Friday 27 February 2015

Filming council meetings - Carmarthenshire style

In case it still isn't very apparent, the council, via the working group are aiming, they say, to be the 'most open council in Wales' and considering the 39 recommendations of the WLGA Governance review. True to form, the meetings of the working group are held behind closed doors and the minutes, or 'Action Notes', are not published. They are available on request several weeks later.

You would expect a group of this nature to be made up exclusively of backbench and opposition councillors, and not include three members of the ruling executive board.

It is also clear that the chief executive is exerting plenty of influence either in person, or via the medium of acting head of legal, Linda Rees Jones.

The review, you may remember, recommended a 'change of culture', it was number one recommendation in fact. So far, there's little evidence of that.

As regular readers will know, the issue over members of the public filming meetings has been a bone of contention for some considerable time, so I'll start with that.

You might have thought, following the legislation passed in England and even Pembrokeshire's decision to throw open the doors, that the WLGA recommendation for the council to "Consider allowing the public filming of council meetings" would be happily accepted.
Sadly not. What we've got is pointless and ridiculous.

The mealy-mouthed Notes for the 8th January meeting state;

"In accordance with the Group’s decision at its last meeting consideration was given to whether to allow the public to film meetings. The Head of Administration and Law advised that the Welsh Government had urged Local Authorities in Wales to look favourably at permitting filming of meetings provided it was not a distraction though it was noted that the former did not allow filming of its own meetings.  
The Group heard arguments for and against allowing members of the public to film at all meetings they were entitled to attend and it was subsequently; 
"AGREED that initially, for a trial period of 12 months, filming be allowed at meetings webcasted by the Council itself.

....and moving forward to the 26th January meeting;

"Reference was made to minute no. 5 [filming meetings] and it was pointed out that not all members of the Group were in agreement with the decision made.  The Head of Administration & Law clarified that where decisions are not unanimous then they are carried by a majority vote.   
"AGREED that.... minute number 5 being amended to state AGREED BY A MAJORITY

So the public can only film and record those meeting which are currently being webcast, ie under council control. It's highly unlikely that anyone is going to want to do that.

Currently only full council and planning meetings are webcast. Executive Board, all five Scrutiny Committees, Democratic Services, Audit Committee, Standards Committee and Licensing Committees are not.

Just in case the sky falls in, they've also limited this pointless exercise to a twelve month pilot.

Not only that, some Members even voted against this resolution, and wanted that fact noted. Quite incredible.

The point of allowing the public to make their own recordings is, as I've said many times, a matter of democratic principle and transparency and one important enough to have now been given legal protection in England. The point has been missed, yet again.

Moving on, the removal of any discussion of committee reports from the full council agendas was something the chief executive was very keen on. As we know, it has already been brought in.

It was discussed at the meeting on the 8th January. Mr James was not present at that meeting but of course, Linda Rees Jones was and she did her best to push the point on his behalf.
The committee agreed, but no decision was made as when this would happen.

Mr James was present at the meeting of the 26th January, and unique to this recommendation, the group were invited to implement this change 'with immediate effect'.

Unlike the sidelining of committee reports above, Councillors who wish to ask a supplementary questions at full council still have to go through the rigmarole of suspending standing orders.

According to the Notes this was supposed to be changed at January's, and then February's council meeting, along, incidentally, with a 'review' concerning the collection of details (on the false pretences of "fire safety reasons", remember all that nonsense?) of anyone who attends the public gallery...
Oh well, perhaps March then...

Many of the recommendations are being sent off to the Executive Board, who are being politely asked to consider, for example, whether to webcast their meetings (shouldn't be a problem as the decisions are actually made in pre and post meeting 'briefings'), or whether to allow backbench councillors to ask questions at their meetings.

Some of recommendations have become completely skewed. For instance;

WLGA Recommendation 31 has gone from;

"The Council should ensure that all members receive information relating to exempt items and that non-executive members should remain for exempt items, as is practice at most other councils." 


"Agreed to recommend to the Executive Board that the Chair and Vice Chair of the opposition and Chairs of Scrutiny Committees receive copies of exempt reports"

The point of allowing all members to have information on, and be able to observe exempt items is so they can be fully informed and ask questions or call-in decisions. Clearly the mistrust that backbench councillors are not to be trusted with such information is still prevalent.

The requirement for seven seconders to support any Motion was brought in by the chief executive a couple of years ago as some were critical of the council. The recommendation is that this should relaxed back to normal levels, ie a proposer and one seconder within three months.

Despite this appearing to be a simple matter it seems to require Ms Linda Rees Jones trawling around all 22 local authorities to ask them what they do. Seems she's still trawling.

Whatever your views on the budget decision on Tuesday, the control, and level of intervention, by the unelected chief executive showed quite clearly that the democratic governance of this council remains in disarray and not fit for purpose, and no amount of tinkering around the edges, or with the constitution, is going to cure the toxic culture.

I will report on further developments, including the urgently needed and ongoing (two years now surely?) review of the Press and Media Protocol, over the coming weeks...or months.

As a reminder, here's who's on the working group;

Kevin Madge (Lab)
Terry Davies (Lab)
Derek Cundy (Lab)
Pam Palmer (Ind)
Mair Stephens (Ind)
Hugh Richards (Ind)
Emlyn Dole (Plaid)
Hazel Evans (Plaid)
Tyssul Evans (Plaid)
David Jenkins (Plaid)

Thursday 26 February 2015

The Budget - further comment

A few hours after Mark James's budget was approved on Tuesday, Labour Minister Leighton Andrews issued a statement, again referring to Council reserves as he had already done last year.
Carmarthenshire, it turns out, has a total of £122m in reserves, twice as much as Cardiff.
Mr Andrews said;

"Whilst it is prudent for Authorities to prepare for more challenging financial times, it is also reasonable to want to see evidence that Authorities are making financial decisions in the best interests of their communities."

If you haven't realised it by now, those that are running this council are not acting in the best interests of their communities. Mr James personally intervened to reject outright the opposition proposals to use a tiny proportion of the earmarked reserves and the Labour/Independents followed like sheep. He acted unprofessionally and with arrogance.

Quite why the Plaid opposition didn't shout out their objections there and then and stop him in his tracks, I don't know.

