Wednesday 29 October 2014

Pembrokeshire; Wales Audit Office stops Bryn pay-off - Updated

Final update Friday 17:21 The application for an injunction was unsuccessful. The revised pay-off stands and Parry-Jones is gone, with £280,000.

So now we'll see what happens here in Carmarthenshire. Please sign and share the petition, well over 400 people already have, it only takes a minute, and if you have time, have a read of the comments....


Update 16:32 Court papers have apparently been filed this afternoon by Labour group leader Cllr Paul Miller for an injunction preventing the revised pay-off to Parry-Jones. Cllr Miller believes that the revised deal should have been put before full council for another vote and not decided behind closed doors.

Can you imagine Carmarthenshire's Labour leader Kevin Madge having the bottle to do anything like this?

Update Friday 12:30; Reports are coming in that the severance deal has been reduced, removing the unlawful pension elements, and the auditor has withdrawn his advisory notice. Instead of £332,000 Bryn Parry-Jones now get around £280,000, poor thing.


Update Wednesday - Pembrokeshire Council have issued a statement which suggests that the matter has been resolved;

"Pembrokeshire County Council and its legal advisors have been in discussion with the Wales Audit Office since before the meeting of Council on the 16th October and have reached a consensus on the phrasing of the Settlement Agreement with the Chief Executive.
"This resolves the concerns of the Auditor.
"The Council has been advised by the Wales Audit Office that the Advisory Notice will be withdrawn tomorrow, Thursday, 30th October.
"The Council will not be incurring any unlawful expenditure.

However, Cllr Paul Miller the Pembs Labour group leader says he has spoken to Mr Barratt this evening who stated that the matter is not resolved and the stop notice still stands;

"I have spoken personally to the Deputy Auditor General for Wales, Mr Anthony Barrett, twice this evening and he has confirmed that he has not agreed to remove the stop notice and will not be doing so while the element relating to the Chief Executives pension remains in the agreement.”

There is plenty of discussion over on Pembs Cllr Jacob Williams' blog who has also now spoken to Mr Barrett and confirms that no resolution has been reached but a number of 'options' identified which may require another extraordinary council meeting for approval. 


Pembrokeshire Council are back in the news as the Appointed Auditor, Anthony Barrett issued a formal notice this afternoon to stop the £332,000 pay-off to Bryn Parry Jones, Mr Jones was due to depart on Friday.

Mr Barrett said;

"After careful consideration, I have reason to believe that Pembrokeshire Council will incur unlawful expenditure if it continues its current settlement agreement with the Chief Executive, Bryn Parry-Jones. 
For this reason, I feel I have no option but to exercise my statutory responsibilities and take this unprecedented action."

The auditor considers that the pay-off, as it stands will be unlawful as the settlement took into account the unlawful pension payments, the tax dodging scandal he shared with Carmarthenshire's Mark James. The auditor had also found Mr James' libel indemnity to be unlawful.

Mr Barratt's reasoning for today's decision concerning Pembs is here;

"In taking that decision, the Council are relying on and have taken into account the (unlawful) pay supplements.
The proposed settlement agreement approved by the Council on 16th October 2014 involves the Council unlawfully taking into account the said (unlawful) pay supplements in calculating a payment to the Chief Executive in lieu of 3 months‟ notice, in calculating an enhanced severance payment to the Chief Executive and in making payment of further (unlawful) pay supplements to the
Chief Executive in respect of the period April 2014 to October 2014."
(from Wales Audit Office Statement of Reasons)

The last sentence suggests to me that the council have been making further unlawful payments to Bryn Parry-Jones over the last six months or this could be the compensatory element of the settlement for not paying the pension.

This will be an interesting one to watch. I suspect Carmarthenshire are also keeping a very close eye on it all and recalculating Mark James' pay-off as we speak...

Please keep signing and sharing the petition.

The lost VAT

Last month I mentioned a report on the agenda for the council's Audit Committee which recorded a mysterious ongoing problem with officer travel claims.

A 'fundamental weakness' had been identified by the internal audit in 2012/13 because departmental managers were "failing to ensure claims were compliant with current policies and failing to follow agreed procedures". Despite numerous 'reminders' from central office a further review found that the problem was continuing. The report is here, it's the second item.

The committee was clearly unimpressed and made a rare decision to 'hold to account' those departmental managers who continued to fail but the significance of this failure remained a mystery, even after the minutes were published.

I have now heard that what was omitted from the minutes was, that through this lack of control and compliance with the Financial Procedural Rules, the council had apparently lost £90,000 in unreclaimable VAT. If this is the case, and I'm no expert, the upshot of this must be either insufficiently detailed receipts for over £400,000 being submitted, or no receipts at all...

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Carmarthenshire council; A leisure trust on its way?

Update; Please also see later post, 9th February 2015, for further developments; A Leisure trust on its way...a follow-up post 


Although it doesn't appear to have been discussed in a democratic fashion anywhere, it looks like Carmarthenshire council has decided that the 'alternative mode of delivery' (in other words 'how can we save money') of leisure services will eventually be through a new arms-length trust.

A tender has already been published to find a leisure consultant "to assist with the delivery of an alternative trust management arrangement for its Leisure Services". How much this 14 month contract is worth is unknown, it's unlikely to come cheap.

Carmarthenshire's leisure services do not just include the leisure centres but country parks, theatres, museums and libraries as well. Whether the intention is to hive the whole lot off is not clear.

The 'money saving' notion stems from the fact that this trust will have charitable status, a loophole exists exempting the trust from the usual business rates and VAT. The idea is that it also (hopefully) attracts grant funding which would not otherwise be available although this carries it's own uncertainties. The council will retain the freehold but will lease the properties to the trust and give it helping financial hand in the first few years.

