Wednesday 27 January 2021

The budget, libel indemnities and pantomimes

Budget - with updates and the school closure consultation row

Update 3rd March - Budget meeting - Another Plaid U-turn with the council tax rise capped at 3.45%. The Labour alternative budget proposed that £500k be taken from the £1.5m contingency fund, savings made on employee travel expenses and £100k cut from consultancy costs. This was to prevent some damaging cuts to social care, more spend on roads and to cap the council tax rise to 2.9%. After the usual squabbling, the predictable outcome (in that it happens every year) was that the alternative budget was rejected by Plaid and the Independent group.

Update 1st March - After facing the potential for legal challenge (not because they 'listened' to anyone's concerns), Plaid have u-turned and extended the school consultations (see below) until the end of the summer term.

Update 18th Feb - as predicted, by deferring and dodging, the council bean counters have managed to find nearly a million quid down the back of the corporate sofa for Exec Board members to play with at next Monday's meeting...
Useful no doubt for Plaid given that Exec Board member Cefin Campbell just happens to be standing for the Senedd in the May elections. 
The public consultation only ran for two and a half weeks as opposed to the usual six and attracted a paltry 75 responses, including such remarks as "A complete joke", and "Way too complicated to understand. Maybe that's what you want!".
Anyway, we'll see what happens on Monday....

.....and the result was...Update 22nd Feburary...a reduction in the council tax rise from 4.5% to 3.95%, some cash to clean gulleys and roads (in view of recent flooding), some cash for education, and £75k for trading standards. 

Bear in mind though that the council have had nearly ALL their covid expenditure/losses reimbursed by Welsh Government AND a very healthy increase in the money they receive from government every year.
It's also worth noting that Emlyn Dole, CEO Wendy Walters, Director of Finance Chris Moore, head of legal Linda Rees Jones are still happy risk millions of pounds of your money should a member of the public speak out of turn and, erm, need to be preserving the Mark James Slush Fund in the Council's Constitution. (see main post below)

The final budget figures will be decided by full council on the 3rd March and includes pressing ahead, at enormous expense, with the sauna-in-the-swamp, the Wellness Village, or Pentre Awel as it's now known, currently the subject of a complex police investigation.

It is also worth noting that the council intends to borrow another £100m by 2023/24, this will take the current level of debt from a staggering £433m to an eye-watering £533m, over half a billion quid, and an equally unaffordable increase in the level of interest payments, currently around £19m per year.

The Exec Board also decided to extend the school consultations referred to below until at least next week, claiming it was down to a change in Welsh Government guidance. It was, no doubt, actually down to the public backlash and the potential for legal challenge regarding the holding of a consultation during a pandemic.

Update 13th February;
As you can see from the updates below, Labour’s attempt at the council meeting on Wednesday to pause the Mynyddygarreg and Blaenau school closure consultations were defeated by the Plaid/Independent ruling majority.

Plaid councillors ignored impassioned pleas from parents to halt the process during the pandemic. The messages were relayed by Labour members who argued that families had enough to deal with at the moment without having to fight to try and keep their village schools, often the heart of a local community.

The Plaid amendment, as I said below, was designed to give the impression that they were following orders and official policy from Welsh Government.

It now seems that this wasn’t entirely true.

This blog has seen an email from Welsh Government which confirms that local authorities have the power to pause/suspend/extend public consultations for months, if they wish, and if circumstances dictate to maximise the ability to respond. 
A global pandemic is a very strong circumstance.

Elsewhere in the UK similar calls to halt consultations during the pandemic are being reported, from LDPs to budgets.

Councils could face legal challenge if they fail to take into account how the restrictions caused by the pandemic have impacted the publics' ability to have their say. Particularly on a clearly emotive and controversial subject such as this.

It looks to me that Plaid are certainly following in the footsteps of the notorious Meryl Gravell and are refusing to listen to their communities, for fear of appearing 'weak'. Helped along, as ever, by some highly questionable, and deliberately misleading, internal legal advice.

