Saturday 31 October 2015

The corporate video...more comment

This week, the Carmarthenshire Herald's Cadno takes a wry look at the Council's new corporate video, I mentioned this riveting creation a couple of week's ago after discovering that it had replaced most of the links to the council webcasts and spotting myself in the distant murky gloom of the council chamber.

Cadno observes that many of the services, such as libraries and leisure, featured in this video will not only be subject to massive budget cuts but are well on their way to the great outsourcing cloud in the sky. (For the full article, the newspaper is available throughout the county for a mere 50p).

The video also features several shots of merry elderly folk in what appears to be a residential setting. Readers may recall that despite fierce opposition, the council run care homes are now being closed and replaced with 'Extra Care Schemes' in Ammanford, Carmarthen and Llanelli, in partnership with Family Housing Association.

Worryingly, the latest report from the Care Inspectorate Wales (CSSIW) states that these privately run apartment style settings "do not currently fall under the same regulatory framework as registered care homes, and therefore, do not afford people with the same level of safeguards." and, alongside an increase in demand for residential care, the council will not only have to consider if can now meet that demand but "will need to think about how it will monitor the quality of these services". Oh dear.

But back to the video and Cadno remarks on the rather grim appearance of council leader Emlyn Dole who's performance is 'as solid, grey, and uninspiring as – well, readers – a block built barn plonked incongruously in open countryside'.

Cadno wonders whether Cllr Dole was forced in front of the camera at gunpoint, and continues with the Western theme in observing the performance of Mr James;

"Star billing goes to Carmarthenshire’s top gunslinger, Milky Bar Mark James – aka ‘The Man with no Shame’.
Mark is frightfully jolly: full of the sort of grotesque bonhomie that has Cadno’s right paw reaching for the twelve bore. Mark’s message seems to be: “Carmarthenshire – we’re not that crap, really”. He is keen to tell you just what the Council does. In order to help him achieve that end, disembodied statistics float across the frames of the film."

One of those disembodied statistics claims that "nearly 1.3 million being Active". Apart from being grammatically dodgy, that's pretty impressive for a county with only just over 180,000 residents.

Criticism is not, of course, directed at the small supporting cast of staff who appear in this promotional video but questions the purpose and point of this unadulterated spin. As Cadno, and the rest of us must wonder, isn't council time and money better spent on essential services rather than this pointless shallow exercise?

How different it all was only a few short month's ago when Plaid, in opposition, were bemoaning the fact that in recent years, the wages bill for technical services (bins, roads etc) had dropped by 9.6%, yet the wages bill for the council press office had risen by 12.8%.

As regular readers will know, this council has unique priorities when it comes to spending your money, such as 'God's own bowling alley', paying off loans for it's favourite company, or illegally bumping up the chief executive's pay packet. To devote resources to self-image and deflecting uncomfortable scrutiny should come as no surprise, this was the council after all which prioritised cash to sue anyone who challenged the Divine Truth according to Mr James.

Wednesday 28 October 2015

News in Brief : By-election, Barngate, and library news

First up is the list of candidates for the Kidwelly by-election to be held on the 19th November. Five hopefuls have put their names forward for the county council seat which was previously held by Labour.

Voters will have their own questions they will wish to put to the candidates on the doorstep but they could include, for example, the recent period of suspension for the Labour candidate....whether 'Independent' actually means independent, or if the candidate is planning to join Meryl's 'gang'. The Plaid Candidate could be asked his views on retrospective planning approvals for historic barns... the Tory candidate will definitely need a good wind on his side, I'm sure his explanations on tax credit cuts, welfare reforms, etc will give him plenty of experience in fielding difficult questions...

Personally, given that this is Carmarthenshire County Council we're talking about, I'd give my backing to the candidate prepared to stand up with, and support, Cllr Caiach in the Chamber at County Hall.

In alphabetical order;

Stephen Bowen - People First (Cllr Sian Caiach's group)
Fran Burke-Lloyd - Independent
Stephen Davies - Conservative
Dilwyn Jones - Plaid Cymru
Ryan Thomas - Labour

The war of words seems to be hotting up over the saga of Emlyn's Barn with legal threats starting to fly. Opposition leader Cllr Jeff Edmunds called for Cllr Dole to resign over the affair, citing the questionable moral and ethical standards being set by the leader of the council and a one time member of the planning committee;

The Carmarthen Journal quotes Cllr Edmunds;

"The barn may be in his wife's name but when all's said and done he is the leader of the council and had been on the planning committee so knew the rules.

"It beggars belief to be honest. It's right opposite his house so he'd have seen it going up without the right planning permission every morning as he sat down to eat his cornflakes.

"I'm speaking to the Monitoring Officer about what can be done and will be raising this in full council.

"Last year when in opposition Councillor Dole called for Kevin Madge, Pam Palmer and Meryl Gravell to resign over an issue and said they had been ethically and morally wrong. [he means the pension and libel indemnity is not known whether Cllr Edmunds also deemed them to be morally wrong, he never said...]

"I feel this is ethically and morally wrong and he needs to resign to restore the public's faith in the planning system."

Cllr Dole responded by saying; 

"any implication that either myself, or anyone on the planning committee, is guilty of any wrongdoing, is insulting and quite frankly defamatory".

The Plaid Chair of the Planning Committee, Cllr Alun Lenny appears to be supporting Cllr Dole and invites anyone who dares to suggest that the planning committee might be just a little bit biased or, heaven forbid, lack objectivity, to "provide proof or withdraw their allegations".

Plaid accuse Labour of using the issue to score political points - they probably are, just like Plaid did over the WAO scandals - it's what they do. But in the end surely it is public opinion that matters and the general consensus seems to be that it was a political decision to grant approval and there's one rule for one, and another for the rest of us.

