Friday, 20 October 2017

Dewi Sant and the Burry Port Soviet (Updated)

It only seems like yesterday (June 2016 to be precise) that Nia Griffith belatedly joined other plotters in yet another attempt to oust Jeremy Corbyn. The coup failed, Nia rejoined the shadow cabinet, but Labour's civil war rumbled on, and the party seemed destined to go down in flames when Theresa May called her snap general election.

Since the election all has been sweetness and light in the UK Labour Party, at least in public, but someone seems to have forgotten to tell Labour in Llanelli that purging the party of capitalist lackeys and traitors has been put on hold, and the comrades are still busy getting on with the real business of stabbing each other.

Rent-a-mob

Just over a week ago Alan Evans' hyperlocal LlanelliOnline published one of those very strange pieces it specialises in, this time purporting to report on a dust-up at Burry Port Town Council where, it was alleged, Labour had brought in a rent-a-mob to disrupt proceedings, with some of its members and supporters going on to issue "false and misleading" statements to the press.

To put the icing on the cake, the piece attracted the attention of Michaela Beddows, notorious for her role in the Llangennech saga, and she left a series of rants in the comments section

A journalist from the Carmarthen Journal was invited down to cover the next meeting to ensure that a more impartial and accurate account of proceedings was published.

This invitation clearly upset LlanelliOnline which responded by launching an attack on the integrity of the Journal's representative and rubbishing the idea that a rent-a-mob had been organised.

It has been claimed that the rent-a-mob was led by Llanelli Labour's bovver boys in CUSC (the "Carmarthenshire Unified Sports Committee"), who just happen to be bosom buddies with Alan Evans, although as readers will see in the comments section below, one half of the CUSC "committee", denies being present.

Walkies!

We didn't have to wait long before CUSC made another appearance on LlanelliOnline, this time rallying in support of the dog walkers campaigning to keep what they see as the "brainwashed plebs" and" jumped up Welsh tossers" of Ysgol Dewi Sant away from Llanerch Fields.

What triggered the latest outbursts was the appearance on Llanerch Fields of a couple of men carrying out permeability tests on the soil. Luckily a passing dog walker was on hand to photograph this outrage on a green space where we are told you can hardly move for picnickers, kiddies, kite flyers, sporty types, blackberry pickers, boy scouts and troupes of Morris Men (but definitely no doggers).

Walkies with the labs


The unlikely alliance between the revolutionary vanguard of CUSC and the snooty dog walkers who front the group campaigning against Ysgol Dewi Sant has, readers will not be surprised to hear, an interesting political subtext.

Mrs Heather Peters, who chairs the campaign group, is a big fan of Labour's Neath carpetbagger, Cllr Rob James, or "Our Rob", as she calls him. And writing on the campaign group's Facebook page, a CUSC operative recently called for Rob James to take over the Labour group in Carmarthenshire.

Holding Back the Plebs Years

Now they are taking matters a stage further, with LlanelliOnline quoting an unnamed CUSC spokesperson (that would be "Red Mick" Barrett, the Simply Red tribute act, Ed.) as follows:

We are meeting with Cllr James and Cllr Najmi next week to discuss this. Kev and I are meeting with Rob and Shahana next week to discuss this and the resignation of Jeff Edmunds.

The CUSC have passed information onto Jeff Edmunds and it hasn’t been acted on.

We fought to rid Llanelli of Plaid Cymru so that Labour can fight these issues. Jeff Edmunds has done nothing. Unpaid volunteers are doing all the fighting, we need a voice.

Expect not so much a stab in the back, but a full frontal assault on the lugubrious Labour leader. Poor old Jeff.

Jac Codi Baw

Meanwhile Lee Waters AM is rumoured to have put even greater distance between himself and his constituents by moving from Barry to Newport. Not to be out-manoeuvred by the left-wing of his party, Lee took to social media last night to accuse Plaid Cymru of sending in its JCBs to dig up a green space, with Simon Thomas AM reminding him that the business case for building the school on Llanerch Fields had been approved, subject to planning and a consultation, by his own Labour government.

Update 21 October

Lee Waters contacted Y Cneifiwr on Twitter last night to say that rumours he had moved to Newport were untrue before going on to accuse this blog of making up the rumours.


When asked, he initially failed to confirm that he was still living in Barry, before eventually announcing that he would be moving to Llanelli in two weeks from now.

Waters is by no means the only AM not to live in his constituency, but what marks him out as different is the lengths he has gone to in the past to give the impression that he lives in Llanelli, including this sentence taken from his blog:

Like countless families across the Llanelli constituency my wife and I struggle with juggling the needs of our children and the pressures of work. 

It has taken more than two years for Lee Waters to answer this simple question, and he has been asked multiple times, not just by this blog. In fact, his strange reluctance to be open about where he lives has even become something of a joke in Cardiff Bay, with nicknames including "the Member for the Vale of Glamorgan" and "Barry Lee Waters" gaining currency.

That's two years of unwanted attention he could have spared himself, not to mention the damage it has done his reputation by needlessly making himself look shifty and evasive over what is a truly trivial matter.

_________________  

With Halloween just around the corner, is Rob James about to reveal himself as Van Helsing and drive a stake through the heart of the living dead Labour leader?

Watch this space.







Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Mark leads us to the Promised Land

Despite all the regeneration schemes, the Valleys and the west of Wales remain some of the poorest, most disadvantaged parts of Western Europe with creaking infrastructure and heavy dependence on low-paid employment. Every year droves of talented young people leave for Cardiff and the big English cities to earn a living, while heading west is a steady flow made up disproportionately of pensioners, unskilled and poorly educated inner city families and younger people who bring their own problems with them.

At first glance initiatives such as the Swansea Bay City Region, or "the City Deal" as it now seems to be known, and the ARCH wellness village at Delta Lakes on the outskirts of Llanelli offer the prospect of many thousands of highly paid jobs. A welcome departure from Carmarthenshire County Council's love affair with shopping centres, supermarkets and handouts to owners of holiday cottages, punctuated by grandiose development schemes built on wildly optimistic forecasts which somehow always seem to end up making pots of money for a very few, while being a drain on local government finances for decades to come.

As always, however, the devil lies in the detail, and seasoned observers of the Carmarthenshire scheme could be forgiven for being more than a little sceptical when they see that we are being led into the new promised land by some old familiar faces whose track records stretch all the way back to prestige developments such as the Princess Royal Arena in Boston, the Technium fiasco(s) and other "won't cost you a penny" white elephants.

In Carmarthenshire, all roads lead to the door of our teflon-coated chief executive, Mark James CBE, who when he is not doing his day job running the county council, is busy building up his own property empire, setting the lawyers, the courts and police on Jacqui Thompson and now also at the epicentre of both the City Deal and the ARCH wellness village - two originally separate schemes which are coalescing into Mr James's biggest ever bid for glory.

Politicians and councillors who question these schemes, currently with a price tag of around £1.5 billion and rising fast, know that they will be accused of undermining opportunities to create jobs and transform the local economy, and the likelihood is that Mr James will ensure that they sign off a huge borrowing spree in a blitz of spin and corporate PR which will leave taxpayers in Carmarthenshire and neighbouring counties exposed to huge risks, with any upside being scooped up by private sector fat cats, many of them resident in sunny tax havens.

But there are signs of growing concern among some of the participants, with accusations of secrecy, lack of transparency and byzantine legalistic draft agreements, of "partners" not being kept informed, of chaotic planning, over-optimistic forecasts, spin and what amounts to a plan by Mr James's authority to fleece his friends and neighbours. Add to that a lack of accountability, an onslaught against what is left of democratic oversight and cronyism.

That does not sound anything like our widely loved and admired council chief executive, does it?

_______________

Before we take a closer look at the City Deal and the ARCH wellness village, let's take a small detour to draw attention to a lecture given the other day by Martin Shipton, chief reporter of the Western Mail and a self-described old-fashioned journalist.The full text of his sobering address on the state of the Welsh media can be found here, and it is well worth reading.

"It is a fact universally acknowledged that a democratically elected administration must be in want of some scrutiny", he begins before going on to examine how the Welsh Government and so many other of our public bodies like to claim that they are models of openness and transparency while being anything but. 

