Friday 26 June 2015

Mark James threatens Cllr Bill Thomas

Today's Llanelli Herald reports on an extraordinary email sent by Mr James to County Councillor Bill Thomas who represents Lliedi ward, Llanelli. What seems to have triggered this latest executive outburst is Cllr Thomas' involvement in a complaint brought by a Llanelli resident, a Mr Clive Edwards.

The complaint dates back many years and has been excellently summarised by the Llanelli Herald (see below). Last year a report turned up under FoI, which had recommended the council take the 'honest solution' and admit full liability over defective building works at a property in Felinfoel, Llanelli, which blighted the home of a neighbour.

The report, written in 1996, was then buried by the council for the next eighteen years. Neither Mr Edwards, nor his neighbour were ever told about it. In total, Mr Edwards has been given an appalling run around by the council, in it's various forms, for an astonishing twenty seven years.

As I said, The Herald provides an excellent summary of the case and we can only hope that this matter is now finally resolved for Mr Edwards.

Regular readers will know that, at full council meetings Cllr Thomas regularly brings up subjects which clearly the chief executive doesn't want bought up, most noticeably his concerns over pollution in the Burry Inlet. At the June meeting Cllr Thomas attempted to bring up the case of Mr Edwards but again Mr James urged the Chair to stop him.

Cllr Thomas also featured recently in the Herald's Parc Howard video, questioning the relationship between Loca Ventures Ltd and the county council and he is undoubtedly, like Cllr Caiach, an asker of awkward questions, a precious and rare beast in County Hall and not something which Mr James can tolerate.

Both Councillors have no truck with council spin and remain determined to hold the authority to account, on behalf of their constituents no matter who is running the show or what obstacles are deliberately put in their way.

A couple of years ago Mr James formally restricted Cllr Caiach's access to officers, and therefore information, because she was 'asking too many questions'.

He also reported her to the ombudsman after the press manager eavesdropped on a conversation Cllr Caiach had with the press and reported back to Mr James. The ombudsman threw out his complaint in its entirety. Cllr Caiach has also had her emails tracked and Cllr Thomas believes he was subject to covert surveillance by the authority.

One tactic employed by Mr James is to accuse 'troublesome' councillors of harassing junior staff when he is very well aware that the focus of the questioning relates entirely to himself or other very senior management. This tactic was apparent over the email snooping episode and seems to have resurfaced in his email to Cllr Thomas.

As you can read from the reference to the email in the article below, Mr James is quite clearly out of control. He is making threats and allegations towards an elected member, Cllr Thomas, despite the findings of the Wales Audit Office.

Perhaps the most disturbing revelation is the suggestions that he has a 'file of documents' to support proceedings against Cllr Thomas in the High Court.

Does Mr James make a habit of collecting files of documents on people?  Who else has he compiled a 'file' on? Hasn't he got better things to do for his £180k+ per year?

I am of the opinion that Cllr Thomas has more honesty and integrity in his little finger than Mr James could ever have.

Here's the article published in this week's Llanelli Herald;

Council rejected 'honest solution' 
A Llanelli man has been fighting for answers from Carmarthenshire County Council regarding building work which took place on a neighbour’s property leaving his own home in what has been stated by numerous experts as in a ‘dangerous state’.  
Clive Edwards of Felinfoel Road has been struggling to get answers to questions regarding a number of issues. For 27 years Mr Edwards has sought answers and has been given the run around by council officers. 
Now, The Herald can expose that a report which recommended that the Council hold its hands up and admit its error in a building dispute was concealed from Mr Edwards and the owner of the neighbouring property for eighteen years. 
Setting out the options to resolve the situation, the report’s author, G.A. Stephens, discounts options likely to be unacceptable to the owners of the neighbouring properties and recommends: 
‘The Council admits to the fact that the wall should not have been approved in that condition and offers a contribution towards the cost of demolishing and rebuilding...’ 
Mr Stephens goes on to observe: ‘This is in my opinion the honest solution it may however make the Council liable in allowing the matter to drag on for 8 years and compensation claims could be made against the Council’. 
Instead of acting upon its recommendations, however, the Council buried it and subsequently changed its position in 2002, claiming that Counsel’s advice, in relation to which it claims legal privilege, suggests that the dispute is nothing to do with the Council at all. 
After burying the report, the Council proceeded to fob off the parties. In 2002, when 12 years had elapsed since the defective works had been signed off, the matter reached the Executive Board. 
The Board was presented with legal advice from an external barrister. That advice ignored Mr Stephens’ ‘honest’ solution and any suggestion that the Council make good on the grossly deficient approval given by a building inspector. 
It is apparent from the content of a letter from Council employee Mark James to Nia Griffith MP dated July 10, 2007 that the Council now claimed that regardless of the failings of the building inspector, it rejected civil liability for their incompetence. 
That letter also reveals that a Police investigation was STILL ongoing into the works, the payment of grant money relating to them to a building company, and the circumstances which led to them being signed off as satisfactory. 
It is not clear whether the Executive Board which approved the new line in 2002 was ever made aware of the report prepared by Mr Stephens some six years before. Even if they had been made aware of it – and if they were, the good faith of those members aware of its existence at that time, if any, is open to reasonable doubt – by 2002 the costs of compensating the property owners would have risen far above whatever they were in 1996. 
While it appears bizarre, however, that the Council was prepared to change its position so dramatically, the owners of 41 and 43 Felinfoel Road were deliberately kept in the dark. 
The 1996 report’s existence only emerged after a Freedom of Information Act request made in 2014. Until then, the Council had not informed the parties of the proposal it contained to settle the matter 18 YEARS before the Freedom of Information Act request was made. 
Mr Edwards maintains that the 1996 report, had it been supplied to all concerned, would have enabled the proper course of action to take place. Instead, he says that the Council undertook huge expenditure in defending a position the 1996 report conceded.  
If that was not bad enough, regardless of the content of the 1996 report, in 1991 the Council had acknowledged its error in signing off the works by issuing an enforcement notice against the developer. The enforcement notice failed because the Council had failed to issue it within the time limits set by statute. 
Councillor William Thomas who represents Mr. Edwards as a County Councillor told the Herald, “I inherited this case in 1995 from the MP Denzil Davies. The case was at the time 7 years old. The reports generated by both public and private experts on planning & building regulations that I read at that time clearly identified serious breaches of planning and building regulations under the 1989 Planning Act and 1984 Building Act.” 
Cllr Thomas continued: “The Police recommended prosecution. I have written to two Welsh Assembly Ministers, the Planning Minister and Local Government Minister. The Ministers recommended speaking to the Ombudsman who is involved, however it is an option to request the Llanelli MP to refer this case to the Attorney General.”
 Cllr Thomas’ involvement in the case has resulted in a furious email from Mark James dated June 15, 2015. In that email, Mr James berates Cllr Thomas for his involvement in the case and – in the spirit of the protocol governing officer members relations – goes on to call Cllr Thomas ‘misguided’, claims he has slandered officers, and suggests that he has ‘a file of documents’ to support proceedings in the High Court against Cllr Thomas. 
The email containing those comments, which are themselves capable of being construed as a barely veiled threat of legal action, accuses Cllr Thomas of trying to bully officers. 
In 2014, the Wales Audit Office determined that the Council’s practice of issuing officers with indemnities for libel claims was unlawful. 
Most strikingly, however, it appears as though Mr James is himself completely oblivious to the content of the 1996 report, as he goes on to claim that the dispute is one into which the council should never have been ‘dragged in’. 
Mr. Edwards, who is terminally ill, told us: “All I want from anyone is for this mess to be sorted out once and for all so I can rest in peace and know that my family will not suffer anymore. 
         (The above article from The Llanelli Herald is not yet online)

Whistleblowing - a 'lack of committment' say the Standards Committee

On issue identified by the WLGA Governance Review as a key element of the culture change programme was the council's whistleblowing arrangements;

3.44 The Review Team also heard concern that the Council’s perceived culture of defensiveness risked undermining the Council’s whistle blowing policy and procedures. (WLGA)

In other words, the WLGA team heard evidence that the council sometimes operated under a culture of fear. No matter how many boxes were ticked in policy and procedural arrangements, it wasn't working.

