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. 


Anonymous said...

Strange that they had no problem taking £5.56 million out of the reserves to give to the Scarlets, for them to build their stadium.

Redhead said...

So, rhe tail is still wagging the dog then.

Anonymous said...

Just last Wednesday, in her half page advert in the Llanelli Star the day before the By-election, Labour's Penny Edwards promised to 'stand up for Hengoed'.

Yesterday in her first county council meeting, she voted with the ruling Labour/independent group in favour of the council tax and council house rent increases.

What "honesty and integrity".

Anonymous said...

What on earth did you expect Anon 17.10? You surely didn't think she was going to think for herself?

Anonymous said...

Just a thought. Is the WLGA team still bothered with this Council. I seem to remember they were due to come back as a critical friend, or have they realised that they have had no impact on the running of this Council.

caebrwyn said...

Anon 10:11 There is only one person running this council, as is apparent from the budget meeting and also apparent from the press release concerning Mr James' decision to stay - both the leader and the deputy leader acknowledged his position at the 'helm'.
As for the WLGA review, we know that Mr James treated the whole exercise as a joke and so far has only used it to further his own wish to reduce debate at full council meetings.

He should have been sacked when councillors had the chance last year.

Anonymous said...

Dave Gilbert was made aware by me, early last year, as he was holding the reins for MARK JAMES who was on gardening leave, of the council officers refusal to follow W/B, complaints & POVA policies. I was still trying to persuade the Chair of the Standards Committee, Linda Rees Jones & Dave Gilbert to have a meeting with me to discuss this and look at my evidence when MARK JAMES returned to his post. I then included him in my request which as has happened before when I, as a whistleblower, have tried to persuade him to use his influence in persuading officers to follow procedures, he totally ignored my communication. I have the right as a whistleblower to communicate to him the mishandling of my disclosures. Dave Gilbert's semi retirement may have had something to do with this as I'm sure what I disclosed to him and the others would not have been easy reading. Of course LINDA REES JONES (LRJ) was the main person to respond though the CHAIR of standards committee in the end told me he endorsed her decision not to hold a meeting with me. I believe she and no one else was holding the reins for MARK JAMES not DAVE GILBERT.

Did they say things had changed since the OMBUDSMAN report which was discussed at the meeting? The culture of cover up and defensiveness has not changed.

Jennifer Brown (whistleblower)

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Anonymous said...

A care worker's post is important in making service users lives as pleasant as possible and if the culture within SCH&H makes it almost impossible to protect their interests then it is shame on the officers who value their positions more than safeguarding the vulnerable. I and others have whistleblown about abuse and/or maladministration in the SCH&H department and all have suffered detriment in one way or another. Being dismissed has not silenced me as was hoped; others too cannot get what they witnessed and the lack of concern shown by officers regarding their disclosures, out of their minds. Our positions are as important as any of the officers' positions to the wellbeing of service users; we also suffer if we lose our positions just as much as officers on a higher grade. I know in other councils officers do speak up sometimes and are made to suffer but speaking up is the only way to change the defensive culture within this Local Authority. They may think they have more to lose or they just prefer to turn a blind eye realising to perpetuate the defensive culture and to demonise the whistleblowers will enhance their value to the Council. I wonder if they saw, at first hand, the suffering of service users would they so easily be able to turn a blind eye to it or act so unfairly against whistleblowers. I don't think many of them could. Coercion is an effective weapon of defence in the hands of the self serving. I am still whistleblowing in regard to what has taken place before and after my dismissal. I am supposedly still "protected" by PIDA but as a lot of whistleblowers have found out to their cost it does not protect the whistleblower and neither do the unions as evidenced by my experience and by a large number of other whistleblowers in public bodies.

I know it's not easy for members to involve themselves in this and that they are easily cowed by the CEO and feel obliged to accept the advice and explanations of LRJ without question. The CEO doesn't appreciate being questioned or criticised but remember how he once complained to the Ombudsman about one “vocal” councillor but found he himself being chastised .

Jennifer Brown (whistleblower)