He details Jane Hutt's shocking responses to the plight of NHS patients; the ways in which the Freedom of Information Act can be and is used to deny freedom of information; the Circuit of Wales fiasco with its strange parallels to what is now happening with the City Deal and ARCH schemes; legal bullying designed to silence the press, and the culture of fear and clientelism which prevents whistleblowers from coming forward.

He goes on to describe the ways in which serious news is being edged out by the revenue-driven click-bait culture of media companies, before ending with a passage from his recent book on George Thomas:

Our society continues to have too much ‘cap-doffing’ to our perceived ‘betters’ and a craving to ingratiate ourselves with them for social and career advancement. There remain, to this day, too many politicians like George Thomas, who combine a self-seeking ambition with the readiness to pretend that Britain persists in being a great power built on the remnants of an empire that makes it superior to all other European countries.

Martin Shipton's lecture is a cri-de-coeur for journalists to hold the powerful to account and submit them to scrutiny, and is a world away from the media's obsession with celebrity tittle-tattle, "click-bait" online articles ("10 things you never wanted to know about Katherine Jenkins") and the unquestioning cutting 'n' pasting of press releases churned out by the PR merchants employed by public bodies.

The trouble is that newspaper companies, Martin Shipton's employers included, find it difficult to understand why resources should be devoted to the sort of hard-nosed political reporting he specialises in, when the punters prefer reading about Katherine Jenkins and Weatherspoon's menus.

Serious journalism is, in their eyes, expensive and time consuming, and they have a point when you consider the effort needed to try to find out what is going on with schemes such as the City Deal and the ARCH wellness village.

____________

There are countless gushing press releases, slick videos, artists' impressions and Twitter streams which verge on soft pornography as they record all of the conferences, lavish receptions, "envisioning days" and other junkets associated with these schemes. Everything is brilliant, inspired, fantastic, innovative and imbued with excellence. Take a look as the ARCH Programme's Twitter feed, for example.

What you will not find are any meeting minutes, reports or sober assessments of the costs and risks involved. Even finding out who the movers and shakers are requires detective work.

Almost the only exception to this is a report published by Neath Port Talbot Council here, which was  the subject of a two-page spread in last week's Carmarthenshire Herald and blogposts by Jacqui Thompson (here) and Siân Caiach (here). There is also an interesting piece on WalesOnline here.

The NPT report, dated 4 October 2017, shows that all is far from well with the City Deal which is relying on four county councils - Swansea, Carmarthenshire, Neath Port Talbot and Pembrokeshire - to stump up £396 million to fund an array of projects, at least some of which should be ringing alarm bells across the region. ARCH is now also touting a very large begging bowl around the region's county halls, having discovered that the Welsh Government and the NHS are strapped for cash. Who would have thought it?

The City Deal

In addition to the £396 million which is to come from "other public sector" bodies (that is the four participating councils), the UK and Welsh governments are expected to chip in £241 million, with a further £637 million predicted to come from the private sector for the 11 projects which make up the City Deal. The ARCH wellness village is not one of them.

The Swansea Bay City Region has been rumbling away for years, and as far as the public is concerned has so far produced nothing more than a torrent of press releases and snazzy videos. The PR orgy came to a climax in March of this year when Theresa May met Carwyn Jones to sign off an agreement.

This was just before Mrs May went for her famous walking holiday in Dolgellau and decided to call a general election. At the time the Tories had high hopes of winning seats in and around Swansea, including Carwyn's own backyard.

We all know what happened next, and Mrs May's love affair with Wales seems to have cooled dramatically, with the ditching of the scheme to electrify the Great Western Mainline all the way to Swansea and a distinctly chilly response to hopes that she would back the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project.

The NPT report notes,

The Welsh Government wants the process led by a Joint Committee of local authority leaders (consistent with their approach to local government reform) whereas the UK Government has insisted upon a private sector led Economic Strategy Board (ESB) as part of the arrangements.

The report then tells us that an ESB was "pretty much what we had prior to 31 March 2017 in the form of the Swansea Bay City Region Board; but the Welsh Government effectively abolished it".

Hands up all those who remember Jamie Owen telling us that Carwyn had sent Sir Terry Matthews and the other board members packing, in the nicest possible way.

That report was published at the beginning of this month, and for all we know the UK Government is still insisting on a private sector led board, or possibly an even more byzantine arrangement where an ESB exists alongside a public sector led body. Meanwhile, the councils are ploughing on with what they term a "provisional governance structure established in shadow form".

The trouble is that after six months of wrangling and a draft Joint Working Agreement (JWA) commissioned by Mark James, the councils cannot agree on  how the City Deal should be run. Mr James's draft, produced at no doubt huge expense with the aid of external lawyers, ran to 70 pages, with NPT saying that, if asked, its officers could not explain to councillors how the agreement would work.

Who would have thought that a legal framework drawn up under the auspices of Mr James would be so opaque?

So they have agreed to start again, although the UK Government could yet veto their efforts, especially now that the Tories' very brief love affair with Wales has ended in heartbreak.

As things stand, this £1.3 - £1.5 billion scheme (and rising) has no formal governance structure, and Mr James has effectively replaced Sir Terry Matthews as the ring master of a shadow body made up of representatives of bodies with very different agendas.

Top slice

Even less welcome news for Neath Port Talbot, Swansea and Pembrokeshire councillors are reports that Mr James not only plans to siphon off a chunk of the City Deal money for the wellness village in his own backyard, but that he is also proposing to "top-slice" (i.e. pocket) a hefty chunk of the funds for projects outside Carmarthenshire, as well as charging them a stiff  annual "administration fee".

It's the not the sort of stuff to inspire private sector investors to part with their cash or the sort of thing that will improve relations with the neighbours.

This is just the tip of an iceberg of a catalogue of concerns and problems facing the City Deal and ARCH mega-schemes.

Chicken, and chicken and egg

While the shadow governance team struggles with agreeing the rules of the game, the Welsh Government has told the councils that it will not release its share of the project funding until the business cases for all 11 projects have been approved. Which comes first? The chicken or the egg?

Unless the Welsh Government drops this insistence, all 11 projects will have to move at the pace of the slowest, with NPT adding that this "could also result in the local authorities taking all the risk by funding projects up front with no absolute guarantee that the Government funding will follow immediately or at all, if one considers how they have been trying to re-write the clauses in the JWA".

In other words, councils are having to contemplate what could be a very risky and expensive game of chicken.

If that were not bad enough, NPT, in common with all other Welsh councils, faces huge budgetary pressure, and the report warns councillors that "the City Deal featured as a potentially significant financial pressure in that [budget, Ed.] presentation (albeit largely unquantified at this stage), so this begs the question of competing priorities for prudential borrowing and finance".

The bottom line for NPT is that it has many other pressing local priorities, that it lacks the bandwidth and resources to work on this time-consuming project, that the risks are significant and that the extent of its financial commitment is unquantifiable.

And there is much, much more where that came from, including the likelihood that there will need to be significant changes to accounting rules which would have to be approved by the government and
new legislation.

Meanwhile progress on the 11 City Deal projects is mixed. By far the most important of these is  something called Internet Coast.

Internet Coast

The centre piece of the City Deal and by far the most ambitious project would have as its starting point a trans-atlantic fibre optic cable between New York and Oxwich Bay. This project alone would account for £500 million of the £1.3 billion City Deal package, and Sir Terry Matthews, former chair of the city region board, told the BBC back in February 2016 that the aim would be to create up to 33,000 hi-tech jobs in the region over the next 20 years.

Here is what the NPT report says:

The digital infrastructure agenda was very dependent upon the active engagement of the former City Region Board Chair and his wide senior level network; but the board was abolished and that opportunity put at risk. The simple truth is that the necessary expertise (or contacts) exists neither in the Welsh Government nor local government. As a consequence, little work has been done in recent months to progress the project, although a part-time external adviser has now been appointed.

Unelected Sir Terry Matthews may have been, but he does at least come with an impressive business pedigree. In effect responsibility now lies with the equally unelected and apparently unsackable Mark James, whose first major project was what is now known as the Princess Royal Arena.

In addition to his many and varied other duties and interests, Mr James is also heavily involved with the ARCH wellness village project, about which there are almost as many worrying questions and mysteries as there are with the City Deal.

