Sunday 29 May 2016

The Wellness Project (again), and other news

As I mentioned a while back, far from becoming open and transparent our best council in Wales appears to be retreating into secrecy like never before, see Exempt reports - flourishing in County Hall. Last week's Executive Board meeting considered two exempt reports, one of which considered the 'very, very exciting' Wellness and Life Science Village project for Delta Lakes, Llanelli.

This project, which is supposed to include a new leisure centre somewhere amongst the private clinics, hotel, conferencing and 'high spec business suites' is led by the council in conjunction with the Welsh Government, and the health board and university 'ARCH' Board, upon which Meryl conveniently sits - numerous jargon filled press releases can be found on google.

As the chief executive said a few months ago, none of the plans, costs nor details have to go before council so it was with kind benevolence that the exempt report appeared before the executive board muppets last week. This is in case the whole thing go pear shaped and the executive board can then be blamed for wielding their 'democratic' rubber stamp.

The minutes for this report are unusually lengthy, a press release in itself in fact. It seems that along with presentations from Swansea University and project managers ARUP, representatives from Kent Neurosciences Ltd also addressed the Board. Although the directors are professionals in the field, this is still a private company, based in Kent, and I was unable to find a website. The company, which due to its size, is exempt under company law from having to provide audited accounts, had approached the council and were seeking an 'exclusivity agreement' with the council which, essentially means that the council agree to deal solely with KNS Ltd.

The representatives then left the meeting and it seems that the stage management continued and Board were further encouraged to sign on the dotted line, undoubtedly by Mark "it won't cost the taxpayers a penny" James.

The council have already earmarked over £6m towards the leisure centre but it is very likely that the total commitment will be far greater, and clearly includes the land itself.

As a council led project, that commitment appears to have already been made, and private partners selected with no proper democratic involvement or a shred of scrutiny.
What the strain on the local NHS budget will be is anyone's guess.

As I said here, Wellness Centre and other news, warning bells should be ringing as this has all the same hallmarks as those other 'pioneering' projects, the Parc Y Scarlets stadium and, let's not forget, the PRSA stadium in Boston. All of which, thanks to the head of the 'Sicilian cartel', which moved itself from Boston to Carmarthenshire, has cost the taxpayers a bloody fortune.

One of the auditors' findings in Boston was that there had been no proper reference to councillors when the initial decisions were taken by Mr James. A criticism in Carmarthenshire was that the financial viability projections for the stadium had been based on thin air and spin.
Let's not let that happen again.

(Update 10th June: Interesting article in this week's Carmarthenshire Herald by Pat Racher relating to KNS and linked companies, the story is on her blog here; Loss-making private hospital link to planned Llanelli Wellness Centre)

The other exempt item on the agenda was 'National Botanic Garden of Wales Task and Finish Group'. This turned out to be a Welsh Government 'Board of experts' set up to formulate an action plan for the gardens.

The garden, which is in Carmarthenshire, has struggled financially since it's inception and, as directors have come and gone, arguments have rumbled on as to whether it should be run on a scientific or a more commercial basis. Council funding has now decreased to £30,000 a year but this was decided during the tenure of the previous director, Dr Rosie Plummer. She clearly didn't press the right buttons in County Hall and this became evident with comments (scroll down) made after her departure.

The extreme secrecy around the report is a bit of a mystery as it seems that following an invitation from the Welsh Government, Meryl was to be appointed as Chair of the Task and Finish group and this required approval from her senior colleagues.
I wouldn't trust Meryl to manage the future of a small window box, never mind a National Garden. Or a chair.

Also featuring at last week's meeting was a sour little grumble about the Wales Audit Office. Clearly miffed over his recent spat with the organisation the chief executive joined in the mutual moan to complain that despite requests for constructive advice where the authority had been found to have 'weaknesses', this had been ignored.

The message that came across was that as they are paying the WAO a substantial amount in fees, what were they doing criticising the best council in Wales? The Chief executive wondered whether anyone else did any better than the council with "some of the financial things".