It all sounds ideal and the launch of these trusts, which also involves the wholesale transfer of staff, is often accompanied with a fanfare of 'social enterprise' and 'community ownership'.

In reality the trusts are usually made up of unelected business and community representatives and a handful of councillors and essentially mean that direct control is lost and influence over council services is left to an independent body, protected from scrutiny by 'commercial confidentiality'.

The chief executive has now informed councillors that the council is going to sell off all property, even if on a lease, which isn't 'vital' to the council. What will constitute 'vital' is anyone's guess, presumably the Parc Y Scarlets stadium and evangelical bowling alley will both be essential for the smooth running of carmscc...both currently paying nil rent.

An arms-length trust can also be a useful tool for selling off assets without the irritating scrutiny of full council.

The commissioning of a trust itself can also be an expensive exercise and the trust can find costs increasing as it lacks the local authorities' ability to use economies of scale. Educational links and improvement projects can also become sidelined as trustees are bound by law to act in the best interest of the board rather than the priorities of the local authority...

There are, I'm sure, many examples of good practice and maybe this is preferable than a complete outsourcing exercise to a distant private company although ultimate control over a leisure trust could still be managed by such an arrangement.
However, before the plan is trumpeted by CarmsPR as a 'no-other-option-possible' fait accompli it's always worth checking out the pros and cons, a good plain summary of the cons can be found here (EU Strategy Paper 2008). Further ups and downs of leisure trusts can be googled.

A move such as this to transfer control of such a large chunk of council services should be subject to public consultation. Presumably this will happen after the consultant reports back with the recommendation County Hall prefers...

Still on the subject of off-loading services, a report from earlier this year from the council's TIC team ('Transform, Innovate, Change', or in plain English, the cutback squad) shows that a report had been commissioned from Neopost Ltd (at unknown cost);
 'to undertake a review of Carmarthenshire’s postage, correspondence and communication activity with a view to presenting a full proposal of potential efficiency savings to TIC Programme Board'. 

Clearly Neopost Ltd, a company whose services include printing and postage for local authorities, unsurprisingly advised that outsourcing was a distinct possibility.

Lo and behold a tender has now gone out to supply all the postage and printing needs for everything related specifically to Council tax and housing benefit.

The tender has yet to be awarded but not only is this a time of considerable change within the welfare system but this is a highly sensitive responsibility. The tender notice itself warns that 'These are sensitive and time-critical mailings with legislative requirements, including strict bill despatch deadlines, document merging and data protection safeguards'.

What could possibly go wrong....?
Clearly the council are not ready to entrust the publication of the precious propaganda rag, the Carmarthenshire News to anyone else just yet.

One of the problems with outsourced services is that all the usual checks and balances of publicly delivered services, including accountability (not much of that in Carmarthenshire admittedly) becomes fractured as suppliers are shrouded in matters of business confidentiality and are not subject to Freedom of Information requests. At the moment, around 70% of home care services are farmed out to the private sector.

But most of all, like any private company, they are driven by profit, not public service and whilst savings are I'm sure possible in some areas, Carmarthenshire council needs to tread very carefully. Aside from anything else, the council already seems to be spending significant sums on external consultants in it's bid to 'save money'.

Monday 27 October 2014

The independent paradox - Updated with response from Electoral Commission

The update (31st October) can be read below


Here's a copy of an email I have just sent to the Electoral Commission and copied to the Cabinet Office and the Welsh Government. It is self-explanatory and calls for a review of the status of independent councillors and candidates with particular regard to the formation of, and allegiance to 'independent' groups.

I also suggest that independent candidates, at any election, should be required to declare their membership to a political party and not conceal their true allegiances behind the mask of independence.

This is an issue I've felt needs addressing for some time so I've said my tuppence worth.... I'll let you know if I ever get a reply;

To; The Electoral Commission

Dear Sir/Madam,

There has always been a trend, particularly in Wales, for a significant number of independent councillors to sit on our 22 local authorities. There is also a tradition that the majority of these independents form political groups with Leaders and party whips and an internal hierarchy.

Not least of all in Carmarthenshire, where the ruling administration is a coalition between the Independents, of which there are 22 in the group, and Labour. There are only two members of the council who are truly independent and not affiliated to the group, one has formed a registered party but both have to be referred to as 'unaffiliated' so as to avoid confusion.

This also leads to a situation where communications and strategic meetings between management and party leaders, such as the Business Management Group in Carmarthenshire, exclude unaffiliated councillors yet include the 'leader' of the independents.

The group is for all intent and purpose a political party; it meets as a group,claiming expenses and invariably votes as a party yet, as in other councils, they are not required to produce a manifesto, nor are subject to the same regulations and public scrutiny as registered political parties. For example, if a party whip is used at a Scrutiny Committee meetings, this must be publicly declared, but this requirement is not binding on members of the independent group.

The electoral rules prevent anyone who is not standing as a member of a party putting anything other than 'independent' on their ballot paper.

Surely this system is unfair on the voter. When a vote is cast for an independent candidate, it is a vote for that individual, not a vote for a political party. It is surely a ridiculous situation, and self-contradictory, that there are independent parties at all.

I realise that in any democratic arena political groupings and alignments will always occur, using the 'strength in numbers' argument; but this in itself implies a collective aim or strategy and in the context of an independent group such as we have actually holding power in Carmarthenshire, it is neither right, nor democratic that these aims remain unpublished.

My own experience as standing as a truly independent candidate was a case in point. Whilst canvassing, and unable to put anything other than independent, I was repeatedly asked if I would be part of the independent 'gang' if elected. In addition, whilst at the count, I was courted by the current leader of the independents to join her 'group' if elected.

