Friday 31 July 2015

Council's Support Grant failures - in the press

Further to my post last week concerning the long-running failure and mismanagement of Carmarthenshire Council's Supporting People grant, it is good to see that the Carmarthenshire Herald;

and the Western Mail have covered this story;

I understand that Cllr Caiach is flagging this up with the Wales Audit Office before any past, er,  'discrepancies' are brushed under the Presidential Axminster at County Hall.

Again, this week's Herald reaches parts other papers don't and following on from their Parc Howard revelations, have dug deeper into the plans Mark and Meryl have for our county. The Cadno opinion piece continues the theme and considers the whole scenario with "Mark 'Blofield' James"..."stroking a shaved chihuahua" with "his very own Rosa Klebb, Meryl Gravell".
More on this early next week.

Meanwhile the Carmarthenshire and Llanelli Heralds are available throughout the county at the bargain price of 50p. I hope by now that County Hall have taken out a lifetime subscription to this excellent publication and that it is presented to Mr James, along with his organic Earl Grey, every Friday morning.

Thursday 30 July 2015

Brynmefys Estate - 'The land and people the council forgot' - Carmarthenshire Herald

Brynmefys Estate from PEMBS.TV on VimeoAlan Evans reports for The Herald.

A detailed report appeared in last week's Carmarthenshire Herald about the Brynmefys Estate near Llanelli, the full article is not yet online but the video above is well worth watching. To cut a long story short, over the past fifteen years or so the Council have neglected the site and now and again have been trying to sell it off to developers.

The few remaining owner occupiers who have maintained their properties, despite having to machete their way through the undergrowth to get to them, have been offered a paltry £30,000 by developers to move. However, as the neglect continued, so the bats moved in and, as the report states, the council then built a bat-house on the site for an astonishing £60,000.

In 2005 the council's own 'Empty Homes Strategy' earmarked the site for 80 affordable homes to be supplied in partnership with developers.Various expressions of interest were made over the years including one from housing association Gwalia to build 103 affordable homes in 2010, but the application was, for reasons unknown, withdrawn.

The latest plan by the council is to offer the site on the open market with a very loose condition that a mere 14 affordable homes are built, and they don't even have to be built on the site but could be dotted around elsewhere...if at all.

The irony is that the council operates a policy to actively pursue landowners and landlords, through the courts if necessary, if they have allowed their properties to fall into disrepair. In the case of this site, the landowner and landlord of the derelict homes is Carmarthenshire County Council itself.
But as we know they have different priorities from the rest of us - a white elephant stadium a few miles down the road being one of them.

(Update 4th Aug; Herald article now online here)

Wednesday 29 July 2015

Register of Members' Interests

Finally, after a kick up the backside from the WLGA Governance review last year, and a lot of legal chewing over what should and what shouldn't be published from monitoring officer Linda Rees Jones, Carmarthenshire Council has joined most of the democratic western world and published the Register of Members' Declarations, Gifts and Interests. They are required to publish it and it can be found here (pdf).

Publication of the register is also something which local bloggers have been calling for for some time purely in the interests of transparency. Long standing (perhaps that should be long suffering!) readers may recall my FOI efforts, and my eventual closely monitored visit to peruse the sacred parchments back in December 2011.

Back then the register was peppered with mysterious gifts of silk scarves and boxes of tea from visiting dignitaries from China as well as the usual invitations to the Council's hospitality box at Parc Y Scarlets stadium.

This time, it is still fairly standard stuff; the silk scarves are missing but the trips to the hospitality box are still sprinkled amongst the occasional Sheaffer pen, cufflinks and bunches of flowers. It is all on a far less monumental scale than the champagne receptions at the Millennium Stadium enjoyed by senior officers (post from 2011) of course.

In one particularly desperate attempt by the council to boost the stadium gate numbers Cllr Hazel Evans (Plaid) was invited to watch a game against the Blues, plus four of her friends She adds that they did give a few quid to the Chair's Charity and bought their own drinks. So that was all right then.

The register includes all the declarations of interests made by councillors at council meetings (already recorded in minutes anyway) since June 2012 and the annual notifications. For councillors elected before the 2012 local elections the original notifications are not always present, just an updated or 'nothing changed' entry for each year.

However, the most spectacular and deliberate failure to leave a meeting, let alone declare an interest, to date, was not a dozy councillor of course, but that oracle of local government knowledge, Mark James CBE. Personal, prejudicial, was all there at that Exec Board meeting in January 2012.

Anyway, back to the Register and there are a couple of strange entries including one from Cllr Dole (Plaid) relating to a solar park application. He wished to declare an interest at a planning committee meeting as he 'Does not know the applicant or objectors'. (my underline)

Of course sometimes the poor dears forget, the most recent example being Cllr Pat Jones (Lab) and the Grillo applications, urging everyone to 'let's get on with it' when she was a substitute on the planning committee.

Independent Cllr Joseph Davies wanted it known that a previous Notification which stated that he had received a donation towards his 2012 local election expenses from Pam and Meryl's Independent Group, was an 'error'.

Oo-er, I'm sure that would never would be terribly misleading for the voters of course if a supposedly independent candidate received such financial assistance, and sell their soul to Meryl's Mob...

For a polite turn of phrase look no further than a notification from Cllr Jeff Edmunds (Lab) who partook in a pub meal in far-off Cornwall with Building Research Establishment (BRE) representatives. The pub bash was prior to a renewable energy 'session' with Cornwall Council the following day;
"Unexpectedly our hosts kindly offered to pay for the meal and I accepted." Ah, nice.
The BRE advise the Council on renewable energy projects.

I nearly choked on my cornflakes when I read that some joker in County Hall had made Llandovery's Cllr Ivor Jackson (Ind) a substitute representative on APSE, the Association of Professional Service Excellence. 
The words 'Cllr Jackson' should, quite simply, never be mentioned in the same breath as the word 'Excellence'. I have already mentioned his role as representative on a parking adjudication panel...

