Tuesday 19 January 2016

Turning a blind eye

The Welsh Assembly Petitions Committee met today to consider the petition to curb unelected power and restore local democracy. The full petition statement can be read on my earlier blog post here.

The essence of the petition, put forward last year by Mr Royston Jones, was to require the Government to step in where unelected senior officers, most notably chief executives, systematically undermined the democratic process.

Clearly Carmarthenshire stands out as a case in point.

The petition was discussed, briefly, by the committee today (19th Jan) and can be seen on Senedd TV at 10 minutes 50 seconds in.

The Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab) was asked for his opinion and his letter to the committee can be seen here. Interestingly he denies that the Welsh Government has "'turned a blind eye' to the influence of some senior officers in certain local authorities" 

Mr Andrews goes on to say that the draft Local Government (Wales) Bill, which is currently out for consultation holds the political leadership responsible for ensuring that chief officers do not exert undue influence.

But as Mr Jones points out in his response to the Minister, the Bill does nothing more than state what should happen, there is no mechanism for intervention if it doesn't;

'..he fails to tell us what can be done when elected representatives fail to curb the interference and eventual takeover by a chief executive (invariably aided by some other senior officers and one or two leading councillors). 
In the right circumstances, with a determined and dictatorial chief executive and a compliant council, it is inevitable that we shall see further examples of the problem my petition addressed, a problem to be seen in Wales today..'

The Welsh Government does, as we know, have the power to put a council in 'special measures' but as Mr Jones points out;  "why has it not been used in obvious cases of the chief executive subverting the democratic operation of the council?"

Why indeed. In Carmarthenshire it is something of a mystery. Repeated requests for Welsh Government intervention not only in regards to the chief executive but also with issues over social care and planning have been repeatedly rejected by the Welsh Government.
The chief executive has treated the Wales Audit Office and the Ombudsman with utter contempt and regarded the WLGA Governance Review as a joke.

The Minister, and his predecessors have, let's face it, bent over backwards to 'turn a blind eye'.

The question is why. One theory is that the chief executive not only exerts undue influence over the council but this extends into the corridors of the Welsh Government where Mr James has had various advisory and directorship roles over the years.

The petition was not specific to Carmarthenshire but it might as well have been, The committee decided to close the petition, suggesting that the petitioner contribute to the consultation. However, the Ministers view seems intransigent and, as Mr Jones tells him;

"passing the buck to those who've already exposed their inability to deal with the problem is nothing less than the Welsh Government washing its hands of that problem. We have every right to expect better."

Meanwhile the farce carries on in Carmarthenshire, the latest incarnation of 'officer control' being, in my view, the statement from Council 'Leader' Emlyn Dole over the unlawful payment scandal.

Here in Carmarthenshire the 'problem' of a majority of weak/puppet councillors is compounded by a culture of vindictiveness towards anyone who challenges the officer regime.
Cllr Caiach, with first hand experience of this culture, comments on my previous post to that effect;

"..  officers really do run the council whoever is "in power". Its been going on so long that it's difficult to rectify without outside help..."

 "...This terror is real and you can't rely on those who have quivered in fear for years to support cleaning up this council's act."

It's going to take more than Mr Andrews' draft Bill to effect a change in Carmarthenshire.

Wednesday 13 January 2016

The January meeting

Update 15th January; The archived webcast can be found here.

With a packed house, the press, protesters and public present, the January Council meeting managed to plumb new depths in democratic failure - particularly evident around the several questions from members of the public relating to asset transfers of parks and playgrounds.

First up though, after the lengthy preliminaries, was the presentation, by a Cllr Jan Williams (Lab) of a 5303 signature petition to keep Parc Howard, Llanelli, in public ownership.

The whole question regarding the future ownership of Parc Howard mansion and gardens came under the spotlight earlier this year when it emerges that 3rd parties, with questionable backgrounds were angling after this 'jewel in the crown' of Llanelli, and were courting the Chair of the Parc Howard Association, Meryl Gravell and senior officers with meetings taking place behind closed doors.

The park and mansion then appeared on the 'Asset Transfer' list. The petition, and campaigners have called for it to be removed from the list. The petition had been started by Labour MP Nia Griffith in response to the public outcry.

