Saturday, 31 March 2012

Labour candidate tells us he's sexy and he knows it

The Labour Party has selected as its candidate for Glanaman (or Glanamman, as the party's website insists on calling it) a young man called Shahid Hussain, who might well have stepped straight out of an episode of The Apprentice.

Mr Hussain describes himself as a young entrepreneur, always on the look-out for an opportunity, and an aspiring politician. He describes his decision to stand as Labour's candidate in Glanaman as his first steps towards world domination.

When he's not on Facebook and Twitter, Mr Hussain runs some local garages, where he is proud to tell us that he only employs local people. As opposed, presumably, to bussing staff in from Birmingham to work for the minimum wage.

For the last couple of days he has been busy in an online spat with Adam Jones, a local man who is currently studying in Aberystwyth. Adam is an active member of Cymdeithas yr Iaith and puts a lot of energy and passion into encouraging other young people in the Glanaman area to use their Welsh.

The current councillor for Glanaman is David Jenkins (Plaid Cymru), a decent and thoughtful man. In common with other Labour candidates in Carmarthenshire, Mr Hussain faces a slight dilemma in that his party has not got around to telling us what its plans are for the county council. But that doesn't matter to Mr Hussain, who believes that,

so if i beat david jenkins by being popular and not on policies itd be good win? Haha #sexyandiknowit

As for David Jenkins, Mr Hussain follows this reference up with a confession:

* havent a clue who david is*

But who needs policies in politics? Sex is the main thing, as this 31 year-old business veteran tells us,

old saying in business-"sex sells" and im #sexyandiknowit lol 

Sex rears its head again in Mr Hussain's Twitter stream of consciousness when he declares

was it gay porn? oh sorry thats just rugby! ;) haha

Will Mr Hussain be repeating that little joke when he goes canvassing at the rugby club, I wonder?

Labour's website for the council elections in Carmarthenshire is pretty much a Welsh-free zone, and Mr Hussain's own pages contain a long biography in English in which he tells us he is married with two sons. He lists his donations to good causes, including some raffle prizes and breakfast bowls, plus a £300 donation to a local school for a booklet warning of the dangers of rug abuse.

Like most parents, he's probably got fed up with having to tell children to wipe their feet before they walk on the rugs.

When challenged about his knowledge of Welsh in this strongly Welsh-speaking area, Mr Hussain simply blasts back with

who says im not learning welsh? Small steps! And at least people know who i am,most ppl in glanaman havnt a clue! #showmyface

So is he learning the language or not? He doesn't seem very keen to tell us. Judging from his tweets, his reading would seem to be confined to Piers Morgan's autobiography. He also boasts that he has appeared in The Guardian three weeks running, something I am sure won't have gone unnoticed on the streets of Glanaman.

So there you are. For the people of Glanaman the choice boils down to David Jenkins and his party's detailed plans for the county, or Shahid and sex.

Beth yw sexy yn Gymraeg, Shahid?

One of Shahid's mates, this time standing for Labour in Tycroes, is Calum Higgins. Calum is also on Twitter, and one of his latest pronouncements was

Best performance from Ed at the ballot box yet.

Presumably he was not thinking about Bradford West and George Galloway.

But that's enough twats tweets for one day.

Actually, not quite. A couple of readers have pointed out some particularly nasty comments made by Mr Hussain. One of them appears to have been deleted, but here he is commenting on a suggestion from another idiot that councillors should be elected according to how fast they are on a travelator. What a lol.

Gutted that no one has taken up my natural selection election idea. Whoever can win a travelator race is elected
i would so kick david jenkins ass at that, he may pop a hip or something! Lol ;-)

Friday, 30 March 2012

Labour in Carmarthenshire

In about two weeks from now voters will be able to cast postal votes in the county council elections, but the Labour Party still has not come up with a manifesto. Here is their official website for the elections, and you will see that the most recent announcements concerned the removal of a dangerous BT pole in Hendy and a story about the motorway junction at Bryngwili. Those were posted two weeks ago, since when there has been complete silence.

Labour did very badly pretty much everywhere at the last council elections in 2008, and in Carmarthenshire they have effectively been reduced to a rump. Despite that, they have stayed in a coalition with Meryl Gravell and her closet Tory Independents. Without Labour's support, Meryl would have been history long ago.

At the beginning of March, the Labour Party held its spring conference in Llandudno, and Peter Hain used it to launch an attack on what he called "closet Tories, Independents with no manifesto, no plan and no clue".

He obviously forgot about Labour in Carmarthenshire, which is strange because his seat is right next door. Not so strange is that Labour in Carmarthenshire obviously thought they would rather not mention Hain's speech on their website.

In fact, it seems they have decided that they'd rather not talk about anything apart from a BT pole and a road junction. Older readers will remember the days when Labour used to be very proud indeed of its manifestos, to the point where they acquired a sort of quasi-religious significance.

Labour in Carmarthenshire is led by the very uninspiring Kevin Madge, who for the last four years had been deputy to Queen Meryl. He has regularly paid glowing tributes to Meryl and the chief executive, Mark James, describing them recently as "the dream team".

The only possible conclusion that can be drawn from this is that Labour is hoping for another spell clinging to Meryl's petticoats, and that it has no independent vision or ideas for the county of its own. In Carmarthenshire, it seems, Labour has outsourced itself to Meryl and Mark, with only the name left above the shopfront.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

How to stop junk mail - Carmarthenshire News

A helpful reader has written referring me to his website in which he provides invaluable advice for all those who do not wish to receive the Council's plastic-wrapped Pravda shoved through their letterboxes. Of course, some of you find that it makes useful kindling, cat litter and hamster bedding, but for everyone else, here is what he has to say:

The March-April 2012 edition of Carmarthenshire’s official propaganda sheet “Carmarthenshire News” dropped on my mat this week. I’ll leave it to others to trawl through it and expose the reality behind the rose-tinted image it promotes. Personally I don’t care if every word in it was true and written by the Almighty himself, I just don’t want plastic wrapped junk mail dropping through my letterbox.

Out of the letterbox, into the recycling bag

The 2001 census states that Carmartheshire has 73,100 households. Each household I presume receives a copy of Carmarthenshire News which weighs a convenient 100 grammes, (95g paper and 5g plastic wrapper). This means each issue uses 7,000 kilos (7 tonnes) of paper and 300 kilos of plastic. Each year that’s 42 tonnes of paper and 1.8 tonnes of plastic.

So what can we do about it?

If you want to read Carmarthenshire News but not contribute to the waste mountain, you could  read it online instead, then stop the printed copy being delivered. To do this simply email Delna M Hockenhull the Communications Manager for  Carmarthenshire News at and ask to be removed from the distribution list. I did just that this week and (apart from her spelling my name wrong) I think I got a result.

You may need to hurry, though, because if Plaid Cymru win the council elections, they have pledged to scrap it. Let's hope they chuck PRSirgar, the council's very own PR agency, and the spin meisters in the Press Office on the bonfire along with it. 

