Monday, 21 May 2018

Iscennen - not taking back control

Iscennen Ward (Ammanford) - By-election

Rhys Fisher (Plaid Cymru) 237
Thomas Fallows (Labour) 79
Emyr John (Independent) 45

____________

Bearing in mind that there are more than 730 community and town councils in Wales and around 8,000 town or community councillors, it would be reasonable to expect that death, insanity, bankruptcy, long-term illness and imprisonment would mean a healthy crop of community by-elections every week, but in reality by-elections at the paddling pool end of local democracy are comparatively rare events and generally do not merit more than a passing mention in what is left of the local media.

The convention is that when a serving councillor steps down or falls off his or her perch, a replacement is co-opted until the next round of elections, if elections ever take place, because on many community councils the incumbents will be returned unopposed. On councils where members are politically affiliated, the convention is that the party which held the seat at the previous election gets to nominate the successor.

Because town and community councillors, at least the good ones, are in reality little more than unpaid volunteer dogsbodies presiding over tiny budgets with very little in the way of power, this democratic fudge works, and voters tend not to look kindly on those who force unnecessary and expensive by-elections to decide who in Cwmsgwt will patrol dog poo alley.

Last week's contest in Iscennen ward for a seat on Ammanford Town Council was different for a number of reasons and merits a closer look.

The previous incumbent in Iscennen was Chris Corgi Jones, proprietor of the posh hosiery factory, who was elected on a Plaid ticket. Chris decided to step down to spend more time with his socks, and the expectation was that the party would duly nominate a successor to be co-opted, but 14 miles down the road the vipers' nest known as the Llanelli Labour Party had other ideas, and a candidate was found to front Rob James's attempt to reconquer Ammanford.

And so it came to pass that young Thomas Fallows agreed to boldly go where nobody with any sense would have ventured to tread, having seen the light in a meeting with Owen Jones, the Guardian's answer to Dave Spart. Perhaps he'd spent too much time in a darkened room on his X-box, but once he'd signed on the dotted line, it was too late, and to the disgust of the good people of Ammanford, an unnecessary and expensive by-election was triggered.

Those who met Tom during the campaign say he is pleasant enough and polite, but would probably have struggled with the complexities of town council business.

Plaid fielded Rhys Fisher, a bright young man from Ammanford who is captain of the town's football team and a sports coach who works with apprentices at Coleg Sir Gâr.



Labour and Plaid were then joined by an independent candidate as the three legged 100 to 1 outsider.

The campaign was a clean fight almost to the end, and was heavy on the shoe leather. Kevin Madge dutifully trotted round with young Tom, and the Llanelli Labour Party threw all of its big guns in.

The slogan chosen for the Labour campaign, presumably in a committee room in Llanelli, was "#TakeBackControl", a peculiarly inappropriate and tribalist line to take for a homely town council by-election, and something which strikes an uncannily familiar dog whistle note.

Now where have we heard that one before? Surely not a brexity echo of the campaign run by the assorted charlatans and conmen fronted by Boris Johnson?



Perhaps sensing that the wind was not blowing in the right direction, Rob James went nuclear in the final few days with a clumsily worded smear campaign directed at Plaid. Right on cue, the ever reliable editor of the South Wales Evening Post, Llanelli Star and Carmarthen Journal, Jonathan Roberts, ran Rob's "story" about a grant to redevelop the former Lloyds Bank branch as a front page splash in both the SWEP and the Journal - the day before voters went to the polls.

This ham-fisted last minute intervention probably lost readers, and clearly did not win any votes. Young Tom went down to a heavy defeat, with Plaid out-polling him by three to one.

A humble town council by-election it may have been, but this was a remarkable result in an area which not so very long ago was one of the strongest of Labour's strongholds, where Gwynfor Evans used to be subjected to abuse on the streets.

From 1966 until 2001 the constituency would swing back to Labour every time the Tories were in power. Jonathan Edwards was the first to break the mould in 2015.

With Theresa May heading up the worst government in living memory, Labour is facing an open goal and should be sweeping all before it, but Corbyn is now trailing May in the opinion polls. Rob James, who recently completed his takeover of the Labour group on the county council with the toss of a coin, apparently masterminded the campaign. He seems to have peaked before he even started.

There are many areas where Labour can still pin a red rosette on the proverbial dead donkey and win, Llanelli being one of them. What the Amman Valley shows is that hard work and good candidates can break Labour's sclerotic grip in places which it has taken for granted for decades.




Thursday, 10 May 2018

Labour pains

With more twists and turns than the A484, more plots than Persimmon and more backstabbing and barely believable characters than Pobol y Cwm, it's been a while since this blog reported on the goings-on in the Labour Party in Carmarthenshire, and so here is a cut-out-'n-keep souvenir issue to mark the, erm, election of Rob James to serve as leader of the Labour group on the county council.

Back in May 2015 at what was described as a "very emotional" annual general meeting of the Labour group on Carmarthenshire County Council, Kevin Madge's political career finally hit the buffers when he was ousted as leader by Jeff Edmunds, the Llanelli undertaker.

Within days the coup d'etat led to the break-up of the dire Labour-Independent coalition and put the Plaid group in power.

The council elections in May 2017 saw Labour consolidate its grip on Llanelli while being driven to near extinction everywhere else in the county, including its former strongholds in the Amman Valley.

One of the new Labour intake in Llanelli was Cllr Rob James who ousted the veteran maverick Bill Thomas in Lliedi ward. Prior to that, James was a county councillor in Neath Port Talbot for five long years in which he made a name for himself by being absent for much of his time in office. His legacy to the local party was to gift his old ward to Plaid Cymru.

What young Rob may lack in the delivery department, he makes up for with ambition, and from the moment he first set foot in Llanelli it has been rumoured that he has been eyeing up the jobs of both nuclear Nia and Lee Murky Waters, recently memorably described as Welsh politics' answer to Alan Partridge.

It would not be his first attempt at breaking into the political big-time. A few short years ago, Rob set his sights on securing the nomination for the Cynon Valley Assembly seat, promising that he would make his home there.

Unfortunately for Neath, Llanelli and Carmarthenshire, the Cynon Valley Labour Party had other ideas, probably after they had been forced to watch this video, in which our unshaven hero keeps gazing up at something to his right while pretending not to be reading from a script.



Roll forward to May 2018 and what was no doubt another very emotional (i.e. bloody) Labour group AGM where new boy Rob with only a year under his belt challenged veteran Jeff Edmunds for the crown.

According to very reliable sources the vote was a tie, with the tiny Amman Valley contingent having to hold its noses and vote for lugubrious Jeff after spending most of the last three years sticking pins into a wax effigy of him.

In most bodies of this kind the decision would then hang on the casting vote of the chair, but the impasse was resolved instead by tossing a coin. Rob won.

Earning a crust

As a result, Rob will see his council salary rise from £13,400 to a more attractive £22,100 as leader of the opposition.

The £22,100 will presumably come on top of Rob's salary as full-time office manager for MP Geraint Davies (Lab. Swansea West), where the salary range is from £30,000 up to £41,748.

Thanks to the taxpayer, Rob will therefore be bringing home somewhere between £50k and £60k a year thanks to that lucky toss of a coin, but money must be tight in the James household because Rob is also the only one of Carmarthenshire's 74 councillors known to be claiming for the cost of childcare, worth up to £403 a month, presumably because the missus is also out boosting the family budget.

This may leave some readers wondering what happens to the James brood when Rob is performing his full-time office manager job and not in County Hall.

For reasons which are not clear, Rob recently used his membership of the council's Democratic Services Committee to persuade his fellow councillors that there was no need to flaunt this additional source of income and upset the voters, and so it was agreed that Rob's childcare claims should be hidden in a general total figure.

Ker-ching!

What Rob has done for you

In his year as county councillor for Lliedi it is fair to say that Rob's attendance figures have been a marked improvement on his five years in Neath, but it is also fair to say that he has not exactly made much of a mark.

Highlights of his career so far in Carmarthenshire include his opposition to the planned new Ysgol Dewi Sant, backed by a coalition made up of dogwalkers and the barmy twosome behind CUSC, Labour's paramilitary cyber and hairdressing group set up ostensibly to campaign for sports clubs, and the Rainbow Flag fiasco.

In addition to being a member of the Democratic Services Committee, Rob is also a member of the council's so-called Constitutional Reform Working Group (CRWG), which in a neat Mark Jamesian twist is not actually recognised by the council's constitution and so does not have to tell the public about its deliberations.