Emlyn Dole responded to the petition by attacking the Labour politicians for using the Parc as a political bandwagon, repeating his promise to keep the Parc in public ownership, but fell short, again, of removing it from the list.

As expected, there was no discussion nor debate allowed and it seems that the chief executive has decided that the petition was an 'executive function' so would only be considered by the executive board.

Funnily enough I was under the impression a new, more democratic approach had been taken with regard to petitions after the WLGA report, obviously not.
That, as they say, was the end of that. Done and dusted and back in the long grass.

Next up was a Councillor Question about rat infestation.

The Chair, oddly, decided to make a short statement suggesting that councillors thought very carefully before asking an official question. Was it really necessary? Couldn't they ask an officer for a response outside the meeting? He couldn't refuse them so they really needed to think whether it was a waste of time...and so on.

Interesting that he said he 'couldn't refuse' them, presumably that means everyone apart from Cllr Caiach.

It is staggering that the Chair, in consultation with the chief executive of course, is trying to dissuade councillors from asking questions. I say staggering, but it's not really surprising is it?

You may recall, the dream agenda for the chief executive was for committee reports to be tacked on at the end, just for 'noting' and the bulk of the meeting taken up with power-point presentations and, basically, as little debate as humanly possible. Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths clearly sings from the same hymn sheet.

Councillors were told, at the time, that if they wanted to raise an issue within these reports, or anything else for that matter, they should start using the 'Councillor Question' facility now on the agenda.

It seems that they are now being deterred from this. Democracy is dying yet another death in Carmarthenshire Council.

Next up were the public questions and things went from bad to worse.

When I asked a public question back in September it was the first one for ten years. Prompted by the WLGA report to improve engagement with citizens the council reluctantly put the slot on the agenda. Incidentally it was about the £280,000 given to Scarlets Regional Ltd to pay off a third party loan, a curious decision made on the whim of the chief executive...

That's one park which won't be facing any cuts or closure.

No one is likely to go through the complicated rigmarole, and face the slightly daunting procedure of asking their question, just to congratulate the council on their latest Performance Target Indicators for dog dirt, and the like; a question will always arise out of concern or criticism of council policy or a decision.

Yet again this council showed that unless you are there to present an award, your criticism, indeed your very attendance in the hallowed hall, is not particularly welcome.

All the questioners, who represented local sports clubs, felt and spoke passionately about the potential loss of parks and playgrounds, and sports pitches within their communities and they wished to put that message across through valid questions.

Each questioner tried to give a preamble, stating the basis for local concerns over the programme and their dissatisfaction with the policy Plaid were now enthusiastically endorsing, but the Chair, Plaid's Peter Hughes Griffiths was having none of it. Each questioner was interrupted and silenced.

The Plaid responses were that they were quite happy to carry on with the Asset Transfer programme started by the previous administration, and at one point the Plaid group laughed at one of the questioners. Appalling.

The Chair continued to excel himself and persisted in stopping the questioners from elaborating in any way, including their supplementary questions, which the Chair 'accused' them of scripting. They had to be relevant to the reply they'd just had, he screamed.

Eventually, Cllr Anthony Jones (Lab) called a Point of Order and informed the Chair that their own constitution stated that a supplementary question could also be related to the questioner's original question, not just the pre-prepared reply they'd been given and anyway, surely they were allowed to give their point of view?

The chief executive helpfully added that the Chair also had the power to refuse any questions. Of course.

Cllr Bill Thomas also called a Point of Order to say that the Chair, and executive, were not acting according to the Nolan Principles of public life and was breaching the code of conduct. Prompted by the chief executive, the Chair became even more hysterical and demanded to know what point he was breaching.
As Cllr Thomas tried to continue, the sound was cut from the webcast.

The Chair said several times that they couldn't just let the public come and makes statements about the council, "we cannot have people coming into this council, standing up and saying whatever they like about the council." Good grief no.

Well, Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths, what you were breaching was not only the rules of debate but common decency and any sense of democratic engagement towards members of the public. So much for your prayers at the start of the meeting.

The leader, Emlyn Dole made several points about how his community council was making progress with asset transfers and after rambling on, unstopped by the Chair for several minutes, appeared to conclude that these public questions were nothing more than political mischief.

He went on to attack 'certain elements of the press' who would 'sell their granny' for a story and had been making things up. Charming.

