Monday 15 May 2017

After the local election - a few thoughts

Despite the general election campaign lurching along for a couple more weeks, played out on social media, all round, like some sort of pantomime, the local election is over. We've got what we've got for the next five years, pending any dramatic mid-term changes, which, as we saw with Plaid taking over in Carmarthenshire in 2015 was more akin to a quietly revolving door rather than a 'political reboot'.

I haven't got any party axe to grind and most residents and voters will not really be interested in the general background of their councillor, what they may have tweeted five years ago (within reason) nor what their wives/husbands or children do, or did. In politics, no matter who is accused of what, there is usually an equal measure of 'baggage' to be found trailing behind the accuser, it all depends on who can shout, or tweet, the loudest.

The issue of manipulating the postal vote, which, as usual, gets a mention at local election time, is an interesting one as it has gone on for years, pretty much everywhere and practised, in varying degrees, by all sides.
If your ward is blessed with, for instance, a care home for the elderly, a sheltered housing complex, or a substantial ethnic population, the potential is there to 'help' postal voters with the forms and in return gain a few extra crosses just for being the kindly, thoughtful candidate who provided 'assistance', maybe even popping along to the post box on the voter's behalf.

After the rapid rearguard action by Plaid to retain power by joining up with the remnants of the Independent group within hours of the end of the count (did voters realise their 'Independent' candidate was going to join with Plaid?), Labour are consigned once again to the opposition bench.

The importance of a strong opposition cannot be underestimated. Opposition for oppositions sake; for political point scoring or personal attack is counter-productive, even if it means a few column inches in the local paper. All parties should strive for the good of the whole county, and all communities, and should work together to achieve this. Well, in theory anyway.

A good opposition in any council chamber, in my view, provides checks and balances and most of all scrutiny of decision making by those in power (whether it is elected or, in the case of Carmarthenshire, unelected power). This is why no executive board members sit on scrutiny committees, and why transparency is so vital.
All parties have good and bad ideas depending on your viewpoint but the general direction of travel is laid down by the financial constraints on the authority balanced against the demands and demography of the population.

Take for instance the proposed Wellness Village at Delta Lakes, Llanelli (please search this blog for earlier posts). This has actually been in the pipeline for around five years. The council have been paying consultancy firms (mainly Arup in this case) since 2012 to devise various masterplans; they've chosen a preferred developer and even made preparations in the hope that the whole development won't be under water in a few years time, a perfectly realistic possibility.

We don't know how much has been spent on any of this as the council refuses to publish its spending details. Neither has there been any public consultation.
We also know that money set aside for a new care home in Llanelli has been withheld as the movers and shakers in Wellness try and shoehorn it into Delta Lakes instead. This has been to the detriment of elderly and vulnerable who didn't have time to wait for unknown private investors to possibly sign joint ventures with public authorities, arrangements entirely dependent on those public authorities borrowing a shedload of extra cash.

Take this with the fact that the emphasis for development in the Wellness Village is for private health care (mentioned in Arup's brief and the Local Development Plan) and it's quite incredible that both Plaid and Labour have swallowed the spin, described the project as an unmissable opportunity and signed up to invest your money in private health care. I don't think that appeared on anyone's manifesto.

What the whole Swansea Bay City Deal will mean for Carmarthenshire, apart from, undoubtedly, a couple of well paid jobs for the boys, is a completely unknown level of borrowing, adding to the near £400m it already owes. Extra borrowing, or any spending for that matter, to reel in private investment should always be treated with extreme caution and at least be the subject of proper, transparent procedure and efficient scrutiny, especially when it comes to promises based on spin rather than evidence.

If nothing else it doesn't appear to be a development based the demands and demographics of the population

A good opposition group should ensure that they are very well informed, and, to put it simply, cut though the spin and expose policy, plans and even masterplans for what they are. Get back to the basics and look at the evidence, look at the costings, the business plans, the projections etc Check that the independent advice is actually independent and not provided by a consultancy firm looking simply to further it's own financial interests. Never accept that there's 'No other option' as there always is, even if it's in how the target is reached and not just the hoped for outcome.