So far, there appears to be a lot of hot air from both sides over all this, but whether or not Cllr Edmunds' can substantiate his allegation that Cllr Dole eats cornflakes for breakfast remains to be seen....

The saga continues next week when the application is back on the agenda for the planning committee to ratify it's decision (see earlier post) to approve.

Back in March I mentioned the planned sell-off of Llandeilo Library and it's 'relocation' in nearby council offices. The council statement at the time, announcing the consultation, got a little head of itself and announced it as a 'development opportunity' in Llandeilo.

Anyway, presumably the consultation went ahead, was duly ignored and at some point a report was drafted to progress with the closure. I could be wrong of course but Monday's Executive Board meeting (don't forget these are now webcast) has an item titled 'Llandeilo Hub/Library relocation'.
It would be good to see the report but unfortunately, for reasons best known to themselves, it is top secret and any decision likely to be 'exempt', with the webcast switched off and considered behind closed doors....

And briefly back to our Council's 'partners' down at the evangelical bowling alley and with the publication of the latest Towy Community Church accounts we learn that this charitable endeavour must be booming with the good pastor and his wife being able to take around £45,000 in wages between them in 2014, in addition, the daughter of a trustee has landed the newly created position of Administrator...doubt if they'll need to avail themselves of their foodbank.

Saturday 24 October 2015

This week's Herald; classic Cadno

Here, for readers living outside of the catchment area of the Carmarthenshire Herald, is this week's excellent, and poetic, 'Cadno' piece;

Cadno’s cacophonic councillor

Cadno has an abiding interest in the power of words, especially poetry. The other evening, as he was a-rambling about the countryside when he came across a county councillor, a-weeping in the hedgerows. 
Cadno peered at the sobbing burgher, whose lament pierced the silence of the wee small hours and drove away Cadno’s prey. 
Deprived of a meal, Cadno listened carefully and took notes by the light of the moon. If he was not going to have supper, he would at least take away a memento of the evening.

Carmarthen’s in Carmarthenshire,
A town, if not a city;
The river Towy, deep and wide,
Washes its wall on the southern side;
A pleasanter spot you never spied;
But, when begins my ditty,
Almost fifteen years ago,
To see the county suffer so
From Indies, was a pity.

They fought like dogs, if not like cats,
And dined upon the civic table,
And drank hard liquor out of vats,
And got votes from babies in the cradle,
Had the brains of salted sprats,
Wore their fancy Sunday hats,
And even kept up pointless chats,
Drowning out others’ speaking
In endless shrieking and ceaseless squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.

Upon the door, there came a knocking
The door opened wide and there, quite shocking
Stood an empty suit of modest grey
It was Mark James, as bright as day.
Advancing to the council-table:
Said he, "Your honours, I am able,
By means of a secret charm, to draw
All creatures living beneath the sun,
That creep or swim or fly or run,
After me so as you never saw!
And I chiefly use my charm
On truths and facts that do you harm,
The mole and whistle-blower, those vipers;
Who tend to make you soil your diapers."

Meryl Gravell fairly boggled
As this suited figure she ogled
This was the man she was looking for
"Come in kind sir, and close the door"
Said she with the winsome smile
From which all others ran a mile.
"There is, perhaps a job for you
But tell us, what is it that you do?"
"Ah, Madame Meryl", the suit drew near,
"I’ll make your problems disappear."
The spectral garb, bought fresh from Burtons,
Gestured an empty sleeve towards the curtains.
Pulling back the hanging drapes
They looked down on the scuttling shapes
Below the shadow of Gaol Hill
Seeing common-folk made Meryl ill.

"Quickly, quickly, draw those screens
I cannot bear it by any means.
Up here in Council hard we try
To improve the lives of the hoi polloi
But what they want is bread and a circus
Not direct rule by their burghers."
The empty suit shrugged its shoulders
The Council room suddenly was much colder.
“Well, I’ll tell you, my dear Miss”
Said the spectre with a hiss
"I can all your fears allay
And make all questions go away.
I have a most amazing scheme
To captivate the proles, my queen."

The suit drew up to Meryl near
And whispered its plan in her ear
"A stadium, we’ll build" he hissed
"A few million won’t be missed
From reading, learning and the rest.
We’ll say our spending’s for the best.
If they mention Boston’s Princess Royal
We’ll slander them, call them disloyal.
We’ll feed them bullshit by and by
And praise our acumen to the sky.
They’ll believe it, like you do,
And out of them we’ll money screw
For parking on land they already own
And closing down Llanelli town."

And think of this", said the ghostly mentor
"We’ll even build a wellness centre
Or say we will, given a little hit
Of money from the public tit
We’ll say we can get the project backed
And from our wrongs public distract.
‘Look what we’ll do’ will be our charm
To distract from poor Emlyn’s barns
Our plans will be known far and wide
From Burry Port to Ferryside
Our fame will spread and none will learn
It is an albino pachyderm
Until we both are beyond reach
Sipping cocktails on the beach."

In Meryl’s eyes, a glimmer flickered
Into her handkerchief she snickered.
"A captivating vision, oh CBE,
It finds favour with my party and me.
But who will shoulder all the trouble
When our plans turn to rubble?"
The suit adopted a pensive pose,
Whom to ridicule would it expose?
"We’ll pack committees full of dummies:
Dumbos, monkeys and your buddies.
When it goes wrong they’ll take the blame
For sitting on our gravy train.
And if long enough we decide to bide
We can dump it all and then blame Plaid."

"On what a merry dance we’ve been led
While Carmarthenshire has been bled!"
Said Cadno’s councillor in his cups
As he eventually he reached the crux
Of his dirge frightful, the wretched soul.
On looking closer, ‘twas Emlyn Dole.

Republished with permission.
The Llanelli and Carmarthenshire Heralds can also be found on Facebook here and here.