It is also deceiving the voter if the candidate, as a fully paid up member of  political party, stands as an independent and doesn't disclose such membership at election time. Even if the candidate wishes to retain independence from the party the electors have a right to know if a link exists.

This is equally as important at general elections where an 'independent' candidate could be put forward by a political party merely as an election tactic. The electors would then be voting under entirely false pretences.

I believe there needs to be a review which should encompass the following;

1. If an independent group on a council has a constituted leader and official structure then it should be required to identify itself and register as a political party.

2. Unaffiliated councillors should have the same rights of access to information as party or group leaders.

3. If, as it should, an independent group registers as a party then, at election time, this should be easily identifiable and apparent on the ballot paper. The term 'independent' would then be reserved for those individuals who are actually independent.

4. All candidates should declare membership of registered political parties even if they are standing as an independent.

The review should cover all democratic elections in the UK

I look forward to receiving your reply and your comments on each of the issues I have raised.

Please contact me if you require further information. I have also copied this email to the Cabinet Office and the Welsh Minister for Public Services, Leighton Andrews AM.

Yours sincerely

Jacqui Thompson


Update 31st October; Response from the Electoral Commission

I have copied the full response from the Commission below which states that independent 'groupings' are beyond their control. They suggest the Welsh Government could address the issue or local councils...

The possibility of independent candidates using a six word description on a ballot paper is part of a recent consultation...I suppose at least you could say 'Independent - not part of Meryl/Pam's lot'.
I see that a couple of independent groups in Wales are registered, perhaps the veteran Carmarthenshire lot could do the same...Pam's People? Just a suggestion.

The last point, the declaration of membership of political parties, is a matter for the UK government.

For additional information I have added the links which were included in the email.

The response;

Dear Ms Thompson,

Thank you for your email, please find our responses to each of the points you raise below.

1.    Once a group has been formed following a local election, the Electoral Commission has no power to compel such a group to register as a political party, or to regulate its conduct. Any change to the current rules regarding the conduct of council groups would be a matter for the Welsh Government and individual local authorities to consider.

2.    The administration of local authorities and relations between authority members and employees are matters that are outside the Commission’s statutory remit. As above, any change to the current rules in this area would be a matter for the Welsh Government and individual local authorities to consider.

3.    Currently, registered political parties are able to register up to 12 descriptions with the Commission for use on the ballot paper, or they can choose to use the party’s registered name in order to distinguish their candidates from independent candidates. Independent candidates are able to use ‘Independent’ and/or ‘Annibynnol’ as a description, or choose not to use any description at all.

A number of registered parties use their party names and descriptions in order to distinguish their candidates as being part of an ‘Independent’ grouping; you can search all current registered party names and descriptions by using our online register. Further information on the types of names and descriptions that the Commission can and cannot register is available in our guidance document, ‘Overview of party names, descriptions and emblems’.

It is important to note however that our role in this regard is restricted to what appears on the ballot paper only. Once registered, a political party must comply with other rules regulated by us including the requirement to certain financial information which we then publish, but the scope of our remit does not extend to the conduct of party groups on local councils. Further information on our roles and responsibilities is available on our website.

 4.    The rules relating to the nomination process for local elections do not currently require candidates to state that they are a member of a political party if they do not choose to use a registered party description or emblem on the ballot paper.

The use of a registered party description or emblem would require that party’s permission (or the permission of all of the relevant parties if a candidate is using a joint description). Any change to these rules would require a change in primary legislation and as such would be a matter for the UK Government in this instance.

Last year, we undertook a consultation on standing for election in the UK, which invited responses to a number of questions relating to independent candidates including whether there are ways that independent candidates could be allowed to use a six word description on the ballot paper and how this would work in practice. You can view the consultation paper here; we will soon be publishing our response to the consultation and I will notify you when the response is available.

You may also be interested in the Law Commisson’s upcoming consultation on electoral law, which is expected to cover some aspects of the law in relation to candidates and election campaigns. Further information on this consultation is available on the Law Commission’s website.

Although there are no current plans for the Electoral Commission to undertake any further reviews in addition the consultation mentioned above, I hope that the information provided above is helpful. Should you have any further queries, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Kind regards

Senior Political Parties Liaison Officer
Y Comisiwn Etholiadol / The Electoral Commission 

Thursday 23 October 2014

Chief Executive pay-off - Plaid demand full open debate

An article in last week's South Wales Guardian featured a quote from leader Cllr Kevin Madge (Lab) remarking on the ongoing restructuring of senior management in the council which, he said, included the possibility of abolishing the chief executive role.

Earlier this month, (see Severance), I queried the fact that it was the chief executive himself who had been delegated to extend the severance scheme to cover this year, and also that he had said publicly that he was the one doing the senior management restructuring review...the golden path neatly paved then. All that's now needed is the loyal rubber stamp from Kev, Pam and Co.

This week's paper features a response (not online yet) from Plaid opposition leader Cllr Emlyn Dole who seems to have picked up a very similar train of thought and has, with last week's dire events at Pembs council also in mind I'm sure, demanded that any decision involving a pay-off for the chief executive should be debated by full council and held in public;

"As leader of the opposition group on the council I have to question where the suggestion of making the chief executive's post redundant has come from. 
There has been no discussion on the future of that position. It's therefore not unreasonable to question whether the management structure of the council is possibly being changed in order to secure a financial pay-off for one person. 
The 28-strong Plaid Cymru group that I lead will want any decision on the chief executive's departure and potential pay-off to be brought in front of full council for all councillors to have their say. 
In doing so we will demand that a decision is made in full view of the public so they can see how councillors are spending their money"
Of course, what you demand and what you get can be a very different matter in our council and Rhodri Glyn Thomas, the Plaid AM has already said that Mr James should have no more public money.