By "some of the financial things" I presume he's excluding his unlawful payments, questionable grants, the Coastal Scheme scandal, the Supporting People grant failures, peculiar payments to the Scarlets, 'irregularities' at the Country Parks, etc etc.

The could always ditch the Wales Audit Office of course and appoint their own auditors who would appreciate the levels of creative accounting to which the council attain.

Lastly, in what is becoming an annual occurrence, I made enquiries with Ms Rees Jones, head of legal, when (or if) the suspended unlawful indemnity clause would finally be removed from the constitution.

You may recall, that after the WLGA identified the toxic culture in County Hall, a cross-party group was set up to mangle the findings. This group was to meet periodically to consider changes to the constitution, but I was informed that the group has not met since the final mangle last May (2015) and, anyway, Ms Rees Jones does not consider the clause to be unlawful, and neither, obviously, does her boss and beneficiary of the illegal clause, despite the 'legal position' being 'clarified' long ago.
Then again you may also recall that internal legal advice was once described as "cavalier at best, and incompetent at worst".

So, unlike other clauses and paragraphs which come and go, this one, although currently impotent, will probably stay for the foreseeable future, a small but very hot potato continuing to burn a ridiculous hole in the constitution.

Monday 23 May 2016

Pembrey Country Park: 'Senior officers covered up scandal' - The Carmarthenshire Herald

Later post 4th July; Pembrey Park scandal, an update

Update 13th June; The Herald article is now online;
Senior officers covered up scandal in Pembrey

*  *  *  *

This week's Carmarthenshire Herald has more on the unfolding scandals surrounding the management of council run Pembrey Country Park. Although rumours of dishonesty, and financial and procedural irregularities have been rumbling for a couple of years, a recent internal council audit turned up some very serious allegations, for background see my earlier post here.

Attempts to raise the report at full council in April were slapped down by council leader Dole and despite demands from opposition councillors for police involvement, or at least an independent investigation, matters are currently being dealt with in-house....

Carmarthenshire Herald May 20th 2016

The Herald article includes transcripts of recorded conversations between various (anonymised) council officers and third parties which suggests that tenders have been discussed and awarded outside the proper process and that the restructuring of facilities was deliberately designed to remove, or "get rid" of employees who intended to blow the whistle.

In another recording council officers attempt to find out what information is held by a third party, pleading with that third party not to go to the police..."For f**k sake, don't go to the police".
It is understood that information has now been passed to the police.

With the park catering contract tender currently on hold after the process was challenged by an unsuccessful bidder, its all adding fuel to the fire.

I have also heard various serious allegations from anonymous sources over the past year or two, all of which backs up the information in the Herald, and brings into serious doubt the recent claims made by senior officers to councillors that there was 'no evidence of fraud'.

Something stinks and presumably none of this has gone unnoticed by the Wales Audit Office who, with no love lost between themselves and the council, should be keeping a very close eye on developments.
The question here is who knew what, and when, and exactly how far up the corporate food chain did that knowledge extend. As we have seen, 'irregularities' are a recurring theme throughout County Hall but unfortunately, accountability is far less prevalent.

The Herald article is not yet online, I will add a link when it appears, meanwhile it's well worth 50p. Also, the letters page includes a supportive and considered contribution from Mr Tim Hart titled 'The Caebrwyn Blogger' and relates to ongoing matters detailed here.

Thursday 19 May 2016

Unlawful payments - Mark James challenges the Auditor - updated

Update 20th May:

This week's Carmarthenshire Herald reports that the Wales Audit Office have told Mr James, via Cllr Dole, where to put his complaint, in so many words.