Monday 19 October 2015

The planning lottery - and an email from history - Updated

Given the number of comments on this post relevant to 'Emlyn's Barn' I am adding my observations as an update rather than a new post.

Well, I'm a bit lost for words over the decision to approve Council leader Emlyn Dole's Barn. (the application, you will recall, is in his wife's name)  I can't have been the only one watching yesterday's webcast unfold with increasing disbelief. The approval, against the recommendation to refuse, went through by nine votes to eight with the Chair, Plaid's Alun Lenny abstaining for reasons best known to himself. What made it worse was that the nine appeared to consist largely of Emlyn's Plaid mates accompanied by his new Indie friends.
I had expected better.

By granting permission they've also bumped up the family Dole assets to the tune of £300k, or whatever a brand new hairdressing salon/holiday let complex, in open countryside is worth. It's so unique, it's probably priceless...
All done without proper planning permission. Cllr Dole must have been so confident he'd get the rubber stamp he didn't even stop the work, the BBC news video shows further work has continued since last week.

I'll link to the webcast when it's up (Ah, here it is, 37 minutes in) and you can see the farce for yourself. It was a Cinderella moment, they made sure the slipper fit, and Cllr Dole squeezed his foot in it.

So what next? As far as residents are concerned a precedent has been set to knock down what you want, build what you want and apply for retrospective permission....if anyone happens to notice. If the council leader can do it, and claim to have done nothing wrong, then surely so can everyone else?

As far as public confidence in the planning process goes, it's as bad as ever. The barking mad planning committee is one thingm to which we've all sadly grown accustomed, but what of the department as a whole? To give just two examples, why wasn't a Stop Notice issued when it became blatantly obvious that Dole's original permission from 2012 was being ignored? Why wasn't a Stop Notice issued when the developer at Blaenpant 'farm', relevant to the Breckman case, decided to carve up a SSSI site?

Far less obvious and far more insidious than the blustering idiocy of the Committee are the delegated decisions and the decisions which involve the latest 'vision' of the council's top brass. Which rather brings me back to the email I referred to below.

How on earth is it that a council, or more specifically a chief executive, block an independent investigation based on confidential information supplied by the public and politicians? The email, which came into my possession during the disclosure stage of the libel case, shows a sinister and calculating attempt to access confidential information, with potential misuse of FOI.
It shows utter contempt for local politicians and the Wales Audit Office and a blurring of the lines between public and private interests.

If there was nothing wrong, and the sackfuls of complaints unfounded, why not embrace an investigation to 'clear the air' and restore faith in the planning system? Answers on a postcard please...

It was written in 2010 but essentially, with Mr James still holding everyone's reins, it could have been written yesterday...

Click to enlarge


This week's Carmarthenshire Herald takes a comprehensive look at the weird and wonderful world of the Carmarthenshire planning system.

Pic courtesy of the Carmarthenshire Herald

The articles, which are not yet online, detail recent examples of inconsistency and, to be honest, downright mysteries over several recent planning decisions at both officer and councillor level. They also include highly critical quotes from experts in the field of planning.

From the Stradey development to the council leader's 'barn', the Herald is being polite describing the system as a lottery. Whilst planning is not an exact science, the interpretation of policy and guidance, from listed buildings, to major developments and planning enforcement has been curious to say the least and much of it reported on this blog.

Remarks made by planning committee members have been another source of concern, particularly when the decision is contrary to the recommendation. The recent application for a 'One Planet' development, recommended for approval, was refused by the committee with one councillor seemingly basing his objection on the grounds that they shouldn't give permission to every 'Tom, Dick, or Harry'.
A different application, this time for a new farmhouse and recommended for refusal, was approved by committee as the applicants were a 'well-respected' church-going farming family and well up in the ranks of the Farmers' Union of Wales.

Other remarks heard over the years include 'he is of impeccable character', 'at least they're not outsiders' and one of my favourites, from veteran councillor Tom Theophilus, 'I knew his grandfather'. It is quite clear that many councillors lack a basic grasp of material planning considerations, let alone the requirement to approach decisions with an open mind.

Calls have been made for many years for a full and independent investigation into the planning system in Carmarthenshire. However, an email dating from 2010, of which I have a copy, may partly explain why this has never happened, and never will as long as the chief executive, Mark James, remains in post.

In 2010, due to the volume of complaints, the Wales Audit Office were on the brink of such an investigation. They had called for evidence from members of the public and had also received a dossier of complaints from Plaid politicians Adam Price MP and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM.

The investigation was then quietly and mysteriously dropped.

The chilling email, from Mark James to several senior colleagues in planning and legal, reveals that he refused, point blank, to co operate with the Wales Audit Office.

Without even seeing the contents of any of the complaints, (but aware that the two politicians, who he names, had supplied information) he told the district auditor that he was refusing to allow the investigation. He said that following his 'challenge' the Audit office' had 'backed down'.

So that was that. With no reference to elected members, the arrogance of the chief executive, combined with a weak and feeble regulator left the Carmarthenshire public at the mercy of a deeply flawed planning system for years to come. No one was going to dig around in the planning vaults, not under Mr James' watch.

We have to be grateful that his 'powers of persuasion' failed miserably over the pension and libel indemnity scandals last year. Though I'm not sure what happened with Gloucestershire police...they didn't seem to have the stomach to dig very deep either.

Anyway, on the subject of the planning 'lottery', don't miss the next instalment of Emlyn's barn. The webcast will start at 1.30pm tomorrow (Tuesday) after the site visit.

(The West Wales News Review blog has a series of posts detailing these recent planning decisions including coverage of the latest twists in the Breckman case)

The Llanelli 'footfall' figures - 'Lies, damned lies, and statistics'

This week's Herald has been busy getting to the bottom of the mysterious boom in trade claimed for Llanelli town centre.