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

#daftlibel: Carmarthenshire carries on regardless

Golwg, the Welsh-language news and current affairs magazine, carried an in-depth article on the Caebrwyn libel case in its latest issue, and little by little things are becoming clearer.

To begin with, the Golwg article gives a very good and clear summary of Jacqui Thompson's position.

It explains that Jacqui decided to bring an action against the chief executive on legal advice because of statements he made in a letter to the author of a blog called Madaxeman, published by a man in the North of England.

Jacqui told Golwg that Mr James had said disgraceful things about her character and her family in the letter. Because of his senior position, she felt concerned that people who read the letter might believe what he was saying.

Jacqui, who is being represented on a no-win, no-fee basis, is seeking a court order preventing Mr James from publishing anything similar about her and her family in future, an apology and costs.

What this means in plain terms is that the council and the chief executive could have settled easily and very early on at very little cost to the taxpayer. An apology and an undertaking not to act in this way again, along with payment of a modest legal bill, would have brought the matter to an end. Instead, the council decided that attack was the best form of defence, and costs are rising rapidly with each week that passes.

An example of what cases such as this can entail is a recent action in which Chris Cairns, a cricketer, successfully sued for libel over something written on Twitter. The case took two years, and he was eventually awarded damages of £90,000, but the legal costs ran to £1,400,000.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas, the Assembly Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, has also called on the council to reconsider its position.

The spokesperson for Local Government Minister, Carl Sargeant, seems to be getting a little tougher with each interview. This time the official said that there was a risk that public money could be used to prevent fair comment, before adding that the Welsh Government was very clear about this and that it was not happy with the steps being taken by Carmarthenshire County Council.

Whether this will translate into action remains to be seen. A statement from the Minister quoted later in the article says,

Every local authority must act within its powers at all times, otherwise it is open to challenge in the courts.
It is the responsibility of the council to take its own legal advice and to justify any steps it takes. Local authorities should not allow indemnities to enable members or officers to sue for defamation, and the 2006 Order reflects that...if some try to circumvent this in a systematic way, we will consider putting a stop to it.

Carmarthenshire County Council, speaking through its PR agency (yes, it really has one), had nothing new to add, repeating its mantra that it has a right to take this action under the 1972 Local Government Act. It will be interesting to see what the judge has to say about that.

What was rather more interesting was the following summary of the statement from PRSirgar (not a dead horse, but the council's PR outfit):

The council added that it was not trying to prevent fair comment or discussion of the council's activities, but merely supporting an officer financially to take legal action in connection with libel of the chief executive professionally.

In previous statements the council has talked about libel in both a professional and personal capacity, and we can only assume that it has now decided that funding a libel action on behalf of its most senior officer in a personal capacity might run into trouble with the Welsh Government, the courts and public opinion. Who knows? It seems, however, that as usual the council is trying to make up the rules as it goes along.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Abuse of vulnerable adults and "erroneous" press reports

One aspect of Carmarthenshire County Council's reaction to the Public Services Ombudsman's report on its handling of the Delyth Jenkins case deserves a closer look.

As we saw in a previous post (here), the council's leadership successfully ensured that a minimum of publicity was given to the report, and it was slipped past the full council in a way which avoided discussion or awkward questions.

Such discussion as there was in the council meeting on 2 December 2009 lasted no more than a few minutes and consisted of the chief executive apologising for "erroneous press reports":

Arising from minute no. 7 “Report by the Public Service Ombudsman for Wales on Investigation into a complaint against Carmarthenshire County Council”, concern was expressed at the incorrect reports that had appeared in the press which had upset the complainants. The Chief Executive stated that he had contacted the complainants to express regret that the press had published erroneous reports.

So what were these "erroneous" reports, and why did the chief executive feel the need to apologise on behalf of the press?

For reasons which will become obvious, the chief executive was very unlikely to have gone into detail about what these offending press reports were, and it is not possible now to be 100% certain, but a trawl through the press archives gives us a pretty good clue.

The Western Mail, Camarthen Journal and the BBC all reported on the ombudsman's findings. In each case, these were straight, factual summaries of the principal findings of the report. However, another article appeared in the Carmarthen Journal on 19 November 2009 which gave an account of the meeting of the council's Executive Board. You can read it here.

If you put yourself in the shoes of the parents of Sally, the young woman who had been subjected to abuse in the council's day care centre, you too would have been very upset by what you read, because what we get is an account, by the chief executive, of a what they probably imagined was a private visit he made to their home.

This was an extremely sensitive situation, and you would have thought that common sense would dictate that any remarks would have been confined to a brief statement that the visit had taken place and an apology given. Instead, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Sally, the victim of the abuse, was without her knowledge or consent turned into a public relations mascot for the council.

As we know, Sally is a woman with serious learning difficulties, so serious in fact that she was unable to tell her parents that she had been physically abused and bullied by staff at the home. Because the council did not tell her parents about what had been going on for more than a year after Delyth Jenkins had made her first complaint, Sally's parents suspected nothing, and continued to send their daughter to the centre. In the BBC's Taro 9 Sally's mother spoke about the terrible realisation that Sally had continued to attend the centre and suffer abuse while the council knew about it and her parents did not.

Public meetings of the council and its various committees are not recorded, and it is of course strictly prohibited for members of the public and press to record them, other than by making written notes. As with all council meetings, a couple of journalists would have sat in the main body of the chamber and taken shorthand notes of what was said. 

Apart from the journalist's report, the only other published account of what was said is in the form of the minutes of the meeting. As we know, minutes of council meetings are rarely a reliable guide to what was said in meetings, but on this occasion, the chief executive's comments were summarised as follows:

The Chief Executive further advised the Board that he had personally visited the family of the service user in order to express the Authority’s apologies and had been pleased to hear that the “Sally” continued to attend the day centre detailed within the complaint.

Compare that with the Carmarthen Journal report, and it becomes obvious that the remarks quoted by the newspaper were almost certainly accurate, but in the absence of a recording, any dispute is simply the word of the chief executive against the word of the journalist.

The picture painted by the remarks made in the Executive Board meeting is therefore one of a happy young woman who was very keen to get off to the day centre on the day of the chief executive's visit. No harm done then, and all's well that ends well, would seem to be the message, and council leader Meryl Gravell chimed in,

This particular lady still enjoys herself at the centre, and I hope that this is the end of the matter. It is sad it happened, but we can now move on.

But as Sally's mother told  Taro 9, Sally has been affected by what happened, and the physical and mental abuse have sadly left their mark.

As we can see, the "apology" given at the council meeting on 2 December was nothing of the sort.

Five years after the first complaint was made, and after all of the investigations and the ombudsman's damning report, the council was still inflicting pain on Sally and her parents.

Footnote: At the same time as this was happening (the final quarter of 2009), the chief executive was waging a campaign on behalf of the council against the local press, and what he regarded as negative reporting of council stories. Barely concealed threats were made to reduce the council's advertising spend, and the council's propaganda sheet was beefed up.