Here is what the NPT report says:

A major issue is the uncertainty around the so called ARCH (regional Health Collaboration) programme which is linked to the City Deal. A bid was submitted to the Welsh Government by the two health boards in the region in January of this year and we are well aware of the competing priorities for revenue and capital funding within the NHS. The ARCH programme has been asked to look at “alternative sources of funding”; but assumes more than £100 million from the City Deal. Increasingly, we do not believe that the ARCH programme will secure significant medium to long term funding from the Welsh Government. If so, there can be no question of Councils being invited to plug any gap. This uncertainty could, in turn, undermine the ability of projects to attract the even larger required private sector match funding. These matters therefore remain unresolved.

Bearing in mind that this quotation is taken from a report published two weeks ago, it is interesting to contrast what NPT has to say with this message currently fronting Carmarthenshire County Council's website:

The ambitious project – which will see an investment of more than £200million - is being led by Carmarthenshire County Council in partnership with Hywel Dda and Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Boards and Swansea University.

It is also a key project for the Swansea Bay City Region and is earmarked to receive £40million as part of the £1.3billion City Deal funding.

If, as NPT says, the Welsh Government is unlikely to help fund the wellness village and the councils will not plug the gap, who is providing that £40 million?

ARCH

The wellness village is just one part of a much bigger collaboration between the health boards and universities, and its origins are shrouded in Delta Lake mist.

According to ARCH's own website, the wellness village board is chaired by none other than Meryl Gravell, representing Carmarthenshire County Council. It may be that someone has not got around to updating the website because, as a former county councillor, Meryl no longer represents anyone and is even less accountable than she was when she sat in County Hall.

The fact is that the wellness village was Meryl's baby right from the beginning, and as one half of the Mark and Meryl dream team, there is no need for a paternity test.

One of the first clues as to what was being planned for the Delta Lakes site came in Carmarthenshire's vast Local Development Plan. Anyone who buried deep enough in the labyrinth of documentation would have been surprised to see that the site had been ear-marked for "private healthcare".

That was unusually and almost uniquely specific. Normally you would expect to see the much less transparent "employment land".

The convoluted way that LDPs are put together means that the designation for private healthcare was inserted at least 5 years ago, and it suggests that some very specific discussions had taken place with unknown third parties well before then.

The wellness village, predicated on being a private healthcare development, almost certainly dates back to when Meryl was council leader.

According to the minutes of a Carmarthenshire County Council executive board meeting held in 2016, however, the idea first saw the light of day when the council was approached by the health boards and the universities in mid-2015 - well after the council had adopted its LDP and the private healthcare provision.

Like so much else in this story, things just don't add up.

The trouble is that potential private investors would have been unwilling to stump up the money to transform a desolate brown field site. Roads, drains and other basic infrastructure don't come cheap, and so it was an immense stroke of luck that Carmarthenshire decided that the existing leisure centre in Llanelli was no longer fit for purpose, and that the ideal location for a new centre would be Delta Lakes, well away from where most Llanelli residents live.

Around the same time, the council signed an exclusivity deal with a company called Kent Neurosciences Ltd "with a view to ensuring the aspirations of the Wellness and Science Village within Carmarthenshire". KNS, part of a group of companies based in the British Virgin Islands tax haven, was a remarkable choice of partner, as you can read here.

It then went on to ear-mark another £7m originally allocated for a council care home to fund an "assisted living village" as part of Meryl's vision for Delta Lakes.

Slowly but surely Mark and Meryl were scraping together the funding to make Meryl's vision a reality, and the raid on the City Region is a part of that.

Meanwhile, the cost and scope of the wellness village have soared. Early in 2016 it was put at £60 million. By the middle of that year it had risen to £100 million. Now the council puts the figure at £200 million.

Perhaps a little too confidently Mr James told the press a couple of years ago that he did not think he would have to put the project before councillors for their approval, presumably because he was not planning to have to get them to stump up the (borrowed) cash.

Now, to soften them up, they are to be treated to a special slide show. We can expect a report asking them to sign off on a hefty loan not long thereafter.

If Mr James gets his skates on, councillors can expect to be told that not only will the wellness village deliver untold thousands of new jobs, but that the cost of borrowing is at an all-time low - for now, although the Bank of England may have other plans.

Perhaps we should all suspend disbelief, but past experience and the typically Jamesian way in which the wellness village has taken shape, with all its contradictions, mysteries and evasions, do not inspire confidence.














The Swansea Bay City Region and ARCH have both featured on this blog before

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Ysgol Dewi Sant - Dai Spart (Wales Section) Wades In

One of the intriguing aspects of the campaign currently being waged against relocating Ysgol Dewi Sant to Llanerch Fields in Llanelli is that it has been fought almost entirely through Facebook, with the mainstream media paying scant attention to it until recently.

Leaked e-mail correspondence from the small group running the campaign shows them complaining repeatedly that the local press was failing to bang the drum for them, but the flipside of that coin was that the campaigners were able to spread their one-sided message without challenge or scrutiny.

Fair play to Newyddion 9 on S4C for shining some light on this story a couple of weeks ago, and now also to the Llanelli Herald which led with it this week:


Campaigners will no doubt see this belated upsurge in interest and scrutiny as a conspiracy cooked up by Leanne Wood's black ops division.

The unsurprising truth is that the self-appointed campaign group does not have the unanimous support of the local community it claims for itself, and that the campaign itself has been built on distortion, disinformation and pandering to prejudice.

A key point is that the planned new school would bring significant benefits to the surrounding area, including a new village green, an improved football pitch, a multi-use games area for school and community use, a multi-purpose hall and studio for school and community use and a car park for school and community use. Understandably, this has been kept quiet as campaigners have set about collecting 'likes'.

The alternative is the retention of a large expanse of grass no longer used for organised sports because of its poor condition, and liberal amounts of dog mess for kiddies to roll in.


Rather less explicable is the failure of the council's bloated news and PR operations to do the job they are so richly resourced to do and ensure that the scheme is properly presented and promoted.

If Carmarthenshire County Council and Y Cneifiwr make for unlikely bedfellows, lined up on the opposite bench is an even more unholy alliance of NIMBYs, bigots, the far left, Cllr Rob James and Lee Waters AM, some of whom have very different agendas.

Dai Spart



A couple of days ago the Carmarthenshire branch of Unison issued a statement which takes the form of a letter addressed to the school's head, reproduced from Twitter below. 



The first thing to say about this is that local Unison members Cneifiwr has spoken to are exasperated that their branch secretary would once again rather fight high profile political battles than looking after the interests of the union's many low-paid members.


What on earth has Llanerch Fields got to do with Unison?


Even if Mark Evans were justified in writing a letter, it should have been addressed to the school's governors and not the head teacher, who is in no position to respond to what amounts to a vicious political and personal attack. The rant about cuts to school budgets is, of course, completely irrelevant to the Llanerch Fields issue, and should have been addressed to the council.


But perhaps he was taking his cue from Lee Waters AM who used the floor of the Senedd to launch an attack on the staff of Llangennech School whom he claimed had misled him and his family about plans to phase out that school's English stream - before the plan had been adopted by the council.


Both were grossly unfair to professionals who cannot answer back.

Next comes the accusation that the head is lying about the school losing the £9.1 million allocated under the 21st Century Schools programme.

The funding, which comes from both the county council and the Welsh government, is predicated on the school being built on part of Llanerch Fields, and comes with many strings attached, including consultations and exhaustive technical evaluations.

If the council were to turn around to the government at this very late stage and say that it had changed its mind, the funding would be withdrawn, as Mark Evans ought to know. You cannot just put the £9.1 million in a piggy bank and wait for a few years while an alternative site is found, tests carried out and detailed plans drawn up. Government and local government budgets do not work like that, and as he knows, schemes of this kind do not have a 'Plan B'.

The reality is that if the campaign succeeds, the children and staff of Ysgol Dewi Sant will face years more of cramped and unacceptable conditions.

As for the "targeting" of prominent individuals associated with the campaign, does Unison really want to align itself with people who describe parents of Ysgol Dewi Sant as brainwashed plebs, and the head of the board of governors as a "jumped up Welsh tosser"?

Next is the completely false claim that the new school would be built "over a sewage works". There is no sewage works on Llanerch Fields, but what are called attenuation tanks. This is how the council and Dŵr Cymru explained the function of the tanks to the campaign group:


In terms of DCWW [Dŵr Cymru/Welsh Water, Ed.] apparatus on the site, it has been established that a number of attenuation tanks have been constructed under the recreational ground to the North of the site.