The figure in question was the whopping 36% rise in 'footfall' claimed by the leader, Cllr Emlyn Dole and also Cllr Meryl Gravell. The figure cropped up in the 'free parking'' discussions at the last Exec Board meeting, giving the impression of a general healthy rise in trade, despite the council-led out-of -town shopping centres having bled the town centre dry for a number of years.

The Herald decided to get to the bottom of the figure and were told by the council that it was from a Welsh Government document. This turned out not to be the case. The Herald continued to try and find the source of this figure for a couple more weeks.

At Wednesday's council meeting council leader Emlyn Dole, when questioned on the figure by opposition leader Jeff Edmunds, claimed it was actually from an electronic measuring system at St Elli shopping centre, in the town centre.

The Herald then asked the council for a copy of the data but this was refused as it 'belonged' to St Elli centre. This was despite the Exec Board clearly having a copy of the data to use, or rather misuse, to stoke their own agenda.

Eventually, the manager of St Elli provided a little light on the subject. There had been a slight rise in footfall over the summer, largely due to the efforts of the traders (the Exec Board had also criticised the traders for not doing enough to promote trade) to stage events in the town centre, but the 36% figure related to just ONE WEEK, which happened to be the last week of the summer holidays.

So this was not, as it was portrayed by the council leader, an overall, remarkable surge in the fortunes of Llanelli town centre trade, but the misleading use of statistics to bolster a weak argument. Nothing new of course in the world of local government spin but it's a pity, nonetheless, that Plaid have embraced the dark art so quickly.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

October meeting, a prelude to Halloween

Today's meeting kicked off with a warning from the chief executive that the meeting was being held under the watchful eye of the Wales Audit Office, currently observing our local authority on Day 3 of its Corporate Assessment. This also meant that he himself had to pretend not to be arrogant and overbearing; difficult, I would imagine. I'm sure they're most welcome...

The carefully crafted agenda was almost derailed at the start by an observation from Cllr Caiach.

She brought up the decidedly unsavoury business of last month's Public Question fiasco.

Just mentioning the three names, Lesley Williams, Richard Vale and Mrs Thompson was enough for Mr James to press the Chair's panic button. She asked why the Chair, Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths (Plaid) had not read out the questions from Mr Vale and Ms Williams, as provided by the constitution, nor circulated the replies as promised.

She then went on to ask why Mrs Thompson's question had not been answered properly but sadly she was cut short and ordered sharply to sit down. As Cllr Caiach persisted, the order to cease became almost hysterical. I hope the gentlemen from the WAO made notes.

The Chair then informed Cllr Caiach that both the absent questioners were happy to accept his explanation for failing to read out their questions, I understand that in fact, that was not exactly the case. He went onto say that as for Mrs Thompson, they 'couldn't have done more' to facilitate her question, although obviously this didn't extend to answering it truthfully.

With Cllr Caiach duly silenced and with a sigh of relief from the executive podium, the meeting moved on to the price of milk in a Motion to assist struggling farmers. With everyone in pleasant agreement there was more food for the WAO up next with a presentation from 'Investors in People', a quasi-governmental organisation, and an award for the authority for it's treatment of staff.

This was very commendable of course but didn't appear to include much in the way of direct contact with the actual staff in question and had been based on the findings of an in-house committee. A direct, anonymous, survey of staff satisfaction would have been far more useful..and far more revealing.

Still, I suppose it's an improvement on Meryl Gravell's remark a couple of years ago blaming her and Mark's 'problems at the council' on the laziness of 9000 staff.

The dream agenda continued with a presentation from the chief executive of Hywel Dda health board. There were lot's of 'challenges' and 'visions' and that they were 'absolutely committed to being open and transparent'.

A number of questions were posed from Members (you can see the full discussion on the webcast) and the Health Board chief gave a polished performance; smoothly agreeing with all criticism, making reassuring noises that the 'direction of travel' was 'in hand' and 'corners were being turned', whilst expertly deflecting the specifics.

Incidentally, Cllr Dole preceded his question by joking that he was currently 'on the spot' about his own 'vision', which appeared to elicit a ripple of sympathetic laughter.
Cllr Dole will not have long to wait, the 'barn' will be graced by a remarkably quick second visit from the Planning Committee next Tuesday morning, webcast will start at 1.30pm, after a convivial lunch.

The Health Board presentation took over an hour and served the incidental, but ever useful purpose of reducing the time available for the Council to scrutinise itself.

The Council's latest strategy, or in this case 'a journey' (no less) for affordable homes was up next. The main point is the plan to outsource the affordable housing service, in some shape or form, or as the council like to put these things an 'Alternative Service Delivery Plan'.

The Labour group were delighted that Plaid were carrying on their 'good work' and group leader, Cllr Jeff Edmunds hoped they'd be able to build more council houses one day, adding that they must 'learn lessons from the recent past'. He didn't elaborate as to whether this was a general comment about the conduct of the council or a direct attack on his predecessor, Kevin Madge and his infamous and massively over-budget bungalows.

The man from the WAO then presented the Improvement Report (I've mentioned this several times since it was published in June) but promised he'd be back with the findings of the full Corporate Assessment.  The Assessment will cover, amongst other things, whether the council have improved their 'governance arrangements' following the various scandals and damning reports.

They were, he said, spending a few days at County Hall and finding out what makes Carmarthenshire 'tick'.... Good luck with that.

The leader of the council, Cllr Dole, responded by reminding the WAO that they were paying them a substantial fee. I'm not sure if this was a reference to that well-known saying "He who pays the piper...." Surely not.

The next item saw some rumblings of opposition emerge over the Corporate Safeguarding report which was up for acceptance as Labour Cllr Sharen Davies called again for full CRB check for all members. Why, she wondered, had other authorities taken this up but not this one.