One of the weighty matters considered by CRWG earlier this year was the vexed question of the council's flag flying policy. Had he turned up for the meeting Rob would have voted in favour of flying the Rainbow Flag, he told the press. Unfortunately his car let him down. Jeff Edmunds, Labour's other representative, did manage to get to County Hall and voted instead to maintain the ban on anything other than flying flags to mark various high days and holidays in celebration of the Windsor clan. No doubt urgent consideration is now being given to adding Meghan Markle to the list.

Rob's campaign promise to rid Carmarthenshire of its beloved chief executive, Mark James CBE (no relation), seems to have been quietly buried.

In short, Rob's contribution to local government in Carmarthenshire so far has been as effective as what is known as a "rhech mewn pot jam". Look it up.

You-Dinefwr-No

It remains to be seen whether Rob's lucky toss will now temporarily put his political ambitions on hold, and there are those in the party who fear not.

Just over the Llanelli constituency border in Carmarthen East and Dinefwr the constituency Labour Party is so concerned by the prospect of being saddled with Rob James as its Westminster candidate that it has decided to volunteer to accept a women-only shortlist.

Will Rob elect to undergo the knife and become Roberta to further his career? Watch this space.

In another bizarre twist, a Mancunian recently settled in the rural idyll of Pentrecagal called Chris Hardy is claiming to have already bagged the Carmarthen East and Dinefwr nomination and to be Labour's official candidate for the Westminster constituency which is held by Jonathan Edwards MP (Plaid).

On his website here, Chris introduces himself as "the local Labour Party candidate for the Carmarthen East and Dinefwr constituency", something which has apparently taken the local party by surprise, and he is seeking donations to fund his campaign.

Click to enlarge


Chris describes his time in Carmarthenshire as "turmoilous", and he admits to having upset a few people, but his message is one of love and Universal Politics, a creed based on luuurv, and lots of it.

To bring us all together, Chris has set up a second website called Care4Carms.com which he hopes will act as a forum for ideas and discussion across the county. Neither the labourchris.com website nor Care4Carms.com contains any Welsh, but Care4Carms has attracted a number of messages from the county's Russian speaking minority.

It's worth checking that your anti-virus software is up to date before visiting either site.

Прощай товарищи.










Sunday, 29 April 2018

My Diary: Lee Waters AM

In yet another shameless Private Eye rip-off, we are proud to begin another occasional series. This week it's the diaries of Lee Waters, aged 42 and a quarter, as told to Y Cneifiwr.

Monday

Back from an exhilarating and historic spring conference in Llandudno. Lovely though the Venice of the North may be, it is not a patch on Llanelli where I may or may not have lived ever since I left the ranks of  the Young Conservatives Young Labour.

I shall never forget the tear stained faces of all those rank and file third sector lobbyists and consultants as Carwyn told us that this was to be his last conference as First Minister.

It was a privilege to see history being made, and while it is too soon to form a firm view about Carwyn's legacy to the nation, something tells me that he will not be joining Ramsay Macdonald, Gordon Brown and my old friend Aneurin Bevan in the Pantheon of the Greats.

Sadly his final term in office was marred by tragedy when he failed to appoint me to his cabinet, but he nevertheless leaves a towering legacy in the form of the Allotments Aspiration Order (Wales), the Landfill Tax (Administration) (Wales) Supplementary Order, and more recently the Wales Brexit Continuity (Abject Surrender of Powers) Bill.

Our thoughts must now turn to who will fill those very large shoes, and it is vital that we have more than two candidates and a proper debate. Mark Drakeford has left an impressive legacy in our NHS, and Vaughan Gething and Eluned Morgan would also have my support should they decide to stand. I am proud to pin my colours to their masts.

But perhaps it is time for a younger candidate from the progressive wing of the party, someone with a vision and ideas which will enable us to capitalise on the challenges of the white hot heat of the digital revolution. Do I hear the wingbeat of destiny calling on me to step forward?

Before all that, we need to address how we elect our leader. The current system and One Member One Vote both have their attractions. It is essential that the voices of our friends in the unions and AMs and MPs are given due weight. OMOV certainly has much to recommend it, but I cannot help asking why we would want to copy the Nationalists and give everyone equal voting rights.

On balance, I suspect that a combination of the current electoral college system and OMOV would be the best way forward.

There, I've said it. And now the brickbats will rain down on me for having the courage to make a stand. 

Tuesday

As a member of the Assembly's Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee, I take my duties seriously and spend part of my evening reviewing the output of S4C. Part of their recent peak time offering was a drama series featuring a woman vicar who talks to dead people, and a reality show in which various so-called celebs try to herd some pigs.

I ask you.

As an ordinary working class Llanelli lad I like nothing better than to sit down with a few cans on a Saturday night to watch Ant and Dec or Cilla. But what do we get on S4C? Siân Cothi driving a JCB.

This may do it for the Nationalist elite, but I find it hard to justify supporting calls to stop more cuts to the channel's budget.

Cue a deluge of online abuse from Cymdeithas trolls.

Wednesday

The Reform Think Tank names me "Reformer of the Week" following my speech to the Assembly in which I said that the advance of digital technology and automation is a force to be understood and harnessed rather than rejected.

Me looking into the future


This shows that you don't need a flashy Harvard degree to carry out blue sky thinking, and while the Nationalists hanker for a return to the Celtic mists of the middle ages, my vision is for a revolution in education so that we ensure that we’re preparing young people for roles that do not yet exist in a future we can barely conceive of five or ten short years from now.

While I am a strong supporter of Welsh medium education, so long as it does not interfere with the rights of dog walkers, I couldn't help noticing recent damning criticism from Estyn that two thirds of Welsh primaries are not up to scratch when it comes to being at the leading edge of the digital revolution. This must change, and we must embrace what we cannot yet know.

Robots and virtual reality are the way forward, and will free up valuable resources. Who needs new roads around Llandeilo when we will soon be able to travel anywhere we like at the speed of light  and in virtual real-time from the comfort of our own homes?

In farming Welsh agriculture must embrace Big Data to transform how we produce food. When Mrs Trellis buys a dozen eggs in Porthmadog, a stimulating electronic buzz will prompt hen number 756342 at MegaFarm plc to begin a new supply chain cycle.

Instead of condemning people to boring and repetitive jobs, robots will free up nurses and GPs in our health service. Nurses performing bed baths and rectal thermometer checks, and GPs carrying out prostate examinations will seem as old fashioned as Florence Nightingale and her lamp when RoboNurse takes over. And I'm sure that they could be programmed to be bilingual as well.

This is how we will transform the NHS.

But what will I get for setting out my bold and brave new vision? A torrent of abuse, that's what.

Thursday

Tory cuts and mismanagement of the Welsh NHS lead to an announcement by Hywel Dda that Prince Philip Hospital could be downgraded. I take to the streets with Nia who has just got back from a trip on one of our Trident subs.

Close Withybush and Glangwili if you like, I tell Mrs and Mrs Evans of Dafen, but hands off Prince Philip.

I make a note to tell Vaughan all about my ideas for RoboNurse, and stand by for the usual tidal wave of Nationalist attacks on my Twitter feed. 

Friday

And so ends another week in politics. These are challenging times, and never has the country been more divided, which is why I seek always to be a bridge builder. It is therefore with a heavy heart that I note once again that the nationalists are cynically trying to bring politics into the future of our hospitals in the Hywel Dda region.

Meanwhile their banner waving and hysterical cyber trolls allege that Carwyn has sold Wales out to the London Tories for "a handful of magic beans", whereas I know, because he told me, that he has secured exciting and as yet unspecified new powers in return for his statesmanlike consensus building.

And on that note I am sure that I have once again made myself a target for all those  bitter and twisted nationalists with chips on their shoulders who have nothing better to do waste their time on Twitter.

#goodnightall @Amanwy #robonurse #labourfutures #saveprincephilip #me4llanelli

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Council of Despair: A crock of something at the end of the rainbow

After another lengthy sojourn at the Beti George Clinic, this time claiming it was 'flu, Sali Malu Cachu is back.


______________

Sir Ephraim Jams gazed down at the ancient market town nestling in its historic landscape. There across the river was the Tallahassee Fried Chlorinated Chicken Shack, temporarily closed while the company said it was "re-evaluating its distribution operations". Close by was Poundstretcher, while a short distance away he could make out a building housing Kash-for-Gold and a new branch of the Rees-Mogg Brexit Bookies betting chain emblazoned with its catchy slogan "Everyone's a winner!"

It had been such a pleasure to welcome the Right Honourable Andrea Loathsome to the star-studded opening ceremony the other week. The local economy was indeed booming, and it was all thanks to his vision, Sir Ephraim mused modestly.

At that moment the Chief's attention was drawn to movement below the window of the Executive Suite as old Mudge, the caretaker, prepared to hoist the Union Flag to mark the birthday of Her Royal Highness Princess Trixie Tinkerbelle, the spouse of HRH the Duke of Luton who was now 37th in line to the throne.