One questioner dared to try and respond to Cllr Dole but by this time the Chair was on his feet, adjourning the meeting and demanding that the gentleman leave the room. I understand that the gentleman walked out in disgust.

The chief executive seemed to find it all rather amusing.

It was a very sorry affair and clearly the Chair's behaviour caused discontent, and disbelief, amongst many Members.

Despite the Chair clearly knowing full well he was in the wrong and offering a rather ungracious apology to all concerned, I'm sure he will be warmly congratulated for his sterling efforts by the chief control freak himself, Mr James. Abysmal.

It should also be remembered that Peter Hughes Griffiths was a very keen advocate of Mr James' 'seven seconder' rule to prevent individual councillors raising controversial topics through Motions on Notice, a rule which has now been thankfully blown into oblivion by the WLGA report.

All that is left now is to stop anyone raising a controversial issue in other ways...in every other respect, the sentiment of the WLGA report has been completely ignored.

Once the Chair composed himself and the members of public had left the sacred environs of the Chamber, no such restraint was imposed on the next item which was a lengthy presentation from a man about the Swansea Bay Lagoon project. It had the soporific effect of calming everyone down and possibly sending a few to sleep after all the excitement.

Mr James will be quite happy with Plaid, they've done him proud. They've turned from a troublesome opposition, scrutinising his council, criticising his actions, calling the police on him, and insisting that councillors should run the council, to a pliant, loyal and largely silent bunch; fearful of the press, being accused of hypocrisy and holding the public in contempt.
Cllr Dole denying that those unlawful payments ever happened must be the icing on the cake for Mr James.

When Plaid complained, a couple of years ago that democratic debate was being deliberately curtailed in County Hall they, (well Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM), called for the council to be put in special measures by the Welsh Government.
I don't suppose Plaid are likely to call for it again, but it's as necessary as ever and someone needs to pick up the phone to Cardiff bay. It's way overdue.

For the full coverage of the petition and questions, as well as the rest of the meeting, the webcast will be archived soon.

Friday 8 January 2016

Unlawful payments - Dole's denial

One 'Councillor Question' submitted for next Wednesday's full council meeting has, I understand, been rejected.
Here it is in full, as sent to the Chief Executive's Office, as it is Mr James who decides what is, and what is not included on the Agenda;
Dear Democratic Services, 
I would like to submit this to The Chief Executive's Office as a Members' question for the next Full Council.
Please forward it on. 
Many thanks
Sian Caiach
"Dear Leader,

Several local voters have asked me about the likelihood of recovering the payments regarded as unlawful by the Wales Audit Office made to the chief executive over the pension compensation and the libel counterclaim, especially in view of the continuing financial difficulties we face. 
I would like to ask you the following questions: 
a) How much money is involved (unlawful pension payments plus unlawful legal fees for the libel counterclaim)?. 
b) Has Mr. James been involved in negotiations for future repayment? 
c) With the precedent being set by the WAO in the case of Mr Bryn Parry Jones in Pembrokeshire, is there merely an assumption that the money will finally be reclaimed from Mr. James' pension lump sum on retirement?
         Sian Caiach"

By way of context, Cllr Caiach had asked Council Leader Emlyn Dole for a direct response to this shortly before Christmas. His response (below) led Cllr Caiach to ask for further details, but nothing was forthcoming which led her to submit the question for next week's meeting. It was sent in on Monday via email, in plenty of time for the Wednesday deadline.

At the time of writing, no reason has been given by the Chief Executive for rejecting the question. The excuse that it has 'already been answered', is hardly justified.

However, on the agenda or not, Cllr Dole's 'answer' was brief, and quite extraordinary;
Dear Cllr Caiach, 
Thank you for your e mail below.   
We are unaware of any “unlawful” monies having been paid. 
As far as the recovery of any monies is concerned, the Executive Board is awaiting options on this. 
Best wishes,
Cllr Emlyn Dole.
To start with, Cllr Dole's use of the word "We"suggests that this is a joint statement...from him and Mr James? or the Plaid Group? Or even the royal 'we', as he is now leader?

"We are unaware of any "unlawful" monies having been paid"....Have those long months of strong Plaid condemnation of the unlawful payments disappeared into a Black Hole? Are Plaid Councillors now approving the very generous and unlawful funding for Mark James on both issues?