It seems, from the Wales Audit Office response to Cllr Dole that he had, in addition to querying Anthony Barrett's appointment, asked the WAO to return the fees incurred for the two Public Interest Reports.
The WAO responded and confirmed that, as a member of the Welsh Government approved Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA);

"Anthony Barrett's qualifications as an Appointed Auditor at that time, do not call into question the validity of any of the actions he took in relation to any local government body. All reports and certificates issued by Anthony Barrett are valid"

The Auditor General for Wales also wrote to Cllr Dole and the Herald reports that the letter remarks that Mr James raised no objection to Mr Barrett's appointment at the time, nor did he raise any query when Mr Barrett was tasked with investigating the whole murky business behind the unlawful payments. He also confirms Mr Barrett's eligibility to act under the Audit Commission Act 2001.

In his final paragraph the Auditor General echoes the WAO letter and further confirms that all reports and certificates issued by Mr Barrett are valid.

So that, it appears, is that. Good. It remains to be seen how much more money the council are prepared to throw at massaging Mr James' fractured ego.

*  *  *  *  *

BBC Wales reports that Carmarthenshire council chief executive Mark James, via his mouthpiece Plaid Cymru leader Emlyn Dole, is, unsurprisingly, joining the suspended senior officers of Caerphilly Council in questioning whether the appointed auditor, Anthony Barrett, was qualified to rule that the unlawful payments were indeed, unlawful.

The criminal case against the Caerphilly officers, following similar findings by the Wales Audit Office, and which included the chief executive Anthony O'Sullivan, was dropped last year although this seems to have had more to do with the the Crown Prosecution Service dragging their feet than anything else.

Step forward Emlyn Dole, once, when in opposition, the opponent of all things unlawful, and now the chief protector of Mr James.

Cllr Dole speaking at the Extraordinary meeting in Feb 2014 and voting to ACCEPT, in full, the findings of the Appointed Auditor that the libel indemnity was unlawful...

This is not surprising, only a couple of months back Cllr Dole was denying that the unlawful payments ever existed, although blatant hypocrisy in politics is commonplace. Mr James, of course, will do anything it takes to try and discredit anyone who finds him at fault; he attacked the Auditor, via the press office, when the Wales Audit Office reports came out in 2014 (and indeed the Plaid MP who reported him to the police).

This latest move by Mr James to get himself off the hook shows he is prepared to spend even more of your cash to attack those who challenge him.

I have covered the Caerphilly case on this blog as there are clear and obvious parallels, most recently here. In my view the three officers should have stood trial for Misconduct in Public Office, and/or fraud, and should have been joined in the dock by Mr James and his partner in the pension scam, Pembrokeshire's Bryn Parry Jones. Mr James had the additional 'problem' of his illegal libel indemnity of course.

The WAO reports can be found here and here, and Anthony Barrett's bio here. He seems entirely qualified to me. The WAO should respond to these challenges urgently - if the one occasion where they actually showed themselves to have teeth is not defended robustly then they might as well pack their desks and shut up shop. 

Tuesday 17 May 2016

Exempt reports flourishing in County Hall

One of the recognised drawbacks of webcasting council meetings is the possibility that more agenda items may be discussed behind closed doors than is really necessary. This is particularly prevalent where councils practice control-freakery to the extent Carmarthenshire does. The chief executive currently approves council and executive board agendas....well, most things in fact.

Executive Board meetings have always been jolly get-togethers, thorny issues ironed out before the public meetings and a pleasant round of rubber-stamping, mutual back-slapping and brown-nosing is had by all. Witnessed perhaps one or two members of the public who wandered in by mistake, only to find themselves escorted to the public gallery, and maybe a local reporter or two, there was not a lot to worry about.

Now the meetings are webcast, the scene remains the same but there has been a subtle difference, the first part of the meeting seems largely confined to the mundane, or, for effect, the latest exciting, (very exiting even), project which no one thought to ask the Carmarthenshire taxpayer if they wanted. Then, without discussion, the webcast is switched off and whatever is decided, and it's usually another raid on the taxpayer, emerges in the form of council press office spin, or appears weeks later in a cryptic sentence in the minutes.

Exec Board member Mair Stephens (Ind) uses an orange exempt report as a fan

As I said earlier, there have been seven exempt reports over the last four Exec Board meetings and next Monday's meeting sees yet another two.