With a surge of pride, Sir Ephraim recalled his last conversation with Camilla when she had come down for an overnight stay at the royal couple's beautifully restored 26-bedroom cottage.

"I've got to hand it to you, Eph," she had said between gulps of gin, "you know how to keep these local savages in order. Keep your nose clean, and I will have a quiet word with you-know-who. I can see you sitting on the red benches".

A peerage! Lord Jams of Century Wharf....Just imagine! He might soon be dispensing his wisdom before the gilded throne at the beating heart of British Government. All he had to do was hold the ship steady for a little longer.

Sir Ephraim's reverie was interrupted by a discreet cough. It was Mrs Hughes Jones, the housekeeper.

"The staff are waiting for you in the Chippings Room", she announced.

Sir Ephraim strode into the panelled room dominated by a massive portrait of Dame Muriel swathed in ermine and wearing some very impressive chains of office.

Wasting no time on pleasantries, Sir Ephraim was straight down to business.

"We have only one item on the agenda today, namely the symbolic but nevertheless vitally important question of municipal protocol and flag flying".

"You will recall that questions were recently asked by some of our newer members less experienced in policy matters about raising a multi-coloured banner from the roofs of our offices. I am pleased to inform you that I personally approved a policy to deal with such matters a couple of years ago after we received an avalanche of requests from various pressure groups. It is with regret that I must inform you that acceding to such requests is out of the question. Unless of course you decide otherwise."

"The policy itself is based on a very clear protocol issued by the Home Office at the time when the Prime Minister herself occupied that great Office of State".

"The decision before you is therefore whether to disregard the firm instructions of the Home Office itself and open open the floodgates to a torrent of demands to fly the flags of extremist organisations, or to hold firm and respect the wishes of their Royal Highnesses who made their views clear to me on their last visit to Mudpie".

"It's Myddfai, Sir", ventured one of the assembled worthies.

"Exactly. Mudpie, just as I said", snapped Sir Ephraim testily.

"May I be so bold as to ask permission to see the requests you have received", asked Mr Mole.

Sir Ephraim brandished a thick file of papers. "Unfortunately that will not be possible because of commercial sensitivity, which as you will be aware is a delegated area of policy, but rest assured I do not think you would want to be seen to be allowing the Trelech Taliban Association, the Abergorlech Sex Workers Collective or the Laugharne Leather Club to promote their, cough, interests from our property. And you can bet that if we did, we'd be getting demands from Ffred Ffransis and his troublemakers next".

A lugubrious voice boomed from the far end of the table. It was Boris Karloff, or possible Edmund Jeffries. Sir Ephraim was never quite sure which.

"I recently had the colours of the rainbow explained to me", he began. "Red means, um, passion I think, while indigo has something to do with hope. Or it maybe it's the other way round".

Sir Ephraim cut him short. "Very interesting I'm sure, but we must now move to a vote. On the one hand you may decide to ignore the wishes of their Royal Highnesses and the advice given by the Home Secretary. You are indeed free to open the floodgates to all manner of fanatics and pressure groups, accepting the very negative publicity that would go with the flying of Islamist symbols and Tafod y Ddraig. You may on the other hand decide to heed the words of Dame Muriel herself who warned that members who listened to the clamour of public opinion were weak and spineless. It is entirely up to you."

The assembled worthies shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

"All those in favour of standing firm, raise your hands now."

Sir Ephraim looked pleased. "Unanimous! Good day to you all. Mrs Hughes Jones, kindly show them out."

Before Sir Ephraim could move, the door burst open and an unshaven man sweating profusely in an ill-fitting grey suit stumbled in. The suit jacket was festooned with badges and ribbons. "Nia for Nukes!", "M4 Relief Road Now!", "Say NO! to M4 Relief Road" screamed some of the badges.

It was "our Rob", as he was known to the dog walkers of Llanerch Fields.

"Sorry I'm late. I over-, um I mean the um, err, ah, I had a flat tyre. Yes that was it. A flat tyre. Did I miss anything?"

"Mr Karloff will fill you in", snarled the chief before sweeping from the room.


______________________

A couple of days had passed and Sir Ephraim was to be found in his office, poring over a detailed map of the new Dame Muriel Wellness Village and Spa. There was the site of the planned Robbie Savage Hotel, next to the Golding Sachs Health Investment Center. Over there was the site of the enormous new Buba Clinic, while here was the Harley Street Specialist Arena.

It was all very exciting, but Sir Ephraim's pencil hovered over the words "Dame Muriel".

Name recognition and branding were key, he mused, and to be brutally frank "Dame Muriel" lacked that international je-ne-sais-quoi. Sir Ephraim crossed out the name of his old friend and wrote the words "HRH Princess Camilla".

That was much better, he thought. He could tell Dame Muriel that if the wellness village thing took off, the international airport she had longed for would finally be built where Trimsaran now stood, and it would of course be known as "Dame Muriel International" in her honour. That way everyone would be happy, he smiled.

Sir Ephraim's train of thought was interrupted by a knock on the door. It was Mrs Hughes Jones, the loyal housekeeper.

"Mr Mole wishes to see you, and he says it's very urgent", she announced.

"Very well, show him in", said a visibly annoyed Sir Ephraim.

Mr Mole entered, clearly distressed.

"What is it man? Speak up!"

"They're all up in arms over the flag business, Sir. They're spitting feathers in Cardiff Bay, there's a petition and demonstrations are planned. The BBC is sniffing around, and Shippo has been asking a lot of awkward questions. Not to mention the reptiles at the Herald. Leanne is furious."

"I see. So having made this mess, what do you intend to do about it?" Sir Ephraim was clearly not pleased at the turn of events.

Mr Mole did an impersonation of a goldfish before pulling himself together. "I have read the policy, Sir, and it says that I am allowed to make an executive decision. We have no choice but to fly the Rainbow Flag!"

"Act in haste, repent at leisure, Mr Mole. Any hopes you may have entertained of an MBE have now been dashed, and for some of us this may represent an even graver setback. You may leave now".

Mr Mole retreated rapidly, and as he did so he heard the sound of a gilt pencil being snapped.






Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Festive thoughts

Chestnuts roasting by an open fire, peace on earth and goodwill to man (and woman), even Auntie Beryl and Mrs Bucket next door, or contemplating the living hell that is Tesco in Cardigan when you make a last minute dash for that "essential" jar of stem ginger. Yes, it's that time of year again when most of us will be thinking Christmas-related thoughts.

Not so if you are the chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, it would seem. In what is turning into something of an annual tradition, Mr James appears to be contemplating another blitzkrieg of festive litigation and threats of legal action.

This time last year he was putting the final touches to what he clearly hoped would be his final offensive against Jacqui Thompson, with a court case to have her and her family turfed out of their home, with a simultaneous battery of complaints to Dyfed Powys Police. Not content with that, he threw his toys out of the pram when two councillors dared to suggest a compromise, and launched a formal complaint of breach of the code of conduct against a third.

It was a hectic December.

The Ombudsman's wheels grind exceedingly slow, however, and it is understood that the "investigation" of alleged lèse-majesté by former councillor Sian Caiach is still going on.

To what must have been the great man's intense frustration, the legal Armageddon that he had so carefully planned was about as successful as Theresa May's strong and stable election campaign.

As Jail Hill watchers know, the chief executive does not give in that easily, and so it came as no surprise to hear the other day that Mrs Angry, the Finchley housewife, blogging superstar and nemesis of Tory councillors in Barnet, had spotted an unusual amount of interest in some of her old back numbers dealing with the Jacqui Thompson case emanating from an IP address belonging to Carmarthenshire County Council.

It is perfectly normal to see council IP addresses, no doubt belonging to the press and PR departments, monitoring recent stuff on the blogs, although in this age of austerity and with frontline services being cut, employing people to monitor naughty bloggers and wayward journalists is one service most of us could survive without.

However, trawling through blog archives for stories relating to court cases is more likely to be a task allocated to someone in County Hall's notorious "cavalier at best, incompetent at worst" legal department, to quote eminent lawyer Sir David Lewis.

Whether or not Mr James is planning a new spring legal offensive is something we will no doubt find out in due course, but in the meantime we can all sleep soundly in the knowledge that, in the view of the Wales Audit Office, there is nothing wrong with council resources being used in pursuit of a legal action which the council is adamant is an entirely private matter between Mr James and Mrs Thompson.

Meanwhile Mr James has been busy issuing threats of court action against Mrs Trisha Breckman who is seeking justice for the appalling treatment she has suffered at the hands of the council over the last 15 years.

As readers will recall, the essence of that case is that the council failed in its duty to enforce the law and planning regulations against her troublesome neighbour, Mr Andrew Thomas.

