Thursday 28 September 2017

Unlawful payments - Ireland and Carmarthenshire - Compare and contrast...

Interesting report from Ireland where a government minister is repaying €16,000 she had received in unlawful payments. The money was an extra allowance which was eventually deemed ineligible and she has agreed to hand the money back to the public purse at €1000 a month. Whether it was a deliberate attempt to deceive, or not, seems debatable.


Compare that to Wales, and Carmarthenshire where the council chief executive took £60,000 in unlawful payments and refused to hand any of it back. And that was very deliberate. And no pressure from Welsh Government to pay it back either.

Regular readers will be aware of the 2014 Wales Audit Office findings so I'll not go over it all again, but half of it was the pension tax avoidance payments, a scam Mr James shared with Bryn Parry Jones, former CEO of Pembrokeshire County Council. Jones left with a golden handshake, minus the pension cash which the Wales Audit Office insisted was deducted. Perhaps they'll do the same when Mr James goes...

The other half was the illegal libel counterclaim costs. With veiled threats to sue the council, Mr James, and his legal sidekick Linda Rees Jones also managed to avoid disciplinary action.
Earlier this summer, the BBC again highlighted the fact he's never repaid it;

Carmarthenshire Council's Flag Policy

Update 18th February 2018; The council are still refusing to fly the Rainbow Flag.

* * *

In the grand scheme of things, the business of flying flags might not be one of the most important issues facing Carmarthenshire but the refusal to fly the Rainbow flag, the universal symbol of support for diversity and inclusion for LGBT rights, from civic buildings has been something of an ongoing saga, especially as almost every other public organisation in the UK happily flies the flag during LGBT events. Some have even wondered whether or not the religious sensibilities  of certain senior officials may have crept in to public policy...

Recent background can be found here. A few weeks ago I made a Freedom of Information request for the elusive and unpublished Flag policy 'adopted' in July 2015 (deemed 'necessary' due to excessive demands for flag flying...actually there were just two recorded requests) and it's finally turned up, albeit a little late. The full thread, and the policy, can be found here.

The policy is interesting for a couple of reasons.
Last year the Carmarthenshire Herald reported on a request from a community organisation for the Rainbow flag to be flown. The request was rejected by the chief executive. He said that whilst the council might support community organisations, "We" (the royal 'we' of course, there was not a whiff of councillor involvement) "have taken a view that this does not extend to flag flying at civic buildings". 

This isn't what the policy, adopted twelve months previously, states. There is no blanket ban and it states that 'Ad hoc' requests would be considered, and although the council reserves the right to reject requests, it was a matter for the Leader of the council, and not, we must assume, the chief executive. If you're going to cobble a policy together you might at least try and stick to the basic message.

I've looked at a few other flag policies (ok, yes I should probably get out more...) and out of those, no special consent is required for the Rainbow flag at all and in general, community organisation flags are happily flown for a special event. In fact the council's Rainbow flag (they do have one) made one very brief appearance, just after the Orlando massacre, and fluttered just long enough for the press office to dash out and tweet a picture, policy or not...

The rest of the policy is largely taken from central government guidance which includes detailed protocol for flag flying on assorted royal birthdays etc. Interestingly, for us in Wales, the Union Jack "will be displayed in a position superior to any other flag", including the national flag of Wales. Who knew?!

As you can read from the Herald article, the council featured in the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index. This year the council disappeared completely from the Index. It seems, from this Freedom of Information response, that the council's senior management decided to 'pause and review Stonewall membership'. We don't know why.

Friday 15 September 2017

News round-up; Schools and spin..other news...and more spin

The Autumn term at County Hall kicks off next week with September's full council meeting, the agenda, for your information, is here. It includes a Motion and a couple of questions from the Labour benches over the proposed cuts to the education budget over the next three years. The planned cuts, amounting to £15m, nearly half of the total cuts to be made, were rubber stamped for consultation by the Executive Board back in July.

I daresay the responses will be to say that 'nothing's been decided', there'll be some cross-party blaming and accusations of scaremongering. We'll have to see what happens. Last year's planned school cuts were lessened after the council bean counters jiggled the council loan repayments to free up some cash, which was also just happened to be prior to the council such election this time round.