Don't forget, whilst Kevin Madge, Meryl and Co are cutting your services and raising your council tax they were complicit in approving a tax avoidance scheme for Mr James and shelling out thousands to defend him. Along with the unlawful libel costs, the whole affair was nothing short of criminal.

And the only reason the Labour group refused to rubber stamp his golden handshake was because there's an election on May 7th.
You will note that £3m has already been transferred into the Severance Scheme (from those 'precious' reserves, 'earmarked' for something else), ready and waiting for the eventual pay-off.

The WLGA governance review identified a toxic culture within County Hall and a need for urgent change. Clearly those poisonous relationships remain alive and well.

If councillors were acting in the best interests of their communities, they would have sacked Mr James last year when they had the chance.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

The Budget meeting

The sound wasn't working for the first twenty minutes of today's council webcast but when it did kick in, the Chamber was in mid-tribute to Mr Dave Gilbert, Director of Regeneration and deputy chief executive who was 'semi-retiring'. Quite where he was going was lost due to the absence of sound (it may return on the archive) but he did seem to be leaving the Titanic after 12 years on board.

Amongst the applause, Mr James thanked him for 'holding the reins' for those three months last year and apparently Meryl had written a poem. Sadly she didn't read it out....

Amid the back-slapping the meeting moved on to drive through the budget, cutting services to residents and putting up their council tax by 4.8%.

The Exec Board Member for money, Cllr Jeff Edmunds wanted to present the whole budget, including the capital budget and rent increases all in one summary.
Opposition councillors protested to this, so the chief executive suggested a show of hands, he swiftly concluded that the protesters had been defeated.
Daff (the Chair) looked a bit puzzled and actually appeared to disagree with Mr James over the vote...Mr James took no notice and Cllr Edmunds continued anyway.

To be brief, it was a three year budget plan to make cuts of £45m, £30m of which was to be made in the next two years. As I have mentioned, there were several red herrings which had already been dropped by the Executive Board.

As the opposition rightly pointed out, although welcome, this has become an annual event, drip fed to the press since Christmas purely to benefit the reputation of the Executive Board. As the Administration, they could have made sure these cuts, eg meals on wheels, youth services, never appeared in the proposals in the first place.

The plan put forward meant a well-over-the-rate of inflation council tax rise of 4.8% and council house rent rise of 4.3%. Which made the small rise for the lowest paid staff which was on offer, a bit pointless. No one suggested a pay cut for the very highest paid staff..

The Plaid opposition put forward an amendment to the budget to use just 8% of the earmarked reserves which would have cancelled out the £4m in service cuts for this year as well as reducing the council tax rise by 1%.

Despite their own Labour Minister Leighton Andrews suggesting the exploration of reserves as a realistic option for Welsh Councils late last year, Labour claimed that Plaid's proposal was far too late in the proceedings, having only materialised the previous day.

This was not strictly true as Plaid have made this suggestion every year during consultation and I am certain that this year was no exception.

However, this year Plaid, well Cllr Dai Jenkins, had done the maths and based this suggestion on a little research on how these 'earmarked reserves' are managed.

The council holds roughly £73m in 'earmarked' reserves for various purposes. There's a further £26m in 'general reserves'. The amount held in the reserves has doubled since 2009. Cllr Jenkins observed that when money has been taken from reserves it's not always related to the purpose for which it was intended.

Most notably earlier this month, the Exec Board approved a £3m transfer from the Job Evaluation Fund to the Corporate Retirement Fund to pay for the continuing severance scheme. As the Cllr pointed out, this was decided by the Board in about 3 seconds, a million quid a second.

He mentioned another transfer when £3m was taken from the Fleet Management reserve to finance extra care in the social services department.

He also made an interesting observation over the wages bill, whilst the bill for technical services (bins, roads etc) had dropped by 9.6% the wage bill for the council press office had risen by 12.8%.

Cllr Jenkins listed several reserve funds which could possibly be reduced without detriment to future risk. This money belonged to the people of Carmarthenshire and should the county disappear in the wake of the Williams Commission where would it go? No one knew.

After some political to-ing and fro-ing, the Plaid proposals appeared to be gaining legs so Kevin Madge, after waffling that there was too much debate, quickly sought officer back-up.

The chief exec waded further into the debate claiming that that the finance officer couldn't comment on proposals from a political group, but Mr James himself then proceeded to rattle off his own rejection of the proposals.
You may remember last year he went one step further and used the pages of the Carmarthen Journal to reject political proposals from the opposition.

Both Mr James and the interim Director of Finance resorted to scare tactics to quell the resistance; it wouldn't be 'legal', the books wouldn't balance....the budget was clearly set in stone, there was to be no deviation or delay.

Taking over as Chair, Mr James called for the votes. The full debate can be seen on the archive but the upshot was that the Plaid amendment was defeated by the Labour/Independent Groups (Cllr Dole called for a recorded vote for future reference) and then the main budget went through, again supported by the Labour and the 'Independents'.
The decision will be rubber-stamped at a further full council meeting on March 6th.

Next up, two and a half hours into the meeting and just before lunch, was the Ombudsman's report. As predicted, the deliberate inclusion of this report within the budget meeting meant that debate and discussion would be minimal, completely overshadowed by the previous item.

In the event Exec Board Member Cllr Keith Davies, the Director Robert Sully and the head of service Jake Morgan all spoke to express their disappointment in the report and how the issues identified by the ombudsman had now been addressed. Cllr Lenny raised the issue of the 'culture of defensiveness' and was told, somewhat defensively, that this was the approach taken by the staff originally involved.
Everyone had learned from their errors and all was now fine, apparently.
It doesn't look like this report will go to the scrutiny committee. All done and dusted. Nothing to see here..move along.

That was more or less that, and with the Mark James' New Look Agenda removing any possibility of discussion over the batch of Scrutiny, Planning and Democratic Services meetings 'for information only', it was over.

Later in the day, Plaid Cllr Alun Lenny released this statement;

The Labour-independent controlled council voted for a budget of cuts, increased charges for services such as school meals and car parking, inflation-busting 4.3% hike in rents for council tenants and a 4.85% raise in council tax. 