One of the many issues involved in the latest flare-up is what action was taken to ensure that an area of hardstanding illegally constructed by Mr Thomas on part of a Special Area of Conservation and SSSI was actually removed as required by the enforcement notice.

After Mr Thomas failed to comply with the notice, a court case ensued but was dropped no sooner than it had started, with council officers telling the court that the notice had since been complied with.

Given Mr Thomas's immensely long track record of contempt for the planning system, you would think the council would have sent someone round to check that the hardstanding really had been removed, but it seems not. Instead, the council's Head of Law and Monitoring Officer wrote that an "aerial photograph" from 2013 showed that it had been removed.

Readers can decide for themselves whether the photograph was taken by council officers in a municipal Cessna or was it, as we non-lawyers would call it, "Google Earth" showing the illegal hardstanding with a lot of soil and rock dumped on top?

The matter of the hardstanding is only one in a very long line of bizarre statements made by senior council officers in relation to Mr Thomas's activities at Maesybont, including a former head of planning's failure to notice that the "farm" was in fact a lorry depot, and his claim that a scrapped fire engine dumped in a field was in fact a pressure washer.

And so, dear reader, we leave 2017 pretty much as we started it.

Nadolig llawen. Merry Christmas.




Sunday, 17 December 2017

Carmarthen West - An Update

The gigantic housing development known as Carmarthen West has featured on this blog several times - here, for example.

The scheme was hatched and pushed through by the previous Labour/Independent administration, but whatever qualities the Meryl-Madge dream team had, vision was not one of them. It was his visionary capabilities that landed Mark James his job as chief executive way back in 2001, and this bright shiny new city on a hill (in reality part hill, part bog) is yet another of his visionary legacy projects.

Like so many other Jamesian schemes, it has not had a smooth run and involves a complex web of commercial agreements which involve a lot of give and take - with council residents doing all the giving and fat cat "investors" doing all the taking.

Readers of the Carmarthen Journal learned last week that the £5 million plus link road scheme is still bogged down in disputes with landowners. As most of the road and a new bridge have now been completed, it is pertinent to ask why work was begun and millions of pounds spent without checking that everyone was on board first. 

But we are where we are, and it seems that the council will now have to resort to compulsory purchase orders.

The council is funding most of the cost of the new road, but is hoping to recoup our money through a roof tax on the new houses, although word has it that the new houses are not selling like hot cakes.

We can but hope.

Hardly had the ink dried on the Journal's story than we learned that Jeff Fairburn, the chief executive of Persimmon, the principal developer in Carmarthen West, has just landed himself a bonus of £128 million (believed to be a mere £110 million + after the deduction of fees), with a bonanza of around £400 million going to other senior executives in the company.

Persimmon has had a very good year, thanks largely it seems to the UK government subsidies. 

A company which can afford to splash £500 million on its top executives could, you would think, afford to stump up £5 million to pay for the link road needed for the housing development. 

Not a bit of it. Persimmon and its interlocutors in County Hall have ensured that all the risk falls on local taxpayers for a scheme which has nothing to do with meeting local housing needs and which will lead to the Anglicization of the oldest town in Wales.






Wednesday, 6 December 2017

A whiff of scandal

Cneifiwr has been inundated with requests from younger readers wanting to know how to distinguish between the late Christine Keeler and the late Mandy Rice Davies (he would say that, wouldn't he?).

It's simple.


Not Mandy Rice Davies

Not Christine Keeler

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Governance

2014 was an extraordinarily turbulent year for Carmarthenshire County Council. It began with the publication by Anthony Barrett, the Wales Audit Office's appointed auditor, of two public interest accounts dealing with the pension and libel indemnity scandals. The chief executive went on gardening leave while what appears to have been a very cursory police investigation took place.

The council, no doubt under the firm guiding hand of Mr James, steadied itself after several very wobbly weeks, and rejected Mr Barrett's findings.

The pension scandal played a large part in the downfall of Mr James's over-mighty neighbour in Pembrokeshire, Bryn Parry-Jones, but what we got in Carmarthenshire was in effect a permament truce. The WAO decided that it did not have the appetite for what would have been long and very costly litigation to prove its points.

Towards the end of the year, to a great fanfare, the council invited in a WLGA panel to review its governance arrangements - not because there was anything wrong with the way things were done in Carmarthenshire, you understand, but because the council wanted to show the world that it was going to be even more transparent and even more squeakily clean than ever before.

That at least was the official narrative.

In reality the great and the good sent down by the WLGA might just as well have stayed at home.

The then leader of the council, Kevin Madge (Labour), gave the 39 modest recommendations a cautious welcome. They would have to be adapted to "fit in with the way we do things in Carmarthenshire" he told councillors.

Even before the ink had dried on the recommendations, the chief executive made his first move by putting a legal cordon around reports from scrutiny committees to prevent councillors from asking questions arising from them at monthly meetings of full council. The reports still appear on the official agenda, but no questions are allowed.

This exercise in making Carmarthenshire "the most transparent council in Wales" was never put to a vote, and even if it had been the then ruling Labour/Independent coalition would have ensured that it went through, denying opposition councillors of an important opportunity to air concerns and hold the council to account.

Labour councillors, now in opposition, may now repent at leisure.

Officially, the group set up to implement the 39 recommendations still exists, although minutes of its meetings are not published and have to be obtained through FOI.

So much for the most transparent council in Wales.

Not long after the dust settled on the pension and libel indemnity scandals, the chief executive quietly made his temporary appointment of Mrs Linda Rees Jones as Head of Legal and Monitoring Officer permanent on the basis that she had held the position in an acting capacity for so long that the role had become permanent by default.

Normally, and in any other council, the appointment of a Monitoring Officer would be entrusted to councillors, but not in Carmarthenshire.

As Local Government Lawyer explains, council monitoring officers have three main functions:

  • to report on matters he or she believes are, or are likely to be, illegal or amount to maladministration;
  • to be responsible for matters relating to the conduct of councillors and officers; and
  • to be responsible for the operation of the council’s constitution.

You don't need to be an expert in corporate governance to realise that a Monitoring Officer must not only be independent, but be seen to be independent. Mrs Rees Jones, who played a key role in shoring up the beleaguered chief executive's position during the pension and libel indemnity scandals, is neither.

Not only does she report to the chief executive, but she owes her promotion and salary to him.

And there in a nutshell are the two most important outcomes of the WLGA governance review: shutting down what had been an important scrutiny mechanism and Mr James's quiet consolidation of his grip on the council. He is now judge, jury and defence counsel.

Almost invariably when there is a scandal in public sector bodies (or large corporations come to that), we will be told afterwards that there were serious failings in corporate governance and that all the signs were there long before the brown stuff hit the fan; in Carmarthenshire the warning signs have been there for a very long time.

_________________

What the pension and libel indemnity scandals had in common was that Mark James was the sole beneficiary of both unlawful schemes. In theory the schemes were open to other officers, and in the case of the libel indemnity, to councillors as well. In practice, only Mr James was allowed to take advantage of them, and despite Executive Board minutes which stated that he would pay any damages from his libel action to the council, we learned earlier this year that Mr James had changed his mind, with his lawyers telling a court that he could stuff the money down a drain if he so wished.

It's those words "corporate governance" again.

Corporate governance Carmarthenshire style also allowed Mr James to claim £20,000 in Returning Officer fees immediately before the end of a tax year and before nominations had closed for council elections back in 2012 under a "special arrangement", something which presumably still exists.

Much more recently questions have surfaced about Mr James's private business dealings.

If you haven't read it yet, take a look at this post by Caebrwyn and the comments section underneath on the outcome of her attempts to discover whether Mark James, the chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, declared an interest in respect of his private business activities.

As a reminder, James's property business in Century Wharf and the complex web of directorships, companies and business partners involved were dealt with by Jac o' the North here and here. Martin Shipton of the Western Mail, another of Mr James's bêtes noires, has also taken more than a passing interest in this surprisingly colourful corporate tale, including this piece, and the paper followed that up with this account in October.

For a relatively new upmarket, gated residential development in the centre of Cardiff, Century Wharf has been responsible for some remarkably lurid news stories. Dissident leaseholders have accused Mr James and his partners of breaking planning regulations and leasehold agreements by letting flats to rowdy visitors out to enjoy the city's nightlife. Used condoms in the gardens, people defecating in the lifts and others sleeping in corridors are some of the problems they have had to put up with.

There has been a gruesome murder on the premises, and in 2010 police raided the complex in connection with an investigations into an international sex trafficking ring. In 2013 a young woman fell from a seventh floor balcony sustaining serious but not life-threatening injuries. It is understood that she is a Polish national who previously worked for University of Wales Trinity Saint Davids, of which Mr James is a director, and that she was subsequently recruited by Mr James and his partners as their office manager.