One final footnote. As this blog has noted on previous occasions, the Council seems to have real problems distinguishing between the singular and plural. Here the impression was given that there were multiple "erroneous" press reports. It seems that there was just one, most likely entirely accurate report.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Abuse of adults in Council care - what has the Council learned?

A couple of aspects of the BBC's Taro 9 programme last week are worth a closer look, namely the council's reaction to the programme and what councillors and the public at large have been told by the council about it.

The reaction to the programme while it was being made was sadly all too predictable. The council was angered by the BBC's decision to make the programme at all, even questioning why the story was being put back under the spotlight. It refused to cooperate with the programme, merely issuing a terse statement, and called the police to keep an eye on Delyth Jenkins, BBC presenter Garry Owen and the rest of the BBC crew.

What possible threat to the council or anyone else was posed by the presence of this team it is hard to imagine. Garry Owen is one of the most senior and most respected BBC journalists in Wales. Was he about to storm the day centre, or machine-gun the council offices? Just as in the Jacqui Thompson case, it seems that Dyfed Powys Police were responding to a dog whistle from the council's top brass for no good reason. Anyone else would have been charged with wasting police time.

But how should the council have reacted?

For anyone in Carmarthenshire with close friends or relatives who fall into the broad category of vulnerable adults (that includes the elderly, people with learning disabilities, those with mental illnesses, those with physical disabilities and many others in difficult circumstances), the programme was very worrying. The Delyth Jenkins story highlighted one particular case of the abuse of a vulnerable adult while in council care, and the Public Services Ombudsman made it clear that this was not an isolated incident.

What guarantees can the council give that people put into their care will not be bullied and abused in future?

Whereas the council could have cooperated with the BBC, apologised for what happened in Johnstown, explained what measures it has taken to ensure there is no repetition and gone out of its way to reassure the public, it acted instead like a dodgy builder, effectively shouting abuse at the camera before speeding off in a white van, door slamming shut.

The council's statement to the BBC boiled down to two things: this all happened a long time ago, and measures have been put into place to prevent it from happening again. That's it. Slam.

Let's start with the time line. Mrs Jenkins first witnessed abuse in 2005, and after getting nowhere with the council, she took the matter to the Public Services Ombudsman, who published his report in September 2009, i.e. just two and a half years ago.

The ombudsman, Peter Tyndall, said in the report that the authority was guilty of "catastrophic" failures in its handling of the case. At the time, the council had very little to say about the report. The assistant chief executive, Chris Burns, said:

This particular case has also been the subject of an exhaustive internal investigation and there is disciplinary action pending as a result. The authority cannot comment any further until these processes are exhausted as it might prejudice the outcome.

Slam. That was in September 2009, and the council told the BBC that the final staff issues arising from the ombudsman's report were settled as recently as several months ago, and that this was all now a matter of history. It also seems that most of the staff mentioned in the report are still working for the council, although not in the Johnstown centre.

So much for the council's claim that this is now all ancient history.

The ombudsman's report (here) makes for truly shocking reading. Nobody apart from Delyth Jenkins, referred to throughout as "Ms West", emerges with any credit. Not the police, not the Welsh Government, and certainly not the County Council. It is clear from the report that Delyth Jenkins had to fight every step of the way to ensure that her complaints were taken seriously. In the meantime, she faced intimidation and even physical abuse herself: The ombudsman's report states that she was hit by one of the carers involved.

Among those who feature in the report are the Director of Social Services, Bruce McLernon, who is still in post despite the catalogue of failure for which he was responsible. The ombudsman was clearly not impressed with Mr McLernon.

The Chief Executive, Mark James, responded first to Mrs Jenkins' complaints by delegating the matter to the Monitoring Officer. Subsequently, when the report was published, he met her and was, in her words, clearly very angry. Pacing up and down, he told her she should "back off a bit". Not surprisingly, Mrs Jenkins took that as a threat.

But what did the council's officers have to say to our elected representatives? Not much, it would seem, and as we shall see, by trying to bury bad news, the council has left itself open to accusations of not taking the matter seriously.

The first appearance of the report in the council's records is at a meeting of the Executive Board in November 2009. Although backbench councillors (the vast majority) can observe these meetings, they have no more involvement than members of the public.

The Executive Board considered a summary of the ombudsman's report, written of course by the council's officers, in which the ombudsman's recommendations are listed, a brief outline of the case is given and rather a lot of emphasis is put on statements that the ombudsman has "acknowledged the significant progress in addressing the concerns raised in his report".

The ombudsman's report itself only made it to seventh of the list of items of the agenda for that particular meeting, coming behind such weighty matters as a report on fleet management, the development of a youth centre and the management of paddling pools.

The Health and Social Care Scrutiny Committee, where you might expect detailed examination and questioning, appears never to have discussed the ombudsman's report at all. 

In common with all reports of meetings from the Executive Board, the full council was asked to give its stamp of approval at a meeting held on 2 December 2009, where the summarised report appeared along with the paddling pools, etc. as Item No.9 on the agenda. This was to be the only chance councillors were to have to discuss the ombudsman's findings.

The minutes of the meeting of the full council show that lots of questions were asked about various matters, including the council's gambling policy, licensing, various financial matters, a Lidl billboard, and water quality in the Burry inlet. When it came, eventually, to the report on the Executive Board meeting of 16 November, items discussed included funding for Young Farmers Clubs; something called the Dragon Scheme for the "uniformed youth" of Wales; Magno-Flo technology for the council's fleet of vehicles; the "integrated youth centre"; the paddling pools and then, finally, the ombudsman's report.

Whereas the paddling pool issue got 5 lines in the minutes of the December meeting, the ombudsman's report got barely more than two.

The point discussed was not the report itself (obviously not), the history of the case or what lessons had been learned, but concerns about press reports which had allegedly upset "the complainants". The complainants were not Mrs Jenkins, but the parents of the abused woman.

Sally's parents were certainly owed an apology, not least because the council had not told them that their daughter had been abused for a year after Mrs Jenkins made her first complaint. Instead, the chief executive told councillors that he had apologised to Sally's parents for the incorrect press reports.

And that was that. The only discussion or criticism related to the conduct of the press. 

Suggestions that the question about Sally's parents concerns was a put-up job to create a smokescreen would no doubt be rejected by the council as outrageous cynicism. The wording of the minutes carefully avoids stating whether Sally's parents had actually complained about press coverage, however.

Calls for a public inquiry will of course be resisted very strongly by the Council, which insists that lessons have been learned and new procedures put in place.

Of course what has not changed is the senior management of the council which sets the tone and drives the corporate culture. The other thing which has not changed is the council's deeply ingrained culture of secrecy and its obsession with news management, factors which almost certainly lie at the heart of the way in which events in Johnstown were handled. The people who dismissed Mrs Jenkins' complaints, dragged their feet and ignored her are all still there. We are being asked to believe that they have been transformed from angry, secretive, resentful managers who treated a very brave whistleblower appallingly, into caring and compassionate champions of the abused and bullied.