Of course what is logged on the register and what happens in the real world can sometimes be two separate entities but at least residents will no longer have to endure heavily escorted visits to County Hall to see what their local councillor has declared, or not declared...officially anyway.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

News in brief - Meryl, managers and mould

Meryl and 'democracy'

The Carmarthenshire Herald continues to delve into the bowels of the Parc Howard saga (see earlier posts including here) and this week's article (not yet online) refers to an angry letter from one of the members of the Parc Howard Association to the Herald. The anger appears to be strangely directed against the paper for reporting a failed vote of no confidence in the Chair, Ken Rees. You would think PHA members would have been simply grateful to the paper for uncovering the questionable tangled web of companies attempting to turn the historic and publicly owned jewel of Llanelli into a plastic coated conference and wedding venue. Apparently not.

Anyway, the writer of the letter helpfully confirms to all those interested in this sorry tale that it was dear Cllr Meryl Gravell all along who recommended Loca Ventures and their assorted associates to the gullible former UKIP candidate and current Chair of the PHA Ken Rees, they then wined and dined him, and persons unknown, in local hotels.

Executive Board Member Meryl knew all about the plan which was originally a much wider proposal and included Pembrey Country Park, and quite clearly the named senior officials of the council were also far more informed and involved than they have been letting on.
Unlike the rest of our democratically elected members that is, who had been kept completely in the dark.

This means, of course, that Meryl's statement, churned out on the council website on the 9th June, is as disingenuous as we all thought, and shows exactly how warped her view of the 'appropriate democratic process' really is, although I think we all knew that anyway (my underline);

"...From time to time we are approached by third party organisations who are interested in working
with the authority, however, any considerations or such requests have to go through the appropriate democratic process..."


As some retire and others leave in haste, the chief executive continues to rearrange his generals with the occasional inconvenience of having to advertise for candidates outside the castle walls.

Last year, when Assistant chief executive Mr Burns left to join Caerphilly Council, Mr James mused over the possibility that, with a salary range of between £95k and £100k, the authority might just manage with one Assistant CEO rather than two.
Trusty aide Wendy Walters filled in for the interim while he pondered. With the pondering over he clearly felt that two Assistant Chief Executives were absolutely essential to fulfil the needs of our rural backwater and Ms Walters has now become permanent.

At the end of June, after a few brief months, Director of Environment Christina Harrhy escaped the madhouse for gainful employment elsewhere. The post, with a starting salary of £112,000 was readvertised but it seems that Carmarthenshire Council will melt if it doesn't have one, even for the few short, quiet summer weeks before a new appointment is made at the beginning of September.

Step forward soon to be retiring Head of Planning Mr Eifion Bowen selected by Mr James to fill the Director's shoes for these few weeks. Still, you never know, this brief 'acting up' arrangement might just bump up Mr Bowen's pension pot! Who knows.

Shifting sands

Burry Port Harbour is afflicted with an annual build up of silt which has led to diminishing room for boats and made this listed harbour less appealing to visitors and residents alike. Every year the council does it's statutory duty and dredges the harbour but a more permanent solution is required. Without getting technical the solution appears to involve a cost of around £400,000 so for now the annual dredge will continue at around £40,000.

In contrast, a few miles, perhaps not even that, up the coastline, is the Machynys Quayside housing development where the council, for reasons best known to itself, joined with developers Charles Church in some sort of legal agreement over landscaping in 2008. The land is partly owned by the council

A problem has arisen due to the 'realignment' of the development and the council is now obliged to do the landscaping or else they will be in breach of their agreement with the private developers. Meryl, in her capacity as regeneration rubber stamp, is set to agree;

"To appoint professional consultants, via the authority’s Environment Directorate, and compile the necessary detail to support planning application, design, tender and the construction of works
To appoint a preferred contractor and implement the works accordingly"

The 'Risk Management Issues' identified with this venture are interesting...

"Current grievances expressed by local residents would likely increase if no scheme was implemented. There would be a high risk of negative publicity as a consequence.
There may be grievances expressed by members of the public, which do not agree with public funds being used to implement such a scheme. This could result in negative publicity.
Revenue/maintenance funding will need to be continued in future years"

...and, as you can see, the 'issues' appear to be largely concerned with 'negative publicity'. However, the real question should be how the council tied itself up to such a legal agreement with private developers in the first place.

Archive news

Lastly, a link to a light-hearted but rather accurate and observant blog post from author and historian J D Davies who has recently become not only a campaigner for the survival of the Carmarthenshire Archives, but has also rapidly become very well acquainted with County Hall doublespeak with which we are all so familiar;

More spinned against than spinning

Thursday 23 July 2015

Supporting People Grant - Fundamental failure

(Update 31st July; See also later post; Council's Support Grant failures - in the press)

Each year Carmarthenshire County Council receives a 'Supporting People' grant of around £6.7m from the Welsh Government.

To put it simply, the grant is aimed at helping vulnerable people live as independently as possible and covers, for example, homelessness, domestic violence, drug abuse, mental health issues and physical and mental disability, for young and old alike.
Many of the services are commissioned by the council and provided by external sources.

A recent report from the Council's own Internal Audit shows that all is definitely not well and failures delays and mismanagement of this grant, by the Council's Department for Social Care have led to the Welsh Government withholding £3m until the appropriate certificates have been signed off, currently a year overdue. This is shocking.

The Internal Audit found  'Fundamental weakness' for the second year running which, in general terms of risk means; "inadequate controls, a high risk of not meeting objectives and a high risk of fraud, negligence, loss and damage to reputation".

The Authority’s Financial Procedure Rules have not been complied with and in particular, monthly payments to providers had been paid in advance without any authorisation - advance payments are not permitted without prior approval.

Documentation to support spending was insufficient and money was being transferred to in-house service provision without any documentation to prove that it was either eligible or met the grant criteria. Payments to providers were also being made which lacked supporting documentation.

