Sunday, 1 October 2017

The tail wagging the dog, as usual

The involvement of the chief executive in debates at full council has become so commonplace over the years that no one appears to notice when he regularily oversteps the mark and sets out to influence the vote rather than merely offer advice. This doesn't just happen in full council in this officer-led regime, but is always more obvious under the glare of the webcam.

The July meeting saw the chief executive intervene (link here and here) during a vote to cap senior pay, not one councillor raised a point of order as he plainly expressed his opposition, even calling for back-up from the finance officer. He was not imparting advice, he was using the vague suggestion of dire consequences if they dared to tinker with senior pay, to influence the vote. He managed to mutter, through gritted teeth, that it was a decision for councillors. Which indeed it was. If they dared.

Move forward to September and the same thing happened over a motion (agenda here, Item 5.1) put forward by Labour councillor Derek Cundy to try and ensure that local members were more involved in discussions for Section 106 contributions.

Full council agendas are finalised by the chief executive and all motions, questions etc are approved by him. This means that not only does he have time to arrange the answers parroted out by the relevant executive board member or leader, but his own response as well.

The motion was reasonable and came from the premise that local members, and town and community councillors might have a better idea, in some cases, of what would be needed in the community if a significant development was going ahead, than a more remote planning officer.

The leader, Emlyn Dole opposed the motion by stating that councillors could already do this, if they had a mind to, at the pre-application stage. Opposition councillors stated that that may be so but in practice local views were often excluded and ignored and needed to be put on a firmer footing. Hence the motion being put forward. The Protocol for councillors' involvement in planning matters hardly encourages engagement.

Step forward the chief executive who used the old tactic of the threat of expensive legal challenges to sway the vote, or shall we say 'persuade'. No one wants uppity councillors getting involved with deals with developers any more than they have to. Not only would this motion require a change in policy, he said, but also a change in the Constitution, and if councillors started making S106 suggestions which were outside those set out in the policy, then there would be Judicial Review challenges and all sorts of costly court nonsense.

The Labour group leader Jeff Edmunds questioned whether this was a true reflection of the spirit of the motion, but unfortunately, with the persuasive force of a wet weekend, he was duly ignored. The Leader, currently Mr Dole, will always agree with the chief executive, as if his position depended on it, which it does of course.

Anyway, the answer is in the S106 policy itself where it states, at 1.6;
Obligations relating to matters not covered by this SPG [Supplementary Planning Guidance] may be sought where there is sufficient robust evidence to justify such obligations. Each planning application will be considered in line with Policy GP3 of the LDP.

So, sensible suggestions can be made which are not in the policy as long as this criteria is met. The policy doesn't need to change at all. In effect, the motion was lost due to a 'loose' and persuasive interpretation of policy by the chief executive. As for greater representation of the views of local people, this was also lost in the process.

This is not a party political issue, this scenario has been played out for years, no matter who is in 'power'. To give one small example of many, the chief executive even resorted to the pages of the Carmarthen Journal to denounce Plaid's alternative budget when it was a Labour/Indie administration. Plaid were, at the time, outraged.

Councillors are there, first and foremost, to represent the views of their constituents, not the chief executive's. They should recognise, and be aware, that his 'advice' isn't always quite as it seems, let alone factually correct. And if anything was to be learned from the pension and libel indemnity scandals, it should have been that.

As for the council's internal legal advice, they would do well to remember that this was accurately described in 2014 as 'cavalier' and 'incompetent' by former eminent lawyer and lay member of the Audit Committee, Sir David Lewis. The senior internal legal personnel remains unchanged...

Whilst on the subject of S106 matters, the Asset Transfers of parks and playgrounds to local councils etc are almost complete; the county council cannot afford to run them anymore. Apparently. The press office recently published a list of 21 which are on the doomed list where no offers have been made and whose days are numbered.

Whether any of these fall under the pot of S106 monies held by the council isn't known but I suggest this is looked into. In October 2015 the 'pot' was £3.5m which included, at the time, £1.3m for 'Recreation, open spaces and play schemes'.

Only last week a whopping £707,366.98 council grant, from a different 'pot', was given to Trustees of a wealthy pension investment fund to demolish the Jolly Tar pub in Carmarthen and develop a four storey office block.

Whilst creating employment, or even office blocks, is perhaps to be encouraged, it is equally important to keep the local swings: there seems to be plenty of money for the former, but, sadly, not the latter.


Lesley said...

Jacob Williams has written something very similar about the situation in Pembrokeshire. It seems to be a common occurrence in Welsh local government that paid employees of the council take it upon themselves to dictate policy and influence decision making whereas, as civil servants, they should merely provide advice so that our elected representatives are in a position to make the (hopefully, informed, ) decisions. Unfortunately, this rarely happens in Carmarthenshire nor, it would seem, in Pembrokeshire.

Anonymous said...

Then maybe its time to leave this upstart out of the meetings and only allowed in by invitation when there is a matter requiring some clarification.

I can imagine how frustrating that would be to anyone who wants to maintain some form of control over a council, not least someone with Napoleon syndrome.

Time for the council to develop a backbone and show exactly who is in charge. But first of all these saps need mighty mark to confirm they can do that...

Things will never change in Carmarthen while this poisonous partnership of James&Jones is allowed to exist.

Anonymous said...

Capitalism for the poor
Socialism for the rich

Swings and other amenities are withdrawn because they do not make a profit to the detriment of the community
But as you mention eye watering amounts given to business and the rich doled out by Mr Dole in his rather secret meetings where insult is added to injury in that we are not told what the money is for because of financial confidentiality

Unbelievable but its us taxpayers that pay