However, I would have thought even Mr Madge might agree with Plaid on this one, particularly if he's been listening to public opinion or more to the point, the 'voter'. There's a snapshot of that public opinion over on the petition, which is still available to sign and, if you wish, leave a comment.

Mr Madge has been deeply involved in the whole sorry unlawful payments scandal and has consistently defended the questionable use of public money, despite the financial abyss; most recently defending the £26,000 paid to QC Tim Kerr for the fruitless legal opinions as 'reasonable and necessary'..

Update 24th Oct; I understand that the long awaited WLGA Governance Review report, required following the pension and libel indemnity scandals, is currently being translated and will be published at the end of next week. Everyone who contributed to the review will receive a copy and it will also be published on the WLGA website.

A full page article appeared in today's Welsh language current affairs magazine Golwg highlighting the petition and the subject of the impending pay-off. It is not online but available at all good newsagents in Wales.

Golwg 23rd October 2014

Cllr Sian Caiach makes the point that under the severance scheme, key members of the workforce are not supposed to take redundancy.

Should a business case be put forward and be accepted, then this may leave a curious situation. If Meryl, Kev and co wish to give the chief executive a gold plated Christmas present, they will be forced to agree, after bleating for years about their wonderful, and indispensable chief executive, that both he, and the role is in fact, entirely dispensable.

Monday 20 October 2014

Wild west newsround

Further to the deal made at last week's meeting of Pembrokeshire Council to award chief exec Bryn Parry Jones a £332,000 pay-off, the Wales Audit Office are now examining the details. The BBC reports on the matter here .
Pembs councillor Jacob Williams published the eye-watering figures on his website, which can be found here
Interestingly the package included £16k compensation for 'breach of contract' as the council did not pay the pension payments after the policy was stopped in January. This followed the WAO report which deemed them unlawful, and also applied to Carmarthenshire of course.
(Update Tuesday; Pembs Unison reaction here and Pembs Cllrs explain themselves here)

Further speculation continues in Carmarthenshire. Plaid AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas has already stated that Mark James should not receive another penny when he quits, whilst Cneifiwr reports that veteran indies remain under his spell, well one of them at least.

Over three hundred members of the public have made their views very clear over on the petition - please sign if you haven't done so already. There is also a link to the petition on my earlier post here.

Wherever Mr James is going, and whatever he's going with, he'll also be taking £31,000, plus interest, secured on my home, which is not something I'm going to forget in a hurry..

Planning Committee to be webcast - updated

Update 30th October - The agenda for the Planning Committee on the 6th November has been published and can be found here.
The webcast page is listing the meeting for live stream here.


After the executive board hinted at the possibility around six months ago, it seems that finally Carmarthenshire Council's Planning Committee will be webcast from the 6th November onwards.
This is good news of course, now only exec board, scrutiny, democratic services etc to go.

Even better would be for the council to adopt Pembrokeshire Council's recent move (no, I don't mean give the chief exec a golden handshake) to allow the public to film all open meetings.

Here's me in March 2011 trying to film a Planning Committee meeting and being told by the Council's senior solicitor that it 'clearly stated' in the Standing Orders that filming was not allowed. The Standing Orders 'clearly stated' no such thing of course, and still don't. As you may remember, in June 2011 I made a further stand and was arrested.

March 31st 2011;

Sunday 19 October 2014

Cllr Caiach reflects - A link to her blog

Carmarthenshire Councillors, on the whole, remain a tight lipped bunch, and for some it's probably best they stay that way. There are a few exceptions but even then, even less are prepared to publish their thoughts and reflections to the big wide world.

The one exception is Cllr Sian Caiach and those of you who have watched the webcast meetings over the past year or so will have noticed that she is very often the only councillor to stick her head over the parapet and say how it is, or at least try her level best to. In the past Mr James has restricted her right to information for 'asking too many questions' and his attempt to report her to the Ombudsman failed miserably.

Cllr Caiach has today published her thoughts on the legacy of Mark James and the future of the council in the hands of those equally responsible for the damage.
The whole post, How to play the end game? can be read on her website.
Here are a couple of extracts;

"....I have asked for clarification on many of the council’s dubious decisions before, and have received nothing but evasive answers at best. I have brought concerns from my constituents before them in council meetings and have been shut down repeatedly, sometimes by grown men screaming at me to be silent...."

"....We may never know the complete truth. Mark is not being asked to give back the unlawful payments or even his CBE. His tenure may well be remembered by us as a time of loss. We lost more money than most of us will ever possess in our lifetimes, the well being and quality of life of countless local people was reduced. 

We also lost the integrity and dignity of one Welsh council."


For those of you who haven't signed the petition yet and wish to do so, it can be found here;

My previous post, 'Petition - Mark James' severance deal' also provides a link.

Saturday 18 October 2014

Filming council meetings - a first for Wales?

Thursday's meeting of neighbouring Pembrokeshire Council will go down in history as the one where disgraced chief executive Bryn Parry Jones was given a handsome golden parachute of £330,000 to depart before the disciplinary committee has finished it's work, the whole deal being discussed behind very un-transparent closed doors. Twenty nine councillors voted for, and twenty three against.

An almost unanimous vote earlier in the meeting, and which, perhaps understandably, almost passed unnoticed approved a motion put forward by Cllr David Howlett (Con) for the public to film all open meetings of Pembrokeshire Council, including cabinet and committees.
Correct me if I'm wrong but I think this is first for Wales.

The protocol accompanying the approval is, as all council documents are, constipated, but despite some control by the Chair, prior permission is not required. The final paragraph is to allay the fears of those overly sensitive councillors that they may be made to look silly....

Anyway, it's over to the rest of Wales and particularly Pembrokeshire's fellow basket case, Carmarthenshire council; this protection of democratic rights is now the law in England, I'm sure it will be quite a simple process to copy and paste Pembrokeshire's protocol into your own Standing Orders.


