Thursday 29 June 2017

Regional Boards - is big always better?

Interesting blogpost caught my attention this morning from a councillor in far-away Bradford, don't let the politics put you off, (he's a conservative councillor), as he makes a valid point. The post concerns the rebranding of West Yorkshire Combined Authority to the Leeds City Region Combined Authority. As there is already a Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership, this array of names could be confusing to 'high-powered, multi-million pound wielding international business folk wanting to invest'. The councillor is concerned that with the name change, Bradford could, in effect, disappear from the civic map, let alone the village in which he lives. Decisions will be taken by remote and unaccountable officers rather than local representatives.

Here in Carmarthenshire we are used to decisions being taken by unaccountable senior officers with our county councillors nodding through anything they suggest, and plans to combine (ie reduce) local authorities were abandoned by the Welsh Government last year. However, 'Regional' arrangements are gradually creeping in with councillors and residents having even less say in the matter and the hybrid organisations themselves are showing little sign of transparency or local engagement.

A good example is the 'Wellness Village' proposed for Delta Lakes,Llanelli (see earlier posts). It is led by the council but is in fact part of the regional ARCH Programme. Councillors were told last year that they have no decision making powers over the development, importantly, this includes the costs.

ARCH (A Regional Collaboration for Health) consists of the health boards and the universities and is in itself, somehow or other, part of the Swansea Bay City Region (SBCR). ARCH has board meetings, the SBCR has board meetings (featuring former Carms Cllr Meryl Gravell) but publication of minutes, agendas etc is sporadic or non-existent. ARCH has a sub-committee, chaired by Meryl Gravell, to oversee the Wellness project, no glimpse of an agenda there either.

These muddled organisations appear to be run on a PR basis and the resources which could have gone to informing and consulting with the public, let alone local health services, are spent on nonsensical press releases filled with meaningless puffery. Eg 'We should view ARCH as the wave on which we can all ride to help us achieve success - faster, and together'

(To be honest I'm thinking of setting up a consultancy business devising instantly forgettable titles at enormous public expense, how about the 'Carmarthenshire Regional Area Programme'?...sounds about right..and bound to get a lot of interest...)

Then you have the Public Service Board, again administered by the council but includes health boards, fire service, police, councils, NRW, etc etc. From it's origins as a talking shop it has evolved into a statutory body and can now make decisions, as well as being, to all sense and purpose, still a talking shop. The website is engagingly titled 'The Carmarthenshire We Want', I'm not sure it's the Carmarthenshire everyone wants but just in case you have doubts you are invited to 'GET INVOLVED'.

I suggested sometime ago, to the PSB, that publishing the agendas and minutes might help to inform any resident who chanced upon the organisation what exactly they could get involved in. Eventually the documents appeared, in limited form. A few '#Ideas exchange workshops' for the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act have been arranged which shows, if little else, that someone knows what a hashtag is. I say little else as, to quote the council "the PSB has already developed draft Well-being Objectives for the Plan based on the Assessment of Local Well-being" (whatever that's supposed to mean). The PSB also churns out the Carmarthenshire News, led, again, by the council.

Education has also gone regional with ERW, Education through Regional Working. Not to be confused with Estyn, the school inspectorate. The aim of ERW is school improvement and to funnel grants to the schools, and is made up of the six local authorities. Again, no agendas or minutes have been published since last Autumn.

Regional working groups such as ERW come at a price, the managing director enjoys a salary of a shade under £100k and various 'Challenge advisers', presumably to challenge schools to do better, have to be employed by the individual local authorities. That's without the websites, logos and headed notepaper. It seems to me to be little more than an extra, and unnecessary tier of bureaucracy between local education authorities and the Welsh Government and the funds would be better spent in the classroom.

Whilst Welsh councils themselves will stay geographically intact, for now, more and more services will be delivered, or administered by Joint Committees or Regional Boards and whilst the concept of regional working is not all bad, (shared costs, economies of scale, joined-up thinking, blah blah,) they need to be accountable and not duplicate the organisations we already have.
The involvement of private companies, particularly in the SBCR also precludes any assumption of openness let alone actual local decision making.

I think the councillor from Bradford sums up the prospect pretty well;
"So us councillors, for example, get pressure to put in speed cameras but have precisely zero say in whether and where such cameras are actually installed. Somewhere in the documentation of the soon-to-be Leeds City Region Combined Authority there'll be a line of budget referring to the West Yorkshire Casualty Reduction Partnership. That is what 'member decision-making' means most of the time these days."

As we know, we have basket-case councils, well, one anyway, but at least we can see the problems and exert local pressure for change, or at least try to; in the case of distant and opaque Boards and Regions, that process becomes much trickier. Big doesn't necessarily mean better.