The WLGA team referred to a report compiled by the Wales Audit Office in September 2014 which reassured them that Carmarthenshire's whistleblowing policy was 'generally good'.

“Overall Whistle blowing arrangement are good, with some exemplar practice, if addressed a number of very small weaknesses in policy, process and training will strengthen arrangements further…” (Wales Audit Office)

I am aware of readers and contacts over the past few years who would heartily reject the WAO findings of 'generally good' so I looked to see whether the WAO had conducted a broad staff survey.

They hadn't; the WAO review merely 'involved the examination of relevant documents and the interviewing of relevant officers'.

Maybe Carmarthenshire should undertake a staff survey, although as it turned out in Pembrokeshire, they might not like what they hear.

The WLGA concluded by saying;

3.45 It is important that the Council implements the Wales Audit Office’s proposals and, crucially, continues to reassure staff and promote an open and sensitive approach to whistle blowing across the organisation, and that whistle blowing features as a key element of the culture change programme

Given the fact that no recent survey of staff has been carried out, there is no true picture, and all we are left with are the 'very small weaknesses' in training and process from the decidedly narrow review by the Wales Audit Office.

The Standards Committee were tasked to look at these issues and since December, they have been monitoring training and awareness.

Even though training for managers is mandatory, by the end of April only 35% of staff, and 49% of managers had completed the module. At their meeting in June the Standards Committee wanted it noted that they were;

"very disappointed at the lack of commitment shown by staff, and managers in particular, to such an important issue."

From the horror stories I've heard over the years, I firmly believe that the culture of fear is very much alive and well and nothing has been learned since the Delyth Jenkins case, other than how to tick the right boxes.

I hope the new Plaid administration take a look at the whole culture of whistleblowing at Carmarthenshire Council and perhaps undertake a full and comprehensive survey along the lines taken by Pembrokeshire Council. Only then will they know whether the paper exercise translates into good practice. At the moment I suggest it most definitely doesn't.

Thursday 25 June 2015

The Council Mercs

It would be a bit remiss of me, given that the subject has cropped up once or twice on this blog (and even in court), not to mention yesterday's announcement from Plaid council leader Emlyn Dole that the leases for the two council Mercedes motors will not be renewed.

Described as 'pretentious' they will be replaced by two 'people carriers' instead, by which I hope they mean the motor vehicles rather than sedan-chairs borne by unrepentant bloggers...
I'm not entirely sure if there will be a cost saving as in fact the civic motors were supposed to be reduced from two to one in the council's budget. Perhaps I can offer them a good deal on a secondhand Ford Fiesta?

Anyway, whilst I welcome this as a positive move, it also shows that Cllr Dole is indeed media savvy and a shrewd operator; very well aware that nothing quite gets the punters' backs up than the sight of pompous officials being ferried around to assorted civic dinners in prestige motors...
So, they will still be ferried around, but it will look less pretentious.

Judging by various comments on social media, the announcement has certainly reached the parts that no amount of governance reviews nor constitutional amendments can in quite the same way.

The lacklustre Extraordinary meeting last week, the misleading press releases claiming that all 39 recommendations had been approved (not the 39 recommended by the WLGA you understand but the 39, watered-down Carmarthenshire style recommendations by the cross-party group) just doesn't have quite the same ring to it as 'Scrapping the Mercs'.

And it does beg the question as to why the Labour group never recognised the possible public brownie points, the potential to bury bad news, not to mention the impact on potential voters public perception by doing this some time ago.

If this move is truly a matter of principle as well as an attempt to save a few pennies, will Cllr Dole, now in a position of power, be brave enough to follow the lead of Plaid MP Jonathan Edwards last year, and instruct Mark James to repay his ill-gotten gains?

"Instructing the chief executive to pay back what the auditor considers to be 'unlawful' is not only the right thing to do, but would go some way to clawing back the enormous amount of taxpayers' money which has been spent on this issue." 
(Mr Edwards, May 2014)

Monday 22 June 2015

Grillo call-in requests rejected

Further to my previous post on the subject, news has reached Caebrwyn that the Welsh Government have rejected the rest of the call-in requests on all six of the Grillo planning applications. They did not consider the issues raised to be of more than local importance and all the Stop Notices will be lifted.

By way of another reminder of some of the issues this highly controversial development raises, here's an extract from the Cadno column published in the Carmarthenshire Herald a couple of weeks ago, shortly after the visit by the Planning Committee;

Cadno does not go for a paddle 
"....Cadno hopped up onto the harbour gate and quickly found a wall behind which he could clean off his paws. Imagine his surprise when he heard a succession of cavalry twill and safari shirt types with their lady-folk in blue-rinsed tow pointing out where a school, supermarket and houses would be built. 
As she headed into the yacht club, one of the ladies delightedly pointed out to her companions,
“There’s where the pub will go!” 
Amazing, readers!
Such was the old girl’s ability to see into the future, Cadno thought for one minute she must be councillor. After all, it was a councillor who announced that the redevelopment scheme for Burry Port would go ahead not only before the planning meeting to view the scene of the crime but before the Welsh Government had even released part of the plans from call in.
As Cadno says: amazing! 
Always fond of exploring new opportunities for looking at rare and unusual wildlife, and making sure it remains rare, of course, Cadno decided to take a short hop and a skip over to the other side of the harbour and find out what all the fuss was about. 
The ground opposite bears every sign of considerable industrial use until the relatively recent past. Of course, Cadno does not know what pollutants and toxins are below the thin layer of soil upon which the weeds are growing. But that’s okay, readers, neither does any other bugger! 
You see, readers, the best the report the site developers own environmental specialist can come up with is that further tests are needed before development begins. Of course, the Council has no intention of paying for those tests, just in case it finds something ‘inconvenient’. So, the Council has come up with a scheme. Basically put, the Council is going to do something of which it is quite fond: it will bury the bad news and leave it for someone else to sort out afterwards. 
It might save a lot of heartache, time, and expense if a truly independent survey was commissioned before work began you might think.
And for good reason. 
Now, readers, being the subterranean type, Cadno knows something about digging. If you dig out soil it has to go somewhere. If that soil is subject to deep-seated contamination, you will therefore be digging out the contaminant and distributing it on the surface, into the wind and air, or have it washed back in to the ground you have broken. 
Exalted and popular Council employee Mark James is understood to have a personal hotline to The Almighty, so perhaps disposing of the industrial pollutants is something he has already sorted out with The Power that is (or be, or whatever). However, Cadno has some difficulty in believing that even the entreaties of the respected and illustrious humble functionary Mark James would persuade Jehovah to wave his magic wand or deploy the heavenly hoover to suck up all the pollution. 
As sure as eggs is eggs, all the topsoil in the world to cover up the site will not get round the need to sink foundations and dig out the ground in which they will sit. 
‘Metals in soils at concentrations high enough to pose a risk to human health are widespread. Asbestos has been identified in a few locations. It is concluded that the most appropriate method for soil treatment is to import the top 1m of clean cover in areas of gardens and soft landscaping on all of the sites to be developed. 
Due to the presence of asbestos, and its possible presence in locations that have not been subject to intrusive investigation, earth moving should be kept to a minimum during construction, and appropriate health and safety procedures used. Dust blow, in particular, should be prevented. Soils should only be removed for treatment to a waste facility if ground levels cannot be raised, and excavation is needed before placing the clean cover.’ 
Not Cadno’s words: those of the Council’s own planning officer speaking about the very site upon which the Council wants to give a developer permission to build..."
         (extract from the Carmarthenshire Herald)

Rubbish Scrutiny

The council's Waste Management contracts with Cwm Environmental Ltd, (wholly owned by the council and the largest operator) and AWS in Llangadog came to an end in March this year. This was not unexpected of course and, as is usual for such services, proper tenders should have gone out long ago in time for the March deadline.