This had been discussed at a previous meeting and again Emlyn Dole inferred that there was no need to go down this route as all members signed a declaration on their nomination forms. This was not quite the same thing though and Cllr Edmunds couldn't remember signing such a declaration, nor what he'd had for breakfast, he added.

Cllr Davies has been particularly keen on this and said that the whole Labour group would support such a move, glaring at the Plaid group who do not seem particularly enthusiastic. Perhaps Cllr Davies knows something we don't.

Anyway the legalities of the proposal were, apparently, complicated and so this thorny issue found it's way back into the long grass to be chewed over by the head of law, Linda Rees Jones until a later date.

The decision to scrap meals on wheels also cropped up under the guise of the 'Community Nutritional Strategy for Carmarthenshire Integrated Services'. The Labour group were again unhappy and protested about the growing problem of rural isolation for elderly people. Sadly it was they themselves who exacerbated the problem by pushing through the closure of council run care homes, day centres and luncheon clubs over the past few years.

However, with regards to meals on wheels Cllr Louvain Roberts suggested that the figures which showed a decline in uptake 'could be skewed' depending on how they were collected.

Instead of defending his Executive Board recommendation (or rather that of his Indie colleague on the Exec Board, Jane Tremlett, who wasn't there) to accept the report and scrap meals on wheels, Cllr Dole accused Cllr Roberts of making serious allegations that the author of the report had played fast and loose with the figures.

After further discussion, an amendment put forward by Jeff Edmunds for a full seminar to discuss the report, before accepting it, was lost, and the report was approved.

The rest of the meeting can, as ever, be viewed on the archived webcast but in summary, it showed a lacklustre, puppet leadership and a disjointed, feeble opposition. So much for Jeff Edmunds and his challenge to the status quo, let alone a challenge to his political opponent.
And yet again, disgraceful treatment of Cllr Caiach.

So, all in all, business as usual in the madhouse.

As nearly all the council links to the webcast have currently been replaced by a corporate video, complete with flowers and music, I'll post a direct link here.

Apple pie and the new corporate video

Carmarthenshire Council has excelled itself this morning with the appearance of a new corporate video of our wonderful local authority. Caebrwyn stumbled upon the creation whilst trying to locate the link to the webcast page and found this instead. Residents now have to rummage through the website to find the webcast link, we hope this is only temporary as surely corporate spin is no replacement for transparency and openness, not even in Carmarthenshire...

There was me thinking the authority was riddled with unlawful decisions, creative accounting, idiotic councillors, an arrogant chief executive, a wholesale sell-off of services, secretive deals and an unhealthy toxic culture, but I was clearly wrong. The video clearly proves that Carmarthenshire council is as wholesome as apple pie after all...

In what must have been an oversight in the final edit, Caebrwyn puts in a momentary, distant and blurred appearance waiting to ask her question at September's council meeting. You will recall that the question, ironically, concerned the payment of a quarter of a million quid to bail out a favoured private company, the role of the chief executive in this dodgy deal and whether, or not, it was in the best interests of the people of Carmarthenshire.

The answer, of course, was as far removed from reality as this latest offering from our very well resourced Department of Spin.

Cllr Dole looks on whilst Mr James runs the council....

Friday 9 October 2015

Cllr Dole should 'consider his position' says Labour opposition leader....and other news

The Labour opposition group on the council awoke briefly from its slumber yesterday with Cllr Jeff Edmunds calling for Plaid leader Emlyn Dole to consider his position over the barn planning fiasco.

As the Herald reports, he said that Cllr Dole, as a councillor, and leader, should be setting an example;
"If this is how he is leading then he should consider his position. I am not aware of all the facts but it is of paramount importance that they must now be brought to light in the spirit of openness and transparency"

He is quite right of course although as leader of the opposition you would have thought he might of gathered all the 'facts' relating to his political opponent. We'll see if he puts his words into action though, as aside from his brief jaunt in 2013 into openness and transparency over the 'allowable expenses' scandal, I don't remember him calling for Kevin Madge, Mark James etc to 'consider their positions' over the pension and libel indemnity scandals...But that's politics for you.

However, it remains to be seen whether Cllr Edmunds will get the chance to challenge Cllr Dole as I have heard, from reliable sources that not everyone in the Plaid group is happy with the way things are going...Cllr Dole trampling all over the planning rules might just be the last straw.

One thing that every democratic institution needs is an effective opposition, regardless as to who is in power. It needs to visibly scrutinise and hold power to account, particularly in the main arena, in our case, this is the council chamber.

Perhaps the Labour opposition group in a somewhat difficult position. When Plaid took over in June their opposition promises of radical shake ups didn't materialise as it became clear that Mark and Meryl had retained a firm grip and nothing had changed. This left the opposition unable to criticise what they themselves had started, and which Plaid appear happy to finish. However, this is no excuse not to scrutinise.

The summer months have passed and the council is well and truly back down to business yet next week's full council agenda contains no searching questions, nor topical Motions from the opposition, despite there being an abundance of recent material. Instead, there's a lengthy Motion about the price of milk, important I know but I'm not sure its something County Hall can influence, and a question about tatty bus shelters.

Only a couple of weeks ago in an interview with the Herald, Cllr Edmunds declared that it was down to the fact that he'd been prepared to challenge the 'status quo', ie Meryl and Mark, that lost Labour power.

So far, the only real evidence of anyone publicly challenging the status quo is from Cllr Sian Caiach. Time for Cllr Edmunds and some of the more capable members of his group to step up to the plate and at least provide some semblance of an opposition.

On the subject of capable members, Emlyn's barn wasn't the only bizarre event at yesterday's planning committee meeting, as up for a decision was a 420 pupil primary school in Copperworks Road, Llanelli.

The planning officer gave a detailed, ten minute, illustrated presentation of this major application and the Chair then threw it open to questions.

