Monday 16 November 2015

Persimmon call-in request...

This week's Llanelli Herald takes another look at the shady world of Carmarthenshire's Planning Services and confirms that Nia Griffiths MP (Lab) has asked for the Persimmon application for 91 homes in Hendy, Llanelli, to be taken out of the hands of the council and called-in by the Welsh Government.

As reported earlier this month, Persimmon have carried out extensive works to the site despite the fact that the application has not been decided. Of further concern were reported comments made by Persimmon, at a public meeting, that they'd been led to believe by planning officers that permission was already in the bag.

This specific concern is included in her call-in request and she also adds, in her letter to the Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab);

"This follows hot on the heels of the planning committee giving permission to an application by the Leader of the Council’s wife, in spite of the officers’ recommendation for refusal. This has clearly undermined the credibility of Carmarthenshire’s planning process, and left people wondering if there is one rule for some, and different one for the rest. I should be grateful if you would look into what is happening in Carmarthenshire."

Ms Griffiths is not the first person to question the capabilities of Carmarthenshire Council to make proper planning decisions, on officer and councillor level. Both Jonathan Edwards  and Rhodri Glyn Thomas have a wealth of experience in dealing with the wild west world of Carmarthenshire Planning and both have called for investigations.

I suppose that with the (nominal) change in political leadership in Carmarthenshire Council in June, we can now expect a more critical public stance from Nia Griffiths. The Herald asked Plaid's Jonathan Edwards for his views on the planning system and, as you might also expect, with Plaid now 'in charge', his comments were a little more guarded about current issues. But that's politics for you.

His criticism was reserved for the previous policies of the Labour administration yet, as the Herald pointed out, little seems to have changed, and the one councillor with the responsibility for planning was, and still is, the 'Independent' Meryl Gravell, never more than a whisper away from Mark James.

Which brings us back to that toxic culture of defensiveness and arrogance. Never a good mix when it comes to controversial and sensitive planning decisions and complaints.

We now know what happened when the Wales Audit tried to take a closer look back in 2010.

From the Breckman case to the Sainsbury's saga that culture is all pervading. One of the most controversial developments in recent years was the housing development on the old Stradey Park site, which tied in with the Parc Y Scarlets stadium. In court, a couple of years ago, Mr James was asked whether the Stradey development was controversial; he didn't really think so, there were a couple of articles in the press, nothing more...

In reality, as he well knew, there was a right stink and Mr James regularly featured in the press himself pouring scorn on objectors and critics as being anti-council and anti-rugby.

His criticism of Cllr Caiach and Cllr Bill Thomas, over their continued opposition to council planning policy relating to pollution in the Burry Inlet has been well documented. Recently Mr James claimed to have amassed a dossier on Cllr Thomas to support proceedings against him in the High Court. Cllr Thomas has also claimed to have been the subject of covert surveillance by the authority.

It also emerged, in the summer that it was the usual suspect who had his hands on the cheque book to join with the developers and take the Welsh Government to court over the Grillo application in 2012 (and lose), without a whiff of reference to any elected members.

As for the councillors, the Herald has described, with some sympathy, the Chair's problems in controlling the planning committee as akin to herding cats. Yet the Chair, Cllr Alun Lenny (Plaid) himself wrote a letter to the Herald attacking their stance over 'Emlyn's barns', using a separate but similar application as some sort of justification - debunking the supposedly cast iron planning rule that 'every application must be considered on its own merits'.

Recent events alone should warrant a closer look at the planning system in Carmarthenshire, perhaps the new Director in charge of planning should welcome a complete and thorough audit, starting from scratch so to speak;  and it will be interesting to see if Mr Sargeant now concludes that the only realistic way to restore a semblance of public confidence is to take planning out of the hands of Carmarthenshire council altogether.

Llanelli Herald on Facebook here.


Tessa said...

"Mr James claimed to have amassed a dossier on Cllr Thomas to support proceedings against him in the High Court"? Wtf? Yet another hate/destruction campaign master-minded by the vindictively small-minded. And all this "amassing" done by the staff and in the work time that we the council-tax payers pay for, I expect.
To my knowledge, this is the 3rd councillor to be publicly attacked by some scraped-together whinge-file. And goodness knows how many members of the public - a couple of very high-profile ones, but lots more where the damage has been more subtle.

Cllr Alun Lenny said...

In the interest of accuracy, I should point out that I've never attacked the Herald for their coverage of what you call "Emlyn's Barns". Indeed, I commended the Herald. My issue is with politicians trying to make political capital out of this matter. This is what I said in my letter on that point:

"It is gratifying to see the Herald giving such extensive attention to local government issues. Press coverage that generates greater public understanding and interest in council matters is to be applauded. Less laudable are the baseless insinuations by certain politicians that Gwenda Owen, Council Leader Emlyn Dole’s wife, was granted planning permission for a development at their home on the grounds of relationship. The accusation of “cronyism” by Nia Griffith MP is most disappointing and a serious attack on the Planning Committee’s integrity. The committee’s discussions and decisions are strictly non-political."

I also pointed out that: "In a very small percentage of cases, members may conclude that a certain planning policy is not fit for purpose in a particular situation. The Planning Committee, warts and all, is the human face of the planning process. We have to make a fair and balanced decision on every individual application. That’s what we strive to do – without fear or favour."