Outside the council, Plaid Cymru politicians Jonathan Edwards MP and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM took an even stronger stance and it was they who called in the police which led to Mark James 'stepping aside' during a criminal investigation.
It was also they who demanded that the money should be repaid by Mr James.

On the 3rd February 2014, the current Chair of the Council, Plaid's Peter Hughes Griffiths said;

“If I was leading this authority I would have at the very least suspended senior officers pending further investigation.  It is the bare minimum which should be done given the seriousness of the Auditor’s findings.  Furthermore, if I was responsible for spending tens of thousands of pounds unlawfully, I would do the honourable thing and stand down."

Cllr Emlyn Dole himself proposed, in July 2014, that the council accepts the WAO Libel Indemnity report and therefore the finding of unlawfulness. He also challenged the presence of Tim Kerr QC, to defend the Chief Executive, at the Extraordinary meeting where the WAO reports were discussed. Another Plaid Councillor later demanded an explanation over the costs of Mr Kerr's services. The council also voted to suspend the unlawful libel clause from the constitution.

I could go on, there are countless media reports, webcasts, and even council minutes - quite enough to make Cllr Dole's response to Cllr Caiach nothing short of astonishing.

As we know, neither the Chief Executive, nor head of legal Linda Rees Jones accept the WAO findings and Mr James ensured that neither Meryl Gravell (goes without saying) nor the then leader Kevin Madge disagreed with him.

The WAO have always stood by their findings of unlawfulness.

Was one of the requirements for Emlyn Dole becoming Leader a promise to deny that the unpleasant episode ever happened? And, if questioned, now claim the payments were lawful?

Does Mr James' hand really reach that far? It seems it does.

Returning to Cllr Dole's response and the second sentence relating to the recovery of monies; Given the content of the first sentence, he must, I assume, be referring to me, not Mr James.

WAO Public Interest Reports; January 2014

Thursday 7 January 2016

January Council agenda, and a cold wind

Next Wednesday will see County Hall under siege (well, sort of) as January's full council meeting includes not only a public petition, but five public questions. Unison have also stated their intention to lobby councillors on the steps of County Hall over the planned programme of cuts, including those to adult education and the consequential job losses.

The petition, and the questions all relate to the ongoing asset transfer programme of disposing of public parks, playgrounds and sports pitches, the petition calls for the council to keep Parc Howard (also on the disposal list) in public ownership.

The subject of these controversial asset transfers came up at Monday's Exec Board which I covered here, Executive Board meeting - on yer bike, and we can only hope that full council is a little less intransigent and hostile to public opinion and local campaigners than the executive were.

All the questions can be seen on the agenda but one in particular reflects on the change of direction which the Plaid leadership seem to be taking since joining forces with Meryl and Mark:

“When Councillor Emlyn Dole stepped in to help in the fight against the unaffordable pitch fees, he stated that these fees would put an end to participation in sport across the county.  He claimed that these proposals were ill conceived and ill thought out.  He was of the opinion that it was a rushed through policy developed in the midst of the twilight zone.  In light of Councillor David Jenkins’ comment to the press that we simply cannot afford to maintain these areas, would he not agree that the closure of the parks in which these sports pitches are situated should demand the same response?”

In case the intrusion of the public questioners, petitioners and union reps all gets too much, a power point presentation has been slotted in immediately afterwards to dull the senses and distract minds towards the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project. This project has been in the pipeline for a number of years but, good or bad, whatever your view, and despite getting approval it seems to be having difficulty getting off the ground due, reports say, to funding issues.

The usual purpose behind an outside body giving a presentation is to soften-up the council and then ask for some cash. It will be interesting if this is the case here as the Tidal Lagoon project is outside Carmarthenshire. It is not, however, outside the scope of the Swansea Bay City Region board which supports the £1bn project and which is currently, under the guidance of the great and good, and Meryl; innovating, incubating, re-energizing and waffling its way to bugger all at numerous meetings and events.

I can't go without mentioning the Christmas Tree for the Ffwrnes Theatre, Llanelli. The Llanelli Star reports that the council have rented the tree for 72 days, and I can imagine that the idea was well meant, bringing a little festive cheer and all that.
However, the idea clearly got out of control - we could probably excuse £300, even £350 - but £3,400? someone certainly slipped with the pen.