There was also non-compliance with the council's Contract Procedure Rules. Out of 154 Supporting People contracts only ten were current and properly signed by a representative of the Council.
Only one on those had actually been in place and signed in the grant certificate period in question.

In the majority of cases contracts had been awarded without following the appropriate tendering/quotation process. Documentation for contracts are not maintained and the majority of providers do not have up to date contracts.

These contracts were not always signed by a representative of the council and evidence of approval was not available to support the extension of contracts.

Where contracts are in place there was no monitoring to make sure that providers were only getting paid what they were supposed to be.

A further fundamental weakness was identified as 'Insufficient monitoring arrangements' - there was no evidence that the eligibility of providers were being monitored or that they were delivering the service as required by the terms and condition of the grant.

Many had not been visited for eight years and none had received a monitoring visit in the financial year in question. There was also no evidence that the projects were being managed appropriately or progressing as expected.

Although some financial information and 'outcomes' from providers were collated by staff in the department, there were no checks to ensure that any of it was accurate before being provided to the Welsh Government.

The report concludes with a warning that unless there is a marked improvement the council is currently at risk of having grant monies withdrawn and having applications for further funding refused.

The Wales Audit Office are currently assessing the council's grant management procedures in relation to property grants and I would imagine they'd be casting their auditing eye over this lot too. Or they should be.

This is scandalous, what's been going on? No paperwork? Money and contracts being dished out willy-nilly? If this was a private company they'd have been strung up by now.

A further Internal Audit report related to VAT accounting procedures within the council. This was assessed as being 'acceptable'. VAT is a complex area but in general the council is exempt from VAT - it cannot charge VAT and can reclaim all VAT it has paid out via it's monthly returns.

I do have one small query though. The unlawful costs incurred for the chief executive's counterclaim for libel was over £33,000, and around £5400 of that was VAT, which was reclaimed.

I wonder what the legalities are over VAT reclaimed on unlawful expenditure? Perhaps I'll ask HMRC...they don't take kindly to fraud.

Wednesday 22 July 2015

Played them like a fiddle

It's now been eighteen months since the Extraordinary council meeting to discuss the pension and libel indemnity scandals exposed by the Wales Audit Office reports and exactly a year since the issue of libel indemnities appeared, again, on the agenda in July 2014.

Tucked away in a report for Scrutiny on Friday is the annual report from the Monitoring Officer, Linda Rees-Jones (mysteriously no longer 'acting'). Included in the report are various Constitutional amendments which have been brought to council, and approved, over the last twelve months.

One of these is "To note that the provision allowing members to grant indemnities to Officers to bring libel proceedings would not be reinstated in the Constitution."

What we have actually had in the Constitution, since February 2014 is this, in its various forms;

It has never been removed, just suspended. I suspect that when Mark and Linda have finished rewriting the constitution and it is presented to council in September the clause will have been airbrushed out, without explanation and especially without admission of wrongdoing. I could be wrong given Mr James' email to Cllr Bill Thomas a few weeks ago, however, we'll assume (and hope) it will finally go.

There has been no need whatsoever for the 'legal position' to be clarified because every man and his dog knows it was illegal in the first place.

As for the actual indemnity granted to Mr James in 2012, that was also illegal but Mr James and whichever cohort of obliging officers and councillors were, and are, currently in his pocket have managed to separate the two - the clause and the actual indemnity.

If the clause is permanently removed it is because it is 'contrary to law', or whatever polite way you want to put it.

As night follows day, this means that, despite the view of Mr James and co, the actual indemnity was also illegal. Or unlawful, as the Wales Audit Office put it.

As far as the council are concerned, the legality of the actual indemnity can only be determined by a court, whatever that's supposed to mean. We may find out one day.

What has happened is that there has been a great deal of constitutional and legal manoeuvring and manipulation to ensure that the chief executive and those responsible have got off scot free.

In the meeting last July (2014) Cllr Emlyn Dole (then in opposition of course) politely soothed Mark James' concerns that the 'suspension' of the clause, and the acceptance of the First Minister's statement the day before damning the actions of the council, would not be retrospective, and would not interfere with the indemnity granted in 2012.

In the event, the Welsh Government opinion was merely 'noted' and the clause suspended. This kept both the external auditor, and more to the point, the chief executive, happy and clinging on to his CBE.

This left the curious situation where the council were agreeing that the clause was illegal but when it was used in practice, it wasn't. Did they not think this was a bit odd and perhaps they'd been shafted?

In fact, the chief executive knew what he was doing was illegal in January 2012, hence the misrepresentation of legal advice to the Executive Board who were too dull to even question it. The unlawful presence of Mr James in the meeting also ensured they toed the line.

The upshot of all this was to save the skin of the chief executive and the usual suspects and avoid any unpleasant confrontation over his publicly funded legal costs. This was not the only issue of course, there was also his tax avoidance pension scam.

Looking back, I still find it quite incredible that not only the chief executive but the head of law and the Executive Board members present at the meeting when the indemnity was granted are still there. The only one who vaguely paid the price was Kevin Madge, who lost his £49,000 per year. This handsome remuneration has now passed seamlessly on to Cllr Dole.

I have spoken to Plaid supporters in my area and there is deep concern and disappointment that Cllr Dole and Co have, it seems, sold their soul to the devil, and Meryl of course.

Bryn Parry-Jones has gone, expensively I know, from Pembrokeshire but Mark James remains, despite the extended rap sheet - and there's only one reason, Mr James has played the lot of them, aside from one or two, like a fiddle, whereas in Pembs Mr Parry-Jones couldn't.

In addition, Mr James is now in the fortunate position, whether by design or coincidence, I couldn't possibly say, of facing no effective opposition to his power...all worked out rather well didn't it Mr James?