Labour Councillor Terry Davies MBE, who had, presumably, been listening attentively, couldn't understand why they were being asked to decide on this school again when they'd already been out on a site visit and approved the development some time ago and he felt that all his fellow committee members must be wondering the same thing.

There were clearly some puzzled looks and the planning officer confirmed that no, this was the first time this development had ever come before the committee. The Chair eventually realised that dear Terry had confused the whole thing with another school, several miles away in Burry Port. fortunately it had not yet gone to a vote.

If I was being polite I would suggest that perhaps Cllr Davies had a 'senior moment', something to which we are all susceptible. However, we're not all deciding on major planning applications.... Then again, I don't think he's the only one on the committee who hasn't got a clue what's in front of him.

Cllr Terry Davies - The wrong school

Lastly, this week's Herald features a detailed update on the Breckman case which has featured on this and Cneifiwr's blog for the past few years. The article is not yet online but provides a summary of the background and the appalling way the couple have been treated by both Dyfed Powys Police and the County Council. This post from 2012, following a BBC Wales programme, provides a brief snapshot of the story.
(Update 12th October; the Llanelli Herald have produced an interview with Ms Breckman, available to view here).

Last week the Police Commissioner, Christopher Salmon issued an extraordinary, very fulsome apology to pensioners Patricia Breckman and her partner Eddie Roberts on behalf of Dyfed Powys Police, for everything. From numerous, and completely erroneous, arrests, to accusations of doctoring video evidence and for deliberate misrepresentation in official reports.

Mr Salmon said;
"...It is quite clear that you have been severely let down by the authorities and for the part played by Dyfed Powys Police in this we apologise wholeheartedly
We recognise the enormous mental and physical stress this has placed on you both in what should have been a happy time of your life. We are deeply sorry that you have had to experience this.."

In reference to this apology from the police, and as the council are catalogued as being equally complicit in its disgraceful treatment of the couple, Ms Breckman contacted Mark James, chief executive, to request a meeting to review the role and conduct of the council throughout the saga; that other 'authority' mentioned in Mr Salmons letter.

Then, as the Herald puts it;
 "With his customary deft, sympathetic and humane approach to such matters, Mr James responded; 'In the circumstances I do not believe a meeting with yourself would serve any meaningful purpose'"
The Herald have placed an, er, interesting caption below Mr James' picture.
So true, and works on so many levels;

Thursday 8 October 2015

Council leader's barn...yet another site visit!

Update 20th October: The Council leader's 'barn conversion' was passed by the committee by 9 votes to 8 contrary to the recommendation of refusal, for a second time.


Previous post; Emlyn's Barn Take 2

Incredibly, the Planning Committee have decided to go on another site visit to view Council leader Emlyn Dole's barn conversion before making a decision.
One of the main reasons put forward for this was the interest from the press...obviously a very important material planning consideration.
Equally remarkable was that the 'sensitive' identity of the applicant was also put forward as a reason.

The application has been effectively kicked into the long grass in the hope that interest will wane and the spotlight move elsewhere.

As a reminder, this was originally recommended for refusal last year after enforcement action revealed that the original permission granted in 2012 had not been complied with. The committee then went on a site visit and approved the application contrary to the officers recommendation.
Site visits often have that 'effect'...

This retrospective application today (as I explained in my previous post) was again recommended for refusal, this time on different policy grounds.

The site visit is entirely unnecessary and is a deliberate move to stall the decision. Cllr Dole has continued to develop the site without the proper planning approval, flagrantly ignoring planning rules.
So much for setting an example as Council leader.

I also wonder whether each stage has been passed by building regs, and could it have been legally inspected anyway, without planning permission being issued?

According to the Llanelli Herald, and as their pictures show, the builders were there yesterday, if they crack on it should be all finished before the planning committee bus turns up for a repeat performance in a few weeks time.
They will then return to the Chamber where no doubt the site visit will be as 'effective' as it was last time.

I suppose the position of council leader does have a few perks after all.

The original barn, before being demolished by Cllr Dole.

Archived webcast now available here. This application is 2 hours 30 minutes into the meeting.

Sainsbury's pulls the plug - updated

Update 19th October; The 'no financial implications for the council' claim is looking even more doubtful if this quote from the chief executive in 2012 still stands. During the row over the Sainsbury's call-in request, referred to below, he said that if it did not go ahead the council would have to find 'very substantial extra funds'.


The news this week that Sainsbury's has pulled out of the Cross Hands West development will be a major embarrassment to the council as well as a blow to local people. Sainsbury's have sold the site to an investment company who hope to market the 10 acres for 'mixed retail' once new planning permission has been sought. It could be a very long process..

Back in June when Sainsbury's plans began to look very doubtful the council made reassuring noises that even if the supermarket pulled out, this would not affect the other developments, which included 250 homes, a health centre, a residential care home, and improvements to the adjacent secondary school on the rest of the 56 acre site.

You may recall, back in 2012 that the then Labour leader, Kevin Madge trumpeted the whole development as a massive economic injection which would create thousands of jobs, and key to the plan was the arrival of Sainsbury's. I suspect the words 'iconic' and 'flagship' were also used.

A heated row (much documented on this blog) then erupted over a vitriolic council press release issued by Kevin Madge (and, it later transpired, 'signed-off' by the chief executive) attacking local Plaid politicians. The press release accused them of 'sabotaging' these other developments by asking the Welsh Government to call-in the Sainsbury's planning application.
Their concerns actually related to another planned store in Llandeilo. Kevin Madge was reported to the Ombudsman.

So this week, despite denying that there are any the financial implications for the council over the withdrawal of Sainsbury's, it remains to be seen how that one will pan out given Mr Madge's previous comments...and whether, several months down the line, a mysterious and unexplained 'additional funding requirement' to cover extra costs appears, buried within a report.