However, aside from a 'Prior Notice' of the long term contract being issued, the department decided that the way forward in the short term was to extend the contracts with the two current suppliers for another three years.

This required exemptions from the council's contract procedural rules and, consequentially, the potential risk of legal challenge from other possible suppliers.

The Environment Scrutiny Committee has met twice since March and, as we can infer from the Minutes from their meeting on the 8th June, below, that it came as something of a surprise to learn all this, and that it had already been implemented;

"It was asked why Committee was being requested to endorse a recommendation that interim arrangements for treatment, recycling and disposal of waste be put in place, as this appeared to have been implemented already, contrary to what the Committee had been told in a previous meeting."

Even if the reasons for the delay in the long term tendering exercise are unforeseen and plausible, (and of course the bins still have to be emptied), the failure to notify elected members of the informally extended contracts - and the legal implications - until after the event, show that Scrutiny in Carmarthenshire still has room for improvement.

Saturday 20 June 2015

The Archives and the Mould - an update

Update 7th July; Please also see this excellent blog post on the Carmarthenshire archives from historian and author, J D Davies;
Carmarthenshire Archives - Farce or Greek Tragedy? 

Update 25th June; The Welsh Government has released two reports under FoI (not my request) detailing the problems found in the Parc Myrddin strongrooms here (2013 - with photographs) and here (2014).

The concerns raised by the staff at the archives seemed to have been ignored by those that control the purse strings and it is quite unbelievable that the building, and its precious contents had been left to get into such a state.


Back in April 2014 I mentioned that the County Archives had a problem with mould which led to the closure of the strongrooms at the council run facility at Parc Myrddin. Over twelve months later, they are still closed. The archives form the written memory of the county.

The National Archive Inspectorate first flagged up problems with the premises back in 2011 and they are now deemed unsuitable for purpose.

Fortunately the council removed the damaged documents and artefacts are these are undergoing professional cleaning and restoration, much of the remaining material is being stored somewhere in Cardiff.

The Friends of the Carmarthenshire Archives have become so concerned about safeguarding the future of Carmarthenshire's historic records, one of the largest and most comprehensive collections in Wales, that they wrote to each of the 74 Carmarthenshire County councillors last month to appeal for support and highlight the issue.
They have yet to receive a reply.

Whilst the council has made some interim arrangements with local libraries, it remains the case that, for the first time in 55 years;
'direct local access to the County’s heritage of irreplaceable unique original documents dating from the medieval period to the present, is not available to researchers, students, visitors to the area, and crucially, to schools within Carmarthenshire'.

To remain as an Nationally Accredited Repository and preserve its collections, the County Archive Service must occupy a premises which conforms to a recognised standard. In fact the council have a statutory duty to preserve and manage, and make available, it's own historical records dating back to 1889, many of which remain legally admissible today.
"The Archive Service is effectively the custodian of the corporate memory of the authority"

The archive service is of course only one council service amongst many and competing for an ever diminishing budget, although in recent years Gwent and Pembrokeshire have opened new archival premises.

The future management of the whole council leisure department is uncertain and the posts of County Archivist and Records Management Officer have now gone. Perhaps its future would have been more certain had it remained within the education directorate, who knows. Neither does it attract the same glamour, marketing, nor investment it seems as Llanelly House, the Botanic Gardens, bowling alleys or rugby clubs, etc

However, it is vital that these records are returned to Carmarthenshire and stored safely, and properly for generations to come.

The Friends listed just a small selection of the archived records in their letter to councillors;

Carmarthenshire Court of Quarter Sessions dating from 1748;

Hospital archives, for example those of Carmarthen Infirmary dating from 1846;

Shipping records for the ports of Llanelli and Carmarthen:

Ecclesiastical records from parishes within that part of St David’s Diocese which lies within Carmarthenshire,

The earliest surviving parish registers in south Wales, namely those of St Ishmaels Church, Ferryside, dating from 1560.

Privately deposited records including estate and family papers from the Cawdor Estates in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, the Dynevor Estates in Carmarthenshire and Glamorgan,
the Stradey and Stepney estates in Llanelli as well as many others.

Individual items of national importance are contained within these collections such as the three-volume Golden Grove Book, an eighteenth century collection of early Welsh pedigrees;

Original pedigree rolls by Thomas Jones of Tregaron [alias Twm Sion Cati]. .

Contemporary documents relating to the French Invasion of Pembrokeshire in 1797;

French invasion 1797

They concluded their letter with an appeal to councillors for any support they could offer towards "safeguarding the future of Carmarthenshire’s unique archival heritage, and its continued preservation and accessibility within the historic County to which it relates for the benefit of future generations."

Perhaps they should be encouraged by the first sentence of a statement issued last week by the new leader of the council, Emlyn Dole defending the county in the face of proposed reorganisation, and send him a gentle reminder;

"We have in Carmarthenshire a distinctiveness in culture, language and heritage – these are precious, and ours to retain and nurture..."

Thursday 18 June 2015

The Extraordinary meeting

The meeting is now available on archive.

For the record, the written version of the 'presentation' which included the 39 WLGA recommendations, and the watered down recommendations of the Cross-Party Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG) finally appeared online at 10 am, as the meeting started.

This gave no one any idea of what was going to be discussed, nor any time for Members to gather any thoughts from their constituents. A poor start.

I don't think I need to remind anyone how this all came about, my most recent post here, gives the main background.

The outcome of the meeting was, in the end, much has previously been predicted on this blog. The aim, which was to be the 'most open and transparent council in Wales' was not met.

In a 'blink and you'll miss it' moment, the most important element, the 'change of culture' was dealt with very briefly in the introduction from the Chair of the CRWG, Cllr Terry Davies (Lab). Apparently, it had already happened. Must have passed me by...

Anyway, I am not entirely critical, some positive steps have been taken which may make useful headlines; Executive Board meeting will now be webcast and the Register of Members' Interest will be published online (as now required). An online petition service will soon appear on the website and at last, Councillors will now be allowed to ask supplementary questions in full council.

As predicted, the requirement for eight Members to sign a Motion on Notice has been dropped to the normal two. (This was always a silly idea) and Motions will now have to go to full council rather than be quietly kicked off to the Executive Board Members. well, in theory anyway as it should be remembered that it is the chief executive who sets the agenda...

As for Executive Board Member meetings, the agendas will now be published before, rather than after the meeting and backbench councillors will be allowed to attend as long as there are no exempt items and any three councillors will now be able to call-in Executive decisions.

These little steps are to be welcomed of course but they are not radical. They merely bring the council a small step closer to where they are supposed to be in the 21st Century, and are largely the inevitable reversal of the extreme measures brought in by Mark James to stifle debate.

The WLGA recommended that the public should be allowed to ask questions at Exec Board and Scrutiny meetings and for a time slot be allocated.

This was a bit too much so it was agreed that only public questions on Notice should be included. Cllr Darren Price remarked that the complexities of the constitution made this a difficult procedure for the public, or anyone, so needed further review.

