record.

Felin Wen (Source; BBC)

Unlike the owner of Felin Wen, who had kept the exterior of the tiny mill building intact (and carefully removed the tree growing through the middle) another listed mill, a couple of miles away was demolished. For some unknown reason the council didn't prosecute and retrospectively approved the demolition. That was almost that, until someone pointed out to CADW that the powers delegated to Carmarthenshire Council did not include power to approve demolition. Fortunately for the council this memory lapse made no difference in the end.

We all want historic buildings protected of course but there has to be an element of consistency and even some common sense thrown in and the council should be seen to lead by example of course. The lengthy, slow dereliction of Theatre Elli, Llanelli, owned by the council, was another case in point.

Theatre Elli, before the scaffolding went up.
Built in 1938 in Art Deco style, it was Grade 2 listed. The council allowed the cinema to fall into a state of neglect as it gave several acres of prime development land to a Nottingham based company to develop the East Gate vision, complete with a new Odeon across town. And of course the Ffwrnes Theatre (almost called the Stepney Centre readers may recall..) One of the stipulations to prospective purchasers of Theatre Elli is that it does not become another cinema. Clearly the Odeon and the East Gate management don't want the competition.

To develop the East Gate project the council also bulldozed a row of Georgian workers cottages, 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 said that they 'Offered little resistance to bulldozers clearing the way for the dawning of the £25 million East Gate said they were poorly constructed and collapsed in little more than 30 minutes with little encouragement '. The Georgians clearly hadn't forseen the power of modern machinery and Carmarthenshire Council.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM also spoke on yesterday's programme. He has probably received more mail from bewildered residents, dumbfounded by the planning process in Carmarthenshire than any other AM. He has made regular calls for an inquiry into the planning department over several years. So far, even after the disturbing revelations last year with the Breckman case, (see here and here) these calls have fallen on deaf ears.

Mr Thomas pointed out, carefully, that with the delegated decision making powers, there is a 'danger that you have a very local perspective' . For improved 'consistency and transparency', and for everyone to know where they stood, the powers should be back in the hands of CADW. I think this stripping of delegated powers is something he feels would definitely benefit the people of Carmarthenshire.

Still on the subject of planning you may recall Cllr Caiach's letter to the Minister, Carl Sargeant, questioning whether the works should have started at the Stradey homes development given that there was a 'Stopper' notice. Residents are concerned that by building the homes on a man made elevated platform of earth, the laws of physics dictate that any flood water likely as not end up in their homes.

The Minister replied that he would be asking the council for their opinion as to whether there has been a lawful commencement of the development, "...Until then the call-in requests remain to be determined and the Article 18 Direction preventing the Council from granting planning permission on application S/23311 remains in force"

This is, as you may know, is a long and complicated saga but basically, and as I understand it, the outline planning for 355 homes was running out so an extension was applied for by Taylor Wimpey. Given that the flood area had now increased, the stop notice was put in place for the WG to consider a 'call-in.

As the works have commenced and some areas of concern addressed, the council now considers that although the stop notice still applies, it is irrelevant. So much for stop notices, no problem for Carms council.

Of course the squeeze is on to try and retrieve the £5.6m S106 money already blown on the new Parc Y scarlets stadium a few miles away.  S106 money is supposed to be spent in the developed area, in this case the Stradey area. At the time, this arrangement was considered 'unusual'.

Incidentally, with regards to S106 agreements, those who live in or close to new, larger developments and are wondering when the promised community benefits etc are going to materialize, the council currently holds £1.5m in unspent 106 money. Thats a lot of swings.

Apparently there will be representatives of the Scarlets and the Stadium at the next full council meeting on the 11th September when a report on the council's continuing financial support to the club will be discussed. If that is the case then it should be very interesting.
It would also be interesting if representatives of the Towy Community Church turned up, they, along with the council executive, could answer a few burning questions which I'm sure many councillors must surely be wanting to ask.

(The video clip from yesterday's BBC Wales news item on listed buildings and Carmarthenshire Council can be seen here)

Update 5th August;
I now understand that Taylor Wimpey, developers of the Stradey site are apparently going to be paying back all the S106 money by March next year, and have already paid half, £2.8m. Which may explain the council's reluctance to listen to the fears of Stradey residents and agree with the 'stop' notice.
Also, the Scarlets will be at the October meeting, not September's to discuss a report, the contents of which are not known.