The tanks are used to relieve flooding in the area. During storm conditions, for instance periods of heavy rain, the tanks store diluted wastewater to control the flow of water in the pipes.  This helps to alleviate flooding in the area and prevent wastewater spillages. Once the flooding recedes the diluted wastewater gravitates back into the combined system.


Having protested that he and his branch are all in favour of a new school - just Not In My BackYard - the final paragraph gives the game away. True, the pupils of Ysgol Dewi Sant are drawn from a wide area, but Llanerch Fields is bang in the middle of the school's catchment area, and it includes children who live close to the site. 

Llanerch Fields is in the red zone
Just like the campaign group, Mark Evans is trying to portray Ysgol Dewi Sant, and by extension Welsh medium education, as something belonging to an alien, privileged elite being imposed on the area.  

And finally we come to the intriguing political aspects of this saga. 

Mark Evans is a prominent member of the Socialist Party of England and Wales, formerly Militant, which has been proscribed by the Labour Party's National Executive Committee, meaning that you may not be a member of the Labour Party if you are also a member of SPEW. 

Remember all the uproar coming from sections of the Labour Party about entryism before the general election? It's gone awfully quiet.

There was certainly no love lost between Evans and the Carmarthenshire Labour as it was under Kevin Madge, but times are a-changing, and Mark Evans, Cllr Rob James and "Our Rob's" Heather Peters are now all doing a pretty good impression of a happy threesome, with Lee Waters playing the part of gooseberry.


Spookily this pic appears on both the Carmarthenshire Unison and SPEW websites.

 Let's hope no one tells Carwyn.






Sunday, 24 September 2017

Ysgol Dewi Sant - Plebs and jumped up Welsh tossers

Before launching into the next piece, apologies for the lack of posts in recent months. Work and family matters have meant that blogging has had to take a backseat, and that is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future.

That said, Y Cneifiwr is not about to throw the towel in yet, although the blog will not be updated as frequently as it used to be.

_____________

This blog chronicled the row about Llangennech School at some length. It was a particularly bitter and divisive issue, with the Llanelli Labour Party performing a 180 degree U-turn on its policies when in power, and adopting positions which were indistinguishable from UKIP as it exploited prejudice and ignorance to win votes.

Just as the battle in Llangennech was entering its final stages, many of the same Labour figures began teaming up with another campaign a few miles away to halt plans to relocate Ysgol Dewi Sant.

The campaign against Ysgol Dewi Sant is not ostensibly about Welsh-medium education, but as we shall see, some of the same figures have become involved and are using the same divisive tactics.

Apart from a couple of leaks which revealed collaboration between Llanelli Labour, UKIP and more extreme elements in Llangennech, almost everything which appeared in the blogs and the mainstream media was a matter of public record. Nia Griffiths was entirely invisible, even though the row in her constituency was making headlines far beyond Llanelli, and we were given only brief glimpses of the manoeuvres performed by Lee Waters. 


The interesting thing about the Ysgol Dewi Sant row is that we now have direct evidence of what senior Labour figures have been up to behind the scenes in Llanelli, and how those divisive, dog whistle tactics stand in stark contrast to the public message.

The leaked correspondence also provides a fascinating glimpse into the backstabbing and jostling going on within Labour in Llanelli.

Now read on.

____________


News addicts who watch the main evening bulletins on S4C and BBC One Wales could be forgiven for thinking that Cymru and Wales are entirely different places, possibly even located in different parts of the solar system.

A couple of weeks ago, BBC One Wales led with a story about an unsolved murder case in Cardiff dating back to before the Second World War. 80 years after the event, descendants of the relatives of the little girl understandably welcomed the decision by South Wales Police to re-open investigations, but for the rest of us it was hard to see why this story should receive star billing.

There being no royal drivel to report, that evening's output treated us to a cursory round-up of lesser matters before telling us at some length that Sam Warburton was about to have an operation on his neck.

And that was it. "The news where you are" turned out to be largely devoid of news as usual.

Meanwhile Newyddion 9 on S4C (also produced by the BBC) led with an interesting piece on a row about the future of Ysgol Dewi Sant in Llanelli.

Ysgol Dewi Sant

In a nutshell, the Welsh-medium school with over 450 pupils is desperately in need of a new home, and parents and governors have been campaigning for a new school for a quarter of a century. The current ramshackle collection of jerry-built flat-roofed buildings and portacabins is bursting at the seams, with some children having to be taught in corridors. Badly leaking roofs, chronic over-crowding and dilapidation everywhere you look, with children housed in conditions which would upset the RSPCA.

The fact that this disgrace has been allowed to drag on for so long should have had Labour politicians and the unions mobilising support for the school years ago, but this is a Welsh-medium school, and Llanelli Labour has instead once again made itself some toxic new friends, and thrown its lot in with a campaign which threatens to wreck the plans for a new school.

The County Council's technical experts had examined nine potential sites for a new school, and recommended a large green open space called Llanerch Fields.

Finding a site large enough to accommodate a school of this size in an urban environment was never going to be easy, and there would have been objections no matter which site was chosen. In the case of Llanerch Fields, it is understandable that many local residents would oppose the loss of an open green space near their homes, but the fields are no longer used for organised sports, and these days their main function is as a gigantic doggy toilet.

Sure enough, the plan has attracted what the Newyddion 9 report described as "fierce" opposition, with the objectors' latest tack being to have the green open space designated as a "village green" to stop any school from being built on it. Unsurprisingly, the most vociferous campaigners live right opposite the site of the proposed new school.

For its part, the County Council has developed plans which would create close links between the school and the local community. These include:

Village green located 100metres north of proposed site.

Retention of U7/8’s football pitch for school and community use.

Proposed Multi-use games area for school and community use.

Proposed multi-purpose hall and studio for school and community use.

Proposed off site car park (approx. 75spaces) for school and community use.


Meanwhile, close by, the council is proposing enhancements to Penygaer School as part of the Ysgol Dewi Sant scheme, including:



Proposed flood lit all weather recreational facility for school and community use.

Refurbishment of multi-use hall for school and community use.

Proposed dry changing rooms for school and community use.

Proposed link to and from Penygaer playing fields to enhance / facilitate community use.

Retention and enhancement of existing car park.

As Nia Griffiths, Lee Waters and Labour's county councillors know, there comes a point of no return in the development of plans for new schools. Sites have to be analysed for suitability, including transport links, road safety, flood risk and the presence of contamination and the legacies of past industrial activity (an especially relevant factor in Llanelli). Detailed technical surveys will have to be carried out, and funding put in place. All sorts of hoops will have to be jumped through before the Welsh Government will sign off and hand over millions of pounds, and needless to say all of this takes a great deal of time.

Part of the process includes consultations with  the schools and their governors, parents and local residents, and logically enough the consultations have to take place after all of the groundwork has been done. By this stage, consultation really means trying to incorporate sensible suggestions made during the consultation, responding to concerns and mitigating possible problems, but in essence proceeding with the scheme that has been outlined.

A decision at this very late stage to scrap the plans would mean the loss of £9.1 million ear-marked for Ysgol Dewi Sant, the waste of all the resources ploughed into evaluating the site and developing detailed plans, and years and years of delay before a new school can be built on a different site - a site which would certainly also encounter opposition.

To campaign against the plans for Ysgol Dewi Sant means in practical terms that around 480 children and the school staff would be forced to stay put in cramped and squalid conditions for years to come, and despite their protestations and public utterances, that would be the logical outcome of the recklessly irresponsible tactics adopted by Nia Griffiths MP, Lee Waters AM and Labour councillors, most notably Rob James.

Llanerch Fields would be saved for dog lovers, and the staff and children of Ysgol Dewi Sant would have to hope that the school budget could stretch to buying a few more buckets to catch the rain water dripping from classroom ceilings.

The Newyddion 9 report (no longer available online) interviewed the school's head and two governors, Aled Owen and Garry Nicholas. Garry Nicholas pointed out that the school had been waiting to be re-housed for many years, and he called on politicians to show their support for the school and Welsh-medium education.

Unfortunately for the school, Llanelli Labour is doing precisely the opposite.

Let's look at some of the key players in more detail.

Lee Waters AM 

We'll start with Lee Waters and Nia Griffiths because as experienced and intelligent politicians, they have no excuse for not understanding the consequences of their actions.