All the cuts and charges could have been avoided this year had they accepted a Plaid Cymru opposition group proposal to take £6.2m (under 10%) from the Earmarked Reserves of £73.5m. 

These reserves (which are in addition to the General Reserve) have doubled since 2009. 
The people of Carmarthenshire have been badly let down and have every reason to be angry. This Labour-led council has meekly followed the Tory agenda of slashing public services. Plaid Cymru says that austerity has clearly failed. 

Our people have suffered cuts and extra charges to no avail. What was truly depressing was seeing the council’s Chief Executive and Head of Resources intervening in the debate. This council is obviously officer-led, as the Executive Board is too weak to run the council.

Archived webcast here, the sounds starts working around 18 minutes in. 

Monday 23 February 2015

The Carmarthenshire Herald - Updated

Later post 6th March; The Carmarthenshire Herald - the first Edition


(Update below)

I received confirmation today that a Carmarthenshire version of the Pembrokeshire Herald will be launched next month. On Friday 6th March to be precise and the new 'Carmarthenshire Herald' will be available throughout the county.

Anyone who has followed the goings-on over the county border will be aware that the Pembs Herald has been impressive, and has certainly not held back, in it's reporting of council matters.

This is welcome news for Carmarthenshire, where the Herald will find plenty to fill its pages from our very own dysfunctional council.

I'm sure County Hall will be delighted...

Update 24th February;

The launch of the paper (which will also have a Llanelli edition) has been covered by the journalism website Hold The Front Page.
The Editor of the Herald, Thomas Sinclair said

 “Launching two brand new independent newspaper titles could be seen as a brave venture in this uncertain economic climate, but we at the Herald see a growing need for a county-wide voice for the people of Carmarthenshire.

“We will be launching these papers along the same principles which have made The Pembrokeshire Herald successful further west.

“We’re going to be an independent voice. Just like in Pembrokeshire, we’re not going to be relying on revenue from local authorities or any government sources.

“It’s again a return to good old fashioned journalism.”

Another article has appeared this evening on Press Gazette.

25th February; for Cneifiwr's take on this latest threat to the Mark James Media Empire click here

2nd March; Carmarthenshire Herald Facebook page is here and @carmsherald can also be found on Twitter.

Friday 20 February 2015

No fly zone for the Rainbow flag

A few weeks ago Carmarthenshire Council entered the rankings of Stonewall UK's top 100 employers, at joint 94th. This recognition of good workplace equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans employees is of course something to be proud of and naturally, the obligatory press releases went out and there was even a mention in the staff newsletter.

February is also LGBT month and numerous organisations fly the Rainbow flag to celebrate the diversity of their employees and to encourage workplace equality.

You would think that as a celebration of this recent achievement, County Hall would do the same. After all, the UK government, the Welsh Assembly, Dyfed Powys Police and numerous councils, including Cardiff, Merthyr and Swansea are happily flying the Rainbow flag.

The Carmarthenshire Diversity Improvement Group (the DIG) was formed by the council itself following equalities legislation. The Group has now become a Network (the DIN) and their work has helped the council reach the top 100.

They have been asking for some time for County Hall to fly the Rainbow flag. So far, they've refused.

The DIN has done a little research and found that the council actually procured a flag with the intention of putting it up, but oddly it refuses to do so. It clearly remains in a drawer somewhere.

After initial enquiries the DIN were told that as they (the council) have sooo many requests to fly flags, they don't fly any. Presumably the UK government and the Welsh Assembly don't have that problem...

The DIN then made a direct appeal to the chief executive, but he has refused and this time offered no further explanation. They hope he will change his mind.

Incidentally, the council flew three flags yesterday in honour of the Duke of York's birthday!

The DIN website carries a couple of articles relating to this issue here and here and includes this statement below;

"The flying of a Rainbow flag really is the simplest and easiest of gestures and it gives a clear and visible statement to staff and the wider community that we are an organisation that’s committed to equality and diversity. 
Many government and public service organisations are proud to fly the flag in support of local LGBT+ events / achievements we are unable to see why Carmarthenshire CC, as a Stonewall Top 100 Employer, can’t embrace the opportunity to celebrate this achievement. 
The flag would symbolize the authority’s endeavour to improve the workplace for LGBT+ staff and would serve to encourage more members of staff who still don’t feel able to be themselves at work to be more themselves at work. 
We don’t think that you can get any greater impact from such minimal effort...

....Carmarthenshire finds itself in the strange position of being in the Stonewall Top 100 Employers but keeping it’s Rainbow flag kept locked in a County Hall closet."

Hengoed by-election result

The Carmarthenshire County Council Hengoed seat was held by Labour tonight with 335 votes. Penny Edwards was duly elected. Plaid came second, and UKIP third. The Conservative candidate came last with 54 votes.
The turnout was 35%.

Labour - 335
Plaid Cymru - 313
UKIP - 152
People First - 80
Independent - 76
Conservative - 54

Plaid Cymru took the seat on Llanelli Rural Council from Labour with 351 votes. Labour came second with 285 votes and again, UKIP somehow managed third.

The Labour win for the County Council seat means they now have 22 councillors and their coalition partners, the Independent Group remain the same with 21. Plaid remain the same of course with 29 seats.
I imagine the Meryl, Mark and Madge unholy alliance will be quite happy with the result.

Probably the most worrying result of the night was the Kipper coming third in both the County and Rural votes. A result that I imagine will be noted by the main parties as we head towards May 7th.

Thursday 19 February 2015

The Dylan Thomas wind turbine judgement

The Cardiff High Court judgement over the granting of planning permission for the 'Dylan Thomas wind turbine' was handed down today. Planning permission was quashed.

Permission for the turbine, across the estuary from the Dylan Thomas boat shed, was granted by the planning committee last year, against the recommendation of the planning officers that is should be refused.

Uproar ensued and a Judicial Review was brought by campaigners concerned that the turbine would blight the view from the boat shed.

The council have now been ordered to pay £21,275 in costs, as well as their own of course. However, they have already been granted permission to appeal.

Whatever your views on wind power, or Dylan Thomas for that matter, the judgement is an interesting one.

