Thursday, 12 September 2013 for Listening - September council meeting

The usual commentary of full council meetings is no longer necessary as you can watch it for yourself, you are welcome to go straight to the archived webcast here if you wish (should be on there today). There is some purpose though in making a few observations which can aid the uninitiated viewer to understand the ritual played out in the Chamber.

The council press office obliged this month by heralding the meeting with a couple of tweets, one of which said 'See what your local councillor has to say at tomorrow’s Full Council, live online from 10am'. Those of us in the sleepy ward of Cilycwm waited with baited breath to see what our veteran 'independent' councillor Tom Theophilus was going to say...or Llandovery's Cllr Ivor Jackson...would the confusion and disruption to the children of Pantycelyn as half of them now have to trek to Tregib in Llandeilo be mentioned? The overpriced new uniform for the 'superschool'? Of course not.

Anyway, back to the meeting and it became clear that anyone north of Llandeilo would be disappointed, although the member for Cilycwm was tasked with delivering the council prayer. He gave thanks for something to do with harvests and winter and sat down. He spoke once more to congratulate a constituent on winning an Eisteddfod prize.

Of course this is the council who's contribution to a recent report by 'Christians in Parliament' was “It is important that the position of the council as a secular institution is preserved.” (see Mercy Ministries - questions need to be asked). I suppose we can only thank our lucky stars that their evangelical partners aren't brought in to lead the prayers. Perhaps they, along with a couple of other organisations are busy taking school assemblies and saving the souls of our 4 year olds from an eternal conscious punishment.

You may also notice that no decisions were actually made yesterday, that's partly because, as one councillor pointed out, only the executive board do that, and they in turn are a rubber stamp for the officers leading the show. The finely crafted agenda contained no awkward Motions, nothing that needed a decision, no public questions and of course, as of a few months ago, no urgent business. An added bonus for the assembled elite was possibly the broken leg of the outspoken Plaid Cllr Darren Price which kept him away for the day. Let's hope he will be sufficiently mobile in time for the next meeting.

There was a lengthy introduction from the acting Head of Law about the rules of declaring interests and she noted that some councillors seemed confused about it all. The main things they had to worry about apparently was whether or not they, or their families would directly benefit, financially or otherwise, from any decisions. We must assume that naturally and logically this would apply to officers as well.

The purpose of Ms Rees Jones speech, I would imagine, was to deter both Cllr Caiach and Cllr Bill Thomas from pouring untreated sewage on the filmed proceedings by using the moment to declare their prejudicial interest in planning policy which aggravates the pollution along the Llanelli Riviera. They weren't deterred though and Cllr Caiach said she'd be leaving the meeting when the planning reports came up as the authority's attitude turned her stomach.

The opposition used two main points of attack, the Worst Council in Wales survey findings and the dire report by the Wales Audit Office over the council's grant compliance procedures. Unfortunately, these did little more than give the officers and Lab/ind administration the excuse to churn out some lengthy spin.

The 'Worst in Wales' survey result was the one that showed how disengaged the public felt from local decision making. The Plaid leader demanded an explanation from the ruling political group..and so the Chief Executive duly responded. The survey didn't just apply to the council, he said, it was other services too, the health board for instance. No it wasn't, said several councillors, it was in black and white and related solely to the council, but Mr James was adamant. The public perception that the council didn't listen was plainly wrong, this was a 'listening' council.

Plaid Cllr Alun Lenny commented that all the PR spin in the world wouldn't improve transparency, but during the discussion the Chief Executive said that the theme of the day was 'Listening' and concentrated on the positive. It was all a bit Sesame Street. In addition he mentioned that it was one of their 'modern apprentices' who had written the council report on the survey, I'm not sure what this extra information was necessary, perhaps the apprentice hasn't been told yet that negative facts and figures are not supposed to be included in such publicly available documents.

A similar response met the Wales Audit Office report later in the meeting. The WAO had said there was a long history of problems with grant compliance, serious failings in fact. The council had lost some funding as a result but more importantly, they suggested that incorrect procedures and lack of record keeping etc was possibly not confined to the grant office. Cllr Cefin Campbell who brought up the report made an oblique reference to Caerphilly, though didn't dare name the authority.