One of these concerns the latest very, very exiting project, the 'Wellness Centre' at Delta Lakes, Llanelli, led by the council but with so many 'partners', (not least of all the super dooper visionary Swansea Bay City Region Board, and the health board, via 'ARCH', with its spare millions), the audit trail will be sparser then usual, if that's possible. Of course you can never have too many office complexes or private healthcare clinics, just what Llanelli needs...  I have mentioned this before here, but there is not a clue as to what is up for a decision on Monday. One press release put the wonderful plan at £60m, another at £100m.

We realise that most decisions of any importance are actually made in the Presidential Suite, with Emlyn Dole, or his predecessor dutifully polishing the CEO's CBE quietly in the corner, and indeed, some information may be 'commercially sensitive' but one of the findings of the WLGA governance report was for the council to review it's criteria and guidance over exemptions, prompted of course by the libel indemnity and pension scam scandals.
This seems to have happened, but with the opposite intent and quite the reverse effect...aside, that is, from the occasional leak.

Recent meetings have seen, for example, exempt discussions around the Pantycelyn school site and cyclepaths, this time it's a multi-million pound taxpayer draining plan for Llanelli, a plan likely to make the council's generosity to the Scarlets pale into comparison.
It is a reminder that things have not improved since the infamous 'top secret public toilet transfer report' from a couple of years back, refused even when pressed under FOI.

Finally, Police Commissioner, Christopher Salmon, reflecting on his recent defeat, had a few surprisingly frank words to say about Carmarthenshire Council...and so true;

"Carmarthenshire County Council. Wales’ answer to a Sicilian cartel. It’s everywhere you look (thankfully only in Carmarthenshire – so far as I can tell). It extracts vast amounts of money from residents which it showers on favourites, hoards property, bullies opponents, co-opts friends and answers to no one, least of all local councillors."

Friday 13 May 2016

Caebrwyn under fire - some updates

July 15th - Informed by the police commissioner's office that the police are still carrying out the investigative assessment of the complaints, so this is still ongoing.

Please refer to my earlier post from April 15th; Caebrwyn under fire
(Later post, June 4th; The police 'investigation' continues... )

With regards to Carmarthenshire council's decision to pursue me for £190,390 costs, the latest deadline to respond, before 'recovery action is instigated without further notice', was 4 pm today (Friday 13th).
I have replied and said that due to the recent legal threats made by a senior member of staff of Carmarthenshire council, it would be inappropriate for me to make any comment.

With regards to that senior member of staff, chief executive Mark James, having reported me to the police, I contacted Dyfed Powys Police myself today as five weeks have passed since I received the letter from his solicitors.
I was put through to the officer in charge of the investigation who confirmed that a complaint had been made. The police were currently waiting for further information from "the council" before proceeding further and I was told I would be contacted in due course by whatever method the police think appropriate. Apparently I would be "treated tidy"...reassuring to know they're not going to beat a confession out of me.
I was also told that it was up to the police to inform me, not Mr James via his solicitors.

I do not know if Mr James is returning to the High Court with regards to his allegations of contempt. I have not heard that matters have been withdrawn and at the moment I assume that the process is ongoing. The last I heard was that instructions had been given to pass papers to counsel for preparation.

As I have made clear, if it becomes necessary, I will defend all allegations against me, under any of the circumstances I have mentioned above.

Sunday 8 May 2016

News in brief - Poverty, Pantycelyn and Parking

Pantycelyn update 17th May;
A council press release states that Rhys Pritchard Primary school will, depending on an officers report, move to the Pantycelyn site which will be 'partly refurbished', on the condition that the Rhys Pritchard site will then be sold off. Why this had to be decided in secret is beyond me.

