Sunday 22 August 2021

News round up - planning tales, and more - updated

Following the damning Audit Wales report on Carmarthenshire's Planning Services, the Ombudsman has also found the council lacking. 
A brief report, from June 2021, shows that the council's approach to planning, enforcement and complaints is still dire. 
The Ombudsman upheld a complaint, by 'Mr A', concerning planning enforcement on a neighbouring property. The council investigation had been 'inappropriate' and biased, and the council's initial investigation contained 'omissions and discrepancies'.
The council now have to pay Mr A £250, and appoint an independent consultant to investigate all aspects of Mr A's complaint and review the council's handling of the matters complained about.
Oh dear.

Which reminds me of an enforcement complaint I made early last year on behalf of several residents. They were concerned that Plaid council leader Emlyn Dole and family had ignored several planning conditions on the notorious 'two barns' development leading to issues with highway safety. 
I've still heard nothing. It's either been ignored, like the planning conditions, or is the 761st in the backlog list, and will likely stay there.

In other news, the council's 'wholly owned' housing company, Cartrefi Croeso, set up in 2018  is now being mothballed and made 'dormant'. Apparently there is now no need for it as council borrowing rules have changed. I doubt that that is the full story and I suspect smoke and mirrors are in full use. 

You'll recall that Delta Wellbeing Ltd the council owned call centre was nearly struck off  Companies House earlier this year. The council waste company, Cwm Environmental is currently in dispute with the unions as, seemingly, it prefers to retain poorer pay and conditions for its staff than those employed by the council, despite the fact that the council owns it. 

Anyway, I noticed that one of Cartrefi Croeso projects, which has planning consent for 16 mixed tenure homes 'does not make the best use of the site' and 'a value engineering and design review' is required. A review of the planning consent is now required...which the Council granted for themselves in the first place...
It's clearly a shambles.

Incidentally another reason given for mothballing the company right now is that the Managing Director of the company, Robin Staines, who was also the Council's Head of Housing, has recently resigned from the council.
Fortunately he has just set up his own consultancy company, should they happen to need any advice.....for a small fee.

Mark James' consultancy company Ffynnon Consultancy is still turning a modest profit, one wonders who is consulting him, and why. Maybe it's for expert advice on tax avoidance, or scamming the taxpayer, or setting up offshore trusts to squirrel away a few bribes...who knows.

Incidentally, Caebrwyn has been making FOI requests for documents and files relating to the criminal investigation into the Wellness bribery scandal involving the aforementioned Mr James, and others. Requests have gone to the CPS, four police forces and the council. So far only the CPS have responded, and that was a refusal. We'll wait and see what the others come up with.
As I've said before, I'll make sure Mr James is held to account, one way or another. That's a promise.

Finally Burry Port's asbestos-strewn beach is back in the news. Earlier this year photos appeared of children's sandcastles decorated with bits of asbestos. The toxic substance comes from the old Carmarthen power station. Unfortunately, when it was demolished twenty years ago the debris was just buried where it lay and coastal erosion has unearthed the crumbling, flaking asbestos.
What is remarkable is the council's response. A warning sign was eventually put up but the beach was not closed. The council have continued to play down the problem as 'low-risk', as if asbestos isn't really that bad. They have reluctantly agreed to remove any visible bits, perhaps it's those bits decorating the sandcastles.
A local campaign group resorted to paying for its own tests, which all came back positive, and alarming. They are pushing for a proper clean up before the asbestos spreads even further afield.

The reason why the council are playing down the problem is their desire to flog parts of nearby land to developers, including 360 homes on the nearby Grillo site, another highly toxic legacy of the industrial past.

Interestingly, one wonders why the council is so determined to build so many new homes as figures published today reveal  that Carmarthenshire is top of the list for empty homes, with nearly 3000 in the county. So much for the council's Empty Homes Policy, which, we are told, has been a roaring success!

Burry Port update 15th September: 

There has been a partial clean up of the beach but unfortunately, as this recent picture shows, asbestos is still present;

Despite the partial clean up the signs now only warn of coastal erosion, and the footpath barriers can be easily moved, and have been.