The shadowy Business Management Group (no agenda, no minutes) has been shelved and and constitutional issues will now be dealt with by the CRWG which will remain as a group and sit a couple of times a year.

Hopefully, their agendas and minutes will be published from now on, unlike the last twelve meetings.
Membership of the CRWG does not include, however, unaffiliated Members. That needs to change.

The press and media protocol was approved at last week's meeting, I've made my view quite clear on that already. It has to do with leopards and spots.

One recommendation was for Members to be encouraged and trained to use social media, to improve public engagement.

At this point Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths chipped in and said that disappointingly only 18 members turned up to the training session but after listening to the officers he was even more wary of using it than he had before, not only could things 'not be removed' but the whole business was downright "DANGEROUS"

So, after that little speech I doubt if there'll be an increase in the pitifully low number of tweeting councillors.

The complacency I referred to earlier meant that no change would be made to the format and content of Minutes and sufficient guidance existed to deal with declarations of interest. Ms Rees Jones was drawing up further guidance on the reasons for exempting reports...or just further reasons maybe.

As for Minutes, Cllr Anthony Jones did wondered whether councillors who contributed to discussion could be named...and Calum Higgins suggested that each meeting could be audio recorded, presumably for accuracy in the Minutes. Further reviews were promised, or rather mumbled.

The collection of names for those attending the public gallery is here to stay. This was for 'Fire Safety' reasons, apparently. The fact remains that there were no concerns over fire safety prior to June least children won't be forced to sign illegal 'undertakings' any more.
The desire to identify and monitor observers in the Gallery is here to stay.

Which brings us on to the subject of allowing the public to film meetings, (for those interested, this can be seen from 1:19:46 into the meeting) The CRWG recommended, contrary to the WLGA, that the public could only film meeting which were already webcast.

To be fair the Plaid contingent recognised that this was an important principle and that the CRWG recommendation was a bit pointless, Cllr Dole stated that this decision, within the group, had not been unanimous.

Cllr Alun Lenny remarked that it was this kind of 'control freakery' which had got them to where they were today. He said that if they didn't allow the public to film all open meetings they were falling short of their transparency aim as other councils had managed to bring it in..

True to their original Motion back in 2012 and indeed recent legislation in England, Plaid put forward an amendment for the public to film all open meetings.

As you can imagine there were the usual objections, people might fall from the public gallery as they tried to film, and content might be 'edited', unlike the press or BBC who never edit anything I suppose... Cllr Terry Davies, the chair of this 'transparency' group was very concerned about how things "can happen on Twitter...and who knows what we could have...and that's the reason behind it".

Disappointingly the amendment was lost by 23 vote to 33 so I'm not certain if all the Plaid Members voted for it. Their coalition 'partners' certainly didn't..

So the upshot of all that is that the public can only film meetings which the council are already webcasting. Unbelievable.

There was some discussion over the timing of meetings. The WLGA had suggested a survey of Members to see if times, which are never in the late afternoon or evening, could be changed to encourage a wider variety of people to stand for council, younger people, working folk, etc something the Welsh Government is particularly keen on.

A survey took place and 44 out of 74 councillors responded. Most of the 44 wanted the times to remain as they were. Despite several councillors saying at the meeting that they didn't agree with this, as the survey had been 'democratic' the status quo would remain for now.

Veteran councillor Tom Theophilus piped up as he was worried about having to drive through the snow in Winter to get to his evening meals. He eventually corrected himself to 'evening meetings'...Good to know councillors have our interests at heart...

One of the recommendations put forward by the WLGA was for all councillors to be given copies of exempt reports. This enabled efficient scrutiny and the possibility of call-in. The CRWG decided that only leaders, opposition leaders and scrutiny chairs should be supplied with copies.

An interesting discussion ensued, kicked off by Cllr Darren Price. He claimed that he was shocked to have seen 'leaked' details of last week's exempt report on the link road funding on a 'local blog' a few hours after the meeting...and for this reason he was going to agree that the release of exempt reports should be confined to those recommended by the CRWG, and not all councillors.

Other councillors chimed in and Kevin Madge wittered on that 'things had appeared on websites' and had prevented investors investing in the county, "developers run away" he said.
Quite an extraordinary claim and I wonder exactly what evidence he has of that...

Cllr Anthony Jones demanded an investigation, ombudsman style, over the matter of the leak.

I'm not sure what 'local blog' Cllr Price was referring to but it could possibly have been this one. Last week I published an update to the news on the link road, it was after the council issued a press release on the decision.

The only difference was that I included the (bare) figures and the fact they were borrowing over £3m. This was undoubtedly in the public interest and should have been disclosed by the council themselves in the press release.

I presume that it was potential criticism or embarrassment over borrowing money for this project, given the current financial constraints, that they'd been trying to avoid...

As for 'leaks', it goes with the territory. As for sources, I suggest they concentrate their 'outrage' on the plural rather than the singular, and not confine it just to councillors either...

The meeting drew to a close and, in terms of stage management, it had been a success. The Constitution will be "tweaked" by Linda Rees Jones in time for the September meeting. Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths thanked everyone, and they all shot off for lunch at 12.30.

Although this meeting had been the result of a cross-party group, I thought that the new Plaid leadership would seize the moment to express their intention for real change but they didn't. In the event they seemed tense and uneasy. At least Peter Hughes Griffiths remembered to mention that it was an important meeting.

My overall impression was that little will change...and it never will whilst those responsible for creating and sustaining the toxic culture remain. 

Tuesday 16 June 2015

Another twist in the link road

There's yet another twist over the funding for the Carmarthen West link road. As I reported, last week's full council meeting approved borrowing of over £3m to 'pre-fund' the link road for the controversial 1100 home Carmarthen West development. The council issued a press release laden with spin, but curiously they omitted the ££ figures.

The issue of the road funding had caused a hiccup earlier this year for one of the planning applications on the site, for 250 homes, from Carmarthen Promotions Ltd, based in Suffolk.
Like the Grillo developers this company also includes a wealthy lord on it's Board of Directors.
The Executive Board then obligingly approved the road funding but the decision had to go to full council last week.

Disappointingly, given that much of the information was already in the public domain, the council voted to go into secret session, despite a call from Cllr Caiach not to do so. (see also here).

An article in the Western Mail this evening suggests a possible reason why they turned off the webcams.

Last October S4C announced that it would be relocating its headquarters to Carmarthen, close to the University. A move welcomed by councillors with great excitement.

According to Cllr Caiach, the message put across by officers to councillors at last week's meeting was that if they didn't agree to the borrowing, S4C would not move to Carmarthen.

Either this was a bit of deliberate scaremongering to make certain that councillors gave their approval, or S4C are holding the local authority to ransom and marching it off to the corporate cashpoint. At the moment I'm leaning towards the former rather than the latter.

Carmarthenshire council under fire over new road linked to S4C relocation

Council mergers...and then there were eight? - Updated

Update 17th June; Looks like the leak was spot on - BBC Wales confirms this morning that the proposals are for 8 or 9 councils instead of 22, with Carms, Pembs and Ceredigion in possible merger.


Welsh Minister Leighton Andrews will be presenting the Labour government's proposed new Council map of Wales tomorrow. However there seems to have been a leak and BBC Wales are reporting that instead of reducing the number from 22 to 12, as was expected after the Williams Commission, the final number will actually be 8 or perhaps 9.

Originally Carmarthenshire was going to be left as a 'stand alone' county but, if the BBC have got this right, under the new map Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion will disappear and be merged back into the form of the old, pre-1996 dinosaur, Dyfed County Council.