Responding to Jacqui Thompson's questions, the council said after a lot of foot dragging that Mr James had not declared any interests because his business interests lay outside the "jurisdiction" of Carmarthenshire. And anyway the council's Code of Conduct for Officers states:

10.2 Employees must declare in writing to their Chief Officer any financial and non-financial interests that they consider could bring about conflict with the authority's interests.

Presumably if an individual does not "consider" that what they are doing could bring about a conflict of interest, there is no need to declare anything.

The Code of Conduct itself was last revised in June 2012, and there can be little doubt that Mr James himself would have played a part in the design of this particular chocolate teapot. Apart from anything else, who is Mr James's own Chief Officer?


As for whether the council had ever sanctioned these extramural activities, Mr James himself told the Western Mail earlier this year that it had given its consent, and that he was not in breach of his contract of employment with the council because he was merely a non-executive director of the (four) companies, and therefore not an employee.

It is not clear who gave that consent, but it would seem likely that it was the Assistant Chief Executive (People Management and Performance), who like Mrs Rees Jones reports directly to Mr James.

If the Assistant Chief Executive had any qualms about giving consent, we do not know, but if he had could either have referred the matter to the Appeals Committee, which to put it mildly meets infrequently, the last 9 scheduled meetings having been cancelled, or he could have asked his colleague, the Monitoring Officer.

Corporate governance Carmarthenshire style again.

By declaring himself to be a non-executive director of the companies in Cardiff (but registered to an address in Essex), Mr James can claim not to have breached his contract of employment, but the non-existent declaration of an interest is another matter.

Unsurprisingly, neither Mr James nor Mrs Rees Jones regard this as a matter in which he should declare an interest.

It could be argued that there is a potential conflict of interest because of the council's own housing activities, but of more immediate concern are the questions of how much time and energy Mr James is devoting to his private business interests, and the real risk that they could damage the council's own reputation.

On the first point there is a growing body of evidence to show that Mr James is taking a very hands-on approach to running the companies. There seems to be litigation (now there's a surprise) and negotiations and disputes with third parties, all of which will require Mr James's attention. Then there are lengthy open letters and newsletters to leaseholders, some signed by Mr James in person, including some typically Jamesian flourishes such as a claim in one long article in which he claims to be doing it all to help the benighted residents of Century Wharf.

We can be sure that Mr James is not keeping timesheets, but even a cursory glance at this story shows that he must be devoting considerable time and energy to his private affairs.

"Cancer"

As some of the leaseholders have already discovered, Mr James's compassion and forgiving nature have their limits, as "Mr M", a Carmarthenshire resident could have told them. Mr M was a disabled council tenant who complained that the council had housed him in a property without a wheelchair ramp. The council was admonished by the Ombudsman in 2012, with Mr James telling councillors that if he had his way, Mr M would still be homeless.

In Century Wharf, the scene of many a wild party, a gruesome murder, the mysterious balcony accident and a resident sex trafficking ring, Mr James has taken an equally robust approach, telling the press that the incidents complained of all happened a long time ago, and that if there was any rowdy behaviour it was not down to short-term Airbnb guests, but longer term residents.

"There is a cancer in parts [of Century Wharf] he told the Western Mail, with some "very anti-social owner/occupiers". Criticism levelled at him was "personal, unpleasant and both unnecessary and confrontational".

But we have no concern to feel alarmed, fellow residents, because all this is taking place outside Carmarthenshire's jurisdiction, and has nothing to do with our council.

Mr James's property management business may very well be in his own interest, just as the pension, libel indemnity scandals were, but whether it is in Carmarthenshire's interest is another matter entirely.







Saturday, 18 November 2017

Gesture politics

It's been a very long time since Cneifiwr found time to watch a webcast of Carmarthenshire County Council's monthly meeting of full council. The Independent benches are a shadow of their former selves, and there are a lot of new faces on both the Plaid and Labour benches.

Labour had submitted a motion calling for the rainbow flag to be flown over County Hall on 1st December every year to mark World Aids Day.

World Aids Day is the initiative of an organisation set up in 1988, and according to its website, "it’s an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, to show support for people living with HIV, and to commemorate those who have died from an AIDS-related illness".

Plaid put up an amendment pointing out that the internationally recognised symbol for Worlds Aids Day is a red ribbon, and several of its councillors argued that flying the rainbow flag, a symbol celebrating LGBT rights, would serve only to reinforce old misconceptions that HIV and AIDS affect gay men only.

Cllr Carl Harris reminded councillors that most AIDS and HIV sufferers in the UK were heterosexual, and he might have added that worldwide gay men make up only a small minority of people with AIDS or HIV. Among those affected are thousands of people in the UK given contaminated blood imported by the NHS from the US, including haemophiliacs.

Flying the rainbow flag would send out the wrong message, but he offered the Labour group an olive branch and said he was happy to consider other options, including trying to do something practical to help AIDS and HIV sufferers in Carmarthenshire.

As the camera slowly panned the chamber we were treated to the sight of a lot of councillors wearing red or white ribbons, or both. One of the new intake of Labour councillors was so festooned with symbols that he could have been mistaken for a Christmas tree.

Cneifiwr mischievously found himself longing for the bad old days when Cllr Pam Palmer, Abergwili's answer to Alan Partridge, would have felt compelled to stand up and contribute, but we had to make do with poor old Jeff Edmunds instead.

Jeff, sounding even more lugubrious than ever, admitted that all this rainbow, ribbon and colour stuff was something that had passed him by until he had had it explained to him the night before. He agreed with both the motion and the amendment, and wished that somehow they could be brought together.

In practical terms that would have involved Labour withdrawing its motion and taking up Cllr Harris's offer of a meeting to come up with something a bit more sensible, but it was not to be.

Having said that he supported the Plaid amendment, he then voted against it.

The Plaid amendment was then passed after Labour insisted on calling a recorded vote which involved the chief executive calling out the names of all councillors and asking Mrs Rees Jones to do her sums. That was another ten minutes of our lives we will never get back, and Labour inevitably went down to a heavy defeat.

Readers with longer memories than those on the Labour benches will recall that the flying of flags over County Hall has been the subject of controversy on a number of occasions in recent years, including a refusal by the council, then run by Labour, to fly the rainbow flag to mark pride celebrations back in February 2015.

Mr James will not be moved, it seems, and we are instead treated to the sight of the Union Jack being hoisted on numerous feast days to celebrate various birthdays and anniversaries relating to the Windsor clan, including the birthday of somebody called the Countess of Wessex.

This bizarre chapter left a lot of people scratching their heads. Why would Labour insist on flying the wrong symbol from the rooftops of County Hall on World Aids Day and refuse Cllr Harris's offer of cross-party cooperation to discuss alternatives, including the possibility of practical measures which would probably be appreciated a great deal more by AIDS and HIV sufferers than all the flags and ribbons?

Was this just another example of what has become known as "virtue signalling"?

The first clue as to what lay behind this was Labour's insistence on calling a recorded vote, which they knew they would lose.

Although the council's constitution is too polite to say so, the real purpose of recorded votes is to provide political ammunition. "Look at this, voters. They voted in favour of removing apple from apple pies/killing of the first born/a nuclear waste dump in Tyisha/rounding up fluffy kittens (delete as appropriate)".

On this occasion, Labour saw an opportunity to claim that wicked, homophobic Plaid had vetoed proposals to fly the rainbow flag.

If there were any lingering doubts, Cllr Gary 'Poumista' Jones weighed in on Twitter shortly afterwards:


Those familiar with Labour in Llanelli would not have expected anything else. Accusing political opponents both within the party's own ranks and on the outside of racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism and any number of other -isms and phobias is deeply embedded in their culture. The only exceptions are Cymraegophobia and xenophobia, seen as vote winners.

Having dealt with red ribbons, the council then turned its attention to a second Labour motion in favour of white ribbons.....



Thursday, 16 November 2017

Abuse, bullying and the Assembly (updated)

We have heard a great deal recently about cases of sexual harassment and bullying in politics, and it was announced yesterday that the party leaders in the Assembly had agreed to crack down on any sexual harassment or other inappropriate behaviour by Members.

As always, the devil is in the detail, and based on my own experiences I somehow doubt that this crackdown will be as effective as it sounds in changing the culture of secrecy and privilege which shields the bullies and abusers.

Earlier this year I was made aware of comments made by a member of staff of a serving UKIP AM on Facebook. I will not name the individual, but in the course of a conversation he made some clearly threatening remarks, not against me personally, but against Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, of which I am a member.

The fact that the complaint related to threats against Cymdeithas members is really incidental to this piece, which I hope shows that yesterday's declaration does not go anywhere near far enough in tackling a culture in which bullying and abuse can thrive.