Meanwhile, the council press office, or 'Media and Marketing' department as it's now known, and which, as usual, remains largely unscathed from the worst of the cuts, has been busy putting together some spin. A video appeared over the summer rejoicing in the £250m spent on new schools and refurbishments. No doubt this is all very welcome, but what the message fails to convey is that this expenditure was over fifteen years and involved the closure of over 40 schools and decimated the heart of many rural communities. Building new schools is a false economy when the actual teaching budgets are being slashed, let alone spending precious resources on pointless spin.

Anyway, do tune in next Wednesday at 10am,
Link to meeting here.

* * *

Also up next week is a meeting of the Licencing Committee where an application from Scarlets' Regional Ltd is being discussed. The application is to extend the sale of alcohol to the external area of the Parc Y Scarlets' stadium, ie some grassy areas and the car park, and to extend the hours to, well, all day, every day.

Regular readers will be aware of the controversies surrounding the development of the stadium and the ongoing cost to the taxpayers (same happened in Boston where the very same council chief executive had a similar 'vision') so I'll not repeat it again but a more recent controversy gives the application an ironic twist.

A couple of years ago a 'surplus' car park, owned by the club and the council was sold off to Marstons' Inns, planning irregularities were 'dealt with' and, thanks to the intervention of Mark James, the taxpayer ended up losing over £200,000. The details can be found on this blog, including here. Anyway, Marstons went on to build a pub and more recently a 27 bed hotel on the site...and are now the main objectors to Scarlets' Regional licensing plans, and as can be seen from the application, have put their strongly worded objections in the hands of their solicitors.

* * *
I mentioned, earlier this year that the council had managed to find £350k stuffed down the back of the corporate sofa (the precious revenue budget actually) for Llanelly House, the restored Georgian House and visitor attraction in Llanelli. The house is run by the Cambrian Heritage Regeneration Trust (CHRT) which is also supposed to be restoring the YMCA building in Merthyr. Further background to the CHRT can be found here on Jac o'the North's blog.

Clearly the trust were in difficulties and although the Executive Board decision was held in secret, Company House records show auditors' material concerns with the ongoing viability of the trust. In fact a couple of years ago Finance Wales refused to come up with any more cash and even the council changed it's mind about advancing a £200k loan. There are nine outstanding charges and, needless to say, a considerable amount of public money involved. The chief executive of the trust, who also acted as a consultant, resigned in December.

Companies House now shows that things were a lot worse and a few weeks after the council dished out £350,000, and the Lottery paid out £250,000 to fund a 'business review', the Trust called in the insolvency practitioners and entered a Company Voluntary Arrangement, a legally binding high court agreement to pay off its creditors.
CHRT's current status with the Charity Commission doesn't look too good either with the Trust having 'failed to provide information on its finances within 10 months of its financial year end'.

I wish the place every success and I'm sure that after such an expensive 'business review' it will be turning its fortunes around...but, given the precarious finances it would be interesting to know exactly what the terms of the £350k grant were, and what CHRT actually did with it. Given the council's stance on Parc Howard, maybe some of our councillors might like find out.

* * *

Finally, rather like the email snooping story, I am reminded of another Carmarthenshire saga from elsewhere in the UK. Public interest journalists at 853London report that Greenwich Council have threatened to withdraw advertising from a new weekly paper for publishing critical news stories. The article is well worth a read and of course no such story is complete without a link to Carmarthenshire's efforts to control the editorial freedom of the local press.

The link related to events in 2012 when advertising was withdrawn from the South Wales Guardian after a mildly critical article raising the concerns of Ammanford traders. The proof of the pudding appeared in a leaked email from the council press office. A subsequent Plaid motion (Oh how things have changed..) for full council to support the freedom of the local press was blocked by the chief executive...'Council Chief accused of gagging free speech' screamed the Plaid the time.

There was, of course, more to it than that and council pressure on newspapers, or complaints to the corporate owners often had the desired effect. I provided a summary back in 2015. In another instance, a call from County Hall led to a reporter's freedom of information request concerning senior officers expenses being withdrawn. You can guess who was behind the call and who's expenses they were... The Mark James Media Empire also ensured that the council's press manager attended the duration of the libel trial in London. Despite this, there was much courtroom consternation amongst the other side on the last day when The Times published it's leader...