Friday 23 June 2017

Public audit time

Its that time of year again when the public are allowed to enter County Hall and inspect the council's accounts, and should you unearth evidence of creative accounting and/or slush funds, or an abnormally large consignment of brown envelopes, you can report your findings to the Wales Audit Office.

The public inspection period, by appointment only, lasts from 5th July until the 1st August and includes all books, receipts, invoices, contracts etc, well, not quite all but better than nothing. The contact details can be found on the council website here. In all seriousness, this public audit exercise is an important right and especially so when the council refuses to routinely publish its spending details, a legal requirement in England.

A few years back a small group of us decided to take the plunge and pop along to have a browse over several areas of interest. The council were far more concerned about who was coming, demanding NAMES in advance, rather than assisting us with our enquiries. We got the feeling that this was a very rare occurrence and no one else had had the cheek to be so intrusive in living memory. It was all a bit of a muddle but at least we had an experienced accountant in our group to help us wade through some of the mire. In fact, unless the process has become a bit more user friendly, taking your own accountant might be advisable...

One area of spending which was of interest at the time was the council's well resourced, and notorious press office and in particular it's very own recently established commercial PR company, SirGar PR and it's 'team of twenty'. Despite the finance department being a matter of yards from the press office, the bean counters had never even heard of SirGar PR, never mind how much it was costing. Eventually we gave up with it all, went home, and submitted various freedom of information requests instead. No idea what happened to SirGar PR.

Mind you, that was a breeze compared with the horrors of viewing the Register of Councillors' Gifts and Interests. Back in 2011 fellow blogger Cneifiwr and I were escorted to what appeared to be a broom cupboard in the depths of County Hall where the now retired head of democratic services passed us the dusty files, one at a time, returning each to its sacred position on the shelf before presenting the next, whilst pretending to write notes a matter of inches away from the uncomfortable bloggers. A second council officer also remained confined to the room, perhaps as a witness, just in case we told the Russians about Pam Palmer's silk scarf and box of tea...

Eventually the council were kicked into action and the Register is now online. The Register of Senior Officers' Interests, Expenses etc can still only be obtained via tortuous freedom of information requests, a quest I've embarked on once or twice. And as I said, spending details are not routinely published, and some spending will never be found; either deemed too 'sensitive' or lurking under the corporate mattress....

So if you have an interest, and know roughly what you're looking for, it is worth dropping by. If you do, please let me know how you get on...

* * *

Before I go, the Executive Board kicks off its business next Monday and one item on the agenda is an update on the Community Asset Transfers. This was a lengthy list of council owned parks, playgrounds and Recs which have been transferred to local Town and Community Councils to fund and run. 

Most transfers have been completed but its last chance saloon for twenty-one of them, covered by eleven Town and Community Councils (see here page 4, group D). A 'consultation' will now be held with 'various stakeholders' on the final fate of these playgrounds, but what will be uppermost in the council's mind is the valuable development land they sit on... 

Saturday 17 June 2017

Police summons

July 2nd 2017; Later post here, hearing is on the 13th July

* * *

I have now been served with a written charge and postal requisition from Dyfed Powys Police to attend Llanelli Magistrates Court at the end of this month. However, a brief adjournment has been agreed as my legal representative is unavailable on that day. The hearing will be relisted  - probably for next month (July) and I will then confirm the date.
The notice tells me I am charged with one alleged offence of non-violent harassment of Mark James relating to several posts on this blog. The details will become apparent on due course should this matter progress to a trial.

I was interviewed under caution in March giving a brief prepared statement in my defence, followed by no comment responses to all the questions.

As I did not comment then, it would not be appropriate for me to comment in any detail now prior to prosecution proceedings but I will be strongly defending my position in this, as I have with everything else that has happened.
Given my knowledge of the content of the police questions, and amongst other things, I repeat what I said a couple of weeks ago; it's ridiculous, misconceived and misguided, on every level.

Thursday 8 June 2017

Council news in brief, and a BBC report

I'm sure many of us have been a bit distracted, or perhaps driven to distraction, by the general election campaign but the polls are now open so please go and vote. My Twitter timeline has been bursting at its cyber-seams for weeks with polls, predictions and gaffes (from all sides), but, with distractions of my own, and non-aligned to boot, I've left the political analysis to others.
Anyway, all will be revealed early tomorrow (Friday) morning.
(Update; no change for Carms East and Dinefwr or Llanelli with Plaid's Jonathan Edwards and Labour's Nia Griffith both holding their seats)

Meanwhile that old chestnut Parc Howard is again causing controversy. Recent plans put forward by the council include a two-storey car park and the 'sensitive commercialisation' of the historic house and grounds in Llanelli. Just how 'sensitive' it will be remains to be seen. The expressions of interest were due in by the 25th April but so far all is quiet on the council's choice of 'preferred partners'. Let's just hope we don't have a repeat performance of the fiasco we saw earlier with clandestine meetings and peculiar potential partners.