Cymdeithas is a legitimate campaign group which occasionally uses civil disobedience, and it has always been clear that it eschews violence and intimidation against people. It relies entirely on its members and supporters for funding.

The individual concerned made remarks which showed that he knew very little about Cymdeithas yr Iaith, before going on to promise that he would "hunt down" its members.

I also had evidence that this person had been involved in discussions with the Labour Party in Llangennech and Llanelli, and that he had played a part in stirring up trouble there. I was also aware that someone from the same circle had fed malicious and untrue claims of vandalism and harassment by members of Cymdeithas to the Western Mail.

It therefore seemed to me to important to try to do something to hold this person to account.

I raised the matter with officers of Cymdeithas who decided that they did not wish to pursue the matter in the name of Cymdeithas yr Iaith, but they agreed that if I so wished, I could complain as an individual.

My aim in taking up the complaint was not to have the individual dismissed, but to have it made clear to the individual and the AM for whom he works that his conduct was unacceptable.

I therefore wrote to the office of the Llywydd (presiding officer), and a couple of weeks later received a reply saying that while the individual did indeed work for a Member, he was not employed by the Assembly Commission and I should therefore refer my complaint to the Member in person.

Since correspondence to Assembly Members is dealt with not by the members themselves but by their staff, I concluded that if I did make a complaint, it would almost certainly be seen first by the person I was complaining about, and that there was a risk that I would expose myself to harassment.

Not unreasonably, I also felt that even if the UKIP Assembly Member did get to see the complaint, it was unlikely that it would be acted on.

It may well have been the case that the individual's remarks were just careless mouthing off with no serious intent, but I suspected that he was using Assembly resources to pursue a political vendetta and spread malicious and untrue smears, and I wondered what options would be open to a member of the public with much more serious complaints of inappropriate behaviour against a member of staff of an Assembly Member.

With the honourable exception of Plaid Cymru, it is common for Assembly Members from all of the other parties to employ family members on their staff. Imagine for a moment that a member of the public was subjected to bullying or harassment by the husband or wife of an AM. Presumably they too would have to make a complaint to the AM concerned in the near certain knowledge that their correspondence would be seen first by the person they were complaining about.

I decided to try a different tack and wrote back to the office of the Llywydd, pointing out that AM staff are paid for out of the public purse, i.e. the Assembly itself, and that I was aware that the Assembly's HR department was directly involved in the recruitment process.

To argue that AM staffers are nothing to do with the Assembly was, I felt, a little disingenuous.

The Llywydd's office stuck to its guns.

As a final throw of the dice I felt sure that AM staff would be subject to a code of conduct. I therefore asked to see that document. In due course, I received the following reply:

Mae holl staff Aelodau’r Cynulliad yn destun Côd Ymddygiad Staff y maent yn llofnodi pan fyddant yn dechrau eu cyflogaeth.  Fodd bynnag, nid yw'r ddogfen hon yn un gyhoeddus.

(All AM staff are subject to a Code of Conduct that they sign when they begin their employment. However, this document is not public.)

It took nearly a month to reach this dead end.

In a nutshell any complaints that you or I might have about the behaviour of someone recruited using Assembly resources and paid for out of Assembly funds has to be sent to the Assembly Member concerned, even though the complaint will almost certainly be intercepted by the person you are complaining about. There is also quite a strong likelihood that the person you are complaining about will be a member of the Member's immediate family.

The fact that the Assembly still allows its members to employ family is another scandal.

To cap it all, you cannot claim that the individual has breached the Assembly's Code of Conduct because the code of conduct is secret.

Kafka would feel at home in 21st century Cardiff Bay.

Postscript

In common with the rest of the motley crew who were originally elected under the UKIP banner, the AM referred to in this piece was returned on a regional list. Oddly for an elected member of a democratic institution, our subject seems to be a rather shy and elusive beast.

Constituents wishing to get in touch can write to the Assembly itself, but there is no telephone number listed on the Assembly profile which refers instead to the AM's own external website (which would of course have been funded by you and me).

The call the website poor is to be generous. Again, there are no telephone numbers, and there is no office address, although we can be pretty sure that office rent and expenses are being claimed for. You might want to pop along to a surgery, but the web page giving details of surgeries is completely blank; and anyway, the location appears to be secret.

Presumably this is acceptable to the Assembly under the doctrine that whatever AMs and their staff get up to is pretty much a matter for them, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the Assembly. If the Assembly does have minimum standards governing how its members and their staff engage with the public, the bar is set so low as to be laughable.

Although I corresponded with the office of the Llywydd, I doubt very much that the matter was brought to the attention of Elin Jones.

It could be argued that this particular case reflects badly on UKIP, but that's not saying very much.

In reality nepotism, corrupt practices, lack of accountability and secrecy reflect badly on the institution itself. It's time for more than just pious declarations.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Carmarthenshire on the Taff


In the previous post we saw how difficult it was for Mrs Trisha Breckman to negotiate an audience with Mark James CBE. When the meeting finally did take place, it began with frosty glares but ended with smiles and warm handshakes, and what Mrs Breckman understood to be a promise to help her.

Apart from a very hostile letter from the council's solicitors some months later, that was the last Mrs Breckman heard from Mr James until he wrote to her last week threatening to take her to court.

In Mr James's defence, he is of course a very busy man. Aside from the small matter of running Carmarthenshire County Council and trying to get the Swansea Bay City Deal off the ground, he has responsibilities elsewhere. At Century Wharf in Cardiff, for example.

Let's hope residents of Century Wharf in Cardiff have better luck than Mrs B.

The gated apartment complex close to the city centre is at the heart of Mr James's burgeoning business empire, which appears to consist of two strands: property investment and developing a "right to manage" business model that would be sold to other residential developments, with Mr James and his white knights riding in to save householders from the clutches of unscrupulous operators.

Unlike their rapacious, money obsessed competitors, Mr James and his business partners are, of course, motivated purely by a wish to help ordinary people, even though they live nowhere near Century Wharf.

At Century Wharf Mr James is a director of no fewer than three Right To Manage (RTM) companies which are in partnership with Warwick Estates Property Management Ltd, a company based in Harlow Essex. Managing Director of Warwick Estates is Mr Craig Stevens, who describes his occupation on Companies House as "entrepreneur". Funnily enough, the three RTM companies are all registered at the same address as Warwick.




Mr James's RTMs and Warwick Estates clearly enjoy an extremely close working relationship, and residents of Century Wharf may wonder why "their" right-to-manage companies share lodgings with Warwick in distant Essex and what would happen, God forbid, if they ever wanted to dispense with the services of Warwick Estates Property Management. But let's cast such dark thoughts aside.

In the meantime residents have just received a newsletter dated 2 November 2017, which features Warwick Estates' logo alongside the three RTM companies. It is not clear who penned this update from "your RTM directors Steven Corner, Elize Ferner, Mark James CBE, Stephen Kass and Pamela Voisey", but there is much in it which will sound uncannily familiar to residents of Carmarthenshire.

First up we are told that Century Wharf residents are flocking to sign up for the services of the RTMs and Warwick Estates; unlike Mrs Breckman and other disgruntled Carmarthenshire taxpayers, they are promised "direct access to the directors". No matter whether it's blocked drains, repairs or grounds maintenance, they can apparently pop in to see Mr James or any of the other directors for a chat.

The newsletter goes on to describe how the RTMs and Warwick are currently locked in battle with the insurers, Zurich, before taking a swipe at a dissident former director who, it says, has been taking his gripes to the media.

High jinks

That would be a reference to the sort of thing recently reported by the Western Mail, which tells a distressing tale of condoms left in gardens, poo in lifts and clearly tired and emotional Airbnb visitors sleeping in hallways.

It was perhaps a little unfair of the Western Mail to pin the blame solely on Airbnb clients because there are plenty of other ways visitors to Cardiff can book themselves into Century Wharf while they enjoy a short stay in the capital, as a quick Google search which yields any number of advertisements for short-stay serviced apartments in the complex will testify.

Century Wharf even has its own website, which boasts that the complex is just a short walk from the city centre and the "Principality" Stadium. It even has its own leisure centre for residents and their visitors.

The idea that apartments might be used by lads up for the rugby, hen parties or stag weekends is preposterous, and the raucous behaviour could equally be down to marauding members of Merched y Wawr, gangs of lay preachers or the Rachub Temperance Society attracted by the bright city lights. Indeed, the newsletter darkly suggests, it may be the work of people "not necessarily renting for short periods", although why long-term residents of this upmarket development would want to defecate in lifts, perform sex acts in the gardens or sleep in hallways it is hard to imagine.