And one of them will soon be off to Buckingham Palace to pick up his medal for services to local government.

Sometimes there are fairy-tale endings, at least for some.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Taro 9 - Delyth Jenkins a'r Cyngor Sir

Am ryw reswm neu'i gilydd, dyw'r rhaglen hon ddim ar gael ar S4C Clic eto, ond dyma ddolen iddi. Rhaglen wych am hanes erchyll.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Council elections - who wants to be a councillor?

There are two weeks to go before anyone wishing to stand for election for Carmarthenshire County Council or any of the community councils has to submit their nomination papers on 4 April.

If you are elected and take your duties as a councillor seriously, it is a pretty thankless job for the most part under the cabinet system which we have at county level. Most of the 74 councillors will have little or no say at all in what the council does.

For quite a few, that will not be a problem, as membership of the council brings quite a few benefits to what might otherwise be a fairly dull life in retirement. Looking around the council chamber over the last couple of years, it is fair to say that a good many of the councillors fell into this category. County Hall for them was a rather comfortable club, and many are looking forward to being returned for another 5 years, by which time some will be very elderly indeed.

Of course, not all councillors are like that. Some work very hard for the people they represent and spend long hours reading the turgid reports churned out for their approval. They ask difficult questions, they beaver away in committee meetings and they turn up to countless community council meetings, fetes, receptions and one-on-one meetings with the public. We can be thankful that people like that are prepared to bang their heads against the brick walls of council bureaucracy and secrecy for years on end, and sadly often with little to show for it.

We will not have a full picture of who is standing and who is stepping down until after 4 April, but a fragmented picture is emerging. Both Plaid Cymru and Labour have websites for the council elections here and here. You can click on individual wards to see who is standing where, although in quite a few cases there are still blanks.

On a sad note, it seems that John Edwards, father of MP Jonathan Edwards, has decided to stand down. John Edwards stood out in the council chamber as one of the most thoughtful and experienced councillors. In his quiet way, he almost always hit the nail on the head and asked the best questions. He will be missed.

On the Labour side, it seems that all of the current councillors apart from Hugh Evans in Ammanford will be standing again. Five more years of Kevin Madge to look forward to, it seems. Oddly, Keri Thomas, councillor for Tyisha, is also listed as a candidate, even though he has been unable to attend council meetings for more than a year because of ill health.

In Trimsaran, the stomping ground of council leader Meryl Gravell, Labour is fielding one of its youngest candidates, Ryan Thomas (24), presumably as a practice run.

In Abergwili, the ward currently represented by Councillor Pam Palmer, Plaid is fielding a strong candidate in the shape of Dr Dewi Evans. Cllr Palmer is a member of the Executive Board and also leads the so-called Independent group on the council. It is rumoured that in the past the LibDems made unsuccessful attempts to woo her. Whatever the truth of that, a Palmer-free Carmarthenshire will be a better Carmarthenshire.

In Llandovery, represented by council chair Ivor Jackson, it seems that neither Plaid nor Labour will be fielding a candidate. The office of council chair is regarded as an honorary position to be filled by a person who represents the face of Carmarthenshire to the rest of the world.

For anyone who has seen Cllr Jackson in action in a council meeting this is not something to be proud of. His performance in council meetings veers from confusion and incomprehension as he struggles with procedure to playground bullying of backbench councillors. His attempts at ducking and diving to avoid taking a stand on the closure of the town's secondary school is the sort of thing that brings politicians everywhere into disrepute.

Fortunately, it seems a truly independent candidate will stand against him. We can only hope that the town gets a strong and credible alternative to Mr Jackson.

In nearby Cilycwm it is rumoured that veteran councillor Tom Theophilus will be throwing his hat in the ring once again. If he succeeds, the good people of the area will be represented by a man who will be well into his eighties by the next council elections in 2017. Standing against him is fellow blogger Jacqui Thompson. Unlike Mr Theophilus, Jacqui has made a strong and consistent stand for the schools in the area.

One of the hallmarks of Carmarthenshire County Council is lack of transparency. For the last 13 years the council has been run by Mery Gravell and her fellow Independents, in coalition with Labour for the last 8 years. The lack of transparency extends even to the matter of elections.

The Independents, frequently described as closet Tories (and they certainly contain some known Tories in their ranks), like to pretend that they are not a political party. As this blog has pointed out before, this is an exclusive club. You cannot apply to join it; you have to be invited.

The Independents do not fight elections on a manifesto, and if they have a plan for the county, voters cannot find out what that plan is because it is not published anywhere. Until nominations are in, it will not even be possible to know who is standing where as an Independent.

Over the last 13 years, control of the council has been in the grip of a small handful of people. The Independent top-brass brought in the current chief executive, and a cadre of loyal senior officers has been put in place. All of the key decisions are taken behind closed doors by this small group.

An essential ingredient in this process has been the creation of an effective and powerful PR machine. The council only does good news, and arms are twisted and procedures manipulated to ensure that "difficult" subjects are not discussed in public. Anyone who has been to a council meeting will see that they always begin with a round of self-congratulatory announcements. Crystal vases, CBEs and various awards made by unaccountable quangos are brandished to thunderous applause; Meryl Gravell and her associates make claims about how the council is the best-run, the best-prepared, the best performing in any area you care to name. Their propaganda sheet, Carmathenshire News, pumps out a relentless stream of good news stories; the local press has been bullied into silence; and in the council chamber, Cllr Ivor Jackson is on hand to ensure that no awkward questions are asked.

The results of that are becoming plain for all to see, and last night's report on Taro 9 about the abuse of a woman with severe learning disabilities neatly encapsulated what has gone wrong with this council. It refused to collaborate with the BBC, attacked the decision to make the programme and called the police to keep tabs on the BBC crew and Mrs Delyth Jenkins. Officers who were involved with the abuse are still employed by the council, and have in some cases been promoted. Mrs Jenkins, who bravely stood up to try to stop the abuse, found that when she took her concerns to the top, she was met with anger and resentment and told by the chief executive, Mark James CBE, to "back off". Unsurprisingly, when the matter was finally taken up and an ombudsman's report condemned the council, councillors appear to have been kept in the dark.

Turnout in council elections is never high, but these elections really matter. Let's give Meryl, Madge, James & Co the kick up the arse they so richly deserve.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Taro Naw - y Cyngor Sir a'r Whistleblower - Diweddariad

Hanes erchyll sy'n amlinellu sut methodd Cyngor Sir Caerfyrddin ag ymateb i gwynion am gamdriniaeth o berson gydag anabledd dysgu a'i driniaeth o'r 'whistleblower' Delyth Jenkins.

Darlledir y rhaglen ar S4C nos Fawrth, y 20fed o Fawrth, am 9 y.h.