In Llangennech, Waters' public stance was initially to sit on the fence as the firebrands went to work, before lobbing in a few incendiaries of his own and encouraging the pyromaniacs. True to form, he retired slightly singed, mounted his pulpit to blame everyone else but himself and deplored the damage that fire can do. That, in Waters' book, constitutes "leadership".

When Labour Party members were actively conspiring with UKIP, Waters urged them to be careful instead of telling them to stop. Unsurprisingly, Michaela Beddows and her friends saw that as a green light.

Besides UKIP, there is evidence that Jacques Protic also became involved in the Llangennech row. Protic is the author of the extremist Glasnost website which has this to say about the part played by Lee Waters and Nia Griffiths in Llangennech:

Through my contact with Lee Waters and from what I learned by reading various statements he made on his blog and in the social media Lee and Nia chose to use a low-key approach working behind the scenes but generally supportive of the parents’ stance which unfortunately got them nowhere – The Council wasn’t going to budge no matter what!

According to Protic, then, he was in contact with Lee Waters as the row escalated.

As he tells us in this tweet, he is a lifelong member of the UK Labour Party:


According to Protic, "Welsh" Labour (which as he ought to know has no separate legal existence from UK Labour) is working for a Welsh-speaking republic. Here is another of his cries for help to any comrades prepared to listen:



Protic has many bees in his bonnet, but his main obsessions are the evils of the Welsh language and Islam. When he is not warning of the dangers of ethnic cleansing in Wales and compulsory cerdd dant, he is busy spreading fake news about the Muslim menace.

Did you know that huge swathes of Denmark are no-go areas for the Danish police because of Islamic extremists? No? Neither do the Danes.

Interestingly for a lifelong member of the Labour Party, Protic is also a keen supporter of Anne Marie Waters (probably no relation) who is hoping to become the next leader of UKIP. Even some of UKIP's most prominent loonytunes are scared by that prospect.

That was Llangennech, and so far at least there is no sign of Protic on Llanerch Fields. But it's probably just a matter of time, and in the absence of Protic, Michaela Beddows and friends, Lee Waters has been busy forging new relationships.

Like Jacques, Lee seems to be fond of conspiracy theories. While everyone else seems to have known that the council was going to propose building a new school on Llanerch Fields, Lee Waters saw a sinister secret plot:


A few weeks after this shock horror revelation, Lee Waters was writing to the chair of the campaign group, one Mrs Heather Peters (pictured uncharacteristically hogging the microphone) to discuss tactics. More about Mrs Peters later, but suffice to say that she and Michaela Beddows would find that they have quite a lot in common.

Lee has a great idea:

Perhaps we can organise a mass gathering on the field on a Saturday morning for a photo to underline public support for keeping the space?

That would be a mass gathering in support of stopping the plans for the school from going ahead on Llanerch Fields.

Nia Griffiths MP

Publicly, Nia Griffiths maintained complete radio silence on the Llangennech issue, although it is hard to believe that she was not involved behind the scenes, as Protic hints on his website.

In private, Nia Griffiths had nothing but praise for the Llanerch objectors. Here she is discussing tactics ahead of a consultation meeting in a leaked e-mail:

You have done magnificent work on the committee in gathering information, and I would suggest that we will get more useful information from this if we take the same approach, and think carefully about the questions we want to ask beforehand.        


Probably the officers who will be sent along are unlikely to be the people who finally have the say (who will be their superiors) and we will get more out of getting info from them this way, than if people “have a go” at them.



In public, the MP was rather more cautious. Addressing a public meeting back in October 2016, she said:

“It is very clearly a decision which will be made by Carmarthenshire County Council and therefore people need to speak directly to those decision makers. There are a number of issues to be looked at but the only people who can actually change a decision or make a decision on this are the County Councillors in power and in particular, of course, the Executive Board members.”
 
Slightly more decorous than Lee Waters, but while both protest publicly that they are in favour of a new school for Ysgol Dewi Sant, both have been working behind the scenes to wreck the plans.

Cllr Rob James

Nia Griffiths and Lee Waters are both on the centre right of the Labour Party, and their involvement in this campaign probably has as much to do with internal party wrangling as it does with saving Llanerch Fields for dog walkers as they contemplate future selection battles.

Cue Cllr Rob James (Lab.) who until this year's council elections in May was, nominally at least, serving as a county councillor down the M4 in Neath with an address in the town.

Despite his postal address in Neath, James moved to Llanelli a couple of years ago and threw himself into getting a front seat in the Llanelli Labour Party.

James has previously claimed to be a centrist, but now appears to be firmly in the Momentum camp with ambitions way beyond his abilities.

He became involved with the Llanerch Fields campaign group early on, while still an ordinary rank and file member of the Labour Party and nurturing plans to oust Bill Thomas as county councillor for Lliedi ward.

Bill Thomas was everything that Rob James is not. He was broadly sympathetic to the campaigners' desire to keep Llanerch Fields as they are, and dutifully went about helping them gather detailed, technical information, even though he was probably aware that the people he was helping were plotting against him.

One of the issues the campaign group had hoped would deal a killer blow to the school plans was the presence on the fields of some underground water tanks managed by Dŵr Cymru. The tanks represented a serious health and safety hazard, the objectors claimed.

Bill Thomas did his homework and wrote to the group informing them that, "As the Councillor for the area I have never had any complaint or photographic evidence of spills until now, neither do I have any evidence that these spills contain anything. If they do then it is an issue that needs attention from Welsh Water."

Cllr Thomas, as he then was, went on to call for a full insurance and risk assessment of the site before it was cleared for development. And that is what the County Council did, to howls of protest from the campaign group who were angry that money should have been spent on making sure the site was suitable for the new school.

Bill Thomas's careful regard for evidence and honesty did not go down well with the campaigners who launched a veritable onslaught of lobbying and correspondence giving the impression that all those poor little children would spend their days wading through sewage. They also made something of a name for themselves with their often very aggressive and hectoring behaviour in public meetings.

To the campaigners' delight, Bill Thomas lost his selection battle against newcomer Rob James in October 2016, with Heather Peters, the chair of the campaign group, telling her troops:

Guess where Our Rob was tonight?  Beating Bill Thomas out of his seat on the labour Lliedi seat for LLANELLI!!!!!!!


WELL DONE ROB we are all behind you !  

 Despite his lack of local roots and inability to speak Welsh, "Our Rob" had no hesitation about giving an interview in English to Newyddion 9 a couple of weeks back.



Would you buy a second-hand car from this man?

He supported residents who wanted to keep the green space as it is, he said. "Even if that means scuppering the plans for the new school?" he was asked.

"I don't think that is connected in any way", said Cllr James in a breathtaking display of post-factual politics, dismissing the notion that blocking plans for a new school would, um, block plans for a new school. 

"Our Rob's" performance duly received ecstatic reviews on the campaign group's Facebook page, with Mike Bassett, aka Red Mick, one of the CUSC trolls (no prizes for guessing that they would be involved) commenting "Next Leader of the Carmarthenshire Labour Group. Sooner the better".

Lee Waters must be having nightmares.

Heather Peters

The campaign against the relocation of Ysgol Dewi Sant is led by a small group of very vocal self-appointed activists calling themselves "Save Llanerch and Penygaer Recreational Fields". Most prominent among them is Mrs Heather Peters who just happens to live opposite the site of the proposed new school.

Mrs P and her deputy, Sharon Burdess, can be heard taking part in a lengthy "interview" with LlanelliOnline here, although strangely neither of them is identified by name as they respond to Alan Evans' interesting interview technique, which boils down to delivering a monologue with brief pauses to allow his guests to agree with him.

E-mail correspondence also shows that Alan was active in the campaign, dishing out advice on tactics and questions to ask of the County Council.

Let's be generous and call this campaigning journalism, although Alan Evans' collaboration with Heather Peters and Co again raises awkward questions about the objectivity of LlanelliOnline.

Heather Peters is, of course, entitled to campaign to keep the large expanse of grass outside her home, although the e-mail files show that a good number of her e-mails and some of the accompanying documents emanated from the IT network belonging to Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board.

She certainly does not mince her words.

Responding to one of La Peters' missives, the chair of the school's board of governors, Garry Nicholas, pointed out to her that if the threat to health of developing a school on Llanerch Fields was as great as she claimed, why had nothing ever been done about it in all the years that it had allegedly been going on? Indeed, if the site was as dangerous as she suggested, why did her campaign group want to keep it for children to play on?