The judge (perhaps surprisingly) rejected the argument that Cllr Daff Davies, a (declared) friend of the applicant misled the committee by stating that the turbine would not be visible from the boat shed. Cllr Davies (Ind) is also, currently, the lamentable and laughable Chair of Carmarthenshire Council.

The judge decided that however inaccurate Cllr Davies' address to the committee was, the Members had sufficient material, in the way of photo montages, to decide for themselves.

Interestingly, the only ground accepted by the judge and which formed the basis for his decision, related to the planning officer's report, and specifically, the contents of the 'Screening Opinion'; a document which is supposed to address all the impacts including those relevant to this case, namely the cultural and historical impact.

Whilst the officer's report to the committee acknowledged the impact of the turbine on the historical and cultural sensitivities of the area, the 'Opinion', did not and neither did it recommend that an Environmental Impact Assessment was required.

So in effect, it was not the bizarre antics of the planning committee which quashed the permission, but the officer's flawed 'Screening Opinion' which formed the basis of the judge's decision.

Mr Justice Gilbart said;

"There is at best, some considerable confusion in the thinking of the Officer. It is not possible to read his words that "it will not give rise to any adverse environmental impact upon the surrounding area" in the context of his report which had taken great care to set out all of those impacts....

.......I find it striking that the Screening Opinion did not address the cultural significance of the boathouse and writing room, which I remind myself are Listed Buildings. They have a cultural importance which is not merely local, nor even regional".

Just in case the judgement is not splashed all over the front page of the council website, in the manner of Thompson v can be found on the Bailii website here.

Tuesday 17 February 2015

Council "Undemocratic and dangerous" says Cllr Sian Caiach

(Update below)

Back in 2012 I referred to an Ombudsman's report which upheld a complaint against Carmarthenshire Council relating to the unlawful extended removal of an autistic young woman from her parents, unlawful deprivation of liberty in fact.

Cllr Sian Caiach has been supporting the family throughout this lengthy, sensitive and complex case and has now written to the Minister, Leighton Andrews to intervene.

Her concerns relate to the refusal of senior officers to allow the case to be discussed by Scrutiny, despite her repeated requests over the four year period. She said;

"This Council continues to hide failure....This is not scrutiny of a local authority, it is undemocratic and dangerous"

The Western Mail reports this evening on the background to the case and today's responses from the Welsh Government and the Council.
The Welsh Government have said what they always say, that 'This is a matter for the council". Surely this approach can't be allowed to continue for much longer.
It's not exactly the first time calls have been made for government intervention in this council.

In her letter to the Minister, Cllr Caiach says;

“Following the resolution of this case, the health and social care scrutiny committee has not, despite my repeated requests to the committee chairs, discussed the case.

“The council acting monitoring officer, Linda Rees Jones, has said that the councillors have no right to discuss Ombudsman’s reports, criticising the council even if they are, as this one is, available to every member of the public on request and have already been reported in the press.

“She maintained that only special interest Ombudsman reports can be discussed, and these only if the Ombudsman specifically requests the councillors to be involved.

“As a councillor, I know the details of this case only from my contact with the family.

“I have no idea as to the safeguards which may or may not have been introduced subsequently to stop a repeat case and I know that the parents believe that the carers concerned are still working locally with vulnerable people.

“The health and social care scrutiny committee have not been informed of the case, now four years old. This council continues to hide failure.

“I believe that we councillors have no proper oversight. I am concerned that other families, who were not like the parents in this case – middle class articulate people with the funds to engage specialist lawyers – may have lost their children with learning difficulties to long term care in similar circumstances.

“This is not scrutiny of a local authority. It is undemocratic and dangerous.”

It was only a few weeks ago that the Ombudsman issued a Public Interest Report concerning the council's care of a four year old girl. The "abject" failings were found to be "fundamental and inexcusable" and the complaint handling was "very poor.... defensive and lacked objectivity"

The Ombudsman required the council to publish the report on it's website for three weeks, and it did so. The three weeks was up last Thursday and, allowing a couple of days for the press office to follow orders, it disappeared yesterday, although for now, the link still works from this blog.

This is not efficiency but reputation management at the deliberate expense of proper scrutiny. To give an example of why this is not simple efficiency, according to their website, Roger Jones who retired last summer is still the Director of Resources, this information has yet to be updated.
The Wales Audit Office reports issued last year didn't appear at all on the website other than within the agendas of council meetings. Hiding failure, as Cllr Caiach rightly says.

This toxic, defensive culture has to change but as has been said, that change is never going to happen without a clean sweep of the top brass, along with it's cavalier and incompetent internal legal advice.

Update 18th Feb;
The recent Ombudsman's Public Interest report has just appeared on the agenda for next Tuesday's council meeting.
Councillors are being asked to 'accept' that improvements have been made. As this is the annual budget meeting, one hopes the timing wasn't deliberate to overshadow and minimise any debate over the ombudsman's findings.
The webcast will start at 10am.

Local Authority Performance - six red cards for Carmarthenshire

The latest stats for Local Authority Performance 2013 -14 have just been published by the Welsh Governmet and like the recent traffic light bandings for education; red, amber and green are used to denote top middle or bottom ranking.

The report can be found here in full and covers various services as key pointers to provide overall comparison. Carmarthenshire council hasn't done very well. Out of nineteen 'markers', six are in the red, nine are in the average amber and only a paltry four merit a green badge.

If matters of governance and undemocratic and unlawful behaviour had been included, the council would have gone off the scale...

Before the council's Ministry of Spin get hold of the data, it's worth mentioning the six which appear in the red, the figures are the position of Carmarthenshire Council out of the 22 local authorities;

Delayed transfer of care for social care reasons; 18th

Looked after young people with three or more placements; 20th

Secondary school attendance; 20th

Delivery of Affordable housing units - 21st

Days to deliver disability grants; 20th

Roads in poor condition; 20th

Thursday 12 February 2015

February meeting - CCTV, hustings, and constitutional mischief

As usual, yesterday's meeting, in its entirety, can be viewed here so I will only refer to a couple of points.

Due to Mr James' last minute alterations to the agenda for the avoidance of awkward questions, the whole thing was over with in two hours. Sadly he didn't have any powerpoint presentations available this time, but I'm sure they're well in-hand for next time...