The problem facing most elected members is how to deliver promises made on the doorstep. In a 'pothole' analogy there are only a certain number which will be fixed in any given year, it will depend on the persistence of your local councillor, and the refusal to take no for an answer which will determine whether your particular pothole will be fixed any time soon. Promises made concerning wider, and more intangible policy issues such as the delivery of affordable housing, social care or education can be safely abandoned to the slowly turning wheels of local government once the votes have been safely cast.

What cannot be avoided is the perception that councillors, and not just the opposition, are nothing more than nodding donkeys. No one wants to oppose plans to provide more affordable and social housing of course and the Plaid group, and Labour before them have tried to improve the housing situation by starting to build a few council houses, removing the Right to Buy, local lettings policies, buying derelict houses etc etc which is all well and good.

What I am trying to point out is that, in the case of housing for instance, how much more could have been done, and could be done, without funnelling millions into a boggy field in Llanelli for the past five years, a rugby stadium for the past ten, or, for that matter, quietly bailing out Llanelly House to the tune of  £350k a few weeks ago. That in itself would have provided enough cash to build four council houses. These decisions, whilst officer-led, were happily endorsed by both Labour, Plaid and the Independent Group. Some spending decisions, as we know, were downright illegal.

Councillors have rights to access a wealth of information and this includes a system to ask officers questions relating to ward issues, or anything in fact related to council matters or decisions. A few years back Sian Caiach had her access to officers restricted for asking too many questions. I also came under criticism, from the same source (guess who), for making too many Freedom of Information requests. The fact that the questions and requests related to a variety of topics, and all related to council business didn't seem to matter, in the present culture, exercising such rights are seen as intrusive.

The problem in Carmarthenshire has been that those who challenge, and those who demand proper and open scrutiny regarding the more fanciful officer-led projects are labelled as misled and misinformed, or as troublemakers acting against the interests of the communities in which they live or represent. This culture needs to change, particularly before the county is unceremoniously plunged into a 'once-in-a-generation' (to use the 'Wellness' hype, of which there is plenty), black hole.

So to conclude, I guess the message for new councillors, the public, the opposition, and even backbench councillors from the 'ruling' groups, is to be informed and never be afraid to challenge anything which even faintly whiffs of spin. You were not voted in to be a useful, pliant, democratic rubber-stamp for the benefit of senior management.
If you find yourself accused of asking too many questions or suddenly depicted as an obstacle to the greater good of Carmarthenshire, you're quite possibly on the right track.

(previous post - Carmarthenshire Council election results, 5th May)


Lesley said...

Brilliant, just brilliant.

Anonymous said...

Correction !!
The Revolving Door was not slow revolving.
It was jammed by someone, so could not rotate at all.

Wavell said...

This "Wellness Village" idea is bothering me quite a lot.

Can anyone clarify what benefits it will have for the "working class" electorate of Carmarthenshire ?

I believe that a private health service is beyond the financial means of the ordinary working man, more suited to the use by our "fat cats".

Surely there is some Plaid supporter who can clarify the above.

Looking forward to many replies (I wish).

Anonymous said...

Very well said. Let's hope the new councillors, and the older ones, take note. God knows we need change. With Sian Caiach and Bill Thomas gone we need others to step up to the plate.

It seems that the Wellness project is for those with money enough to pay for private health care not those who the propaganda is aimed at, who don't! Its a red herring to suggest it's for everyone.

caebrwyn said...

Former Labour councillor Calum Higgins has, on his blog @InsideCarms the latest rumours on the new Plaid Cymru additions (though not 'new' councillors) to the Executive Board, positions which carry a salary of £29,100. Apparently Glynog Davies is rumoured to be taking the education portfolio and will be joined by Peter Hughes Griffiths and Cefin Campbell though their portfolios are not yet clear. It remains to be seen who will take over the Regeneration brief following the long awaited departure of Meryl Gravell. The remainder of the board is rumoured to be unchanged. Gravell is, of course, still involved with the Wellness thing...
These positions will be confirmed at the AGM next week.