Update 10th Feb;
Rather predictably Plaid Cymru put an amendment forward which pretty much negated Rob James' motion to halt the consultations. 
This isn't allowed...but it went forward anyway, and the amendment was, basically, passing the buck and insisting they were merely following orders from Welsh Government. 
After much discussion, including powerful and emotional messages from parents and those affected by closures, the Plaid/Independent coalition ignored the pleas and approved the amendment to carry on with the consultation, regardless of the pandemic. 43 voted for, 14 against, and 6 abstentions.
Cllr Lenny's question, later in the agenda was withdrawn.

On another note, during a discussion about reducing excessive noise levels, and random use of fireworks, which cause anxiety and distress to animals and people, veteran Plaid Cymru councillor Colin Evans spoke in support of the motion. At one point he wandered around his living room revealing a large shotgun hanging on his wall. Boom.

Update 8th Feb;
The question over school closures will feature in Wednesday's (10th) full council meeting. Labour leader Cllr Rob James is calling for a halt to the consultations, until the start of the September term, whilst we are in the midst of the pandemic. He is also calling for clarity over the future plans for school closures. There will be a vote on this Motion.

Not to be outdone, Plaid Cllr Alun Lenny is asking Plaid Exec Member for schools, Glynog Davies whether or not he believes there is a future for small rural schools in the county, and, the clincher, how many were closed between 2004 and 2015, when the new Plaid administration took over.

There are a couple of points worth noting in this loaded question. I'm sure Cllr Davies will believe there is certainly a future, but, he will say, it needs to be rationalised, right-sized and reviewed, blah blah. Secondly, many small schools were closed between 2004 and 2015, I can't remember how many and with pre-2015 agendas and minutes now removed from the council website it's difficult to know. 

However, despite Labour being in and out of coalition in this period, it was the independents, under Meryl Gravell who pushed the closures forward, at one point admonishing councillors as 'weak' for daring to listen to campaigners, parents and the like. 
It was all part of an unhealthy regime no one wants to return to, apart from Plaid Cymru perhaps...

* * *

The council’s latest budget consultation is currently circulating in cyberspace with the response deadline for next Tuesday. This time it’s all been a bit rushed, the fault of the Welsh Labour government, or the UK government, or pandemics and brexit, anything other than Carmarthenshire Council of course. 

They did have time, however, to put a couple of patronising videos together, including one explaining the difference between the revenue and the capital budget, though not one to explain why they were in £432m in debt, costing £20m a year in interest, due to rise exponentially as Emlyn Dole ploughs on relentlessly with the Wellness Fantasy.

Filling in the survey requires extensive deciphering of the proposals, sifting through the mystifying assortment of rationalisations, remodelling, right-sizing and reviewing, collectively known as 'cuts'. Then you are asked to give your view, on all of it....or none of it, because you’ve probably given up by now.

Budgets are always an opportunity to score a few points, from both sides of the divide. Previously, keen observers and bloggers could spot the few, obviously unpopular red herrings popped into the ‘proposals’ which would be miraculously, and loudly dropped by the Exec Board in a press release a week before the Council approved the budget. 

Pretending they were going to close the respite centres for profoundly disabled children came up a few years running, a particularly cruel game. They could then claim to have ‘listened’, despite the obvious fact that it was all staged.

This year’s syrupy nonsense was the 'massive' reduction in the council tax rise of slightly less than half a percent, from 4.9 to 4.48. This magnanimous proposal was stage managed for Emlyn who then proceeded to say, in the inevitable press release,  "The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked personal and financial havoc on our county, and the good people of Carmarthenshire have paid a huge price...I propose reducing the proposed Council Tax increase to 4.48 per cent to give the people of Carmarthenshire the support that they so rightly deserve"
Big help Emlyn. 

In Rhondda Cynon Taf the increase is 2.65%, Bridgend 3.9% and Neath Port Talbot 3.75%.
As for Covid related costs, the Welsh Government has reimbursed this council £18m, around 96%, so far.
Meanwhile, Carmarthenshire's council/social housing rents will increase by 1.5%.

Of course Emlyn 'two barns' Dole has experienced less in the way of financial havoc, boosting his monthly £4120.83 with penny pinching claims for fuel, and hosting punters from across a Covid riddled UK to bathe in his luxury hot tub. Ewww.
Emlyn’s involvement in the Mark James Wellness scandal has yet to be determined. And the roles of James' seconds in command, Wendy Walters and Linda Rees Jones come to that.
Such a tangled web.