Tuesday 21 July 2015

This week's Cadno; Carmarthenshire Council - The dinghy of despair

For those who live outside the area, or who have been unable to rush out and buy a copy, here's this week's 'Cadno' opinion piece from the Llanelli and Carmarthenshire Heralds, for your online viewing;
Cadno looks for hope
Cadno has spent the last two months waiting for flickers of life and light from the twitching, comatose patient that is local democracy in Carmarthenshire. 
Readers, Cadno was very cautiously hopeful that Plaid Cymru under then leadership of Emlyn Dole would provide at least a change of focus, if not a change of direction; that Plaid would take steps to redress the balance between 'business as usual' and tackling entrenched interests and long term failings. Applying enough volts to totally revive the patient was too much to hope for, but a course of light jolts might have effected a partial recovery. 
What bliss it was to be alive in those days, readers! 
Despite His Dole-ishness bearing the demeanour of a mendicant friar crossed with a particularly peevish rural bank manager, there was a chance to shine a light into the dark places in County Hall. Possibly, Brother Emlyn stared into the abyss and the abyss not only stared back but told him to bugger off and leave it alone. We might never know; or at least we might never hear it from Brother Emlyn. His every utterance is now subject not only to spin, but also to a rinse cycle before it is made. 
The sense of disappointment with Plaid Cymru is as tangible as that which formerly engulfed the Liberal Democrats in the last government. The excuse given by Plaid so far is also one which is also pregnant with danger for Plaid Cymru in the future. The narrative goes; Plaid is stuck with the last administration's budget and is strait-jacketed as a result. Nothing can be done because the course has been set. 
The difficulty there is that if Plaid fails to pull any rabbits out of hats in the two budgets for which it will be responsible in 2016 and 2017, it will give considerable credence to the idea that it is not social and political imperatives that motivate our public leaders, but empty managerialism and spinelessness which cripple them. For if politicians, and councillors are assuredly politicians, cannot make a difference to the course of the ship of state - or, in the case of Carmarthenshire, the dinghy of despair - then they are empty vessels; making noise and signifying nothing. 
Noise signifying something is one of the things that actually does require the attention of Executive Board Members. One would have thought that Meryl the Peril would be ever so terribly keen to explain the Council's role in the Parc Howard affair. It is, therefore, positively dreadful that Meryl Gravell could not be bothered to turn up and answer questions on it at last week's council meeting. Mind you seventeen others didn't bother to attend the Chamber either. It must have been a particularly hectic day cockling down at Burry Port readers! 
There is about Cllr Gravell the faint air of Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell in 'The Importance of Being Earnest'. There was scarcely a scene that was not stolen by Dame Edith's hauteur and disdain. Meryl likes being the centre of attention in the same way. And uses much the same schtick. 
No doubt there was an envelope being opened in Alltwallis that required Meryl the Peril's attendance on July 8th; but in case you thought Cllr Gravell does her public duty out of the goodness of her heart, it is worth remembering that she is being paid £29,000 per annum for the privilege of serving us. Small beer to someone with that many enticing titfers to be sure, readers, but enough to keep its recipient in tinned ravioli and Bird's Eye potato waffles for a good while. 
One would have thought however that wherever Meryl's handbag rested on July 8th, it was somewhere where she was doing a damned sight more good for Carmarthenshire than she would have been turning up to face questions on Parc Howard. 
A carefully-worded written answer will be provided in due course. Cadno is prepared to lay good money on 'Meryl's answer' shedding no light on who knew what, where and when. Still less will it acknowledge any fault. In fact readers, Cadno is pretty sure that 'Meryl's answer' will suggest that property speculators with dubious corporate backgrounds are valued partners for our council. Cadno also suspects that suggesting that big money talk appeals to Mark James and speaks to the possibility of him being remembered as this county's version of Shelley's Ozymandias is the sort of wholly unfounded slur that 'Meryl's answer' will not be mentioning. 
Cadno supposes that the speed with which the document arrives will rather depend on whether the senior officer charged with crafting it types with one finger or two. And is able to remember how to spell 'CBE'. 
R A Butler is often credited with coining the aphorism that politics is the art of the possible. That suggests to Cadno a rather self-limiting and mechanical approach to politics; a rather passionless and frigid technocratic method of 'running things, instead of delivering on policies and promises or living up to their own ideals. That is the failing of too much local government, especially in Wales. 
Good councillors with good ideas and benign intentions are ground into the dust by the cowardly cynicism of older councillors and the way senior officers use the Code of Conduct to stifle enquiry and debate. The rule of the elected by the unelected disfigures councils other than Carmarthenshire, but in few other councils have so many Executive Board members been so thoroughly broken to the wheel. 
Power concentrated in the same hands over time breeds too much cosiness between the political executive and the administration. Consensus is not always desirable, compromise is not always necessary. There are times when the proper function of a politician, whether national or local, is to stir things up; to kick against the pricks; to stand up against complacent and cosy complicity with those employed by the state or by the council. 
As Brother Emlyn will no doubt recall, the tables of the money changers were overturned in the Temple; they were not invited to take an option on acquiring the building and turning it into a wedding venue. 
Being of a Biblical bent, Cllr Dole will appreciate the importance of hope. Not the sort of wishy-washy devoutly-to-be-hoped-for b*****ks that passes for 'hope', but the real thing; active and activist in its intent and delivery. Hope does not wait for things to happen; it is not fatalist. Hope makes things happen by acting to ensure they do. 
If there is hope for Carmarthenshire, it is up to Cllr Dole and Plaid Cymru to show it. The price of wisdom might be above rubies, but the cost of trimming one's ideals for a taste of power's milk and honey would be catastrophic for Plaid Cymru.
Reproduced with permission from Llanelli and Carmarthenshire Heralds

Monday 20 July 2015

Freedom of Information - what has it done for Carmarthenshire?

It seems that every couple of years attempts are made by government to 'crackdown' on FOI requests. The latest development, widely reported in the national press, is the establishment of a Whitehall panel to review the Act to consider, amongst other things, whether it is 'overly intrusive'. Such 'reviews' never bode well and, as the Telegraph reports, the panel members might not be the greatest fans of FOI.