With Bryn's golden parachute sealed, don't forget to sign the petition to try and avert a similar expense concerning our own disgraced chief executive in Carmarthenshire. There's a link on my previous post; Petition - Mark James' severance deal 

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Petition - Mark James' severance deal

Update 5th November; The Western Mail, Llanelli Star and the Carmarythen Journal have now reported on the petition which today is approaching 500 signatures and numerous comments. See


A petition has been set up by a Carmarthenshire resident to not pay Carmarthenshire County Council chief executive Mark James any more public money through a severance pay-off when he leaves the authority.

A decision on this could be made as early as next month and could possibly be heard at the next full council meeting on the 12th November, in just over three weeks time. It is important therefore that as many people as possible sign this petition and make their voice heard.

If you wish to sign, please click on the link below. You do not have to live in Carmarthenshire to do so. If you also wish to leave a comment, please do so on the petition;; 'To not pay disgraced Local Authority Chief Executive, Mark James, a voluntary severance package'

Plaid Cymru AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas has also said publicly that he did not believe any more public money should be paid out for Mr James' departure.
(Western Mail, 30th September)

Update 15th October;
Rumours have been circulating, and indeed reaching Caebrwyn, that Mark James has already accepted another job elsewhere (the University of Bath we hear?) despite his severance application still to be decided. The council have called it 'speculation'.
The Llanelli Star has the story here.

Over the border, the Pembrokeshire Herald reports on rumours that equally disgraced Pembs council chief executive, Bryn Parry-Jones, could be paid a £320,000 exit package. Councillors are due to decide tomorrow.
Update Thursday; Pembs councillors approve pay-off for Bryn Parry Jones. According to BBC Wales it is worth £330,000. According to reports, the deal is being looked over by the Wales Audit Office.

As far as Carmarthenshire is concerned, it's all the more reason to sign the petition.

(Previous posts; Severance and Final Charging order...and Mark James is off)

Monday 13 October 2014

Executive Board - On the Road

As a Community Councillor I went along today to one of Kev's 'On the road' Executive Board meetings where the convoy of officers and executive board members meet and yes, 'engage' with the 'grassroots' of democracy.

It was held in Llandovery and what with plenty of expenses to be claimed and several hours of officer time taken up it was quite an expensive exercise.

County Hall outing

Executive board meeting themselves are very dull affairs with the Members nodding through what they're told to and the whole thing predetermined at the unminuted pre-meeting gathering before the public event starts.

Having criticised these get-togethers before, I can now speak from direct experience (on a personal level obviously, I'm not speaking for my community council) and say that it was indeed a waste of time and little more than a PR exercise.The presence of the council press manager was a bit of a giveaway.

The exec board meeting was first with a sprinkling of local town and community councillors sat around the assembled County Hall crew. You can't ask questions or speak during the meeting. To their credit opposition Cllrs Dai Jenkins and Emlyn Dole trekked out to Llandovery as observers. County Cllrs Tom Theophilus and Ivor Jackson were also present as the local members, and sat there like a couple of snoozing bookends.

Linda Rees Jones loitered on the periphery in case the chief executive suddenly required some emergency legal ironing.

Opening the meeting, Mr James announced that it was Meryl's 70th birthday that very same day, but thankfully we were spared having to sing a chorus of Happy Birthday as dear Meryl wasn't there.

First up was a presentation from the privately run Llandovery College which arose from the ashes of near bankruptcy a couple of years ago. Kevin Madge declared how he would never like to see the school close, indeed not, but shame he was so keen for state run Pantycelyn secondary school to close last year. Good old socialist principles eh Kev?

I'm not certain what the presentation was in aid of but there was quite a lot of talk of 'growth' and later in the meeting the chief executive hinted at talks, and 'joint aspirations' with the college principal over the future of the site of the now defunct Pantycelyn School.

Next up was a strange discussion over a £14k grant, from the Mynydd y Betws wind farm fund for a community farm to add to the community garden at Ysgol Y Bedol in Garnant.

It would provide sanctuary for chickens, guinea pigs and rabbits etc for the children and wider community, eggs could be sold and lots could be learned. Kevin Madge and Colin Evans declared interests and left the meeting, I think it was because they were governors, or perhaps know, held back a few years.

This grant had already been heard at an Exec Board Member meeting (Meryl) where, seemingly unnecessary concerns had been raised over the proposed care of animals. Given that this project has actually got to this stage I'm sure the organisers had thought this through, and the report backs this up.

Anyway, unlike Meryl's Millions which are rubber stamped by her good self behind closed doors, this little primary school community farm project, perhaps for the benefit of critics of Carmarthenshire's grant management, was elevated to the executive board and was clearly going to be subjected to a level of scrutiny never before seen.

Luckily for the future of the natural world, Pam was on hand to fret that the poor creatures needed water. Again, I'm absolutely certain that the organisers were perfectly aware that animals needed water. Anyway, on it went, and on...  I couldn't hear what happened at the end, I just hope they got their grant.

The usual revenue and capital monitoring reports came up which presented an opportunity for the chief executive to give a little speech about the wondrous capital projects blossoming all over the county, the press manager was hastily scribbling away.

Mr James, soon to be 'down the road' rather than on it, never misses an opportunity for PR waffle and I seem to remember he even managed to mention the county's 2% increase in recycling figures when under cross-examination in the witness box at the libel trial.

The meeting went on to budget news and the £45m the council would have to cut over the next three years. "Things were beyond our control"  said our ever-assertive Leader Cllr Madge. Labour Cllr Colin Evans who has the highways and byways portfolio, a budget which, unlike social care and education, is not protected, couldn't understand the mentality of the Welsh Government; or, 'his colleagues in Cardiff', as they are otherwise known.