Yn y cyfamser, trown ni at dudalennau Newyddion Sir Gâr, sef Prafda'r Cyngor Sir, lle gall dyn ddarllen stori o dan y penawd "Canmol y Cyngor am ofalu am oedolion".

Er syndod i neb sy'n gyfarwydd â'r Cyngor Sir, gwthododd wneud cyfweliad gan ychwanegu ei bod yn siomedig i'r BBC godi'r hanes unwaith rhagor. 

#daftlibel - Is the Welsh Government about to act?

A very interesting piece appeared in the Western Mail on 15 March. For those who missed it, here is a scanned copy, with apologies for the poor quality. A slightly clearer view can be obtained by clicking on the image.

The background to this piece is questions raised by Rhodri Glyn Thomas, the Plaid Cymru Assembly Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr. Copies of the correspondence between Rhodri Glyn and the Minister for Local Government, Carl Sargeant, can be found on Caebrwyn's blog here.

The two letters and the Western Mail pieced together advance our understanding of the very shaky nature of the legal basis for the Council's action against blogger Jacqui Thompson.

  • The Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) Order 2006 allows for indemnities to be given by councils to defend actions for libel against councillors and officers, but it explicitly rules out public funding for offensive actions.
  • The Council, in response to Rhodri Glyn's questions, defended its actions saying that the action it was bringing against Jacqui for alleged libel of the chief executive was somehow not an offensive action, but a counter-claim.
  • Carl Sargeant's reply makes it clear that the Welsh Government sees no distinction between an offensive action and a counter-claim. It is unlikely that this will be enough to deter the Council and its chief executive from pursuing the claim, however.
  • For its part, the Council seeks to justify this use of public money by hiding behind the legal advice it has been given, presumably by the very expensive London law firm it has engaged to act. It will come as no surprise that, having been presented with a blank cheque drawn on taxpayer funds, the lawyers have been able to justify what will be an extremely expensive court case. As Mandy Rice-Davies would have said, "they would say that, wouldn't they?"
It has also been clear for some time that the Council, unable to rely on the powers granted by the Welsh Assembly to local authorities, would fall back on Section 111 of the 1972 Local Government Act. Here is what Section 111 actually says:

Without prejudice to any powers exercisable apart from this section but subject to the 
provisions of this Act and any other enactment passed before or after this Act, a local 
authority shall have power to do anything (whether or not involving the expenditure, 
borrowing or lending of money or the acquisition or disposal of any property or rights)
which is calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the discharge of any of 
their functions.

This was what underpinned the R Comninos v. Bedford Borough Council case from 2003 and what Carmarthenshire is betting the shop on. A more detailed explanation of the legal background can be found on a previous post, here.

There were several features in that case which the judge pointed out were one-offs, and he added that any but the most litigious of councils should be deterred from granting indemnities to pursue defamation cases in the future. That neatly sums up where Carmarthenshire County Council has put itself.
Undeterred, and putting two fingers up to the Welsh Assembly, it is determined to soldier on.

The case, from the Council's point of view, seems now to rest entirely on Section 111 of the 1972 act. While that gives councils very considerable powers to go about performing their duties and responsibilities, it will be interesting to see what the courts make of the Council's argument that comments and criticism of the council and its chief executive made in a blog have somehow prevented the Council from going about its legitimate business.

The unnamed spokesperson for the Welsh Government told the Western Mail that if the government finds that its guidance and rules on indemnities have been "systematically circumvented", it will consider stopping the abuse. Whether it will do so in the James v. Thompson case remains to be seen, but the Welsh Government seems to be slowly hardening its position. The comments certainly will not have pleased the ruling junta in Carmarthen.

As for the junta itself, the article ends with a classic piece of Carmarthenshire County Council arrogance and contempt. You will notice that the council's spokesperson could not actually bring themselves to name Rhodri Glyn Thomas, who is just "the AM", as they set about rubbishing him and defending the decision by the council's Executive Board.

What many members of the public will not realise is that this decision to give Mr James a blank cheque was taken by a handful of people in the name of the Council under its much amended and unbalanced constitution which gives them sweeping powers without any need to put the matter to elected councillors, who have had no say at all in this.

This case raises all sorts of issues, including the way Carmarthenshire County Council is being run, the use of public money and, not least, the threat it poses to press freedom and freedom of speech. In the famous case between The Sunday Times and Derbyshire, it was said that publicly funded libel actions would have a "chilling effect" on freedom of expression.

This is not just about Jacqui's right to criticise the council on her blog. If the case goes against her, the floodgates will open, and next in the firing line will be the remnants of the local press who dare to question and criticise local government. That is one of the reasons why Rhodri Glyn has been so active in this case, the other being the issue of justice for a constituent.

As for the chilling effect, it will be interesting to see whether readers of the Carmarthen Journal will be informed about what the council is doing. Or will we get more drivel about Meryl, Madge & Co. next week as the paper wraps itself in the warm comfort blanket of conformity?

A final small strange footnote. Back in January of this year, the Western Mail reported on the delight Mr James's father felt when he heard that his son had been awarded a CBE. Nothing very surprising in that, although Mr James Senior's delight was not shared by everybody. The same piece gives us some biographical information, including a claim that Mr James is a non-executive member of the Welsh Assembly's Board of Directors.

Not many people will be aware of this board, which is made up of 7 senior civil servants and three external non-executive directors. The non-executive directors are usually people with experience of local government at a senior level, or academics.

But Mr James is not a member of that august body, which begs the question, where did the Western Mail unearth this obscure non-fact?

Thursday, 15 March 2012

No news is good news

Did anyone else spot a connection between the following two "news" items in the pages of this week's Carmarthen Journal?

1. Council Leader Meryl Gravell told the paper that she was "disappointed" that Dyfed Powys Police had raised the police precept by 5%. This shock horror revelation is then padded out with a few more paragraphs of waffle.

Here's the background to the story, and the bits the Journal left out.

Back in January the Chief Constable of Dyfed Powys Police, Ian Arundale, went along to a meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council and told councillors that his police service faced a very bleak future of cuts and more cuts. He was therefore going to have to ask for a 5% rise in the police precept.

Several councillors questioned Mr Arundale, and it was obvious that quite a few of them were a little sceptical of some of the claims being made. In response to one question, it turned out that Mr Arundale did not know what proportion of the force's revenue was generated by the precept, or even how much the precept raised.

All through this fairly lengthy debate, council leader Meryl Gravell sat silent.

With an election looming, Meryl is keen to get press coverage and for us to know that she cares, she really does. But not enough to do anything about it.

2. Also in the same edition of the Journal we have a happy smiling picture of deputy leader, Kevin Madge, who excitedly tells us that he believes the latest Estyn inspection of the council's schools will give the county top marks. Chief executive Mark James joins in the political jockeying as well to tell us that he believes the report, not published yet, will see that the county's schools score well in every category.