In practice this is going to be a difficult, if not impossible, exercise across Wales, the delay and uncertainty has already caused criticism that the Welsh Government has no real idea of, a) what it is doing and b) how much it will cost.

There is also the small matter of the Assembly elections next May. The Western Mail speculates that the plan could form part of the Labour manifesto.

The proposals have already caused division in Welsh Labour and locally, both the Plaid and Labour Groups on Carmarthenshire Council have expressed their opposition to merger and vowed to fight to keep Carmarthenshire as it is. Cynics might think that the Welsh Government have lost interest in preserving Carmarthenshire as a'stand alone' authority now that it's no longer Labour run...

There will be an awful lot of political comment over this, and hopefully when the final details are known it will be put out to a full Wales-wide public consultation. There is an arguable consensus of opinion however that having 22 of everything is 'unsustainable' in a country the size of Wales.

One important question will be how the number can be reduced without losing local democratic accountability. There's already precious little here in basket-case Carmarthenshire.

Plaid Cymru have suggested that, for accountability, the 22 local authorities are retained but they will elect regional government to deliver services such as transport, social care and planning.

The Welsh Conservatives believe that mergers should only happen if local authorities themselves think it desirable and practical rather than being forced on them via Cardiff.

Your comments and views would be welcome. 

Sunday 14 June 2015

Extraordinary Council Meeting - Agenda

(19th June; Please also see later post, written after the meeting)

I use the word 'agenda' in the loosest possible sense as, so far, all we have to suggest that next Wednesday's Extraordinary meeting is the pivotal moment when Carmarthenshire Council becomes the 'most transparent in Wales' and the culture is scrubbed clean from toxins and secrecy, is the sentence ;

"To receive a presentation from the cross party constitutional review working group established to consider the recommendations contained in the Carmarthenshire peer review report". 

Hopefully something more enlightening, such as the final report of the working group and/or an amended constitution, will added before Wednesday, I'll let you know. I can't imagine that the content for discussion, for such an important meeting will be left as a surprise....(Update 3pm Tuesday; still no documents..a surprise it is then)

However, documents or not, we all know by now what needs to happen so let's remind ourselves how this all came about.

The straw that broke the camels back, shall we say, was the publication of the Wales Audit Office reports in January last year. Finally there was acknowledgement, from an independent watchdog that there were grave problems as to how this council was run. Many had been saying this for a very long time.

The reports exposed, once and for all, that senior officials, along with their pliant Executive Board were prepared to manipulate the democratic system to their own ends. By 'senior officials' I am of course referring to the chief executive, Mark James and his cohort of internal legal advisers.

The rot set in some years previously, around 2002 in fact when Mr James took up post in County Hall. He brought with him, from his past employment in Boston, Lincolnshire, not only plans for a stadium which would see both counties bled dry, but a contempt for democracy, a questionable modus operandi in the workplace and a desire to control the press, all of which rapidly became the envy of tin pot dictators around the world.

The WAO didn't just expose flawed processes and poor governance, they exposed deliberate concealment and illegal payments. Not unlike the fiasco in Caerphilly.

However, as we know by the council 'rescinding' the pension scam and 'noting' the illegal libel indemnity the WAO took it no further. The risk of heavy costs to two public bodies was too great and we know, that over the libel indemnity, Mr James would have sold the county to the highest bidder, never mind it's 'jewels', to fund a defence.

One thing the WAO did recommend was that the council review it's governance procedures (and it will be monitoring progress) and at last year's Extraordinary meeting it was decided that the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) would lead a 'peer review'. In a Motion proposed by the then Plaid opposition, the council itself resolved to become the 'most open in Wales'.

After some persuasion the WLGA also accepted contributions from members of the public on a variety of topics and general comment. One notable contribution came from the lay member of the council's Audit Committee, Sir David Lewis who said that the council was 'in disarray and not fit for purpose', the internal legal advice was 'cavalier at best and incompetent at worst' and basic rules and ethics regarding conflicts of interest had not been applied by either senior councillors nor senior management.

The long awaited report emerged in November 2014 and it's content was broadly welcomed although not by Mr James who repeatedly, and publicly, sneered at the whole exercise. There were 39 recommendations ranging from the council's relationship with the press to the lack of detail in Minutes...and from publishing the register of Members' Interests to reviewing its practice of collecting the details of visitors to the public gallery... with time limits for compliance of between 3 and 6 months.

Although the report was couched in polite terms it identified the toxic culture, the democratic deficit and the fact that the council was officer-led. It was a constructive report and aimed to reverse the ten years of democratic damage.

Instead of just implementing the recommendations yet another committee, (which included the less than enthusiastic former leader Kevin Madge and current deputy leader Pam Palmer, who called it a 'distraction'), was set up to consider the review and to decide which bits to include, or not to include.

The 'cross-party working group' was overseen by Mark James and acting (or not, no one knows), monitoring officer, Linda Rees-Jones and met several times, over several months. Some of the minutes from these meetings, which were held behind closed doors, were begrudgingly released after repeated requests.

All of which brings us where we are today. Maybe the lack of detail on the agenda means that the new Plaid led coalition have plumped for a free for all, all recommendations, and more, will be brought in forthwith and those individuals who have caused the problems in the first place will be fired on Wednesday...a new dawn will emerge on Thursday morning. I doubt it though.

As I have said in previous posts, the Action Notes which were released indicate mediocre changes, not a root and branch overhaul. There was obvious complacency and corporate smugness towards the need for a change in culture but that was to be expected in the presence of Mark and Linda, and Meryl.

All a bit disappointing to say the least, particularly as it was a cross-party group but with Plaid now in the driving seat should we be expecting something slightly more momentous?

Take the faintly ridiculous public filming proposal from the working group. Not the most important point perhaps but significant in terms of democratic principle. The proposal is suggesting that the public can film only those meeting already webcast and then only for a 12 month pilot.

Back in 2012 Peter Hughes Griffiths former leader of the Plaid group proposed a motion for members of the public to be able to film or record all open meetings. Plaid voted in favour but the Labour and the Independent group, aided and abetted by Mark and Linda, successfully mangled the motion and that was the end of that.

Will Plaid now reject the recommendations of the working group, on which they sat, and be true to their principles, and voting record from 2012? Or are the camera shy Meryl and Pam still calling the shots?

A number of the WLGA recommendations were sent off to the Exec Board for consideration which, at the time was thought to be a safe bet. Let's hope it's not quite such a safe bet any more even though Plaid, as the larger group, still have only half of the seats...I think we can at least expect Exec Board meetings to be webcast from now on.

One of the more bizarre amendments brought in a couple of years ago to curtail debate, the seven-seconder rule will, I believe, be finally dropped. Which is something, although one wonders how many issues have been prevented from being aired since it was introduced.

It remains to be seen what the final report, or 'presentation' from the working group recommends and I hope it's a bit more far reaching than those 'Action Notes' suggest. The constitution will I suppose be amended to incorporate any changes that are made and I fully expect the illegal, and currently suspended, libel indemnity clauses to be permanently removed. Defeat must be finally accepted over that one.

As I have said before, I do not believe that the culture will change until there's a change in top management and that doesn't seem likely now, not in the short term anyway. The political dynamics have changed but only to a degree and we hope that Plaid haven't 'done a Kev' and kissed Meryl. Or even worse, kissed Mark. Time will tell.

Aside from the 'governance issues' specific to the WLGA report there are many other matters which must now be addressed. To give just one example, I'd like to see the Plaid group mirror the concerns of their colleague in Cardiff, Rhodri Glyn Thomas over the dodgy, and quite possibly fraudulent, Marston's deal.