Another sinister threat, a sword of Damocles if you like, to any enthusiastic investigative reporters was the threat to sue for libel, unique to Carmarthenshire Council and enshrined in the constitution in 2008... and suspended due to being entirely illegal in 2014.

As time has moved on, the internet has proved to be one step ahead of Mr James; a quiet word, an invitation to lunch to new editors, or a fatuous complaint don't usually go unnoticed any more and become the story itself. A pop at the Herald when it was first published in Carmarthenshire resulted in a headline story which reached well out of county.

The council propaganda rag, the Carmarthenshire News is now down to two hard copies and two electronic editions a year. It is run by the council but funded by several other equally cash-strapped public bodies which make up the talking shop Public Service Board. According to the PSB the e-editions 'had not worked the way it was intended' (at cost unknown) and all was to be reviewed, with better use of existing social media a possible way forward. Yes, and cheaper.

In what appears to me to have been a desperate and last ditch attempt to have a go at the press, Mr James CBE went to the police to say I was harassing him by republishing critical articles, most notably from the Herald and Private Eye. In what can only be described as cowardice he never troubled the publications themselves, both of which would have had the means to put up a fight.
Fortunately the CPS decided he was a lost cause.

Monday 11 September 2017

Email snooping; from Liverpool to Carmarthenshire....and complaints up by 45%

There's a row brewing in Liverpool Council where a resident's email to her councillor was snooped on by senior officials. Reported by the Liverpool Echo, Libdem Cllr Andrew Makinson was shocked to discover that an email sent by Ms Josie Mullen, who is a former councillor and a campaigner against certain council developments had been intercepted - finally arriving in his inbox, complete with comments added by the customer feedback manager located in the chief executive's office. Incidentally, Liverpool's chief executive is currently on bail under suspicion of perverting the course of justice.

Afterwards, Cllr Makinson tweeted 'They're just diverting emails sent by anyone they think complains too much or asks too many questions.'

Naturally, all this sounds rather familiar and reminds us of a similar occurrence here in Carmarthenshire. You may recall that former councillor Sian Caiach had her emails monitored a few years back. She recounted the experience on her blog a few months ago.

The wider issue is that in general, residents, or even campaigners, email their local councillor in the mistaken belief that their communication, which may include very personal matters, eg health and family issues, will only be seen by said councillor, not passed around every Tom, Dick and Harry in County Hall, whether it's Carmarthenshire, Liverpool, or anywhere else.

Sian Caiach wasn't aware that her emails had been tracked until the evidence popped up in the disclosures after the libel trial in 2013. She had no idea what had been going on, she would never have been told, and had to then advise her constituents to use her personal email, not her council account.

Given the circumstances in Carmarthenshire, the order to track was clearly made by the chief executive. Asking junior officers to carry out questionable tasks may have become a bit of a habit for Mr James, from allegations in his previous employment that a member of staff had been 'persuaded' to backdate a document, to the liberal use of council computers to provide evidence for the police in a private complaint.

As with the case in Liverpool, where the correspondent was a campaigner, Sian Caiach was also considered 'problematic' by County Hall, ie someone who asks questions. We will never know how many other councillors have been subjected to the MI5 tactics from Jail Hill.

Aside from the automatic filtering out of spam etc, a council has powers to intercept communications where serious crime or matters of national security are at stake but to monitor councillors and residents communications on the basis that they are a outspoken and persistent is patently wrong.

Any campaign against a council decision/project is likely to involve a degree of persistent communication, it's the nature of peaceful protest, and councillors, or residents have a right and even a duty to ask 'awkward' questions; as long as the contact remains polite there should be no problem. Such snooping in Liverpool, or Carmarthenshire, could quite possibly be unlawful under data protection law and Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, let alone unethical.

The email episode in Carmarthenshire led to a review of the council's email usage policy where, after three years, it was decided that the chief executive and the monitoring officer, ie Mark and the dutiful Linda could authorise the tracking of a councillor's emails.
They might as well have not bothered with the review.

It will be interesting to see what happens in Liverpool, Cllr Makinson, like Sian Caiach, has now advised his constituents not to use his council email account. In Carmarthenshire, residents should always be aware that their emails might be being read by anyone, long before it arrives in your councillor's inbox.