But the report has not been published yet. And while there are some very good schools and examples of good teaching, the reality is that the county is still churning out too many children with very poor literacy and numeracy skills, and children who emerge from school with 11 or more years of Welsh but are unable to speak the language. Presumably Estyn did not spot that, but then we will have to wait for the report to see.

Of course, the county council elections are looming, and so Meryl, Madge and all the others are keen to get their mugshots in the paper as often as possible, especially when there is good news to report. In the case of these two "stories", there is actually no news at all to report.

Both were manufactured spin, and sadly the Carmarthen Journal seized on both. Considering what the current regime in County Hall has done to the local press in recent years, this is a pathetic sight. It seems that all pretence of editorial independence, questioning and objective reporting has been abandoned, as the newspaper morphs into a weekly version of Carmarthenshire News. A case of Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Beacon - cut 'n' paste PR

Readers of Caebrwyn's blog will have spotted a picture of beloved council leader Meryl Gravell standing dangerously close to a liposuction machine on a recent visit to The Beacon, or as it was known until recently, Technium, in Llanelli.

Technium was built by the Welsh Government in 2001 as a centre to attract new and early stage science and technology companies. Sadly, the idea failed to take off, and late last year Carmarthenshire County Council did a deal to take over the lease.

Obviously because this was an arrangement between two arms of government using taxpayers' money, the terms of the deal had to be kept secret, and a public interest exemption was slapped on it by the county's Executive Board.

Just 7 months after taking over, Carmarthenshire County Council announced in an ecstatic press release that the centre was being re-launched as "The Beacon" and that it was now full to capacity. Labour's Edwina Hart, known affectionately as Redwina Hartski on Twitter, came down in the ministerial limo for the event.

A few days later, the Carmarthen Journal carried its own take on the story here. You may need a microscope to spot the differences between the two versions, but the paper's correspondent was proud enough of his work to tweet about it.

Both versions quote Meryl as saying, "We have managed to fill The Beacon to capacity." That would suggest that the centre is completely full, so prepare to be surprised when you look at The Beacon's website, here.

(Tip to journalist: the Council's press release contains a link).

Half of the ground floor is taken up by The Beacon's own administration. The other half is occupied by the high-tech liposuction firm.

Queue music from "Are You Being Served".

On the first floor, 5 of the 7 units are occupied by a couple of consultancy companies, a couple of IT companies and Coleg Sir Gâr, that well-known high-tech start-up. Two of the units are described as available.

On the Top Floor another software company occupies 4 of the 6 units. Two units are advertised as available.

Out of the centre's 19 units, 3 are admin for the centre itself, and one other is Coleg Sir Gâr. Four more units are empty. So that leaves 11 units occupied by actual businesses, or just under 60%.

Of course, we don't know what inducements have been given to the companies to move in, but it is good to see these kinds of businesses in Llanelli.

But a vacancy rate of just over 20% does not make "full to capacity". While the council press office is all too prone to what could be called spin (if we are being charitable), the Carmarthen Journal should hang its head in shame for sloppy journalism like this.

Another letter the Carmarthen Journal did not have space for

Dear Editor

There is no need for any taxpayers' money to be wasted by indemnifying the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council for legal costs involved in defending the libel suit which is being brought against him.

The appropriate course of action would be for Mr James to make a public apology to Mrs Thompson which, being a reasonable person, I am sure she would accept as sufficient to end the matter.
Yours, etc.

A letter from Mrs Williams

Here is Mrs Williams' reply to the Chief Executive.

7 March 2012

Dear Editor

I have no intention of prolonging a pointless argument by correcting the blatant inaccuracies in Mr Mark James’s letter last week but may I just thank the very many people who have taken the trouble to telephone, write or stop me in the street to express their appreciation and support over the last few weeks.

Having seen for myself the manner in which councillors who do not toe the line or do as they are told are treated in the council chamber, I have decided that I am far too old to be spoken to like a recalcitrant schoolchild and would like to state here that I will therefore most definitely not be accepting Mr James’s invitation to stand for the council at the May elections.

I want to be able to continue freely to voice my opinions which seem to accord with very many other Carmarthen residents (however much that annoys the powers-that-be) and which is more than most councillors appear able to do.

Yours faithfully

(Mrs) Lesley Williams

Diversionary tactics - a letter to the Editor

Here is one of the letters to the editor of the Carmarthen Journal which did not make it in to the paper this week.
Dear Editor

Chief Executive Mark James was certainly right about one thing when he predicted in his letter (Setting the record straight, 7 March 2012) that his intervention would spark more correspondence.

Let us remember that this all began when Lesley Williams wrote to object to the use of public money to pay for a libel action being brought by Mr James against blogger Jacqui Thompson. That was followed by an attack from Cllr Clive Scourfield in which he sought to deflect attention from the case by bringing up the history of the St. Catherine's Walk development, and now Mr James has used allegations about the St. Catherine's Walk development to make another personal attack on Mrs Williams.

The point Mrs Williams was making remains valid. The council's ruling Executive Board has given a blank cheque to Mr James to allow him to pursue a libel case. Cases of this kind often cost hundreds of thousands of pounds or even in excess of a million pounds. At the same time, the council run by Cllr Meryl Gravell and Mr James is making cuts to all kinds of services, including for example, £30,000 off the cost of providing respite holidays for disabled children.

It is also the case that Carmarthenshire has ignored guidance given by the Welsh Government not to use public funds in this way.

At a meeting of the full council this week one councillor tried to raise the issue, but was prevented from speaking by the Chair. No debate or discussion by councillors of this very questionable use of public money has been allowed, and it is clear from the letters written by both Cllr Scourfield and Mr James that they do not wish to see the subject aired in the pages of your newspaper either.

Yours etc.

More (unpublished) letters to the editor

For the dwindling band of readers of local newspapers, the letters pages are one of the main draws. There are the regular letter writers - some barking mad; some pompous (readers of the Carmarthen Journal will be all too familiar with the oeuvre of Sir Eric Howells CBE); some bigoted; some so badly written that they are magically mysterious; and a few that glisten like pearls in the pig trough.

Never a week passes without at least one, and usually several, letters banging on about wind turbines. We get toe curling poems and thank you letters from stranded motorists or little old ladies who were helped by good Samaritans in their hour of need. Then there are letters from councillors, some of which present such a distorted view of the world that they are almost an art form. So it was that we had Cllr Stephen James, a prominent Independent who also happens to be a Conservative Party activist, claiming that the Independents are not a political group at all, just like-minded individuals. A vote last year to prevent closure of care homes in Llanelli proved this, he said, neglecting to mention that he and almost all of his fellow Independents had voted in favour of closure.

About a month ago Mrs Lesley Williams wrote in to the Journal to protest against the indemnity given to chief executive Mark James to pursue his libel action against blogger Jacqui Thompson. The following week, a letter appeared from Cllr Clive Scourfield, a senior Independent, attacking Mrs Williams and questioning her role in a campaign a few years back to force changes in the council's plans for the St Catherine's Walk shopping centre in Carmarthen.