In Carmarthenshire the FOI Act has, over the years, uncovered some interesting information. The authority receives around a 1000 requests a year and one request, made in 2012 revealed that the unit responsible for FOI and Data Protection consisted of just two employees; unlike the press office....

FOI requests have revealed credit card spending details; back door subsidies to Scarlets Regional Ltd; invoices for legal costs; officer's hospitality engagements and hotel and travel costs. A good snapshot of the variety of requests can be seen on the WhatDoTheyKnow website. (Update 18:05; My Society, who run the WDTK site have now responded to the government's proposed FOI review, it can be read here)

One particularly long winded request was for the correspondence between the council and the Towy Community Church about the Xcel project, known as the evangelical bowling alley. The request was to ascertain how the authority reached the decision to cough up £1.4m to a fundamentalist evangelical group (another FOI also established that no Equalities Assessment had been carried out to).

There was a strange determination not to release the information, initially refused on 'excessive costs' grounds the ICO disagreed and ordered the council to issue a fresh response. This time they changed tack and said the request was 'vexatious'. I appealed again to the ICO that this was clearly a matter of public interest and I was not the only one making enquiries.

The council then brought out all its guns and accusations, waved the libel judgement in front of the ICO, called me a criminal and convinced the ICO that I was a thoroughly disreputable character. If you wish to read the decision notice in all it's glory it can be found here.

In marked contrast, the council were willing, eventually, (and coincidentally whilst the chief executive was on enforced gardening leave last year), to release the damning emails leading up to the dodgy deal, and the last minute intervention by the chief executive, to pay off the third party loan for the Scarlets. The main figure in question, £280,000 was rather more than the £196,000 the Exec Board decided last week to cut from other outdoor sports pitches over the next three years, (or making them "cost neutral" as the council spin machine puts it).

On the subject of gardening leave, my request to Gloucestershire Police for details of the criminal investigation following the WAO reports revealed a disturbing lack of actual investigation. I pursued part of the request with the ICO but to no avail. The main grounds of refusal were upheld in that the documents which were available would be withheld as they might compromise civil litigation, which may or may not happen in the future. All very odd and intriguing, the ICO decision notice is here.

A recent request was for a 'viability appraisal' authored by Savills on behalf of Ffos Las Ltd. The appraisal was to make the case to reduce the S106 agreement for a development of 280 homes. The request was refused under 'commercial confidentiality'.

I thought little more of  it until several weeks later when an article appeared in the Guardian concerning a FOI to a London borough to acquire 'viability appraisals' to reduce S106 agreements. The requestors were a little more persistent and eventually got the reports, also by Savills, which were then analysed and showed exactly how figures were manipulated to reduce 'viability'. All perfectly legal of course...Interestingly, this subject also cropped up today at a parliamentary debate on London's housing supply, reported here.

County Hall has certainly had a problem with grasping the idea that public money is in fact public money, and how it is spent is a matter of public interest. This was illustrated by a demand, a couple of years ago to a local newspaper to withdraw a FOI request for senior officers' expenses.

My requests, which have been made in good faith and for the purposes of research for this blog, were naturally considered, in the course of recent litigation to be part of my 'campaign' and a request for returning officer expenses was considered to be worth a special mention in Mr James' witness statement. It turned out that one particular set of returning officer fees, from the local election in 2012, was very odd indeed.

Requests for Members' registers of interest were refused some time ago but the WLGA review has insisted these are now published online - like virtually every other local authority. We are still waiting for this to happen. The minutes from the cross-party group considering the WLGA report itself were not even published and were initially only available through FOI.

In my view the FOI Act is working fine, more or less, as it is and any review should only be considering widening it's scope. For instance, as more council services are outsourced to private companies there is a strong argument that these companies should also be open to scrutiny and FOI requests.

As I have pointed out in the few examples above, requests to Carmarthenshire Council have met with varying degrees of success and failure, even if we take the ever present toxic culture and obsession with image out of the equation, the council are quite adept at torturing the Act. Often it's case of 'truth versus spin' and only a few short weeks ago the council still seemed to be still quite happily bending the truth in favour of spin.

The last thing we need in either national or local government are any further restrictions.

On a lighter note, some requests can have unintended amusing consequences. A recent (and reasonable) request to the Met police for details of livestock thefts across their manor produced some surprising interpretations of the word 'livestock'.
In amongst various horses, dogs and cats were 'two tins of mackerel', 'two teddy bears' and 'chicken fillets', oh, and a tortoise named 'xxxxxxx' (redacted). 

Saturday 11 July 2015

Where are the waves?

At the end of May, Cllr Sian Caiach predicted that the new look Carmarthenshire council would turn out to be a case of the same old thing - 'Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose?' and last Wednesday's meeting provides a good example.

Hot on the heels of last month's powerpoint extravaganza, which was supposed to be the catalyst to make the council the most open in Wales, the question on Parc Howard, a hot, controversial topic, featured in numerous press and blog articles over the past couple of weeks wasn't answered. What a surprise. Meryl Gravell, along with eighteen other councillors didn't turn up.

Perhaps she had a valid excuse but the question has not only been hanging in the air for weeks, it has been on the published agenda for days and Wednesday was a perfect opportunity for some transparency and honesty. Couldn't anyone else provide a response and an explanation? Of course they could. The matter could have been thrown open for a brief discussion, whether Meryl was there or not.

After all, it appears that senior officers have plenty of knowledge of the situation and as Herald columnist Cadno writes in this week's edition; 
"...the Council decided that it was prepared to work with the developer to smooth the transaction through by circumventing any requirement for public scrutiny of the speculative venture. 
And when Cadno refers to ‘the Council’ readers, he is not impugning the overwhelming majority of councillors who were kept in the dark, but he is referring to the officers who were prepared to skulk around the Diplomat Hotel offering to pass up Llanelli’s family silver to parties unknown. The whole way that officers conducted themselves suggests that the words ‘due diligence’ are an assemblage of syllables of little or no meaning to them."