Yet another reason for the council to publish all its spending details...who knows what else they've been buying....

Monday 4 January 2016

Executive Board meeting - On yer bike

The one downside of webcasting council meetings, particularly those of the executive board is that it's all a bit of a back-slapping PR exercise. This morning's offering was no exception.

Kicking off with praise for the former Director of Social Care on his new year honours OBE, they decided to write a letter, sending him their warm congratulations. I'm sure the various whistle-blowers who have flagged up issues with social care over the years would love to add their names to the card as well, if they have time in-between their disciplinary hearings...

Whilst all around is falling apart, and the county awash with floods, (the staff who dealt with the emergencies were, quite rightly, thanked for their work) there was a strange emphasis on cycling. I have nothing against two-wheeled transport of course, quite the opposite in fact but the percolation of the subject through the meeting seemed to be something of a deliberate distraction.

Anyway, we learned that the chief executive is a keen cyclist which is useful as it can now be suggested that he gets on his bike without it being libellous. We also learned that Cllr Pam Palmer doesn't cycle...thought you did Pam?

We found out that the five year capital programme is very, very, exciting (nearly everyone said that), despite what the cynics might say (see below) and, as for local communities, it's about time everyone sorted out their own facilities rather than the county council, Pam and Meryl were particularly vocal over this. 

We discovered that the chief executive has suddenly learned how to declare an interest - this time over an item on the all-staff car salary sacrifice scheme - unlike that previous occasion when they were handing him the dosh for his legal fees.

We also learned that whilst the Asset Transfer scheme to offload 96 parks and playgrounds to community groups and councils (and Labour councillor Derek Cundy, in attendance to challenge the policy, pointed out that this was not an asset transfer at all, but a cost transfer) didn't impinge at all on the council's 'get fit and active' policy, but would, if the transfer policy was reversed actually impinge on the council's equalities policy.

This leap of logic seemed to rest on the fact that if some areas didn't take over local assets then this wouldn't be fair on those who did. Not entirely sure they quite grasp the concept of equality issues, but I suppose they can pray for divine guidance at the next full council meeting.

Parc Howard came up as it is one of the '96' and the report contained an objection from the Parc Howard Association. This gave Meryl the opportunity to once again trot out her tale of the terrible, devious nature of local residents who had 'gone behind' the council's back and raised concerns about a proposed car park at Parc Howard and so, apparently, thwarting the council's bid for Lottery money.

Anyway. as I've said, the capital programme was also up for discussion and, with the press in attendance, it was welcomed as 'very exciting', Meryl was delighted that they were all in it together, her and Mark she meant, naturally, with Emlyn perched on the back seat. And it might even make Carmarthenshire a centre of excellence for cycling..the cycling capital of Wales even. Wonderful.

On the subject of the capital programme, the chief executive, we gathered, found the people of Llanelli quite simply irritating and clearly ungrateful for the millions being spent there..the proposed care home, the proposed leisure centre and - said slowly for maximum effect - a proposed closed road cycling circuit.

And just what were they going to do with Parc Howard? he said. He meant 'bloody Parc Howard'. Clearly the publicity and fuss which thwarted their plans to quietly sell it off in the summer, to anyone who could spin a good story, is another source of intense irritation to Mr James.

Cllr Dole wasn't going to remove Parc Howard from the '96', as requested in the letter but was looking forward, he snarled, to discussions with the PHA and the Town Council.

There was much giggling when the subject of sex came up. Sorry to disappoint but it was in relation to a reduction in the licence fee, from £5000 to £975 for sex establishments, a reduction required by recent case law. There are no such dens of iniquity in Carmarthenshire of course and, amidst the giggles, Cllr Dai Jenkins wondered if there would now be a flood of applications.

I suspect that this could form an important element of Meryl and Mark's regeneration strategy, and no doubt they will be exploring the possibilities after the meeting... perhaps Parc Howard could become a playboy mansion? with topless skittles down at the evangelical bowling alley?

An item on 'Active Travel' also came up which involves mapping all the 'healthy routes, footpaths etc across the county. This gave yet another opportunity to mention cycling and the fact that there's a lot of cyclepaths in the county, or in the Chamber...I couldn't quite hear.

