With Scrutiny Committees slowly reappearing on the council calendar, Monday's meeting of the Education and Children Scrutiny Committee will, in fact, be discussing the reduction of scrutiny from proposed school closures. The council avoids the word 'closure' and uses less controversial terms such as reorganisation, merger, 'reviewing provision' and 'discontinue'.
Up to now, each stage of the democratic process to close schools has gone to the scrutiny committee, providing a useful mechanism to determine the best outcome for the area as well as an additional level of challenge. If the new move is implemented, the Scrutiny Committee will only be involved in the initial stage, the Exec Board and full council, will approve the process from thereon in.
The argument put forward is to save time as the pandemic has stalled plans to implement the council's Modernising Education Programme (MEP). However, as we have seen before, the outcome of the 'official' closure consultations is largely ignored by the council, particularly any comments which oppose the council's plans, it's all a done deal, so removing any scrutiny, however feeble, is not the best way forward. There's precious little in Carmarthenshire anyway.
It will be interesting to see if a scrutiny committee actually votes to deprive itself from its ability to scrutinise. (Update 25th November....they did)
A couple of years ago the Welsh Government decided that there should be a presumption against the closure of rural schools. My own experience was that the closure of Llanwrda School a few years ago didn't just remove a vibrant centre of excellent primary education but it ripped the heart out of the community.
There is also the detrimental effect on the Welsh language to consider, when my children left Llanwrda school at 11 years of age they were fully bilingual, there is no better 'immersion' than a village school. I doubt very much if this would have happened to the same degree had they travelled further afield to a much larger school.
There are very few small village primary schools left in the county and Monday's agenda includes another two up for closure, Blaenau, near Ammanford, and Mynyddygarreg, near Kidwelly. As they are part of the MEP, closure has been on the cards for a number of years. This fact alone, as we saw with Llanwrda, means numbers inevitably decline as parents sent their kids elsewhere to avoid an unsettling break in their primary education.
Small schools (and big schools) are struggling financially and these two have budget deficits and are now well under capacity. They are now, to use the council's favourite word, 'unsustainable'. The argument for closure is therefore strong. But, as I said above, the benefits to the community, the kids, and the language are equally strong, and, in some ways, immeasurable.
In other news, a new finding against Carmarthenshire Council appears in the latest 'Casebook' (page 29) from the Ombudsman. The complaint goes back to 2016/17 and relates to Childrens Social Services. The Ombudsman, in a brief, anonymised summary issued in June 2020, found that the support offered to a foster carer, when the behaviour of a child placed in her care became increasingly challenging, was insufficient and, significantly, the council failed to fully follow child protection procedures.
The challenging behaviour culminated in an incident (unspecified) after the carer had clearly flagged the difficult behaviour with the council. However, the council failed to arrange for additional visits and the social worker failed to document all the sessions with the carer anyway.
Alongside this was the fact that during all this the carer broke up with her partner, and the Ombudsman found that the council failed to either reassess the placement or consider whether further support was necessary.
The council were told to apologise to the foster carer and learn lessons.
Let's hope they have.
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Update 25th November
A few snippets...
The annual revenue budget makes a brief appearance on the Exec Board agenda for Monday 30th November. With many of last year's cuts yet to be implemented, and, due to Covid, the finances generally far worse, loss of income etc, there is at least another £16m to be cut, or 'saved' over the next three years. That's without the unknown madness of brexit.
Another expense for the revenue budget is the interest payments for the City Deal. The agreement with the Welsh Government to keep any future business rates from developments, such as the Wellness Shed, will not touch the sides of the interest payments which they will need to borrow.
"there are likely to be additional funding requirements in respect of the City Deal projects. These include both interest costs (as it is forecast they will exceed the business rates retention deal agreed with WG) and additional staffing costs"
The council is already paying £18m a year on their current debt.
It looks like the council will be flogging off as many of its 152 buildings it can if they are now not being used, whilst continuing to spend a fortune on it's crumbling non-eco friendly offices it bought at Parc Dewi Sant.
Meanwhile the council has submitted a planning application (listed building) to itself to 'remodel' bits of County Hall, Carmarthen. An open plan office, plus 'breakout' space will be created, a suite of Executive Offices will adorn the first floor, complete with redecoration and new carpets, and the whole building will be rewired.
The cost has not been disclosed, but at least it's an opportunity to see what's under those lumpy carpets...
Incidentally, and also worth a mention is a separate 'Covid Impact' report which states that the planning department is now under "immense strain" as "early indications would suggest that a great level of unlawful activity has occurred during the pandemic".
All councils face a bleak time ahead, but only Carmarthenshire ensured they preserved their very own slush fund.
The Democratic Services Committee also meets on Monday when the annual recommendations of the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales will doubtless be approved. This means a pay increase of £150 for each councillor, taking the allowance up to £14,368 plus expenses. 'Senior' councillors also have the same rise, taking useless Emlyn Dole's pay up to £49,975, deputy leader Mair Stephens to £35,320 and the other Exec Board members to £30,773.
On the upside, the virtual nature of all these meetings means that many more than usual are available for public viewing, should you be so inclined, and you can see even more of how officials still run the show with dutiful councillors nodding everything through.
I guess it's a marginal improvement than being locked up for trying to film one on your mobile phone...