Incidentally, calls from the Llanelli Chamber of Commerce for local firms to be given the chance to operate the site, rather than one big company have been deflected by Dole who said the tender process is about to start (he means 'start again' given that the last tender process is still being investigated by the organised crime squad) and commercial confidentiality must be observed. In other words, sod off. 

Despite £12.5m of proposed cuts on the horizon for the next couple of years, over a million quid is being spent sprucing up County Hall, including new carpets, (they did get very lumpy during the James regime) and a new ‘head of regeneration’ is being appointed at £96k per annum. This unnecessary example of a non-job for the boys/girls is just about covered by slashing a proposed £100k from the children and educational psychology service.

The Labour opposition are busy needling Emlyn and co over the million quid to be ‘saved’, vaguely, from schools. Many of which are struggling with finances. As I mentioned back in November, two are up for closure, including Mynyddygarreg near Kidwelly, a proposal which is drawing considerable opposition, and calls to extend the consultation period. It's seen as little unfair to consult when people are somewhat distracted by a global pandemic. More cash is set to be ‘saved’, and jobs lost, by, for instance, centralising school kitchens.

One problem is the language of smoke and mirrors adopted so seamlessly by Plaid, and officers alike. It was sad and pathetic to see Plaid Executive Member Dai Jenkins tell Labour Leader Rob James, unconvincingly, that no they weren’t closing schools, they were, erm, ‘rationalising’ them. What nonsense.
The Director of Education, Gareth Morgans, took the award for ridiculous corporate crapspeak though by admitting they were looking at the ‘primary school footprint’ and ‘investing in a system that’s probably more sustainable in the future’. Cuts and closures are fine as long as you can shoe horn in the word ‘sustainable’. And ‘footprint’. At £130,000 a year, he should be an expert at that.

Anyway the annual budget saga will run its course over the next few weeks.

Unlawful libel indemnities

One huge potential price for the good people of Carmarthenshire which bothers neither Emlyn nor the Director of Corporate Services, Chris Moore is preserving the ability to sue the public if they say something out of turn. As I mentioned here, last October the unlawful clause was merely shifted from one part of the constitution to another.

As I have also mentioned Mark James (currently under police investigation), Legal Linda, and Emlyn Dole have insisted that this power was not only lawful but quite necessary. Desperate to defend the indefensible. Ms Rees Jones had told me this repeatedly and pleaded with the Auditor General to give his blessing to reinstatement. Emlyn even wanted the provision to be extended to cover himself. The Auditor General was having none of it. Neither was I.

The Executive now has the power to use public money, unlawfully, to sue on behalf of a senior officer. Interestingly the ‘new clause’ mentions the libel indemnity provision without specifying if it is for making a claim or defending one. The latter is allowed under certain circumstances, the former is not. Anyone can sue, of course, but with their own money, not the taxpayers'.
The 2014 Audit Wales Public Interest Report which found the indemnity for Mark James' counterclaim unlawful can be found here.

I wrote to the Audit Office back in November about this shifting, sinister clause, and had a reply earlier this week, reproduced in full below (with my emphasis). 
Despite the very careful wording it is clear that the AG has not changed his view. Far from it. If the council interpret the clause as a green light to sue (which is the intention), there will be trouble.

Whether any of them would be daft enough to sue, Mark James style, again, is doubtful and it’s remarkable that head of legal Linda Rees Jones, who has been spouting deliberately misleading and illegal ‘advice’, to councillors and courts for years, is still in post. Mark James left her to it, of course, and ran off with the loot.

Dear Mrs Thompson,

The Auditor General, Adrian Crompton, has asked me to thank you for your email of 10 November 2020 concerning Carmarthenshire Council’s inclusion of provision in its constitution in respect of indemnities for libel actions. We appreciate you drawing this to our attention.