Warming to his theme, Garry Nicholas pointedly noted, "No mention has been made either of the dog foul that litters Llanerch fields. Doesn’t this contribute to the contamination and health risks that are referred to? Do the campaigners want to keep Llanerch fields for the convenience of dog owners only?"

Mr Nicholas's polite refusal to be bamboozled provoked howls of outrage, with Mrs P launching a new campaign to have him removed from the board of governors, or failing that, to be given a severe dressing down.

Writing to her fellow campaigners, Mrs P asks, 

Do you all agree that this arrogant jumped up Welsh tosser deserves to be pulled over the coles (sic)?

Mr Nicholas was not the only dissenter to cross her path.When a parent voiced his doubts about the validity of the campaign on Facebook, Mrs P was once again livid. It was time to re-double efforts on the group's Facebook page to counteract this sort of rank insolence:

From the comments from the pleb on Facebook we really need to start banging the drum, these parents have been brainwashed, well the few who were actually given a brain to start with.


That put the parents of Ysgol Dewi Sant in their place, but it must leave Unison wondering whether it is comfortable about lending its whole-hearted support to a campaign which dismisses working families in Llanelli as brain-washed plebs.

Taking Lee Waters' advice that "it is important that we take multiple lines of challenge", i.e. throw the kitchen sink at the campaign in the hope that at least something might stick, one member of the campaign group who is understood to work in the county council's social services department hit on what they agreed was another fundamental weakness of the school plan - Ysgol Dewi Sant did not have enough children receiving free school meals:


I know for a fact Dewi Sant pupils didn't meet the Communities First criteria. The development officers have been told not to get involved in the Llanerch fiasco as its too political but I will chase up one or two other people today who may be able to get us this info.

At least it could be another piece of ammunition to fire?!
So it would seem that the parents and children of Ysgol Dewi Sant are both brain-washed plebs and a middle class plot to gentrify one of the more deprived areas of Llanelli.


We now have to wait to find out the fate of the village green application, and the fate of Ysgol Dewi Sant and its children. More updates in due course.

Footnote

Much of the material for this piece was taken from voluminous e-mail correspondence with a very large distribution. As is the way with e-mails, some of it fell off the back of a passing lorry as Cneifiwr was sauntering down the road.
 








 














Sunday, 20 August 2017

Council of Despair - An exclusive interview

This week our business news editor Llinos Rhacs-Jibidêrs takes a penetrating, in-depth look at the property market in an exclusive interview with Sir Ephraim Jams.

__________________

After weeks of delicate negotiation, the appointed hour had finally arrived and I was ushered into the inner sanctum by veteran PR officer, Ms Rosa Klebb.

"You've got ten minutes, and don't push your luck, missy", she barked, clicking her heels ominously as the door closed behind me.

As I made my way across the deep lambswool shagpile to the sonorous ticking of an ornate ormulu Napoleon III carriage clock, I noted with awe the impressive array of portraits and autographed photographs hanging from the walnut panelling. 

There was Dame Muriel peering out from a huge flower-bedecked hat, with her ample frame swathed in a tasteful lilac Dalmatian jacket. HRH the Duchess of Cornwall gazed in soft focus from another frame, while alongside her portrait was another of Charles dressed casually as Commander in Chief of the Beefeaters greeting a bemedalled Sir Ephraim at the entrance to Llwynywermod.

Another signed photograph of HRH Camilla was placed strategically on the vast Louis Quinze mahogany desk, behind which sat Sir Ephraim in pensive mood.

"Good morning, Your Excellency", I began.

"Come, come, no need to be so formal. You may call me Sir Ephraim, or Sir for short, Miss, um...", the great man replied, flicking through some papers.

"Llinos Rhacs-Jibidêrs, Sir. But you may call me Llinos for short."

"Very well, Lino. I understand you wish to gain some insight into the workings of the property market?"

"Indeed, Sir. If I may begin by asking you for your views on the local housing market."

Sir Ephraim cracked his fingers. "A very good question. Well, after a period of exceptional growth fuelled by demand in the retirement sector, it has to be said that the last eight or nine years have been very disappointing locally. To combat that, I personally oversaw the emergence of the Local Development Masterplan based on what I was assured by my economic advisers would be an unprecedented upsurge in population growth. Unfortunately, the wrinklies have been dying off as fast as we can replace them, and so growth has been static."

"But it would be unwise to place all one's eggs in the geriatric basket, and so to that end the Masterplan provides for a swathe of more upmarket executive developments in what we call our Growth Zones, such as Fossils Race Course, the exciting new town springing up in the swamps to the south of Jobsworth Road or the wonderful new Kansas Fingerlickin' Fried Chicken Roundabout estate at Leekes Cross West."

"It has to be said that despite determined efforts to keep out undesirable elements by minimising the provision of cheap housing stock for local riff-raff, Twinkle Wimple and Woodrot Homes are still finding it tough going, even though these wonderful new developments represent an excellent opportunity for offshore investors and those looking for a tax efficient way of writing off losses."

"Overall, then, the local market is a specialised affair, and investors with only a couple of million to spare would be advised to look east to the much more exciting market in Cardiff", Sir Ephraim continued.

"Unlike this backwater, Cardiff is a vibrant, young city, and a very popular destination for hen and stag parties, AirBNB minibreakers and hipsters. The abolition of bridge tolls will do even more to open up the market to those looking for value for money, and returns are set to soar."

"To that end I and my fellow directors have begun developing a portfolio of residential properties in the Bay, and we have identified some exciting new opportunities in taking control of what are known as 'Right to Manage' entities away from the hopelessly inefficient and poisonous old busybodies who think they have a right to manage their blocks simply because they live there."

"This is all perfectly legal, although I am not at liberty to disclose the sensitive legal advice I have given myself, and it is frankly sickening that there have been complaints from cancerous old malcontents and professional complainers about the way in which these perfectly legitimate transactions have been carried out."

"But I wish to leave your readers in no doubt about my motives. I have worked tirelessly without payment in a non-executive capacity simply because I wished to help these poor, long-suffering home owners, and so successful have we been that my fellow directors and I have now set up a new company to offer advice to all those who find themselves in a similar position, whether they be in Hull, Harrogate or Harlech."

"It is therefore compassion and my duty as a Christian that drive me on to help those in need, and suggestions that I am motivated by unbridled greed are vile slurs."

Sir Ephraim snapped a pencil at this point, and I saw an opportunity to interrupt his monologue with a second question.

"I would like to ask, if I may, Sir, about recent press and blog coverage of your investment schemes."

Sir Ephraim looked very cross.

"You mean Shitton of the Mail, his bosom pal Jac in the Gogs and various other toxic and scurrilous vermin on the web, I take it, Miss Rhibidirês? Fortunately nobody outside my press office reads them, and Miss Klebb and my legal team are compiling another file on their vitriolic outpourings for the local constabulary."

"Thank you for clarifying that, Sir. May I ask you to clear up the controversy surrounding the appointment of a former tenant to manage your ventures?"

Sir Ephraim looked very stern. "Let me make it perfectly clear that Miss Ludmilla Legova was introduced to the board by a director who had declared a personal interest in the matter, as the law and transparency require, and that it was unanimously agreed that this talented young woman was exceptionally well qualified for the role. Not only does she possess a PhD in Baroque Fiddlers, but she gained extensive administrative experience during the months she spent working alongside some of our greatest singers, including Dame Kiwi T. Canalot."

"But as usual, the guttersnipes have sought to belittle her multiple achievements with smut and innuendo."

"You mean, Sir, Ms Legova's modelling career and the balcony incident?"

"Indeed. I have little more to say about this other than that it was typical of what passes for journalism in these parts that there should have been vile speculation about that unfortunate freak accident when she fell from a balcony while playing a pink oboe, just as the poster in which she appeared modelling swimwear while holding a peeled banana under the caption 'I am getting my five a day' was part of a healthy eating awareness campaign. To suggest otherwise is a disgrace."

Before I could probe any further, the door opened and in strode Miss Klebb, announcing curtly that it was time for me to leave.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Gesture Politics

Update 23 July

Huw Prys Jones, who was commissioned to produce an independent linguistic impact assessment of the Gwynedd/Môn LDP, has written a strongly worded piece for Golwg360 (here) ahead of a vote next Friday by councillors. There are some striking parallels with what happened in Carmarthenshire, including what he describes as the council's own feeble attempt at an impact assessment written after key decisions had been made in order to justify the plan.