Cadno expresses disappointment that Meryl wasn't there to offer her eternal wisdom and enlightenment on the sorry saga, particularly as;

"we can now all be confident that the culture of secrecy at County Hall has been swept away by a series of Powerpoint presentations and working groups" 
"...And, of course, Cllr Gravell would have been able to demonstrate just how firmly she has control of the officers in departments under her democratic purview by distancing herself from their actions and making it clear that the cause of democracy is dear to her heart. None of this mealy-mouthed and platitudinous nonsense about trying to get the best deal for the public of the whole of Carmarthenshire: a detailed exposition of how officers acted and what steps they had taken to ensure the bona fides of the companies concerned. And, if it emerged that officers had not done some homework, how those officers would not be allowed the key to the banana plantation in the future..." 
 (for the full version of this splendid column, The Carmarthenshire Herald, priced at 50p is available all good newsagents, and on facebook here)

The fact of the matter is that controversial and potentially embarrassing topics are still being blocked from debate. Cllr Caiach demanded that Meryl's written response to Cllr Williams be circulated to all councillors. 

Councillors still had to go through the ridiculous ritual to suspend standing orders to ask supplementary questions. Not only that but the Plaid Chair was most unhappy ('I won't allow this to happen again') because one of his colleagues asked a series of questions about the Severance Scheme which had featured in a recent Exec Board meeting. The Councillor concerned had wanted to ask them at the Exec Board meeting but he hadn't been 'allowed'.

The explanation of course is that the constitution and the standing orders haven't been rewritten yet. They'll have to wait another few months. Good grief - by then, will have been almost a year since the WLGA report came out.

At one point Cllr Caiach expressed her deep disappointment at Plaid's record so far as an anti-austerity party who were, to all intent and purpose continuing the pattern and record of the previous administration instead of challenging the cuts to services.

It would appear that Unison Carmarthenshire takes the same view in its latest newsletter;

Unison Carms

Plaid Cllr Darren Price responded to Cllr Caiach by saying that the budget had already been passed, their hands were tied and they'd er, welcome any suggestions she might have.

What is the matter with them? Where's the passion? Where's the vocal and public determination not to follow in the footsteps of Meryl, Kev and co?

To the observing public, it's simply not there.

Another example was a comment from Mark James over Welsh Government funding for the schools programme. The details can be seen on the archive but he claimed that 'political', and not just 'officer' pressure on the Welsh Government was necessary.

Then came the blinder; he said that they were drafting a letter on behalf of the Leader to be sent to the Welsh Government. This is how democracy and politics works in Carmarthenshire. Come on Cllr Dole, don't become a 'Kev'.
Still officer-led? Of course it is.

Over the issue of charging for flexi-beds for the elderly and vulnerable the Labour group started bemoaning the lack of democracy as the item appeared to have by-passed completely the important step of councillor scrutiny. Ah, they've changed their tune! They, along with their friends on the Independent benches couldn't even vote for the public to film all meetings last month.

In the event the Chamber voted unanimously to send the flexi-bed item to scrutiny - but why had Plaid allowed it on the agenda in the first place?

What exactly has happened here. Plaid, particularly the politicians outside the Chamber have delivered scathing criticism that this council is officer-led, a dictatorship even. The county needed a 'political reboot', the weak executive needed to be replaced and for elected members to assert their control.

Well, as far as Plaid are concerned the 'reboot' happened - half a 'boot' anyway, with Meryl and Pam wearing the other half.

Unfortunately the jackboots are still being worn by the chief executive.

Plaid take an understandable pride in the Welsh language and wish to promote the council's bi-lingual policy, but twice now in the Chamber the Plaid Chair, Peter Hughes Griffiths has beaten Pam's drum and silenced discussion on the Welsh language. Pam has no time for it all and has made that abundantly clear, as has the chief executive.

What happened, for instance, to those 'serious questions' about the use of public money which Plaid AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas said had to be asked about the dodgy deal with the Scarlets and the 'allowable expenses' at the beginning of June? Not a whisper.

Any why has there been no word from Plaid over the Parc Howard fiasco?

And why has the chief executive been allowed to send a legally menacing email to a councillor?

Then there's the issue of the archives. Whilst Meryl is off to 'glittering' ceremonies (the council press office always describes these corporate back-slapping events as 'glittering') to celebrate the B & Q-replica Dylan Thomas shed, the future of the original history of Carmarthenshire has been left hanging in the balance.

I mentioned the mould sixteen months ago on this blog. Perhaps if councillors had taken the trouble to read it instead of listening to the Witchfinder General and his warnings that their eyes would drop out and their body parts shrivel if they read a certain blog, they may have been on the case a bit sooner.

It wasn't until the issue was recently picked up by a writer from outside Carmarthenshire and the matter began circulating on social media that the shame of widespread criticism prompted some sort of dreary response from the council which appears to consist of 'options are being looked at' and some vague, and typical mention of 'unfounded rumours'.

I don't know what the answer to the archive problem is any more than anyone else. Possibly moving the service from 'Education' to Leisure' sealed it's fate. But ignoring the problem won't make it go away.

To be honest I think Government Minister Leighton Andrews made a valid point a couple of weeks ago when he responded to opposition to mergers;

"I think there is to a degree in certain areas a desire to protect empires."

It doesn't matter who takes political power of the Carmarthenshire empire, or fiefdom - The best way for a dictator to control his opponents is to give them a taste of power - but only a little, with the dictator and his disciples retaining a firm hold on the leash and in full control of the rule book.

If Plaid don't start making those waves they have been promising for so long, they will give the appearance of having fallen into one big murky trap.