This week's news comes hot on the heels of the extra £1.1m now required for Cross Hands East, as well as the report from the Wales Audit Office over those EU property grants, currently simmering away in County Hall.

Road to nowhere; Cross Hands West

Wednesday 7 October 2015

96 parks and playgrounds up for grabs...the latest asset transfer list - updated

Update 3rd November;
In the post below I said that in 2013, the unspent S106 funds languishing in the council's vaults stood at £1.5m. The figure, as of October 2015 is actually £3.5m which includes £1.3m for 'Recreation, open spaces and play schemes'.
Local clubs and organisations considering the 96 'asset transfers', particularly those situated near new developments, might want to ask why these funds have been allowed to accumulate and ensure that any monies due are handed over as part of the transfer deal.


The county council seems to be going full steam ahead with the next stage of it's Asset Transfer plans. Presented as 'putting local people in control of their amenities' the whole programme is merely shifting the costs to local town and community councils and other local organisations.

Day centres, luncheon clubs, public toilets (top secret) and sport grounds have either been offloaded or are in the process of being 'transferred' and now, an astonishing ninety-six parks and playgrounds are listed in a Public Notice as the council 'intends to dispose' of the rest of their open spaces.

According to the terms of the Asset Transfer, these open spaces will be transferred under long term leases so will, as the council will no doubt inform us, be kept in public ownership. Also according to the terms, they must be kept as 'open spaces'...for now anyway.

Some of these transfers are currently ongoing but, with Carmarthenshire Council in charge, questionable land valuations and wrangles and mysteries over of land ownership mean lengthy, complex procedures. We also have the recent, less than savoury dealings over Parc Howard (also on the list) where the lease could have quietly passed to private hands, which hardly inspires confidence.

Even if transfers are successful in the short term, long term monitoring would be necessary to protect these public amenities, mostly children's playgrounds, for future generations. The attitude of the council seems to be that these are deadweight and best dumped elsewhere.

Out of all the local council assets up for transfer its odd that council run car parks never feature on the lists. Far too lucrative of course yet this could be a viable option to fund the parks, playgrounds etc that town council are now having to run.

Then there's the unspent Section 106 money sitting in a pot in County Hall, at the last count, in 2013, this stood at £1.5m. This would buy a lot of swings.

Where local councils and clubs are unable to take over the responsibility and cost of these assets it is not clear what would happen, there appears to be a March 2017 deadline after which the land would, I suppose, be sold to the highest bidder.

With the chief executive currently 'incredibly excited' over the prospect of playing with millions of pounds of someone else's money to build yet another white elephant, your kids' park and the local rec is way down the list of priorities. I would suggest that those concerned about the future of their local open spaces, parks and playgrounds should respond to the notice (see below), or contact their local elected Members. If nothing else, any transfers need to be transparent and clear or local communities will be storing up trouble, and big bills, for years to come;

"Objections to the intended disposal must be made in writing and addressed to: Head of Corporate Property, Carmarthenshire County Council, Building 8, St David’s Park, Carmarthen, SA31 3HB by no later than 9th November 2015."

latest list of assets for 'intended disposal'; click to enlarge

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Post-16 transport charges update - the consultation - and parking news

Earlier this month I flagged up the council's proposal to charge pupils over the age of sixteen around £250 per year for transport to school or college, see here.

Aside from having a negative impact on low income families who do not qualify for free transport, and deterring pupils from continuing post-16 education, it also means that pupils wishing to attend the few Welsh medium secondary schools are more likely to have to travel further and so incur the charge.

The council have presented this as a subsidy they can no longer afford. The college buses are for 16+ students, but the buses taking 6th formers to secondary schools will still be running anyway to ferry the younger pupils, so the 'subsidy' claim is at least in part, questionable.

Suggestions by councillors at a scrutiny meeting that the consultation was deferred until more information had been sought fell on deaf County Hall ears and the consultation started around ten days ago. The link can be found here and runs until the 23rd October. There have also been various drop-in sessions at schools and the college.

As is usual with council consultations, it only presents two options, lose the service or pay for it. However, there are boxes marked 'other' and 'additional comments' in which you could express your views and make suggestions where money could be saved elsewhere...I thought of quite a few, as you can imagine.

Council consultations are notoriously loaded, geared, and interpreted, to come up with the result the council desires so if you feel strongly about this it may be best to lobby your local councillor, a full list of contact details can be found here.

There has been much hot air over the past week or two over the announcement that the 20p rise in parking charges and the introduction of evening charges, approved under the last administration, has been postponed, (or 'scrapped' depending on the article), There have been no less than two articles on the council website. The news has been puffed up by the Plaid leadership along with the two-hour-free-parking-one-month pilot for Llanelli. It was supposed to have been a six month pilot.

The officer's report is quite unequivocal; due to the potential cost, the postponed increases are only ever likely be temporary and what is more, research is quoted which 'proves' that free/cheap parking makes not one bit of difference to 'footfall' or shopping habits, it could even be 'harmful'. I daresay, as is usual with research, there are other surveys available which prove the opposite.

However, the point was further reinforced at the Exec Board meeting last week with the claim that 'footfall' in Llanelli town centre had risen by 36%, this figure is now being challenged for accuracy from the traders themselves.

As if to ensure that the point is driven home, the free parking pilot which runs this month in Llanelli (already the subject of criticism from other towns in the county) operates, bizarrely, between 3 and 5pm. Cllr Hazel Evans, the Exec Board Member for Parking saw this as a 'opportunity' to encourage families into the town centre after school.

I'm not sure what Cllr Evans' shopping habits are but to start with, most schools don't finish until well into the free parking slot and, speaking from experience, the last thing most parents want to do after a long day is drag their tired, hungry and possibly crotchety kids round a town centre, Llanelli or anywhere else. Shopping is usually done and dusted well before the school bell rings.