Whether or not you care about the impact of LDPs on the language, the development of huge housing estates way beyond the needs of existing local communities, whether it's in Bangor, Cardiff, Llanelli, Carmarthen or the eastern side of Carmarthenshire, should give all councillors pause for thought.

Adopting an LDP is probably the single most important vote any county councillor will ever be asked to make. What we got in Carmarthenshire was a brief and confused debate, with most councillors there only as silent voting machines, and the consequences in places such as Bynea are now there for all to see.

___________

The words Local Development Plan will cause many eyes to glaze over. The process by which these plans come about is byzantine and drags on for years, with numerous consultations and consultations on changes made in response to consultations. The public and local groups have the right to make representations, but the complexity of the process and the time and effort required to participate in this marathon give a significant advantage to developers and the planning consultants who are employed by them.

A key phase in the LDP process is the adoption of candidate sites for housing or commercial and/or industrial development. Once a site has been adopted, the cards are heavily stacked in favour of developers and against local people who may wish to object to future development.

The best hope residents and communities have is that their interests will be looked after by their elected representatives in the shape of county councillors, and a quick look around the council chamber will show that some of us are better represented than others.

Councillors worried about potential developments in their wards are relatively well-placed to object to the inclusion of sites in an LDP and, whisper it quietly, councillors who are members of a ruling group on the council have more leverage than opposition councillors when it comes to lobbying.

This brings us to a recent battle at Genwen Farm in Bynea where a developer is planning to build 240 houses on a greenfield site.

Bynea has seen more than its fair share of development in recent years, and the plan aroused significant opposition from residents and political representatives across the political spectrum, with Cllr Derek Cundy (Lab) taking a leading role as the ward councillor.

The objectors have many valid concerns, not least the impact this large development will have on creaking local infrastructure.

The Genwen site was earmarked for housing development under the UDP (Unitary Development Plan) which preceded the LDP, but an application for outline planning permission in 2007 was later withdrawn.

As is usually the case, the site was then included in the new LDP for housing development, and it was at that point that the council could have had a re-think. What if any representations were made to remove Genwen from the LDP is not clear, but Genwen joined all the other myriad sites earmarked for development when the county development plan was given the green light in December 2014.

This blog recorded the chaotic and underwhelming grand finale to all those years of turgid meetings, consultations and consultations on consultations here, and that post is well worth a read, immodest though that recommendation may sound.

Back in December 2014 the council was led by Kevin Madge, with Labour and the Independents in coalition. Concerns about the undemocratic nature of the plan were expressed by several Pliad councillors, including the Plaid leader, Emlyn Dole. This was recorded in the otherwise very uninformative official minutes of the meeting:

Concern was expressed that the Welsh Government sets the targets for Carmarthenshire as this took away the Authority’s right to recognise local need and identify how many houses are required, where and what kind. The Leader was asked whether he could raise this issue with other Leaders and the W.L.G.A. to try to change this before the next LDP is considered, as it was not fair that the Welsh Government sets those kinds of targets. A recent poll indicated that 72% of people feel that the Local Authority should set the targets.

All concerns were swept aside, and as Y Cneifiwr noted, apart from speeches by Kevin Madge and Meryl Gravell congratulating officers for their hard work and calling for the plan to be approved, the Labour and Independent benches had nothing to say, apart from former Labour councillor Terry Davies, who rose to curtail debate and get the whole thing over and done with.

Readers with long memories may recall that Terry Davies was one half of the notorious Keri and Terry double act, two Labour councillors who sat for years on the planning committee rubber-stamping everything that was put before them and determined to keep meetings of the planning committee as brief as possible.

All Labour and Independent councillors voted in favour of the LDP, while in the confusion presided over by Chair Elmer Fudd (Daff Davies), the Plaid group managed to vote three different ways.

By coincidence, on 18 November 2014 a few weeks prior to this fiasco, the Planning Committee had met to consider a revised application for Genwen. Despite vigorous objections, outline planning was granted, although it was not given the final seal of approval by the then head of planning, Eifion Bowen, until over a year later in December 2015.

An application for detailed planning consent (known as "reserved matters" in the jargon) finally came before the Planning Committee on 11 July of this year. As before, there was strong local opposition, and this time the Labour Party which had enthusiastically voted in favour of the plan back in 2014, decided to throw its lot in with the residents - two and a half years too late.

Joining Derek Cundy, who had up till then been something of a lone voice (although he too voted for the LDP), were Sharen Davies and Rob James for Labour and Gwyneth Thomas for Plaid. Sharen Davies, who had also voted for the LDP, called for the application to be rejected, while Rob James (a very occasional attendee of Neath Porth Talbot council back in 2014) had nothing to say.

Discussion ground on for two and a half hours, with all of the objections made back in November 2014 being given a second airing. Perhaps the most interesting interventions came from Kevin Madge who had clearly undergone something of a conversion since 2014, as he spoke about something called "The Structural Plan", known to everyone else as the LDP.

He acknowledged that he had been leader when the "structural plan" had been adopted, but the "structural plan" could be changed, he argued.

Perhaps in a parallel universe an LDP could be changed, although undoing what Kevin Madge piloted through as leader would be a very time-consuming business and a very expensive one from the council's point of view because the developer, in possession of legally valid outline planning, would be able to go to court and sue for significant damages on the basis that the goalposts had been moved, stripping the company of a very valuable commercial opportunity.

He went on to recommend that the application be rejected, despite repeated warnings from officers and the chair that unless councillors could identify new material reasons for rejecting the application, the council would face a costly appeal (and one which it would certainly lose).

And so at length, the committee voted narrowly to approve the plan to the dismay of the people of Bynea and the satisfaction of 'Welsh' Labour which once again had done its best to convince voters that it had stood up for "the many, not the few" to protect them from a policy it had championed and pushed through, while making a futile and doomed last minute gesture knowing that Genwen's fate had been sealed years ago.

Bynea's residents now join public sector workers ("scrap the cap") and young people ("abolish tuition fees" in June, put them up in July) in realising that what "Welsh" Labour says and what it does bear very little relation to each other.








Monday, 17 July 2017

CPS drops prosecution of Jacqui Thompson

The decision by the CPS to drop a prosecution for harassment against fellow blogger Jacqui Thompson marks the end, for now, of more than 18 months of a carefully planned and orchestrated legal onslaught against her by Mark James, Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, although he has the right to request a review of the decision and may yet have more legal surprises up his sleeve.

During this period, Jacqui Thompson has had to endure two separate and very slow police investigations into allegations of criminal harassment, a separate allegation of perverting the course of justice, threats to return to the High Court for contempt of court, and civil proceedings to try to force the sale of her family home.

All of the legal actions initiated by Mr James have now failed, and all bar the attempt to seize the Thompsons' family home have been funded by the public purse, as has the rest of his extraordinary campaign against her, with the council now lumbered with hundreds of thousands of pounds of costs which it cannot recover, and untold additional resources and costs incurred by council staff, the police and the CPS.

The decision by the CPS to pull the plug on the latest case very late in the day calls into question the judgment of both that body and the police in deciding to bring a prosecution in the first place, and more questions are now being asked about what appears to have been the use of council staff and IT resources to produce "evidence" in pursuit of what Mr James now insists is a purely private matter.

Central to Mr James's case alleging criminal harassment is his witness statement, accompanied by a printout of Jacqui's blog. This extraordinary document runs to seven pages. Because the case will not now go to court, unless Mr James launches a successful appeal, the statement is not in the public domain. However, for anyone who has seen it, it is hard to believe that Dyfed Powys Police could have spent seven months, untold hours and significant amounts of money on investigating these allegations when even a cursory examination should have kicked the farce into touch very early in proceedings.


Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me

We now enter a bizarre world where nothing is quite what it seems, a world of paranoia and delusion, half truths, omissions and facts built on shifting sands. 

The first thing to say about the allegations of harassment is that they relate solely to Jacqui's blog. There is no suggestion that she has done anything else, although it has been put about in County Hall that there is something worse lurking in the undergrowth. If there were we would surely have heard about it by now, but the whispers have undoubtedly had an effect.

Mr James's statement kicks off with a general complaint that Jacqui Thompson has been waging a campaign against him through her blog.