Amid something of an uproar, the Police Commissioner, Christopher Salmon (Con) has withdrawn the police contribution to fund the monitoring of CCTV. The council, well the Executive Board, has refused make up the shortfall.

Mr Salmon is definitely not the flavour of the month, or year, in the council chamber. The Motion, put forward by Cllr Elwyn Williams was for Mr Salmon to have a rethink over the funding.

The South Wales Guardian published a powerful opinion piece in this week's paper.

Both Plaid and Labour accused Mr Salmon of politicising the police and said his recent 5% reduction in the precept was, basically, an election move, at the expense of police services. It was pointed out that in 2012/13 the old style police authority cost £377k, but with the arrival of the new Commissioner system, that figure had now jumped to £619k.

Mr Salmon defends his decision claiming that monitoring CCTV makes little difference to crime levels and there was no difference when live monitoring stopped in Powys and the area has one of the lowest crime rates.

Despite Plaid saying they'd never supported the idea of a police commissioner in the first place and Labour's Calum Higgins getting in on the act saying Labour would abolish the PCC if it gained power in May, it was all immaterial really as the PCC has no intention of restoring the funding.

Anyway, the upshot of it all is that CCTV will remain, but will no longer be actively monitored, and only time will tell whether this was a poor decision or not. Hopefully not, and hopefully the staff can be redeployed.

It does appear however that police resources were available for Dyfed Powys police officers to visit various corner shops to find out who in our Welsh villages has been reading Charlie Hebdo....

Election talk

With three candidates for the general election in May in the Chamber, some Westminster style debate was inevitable. Not only that, but a fairly hotly contested council by-election in Hengoed will be held next Thursday (19th).

Cllrs Calum Higgins (Lab), Elwyn Williams (Plaid) and Sian Caiach (People First) are all standing in the general election. Cllr Dole's Motion, whilst mentioning the council's budget was in reality an attack on Labour's support of the Tory austerity policy.

Cllr Dole referred to several Labour Members' wards and the high levels of child poverty, he also mentioned, that to be on the safe side, voters in Hengoed by-election should avoid Labour...

Labour candidate Calum Higgins responded and tried to say that Labour didn't exactly agree with the policy, their view was different, a gradual 'balancing of the books' rather than huge short term cuts...

You get the drift. And 84 days still to go.

Cllr Caiach suggested that actually, nobody had any real answers and this wasn't presently an issue on the doorsteps of Hengoed anyway. Perhaps they should concentrate on the nitty gritty of their own budget.

Eventually the Motion was lost, 31 against, 27 for and 4 abstentions.

Pension question

Sian Caiach could not ask her question regarding the unlawful pension arrangement as the Leader, Cllr Madge was not present. She was told by Mr James, via the Chair, that she must wait for his return.
I don't suppose Deputy Leader, Pam Palmer could have answered as she didn't have a copy of the script, prepared for Mr Madge by Mr James.......

Pension scrutiny

There was then a general grumble to the setting up of a local Pension Board to oversee the panel of trustees of the Dyfed Pension Fund. Essentially the purpose of the Board was to hold the trustees to account, advising over matters of governance and compliance. The chief exec chipped in to say it was 'completely unnecessary'. I suppose he has a bit of a personal 'thing' about scrutiny of pension payments...

Anyway, as it was part of new legislation, more bureaucracy or not, the changes had to be accepted.

Constitutional mischief

After some discussion relating to Blue Badge charges and the lack of consultation with local members, it was time for the agenda change.  As I mentioned here, scrutiny and planning committee minutes were now 'for information only', no questions allowed. A move that Mr James was particularly keen on, unsurprisingly.

However, he was very careful to point out, as some members had been critical, that this was a decision of the working group. They had decided, he said, that he should implement this change with 'immediate effect'.at their meeting on the 26th January.

Presumably Mr James was on hand at the meeting to give them plenty of encouragement. a bit like his carefully engineered 'democratic mandate' over the unlawful libel indemnity and pension tax avoidance scam..

He went on to explain that as there was no requirement in the constitution to include these meetings on the agenda then there was no constitutional amendment necessary.

Cllr Caiach said that even if that were the case, it should have still gone to full council for discussion and approval, it had been clumsy and discourteous.

Incidentally, there's no 'requirement' in the constitution specifically preventing supplementary questions from Members either, but according to Mr James, a constitutional amendment is going to be necessary to allow them....

There was nothing in the constitution, you may remember, banning the public from filming meetings either...

Labour Cllr Anthony Jones acknowledged that Councillors could ask questions relating to these meetings, but as they had to be made in writing seven days before the meeting, it was not satisfactory.

Basically, aside from Executive Board minutes, no spontaneous questions relating to other committees are now allowed, any questions will now involve the drafting of letters and vetting by the chief executive.

Motions on notice still require a record seven signatures as well as the proposer. I'm sure all will be relieved when this is relaxed back to the normal two as per the WLGA recommendations.

This particularity unpleasant requirement only lasted three years having been implemented by Mr James due to a number of Motions in 2011 which, amongst other irritants, were, and I quote, "criticising the council".

According to Mr James, who seems to be in complete control over the working group considering the WLGA governance recommendations, they have now covered everything and will be reporting to council soon. His trusty acting sidekick, and legal rubber stamp, Linda Rees Jones is drawing up reports for council and amendments to the constitution as we speak.

As I said the full meeting can be seen on the archive. No one mentioned the Public Interest Report from the Ombudsman, no one mentioned the protest outside County Hall by Unison concerned about the latest outsourcing venture

Incidentally, all council tax and housing benefit correspondence much of which is highly sensitive, has now been outsourced to Dstoutput Ltd based in Dagenham. This contract, which I mentioned back in October, is worth £220,000.

Annual budget meeting

The next webcast meeting of full council will be on Tuedsay 24th February to decide on the budget. Hopefully these two bright sparks pictured below will perk up by then and speak up for all the residents of Caebrwyn's corner of Carmarthenshire. Then again, pigs might fly.

Independent Group Cllrs Tom Theophilus and Ivor Jackson

Outsourcing - A message from Unison

Further to the news that Carmarthenshire Council is planning to outsource all leisure and cultural services, the Carmarthenshire branch of Unison held a protest outside County Hall yesterday. They will also be protesting against cuts to front line staff and services on the 24th February when the council decide on the budget.