In not entirely unrelated news, council complaints in Carmarthenshire have risen by 45% in just one year. A report to the Standards Committee next Friday (update; I've just noticed it's been cancelled until a later date)) shows that the jump was largely due to the changes to refuse collection last Autumn. At best it shows a failure by the council to adequately convey the changes to one of the most basic of council services to its residents. There's also a jump in complaints relating to children's services.

Some of the complaints are also outlined in the report. The summaries leave much to the imagination. To give an example, under 'Administration and Law' it 'was acknowledged that a conversation could have been handled more effectively'...
One complaint regarding the conduct of Carmarthen Market security staff was upheld and a complaint made regarding the tender of sale of property was partially upheld. A Blue Badge renewal pack was sent to a deceased person, and there were complaints related to social care.
There were lots of misunderstandings, explanations and apologies.

Figures are also provided for compliments with quotes from satisfied customers; there are no quotes provided from the complaints, sadly.

Obviously it would be a rare thing for a large organisation to have no complaints and I am not, and never have, criticised the vast majority of staff. The problems arise when complaints become complex and come up against the notorious County Hall culture of defensiveness and there is plenty of evidence of that over the years.
I remember the chief executive, at the libel trial stating with some satisfaction that most people write one or two letters 'then give up'.

Complaints concerning 'properly made policy decisions' are not classed as complaints at all. This all depends on the wide interpretation of the word 'properly' and the degree of deployment of  smoke and mirrors. Anyone complaining about the introduction of a £48 charge for garden waste collection, for example, would have been politely ignored despite the lack of consultation. The same goes for schools closures or council vanity projects.

I made a complaint last year that the chief executive had been economical with the truth in a statement to the Western Mail, and had used the council press office in the process. Apparently this did not meet the criteria of a formal complaint either...

Thursday 7 September 2017

Swansea Bay City Deal - Pembrokeshire having doubts?

Update 4th October; BBC Wales reporting that Neath Port Talbot are also having concerns over governance and the potential borrowing required. The borrowing will be at least £360m between the councils, probably far more at a time when, for instance, Carmarthenshire Council can't even afford to run local playgrounds.
Interestingly the report states that the Welsh Government have told ARCH, (involved in the Wellness thing) to look for 'alternative sources of funding'. NPT have said they won't plug any funding doubt Carmarthenshire will oblige.
Taxpayers' money, poor governance, Mark James a key player...what could possibly go wrong?


Interesting to see the new leader of Pembrokeshire council, Cllr David Simpson, expressing caution and real concern over the Swansea Bay City Deal at a Pembs Committee meeting webcast (around 40 minutes in) this morning. He claimed that it was not all it seemed; he had "difficulties with the Board"; no one knew what they were letting themselves in for, and it "didn't quite stack up".
He also hinted that Pembrokeshire could pull out of it, though it was not for him to say.
He was also concerned about the 'substantial amount' the council would have to borrow - and whether it would ever be repaid. Commercial interests should self-supporting.

I have no idea what Pembrokeshire will do in the end, but it was refreshing to hear someone question the whole deal. Carmarthenshire, Neath Port Talbot and Swansea councils are the other three local authorities involved and it will be up to the lead representatives, in our case the chief executive of course, to convince their council that enticing, and propping up commercial ventures by borrowing, and risking millions of pounds worth of public money is a great idea.

Carmarthenshire is well down the City Deal road with the hard-sell being presented to council earlier this year by our own expert second-hand car salesman, Mr James. The presentation included the luxury spa Wellness Village and the only councillor to raise some sort of challenge was Sian Caiach who was, as usual, shot down by the chief executive with barely concealed rage. Who will ask the questions now I wonder?

The problem with the City Deal, from a scrutiny perspective is that's impossible to challenge anything without being fully informed as to what's going on. The private investment element ensures that, even given the amount of public money involved, it is all considered confidential or 'sensitive'. The level of transparency is nil. Your average backbench councillor will be the last to know who's involved or what's at stake.