The revision of the press and media protocol has already been approved by last week's full council but as I said at the time, a paper exercise is useless without a change in attitude from the ivory towers of County Hall and at the moment, that change is far from apparent. Quite the opposite in fact,

The new Plaid led coalition has promised to “ensure full openness and transparency”. Council Leader Emlyn Dole said that “This will take integrity and perseverance on all our parts. That commitment will require of us all, not only a change of governance, which will be discussed fully by us all and implemented before the summer break, but a new mindset as we seek to ensure full openness and transparency."

I will be watching with interest on Wednesday and, as I said, if any documents appear between now and then I will let you know. I'm not certain how this 'presentation' will work next week but it will be interesting nonetheless and with the wonders of modern technology, it be available to watch on the webcast (Wednesday 17th June 10am).

To be honest, the worst case scenario is that they decide to set up another bloody committee....

Thursday 11 June 2015

Parc Howard update, and a video

Further to my previous post Parc Howard - for the people of Llanelli? the Llanelli Herald has today published a video which includes footage of the heated public meeting held last Saturday.

THE LLANELLI HERALD investigates the Parc Howard story [Alan Evans Reporting] from PEMBS.TV on Vimeo.

The video is well worth watching and concludes with an interview with County Councillor Bill Thomas (Lab) who has a very interesting document. The document, and indeed the video, raises the question of whether or not attempts have been made to circumvent the proper tendering process.

Pic source; Llanelli Herald. There does not appear to be a company called 'Loca Select Villages
Loca Ventures Ltd also claim, within this paperwork, to have already met with three senior officials of Carmarthenshire Council; the Head of Corporate Property, the Assistant Chief Executive and the Chief Executive about the financial investment and a 250 year lease on Parc Howard mansion.

The video can also be accessed on the Llanelli Herald Facebook page here.

Llanelli MP Nia Griffith has launched a petition to keep Parc Howard in public ownership. Reaching over 1000 signatures in just two days, it can be signed here.

Update 14th June; Article in the Llanelli Herald; Llanelli;Residents up in arms over Parc Howard development.

Defending the unlawful payments - Invoices

For anyone interested in the breakdown of the £26,872 + VAT paid to Tim Kerr QC to defend the chief executive, senior officers and executive councillors, following the 2014 Wales Audit Office reports, please click on the images below.

You will recall that in the summer of 2013 the Appointed Auditor flagged up the unlawful payments with Carms and Pembrokeshire. Both councils immediately went on the defensive and commissioned legal help. Which didn't turn out to be very helpful after all. 
In addition to this are the illegal payments themselves totalling £57,000 received by the chief executive and £51,000 incurred by the council in extra audit fees. There are no cost figures for the colossal amount of the time the council itself spent on these matters.

Please note that Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire Councils went halves on the cost of defending their respective chief executive's 'pay supplement' (the pension scam) but Carmarthenshire also spent additional cash attempting to defend the libel indemnity. For clarity I've indicated the payments made solely by Carmarthenshire Council below the images, those figures do not include VAT, the invoices do.




'27 Nov to 27 Feb' and ' 27 Nov to 27 Feb 2'
27/11/2013  £3,600.00 
29/11/2013  £935.00 
31/01/2014  £800.00 
03/02/2014  £335.00 
04/02/2014  £1,200.00 
06/02/2014  £1,200.00 
09/02/2014  £1,600.00 
10/02/2014  £200.00 
11/02/2014  £1,000.00 
15/02/2014  £200.00 
20/02/2014  £135.00 
26/02/2014  £1,300.00 
26/02/2014  £167.80 
27/02/2014  £3,200.00     

'15 Nov to 26 Nov'
15/11/2013  £2,400.00 
18/11/2013  £800.00 
26/11/2013  £1,600.00

'27 Aug to 18 Sept'
27/08/2013  £4,400.00 
09/09/2013  £1,200.00 
18/09/2013  £200.00

'14,16 Oct'
14/10/2013  £200.00 
16/10/2013  £200.00

Tuesday 9 June 2015

Cutting to the chase - June meeting - updated

Update 10th June; Carmarthen Link Road funding

The current projected cost of the link road is around £5m. As previously announced, the Welsh Government are providing a grant from the Local Transport Fund of £1.3m.

The rest, agreed in private session yesterday, will be borrowed by the council - £0.5m from the University Trinity St David and £3.2m from unspecified sources. The council hopes to recover all the costs through Section 106 payments from developers.
It was also decided yesterday to delegate power to Regeneration to use Compulsory Purchase Orders on any land or property which gets in the way of the road.

Interesting that the council are prepared to borrow £3.7m to facilitate the ambitions of big developers. Let's hope all goes to plan with the S106 agreements...


Power point presentations are now becoming a regular feature of full council meetings, taking up half and hour or so of time, taxpayer funded time of course. The chief executive was particularly keen on them in his new format agendas as they have a dual purpose of dulling the senses of councillors (an imperceptible difference in some cases) and reducing the time available for actual debate.

This time it was the turn of the National Botanic Garden of Wales, introduced by its chief executive, Dr Rosie Plummer and was presumably for the benefit of councillors who were unable to wield a mouse and click on the garden's website. The purpose behind the presentation was not very clear but everyone was very impressed and gave the lady a round of applause.

The only hint that this was a sales pitch rather than an innocent overview of the garden's achievements came around five minutes before the end when the 'Paradise Regained' project was mentioned, a £6.75m programme to restore the old landscape of Middleton House, which once stood in the grounds.

Dr Plummer mentioned that £1m had been offered towards this project but if they didn't manage to raise the rest then the £1m would go to Kent. There was a momentary pause for that horror to sink in.

Naturally no one wants to see the gardens, which continue to be dependent on public money, mainly through the Welsh Government, close, although the restoration of the 'historic lakes and landscape', created by Sir William Paxton after making his fortune colonising and exploiting the Indian subcontinent through the East India Company is a slightly more questionable exercise.

Dr Plummer had used all the right words in the presentation, educational, sustainable, inclusive, the 'wider economy', even 'scientific' to soften the hidden blow, she didn't even produce the begging bowl, well, not there and then.

The begging bowl, as if by magic, appears on the agenda for Monday's Executive Board meeting, published online this morning. The Garden is after £50,000 towards the restoration project, a three year extension on the £1.3m loan and an annual revenue grant of £70,000.

Our new-look Executive Board will have to decide whether our financially crippled local authority can afford the extravagance. The decision does not require full council approval, today's presentation took care of that, it's just a pity that the true purpose of the presentation hadn't been made clearer.....

Also on the agenda for today's meeting was the revised press and media protocol. I'm not going to repeat all the incidents which led to this revision which, it has to be said, has been ongoing for around three years. As I said here, protocols and policies are fine as long as the culture within the organisation is not a toxic one. Unfortunately, this one still is.

The one principle which is absent from the protocol was 'to respect the independence of the local press', and it has been County Hall's failure to do just that which largely led to the review.

So all the words amount to nothing really if we remember that a few short weeks ago threats were being made over the editorial policy of the newly launched Carmarthenshire Herald.

The last point I want to mention from today's meeting (the rest can be viewed on the archive) was the exempt report concerning 'Carmarthen West', which could have been a little more accurate and said 'Carmarthen West Link Road', but never mind.

As I said in my last post, we hoped that the Plaid led coalition would have refused the exemption and discussed the matter of funding in public, in the spirit of openness and all that. Despite a plea from Cllr Caiach to do so, Plaid leader Cllr Dole was ready with the council's stock response...there were commercial interests, sensitive deals, tenders to negotiate, etc etc

The fact that this is a massive, and controversial, development involving public money, with information already widely disseminated throughout the public domain didn't appear to matter and disappointingly the Chamber voted, with the exception of one, to go into secret session.