These lurid tales "do not appear to bear scrutiny" and paint a negative picture of life in Mr James's property management empire, we are told. If any of this happened, it was probably a long time ago.

It's all sadly reminiscent of the sort of carping Mr James has to put up with in his day job.

The dissident former director, Mr Gareth Griffiths, has therefore received a written communication, presumably of a legal nature, asking him to desist.

One small problem with all of this short-stay activity is that it is a flagrant breach of leasehold agreements and planning regulations, dissident residents say.

Again, the notion that Mr James CBE or any of his associates would ride roughshod over planning regulations is entirely risible, and it is unfortunate that East Hertfordshire District Council should recently have acted in a high-handed manner and served an enforcement notice on Mr Craig Stevens, MD of Warwick Estates, for building an unauthorised extension to his home in Ware. A decision which was regrettably upheld on appeal.

AGM

Moving swiftly on from these scurrilous stories, the newsletter turns its attention to what form the annual general meeting of the three RTM companies might take. There will be no elections this year, it informs us, and rather than stage a boring event which might be hijacked by obsessives with axes to grind, the directors are considering holding an open day at which residents would be treated to presentations.

A bit like the sort of thing Mr James has strived to bring about at meetings of Carmarthenshire County Council, in fact, where colourful Powerpoint presentations from BT and Dŵr Cymru make such a welcome change from tedious and impertinent questions from the floor.

Bearing in mind that the newsletter begins by telling us that Century Wharf residents are flocking to Mr James's banner, it may appear a little odd when we read a few paragraphs further down that "many members have stressed the importance of being able to speak with Directors about concerns they have about their own apartments or to be able to make comments about the landscape around the site, parking, maintenance, and other maters that affect them personally".

Perhaps all is not quite as lovely in the landscaped gardens after all, condoms or no condoms.

At any rate, the newsletter promises that members will shortly be informed about how they may go about addressing their concerns to directors personally.

If Mrs Breckman's experiences are anything to go by, they may want to think very carefully before complaining.









Sunday, 12 November 2017

Natural Injustice (updated)

Caebrwyn has written an excellent update and summary of the Breckman case (here) which has featured on this blog so many times in the past, and an article based on that blogpost appeared in this week's Carmarthenshire Herald.

The latest twist in this saga is that the chief executive has written to Mrs Breckman to inform her that he has instructed his officers, including the Monitoring Officer and Head of Legal, Mrs Linda Rees Jones, not to reply to her questions in future, and to warn her that, "I now place you on notice that continuation may well invite legal action".

The trigger for this warning was a request to Mrs Rees Jones asking her to perform her statutory duty and write a report on the case which, in the opinion of just about everyone who has any knowledge of it, contains abundant evidence of malpractice, negligence and misconduct in public office by a small number of senior council staff.

Here is the text of Mr James's letter in full:


Dear Mrs Breckman,

I shall not be responding to any further correspondence of this sort.

I shall also be instructing Ms Rees Jones and other officers not to respond to your false allegations and abuse.

You (sic) unpleasant and defamatory remarks about me and my staff have reached the point where I now place you on notice that continuation may well invite legal action.

Whilst I appreciate the difficult time you have had with your neighbour, your numerous complaints about the Council have been investigated and where the Ombudsman did uphold some of those complaints, we have complied with his requirements in that respect, which was some considerable time ago.

Yours sincerely
Mark James CBE

Rather than cover the same ground as Caebryn's article, let's take a look at one particularly shocking episode from last year when, after almost a year of requests and negotiation, Mr James finally granted an audience to Mrs Breckman.

The first thing to note is that Mr James has been very well acquainted with the case for most of its 15 year history; indeed there is abundant evidence to show that he has personally intervened on a number of occasions to try to silence Mrs Breckman and prevent scrutiny of the case by councillors.

These include placing Mrs Breckman on a blacklist of "persistent complainers" without her knowledge, a truly byzantine operation to prevent a highly critical ombudsman's report from reaching full council and an intervention to persuade the Petitions Committee of the National Assembly not to take up the case.

Much less clear is who was involved in collusion between elements within Dyfed Powys Police and senior council staff to intimidate and smear Mrs Breckman,

On the one hand we have Mrs Breckman, a slightly built woman now in her seventies, and on the other her troublesome neighbour who is a large and physically imposing man with a criminal record for violent assault, but on no fewer than five occasions it was Mrs Breckman rather than Mr Thomas who ended up being arrested and taken from her home in handcuffs when the police were called, only to be released without charge.

On another occasion when Mrs Breckman was involved in a road traffic accident and witnesses gave statements absolving her from responsibility, someone in Dyfed Powys Police had other ideas and decided to press charges for dangerous driving. The case was dropped after Mrs Breckman's solicitor reminded the police of the witness statements.

An officer who was asked to write a report on the case as part of a complaints procedure is said unaccountably to have radically altered a draft which confirmed Mrs Breckman's side of the story, to a version which cast doubt on her honesty by suggesting that she could have fabricated CCTV footage of an intruder looking very much like her neighbour prowling around her home in the middle of the night.

On another occasion two burly types appeared at Mrs Breckman's door offering to "do in" her neighbour for her. She politely declined their offer and was left wondering whether this was perhaps another attempt to compromise her.

The CCTV smear was then used by the council repeatedly to deter anyone in authority from asking questions about what on earth was going on in this otherwise quiet corner of Carmarthenshire.

When the previous Police and Crime Commissioner Christopher Salmon finally issued Mrs Breckman and her partner with a full apology for its handling of the case, including the CCTV claim, Mrs Breckman not unsurprisingly decided to take the matter up with Mr James.

Mrs Breckman's aim was to secure an apology from the council for its actions over so many years and to secure compensation for the stress and huge financial losses she and her partner had incurred.

For her part Mrs Breckman has always insisted that her quarrel is not with her neighbour, but with the council in particular for its negligence and perverse planning decisions, which have included allowing her neighbour to trash part of a Special Area of Conservation and SSSI with impunity.

At first, Mr James refused to entertain the idea of a meeting with Mrs Breckman. There was nothing to discuss, he declared.

Eventually, after some behind the scenes political intervention, he at last agreed to a meeting, although his busy timetable meant that it could not take place for many months, with further delays being caused by his cancellation of one appointment. When Mrs Breckman informed Mr James that she intended to bring along her then Assembly Member, Rhodri Glyn Thomas, Mr James exploded. The meeting was cancelled, and he announced that he was no longer prepared to see her.

As Mr James knew, Rhodri Glyn Thomas had been closely involved with the case for years and had also been threatened by Mrs Breckman's neighbour.

More behind the scenes shuttle diplomacy eventually persuaded Mr James to relent, and along went Mrs Breckman with her county councillor.

The meeting was very much one of two halves, with Mr James performing a one man double act. First up was "nasty" Mr James, staring coldly and asking hostile questions. Mrs Breckman stood her ground and laid out precisely her grounds for an apology and compensation.

For no apparent reason, half way through Mr James appeared to flick a virtual switch to turn on his "nice" side. He was sorry for what had happened; the council was unable to control her neighbour. He would now take charge of this personally, and all Mrs Breckman needed to do was to drop him a line outlining her case, and he would forward it to the council's insurers. Everything would be resolved "in weeks rather than months".

Cneifiwr spoke to Mrs Breckman shortly afterwards, and she was elated. The meeting has lifted a huge weight from her, and she sang Mr James's praises. Justice was at last going to be served.

Soon afterwards, she sent a letter outlining her case to Mr James, and it was indeed forwarded to the council's insurers. Rather unsettlingly in view of what she thought she had been promised, the insurers then entered into correspondence with Mrs Breckman. Time dragged on, and she was informed that the claims were now out of time. More correspondence followed until Mrs Breckman was informed by the insurance company that, at the council's instruction, the matter had now been handed to the council's solicitors who then wrote an extremely curt letter informing her that she had no claim and that any attempt by her to pursue the matter through the courts would result in their seeking to have her case struck out before it got anywhere near a courtroom.

The upshot was no apology and no compensation.

It is unlikely that Mr James will ever be asked to account for his actions. Did he "mis-speak" and give Mrs Breckman an expectation that he would ensure she received an apology and compensation without first having done his homework? Or was it a particularly cynical and cruel manoeuvre to get Mrs Breckman off his back while killing off attempts by councillors and political representatives to help her?

Having endured 15 years of torment and now facing the loss of her home, Mrs Breckman is determined not to let the matter rest. Mr James may yet have to resort to the lawyers to silence her.

Burns Case

Jacqui Thompson's blog has also drawn attention to another very long-running case of injustice which Mr James seems equally determined not to resolve. This time it concerns the Burns family whose daughter was taken away from them after false and malicious accusations of abuse were made by two care staff.