Finally, a brief letter appeared in Monday's Western Mail from a Carmarthenshire resident;

SIR – In Saturday’s edition of the Western Mail, the best part of two pages were devoted to the advertising of two senior positions within Carmarthenshire council. 
When you deadhead the gibberish jargon and verbiage of the duties of the posts it is evident that the authority is looking for a qualified accountant and chartered engineer. 
Both command salaries of up to £120k per annum, around £25,000 less than the Prime Minister of the UK (population 64 million) in a rural backwater like Carmarthenshire (population 184,900 : mid 2014 estimates). When Carmarthenshire becomes subsumed into the larger entity of Dyfed (population 384,000) what sort of salaries would these posts command? 
When Plaid Cymru took over the control of the authority earlier this year I was under the erroneous impression they would bring an end to these stratospheric salaries.
         Yours sincerely
         Mr L, Llangynnor.

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Money matters

Friday's meeting of the Council's Audit Committee (agenda here) sees the first outing for the Council's 2014/15 Statement of Accounts, currently unaudited. The figures reveal that over £3.8m was paid out in exit packages for the year, involving 98 compulsory and 110 agreed 'departures'. Nearly £700,000 related to exit packages for seven members of staff earning over £80,000 per year.

Significantly, the accounts show that the council borrowed a further £28m in the 2014/15 financial year. This is a staggering amount bringing the total council borrowing to £280m. A remarkable figure for a county with 180,000 residents. Prior to this new borrowing, the amount required to service the loans in interest and administration stood at around £14m per year, this will now go up, along with your council tax.

Borrowing has increased steadily over the years as the Council has embarked on it's visionary schemes to establish glorified council offices in various stadiums and 'shopping ' complexes around the county. It doesn't look like stopping either, with another £3.5m being borrowed last month for the Carmarthen West link road to facilitate access for wealthy developers.

Compare this to an item on tomorrow's full council agenda (previous post here) to save a relatively paltry £73k per year by charging the elderly and infirm for 'flexi-beds'. These placements in care homes used to be free for the first 42 days and were used if, for instance, there was a breakdown in a care plan, or if minor adaptations were being made to a residents home. Residents will now be means tested and charged from day one, ranging between £17 and £83 per night.

The Audit Committee agenda also includes minutes from the March meeting of the Corporate Governance Group (not to be confused with the Cross Party Constitutional Review Group...). As this blog has reported, there have been issues with grant managements procedures for some time, highlighted by the Wales Audit Office for the past three years.

The WAO will be issuing a one off report later in the year specifically relating to the property grants which were a feature of 'Meryl's meetings' and brought to the attention of the WAO by the departing Director of Resources last year.

The minutes of the CGC record that Plaid Cllr Dai Jenkins, (now Exec Board member for resources in the new administration) put forward the views of the Audit Committee that he should attend meetings of the Grants Panel as an observer due to the 'ongoing concerns about the grants issues reported by WAO'.

The Grants Panel (whose minutes are also on Friday's agenda) consists of officers and their remit appears to be to monitor the overall progress and compliance of the various grants administered by the authority.

The minutes record the rather odd response from the S151 Finance Officer;

'CM stated that whilst comprehensive procedures are in place, the issue is with the lack of implementation of the procedures by officers. CM highlighted that there could be a risk of Officers being less open or defensive in the presence of Elected Members and that it was not necessarily the role of the Chair of Audit Committee to focus on the actions or inactions of individual Officers on individual Grant Schemes.'

Am I missing something here? Isn't it exactly the role of the Audit Committee to concern itself with any 'lack of implementation of procedures'?

Back to the Accounts and again the council are forced to record for posterity the er, misdemeanours of the chief executive and those unlawful payments. The entry states that the Auditor considers the matter closed but will be 'monitoring progress'. Unfortunately for the council, the legality of the libel indemnity is far from closed, an issue which is ongoing and which will become doubly apparent should Mr James attempt further enforcement.

Anyway, on a final note the Statement of Accounts also includes the usual list of responsibilities undertaken by the council. This includes a reference to the Archives which, given the current problems, must have been copied and pasted from previous years as apparently they are still held safely in the three strongrooms in Carmarthen....

Update 8th July
The Labour group put forward an amendment at today's full council meeting that the decision on charging for flexi-beds should be postponed for it go to Scrutiny. It should have gone to scrutiny before full council of course, but it hadn't.
The amendment was accepted unanimously.

Around twenty councillors started the summer break early and didn't turn up today. Meryl Gravell was also absent and had been due to respond to the question regarding Parc Howard. The answer will now be given in writing, so unfortunately a supplementary question cannot be posed...

Sunday 5 July 2015

The July Agenda...and other news

Next Wednesday sees the last full council meeting until the cogs slowly grind back in to action in September. By then Mark and Linda will have rewritten the constitution (with their own special version safely locked up in the presidential drawer for the summer recess). The little tweaks and amendments so half heartedly, and smugly, approved on the 17th June bringing the council roughly up to the Edwardian era rather than early Victorian.

Herald columnist Cadno observes in this week's edition that; "..It will come as a bolt from the blue that the Council has decided it should: ‘Develop, agree and promote a set of public service and leadership characteristics and values’.
There are two points to be drawn from this almost mindless sentiment; firstly, if Carmarthenshire County Council is only now getting round to this after nineteen years’ existence as a unitary authority, precisely what has it been doing before this point; secondly, what – or who, readers – has it had instead of values for the last few years?.."

Sadly, last weeks legal threats to a councillor from that the most senior of council employees shows that not only does that Napoleon Complex continue to afflict County Hall but the number one WLGA recommendation for a change in culture has been, as we feared, completely ignored.

The new leader, Cllr Dole is making promising noises about openness and all that, but it carries little weight when every press release quoting our new man includes a mirrored quote of agreement from Pam or Meryl. 
It seems so long ago now that Pam would give Plaid the evils across the Chamber, all of five weeks...they're all blowing kisses now. As for the Labour 'opposition', Jeff Edmunds even posted Cllr Dole's PR piece about 'scrapping the Mercs' on his own Facebook page.

Also on the subject of joint statements, the Herald looks at the thorny issue of predetermination in respect of the Grillo applications and in particular the double excitement of Cllrs Dole and Gravell in a press release before the final decision was made;
"Even though the Planning Committee had already indicated it was minded to approve the schemes while they were still subject to the Welsh Government call in procedure, it seems remarkable that two senior Cabinet members were so confident that the plans would progress even before the Planning Committee had begun its final deliberations on the scheme."