With reference to the reduction in Welsh Government grants Kevin Madge blamed the auditors for their fees for checking the paperwork...with Pam nodding frantically in agreement. They've clearly got a thing about auditors at Carmarthenshire Council....

Full public consultation on the carefully yet-to-be-announced pre-selected budget proposals was promised, which will be, er, something to look forward to...

A brief discussion followed on the issue of council mergers with Kevin Madge pleased that the best council in Wales would remain intact; the "huge monster" of Dyfed would be kept at bay, for now. Along with any threat to his £48k per year.

So with the future still "fluid"; and not one Executive Board Member even suggesting that they put up a fight to protect frontline services, and all looking a little bored, the official meeting closed.

Ramping up council tax, or discussing the £100m the council holds in reserves wasn't mentioned of course. It would have been like swearing at a polite tea party.

Before they could have their lunch though the assembled scattering of town and community councillors had to be disposed of.

We were invited to join the merry group from County Hall, introduced ourselves, were welcomed by Kev, (a strange strangled noise when it came to me, and the chief executive had a sudden interest in the ceiling of Rhys Pritchard Memorial Hall) and we were then subjected to yet another presentation.

This time it was by Wendy Walters, now an interim chief executive, on the marvels of Llandovery regeneration. Questions (limited to local community council matters) were allowed and there was much waffle about enterprise zones and rural regeneration, and no straight answers.

One asked whether Llanwrda and Llansadwrn Primary Schools were still due to close at some point in the near future; the answer, from the Director of Education was that due to falling numbers they were not educationally viable and alternative methods of delivering education were being considered...a simple "yes" would have done.

As far as I am aware, each of the community councils present are quite adept at phoning or emailing the appropriate council department if they have a query, or even tackling the grants system. I also know that my community council has a free range public question time. The whole event was superfluous and faintly ridiculous.

Given the idiotic way in which these highly remunerated assembled Members of the ruling administration voted last week to ban themselves from asking questions, their idea of scrutiny and debate, over the coming financially difficult months doesn't bear thinking about.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

October meeting - and an unbelievable vote over 'councillors questions'

Update 15th October; Plaid group leader, Cllr Emlyn Dole has written to the local papers pointing out the ridiculous vote as detailed below. He makes it clear he will be calling for another vote at next month's meeting and suggests readers watch the webcast to see how their own representative votes...
South Wales Guardian letters.


The October gathering of Carmarthenshire Council was a relatively brief affair but plumbed new depths over the issue of 'councillors questions'. You may remember at September's meeting that no supplementary questions were allowed - the constitution was interpreted as being 'silent' on the issue, therefore an arbitrary ban was applied, on the advice of the chief executive and head of legal, of course.

With several question on this month's agenda the leader of the Plaid group, Cllr Emlyn Dole first of all suggested that the use of the plural in 'questions' in the constitution inferred a common sense interpretation that supplementary questions were indeed permissible and, as in any other normal democratic arena, were to be expected.

Mark James and Linda Rees Jones disagreed. 

Cllr Dole then went on to propose that the relevant Standing Order was suspended, which would then allow supplementaries. This was put to the vote.

Unbelievably, thirty councillors voted against further democracy and banned themselves from asking follow-up questions; with only twenty seven in favour and one abstention (sixteen councillors were absent from the meeting) the vote was lost. It should be remembered at the next election that these councillors voted against representing your interests.

The vote was not recorded but it appeared to be the usual suspects from the Labour and independent benches who voted in such an extraordinary way, we don't know whether they were being remotely controlled by the chief executive or they actually thought this was a good idea. The mind boggles.

We all know very well that certain unelected officials like to exert an unhealthy power and control over what is said by councillors in the Chamber. Today was a perfect example. Hopefully that power will soon be removed...

Presumably the issue of supplementary questions will be brought up as a matter of urgency at the 'Workshop' arranged by the WLGA governance review panel meeting in the afternoon. Hopefully it will fit into 'theme testing' and discussion on 'Key Issues' which is forming the final, er, 'independent' report. 

In the normal world independent reports are only passed by those involved to check the facts...perhaps the WLGA are new to this procedure....See 'Next week's agenda and the missing WLGA report' 

Cllr Dole, in reference to his own question referring to remarks made by the Police Commissioner about 'murky backroom deals' asked if he could add a preamble to put the question in context. No he couldn't said Mr James, he could only ask the question.

The Chair managed to read out a prepared answer in that the comments had been made in a party political debate but that the Police Commissioner Panel had been informed and would be 'dealing' with it at their next meeting. It wasn't made clear what they would actually do other than ensure that the PCC performs his 'Statutory duties'.

You may also remember from the last meeting that there was a furore from the Plaid benches over an anonymous comment in Exec Board minutes that the Welsh language should not impede inward investment, implying that it would. Cllr Cefn Campell (Plaid) asked for some evidence to be presented to substantiate this remark. 
Kevin Madge responded that the Member in question (who has remained anonymous) was expressing an opinion and he would always defend their right to do so. That was that.

Of interest to Caebrwyn was the final question from Cllr Elwyn Williams (Plaid); 
'In view of the Leader’s previous admission that over £28,000 was spent on legal advice to try to justify the “unlawful” expenditure on the Chief Executive’s tax avoidance scheme and his libel action indemnity, does the Leader think that this was taxpayers' money well spent – and if so, why?'

Kevin Madge was brief and said that at the time they needed independent legal advice and he believed it to be reasonable and necessary. No supplementary question allowed of course.

Quite something for a Labour leader to consider what amounts to a considerably above average annual salary for a Carmarthenshire worker to be paid over to defend (which it failed to do) a tax avoidance scheme and a means to personally sue a member of the public on behalf of the highest paid employee of the council. 