All in all, everything was given a gloss of spin. Slashing the majority of Adult Learning courses, which was also on the agenda, along with offloading the parks and playgrounds etc were all magically translated into 'wonderful opportunities' for the communities involved.
The gist of the chief executive's new year message was that the people of Llanelli were, quite simply, ungrateful b*****ds. And Pam and Meryl with the patronising smugness which only overpaid senior councillors can deliver, admonished the communities they claim to represent, and the general populace of Carmarthenshire, for being lazy parasites, in so many words.

And so, another year begins in County Hall.

A few cynical previous posts about the very exciting capital programme can be found here;
Capital Priorities
Plaid's 'vision for Carmarthenshire' under attack
A 'vision for Carmarthenshire' - Plaid embrace County Hall spin

..and in case you missed my brief, seasonal summary of 2015, it's here.

Saturday 2 January 2016

Capital priorities

This week's Herald takes a look at the Council's five year capital programme, up for the consultation stage at Monday's Executive Board meeting, I've mentioned it myself once or twice over recent weeks.

The programme includes £5.7m to modernise and rebuild the primary school in Trimsaran (the figure includes match funding from the Welsh Government). What is unusual about this is that according to the school's website it is currently operating around 50% under-capacity.

The usual pattern in such cases, even those with less surplus places than this, is for the council to decide that these schools are 'unsustainable' and either close the school completely and ferry children to other schools miles away, or merge/federate to cut overheads. We are well aware of this trend in the Llandovery area.

The main aim of the Modernising Education Policy has not been to modernise schools, but to remove surplus places. The scattering of shiny new schools has been largely for the benefit of the army of consultants and 'preferred developers' involved in the process - the money to run them is quite another thing and, if the £18m cuts to schools goes ahead, there'll be even less.

But back to Trimsaran and The Herald continues;
"Whilst nobody begrudges the children of Trimsaran the chance to learn in a shiny new school, some have wondered why other (and full) schools struggle to get so much as a new loo fitted when a school operating at barely half stretch receives so much money.

Former Council leader and current Exec Board Member for Regeneration and Leisure, Meryl Gravell is the current county councillor for Trimsaran"

Incidentally, at a full council meeting in 2008, with the process to close over forty village schools well underway, Meryl Gravell, leader of the council and holder of an OBE, launched an attack on councillors who "exhibit extreme weakness and are prepared to listen to people protesting about school closures out there in the community". (my underline)

The Herald article also mentions the planned new Llanelli Leisure Centre and the capital programme indicates that the council will be contributing rather more than councillors were originally told. The council's commitment now stands at £12m with previously promised external funding now, in cold reality, reduced to ifs and maybes.

With the Leisure department in the process of being outsourced, I'm sure the external providers lining up to take over these services will be delighted with the burgeoning amount of public money being invested...

Let's hope this latest vision doesn't become a continuing drain on the taxpayer as we have seen with the Parc Y Scarlets Stadium and, as the Herald reminds us, the chief executive's other expensive baby, the Boston Stadium, for which the taxpayers of Lincolnshire still count the cost.

With millions more committed to a 'Transformation Commercial Property Development Fund' and the even more intangible sounding 'Transformation Strategy Project Fund', it's notable that only £250,000 per year has been earmarked for highway resurfacing and road safety in each of the next five years with the capital investment actually required currently running at £18m.

A 'Highways' Update' report appears on a scrutiny agenda for the 11th January and paints a bleak picture of the county's roads with 11.9% currently classed as 'poor' and the £54m backlog of repairs predicted to worsen. Highway maintenance is also facing a three year revenue cut of £1.2m.

The 'finger's-crossed' plan is to change how roadworks are prioritised. A 'Network Hierarchy' will be formulated with a 'scoring matrix' based on use and 'strategic importance'. This may seem a logical use of limited resources, but with much of Carmarthenshire classed as rural, in practice only the larger towns will have their roads properly maintained, whilst the rural hinterland (apart from Trimsaran perhaps...) will see little or no improvement for years to come.

Still, whilst we have 'Transformation Strategies', more shiny-but-empty office blocks and white elephants dotted around the county, who needs roads? Let's be honest, when it comes to County Hall photo-shoots, fixing potholes and making our roads safer never offers quite the same glamour.