We are all waiting of course for next Wednesday's Extraordinary Council meeting considering the governance review, when Carmarthenshire will become the 'most open council in Wales'. Apparently.

Monday 8 June 2015

£5m Link Road on the agenda - No exemption please Plaid - updated

Update 9th June - Despite Cllr Caiach challenging the exemption over the item on the Carmarthen link road, the Plaid leadership, seconded by Pam Palmer insisted it should be held in private and the Chamber voted to go into secret session. Very disappointing.


The agenda for this week's full council meeting has yet to be published. It is listed for tomorrow. I've been informed that there are technical issues on the 'democracy' section of the council's new website, it is noted however that updates to the 'media' section, continue unabated...
Agendas must be available for public viewing for a few days prior to a meeting, so this is unacceptable. I have emailed the press office for copies.
(Update; The press office have informed me that the Welsh version of tomorrow's agenda is now online but the English version can only be viewed at council offices. Other agendas and reports for this week's meetings are not currently available at all - Update 9th June; English version now online, one hour before the meeting..)

Anyway, thanks to Cllr Sian Caiach's blog we are aware of one item on the agenda. This concerns the funding arrangements for the £5m link road for the highly controversial Carmarthen West private housing development, potentially creating 1200 homes.
The Executive Board decided, back in March, shortly after approving an apparently 'difficult' budget, to pre-fund the road.

The decision followed a planning hiccup for developers Carmarthen Promotions Ltd, based in Suffolk and featuring, like the Grillo application, yet another wealthy Lord on it's Board of Directors. The application, for 250 of these 1200 homes, was put on hold by the Welsh Government after it became evident that no firm funding was in place for the 'essential' £5m road.

In a surprisingly quick turnaround the council appeared to have solved the problem and, despite vociferous opposition, the application was granted. The link road 'funding' then, as I said above, went to the Exec Board, as an exempt item, for the rubber stamp.

The Welsh Government has recently stumped up around 20% of the cost but the remainder was apparently going to be sourced from those 'precious' reserves; begged; borrowed and then paid back, in the dim and distant future through possible landowner contributions or a 'roof tax'. The details were vague, but as usual, private interests had been protected...

Full council are now being asked to approve the Executive Board's March decision. Interestingly preparation and clearance work started in April, long before it all went to full council.

What is significant is that this is being proposed as an 'exempt' item, in other words, press and public excluded. There can be no excuse for this other than a reluctance to discuss this controversial project, and public funding, under the glare of the cameras.

With this controversial project the subject of much discussion outside the Chamber, I'm sure I won't be the only person expecting the new Plaid-led coalition to ensure that the exemption is refused and discussions are held in a transparent and open manner, as long as they can persuade Meryl's gang to support them of course.... and let's hope there are no 'technical issues' with the webcast.

Parc Howard - for the people of Llanelli? - Updated

(Later update, 11th June here)

Update 10th June;
The story takes another twist in this week's Llanelli Star [11th June; The article has now been removed] with Loca Ventures Ltd ( Google them for background...) claiming that if they can't have Parc Howard then they won't be able to build Robbie Savage's luxury hotel at Ffos Las. This is nonsense.

It is interesting that they are behind the hotel and one wonders just how far they are progressing...all set to take over Pembrey Country Park as well perhaps?
Secondly, the article features Meryl Gravell promising that the Town Council (if it can afford it) will have first shout to run Parc Howard.

Let's bear in mind that Ffos Las was one of Meryl's dreams, you may also remember that the Ffos Las developer was granted planning permission for 528 homes...and Robbie Savage appearing on the scene a couple of years ago was her icing on the cake...

There are two possibilities here, either the council is far more deeply involved with Loca Ventures than it's letting on...or Loca Ventures know exactly which buttons to press. We'll wait and see.

Update 8th June; A short video by Alan Evans  concerning to the crisis over Parc Howard and the recent public meeting;

As I said at the end of this post, there will be further details emerging at the end of the week.

A furore has been brewing in Llanelli over the future of Parc Howard. This historic mansion and grounds were gifted to the people of Llanelli back in 1912 and converted to a park. The mansion now houses the popular Parc Howard museum. Carmarthenshire Council, as trustees, are responsible for it's management and maintenance.

Parc Howard, Llanelli

The mansion house requires a substantial amount of work and the council, having blown all their money on the Scarlets, the evangelicals and the chief exec's legal wrangles can't afford to repair it.

Alongside the county council, the Parc Howard Association (PHA) is a separate committee of volunteers set up in 2011 when the county council first mooted plans to close it. The PHA "exists to work with current owners Carmarthenshire County Council to maintain and improve the facilities at Parc Howard in accordance with the spirit of the original gift".
To cut a rather long story short it appears that the Council, along with the Chair of the PHA, Mr Ken Rees, (lately the local UKIP hopeful in the general election, but once an ally of Meryl on the council Indie benches), have been making plans to offload the mansion to a private company either freehold or on a long, 250 year, behind closed doors.

In fact there was talk of private meetings having been held between Mr Rees and the prospective buyers in a hotel somewhere...this bit of information led other members of the PHA to call for his resignation.

According to the Llanelli Star, the private company, Loca Ventures Ltd, wish to take over the mansion as a commercial enterprise for weddings, conferences etc. The council would retain the park, for now. The museum would be relocated elsewhere by the company, apparently.

No one, it seems, was aware of any of this prior to a public meeting held on Saturday. To make matters worse, it turned out that Mr Rees had invited a representative, or an 'associate', of Loca Ventures to sit in on the public meeting.

Loca Ventures Ltd is based in Warwickshire and Google provides us with a glimpse of an interesting also appears to be connected to much larger company based in the British Virgin Islands.The Star understands that the company has already met with the council's interim Assistant Chief Executive Wendy Walters and the Head of Corporate Property and no doubt Exec Board Member for Regeneration, Cllr Meryl Gravell has her hand in these arrangements,,.

Local councillors and more importantly, the good folk of Llanelli who are, of course, the true custodians appear to have been kept in the dark over all these meetings and proposals.
This is a popular venue for the town and locals are disgusted that underhand attempts are being made to offload it from under their noses.

All are agreed that a way forward needs to be found, but whatever the solution, and the formation of a trust is one preferred option, it must be the result of a transparent and democratic decision, or even a properly run open tender by the Council should they really want to get rid of it - not secret trysts in hotels or secret meetings in County Hall.

Quite clearly matters have been moving quietly along with the County Council for some time, with or without Mr Rees, and it's about time their true intentions were made clear. To that end the meeting concluded with the suggestion that Meryl Gravell be invited along next time to provide an explanation and answer some questions....

A report on this story appeared in this week's Herald, and the Llanelli Star has also reported on the public meeting held on Saturday. There will be a further, detailed account of recent events in next Friday's Herald.

Thursday 4 June 2015

Those 'allowable expenses' - a postscript

Update 5th June; The story has appeared in today's Western Mail. Plaid AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas is quoted as saying that "serious questions now need to be asked about the use of public money in the first place". With Plaid now the leading power in Carmarthenshire council, now is the time...This deal was outrageous.


One of the more curious financial arrangements involving our county council in the last year or two was the division of the spoils between the council and Scarlets Regional Ltd from the sale of a car park adjacent to the Parc Y Scarlets stadium, see The Council, the Scarlets and the Allowable Expenses - a Revelation. The car park was sold to Marstons' Inns so became known as the Marstons' Deal.