Tuesday 10 August 2021

Audit Wales report - Carmarthenshire's Planning Service in meltdown

As anticipated on my previous post, the Audit Wales report into the council's planning services has now been published.

It is a damning report and it is clear that the planning department is in total meltdown; "Significant and long-standing performance issues in the planning service need to be urgently addressed" 
As usual, these reports are 'politely' written, but it doesn't take much to read between the lines, not with this one.

The external consultants report, as also mentioned in the previous post, was commissioned by the council themselves and completed in December 2019. 

It has never been mentioned in any committee, let alone ever made publicly available, despite making no less than FIFTY recommendations for improvement - this current Audit Wales report notes that the council, apart from dithering about with a customary 'Action Plan', has failed to improve on any of them.
What a waste of money that was.

What is also clear is that the blame lies with the corporate management and executive councillors. 

We understand that following the Audit Wales report, the head of planning, Llinos Quelch left the council...'for personal reasons'. However the chief executives (present and former) and the Director of Environment, Ruth Mullen (£130k+ per year) are also, and ultimately, responsible. 

Plaid Council leader Emlyn Dole, and his Executive Board, have failed miserably to keep an eye on the planning service and ignored the systematic failings. They've continually let senior management off the hook, causing catastrophic damage to the department and public confidence.  What a shambles.

Of course it must be remembered that not so long ago Emlyn was embroiled in his very own planning scandal, emerging unscathed with the able assistance of Mark James, a favour for which he was duty bound to return...

For years the council has been seeking empty headlines with their various and vacuous 'ambitious regeneration programmes' whilst not even having a properly functioning planning department to actually deliver it.

This systematic failure was all under Mark James' watch. Sadly and as we all know, he was more concerned with his own wallet, his ego, and, it turns out, accepting bribes, than a functioning, decent council.

It's also clear from the report that the massive backlog (847 planning applications and 761 enforcement cases as of March 2021) is impacting on the regeneration visions, and vice versa, the time spent on 'strategic visions' is making the backlog pile up to an unmanageable scale.

The report notes that the council has no plan to deal with the backlog, some of which go back over five years. 
The council is also misrepresenting it's data for the time taken to determine applications, Audit Wales points out that "performance may potentially be worse than currently recorded and reported".

It also notes that every year there's a massive overspend, in 2019/20 it was £512,000.

The planning department is also unable to manage the growing backlog and increasing number of enforcement cases. This is leading to more retrospective planning applications, a failure to follow planning policy and a loss of confidence from the public in the service altogether. Nothing new there mind you.

Remarkably, "Delivering effective planning enforcement" was quietly removed from the Council's Risk Register in September 2020. 
I suppose if you delete the problem it no longer exists...

The report notes a total lack of transparency on any attempts by the council to act on recommendations or improve the service, possibly because it hasn't. It certainly hasn't been transparent over the external consultants report, nor this one. 
It is also noted that the planning division has not been transparent, nor shared information, about complaints. Significantly it has also failed to respond to complaints; the public have had to resort to contacting their local councillors. 
And who knew they were passing on swathes of planning applications to a private sector company to deal with? No one.

All this indicates a failure of a critical system, a system which is fundamental to economic recovery, addressing climate change, and of course to the public. It also leaves a system open to abuse. Failure to 'perform' is a failure to function.

Let's hope that this report doesn't find itself in the County Hall long grass, out to pasture for a couple of years in a dreaded 'Task and finish group'. It must be debated at full council without delay.

As the title of this blog suggests,(it expanded its interests a long time ago but the title stuck) there have been historic problems with Carmarthenshire's Planning Department for many years, and not necessarily related to 'performance' per se....there have been countless questionable decisions, some very curious behaviour from the planning committee and senseless council planning decisions pushed through regardless of  public opinion or the environment, let alone actual policy.

As with the rest of the Mark James hangers-on still in the top brass, Rees-Jones, Wendy Walters, Chris Moore etc, it's about time there was a clean sweep of the upper echelons in this department too. 
Sack 'em all.
It might just get somewhere then.

The report can be found on the Audit Wales website.  It should come as no surprise that there's no link on the council's website.