The Pembs council leader mentioned the 'Promotional material' and so far this is all we have. By the bucket-load. The City Deal has a flashy new website which tells you absolutely nothing other than the spin which has been doing the rounds for the last couple of years. If it looks and smells like b******t, then it most probably is; or at least demands a degree of inquiry. We don't want another Circuit of Wales fiasco or a questionable Welsh Government land deal.

As I said, who will ask the questions in Carmarthenshire, which is already £388m in debt and has a track record of putting the interests of taxpayer somewhere near the bottom of the priority pile? As the chief executive has said he has a lead role in all this, then he is the one to provide answers. Councillors could also ask him how his own business affairs in Cardiff Bay square with his involvement with the City Deal, and while they're at it, how he manages to find the time to be a £171k a year chief executive...or does he run it all from the same office?

Anyway, as for the 'Deal', and the Wellness thing, I suggest councillors get themselves fully informed...before it's too late.

The City Deal promotional 'signing' launch in March (pic; WalesOnline)

Car park at Parc Howard

Anyone who has submitted a planning application will know that if justification is required for something or other, then justification you will have to provide. The consistency with which this is applied can vary a great deal, depending on the identity of the applicant, or whichever party political whip is being wielded at a planning committee meeting.

One example of this is for the new car park at Parc Howard where the applicant is the council itself and justification seems remarkably thin on the ground. Controversy over the future of this Grade II listed building and grounds in Llanelli has rumbled on for years, (see previous posts) and although it remains, for now, in public ownership, the council have decided that private investment is the only option and have already invited 'expressions of interest' for wedding venues, conference organisers and the like.
No one knows, of course, who will be (or who already has been) selected, we just hope that the ridiculous fiasco from Meryl and co a couple of years ago isn't repeated.

Any suggestion of commercialisation, sensitive or otherwise, will be of concern itself and will, by its nature, inevitably limit access for the public to the house and grounds, bequeathed to the people of Llanelli by the Stepney family in 1911. The proposed car park, which is not a simple car park but a two-level affair requiring the destruction of a tennis court and numerous mature trees, will cost around £100k (I think this is optimistic) and is clearly for the benefit of the prospective private investors the council hopes to attract rather than for visitors to the park.

If we look at the application itself (S/35541), it's full of holes, or, as above, a lack of justification. The submission from CADW states that it is 'inadequately documented' and does 'not provide any justification for bringing cars into the public park or for the proposed car park', and will have a 'direct adverse impact on the historic character of the registered park'.

The council's environmental health department has also issued a warning. The site is adjacent to an area of high air pollution, now a designated Air Quality Management Area. It states that 'No information has been provided on the likely or anticipated vehicle trips that will be made to the car park or the turnover rate of the spaces. It is therefore very difficult to determine what
impact the proposal may have on the AQMA'. As it stands, the proposal may have a 'significant adverse impact' on air quality, which is already exceeding safe levels.

The ecologist has also warned that where some areas are to be grassed over, the wizard plan to poke holes in the tarmac and cover it with topsoil and seed is likely to fail...I think he might be right.

The play area, heralded by the sudden arrival of bulldozers, was started without planning permission at all and had to be sought retrospectively. This is unlikely to provide anyone with any confidence that due process will be followed. In the case of the current proposals I would suggest it's a case of going back to the drawing board. According to LlanelliOnline, campaigners have asked the Welsh Government to call-in the application and take it out of the hands of Carmarthenshire council.

Gorsedd Circle sandwiched between zip wires and the play area started without planning permission...thoughful landscaping courtesy of Carms council.
Justification will be another interesting element for the Wellness Village vanity project planned for Delta Lakes, Llanelli and it remains to be seen how private health care, luxury spas, 'Wellness Tourism' and assorted conceptual buzzwords are portrayed in the planning application, when it eventually appears. Of even greater concern is the cost to the authority with upfront borrowing likely to be in the high millions (no one seems entirely sure yet), with little or no assurance that it will ever be paid back, or be financially sustainable.

How strange then that a very popular historic public park, and museum, which encourages access through walking, cycling and public transport should fail to be properly maintained by the council. You might think that it ticked all the 'Wellness' boxes without costing an arm and a leg (or future work for forensic auditors), so to speak. As for culture, the council are redeveloping the Oriel Gallery in Carmarthen given its 'rich history dating back to the 19th Century'.