Mr James responded that the lost £160k in grant funds was insignificant in the grand scheme of things and said that they often disagreed with the WAO, and when they had a talk with them, they usually changed their minds. He said that some officers failed to keep proper records. The Head of Financial Services continued the theme and described the problems as 'natural' and that the WAO took an 'aggressive stance'.
Is a critical finding an 'aggressive stance' then? The problem, he said, was with temporary staff but further training was in hand. Not the fault of anyone further up the food chain then. Labour Cllr Calum Higgins commented, oddly, that the WAO were possibly doing it for the money as increased checks meant increased fees. Perhaps they should write to the WAO and tell them not to be so picky...whilst mentioning the 'error in the accounts'.

Whilst on the subject of other authorities, bloggers' attention was caught by a sudden mention of Barnet Council. Sadly it wasn't to arrange a council twinning meeting with the London borough, a council with an equal love of smoke and mirrors, or even to heap praise on the Barnet bloggers and send a personal invitation to Mrs Angry to address the next meeting. It was related to a recent high court judgement over parking charges and the conclusion that councils could not use hiked up charges as a stealth tax. The Chief Executive said that the judgement didn't apply to them, the parking revenue went back into the town centres. Maybe someone will ask for the figures. Anyway, apparently everyone was perfectly happy with car park charges and Carmarthen was a 'paradise for shoppers'. Kev agreed that people weren't put off. I don't suppose the 'people' have much choice really. He added, somewhat irrelevantly and not for the first time that day that the authority had created 1000s of jobs. Maybe we could have the figures for that too.

We heard several times today that Carmarthen, and particularly St Catherine's Walk is vying to become the centre of the known world and according to the Chief Executive this was entirely down to the council, others claimed it had more to do with private investment. I know from my own shopping experiences that Poundland does a far brisker trade than the expensive chains in St Catherine's Walk.
Kev, in one of his slightly more blustery speeches (he seemed a bit cross yesterday, perhaps it's the change in the weather, or an impending change in leadership, who knows) mentioned the bus load of pensioners from Bridgend, I could be wrong but I'm sure he's mentioned them before. Is he paying them to make regular appreciative subsidised trips to Carmarthen, are there undercover council press officers travelling with them incognito?

Refreshingly, one councillor wanted to know a little more detail about an 'exempt' item at a recent Exec Board meeting. It concerned Glyn Abbey Golf Club which had been granted a further three years of rent relief. He wondered how much this was costing the authority. The information, he was told, would be provided. Given the previous discussion involving parking charges and the scaled down free parking days (five a year) because the authority couldn't afford to lose the revenue, it was a timely enquiry.

Before leaving the meeting Cllr Caiach took another stab at asking about her 'tracked' email. She'd asked the Head of Law for an explanation months ago and there was still no reply although she understood that there was some sort of draft report about 'members' emails' somewhere in the system. The Head of Law replied that she thought Cllr Caiach was complaining to the Information Commissioner so hadn't bothered with a direct response. Cllr Caiach reminded her that she had said she intends to go to the ICO, but procedure would preclude her from doing so until she'd had a response from the authority. I think she assumed that Ms Rees Jones would be familiar with such standard procedures.

As I said, the full content of the meeting will be available on archive some time today, my apologies for any unintentional inaccuracies.


Cneifiwr said...

Yes, I noticed the Bridgend pensioners too. They have definitely come up before. It wasn't clear whether Kev met them in Bridgend this time (last time they were shopping in Carmarthen), but whoever they are, they clearly seem to exert some influence in Carmarthenshire.

Perhaps it's Kev's Aunty Gwladys.

Tessa said...

Well! I assume readers will spot the irony here - "The 'Worst in Wales' survey result .......the Chief Executive duly responded. The survey didn't just apply to the council, he said, it was other services too, the health board for instance. No it wasn't, said several councillors, it was in black and white and related solely to the council, but Mr James was adamant. The public perception that the council didn't listen was plainly wrong, this was a 'listening' council."

Tessa said...

...and this speaks volumes, too:-
"Mr James responded that .......they often disagreed with the WAO, and when they had a talk with them, they usually changed their minds."

Anonymous said...

Excuse the pun but the WAO should hold the Churchill nodding dog to account over his bizarre statement,"that the WAO were possibly doing it for the money as increased checks meant increased fees."

Given the WAO's damning report and the fact that they are only responsible for auditing approximately 60 of the 300+ grants, it should raise alarm bells with all other grant providers.