Out of a sale price of £850,000 the '50/50 split' turned out to be £650,000 for the club and £200,000 for the Carmarthenshire taxpayer. One of the 'allowable expenses' deducted from the total was a surprise £280,000 for the Scarlets to pay off a third party loan. The loan had been from HDD Developments for the fixtures and fittings of the Scarlets shop and restaurant, The Red Room, in the council led Eastgate development in Llanelli.

The actual details of the split, and the 'allowable' deductions were eventually revealed by the now former Exec Board member for Resources, Labour's Cllr Jeff Edmunds. In other words, he spilled the beans.

Some time, and several FoIs later, it transpired that both the Council's Director of Resources and the Head of Corporate Property had deemed this payment of £280,000 to be unacceptable.

However, at the last minute they were both overruled by Mark James, and the deal, with this 'allowable expense', was done.

However, despite the generosity of our council the Red Room didn't last and around October last year the Scarlets sub-let the premises to another company, run by two rugby players, rent free for the first eighteen months.

As reported recently in the press, Scarlets Regional Ltd made a net loss of £1.7m and an excess of liabilities over assets of £4,1m in the financial year 2013/14. The council's generous involvement in the club, led by our chief executive, has been well documented and was most recently featured in the Herald's Cadno column (see Today's papers).

So what happened to the allowable expense of £280,000 which left the taxpayer somewhat shortchanged by the Marston's deal? According to the Scarlets' latest accounts it went down the pan along with the Red Room.

As the future rental income is now dependent on the new management remaining viable after the 18 month free rent period, the value of the premises as a fixed asset for the Scarlets is now 'nil' and £275,000 has been written off as an 'exceptional cost'.

All a bit ironic really for Cllr Jeff Edmunds, it was his honesty over this matter (he'd even resisted the persuasive charms of the chief executive who urged him not to reveal the details) which undoubtedly marked his card as 'unreliable' and unsuitable Leadership material by Pam and Meryl, and of course, Mark.

Farewell Cneifiwr

As I'm sure many of you will have read, fellow blogger Cneifiwr has posted his last post this morning and is moving on to other things. His wit, analysis, observations and empathy will be greatly missed and we hope he doesn't stray too far from his keyboard, and keeps a watching brief.

As he says today; "Whether the blog made any difference, I don't know, but I have tried to highlight some injustices and the dire state of local democracy in Carmarthenshire."

Quite simply, and without a doubt, it has made a huge difference. It has also taken a huge amount of research, time and sweat and an awful lot of answering caebrwyn's emails.

On a personal note I would like to thank Cneifiwr for all his advice and support, and help with this blog, over the past few years. I was, and remain, especially grateful for all his support during the libel trial, for which he came to London prepared to give evidence. Not something I'm sure he expected to become involved with in those carefree pre-blogging days in north Carmarthenshire.

Lastly I'd like to wish Cneifiwr all the best in his future ventures, online or offline. If the Cneifiwr blog was anything to go by, I guarantee they'll be a roaring success.

Tuesday 2 June 2015

Cut 'n' Paste quotes

Back in 2012 (see 'More Cut and Paste spin') I noticed that quotes in council press releases attributed to Executive Board members are usually just stock responses cut and pasted from similar articles.

These often find their way into the local press so when a press release states 'Executive Board Member , Meryl/Pam/Jim etc "said" something, they didn't actually 'say' anything. During the election purdah these 'quotes' disappeared from press releases, and I don't think the county suffered as a result...

It's not a big deal perhaps, and possibly noticed only by the occasional blogger who reads this stuff, but as I said in 2012, it can give the impression that the councillor is a lot more 'engaged' and cares a lot more about the subject than they actually do.

Anyway, the practice continues and has moved, surprisingly seamlessly from one political administration to another, albeit with Meryl's Indies as the unfortunate constant.

One of the regular naming and shaming press releases features residents who have fallen foul of the housing benefit rules in the magistrates court.

Back in January, Labour Executive Board Member for Resources Jeff Edmunds 'said' “The county council wants people who are entitled to Housing Benefit to claim what they are rightfully entitled to.

"However, we are also determined to crack down on fraudulent claims. These offences take money from the public purse that could otherwise be used for funding essential services.”

Today, Plaid Cymru Executive Board member for Resources Cllr David Jenkins 'said':  “The county council wants people who are entitled to Housing Benefit to claim what they are rightfully entitled to.

“However, we are also determined to crack down on fraudulent claims. These offences take money from the public purse that could otherwise be used for funding essential services.”

A couple of points; If the new Plaid led coalition want to distinguish itself from the last one, attending to these little details may help...I'm not expecting them to take a different view, a new 'quote' would do...

My second point is in respect of the 'fraudulent claims' quotes, could they be reworded? At the moment, the second part could so easily apply to the Chief Executive and the unlawful payment scandals, which, it must be said, involved a lot more cash.

From Cllr Sian Caiach's blog...

Interesting post from County Councillor Sian Caiach on the People First website which I've reproduced in full here, it is self-explanatory;

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose? 
Carmarthenshire County Council has a new look. Plaid Cymru has replaced Labour as the leading coalition party with the Affiliated Independents. Their mission statement is to bring CCC up to a high standard of openness and transparency; take that with as many grains of salt as you deem fit. 
Carmarthenshire County council is run on the Executive Board System, much like the Westminster and Assembly governments. A small group of elected members make all of the general management and financial decisions. They do submit big things, the budget being the biggest one, for general approval by all the councillors, but a lot can be hidden in detail. Some things are just plain hidden. 
The two unlawful payments in Carmarthenshire found by the Wales Audit Office were approved by the Executive board. 
The Council Executive wanted to get around the fact that any arm of government, councils included, cannot use libel actions against their critics. This is obviously to preserve free speech. The Executive board at CCC were persuaded that a legal loophole existed, so they backed the chief executive to sue one critical blogger as their proxy to shut her up (and, presumably, to make an example of her). 
The first one was presented to the Council, not hidden, but misrepresented. I suspect that the Executive Board had a moment of collective madness. Either because they were lazy and overwhelmed by their hatred of bloggers criticising their actions, or because they trusted the chief executive so overwhelmingly they did not read the legal report by independent legal expert Mr Goudie, blindly accepting the officer's claim that it gave the green light to their actions. 
Had they actually read the report they would have realised that it did not endorse this action, in fact it gave the opinion that this tactic was never likely to be justified. However, the Chief executive and the executive board presented this as a legal and reasonable course of action and like sheep they all followed, trusting that they could not have been told barefaced lies by their most senior officers and leading councillors. I do wonder how much they can be blamed, after all, I am a former shepherd myself, and I know exactly what happens to sheep who don't docilely comply with their masters. 
In the second case, it was a secret pay rise for the Chief Executive. In this case the executive members appear to have been aware that they were doing something rather naughty. The decision to give Mr James an extra payment on top of his salary was completely hidden despite the fact that to push it through all of the executive must have been complicit. 
Cllr Meryl Gravell, was the leader of the Council at the time of the decisions and the chair of these meetings. Meryl knew that she had secretly given Mr James a pay rise of public money around 30k. It is impossible, given her position and authority, that she could not notice. She was therefore primarily responsible for both the unlawful payments. 
Plaid has agreed to give the independents half of the Executive board seats even though their own group membership is much bigger than the Affiliated Independents (AI). They have also agreed to accept all of the AI's sitting exec members, including the formidable Mrs Gravell. Plus ça change? 
The new Plaid leader, Emlyn Dole, has made a lot of his policy to promote honesty, openness and accountability. So obviously we won't be expecting to be having any more unlawful payments as long as he is kept in the loop. I'm hoping that the Plaid executive members will be less open to being fooled and manipulated than their Labour counterparts and that they can keep the AIs in check. Good luck to them!
         Cllr Sian Caiach