Unison issued the following press release;

Carmarthenshire County Council Services for Sale

Carmarthenshire labour Led council has taken a serious step towards putting its services up for sale.

The council has recently advertised that it will consider ‘future management options’ for Leisure Centres, Libraries, County parks and Museums. This is management speak that they want to outsource these services.

Mr Ian Jones Head of Leisure is quoted as saying in the press ‘public consultation on budget proposals showed support for alternative leisure delivery models’. The council’s consultation about budget cuts was a sham; the public in Carmarthenshire are opposed like general public elsewhere to privatisation and this is a significant step towards this.

What choice were the public offered outsourced services or no services? Our branch produced a No Cuts budget that would have maintained all services in house. This selling off of the family silver will lead to worse services and or more costly services to the public who will have no say over these services through their elected councillors.

Outsourced services will threaten jobs, terms and conditions of our members and other staff. They will have less spending power when small businesses are already struggling in Carmarthenshire (have a look at Llanelli town centre).

It is a scandal that this Labour led council have asked for informal expressions of interest and are paying RPT consulting to advise them through the process, but it is a direct consequence of implementing Con-Dem cuts of doing the Con-Dems dirty work for them. Instead of passively implementing cuts they should be resisting the cuts with Unison.

We intend to campaign against outsourcing our services to line the pockets of big business. We will be calling on other trade unions, anti -cuts campaigns community groups and the general public to defend local authority services.

We will send a clear message to the Council our services are not for sale

Mark Evans
Branch Secretary

Carmarthenshire County Unison

(Pic; Carmarthen Journal

Tuesday 10 February 2015

The common denominator

The news that the EU Commission has decided, after an informal assessment, not to investigate Carmarthenshire Council over illegal State Aid (unfair competition) funding to Scarlets Regional Ltd, will be greeted with smug satisfaction in County Hall.
The chief executive announced this, somewhat prematurely it turned out, back in July.

Interestingly, the EU Commissioner looking at this matter based his assessment "On the basis of available information..."
"Available" being the key word I would imagine. Presumably there was some information which was not available...

Anyway, EU rules or not, what we do know is that the Carmarthenshire taxpayer has forked out over £18m, plus a £2.6m loan so far, let alone the back door subsidies and the 'Marston's deal' etc etc.

Back in 2007 Councillors were warned by external auditors it was all a bit too risky, but this was one of those visions of the chief executive and no troublesome councillors or pesky auditors were going to stand in the way.

Even earlier, in 2001, in Boston, Lincolnshire a similar vision for a stadium was born and councillors were told by their chief executive, Mark James, it 'wouldn't cost the taxpayers' a penny'. By 2002 he'd jumped ship and moved to Carmarthenshire. Unfortunately, as we know, Mr James brought his visions with him.

So far, the taxpayers of Boston have stumped up over £6m towards the Princess Royal Sports Arena (a snip compared to PyS but a bit more than a penny) and with a row currently raging over yet more funding, which will take the taxpayers' contribution over the £7m mark, many are wondering when it will ever end.

In 2007 a damning auditors' report into the Boston fiasco pointed much of the blame on those that led the initial project. At the time, the local newspaper, the Boston Standard and also the Western Mail both reported on the matter but as those who were involved at the start had long left, they escaped accountability.

The legacy left by Mr James in Boston continues to bleed the taxpayers to this day - the same legacy we can look forward to when he eventually leaves Carmarthenshire.

Monday 9 February 2015

A leisure trust on its way....a follow-up post

(Update below)

Back in October the council tendered for a consultant 'to assist with the delivery of an alternative trust management arrangement for its Leisure Services'. This was a 14 month contract at unknown cost.
I wrote about it at the time and mentioned some of the recognised risks which I have repeated below.

It now looks like these outsourcing arrangements are well underway with RPT Consulting Ltd, based in Hampshire winning the 14 month contract to oversee the whole process. 'Expressions of interest' have now been invited to manage the entire cultural and leisure department, which includes Leisure Centres, Theatres, Libraries, Country Parks and Museums prior to the formal procurement process. It looks like the whole lot will be offloaded.

It is not exactly clear whether, given that cash is already beginning to flow, there has been any consultation or even informal discussion with elected members.

Given the spec for RPT Consulting, I'm assuming that a Trust is still on the cards but this will clearly be managed by a private company once the process is complete.

The budget proposals have already presented this as a no-other-option step with the warning that any 'Alternative solution is likely to entail closure'.

It might be a roaring success, I have no idea, but given that the object of the exercise is to save money there a few risks which will need to be considered.

Here's what I said back in October;

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'.

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

The chief executive has 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.

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, and now looks like it will be, be managed through such an arrangement. Complete transparency will be essential.

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.

Update 10th February
Cneifiwr has been digging a little deeper, see here, and the Carmarthen Journal reports that Unison Carmarthenshire will be lobbying councillors tomorrow at County Hall. Branch secretary Mark Evans said;

"We will be lobbying as the council wants to outsource many of the services it currently provides, which will lead to worse services and will be a real threat to jobs, terms and conditions — Carmarthenshire Council is for sale, basically.

"Our stance is anything here, even if it's a social enterprise or volunteers, these are the routes to privatisation, because there's not the community resources to maintain them. It is paving the way for private companies to come in — there will be no public services left in five to 10 years.

"Private companies won't get the resources of the local authority and will have to find a way to finance within their budget.

"If it is a private company then it will have to make a profit, so where's that money going to come from?

"We are fighting this on behalf of Carmarthenshire to save these services."

Sunday 8 February 2015

Sidelining Scrutiny - Premature and Unconstitutional?

Further to my earlier blogpost, Next week's meeting - Scrutiny sidelined, it seems that the decision to to shove Scrutiny and Planning Committee reports en bloc 'for information only', something the chief executive was particularly keen to do, was not only premature but unconstitutional.