Also interesting that he refers to the necessity for 'independent' legal advice, particularly after having ignored the WAO's direction that independent legal advice be sought before counter suing me. All that was 'necessary' then, in January 2012 was a misleading report from Linda Rees Jones, approval of the report by Mark James before the meeting, and his presence at the meeting to ensure no one decided differently. He now reaps his financial reward.

A brief discussion on the Scarlets came up and Cllr Caiach asked whether any more money would be spent on the club given the present financial climate. Apparently none was envisaged and the sponsorship deal was coming to an end, it would be up to council whether or not to renew it. To my knowledge, the amount of money entailed in the sponsorship deal has never been made public. 

The chief executive then took the opportunity to announce that a letter had been received in response to a complaint (looking at Cllr Caiach) which had been made to the EU Commission in that the millions of pounds of public money invested in the club, (a private company) may have been in breach of state aid rules (see State Aid and the Stadium). The letter stated that the EU Commission did not envisage pursuing the matter. He looked particularly smug, even more than normal.

Cllr Caiach was not allowed to respond.

I am still waiting for the outcome of my complaint I made to the Wales Audit Office over the council/Scarlets car park deal, see; The Council, the Scarlets and the 'Allowable expenses' - a Revelation

The subject of the very poor air quality in Rhosmaen Street, Llandeilo came up and the ongoing call for a by-pass. The 'call' has been 'ongoing' for about forty years. Anyway, Kevin Madge assured council that pressure on the Welsh Government was continuing and for some reason mentioned his delight that businessman Sir Terry Matthews (of Celtic Manor Hotel fame) was now Chair the Swansea Bay Regional partnership thing. Maybe he's going to ask Mr Matthews to build the bypass...

Cllr Sharon Davies (Lab) brought up the issue that grant funding to organisations which dealt with drug abuse should only be made if the people delivering the service were suitable qualified. There seemed to be slightly more to this statement than met the eye and Cllr Peter Cooper (Lab) also seemed to think so, 

Although no organisation was named Cllr Cooper wondered whether the organisation she was thinking of, and I would imagine he was thinking of Chooselife Llanelli, a Christian based drop-in centre, required qualifications as it was a drop-in rather than treatment centre. Chooselife currently has over £100k per year in grants.
Cllr Davies denied being specific....

The full meeting will be available on archive tomorrow.

The November meeting looks like it could be an interesting affair, not only should the WLGA final report be on the agenda (See also the comments provided to the panel from Sir David Lewis, lay member of the audit committee) but, according to Kevin Madge, a decision could be taken at next month's meeting as to how many hundreds of thousands of pounds are going to be required to ensure that the chief executive finally er, departs. He didn't put it quite like that of course.

Tuesday 7 October 2014

Big screens and rusty tiles

The SellToWales website lists the details of tenders put forward by local authorities and other 'buyers'. The latest notice for Carmarthenshire Council is for the 'Supply and installation of fixed and mobile digital screen media for Carms Leisure Services'. Basically it's for six fixed screens and a van to relay digital blurbs promoting a healthy lifestyle, targeting, for example, the 'frail elderly'.

The notice mentions the 'overarching Welsh Government supported Intermediate Care Fund' (ICF) which, I assume, given the dire financial straits of the council's social care department must be where the funding for this will be coming from.

The ICF was set up by the Welsh Government with a pot of £50m late last year with the primary aim 'to support older people to maintain their independence and remain in their own home' and several examples of the current projects underway around Wales are listed on the Welsh Government website; extra intermediate care beds, occupational therapists, dementia care, crisis intervention support services etc etc.

I'm sure the 'digital display' idea is very well intentioned, (the tender notice does include the word 'sustainable' so I'm sure that ticked enough boxes by itself) and is obviously the result of a particularly enthusiastic innovative-joined-up-brainstorming-session.

I'm sure we can all picture the frail elderly transfixed and inspired, in their droves, by the patronising digital messages on their smartphones and public displays....however, I remain doubtful whether this will achieve, as stated in the tender notice, the "end goal of reducing the need for unnecessary admission to health care settings"....

Whilst on the subject of leisure services, the council run Llanelli Leisure centre opened to a fanfare a couple of months ago after a £350,000 spend on essential repair. Unfortunately this didn't seem to include a good clean and one resident has highlighted the less than hygienic surroundings to the press.

The newspaper managed to get a quote from Cllr Meryl Gravell who has scientifically identified the brown gunge on the ceramic tiles as 'a rust issue which will be removed'. A rust issue?

'rusty' tiles (Pic source SW Evening Post)

Saturday 4 October 2014


Some further thoughts on the voluntary severance scheme approved by the executive board in September 2013 which seems to be Mr James' preferred departure route and which could mean a very hefty pay off.

At the meeting last September, the Board also granted the chief executive the delegated power to extend the scheme for another year, if it was required...clearly it was.

Incidentally, Mr James and other senior officers declared an interest as they could potentially gain financially from the 'schoolboy error' this time.

A business case will have to be put forward for the deletion of the post of chief executive (perhaps). Mr James has already said in public that he is in the process of carrying out a senior management restructuring review, maybe he has already paved the golden path himself...

A decision to delete the post of chief executive, to be replaced by, for example, a corporate director, (on a far lower salary) would, I believe, have to be taken by full council. The problem being that the desired result - the exit of Mr James - may also sanction the golden handshake.

Plaid AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas has already said that the unlawful payments scandal "has left public trust in the county council at an all-time low" and that Mr James should not receive any more public money; it will be interesting to see how this will be done. Tax avoidance, libel indemnity...just two examples, over the years, where Mr James has played senior colleagues and executive board puppets like a fiddle.