Cllr Scourfield's letter accused Mrs Williams of leading a campaign which had cost the council £2 million. Needless to say, he did not give any evidence for this, and his letter had the presumably desired effect of diverting questioning of the council's decision to give Mr James an indemnity to a debate about the ins and outs of the St Catherine's Walk saga, while seeking to undermine Mrs Williams' credibility.

Letters then poured in to the Journal defending Mrs Williams and her role in the controversy over St Catherine's Walk.

Next we had a letter from chief executive Mark James himself under the heading "Setting the Record Straight". No mention of the indemnity, of course, but another attack on Mrs Williams. She had cost the council £2 million because of delays to the project, he claimed, adding that it was well-known that she "had a problem with the council". Again, no evidence of how this figure of £2 million was arrived at.

Unsurprisingly, Mrs Williams (who is a prominent member of Carmarthen's Civic Society) wrote to the editor once more to correct what she says are inaccuracies in Mr James's letter, and others wrote in the same vein. Another reader wrote a letter pointing out that readers should not forget that the whole debate had been sparked by the council's decision to give Mr James a blank cheque to fight a libel case, and that Messrs Scourfield and James had been using diversionary tactics to ensure that there was no discussion of the indemnity.

At this point the editor of the newspaper ruled that she would not be taking any more letters on the subject, and that she wished to draw a line under the matter, thereby leaving the last word with Mr James and his attack on the integrity of Mrs Williams.

Of course, editors have to take decisions all the time about what to put in and what to leave out of their papers, but in the case of the Carmarthen Journal there are good reasons for suspecting that some decisions about what goes into the paper are taken elsewhere.

As this blog reminded readers recently, back in 2009 the council flexed its muscles and warned the local press about "negative" reporting. The warning was coupled with a strong hint that if the press did not change its tune, advertising revenue from the council might be, ahem, affected.

Observant readers of the Carmarthen Journal noticed that not long afterwards there were changes to senior personnel on the editorial staff, and the papers became rather less questioning of what was happening in County Hall. Perhaps it was all a coincidence.

There was a small flicker of a return to the bad old ways of the past about a year ago when the Carmarthen Journal ran a series of reports on the arrest of Jacqui Thompson for filming a council meeting and other controversies in the council chamber. But things went quiet again, and later in 2011 while other newspapers, including Wales on Sunday and Private Eye were reporting on Towy Community Church and its links with Mercy Ministries, the Carmarthen Journal fell silent. In fact while other newspapers were reporting on the church's exotic friends, the Journal was heavily promoting a toy appeal run by Cllr Pam Palmer under which various evangelical churches, including Towy Community Church, were tasked with distributing toys collected by the police, NHS and other public bodies.

Shortly after that we had the strange case of the campaign against the closure of the county's two museums. Although the closure had been proposed by the council, senior councillors, notably our old friend Pam Palmer, jumped on the bandwagon and wrapped themselves in the flag to claim that they had saved the museums (small print, for the time being). A class of children from a primary school were reported to be very concerned about the proposed closure, even though Pam had already announced a "rescue", and the Carmarthen Journal ran a story with a picture of concerned looking tots. Shortly after that, the Journal followed this shining example of campaigning journalism with another piece, complete with picture, announcing that nice old Councillor Gwynne Wooldridge (one of Pam's colleagues on the Executive Board) had popped down to the school to listen to the children's concerns about the council's budgetary outlook and fiscal planning (let it never be said that education standards in Wales are slipping).

Make of that what you will, but let's return to the Letters Page. Of course newspaper editors have the right to decide which letters go in, and which don't, and they will sometimes call time on a debate in the letters columns. In the case of the Carmarthen Journal, however, no line has been drawn under the endless wind turbine saga, and poems about daffodils and twittering birds are positively encouraged.

This week we have two letters defending the ruling Independent-Labour administration and attacking Plaid Cymru. One of the contributors seems to be getting a letter into the paper every week. There is, of course, another letter about wind turbines, but not a word about the libel indemnity, and Mrs Williams' response to the attack made on her by the chief executive has not been published.

As things stand, the letters pages in a local newspaper are an important public forum; in fact in many ways they are the only forum local people have to express their views and concerns. The decision to close discussion on the row sparked by Mrs Williams' letter, giving the last word to the council's chief executive and leaving us with another attack on her integrity, is nothing short of a disgrace.

For that reason, this blog will do what it can to ensure that there is at least one small platform for public debate on important local issues.

If you have been ignored by the Carmarthen Journal or wish to have a letter published on a matter relating to Carmarthenshire County Council, you can send it to the following e-mail address:

Normal rules will apply. Letters must not be libellous or abusive. You may write in Welsh or English, and you may ask for your name to be withheld. Addresses will not be published. And if the editor of the Carmarthen Journal, the chief executive or any councillors wish to write, they can be assured of a fair hearing too.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Plaid's Manifesto for Carmarthenshire

Plaid Cymru launched its manifesto for the county council elections yesterday. The document can be found here, and it makes for interesting reading.

A sad fact is, of course, that very few voters take the time to read any political manifesto, but this document sets out an agenda which would mean a fresh start for the county and a council with a much more human face than the one we have grown accustomed to.

To begin with, it promises that a Plaid majority would seek to be inclusive and offer the most talented and experienced councillors from all political groups a role in the new administration. Talented is a subjective term, but in the interests of the county and the people served by the council, let's hope that the deep personal divisions which have separated some councillors from the Plaid leadership can be set aside, and while there are obvious attractions to a broad-based administration of this kind, one of the lessons which has to be learned is the need for much more active scrutiny and questioning of council policies and decisions. Too often debate has been stifled and dissent silenced by dubious manipulation of procedures.

Plaid is promising a more transparent council, and it would allow filming and recording of council meetings. It would abolish the disgraceful Carmarthenshire News propaganda sheet. Great.

Although the manifesto does not say so, the deeply ingrained culture of secrecy needs to be challenged head on. There must be far fewer exempt items in future, and council officers should be instructed to make a presumption in favour of publication and openness. All too frequently, the response the public gets when seeking information is that if the council is not legally obliged to publish something, it will not publish. Turn that on its head and publish everything except what the law prohibits.

On education the manifesto would lead to a significant change of emphasis in the Modernising Education Programme, which has been used as a bulldozer to shut schools. Creating a formal mechanism which actively involves parents, staff, governors and local people in such decisions in future is a huge step forward, as is the undertaking to promote Welsh-medium education.

One of the areas in which the current Plaid group can hold its head high is in planning, where it has emphasised the importance of local opinion and wishes. Time and again controversial plans have been railroaded through on the block votes of Labour and Independent councillors who sometimes live as far as it is possible to get in Carmarthenshire from the communities affected. Great therefore to see that Plaid intends to continue with this policy.