Talking of friends 'preferred partners', also rumbling away in the background is the super-dooper Wellness Centre at Delta Lakes, Llanelli, or the 'luxury spa and private healthcare village' as it's otherwise known. Plans have already been approved to prepare the land, well, to raise it high enough to avoid the thing floating away on the next major flood.

Expressions of interest were invited back in March to deliver the £200m+ scheme with the council. As with Parc Howard, all is quiet even though the formal tender was due to go out mid-May. So far, there's no sign of it. You get the feeling that the partners will actually be chosen at the EoI stage, or in fact, already have been, a couple of years ago.

Despite involving ££££ of public money, you may recall the chief executive stating some time ago that councillors need not trouble their pretty heads about this taxpayer funded extravaganza, it was out of their hands and a matter for far more important people to decide upon. He might, he promised, let them have the occasional progress report. In the end they were treated to a massive PR show, complete with a sales pitch which would have been the envy of Arthur Daley, and 3D Video in dreamy conceptual white.

After all, given the chief executive's track record in creating more white elephants than a safari park, I'm sure all is safe in his hands....and usefully, Meryl's still moving and shaking in the Wellness Dream of course...

These are all items and issues which will be coming up in the future. It takes Carmarthenshire Council, post-local election, a little time for the wheels of democracy, if you could ever call it that, to lurch and stagger into action, and the whole circus shuts down again for August anyway.
Full council will next meet on the 21th June when business will get underway and we can judge the mettle of our new councillors. (update 14th June; this meeting has now been cancelled..). Meanwhile the only notable gathering in the near future is the Standards Committee tomorrow (9th June).

On the agenda is the annual rubber stamp review of the council's Whistleblowing Policy. This is a standard item, with the document, theoretically, ticking all the right boxes, including the warning that going to the press might exclude you from the 'protections' of the policy... In practice however, experiences can be less than satisfactory. It was only a few short months ago that a former manager of Pembrey Country Park explained how the council turned his life upside down and put him through hell after blowing the whistle on malpractice.

Appearing for the first time is a list of recent whistleblowing complaints currently being 'dealt with' under the policy. Details are (understandably) in outline only, but one in particular stands out as being potentially worrying;

And finally...

BBC Wales reports today (online and on tv) that the chief executive has not repaid the legal costs of his unlawfully funded libel counterclaim back to the council. The figure they have is £29,414 although the figure I was given was a shade under £41,000. The true amount, and I guarantee that taking officer time, reports, legal advice etc etc into account, it's a lot more than that.

The costs, which he's not repaying, are not of course, to be confused with the damages, which he's not repaying either. You may recall that at the court hearing on the 23rd March 2017 it became apparent that Mr James has breached his undertaking to hand the damages over to the council.

Furthermore, the BBC have obtained a statement from the council which says; "As far as we are aware, Mr James has yet to receive payment of any damages by Mrs Thompson.". I am not entirely clear when this statement was obtained but as I said to the BBC, I've made two payments so far. I am supposed to pay £250 per month until 2032. If I don't, Mr James will be demanding the house keys forthwith and adding to his burgeoning property portfolio, as his solicitors have made clear;

"For the avoidance of doubt, should you fail to make any payment in accordance with the attached schedule, our client will immediately invoke the Order for Sale without further reference to you"

Perhaps he has put it in the gutter after all.

The BBC online report features a short video about the unlawful costs, and if I had the tech skills I'd put it on here. Here's a screenshot instead, with a link below (have now found a Facebook link to the video here);

Blogger libel: Council boss's £30k legal bill not repaid

14th June; The failure by the chief executive to repay this money was also reported (print only) by the Carmarthenshire Herald and Carmarthen Journal.

Thursday 1 June 2017

Cardiff connections - Jac o' the North's post - updated

Update 14th August 2017; Mr James and Cardiff Bay - the Western Mail reports

Update 19th June 2017; A further post from Jac o' the North - Baywatch 2

* * *

Last week I made a passing reference to council chief executive Mark James' business affairs relating to property in Cardiff.
Jac o' the North has also picked up on these recent developments, via Companies House, so, for quite a bit more than a passing reference, have a read of his latest post; Baywatch