He feels threatened, he says, before taking the police on a long detour containing edited highlights of his favourite bedtime reading, Mr Justice Tugendhat's verdict in the libel case, and the first complaint of harassment made in January 2016 which the police decided not to pursue after another 8 month investigation.

He had nothing to do with the decision by Dyfed Powys Police to issue her with a Police Information Notice, he tells Dyfed Powys Police, who could probably have worked that out for themselves.

Next up, Mr James notes that Jacqui Thompson did not react well to his decision to force the sale of the Thompson family home, and had sought to involve MPs, AMs and councillors. This was, he says, an attempt to bring pressure to bear on him to halt a private legal action which he had felt forced to bring.

In Mr James's view, he was entirely justified in bringing the action, and Jacqui Thompson had no right to complain. "I was mortified that Mrs Thompson was trying to get senior politicians to intervene in my private affairs". 

If the prosecution had gone ahead, the courts would have found themselves being asked to rule that by asking for help from elected representatives and encouraging others to do the same, a constituent could be guilty of a criminal offence.

A very public private affair

Even if Dyfed Powys Police headquarters had been suspended in deep sleep in the manner of Sleeping Beauty's castle for the last few years, a little light Googling should have been enough to convince its occupants that Mr James's "private affairs" were nothing of the kind. Approved and funded by the County Council, with key elements of the decision ruled unlawful by the Wales Audit Office, this was never a private matter. And the press archives are littered with quotes from the publicity-loving chief executive heralding Mr Tugendhat's verdict as a victory for councils everywhere, with Mr James telling council staff that he had done it all for them.

If the libel action succeeded, he told the Executive Board, he would pay his winnings over to the council, or possibly "good causes" he later told the press, before his lawyers told a judge that he could do whatever he liked with the money, including "stuffing it in the gutter".

Such are the shifting sands on which Mr James's arguments rest.

To Mr James's evident horror, two county councillors, Alun Lenny and Cefin Campbell, last year sought to bring a Motion calling on him and the council's Executive Board to find a compromise which would not make the Thompsons homeless and "enhance the reputation of this council".

"As it transpired", Mr James writes as if what happened next had nothing to do with him, the then chair of council, Cllr Eryl Morgan, had given a detailed ruling, including an extensive quote from Mr Justice Tugendhat, setting out why the Motion was not admissible.

Even Cllr Morgan's family and friends would have been surprised by his sudden in-depth knowledge of the Tugendhat verdict and the legal ins and outs of libel damages.

The rather more prosaic truth is that a furious Mr James was determined to have the Motion stuck down. The council's Head of Legal and Monitoring Officer, Mrs Linda Rees Jones, appointed by Mr James in a way which bypassed the need for the involvement of elected councillors in the appointment of a senior officer, was persuaded to issue a fatwa in Cllr Morgan's name, with the elderly councillor being reduced to a ventriloquist's dummy.

All of this had come about because of the interference of Adam Price AM, Mr James concludes, adding that this was something "I find to be intimidating".

Cock and bull

We are now on page 4 of Mr James's statement, and alert readers may have realised that so far Mr James has not presented the police with a single example of harassment by Jacqui Thompson.

The first actual example produced from the blog is a post about the Pembrey Park scandal, in which Jacqui pointed out the seriousness of the accusations and not unreasonably suggested that knowledge of them went right to the top. In short, there had been a cover-up.

Nonsense, says Mr James. The council had investigated the matter, referred it to the police, and an officer had been convicted by a court of law.

A cursory examination of this account would have shown the police that it was at best spin and a highly selective account of what actually happened down at Pembrey. The conviction of a council officer came about because of a complaint of  assault brought by the proprietor of the park café who was planning to take legal action against the council for the way in which it handled a shambolic and corrupted contract tendering process.

The prosecution related solely to the facts of the assault, and a recording exists of a very senior council officer pleading with a whistleblower not to go to the police about wider allegations of corrupt practices.

It won't cost you a penny
 
Next, Mr James takes the police on a brief trip to Boston, Lincolnshire, where he was chief executive before taking up his current position all those years ago.

Mr James's biggest legacy to Boston is what is now called the Princess Royal Sports Arena, a huge project built on a delusional business case which came to be a burden on local taxpayers.

Mr James departed Boston before the grandiose scheme was completed, and it subsequently attracted the attention of the Audit Commission which issued a report highlighting grossly inaccurate and wildly optimistic revenue forecasts, how councillors had been kept in the dark and how contract tendering procedures had not been adhered to.

True, the Audit Commission report named no names, and its purpose was to highlight lessons to be learned rather than act as an indictment.

According to Mr James's account to Dyfed Powys Police, he was not aware that the auditors had become involved, which suggests that their report and criticism somehow escaped his attention. Perhaps that might help explain Parc y Scarlets, cynics would say.

The man or woman on the Cilycwm omnibus may find it difficult to believe Mr James was unaware of the Audit Commission's involvement, but it seems that Dyfed Powys Police agreed that by linking the damning report to the council chief executive whose pet project this was, Jacqui Thompson merited prosecution for criminal harassment.

More examples now follow in quick succession. References to the controversial and heavily criticised Scarlets car park deal; a petition launched by a man in Trimsaran; a letter calling for Mr James's dismissal published in a local newspaper; Private Eye's decision to award Mr James its prestigious "Shit of the Year Award" and a protest outside County Hall by members of the public (but not Jacqui Thompson) involving a pig's liver are all evidence of harassment by Jacqui Thompson, Mr James tells the police.

It is all "draining, oppressive, distressing, harassing and intimidating", Mr James concludes after raiding the thesaurus for a list of adjectives.

It is also "distressing and humiliating" to have his private affairs brought to the attention of the council, "Cardiff Bay" and an MP.

You bet it is.

Own goal

Throughout the document, Mr James is at pains to make the police understand that Jacqui Thompson's "campaign" has been designed to damage his otherwise spotless reputation in the view of reasonable persons.

More perceptive readers than Dyfed Powys Police's finest may have spotted that this argument is more than slightly flawed because Mr James offers up numerous examples of how the press, politicians and members of the public have a rather less than flattering view of his virtues than he does himself. These include the pig's liver, an online petition, critical remarks made by politicians, letters to the editor, the "Shit of the Year" award and the outrageous Motion on Notice with its diplomatically phrased call for a compromise. Not to mention (which Mr James doesn't) a heavily subscribed petition from a couple of years back calling for him to be sent away empty-handed when he applied for voluntary redundancy and all of the other public criticism he has attracted over the years. Not forgetting other exhibits, such as a dead rat which a Carmarthen resident handed in at the reception desk in County Hall, for Mr James's attention.

As such, the witness statement is a spectacular own goal unless you believe that Private Eye, the press, councillors, MPs, AMs and numerous members of the public are all under the control of Jacqui Thompson, master criminal extraordinaire.

Alongside the argument about his tarnished reputation, the main thrust of the witness statement is to try to persuade Dyfed Powys Police that Jacqui Thompson was guilty of harassment by trying to deter him from exercising his legal right (to seize her home), something which amounted in his view to contempt of court:


I end my renewed complaint of harassment with Mr Justice Tugendhat's words in his Judgment which the Chair of County Council himself repeated when rejecting the Motion on Notice: "Pressure put upon a litigant to deter him from pursuing a legal right, or to punish him for having pursued a legal right, can be a Contempt of Court". I certainly regard it as also being harassment.

For the umpteenth time in the statement, Mr Justice Tugendhat is wheeled out of retirement, and Cllr Eryl Morgan is cited as a legal authority on the strength of an e-mail written by Mr James's legal protection squad.

The statement, dated 27 January 2017, came before a court hearing in March of this year when a judge sitting in the County Court ordered Jacqui Thompson to pay the chief executive £250 a month in return for being allowed to stay in her home.

By the time Dyfed Powys Police got round to making its very belated decision to prosecute, that ruling and Jacqui Thompson's compliance with it meant that Mr James's complaint was demonstrably invalid.

But they decided to press charges anyway.

Sigh of relief

That this complaint got as far as it did suggests that there may be some truth in the oft-repeated claims that elements within Dyfed Powys Police see themselves as Mr James's personal protection squad.

Had the matter gone to court, the outcome would almost certainly have been red faces at Dyfed Powys HQ and the CPS, and yet more damage to the council's reputation.

It is not just Jacqui Thompson and her family who are probably breathing a sigh of relief that someone in the CPS put a stop to this nonsense.