Rhys Pritchard primary school

Poverty Pam
Some of us have often wondered if there is a joker in County Hall who likes to dish out inappropriate portfolios to certain members. A fine example is deputy leader Cllr Pam Palmer (Ind) who either now or in the past has had 'modern government', the press and 'Youth Ambassador' in her remit. She is also the 'Anti-poverty champion'. You may recall, a couple of weeks ago her outrage and disgust over a proposed pay cut and that, in fact, she was worth far more than the £31,250 she currently stashes in her Hermes handbag, so to speak.

In a report next week, to be considered by Pam, it seems that in order to appear to be actually doing something a Tackling Poverty Advisory Panel should be set up, chaired by Pam, this is in addition to the Tackling Poverty Focus Group, and will provide 'overarching' support and monitor the 'Tackling Poverty Action Plan'.
Who on earth dreams these things up.

Pantycelyn School
With Carmarthenshire Council apparently embracing all things transparent it is notable that over four meetings of the Executive Board there have been no less than seven exempt items. These are items deemed too sensitive, for whatever reason, for the press and public to hear and there is never any discussion over the application of the public interest test.

One item, at the end of March, stands out for caebrwyn but tomorrow's meeting (9th May) sees two items, one of which concerns the future of the now defunct Pantycelyn High School site in Llandovery. The school finally closed its doors a few months ago as the new secondary school opened in Ffairfach, Llandeilo. No one wanted Pantycelyn school to close, nor for the pupils to have to travel miles to Llandeilo, but that's another story.
Campaigners opposing closure were naturally accused, by County Hall, of standing in the way of childrens' education. Divide and conquer being the preferred tactic of the inhabitants of Jail Hill.

Llandovery is now noticeably quieter without the schoolkids, dying in fact. However, long before the school closed the council were formulating planning briefs to sell it off with planning permission for 45 houses on the majority of the site. Rumours abounded that the deeds of land stated the grounds were to be reverted back to the family which originally owned the site. I don't know what happened about that.

Plans were recently mooted by the town Council and other interested groups for the current primary school in Llandovery, Ysgol Rhys Pritchard to be moved to the Pantycelyn site and as the closure of every village school in the area is almost complete it's not an unreasonable idea. However, such a move wouldn't come cheap and with County Hall taking a massive axe to school budgets this might not be feasible.

The Pantycelyn site forms a sizeable chunk of Llandovery, whatever is being decided is crucial to the future of the town and, more importantly, the people who live there.
What could possibly be discussed that warrants closed doors?

Pantycelyn be demolished or not?
Car Parking review
A whole year ago a cross-party 'Task and Finish' group was set up to report on the controversial subject of car parking charges in Carmarthenshire. Last October there was a one month, two hour, free parking initiative in Llanelli town centre but calls were rejected, by Plaid, for a similar exercise in Ammanford a few weeks ago.

The free Christmas parking disappeared a few years ago, replaced by five days free parking (if there was a 'properly' organised event) per year, but excluded the whole of December. Calls have also been made to drop the Sunday charges.

Member of the Task and Finish group, Cllr Ivor Jackson parking his car in 2012

As I mentioned last year Carmarthenshire's profit from parking charges increased from £487,000 to £795,000 from 2013 to 2014 and it's a lucrative business. Granted some of the revenue is used to improve car parks etc and easing parking charges is only one way to compete with the internet and out of town shopping centres but it is one that the council does have the power to influence.

The long awaited report finally materialises at a scrutiny meeting next week, it bears a markedly similar tone to an officers report from last September. Anyway, it seems there were mixed results from the Llanelli free parking initiative and instead of increased demand the demand merely shifted to the free slot. However, had the free slot been between say 10am to noon, rather than the twilight hours of 3 to 5 pm it might have proved a little more effective. So there will be no more free parking initiatives, bad luck Ammanford.

The 5 day per year free 'event' parking will be extended to 7 days but will not only exclude the whole of December, but also the whole of November, to catch those early Christmas shoppers. It also looks like the Sunday charges are here to stay....and finally, in an unfortunate typo the 'policy implications' of the parking review have been confused with substance misuse services..