We have given this situation careful consideration and note that the new provision in 3.1 of the constitution does not explicitly concern indemnities for officers making claims or counterclaims for libel. While, in isolation, the provision could be read as enabling the indemnification of an officer making such a claim or counterclaim (as opposed to indemnification for defence of libel claims), such an interpretation would, in our view, not be correct. We consider that the Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) (Wales) Order 2006 still renders providing indemnity for making a claim or counterclaim for libel unlawful.

Please note that it is not within our functions to provide you with legal advice. The views above do not constitute legal advice, and you should not seek to rely on them as such advice.

The Auditor General has already written to the Council requesting that it informs him of any intention to indemnify an officer making a claim or counterclaim for libel. He has reminded the Council of his power to apply for judicial review in respect of a decision which could reasonably be believed to have an effect on the accounts of the Council. I and other members of the audit team are also keeping the situation under review.

Yours sincerely,

Ann-Marie Harkin

Cyfarwyddwr || Director

          Audit Wales 



I was amused to see that the council are asking for views over a name change for The Miners Theatre in Ammanford. With little else, clearly, to occupy their minds they want it to be one word, like the other two theatres, the Lyric, or Ffwrnes so are suggesting 'Glowyr', which means miners.

My amusement was not with that, but because it reminded me of a public vote some years back to pick a name (out of a shortlist) for Ffwrnes. It emerged, after the new name was announced, that it was not the actual vote winner but, in fact, the one preferred by county hall.

As a diligent blogger I recounted this silly farce, suggesting that the Council top brass should put on a pantomime at the said theatre. I politely suggested that Meryl Gravell would make an ideal Widow Twanky, and Mark James would be perfect as Pinocchio, and hoped, as Returning Officer he would take the results of a vote a little more seriously.

Moving forward a year or so and Mark James was suddenly offended, and dear old Pinocchio appeared in his libel counterclaim.

His lawyers claimed that my remark had the innuendo meaning that he was untrustworthy in his role as election Retuning Officer and couldn’t be trusted to give out the correct result.

Unfortunately that blogpost had to be consigned to legally enforced oblivion.

Although I can’t comment, legally, on his integrity as returning officer, I can vouch for the fact he’s a dishonest crook and a born liar.

Saturday 2 January 2021

Wellness scandal - how did it happen?

I know I have cover the events concerning the tender for the Wellness village many times but, looking back, it's one of those things, and there have been quite a few, which makes one think, wtf, how did that happen? Or, more to the point, how on earth was it allowed to happen? 

The project has gone from one bizarre 'artists impression' back in 2018,

to another. The latest 'vision', now rebranded as Pentre Awel, resembles somewhere one might stay at Her Majesty's Pleasure. Surrounded by a toxic swamp.

Back in May 2016, the Executive Board were treated, behind closed doors, to a presentation on the project. Mark James, along with his mate from Swansea Uni Marc Clement, and Franz Dickmann led the show. Dickmann, at that point, was a director of Kent Neuroscience Ltd (KNS). Clement had resigned as a director the previous year.

The Exec Board was of course, like putty in their hands, and easily dazzled. It was a piece of cake, and the minutes from the meeting state that they were told the company had "a proven track record for similar developments within the health, medicine and wellness sector".

What they omitted to say, and a brief check would have shown this up, was that this "track record" was the development of a private hospital in Kent which now required a £20m bail out with the Dickmanns' hastily shedding their directorships.

The purpose of the meeting was for the council, ie Mark James, to 'arrange' a cosy twelve month 'exclusivity agreement' for KNS to develop the £200m Wellness Village, no questions asked. And certainly no tender.

During the following twelve months, KNS eventually and inevitably, given their history, dissolved and so the agreement quietly fizzled out. It seemed to everyone, apart from Mark James, that a new developer would have to be found. That, of course, was not part of Mr James plan, nor, might I suggest, part of his end of the deal with Dickmann and Clement. 

There were now vested interests, the Dickmann clan would be running and profiting from everything from the Creche to the consultancy (James Dickmann's MedParc), he had, allegedly, been offering 'inducements', jobs, shares and property. Clement was lining himself up to run the Wellness hotel. Mark James, as we know, was already quietly and heavily moonlighting in the property management business.
There was also a neat little sideline for them all brewing away in Kuwait
All for personal gain, and all with the help of City Deal and Council cash. 