I find it somewhat perverse that people who complain about "an officer run council" should criticise elected members on the Planning Committee for going against officers' recommendations on occasions.

Anonymous said...

More to the point, how many people have a dossier on Mr James and others in his little gang?
Whistleblowers in this Authority are treated with contempt, bullied and harassed and singled out. I guess its the same for those such as Cllr Thomas and Cllr Caiach, who, unlike the nodding dogs, are prepared to stand up and be counted. Take heed Mr James, the truth will out!

caebrwyn said...

@Cllr Alun Lenny

Thank you for your comment. I accept that your criticism was not made directly against the Herald. I note though that you omitted the part of your letter which referred to the comparable application.

As for scoring political points, I cannot imagine for one minute that the Plaid group would not have done exactly the same thing if this application had been associated with a Labour member, or leader. Unless you've all grown halos overnight.

I am aware of political point scoring, everyone is, that is not important. What matters to Carmarthenshire residents is that the planning system is fair, and seen to be fair, for everyone. I suggest you ask 'every Tom Dick and Harry' (to quote another Plaid member of the planning committee), or read the comments on this blog if you think this decision was seen as fair.

It was not just the final decision of the planning committee, there was some history to this application which has been reported here, and in the Herald. The general view was that rules had been ignored, and ignored by a recent member of the planning committee who was now leader of the council.

As for your final comment, my criticism towards the planning system in the County covers officers and councillors alike, where I believe it is warranted.

Anonymous said...

It is worth taking a look at the appointment process for senior officers as well. Little integrity about that either!

Anonymous said...

Cllr Alun Lenny @ 21:47

As Cllr Lenny well knows, the number of decisions contrary to Officer recommendation at Committee for the period April 2014 to March 2015 was 14%; this is for is higher than the Welsh Average. (CCC PLANNING ANNUAL PERFORMANCE REPORT (APR) – 2015-2016)

Maybe Cllr Lenny would like to enlighten us by giving us the percentage for April to October 2015 under the Plaid administration.

Anonymous said...

I would like the Leader of the council along with the Plaid group to call for a Public Inquiry into the planning department. I'm sure I'm not alone. Mark James should not interfere with this, he must remember he's an employee and allow the councillors to make this decision. If he's not concerned with the conduct of some officers in this department, then he would welcome it. The very fact he's so unnecessarily opposed to any form of investigation into planning is cause for concern and throws much doubt on his own integrity.

Redhead said...

Most Chief Executives and senior officers consider councillors to be a minor irritant to their job of looking after themselves and ensuring that their snouts remain in the troughs.

Anonymous said...

@Redhead....when watching the meetings couldn't be clearer. There are very few effective councillors, and those are the ones disliked by Mark James. Where is their pride? If I were a councillor and disliked by Mark James, I would take that and own it as a badge of honour. It proves you are doing a damn good job!

MuppetMan said...

Cllr Lenny,

With respect, you have missed the point. We are all sick and tired of ineffective councils that fail to represent the people who elected them, and fail to champion their interests... Put simply, the Members need to be told "Be part of the solution, or be gone..." - and yes, the failing here lies with the electorate themselves.

It's laughable that so many members of your council are so in awe of Mark James that he is able claim that members don't have the right to ask supplementary questions, AND THEY BELIEVE HIM! What sort of demi God are we dealing with here that he can simply pronounce how the constitution / standing orders ought to be interpreted in the absence of substance? Who does this guy think he is?

Councillors worthy of the title ask questions. They scrutinise, they investigate and they represent. This sort of behaviour naturally grates a little with officers like James, who appear to have a rather skewed perception that the tail wags the dog... Sian Caich and Bill Thomas are the best members by a country mile, and if you want to be seen as relevant to local democracy, frankly, you should clone them!

If on the other hand you are happy watching presentation after presentation because without these distractions you might actually have a coherent thought and actually QUESTION what is happening, well, as I said - be gone.

Anonymous said...

Well said MuppetMan. We as ratepayers have suffered far too long putting up with the diatribe that emanates from this rotten council. It is rotten because of it's CEO followed closely by councillors who say nothing and more importantly do nothing. There are a handful of decent councillors, and as someone has already said, those are the ones that are blacklisted by Mark James. In the same way as he threatens members of the public who oppose him, he does the same to councillors. When is someone, anyone, going to stand up to this tinpot dictator. He suffers from hubris and that is something councillors must address.

Redhead said...

Frankly, the money you pay councillors is far too much: this should be a public service not a highly pais sinecure.

Anonymous said...

anon 17.21 Hear hear

Cllr Alun Lenny said...

In reply to Redhead and Anon. The basic County Councillor allowance (salary) is c.£13k. This is based on working a 2.5 day week, although most councillors are available 24/7. We are given the job by the electorate, of course, and they can sack us at the end of our "contract". Scrap the salary and you'll go back to the bad old days when wealthy people went on the council as a hobby, and you'd have even more retired farmers etc (you know - the type of people they complain about on blogs?). As it happens, I'm currently mentoring a young mother under a Welsh Government scheme to encourage more diversity on councils. If anyone's interested:

caebrwyn said...

@Cllr Lenny
Just be clear, as Chair of the Planning Committee you receive £22,000 per year.
I have never argued that councillors should have no allowances, for exactly the reasons you state however, if your council is to continue to cut services and hope that volunteers will pick up the pieces then perhaps councillors should consider reflecting that sense of civic duty which you expect from others.