A sharp-eyed commenter on Cneifiwr's blog has picked up on the part of the Constitution which lists the official functions of Full Council (my underlining);

(r) to receive reports from Committees on matters which have been delegated to them and providing an opportunity for Members to ask questions thereon;

(s) to receive and confirm or otherwise the recommendations of Committees on non-executive functions not within their delegation or which a Committee has referred to the Council for decision, to enable Members to ask questions, propose amendments, or to pass such resolution or resolutions thereon as may be deemed appropriate;

What is more, the Council Procedure Rules (Standing Orders) state that full Council will;

(i) receive the reports from the Executive Board and the Council’s committees and receive questions and answers on any of those reports.

Nowhere, at all, in the Constitution does it say 'apart from Scrutiny and Planning committees'.

Changes to the Constitution cannot be made without approval from full council.

As I said, the chief executive, who decides what goes on the agenda for council meetings, has been particularly keen to sideline scrutiny reports in this way so as to permanently shut down controversial debate.

Seems he was a little too keen.

It will be astonishing if Mr James is allowed to get away with this, (and goodness me, he has plenty of form on that count...), so we'll have to see if his newly styled agenda is challenged at Wednesday's meeting.

I strongly suspect that if it is challenged, the Mark James/Linda Rees-Jones comedy double act will attempt to baffle us with yet another one of their unique interpretations of the Constitution...
Sadly, such control freakery looks like it's here to stay

Hengoed By-election - People First candidate

The Hengoed council by-election will be held on the 19th February. I don't usually endorse any candidates but I'm making an exception this time. As readers will be aware, Cllr Sian Caiach, who is standing for Llanelli in the general election in May, has consistently, and with determination tried to bring the top brass of County Hall to account.

I think it's time she had an ally in the Chamber.

Mr Wynford Samuel is standing for People First, the party formed by Cllr Caiach. He is also a candidate for the spare seat on Llanelli Rural Council.

Cllr Caiach says;
I ask you to support Wynford and vote for him. I need an ally to stand with my in the local councils. In this time of cuts we need to fight hard for this ward and take care of our facilities and vulnerable residents.
In the County Council, Welsh Government auditors have found that senior councillors authorised unlawful payments. We need to ensure that no more money goes astray and every penny is properly spent for the public good.
The Welsh Local Government Association has investigated Carmarthenshire County council and found it wanting. Wynford is not the sort of man to put up with secret pay rises, hiding problems and wasting money.

Friday 6 February 2015

Carmarthenshire - 'Zombie council' says Jonathan Edwards MP

Following the announcement on Wednesday that chief executive Mark James is remaining in post for the time being, Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards has hit out and warned that Carmarthenshire is at risk of having a "zombie council".

Mr Edwards and AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas are quoted in the South Wales Guardian;

"Plaid Cymru has worked hard over the past two years to curb senior officer pay and to try and put a stop eye-watering golden goodbyes.

“The joint statement from the leaders of the Labour and Independent parties in Carmarthenshire, however, suggests they are happy for county taxpayers to continue to pay for one of Wales’s highest paid council officers.

"Carmarthenshire is at risk of having a zombie council.

“The Council is in desperate need of a political reboot.

AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas added: “In light of Pembrokeshire Council reducing the salary of its new chief executive by some £60,000, residents in Carmarthenshire will be wondering whether they are getting value for money by employing one of the highest paid officers in Wales despite him indicating his desire to leave the job.”

Full article here

To be honest, I think that transition to zombie council occurred quite some time ago.

Both politicians have been highly critical of the way the council is run over the past few years, and not just on a political level, Mr Edwards has previously described County Hall as a dictatorship. It was he who asked the police to investigate following the pension and libel indemnity scandals last year and also asked Mr James to repay the unlawful cash.

Next week's agenda - Scrutiny sidelined

Please also see later post, 8th Feb; Sidelining scrutiny - Premature and Unconstitutional 

Seasoned council webcast viewers may have noticed that the chief executive is given to the occasional outburst over discussions relating to scrutiny reports, these reports are on the agenda and have often given backbench councillors the opportunity to raise controversial issues when all other avenues have been carefully sealed off.

With Mr James presiding over the working group (and everything else for the foreseeable future) looking at implementing the WLGA recommendations, it is hardly surprising that possibly the only recommendation he approves of, relating to these scrutiny reports, is being hurried onto the agenda next week.

Most of the other recommendations have been shuffled off to the exec board or the ironically titled Democratic Services Committee for further deliberation.

The WLGA decided that issues discussed in scrutiny would be best brought to full council in the form of Motions or special reports, I disagree, the more debate the better and this only panders to the chief executive's dream agenda of powerpoint presentations and civic nonsense.

The scrutiny reports are still there, but are 'en bloc' and 'for information purposes only'. No discussion will be allowed.

It will be interesting to see whether the forthcoming amendments to the constitution relative to the WLGA recommendations happen to include the final removal of the libel indemnity clause, currently suspended. Maybe it'll be left hanging there uselessly and all crossed-out as a lasting memorial to local government idiocy. Perhaps I'll drop Ms Rees-Jones a line and ask.

The full agenda, see here, includes councillor questions and features a very interesting one from Cllr Caiach concerning the costs and circumstances of the unlawful  pension tax avoidance scandal. We look forward to a thorough debate...

The executive board have attempted to prepare themselves for the leader of the opposition's motion which includes reference to several sensitive budget cuts. On Monday this was pre-empted with some executive board budget tinkering and a handful of proposals were rejected, including meals-on-wheels, crossing patrols and youth services. Well, a twelve month reprieve anyway. Known as the annual red herrings.

Expect a speech from Kev about 'we've done our best' and 'difficult decisions' and smelling the coffee...

The row continues over the decision by the Police Commissioner to stop funding for monitoring CCTVs. Another 'councillor question' calls for him to reinstate this funding. It appears however that the Commissioner is sticking to his guns, so to speak, claiming that CCTV is ineffective and if the council want to carry on monitoring the screens that's up to them.

The council, well Pam Palmer, has said they can't afford it and will use their contribution to the funding to keep the hot meals on wheels going instead. By putting this as an 'either or' choice, which may not be strictly correct, it leaves very few options open to those who want CCTV monitoring to continue.

Despite various energetic press releases, accompanied by pictures of piles of money and calculators, none of this is actually set in stone until the budget goes before full council, and the cameras, on February 24th.

Unfortunately, all this effort by Kev and Pam to boost their popularity was completely swamped by the news that their Glorious Leader, Mr James is staying put - and the sickening endorsement they put their names to has put them firmly back to square one.