Lo and behold in 2018, and £137,000 in debt, Sterling Health Security Holdings Ltd were announced as the 'new' partners. There had been, apparently, some sort of tender but oddly they were the only bidders. The tender process was overseen by Mark James, who made sure it ran according to his plan.

It was immediately apparent that this was the same outfit. The Dickmanns. Now with Mr James' pet puppet Cllr Meryl Gravell on the Board. The Dickmanns were also insisting that Vinci Construction were to build the project. It was all sewn up, promises had been made and clearly had to be kept.

Mark and Meryl

And to be honest there wasn't a proper tender process in sight.

Anyone who raised doubt as to the validity of the process, or due diligence, or whether it was all a bit corrupt was immediately shot down in flames by both Mark James and loyal Emlyn. Anyone who raised a concern was accused of jeopardizing the future of Carmarthenshire, in reality it was jeopardizing the size of a few wallets.

All was going swimmingly. Unfortunately, with the involvement of the City Deal, this little arrangement went wider than the closed shop of the council run by Mark James. He, and they, were rumbled. He soon announced his resignation.

Not only were other partners incredulous and horrified with his 'leadership' of the City Deal, but, by the end of 2018, with the diligent persistence of others at Swansea University, (and this blog) the Wellness scam and all those involved in the tangled web, were finally exposed. The police raided several homes including County Hall, in July 2019, eight suspects were interviewed earlier this year (we know who they are), and the CPS are now involved.

Let's hope 2021 bring a result.

* * * *

With the New Year Honours list announced I am reminded of a distinctly unworthy recipient of an award back in 2012, namely Mr Mark James and his CBE. Who decided to nominate him remains a mystery, possibly his adoring fan and co-conspirator former Councillor Meryl Gravell, who knows. The honour of being made the Rotten Borough's Shit of the Year 2016 by Private Eye was far more fitting.
He was made a CBE a couple of weeks before ensuring he was illegally bankrolled by Ms Gravell and the Exec Board, to bring his tactical counterclaim, and scupper a settlement which was on the verge of completion. At that meeting, in which he remained, illegally, he promised, in writing, to hand over any damages back to the council should he win.

As you know, my use of the term slush fund, which it was, and my description of Mr James as Pinocchio, a liar, which he was, and is, earned him £25,000 in damages.

Anyway, as he enforced the court Order, ultimately gaining a suspended order for sale, the costs rose to around £46,000 plus 8% interest, which I am now struggling to pay at £165 a month.

At the Order for sale hearing, early in 2017, the fact that he had breached the written undertaking, to his employers, and the taxpayers, to hand over any damages back to the council became apparent. It could go in the nearest gutter if he so chose. It was going back in his pocket rather than yours. The judge was far from impressed.

Although it was the Labour/Independent administration in power during the original trial etc, by 2015, Plaid Cymru were now in the hot seat. They had, of course, been thoroughly opposed to the whole thing when in opposition. But things had changed, hadn't they, 'two barns' Emlyn?

The news that Mr James had reneged on his promise to hand over the damages brought comments from both Labour and Plaid politicians, not that Mr James gave a rats a**e. Nia Griffith, Labour MP for Llanelli spoke about 'moral obligations' and 'doing the honourable thing'.

Jonathan Edwards, the Plaid MP (currently sitting as an independent) gave an interesting comment, given where we are today. 
He said "A new Plaid Cymru administration would never follow Labour and allow such an event to stain the name of Carmarthenshire again"

Of course, as I have pointed out, Plaid Cymru have made sure the door is left wide open to do exactly the same thing again. 

The unlawful clause which allowed the illegal funding for criminal mastermind Mr James has, via the appalling, shameless, and deliberately misleading advice from head of legal Linda Rees Jones, merely been moved from one section of the constitution to the other. 
This ongoing nonsense, unique to this council, is simply to avoid the stark fact that she and Mr James were wrong and acted illegally.

Yet another wtf' moment.

Given the Auditor General's rejections of the council's arguments for reinstating the clause, I have written to him about their decision to do exactly that, back in November, and await a reply.

If Adam Price wants to lead a Plaid Cymru Welsh Government in May, he needs to rein in this Plaid run council.