Anyway, I'm sure further information will become apparent in due course.

Thursday 2 October 2014

Next week's agenda, and the missing WLGA report

The agenda for next week's full council has just been published and one item is notable by it's absence. At the September meeting it was promised that the long awaited final WLGA governance review report, required following the damning audit reports, would be before council on the 8th October.

I made enquiries to the WLGA as to its mysterious whereabouts and was informed today (very quick response, thank you) that;

"The Review Team is currently finalising the report. Although it had originally been planned to present the report to Council on 8th October, the Review Team wished to test some key issues with members further and has organised a Workshop, open to all members, to receive feedback and test draft themes and proposals before the report is finalised. The workshop session has been scheduled for the afternoon of 8th October. 
Following this workshop, the Review Team will publish its final report later in October, which will be circulated to all councillors, interviewed partners and members of the public who submitted evidence. It will also be published on the WLGA website. The Council has previously indicated that the report would be considered by full Council, so I assume that this might occur at November’s meeting."

Ah, of course, there are still 'draft themes' to be tested...

As I, and others have said, for this council to become the open and democratic institution it is supposed to be, there needs to be change of culture, and that will only be achieved by the removal of the top brass at County Hall. After Tuesday's announcement, it looks like the main obstacle will soon be gone...without, it is hoped, any more public money, as Plaid AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas said in the Western Mail.

Back to the agenda and Kevin Madge appears to be trying to scrape the Carmarthenshire barrel of positive PR by proposing a motion to ban the sale of chinese lanterns from council premises. No doubt this is a worthy cause given the reported damage they can cause, but you may have thought that the leader of the council, teetering on the edge of the worst financial predicament for years, senior officers jumping ship, and governance 'not fit for purpose', he may have had more pressing thoughts.

Anyway, the agenda also contains some more councillor questions - you may remember the ridiculous fiasco at the last meeting when councillors were banned by Mark James and Linda Rees Jones from asking a follow up question. The resultant effect more or less was to give the Exec Board members and leader an opportunity to spout forth with no comebacks allowed.

Whether that thorny issue will be resolved for Wednesday's meeting we will have to wait and see.

All the questions can be viewed on the agenda here. They include one from Cllr Dole, leader of the Plaid Group; he asks for a full apology from the Dyfed Powys Police Commissioner Christopher Salmon for accusing the Chief Constable and local councillors of negotiating 'murky back room deals'. This follows Mr Salmon's remarks attacking the UK Labour party proposals to abolish his job.

At least it will be novel to hear the phrase 'murky back room deals' in the Chamber, even if it's in a different context.

Another question from a Plaid councillor asks;

In view of the Leader’s previous admission that over £28,000 was spent on legal advice to try to justify the “unlawful” expenditure on the Chief Executive’s tax avoidance scheme and his libel action indemnity, does the Leader think that this was taxpayers' money well spent – and if so, why? 

Can't wait for the answer to that one....
The QC's advice failed to justify anything of course...although I imagine it's especially difficult to defend illegal payments in public office (I'm sure there's a shorter word...begins with 'f', five letters, can't quite think of it...)

Planning; A local victory

I'd like to mention a story in this week's Carmarthen Journal concerning a planning victory for local Carmarthen residents as it's a twist in the tale from a post I had written eighteen months or so ago.

Way back in April 2013 the council's executive board decided to sell off 86 small pieces of council owned land for potential development.

There were objections put forward against four of the areas being sold, one of which was at Cae Bryn Drain, Carmarthen where Bro Myrddin Housing Association appeared to be lined up to build homes on a green space used by local children.

The Board 'noted' the objections (in council-speak this means 'ignored'), which included a 278 name petition to protect the Cae Bryn Drain site, and resolved to proceed with the sales anyway. Naturally.

Also on that agenda, there happened to be another item in which Welsh Government guidance required local authorities to protect green spaces, where possible, for children to play and to consider the impact if it ever decided to sell off such sites. This guidance was accepted.

See my 2013 post; 'Open play areas and black holes'

This contradiction was pointed out at the following full council meeting and board members were accused of not listening to residents. Kevin Madge waffled on about not being able to afford to cut the grass, they needed the money, etc at these sites, and it was the only sensible way forward blah blah. That was that.

Fast forward to last week's planning committee meeting and up with a recommendation for approval by planning officers was an application by Bro Myrddin for four affordable dwellings on the Cae Bryn Drain site.

Undoubtedly there needs to be properly affordable homes but this proposal was on the only green space in the middle of several dwellings and had been designated as an 'open space' in the original planning permission, and used as such by the families, for more than thirty years.

The new development would mean that children would have needed to cross a busy road to access the nearest playground several hundred metres away.

The families have continued with their campaign to preserve this small green space and local member, Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths (Plaid) reminded the planning committee last week of the contradiction over open, 'green space' play provision.

He said that any development on this site would be contrary to the council's own policy to provide open space adopted at that earlier Exec Board meeting.  After a site visit the committee rejected the application. Cllr Hughes Griffiths said; "These are two areas of guidance which were ignored as part of the report to the planning committee. That should not have happened and I will be asking further questions."

Campaigners, Cae Bryn Drain. (pic source Carmarthen Journal)

The housing association has, of course, the right of appeal but it shows that if local campaigners stick to their guns for long enough, sometimes you will get the desired result, if not quite through the avenue you first thought.

Full story; Carmarthen Journal

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Will anyone think of Meryl...?

I've heard that many Carmarthenshire citizens are deeply concerned about the welfare of Cllr Meryl Gravell since Mark's forthcoming departure was announced yesterday.

According to several unreliable moles she spent a restless night texting Pam and writing a tearful tribute. In the end she just couldn't find the words and sent him this message instead;

The Meryl and Mark years #RIP