Had the 'free parking' been from 10am until midday then it might have had the desired effect for the traders. With the late afternoon slot, the only desired effect will be to bolster the officers' case that free parking makes not one jot of difference.
After all, re-branding the council's fleet of vehicles with a new paint job doesn't pay for itself in "these austere times"...

Monday 5 October 2015

The evangelical boiler - Jane's prayers are answered...

As regular readers will be aware, the council's relationship with the Towy Community Church has often featured on this, and Cneifiwr's blog. 

The council played a significant part, around £1.5m, in bankrolling Phase 1 of the Xcel Centre (the evangelical bowling alley) despite questions being raised about the real ambitions of the evangelical church which is running the project. Unfortunately these ambitions became even less clear after their website disappeared a couple of years ago, shortly after earlier 'visions' for a home for 'fallen women' re-surfaced on its pages.

Back in March the church found themselves in breach of the legal agreement with the council by occupying some of the space in the building which they weren't supposed to until Phase 2 had been agreed.

Unlike the rest of us who may have been marched off to court or some such fate, the Church were instead graced with a benevolent visit from the entire Executive Board.

As I said at the time, the Board must have returned to the chamber diffused with a spiritual and biblical glow, and the chief executive, understood to be an ardent devotee of the Good Book himself, even offered to organise similar trips for the whole council.

As the Members reminisced over their trip, Exec Board Member for Social Care, Jane Tremlett (Ind) expressed a desire for the council to 'facilitate' a £20,000 grant for a new boiler..for the new part they weren't supposed to be occupying (The 'amended' legal agreement, naturally a mere formality by then, was duly rubber stamped).

This was particularly poignant as a couple of week's before this she had voted in favour of the budget which controversially slashed £18,000 off the funding for a Carmarthen special school for autistic children.

Lo and behold, those executive prayers have been answered and up for Meryl's rubber stamp later this week is a £10,000 council grant towards a new boiler. Not the full amount, but not bad considering the church was supposed to be financing Phase 2 without public cash. The glowing financial projections within the report suggest an extra income of nearly half a million pounds based on the hiring out of the meeting rooms and offices, warmed by the boiler.

Those expressing an interest in occupying space include Carmarthenshire County Council itself. This seems to be becoming a habit; facilitate and bankroll a developer, charge peppercorn rent for 100 years, then use taxpayers money to pay rent to the said developer for office space, thus providing a steady stream of revenue for the 'partner'. Parc Y Scarlets and Eastgate being two examples.

The proceeds from the bowling alley are to be ploughed back into the community, and to that end the church runs a foodbank and a furniture recycling shop. However, as I said above, Phase 2 of the development is also supposed to be financed by the bowling alley and this includes a 600 seater 'auditorium', the word 'church' is avoided. Included in the list of other parties expressing an interest in hiring space are the church itself, it's youth group, and various organisations offering evangelical leadership training days.

The issue all along with the council's involvement with the Towy Community Church was whether the generous funding was aimed to provide a truly community based venture, open to all, or whether public money was being used, with the knowledge and blessing of the council's top brass, to further the ambitions of fundamentalist Christian evangelism.

Back in March, the Herald featured a Cadno opinion piece on "God's own bowling alley" and is well worth a read;  The Carmarthenshire Herald; The fox is on the case
For further background please search this and Cneifiwr's blog.

Thursday 1 October 2015

Emlyn's Barn - Take 2... - Updated

Update 9th October; see the outcome of the meeting here; Council leader's barn - yet another site visit!

Update 7th October;

Just a reminder that the council leader's barn will be up for a decision at tomorrow's planning committee. (As long as it's not mysteriously deferred now that the spotlight's on it...). The webcast starts at 10am here.

Going by the latest photos, Cllr Dole must be very confident that the committee will support is progressing and he's even bought the roof trusses.


Pic source ;Llanelli Herald. Click to enlarge


Further to earlier reports back in August ( see Emlyn's Barn), it looks like the Leader of Carmarthenshire Council, Emlyn Dole (Plaid) is having further problems over his demolished historic barn, or 'Southfork' as one unnamed local resident recently described it.

A new, retrospective application has been recommended for refusal. Again, as before, the application is in Cllr Dole's wife's name.

You may remember that permission was granted in 2012 to convert the barn, sympathetically, to a hairdressing salon and two holiday lets for family Dole at Capel Ifan Farm, Pontyberem.

The Council's enforcement team stepped in last year when the barn, part of which dates back over 400 years, went from this;

to this;

As a result of the enforcement action, a further planning application was submitted in 2014 for a part new build. This was recommended for refusal by officers but was then approved by the Planning Committee after a site visit... However the decision was never issued as the applicant wanted to amend the permission, hence this new application which is technically speaking, still the same one.

Meanwhile, it seems from this latest planning officer's report, that things have moved on apace. The whole thing has been demolished completely and new building already started with an additional reception area and another storey over the hairdressing salon. Again, without the proper planning permission.

This is now a retrospective application for a 'new build for holiday and business purposes in open countryside', well outside of any development limits, contrary to policy, and has been recommended for refusal.

So far, the Leader of the council appears to rode roughshod over the planning system.

The application will be considered at next Thursday's Planning Committee and it will be interesting to see what happens. To start with, it is unlikely that a further site visit could be engineered, even for the benefit of the Leader of the Council.

Secondly, Planning Committee members have often been heard to deplore retrospective planning applications, regarding them as something of a cheek, never mind for controversial 'new builds in open countryside'.

The Committee needs to show consistency over planning policy, Council leader or not, and I wouldn't have thought they had any choice now other than to agree with the officer's recommendation and refuse it.
Though stranger things have happened.

Council Leader Emlyn Dole