Friday 4 March 2016

News Round-up - Schools, Scrutiny, Salaries...and today's Herald

Schools, scrutiny, questions and filming

(Update 9th March; Given the inconsistencies in the figures supplied by the education department, the Scrutiny Committee have decided visit Llanedi School before making a recommendation to the Exec Board regarding its closure. They will also visit Bancffosfelen)

Next week's Education Scrutiny Committee (9th March) has the usual list of the latest schools up for closure, or 'reorganisation' as our council prefers. Nothing unusual in that of course as this has been a long running programme to 'remove surplus places'. Once the numbers drop to around 50% capacity the death warrant is duly signed, well, in most cases anyway.

The drop in numbers, and rural decline, has been achieved by the council itself, having started the rumours, in regular bursts, over the past ten years. The natural, and understandable, progression being for parents to then send their children to schools further away which are not up for imminent closure.

One of the schools, Bancffosfelen Primary has put forward a detailed submission to keep the school open as a community venture, and the Friends of Llanedi School have ventured into the world of 'public questions' with several direct appeals to save their school and challenging the basis for closure. This can all be read on the agenda here and I wish them well.


How far they'll get is anyone's guess and the appearance of the dreaded public questions will be an unwelcome hiccup in the Masterplan - with a net loss of 31 schools in the past ten years the rollercoaster has continued pretty much unabated. Some will recall the comments from Meryl Gravell a few years ago warning councillors not to show 'weakness' by listening to local campaigners...

As we have discovered with public questions at full council, unless you are there in person your question will not be read out and will be answered in writing, which challenges the whole concept of 'public engagement'.

Whether this applies to scrutiny committees is not clear but I rather suspect it will. If this is the case, and the questioners are not present, then the only record of what was said in response will be the appearance of the sanitized minutes a few weeks down the line.

This brings me on to the Standards Committee meeting listed for next Friday. Tucked away in the agenda is a reference to the Draft Local Government (Wales) Bill and specifically the role of the Standards Committee. It turns out, from the draft Bill, that this committee is actually supposed to investigate matters when 'Standards' slip, an entirely new concept for Carmarthenshire.

However, the other issue, for the committee to 'note' relates to Section 76 of the draft bill where the Welsh Government will require councils to broadcast all their open meetings, including the Standards Committee, and, of course, Scrutiny, Audit and all other meetings.

So far Carmarthenshire, after much memorable kicking and screaming now webcasts full council, Executive Board and Planning meetings, so there's some way to go yet. We'll have to wait for the minutes to know if the committee did anything more than 'note' the item.

Not mentioned in this document is section 77 of the draft bill, and the 'Explanatory Memorandum' is worth repeating in full;

"section 77 provides that by regulations, the Welsh Ministers may make provision for the filming and recording of Council meetings by the public. The prohibition of such activities puts councils at loggerheads with the norms of public life and militates against an open and transparent approach. The making of regulations under this section should reduce bureaucracy and administration for the County Council and requires the Council to think about public involvement in all its activities, leading to more joined up and effective involvement."

As we know, Carmarthenshire have had issues over public filming and, after even more kicking and screaming only agreed, in the usual blaze of control freakery, to allow the filming of meetings which are currently being webcast.

We were all able to view the webcast a couple of weeks ago when the Annual Mark James Budget slashed £16m from schools over the next three years but there's no such facility for school campaigners at next Wednesday's Scrutiny meeting who are barred from making recordings of a discussion directly affecting the heart of their community.

This is a situation which can't continue. They might not want to make recordings or film, but they should be able to if they want, as I've said just a few times before, it is the principle that matters.

Full council next week

You will, of course, be able to watch next Thursday's full council meeting which will see your council tax increased by 3.85%. (Don't forget, they've got 'Wellness centres' to fund).
Also on the agenda is the annual Pay Policy Statement which details, amongst other things, the salary ranges for the top brass.
You'll be relieved to know that the Chief Executive has had a modest pay increase, along with everyone else. I don't know how he's managed up to now. This equates to an extra £1700 for Mr James bringing his salary to a few quid under £170,000. This doesn't include expenses, perks or Returning Officer fees which should prove lucrative this year with two elections on the horizon.

You may recall that the £20,000 fees for the local elections in 2012 were paid 'in advance' of the election, before the number of contested seats were known and in the previous financial year. When the payment was queried the response was that 'the funds were available'...Ah. Following that, his pay then was inflated for a couple of years with those unlawful payments. So the actual figure presented in the Pay Policy has always been a bit of a moot point.

Also on the agenda is a question from leader of the Labour group, Cllr Jeff Edmunds, to council leader Emlyn Dole (Plaid). Cllr Edmunds seems miffed that his members, within two seat wards, have been deliberately sidelined and not informed about the latest photo opportunity or ribbon cutting session in their patch, only the Plaid members appear to have been informed.

I can understand that he's politically miffed but I'm not sure that it's really a matter of 'openness and transparency' in the public interest stakes. I would have thought a far more relevant question would be to ask Cllr Dole whether he considered it entirely appropriate for the Chief Executive (and soon-to-be Returning Officer) to lie to the national press, surely far more relevant to 'openness and transparency' and of course, integrity.

Happy Birthday Herald

Lastly for now, I must wish the Carmarthenshire and Llanelli Herald a happy first birthday. Today's edition includes a story about a mysterious case of fly-tipping on council land in Pontyberem. Interest was sparked when it became apparent that the refuse had been tipped on land immediately adjacent to farm land owned by family Dole.

The Herald makes it very clear that they are not suggesting for one moment that Cllr Dole is responsible, nor that it has anything to do with the demolished barns and clarifies that some of it appears to have been there for some time.

In that respect they asked Cllr Dole if he had noticed anyone trespassing on his land to dump the rubbish. Cllr Dole replied that the refuse was 'historic', he was 'unaware' of recent tipping and the council were now clearing it up.

The council makes much of it's determination to pursue, name, shame and prosecute fly-tippers and litter droppers and with the undoubtedly considerable cost of clearing this site, which also appears to contain asbestos, I assume they will leave no stone unturned.

Pic source; The Llanelli Herald

Finally, as the 'Wellness Centre' PR nonsense reached something of a crescendo last week, this week we are treated to a cracking Cadno opinion piece, below, which features a Reading from the 'Book of St Mark (James), CBE version';

Source; Carmarthenshire Herald (Right click on a pics, select 'Open link in new tab' to zoom and read - or if on mobile device just tap pics)


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately the Herald does not seem to be avalable in the Upper Amman Valley.
A real shame as residents have no idea of what is going on.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant take on Mark and Meryl - so funny but so apt.