The Herald compares it to the preparatory work for the Carmarthen West link road started months before the funding for it was approved by full council.

To be honest I don't think I've seen anything quite so predetermined for some time; Labour Cllr Pat Jones had her knuckles slightly tapped for her 'let's get on with it' quote to the press long before it made its merry way back to the planning committee. It wouldn't have mattered if it hadn't been for the fact that she was a substitute on the planning committee.

Even the council solicitor gave the committee a warning over their collective enthusiasm back in April. At that meeting the enthusiasm boiled over into something resembling a witch hunt as to the identities of the 'guilty parties' who had the temerity to request the call in.

So keen was Labour Cllr Terry Davies at last weeks planning committee to finally approve the six applications that he suggested they approve all six en bloc, presumably as a ploy to be first in the queue at the canteen.

Cllr Terry Davies  MBE
The chair had to remind him that as a a matter of proper procedure, planning applications had to be voted on individually. You would think that cllr Davies might have remembered that small but significant point having sat on the planning committee for at least three hundred years.

Returning briefly to the subject of Facebook and despite the Chair of the Council, Peter Hughes Griffiths recently announcing that social media was all far too dangerous, he now has a 'page'. I have a feeling it is being run on his behalf, perhaps by a 'young person' and all postings will be approved, in triplicate, by the Pravda News Inc, County Hall.
It might be informative if our leader, I mean Mr James of course, (who else), were to write a Facebook page, or maybe even a weekly blog. It could include a daily religious message to save our souls and a regularly updated list of subversives clearly in need of spiritual guidance.

Anyway back to next weeks meeting and our Cadno considers the continuing lack of public questions;

"Does that mean you all think the Council is right in every word and every deed? No it damned well does not! The process by which you can ask those questions needed to be clearer and more open. None of this ‘deliver thy question by the back gate when the cock crows thrice’ nonsense: email should be good enough. 
After all, it is good enough for Mark James to threaten legal proceedings against a serving councillor, it should be good enough for those of us unfortunate enough to pay his bloody wages!"

(I did provide some guidance to the current Public Question obstacle course back in September).

Neither, I notice, are there any Motions nor questions raised from those committee reports now consigned and sidelined on the agenda 'for info only'. (For comparison, the last meeting of Pembs Council featured seven Motions on Notice and five councillor questions)

There are just two councillor questions. The first is from Labour Cllr Jan Williams raising her concerns over the future of Parc Howard, Llanelli. Her question is addressed to Meryl and seeks reassurance that it will remain in public hands. 

Meryl will of course provide the standard soothing scripted response but as we know Cllr Williams does have a supplementary question. Maybe she'll ask just how far the county council is progressing with Loca Ventures/Select Villages/KMS/SIB Global (BVI)/Atlas Hill...or whichever name, and there are many, that the outfit is currently going by. The Herald have been doing their homework and have published several articles on the subject. My post from early June is here.

Parc Howard

A Mr Nick Spysnyk, who, despite not actually appearing as a director of these companies, seems to be leading the takeover, and has spoken exclusively to the Llanelli Star to say that the bid has been 'put on the back burner for now' due to the public outcry. 

Although he offered to talk to the Herald his contribution was clearly going to be limited as, according to the latest Herald article which is not yet online, he didn't want anything to do with 'that journalism crap' so spoke to the Star instead.

I suspect they'll soon be back, this spider's web of companies and 'associates' seem to be exactly the kind of outfit our council could happily do business with....and as they're still promising to develop the 'Robbie Savage hotel and spa experience', known as the 'Four Winds' at Ffos Las. Meryl may well already be hooked, the combination of racehorses and flame haired footballers could prove irresistible...

Strictly no comment from 2012

The second councillor question concerns the mysterious whereabouts of free parking pilot for Llanelli which was supposed to be decided by the Exec board following cross party support back in April. My guess is that there are two thorny issues troubling the exec minds; the loss of revenue which will be frowned upon by officers, and demands from Cllrs representing towns outside Llanelli for their own free parking pilots...

Also on the agenda is Cllr Dole's forward plan taking us up to the end of the municipal year next May and the colossal 140 page Annual Report and Improvement Plan (ARIP), the annual bumper full-colour list of achievements, complete with quotes from satisfied punters, pie charts, graphs and endless aspirational lists of what "We will aim..." to do. 
A load of b******s really.

from the 'Annual Report and Improvement Plan'
The document is required by law and must take some cobbling together, it has to be something of a thankless task, being read by virtually no one, even determined bloggers can find themselves glazing over after the first few rainbow coloured sentences.

Perhaps the most significant event this year will be the full corporate assessment to be undertaken by the Wales Audit Office after the summer. Amongst its findings will be the councils progress and reaction to the WLGA report. Unfortunately, aside from those two notable, and scandalous, occasions when the WAO stood firm, it has something of a history of not wishing to upset its client. Let's hope it's approach is rather more rigorous and critical than usual.

Lastly, the Scarlets announced last week that they were considering selling the naming rights to the Parc Y Scarlets stadium as a form of sponsorship. I would have thought that in honour of the lengths our chief executive has gone to to channel so much taxpayers money into this failing venture, even arranging to pay off one of their loans, they should at least give some thought to naming it 'The Mark James CBE Stadium' (making sure not to forget the CBE)....

It's the least they could do as sadly, despite Mr James' instrumental and visionary role in the inception, and the arranging of the, er, "won't cost the taxpayer a penny" funding, he missed out on having his name immortalised in Boston with the Princess Royal Stadium, having been fortunate to have left the authority long before the auditors were finally called in
Oddly though there are a few folk who remember Mr James very well, and not just in relation to the stadium either. Still, more on that another day.

The Heralds can be found here and here and on Twitter @carmsherald and @LlanelliHerald