It would be an interesting time to enquire as to any external legal costs incurred through advising on the chief execs severance application, which included the 'ten options' for departure, and which he has now withdrawn.

Local Government Reform

The White Paper on local government democracy in Wales was published the other day, launched by Minister Leighton Andrews (Lab).  It appears to have been broadly welcomed by the other parties and has gone out to consultation until the end of April. I will be brief but the details, which are well worth a read can be found here and the debate in the Senedd can be viewed here

Part of the paper deals yet again with the reduction of Welsh councils from twenty-two to around twelve, nothing new there really other than a renewed promise to force the issue if voluntary mergers are not forthcoming, however, this follows last week's rejection by the minister of three proposed voluntary mergers. He now says the new 'map' of merged councils will be ready by July. At the moment, Carmarthenshire will stand alone, but this could change.

As for the nitty gritty of council business the paper commented on the pervading officer-led culture in some of our councils (in so many words) and recommended that the powers should be reversed so that council leaders will hold chief executives to account. The Paper refers to the recent WLGA governance report which gave official recognition of the toxic culture in Carmarthenshire.

It also suggests that despite the way in which chief officers are overly protected, councils should be able to dismiss them, 'without compensation', if they have failed to act responsibly... Neither should chief executives who also act as Returning Officers for elections be paid an extra fee, it is part of their job. Better late than never I suppose.
The paper also calls into question excessive senior pay including that for executive councillors.

In an attempt to end, as Mr Andrew's put it, the 'old boys club..and cosy cabals' of Welsh local government, the paper suggests that councillors should serve no more than five terms and Leaders no more than two, and possible fixed terms for chief officers. I'm not sure how well this will radically invigorate local government... In the Senedd the question arose that if restrictions were placed on councillors, they should also apply to Assembly Members as well.

Further powers of 'competence' will be given to local authorities which is essentially a strengthening of their very general powers under the local government act 1972 in that they can do anything to promote the 'well-being' of the county provided it's not illegal.

The key word is competance; it was this power that Carmarthenshire Council attempted to use to justify the unlawful libel indemnity. With internal legal advice described by Sir David Lewis as 'cavalier...and incompetent' it is not surprising that their deeply flawed and deliberate legal misinterpretation failed so miserably.

Back to the white paper and it proposes that Independent candidates for elections will have to declare any party memberships - a good idea which I brought up with the Electoral Commission here but unfortunately there are no proposals to deal with the ridiculous paradox of having independent 'groups' on councils..

The right to use social media at council meetings is also endorsed but sadly the right to film or record council meetings will again be left up to individual authorities - this is yet another missed opportunity.

On the whole, even if you wonder whether or not some of it has been thought through properly, this is quite an interesting paper and as I said, well worth a read (and why not respond to the consultation?). Against the background of the question of council mergers, it's already generating plenty of comment and debate and will continue to do so over the coming months.

A far more thorough summary can be read over on Oggy Bloggy's blog.

Wednesday 4 February 2015

Mark James is staying...

As if things couldn't get any worse, this nauseous press release has just appeared on the council website. The prospect of being refused a gold-plated severance package was clearly too much for Mr James. Or perhaps no one else would give him a job.

Press release from the Leadership of the Council

We are pleased to confirm that following a meeting between the Leadership of the Council
and the Chief Executive, he has agreed to stay on at the Council for the time being.

This is a very challenging time for Councils in Wales as we seek to make huge cuts to our
budgets, whilst trying to maintain services for the people of our County. We are also
uncertain over whether Carmarthenshire will stand alone as a Council in just a few years
time or will be abolished. If ever there was a time when we need a first class, highly
experienced and respected Chief Executive at the helm it is now.

We are therefore delighted that Mark James has agreed to withdraw his application for
severance this year and to remain in post as our Chief Executive for now to help the Council
weather the financial and possible re-organisation storms.

Mark has made such a contribution to our County over the last 13 years, transforming areas
like Carmarthen Town Centre, Llanelli and our South Coast as well as many of our schools
and housing. We know he will continue working for the benefit of our County and leading
our new management team.

Cllr Kevin Madge, Cllr Pam Palmer

Leader of the Council and Deputy Leader of the Council

(Link here)

The toxic culture continues...for now.

(Ruling Labour group announce they will veto a golden handshake  - 7th January)

Sunday 1 February 2015

Quality of life

At around the same time last year that County Hall were shelling out hundreds of thousands defending appalling financial impropriety, (see my last post, Wales Audit Reports - A year old today,) they decided to start means testing our old folk and charge for a range of services which had previously been free, for example attendance at day centres. Well, not exactly free as the pensioners had presumably paid a lifetime of income tax.

Late in 2012, at the same time, incidentally, that a quiet deal was done with the favourite rugby team to pay off one of its debts to the tune of £280,000, County Hall eyed up frail pensioners as a source of income.

A 'consultation' went out, with typically loaded questions such as, "Do you agree that charges should be implemented to sustain existing services and deliver new and improved services?" The usual 'no other option' consultation. In the event, 70% of those who responded in fact said no. Several backbench councillors also expressed misgivings.

Undeterred, and in July 2014 at the same meeting that saw the indiscretions and dishonesty of the top brass being defended again, the charges were approved.

With the council already busy washing it's hands of luncheon clubs and day clubs for the elderly and passing them on to other organisations and local volunteers, with varying degrees of success and failure, the target was now on frail pensioners pockets. The criteria for attendance was also changed.

The day centre in Carmarthen used to be a thriving social centre which was popular with pensioners who lived alone and could go there for their lunch, have their hair done, a chat with friends and maybe a game of cards or something but now they're not allowed access unless they're very disabled - and are now being charged £20 per day for the privilege.
Many now simply can't afford a couple of days in the company of friends, and the walking wounded now have to find somewhere else or spend their days alone. With hot meals-on-wheels due for the axe in the budget the outlook is bleak.

So whilst the council executive polish their CBEs and OBEs, reflecting smugly on their good fortune at having got off scot-free with reckless extravagance and blatant dishonesty, quality of life has become a little less fulfilling for all those Mrs Raymonds and Mr Joneses in the county...and you and me before too long.