It will be remembered that despite a police recommendation that the Burns's daughter should be returned to her parents after they had concluded that there was no evidence of abuse, the council decided to prolong the agony.

After a very long battle, the council did eventually agree to pay a limited amount of compensation, but money was not what this was all about, and the family is still, seven years on, fighting to get the council and the police to conduct a statutory Safeguarding Investigation into their handling of the case.

Update 

For a much fuller account of the Burns' story, read this truly harrowing account by Siân Caiach, who was closely involved with the family.

Part One of the story can be found here, and part two here.

Culture

What these two cases tell us is not that Carmarthenshire County Council is uniquely bad. As with large organisations everywhere it can sometimes get things badly wrong, and the results can be catastrophic for ordinary people caught up in them.

A few years ago a panel of experts was brought in to carry out a review of governance of the council in the wake of the pensions and libel indemnity scandals. That particular exercise had almost no lasting effect, but at the time the chair of the review panel told councillors (and officers) that while the council was not as bad as some of its critics claimed, it was not as good as it thought it was either.

Other external agencies have remarked time and again on the council's defensiveness and unwillingness to accept criticism; Mr James was famously told on one occasion to grow a thicker skin.

What the Breckman and Burns cases do tell us is that the corporate culture Mark James has developed within the council during his overly long tenure persists to this day. It is a culture based on a refusal ever to apologise or accept responsibility for mistakes.

Both cases could have been settled years ago, but Mr James's intransigence and arrogance serve only to ensure that the misery and injustice continue, and the stain on the council's reputation endures.







Wednesday, 8 November 2017

A Regional Revolution

After treading water for a couple of years, the Welsh Government is planning to unveil its latest ideas for reforming local government next year, but for those of you who cannot wait that long, the Swansea "City Deal" signed in March this year by Theresa May, Carwyn Jones, Alun Cairns, Mark Drakeford and the four council leaders involved contains some pretty big clues as to what we can expect.

Quaint concepts such as accountability, devolution, democracy and local decision making will give way to corporatist, technocratic, big is beautiful constructs in which government ministers and civil servants in London and Cardiff will have rather more say in who really runs local government than voters do.

In what looks set to be a beautifully crafted exercise in smoke and mirrors, voters will be left with directly elected councils and the municipal trimmings that go with them while power over just about everything except rubbish collections will be handed to new quangos.

Welcome to 'Central and South West Wales', which is not a railway station, but the provisional name for this new local government mammoth.

Before we peer into the crystal ball, let's consider how we got here.

___________

Hardly had the dust settled on Carwyn Jones's latest reshuffle than up popped Leighton Andrews on Twitter plugging one of his courses at Cardiff University. For a modest fee, new members of Carwyn's cabinet can pop along to learn how to be a minister between 2 and 4 every Thursday.

Or perhaps that should be how not to be a minister, because in his relatively brief cabinet career, Leighton managed to get himself sacked from education in 2013 before returning a year later to reform local government, only to see his proposals shot down by a coalition of outraged local government fat cats. Voters in the Rhondda, that safest of safe Labour bets, then decided to give him the boot.

For roughly 400 years Wales managed to get by with 13 counties until Edward Heath reduced the number to 8 with a tier of district councils beneath them. 20 years later John Major's unhappy government decided to shuffle the pack again giving us the 22 unitary authorities we have today. At the time the Tories claimed the new structure would remove overlap, save huge amounts of money and be much more efficient. Labour argued that the change would see a devastating loss of local government jobs.

Needless to say, they were both wrong, and the Tories ended up creating a whole string of Labour fiefdoms destined to enjoy eternal one-party rule with all the opportunities for patronage and access to the gravy train that goes with it.

Leighton's plan was set out in a white paper, the key points of which were:
  • Merging smaller councils to reduce the total from 22 to 10 or 12.
  • A reduction in full time Cabinet roles.
  • A consulation on whether there should be term limits on chief executives.
  • A legal duty on Council leaders to ensure diversity amongst elected members and senior council staff.
  • Term limits on councillors and leaders, with no-one allowed to hold posts as a councillor and AM at the same time.
  • A review of the remuneration of councillors, Leaders and Cabinet members, to bring costs down.

Tact and diplomacy were never Leighton's strongest points, and the pale and the stale choked on their Prosecco. Labour local government types, previously so strongly opposed to the John Major reforms, prepared to defend their fiefdoms, and they were joined in the trenches by the likes of Pam Palmer in Carmarthenshire, horrified by the idea that anyone should try to end her divine right to rule by limiting the amount of time that people like her and Meryl Gravell could take home a senior salary while letting Mark James get on with actually leading the show.

Leighton's spectacular defeat in the Rhondda meant that the showdown never happened, and his proposals were given a quiet burial.

So it was back to the drawing board for the government, which decided that regional working was the way forward.

Education and planning

The government is expected to bring forward new proposals for regional local government next year, but the process has already started, quietly and through the back door, with the establishment of regional education consortia. In Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Neath Port Talbot, Swansea, Pembrokeshire and Powys ERW (Education Through Regional Working) has taken on functions and responsibilities which previously lay with elected county councils, complete with its own chief executive and cadre of officers.

It is unlikely that more than a generous one voter in every 100 will have heard of ERW, which is just as well because it is completely unaccountable to them, and ERW has its counterparts in other parts of the country, all charged with delivering an "agreed regional strategy and business plan to support school improvement."

Any body which serves six masters, such as ERW, is in reality accountable to none of them, and concerns have been expressed at how a homogenizing body which covers such a hugely diverse area in which English predominates can meet the needs of Welsh medium education.

In planning the legislative and legal framework is already in place which will see powers transferred away from elected councils to two new bodies over which voters have next to no control.

The Swansea Bay City Region, or "City Deal" as it is now usually referred to, will be run by an Economic Strategy Board and a Joint Committee.

The ESB, which will be responsible for strategy, will be made up of business and public sector types (a very wide term which extends all the way from councils to the health boards and the fat cats of academe). Only a minority of its members is likely ever to have been elected by you or me.

The chair of the ESB will be "a private sector business person" appointed by the UK Government, the Welsh Government and members of the Joint Committee, which will be made up of representatives of the four participating local authorities.

The UK Government, currently in the shape of Alun Cairns working alongside London-based civil servants, will have a veto and effective control over who runs the show. So much for devolution, democracy and local accountability.

In planning matters, these new authorities will be responsible for drawing up a new "Strategic Development Plan" (SDP) which will somehow, nobody is entirely sure how, exist alongside the "Local Development Plans" drawn up by existing councils. And both of these elements will be subordinated to something called the "National Development Framework".

In essence, then, the City Deal ESB with its unelected head will decide what is "strategic", and anything which is strategic will be removed from the LDPs. In practice, LDPs will be left with little more than dealing with Mrs Williams' new conservatory and a couple of new bungalows in Cwmsgwt.

Planning approval for "strategic" matters will still have to go through a sort of quasi judicial process, but this will be carried out by an appointed panel. Appointed by whom is not yet clear, but at a rough guess we are talking about proteges of the council leaders on the Joint Committee, and it is more likely that pigs will sprout wings than that these appointees would ever be so unwise as to vote down something deemed to be strategic.

What we are about to get therefore is a whole new planning ecosystem of frameworks and development plans drawn up and overseen by different bodies in different places, with control over the most important bits lying somewhere between Cardiff Bay and Whitehall.

'Central and South West Wales'

If the City Deal sounds like a labyrinth, it is, and it is a labyrinth which will be subsumed into an ever bigger labyrinth of regional quango-ization under the government's plans for regional "local" government.

The City Deal agreement, signed by the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Wales, the First Minister, Mark Drakeford and the four council leaders (Swansea, Camarthenshire, Neath Port Talbot and Pembrokeshire) goes rather further than just dealing with matters relating to the Swansea Bay City Region project, and outlines what will be the fate of local democracy in Wales, where we will get three super-regions: the North, Cardiff and the South-East and The Rest.

The Rest, or Central and South West Wales, will take in everything from Margam to Machynlleth and Manorbier to Meifod, including both Ceredigion and Powys, and it will be run by a "Joint Governance Committee" that will take over many of the functions currently carried out by elected councils, including, the agreement helpfully suggests, "economic development, transport, land
use planning, education improvement and social services".

Councillors and Assembly Members may be scratching their heads at this point, trying to recollect when they debated and agreed to any of this, but their turn will come next year when they will be asked to give their seal of approval to a fait accompli signed off by Mrs May, Carwyn and the four council leaders, who, as we have seen, have also handed a large degree control over what happens in this part of the world back to London.

The most that we in the west can hope for is that Adam Price's idea for Arfor, a new integrated local authority covering the west of this country, finally starts to gain a bit more traction.