Friday 6 May 2016

Assembly Election 2016 - Carmarthenshire results

Update 8th May - Dyfed Powys Police Commissioner election;

After going to a second preference count, the final winner was Dafydd Llywelyn, Plaid Cymru, who beat the previous Commissioner, Christopher Salmon, Conservative, by 75,158 votes to 59,302.
Kevin Madge (Lab), Richard Church (Libdem), Des Parkinson (UKIP) and William Davies (Ind) were eliminated after the first preference count.
The Police Commissioner's salary is £65,000.

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Welsh Assembly election 5th May

I will leave the detailed election analysis for others to chew over, there's plenty out there if you're so inclined. So I'll be brief.

With Carms East and Dinefwr a predictably safe seat for Plaid Cymru, and Carmarthen West and South Pembs a safe Tory seat, the attention centred around Llanelli where a close fight between Plaid Cymru and Labour saw Plaid pipped at the post.

The Mid and West Wales regional vote (I have no idea how this works..ah, have now checked it out here) saw two Labour AMs, one Plaid and one UKIP returned. The one kipper being Neil Hamilton. Less said about that the better.

Across Wales Labour retained their hold though fell two seats short of the 31 seat majority. Former local government minister Leighton Andrews (Lab) lost his seat to Leanne Wood (Plaid) which might stall the council merger plans which were his baby. Disappointingly the regional vote returned seven UKIP candidates to the Welsh Assembly. The Libdems only managed to return one AM, their party leader Kirsty Williams (update 18.47, she's stepped down as leader).
One thing that remains apparent is the ability of defeated politicians, the morning after, to still claim that it was all, in fact, a resounding success.

If you're already missing the relentless campaigning, the EU referendum is just around the corner. Hopefully there won't be any cock-ups with the ballot papers next time.

Despite the recent and ongoing attacks by the Returning Officer, this blog will continue and will focus rather more on the local council elections when they come round in May 2017, that's if Carmarthenshire still exists (which it probably will).

Anyway here are the Carmarthenshire 2016 Assembly results;

Llanelli - turnout 47%

Lee Waters - Labour - 10,267
Helen Mary Jones - Plaid Cymru - 9,885
Ken Rees - UKIP - 4,132
Stefan Ryszewski - Conservative - 1,937
Sian Caiach - People First - 1,113
Guy Smith - Green - 427
Gemma Bowker - Libdem - 355

Carmarthenshire East and Dinefwr - turnout 54%

Adam Price - Plaid Cymru 14,427
Stephen Jeacock - Labour - 5,727
Matthew Paul - Conservative - 4,489
Neil Hamilton - UKIP - 3,474
William Powell - Libdem - 837
Freya Amesbury - Green - 797

Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire - turnout 50%

Angela Burns - Conservative - 10,355
Marc Tierney - Labour - 6,982
Simon Thomas - Plaid Cymru - 5,459
Allen Brookes - UKIP - 3,300
Chris Overton - Save Withybush - 1,638
Valerie Bradley - Green - 804
Alistair Cameron - Libdem - 699

Mid and West Wales Regional seats;

Neil Hamilton (UKIP)
Joyce Watson (Lab)
Eluned Morgan (Lab)
Simon Thomas (Plaid)

Plenty of coverage online at BBC Wales and if you prefer blogs, Oggy Bloggy has a good summary. 
The Police Commissioner election result will be declared on Sunday the 8th May.

8th May; As you can see from above, County Councillor Sian Caiach, who has my wholehearted support, stood for the Assembly election in Llanelli under the People First banner, she has written a brief blog post here. Here's an extract concerning the count;

"We had 3 recounts, all of which had different results but all favoured Labour. In the third recount 100 votes not belonging to UKIP were found in the UKIP bundles, 50 for Plaid and 50 for Labour, I believe. The returning officer argued that as Plaid were still behind we should stop now and Plaid agreed.I was left thinking of exactly how accurate are the results are everywhere else? After all if they are not close, they are never checked."