Parc Howard, it seems, will be handed over to the wedding planners.

Saturday 2 September 2017

Meeting with the Police Commissioner

Update 16th November; See later post Response from Police Commissioner

Update 14th October; The wait goes on and to date there's been no news regarding the removal of the harassment warning. The Police Commissioner's office emailed yesterday with the following update;
"Further to your meeting with the Commissioner and recent communication with this office, I write to advise you that the Commissioner has received some updates on your case, however, awaits a final response from the Chief Constable directly.  We hope to be in a position to provide you with a full and substantive reply soon."


Just in case you thought I'd gone away for good I thought I'd better get back to the blog. The silly season is nearing its end and the wheels of democracy, Carmarthenshire style, will soon rumble back into action. Not that Caebrwyn has been sitting on her laurels, having made a few enquiries via the Freedom of Information Act, including this one currently languishing in the County Hall in-tray.

Before we eventually wander back into the world of budgets, spin, dodgy decisions and assorted extra-curricular activities I must mention, briefly, a meeting I had yesterday at Police HQ with the Dyfed Powys Police Commissioner, Dafydd Llywelyn.

To cut a long story short, after I contemplated, on social media, whether the current strains on the police budget might have been a little less painful without the chief executive wasting 18 months of their time and money, Mr Llywelyn offered me a meeting. As my concerns and questions were related directly to the police I had asked for the chief constable to be present. Unfortunately he was otherwise engaged.

However, it was a positive meeting and Mr Llywelyn appeared open and honest and seemed interested to hear my side of events from over the past 18 months, and asked many questions. He seemed genuinely surprised at some elements of the saga, a bit of an eye-opener perhaps. In fact he also turned out to be an occasional reader of blogs, giving Cneifiwr and Jac o'the North a name-check...

I decided to focus my concerns and complaints into a brief document, suspecting that, given the remit of the Commissioner, much of the content would have to be placed before the police themselves.

There were three specific complaints regarding the police action against me. First and foremost was for the Police Information Notice (harassment warning) be removed from the record immediately. This was nonsense when it was issued last year and became even more nonsensical, and completely devoid of legal force when the CPS dropped the case against me a few weeks ago. It remains an insidious threat though, which shouldn't be there.

I have also queried why the police decided to prosecute given the basis and nature of Mr James' complaints, eg me asking my MP for help when I was losing my home, an article from Private Eye, etc, (a great summary can be found over on Cneifiwr's blog). The CPS decision confirmed that the police were wrong and I want this looked at.

Then there is the Conflict of Interest matter. As we know the 'close working relationship' between Dyfed Powys police and Mr James was acknowledged in 2014, and Gloucestershire Police were hauled in to investigate Mr James rather than Dyfed Powys.
According to the police, with regards to their investigation of Mr James' complaints against me, there is no conflict of interest.
I have asked for an investigation into this mysterious and inexplicable leap of logic.

In addition to the complaints above, I have also asked the Commissioner, who has control and oversight of police resources, to support my request that the police investigate Mr James for wasting police time and I have also asked the police to investigate Mr James for misconduct in public office.

With regards to the latter, and despite being spoilt for choice, I am asking the police, following the additional information revealed at the county court hearing on the 23rd March this year, to re-investigate the matter of the Wales Audit report highlighted by Jonathan Edwards MP in 2014. And also the misuse of public resources to provide evidence for the police.

As for wasting police time, I have provided factual details as to why I do not believe Mr James' complaints were genuine or correctly motivated. I believe there was an abuse of the criminal justice system, and a 'close working relationship' with the police, to pursue criminal complaints which either lacked any evidence whatsoever or were essentially civil matters, and were known by him to be so. The CPS decision confirmed this.

I am not holding my breath but let's just hope that the police treat my complaints as seriously as they did for Mr James. I have the evidence so we'll wait and see. Mr Llywelyn has assured me that all this will be passed on to the relevant departments, including the chief constable and that I will be kept informed.

The meeting concluded with Mr Llywelyn asking me, with a smile, what I thought of the departing words of the previous Commissioner, Christopher Salmon in May 2016;

"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."

I said he was spot on. Mr Llywelyn was non-committal....
Give him time...