The manifesto says that Plaid would seek to prune the council's huge portfolio of properties and capital assets. As we know, many of these have been the pet projects of the Gravell-James regime, and far too many are now a constant drain on the council's resources.

Senior officers will also be sleeping less well when they read the manifesto, and Plaid clearly intends to thin their ranks. It also promises to ensure that all appointments to positions earning more than £50,000 a year have to be approved by elected councillors. As we know, the chief executive has found ways in the past of bringing in proteges to very highly paid senior positions with no democratic scrutiny.

That would mean amending the council's constitution, and let's hope that a Plaid-led administration would take the opportunity to close all of the various loopholes which have been so successfully exploited by the current ruling elite to undermine democracy, stifle opposition and reserve decision making to a small handful of people.

One area of weakness in the manifesto is the lack of a more coherent policy on the language. True, it reaffirms the importance of the Mentrau Iaith, and it makes commitments to increasing Welsh-medium education, but what is needed is a much more radical language plan which would link the council with all of the various bodies which seek to promote and expand the use of Welsh in Carmarthenshire. The current plan is inward-looking, and there are obvious limits to what the council can do on its own. We need to be much more ambitious.

Of course there are huge financial restraints on all councils, and there are myriads of policies and externally imposed rules which limit all councils' freedom of movement, but within those constraints this document is imaginative, and it addresses so many of the concerns and problems people have had with this council directly and honestly.

How good for once to see a political document which does all this and, for the most part, avoids the empty platitudes we are normally fed with.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Police News

After just four years in the job, Ian Arundale has decided to step down as Chief Constable of Dyfed Powys Police.

Mr Arundale comes across as a thoroughly decent man, and his decision to go and the impact yet another departure will have on the morale of the police service are a cause for regret. In common with other police forces, Dyfed Powys is facing a very difficult time as cuts and more cuts are imposed; Mr Arundale also made no secret of his unease with the idea of elected police commissioners. As one of the leading candidates in Dyfed Powys will almost certainly be John Davies, the leader of Pembrokeshire County Council, he was right to feel uncomfortable.

What his relationship was with the powers that be in Carmarthenshire we will probably never know, but Carmarthenshire County Council is almost certainly a very difficult beast to work with. Only a couple of years ago Meryl Gravell was making an abortive bid to take over the police and fire authorities so that she and Mark could run the whole shooting match.

More recently Mr Arundale discovered that he had inherited a nuclear accident in the shape of the Ammanford Police Station PFI, with vast amounts of money pouring out of an already squeezed budget to a local firm of contractors who do a lot of business with the council. While Mr Arundale was wrestling with the PFI bill and hoping to negotiate, or rather beg, for some concessions, the county council showed what it thought by awarding the same group a grant of over £1 million.

As we know, recent history is littered with examples of barking mad and dodgy senior police officers. Let's hope it's not our turn to get one of those.

A couple of days before Mr Arundale announced his decision, the Carmarthen Journal carried a short piece reporting that Dyfed Powys Police are considering launching a newsletter of their own. Presumably that would mark the end of their uncomfortable collaboration with Carmarthenshire News, the council's Pravda. Perhaps it was too expensive for them; perhaps they realised that in most households the rag is used in all sorts of innovative ways, but read only by sad bloggers.

Will Carmarthenshire News survive 2012, or is it about to go down with all hands? Watch this space.

Last Chance To See - March Council Meeting (Part 2)

The meeting next turned its attention to what is called the Carmarthen West Planning Brief, a plan to build a vast new housing development on the outskirts of the town.

First up was Cllr Alan Speake, who reminded the council that this controversial plan had been on the books for many years - since 2002 in fact, although it was not formally adopted as part of the current Unitary Development Plan for the county until 2006.

In the latest round of consultations which ended in February 2011, some 100 responses were received, the majority opposing the scheme. Throughout the long history of the plan, in fact, there has been consistent and strong opposition to it from the public. Those in favour would seem to be developers and some businesses which argue that a larger population would mean more business.

The area covered by the plan is huge, extending to 130 hectares, and planning permission has already been granted for around 200 homes, plus a care home and bungalows for independent living. Within the site boundaries are 15 listed buildings, while the rest is open and beautiful countryside. The Supplementary Planning Guidance is worth a look for anyone who appreciates good photography - lots of beautiful shots of green fields, trees and country lanes - all to be built over.

Under the plan considered by councillors, up to 450 homes could be built up to 2016 when the UDP comes to an end. It would be superseded by the proposed new LDP under which some 1,200 houses could be built on the site.

The head of planning, Eifion Bowen, dismissed concerns about flood risk because of increased run-off, and his only concession to objectors effectively boiled down to phasing of development. He acknowledged that in the current climate it was unlikely that the entire housing allocation would be taken up, although he said that there was considerable interest in the site from developers.

Although Mr Bowen is more than capable of standing his ground, the chief executive Mark James decided to wade in, and gave a lengthy defence of the scheme. Flood risk was in his view not an issue, and he wanted to see development start with the construction of a new link road. Somehow, all of this was necessary to protect the area. By agreeing to the plan councillors would be ensuring, he said, that the council would remain in control of the development, and he raised the spectre of the imposition of high density building imposed by the Welsh Government if the plan was not approved.

He then went on to warn any doubters about the deposit Local Development Plan that failure to stick to the population projections handed down by the Welsh Government would take us down the same path as Wrexham. Any council intending to go against the population projections would have to be very well prepared with evidence, he warned.

Considering how much the council spends on external consultants and specialists, you would think that we could expect a well-prepared and robust case against Cardiff's population projections, but it seems that Carmarthenshire is not going to bother, even though the various deposit LDPs and the Welsh Government's projections do not take account of the census carried out last year (isn't that what censuses are supposed to be for?).

In the end, of course, Mr James got his way, and the plan was approved, even though the people of Carmarthen clearly don't want it. But it is for their own good.

Two of the best contributions came from the People First group, with Cllr Arthur Davies highlighting the concerns of local people, and Cllr Siân Caiach pointing out that what we are likely to get is developers putting in applications that inflate the values of their landbanks without actually building anything.
Eifion Bowen acknowledged that this was a legitimate concern, but it seemed that we would have to wait for the LDP until anything could be done to stop this abuse of the planning system.

To groans from the Independent benches, Cllr Davies also pointed out that the whole history of the Carmarthen West development was an example of how the county council had become officer-led, with councillors simply on hand to rubber stamp and legitimise decisions made by a small group of unelected senior officers.

Anyone doubting that merely has to observe the interaction between the chair and the chief executive during public meetings, where the chair has successfully been trained to respond to a variety of hand signals that include "wind it up" and "stop this".

Cllr Davies had asked for a recorded vote on the planning brief, but this was ignored. In the ensuing vote, the Independent and Labour groups appeared to vote in favour, while Plaid seemed to go three different ways (for, against, abstain). People First, all two of them, voted against.

And so the meeting came to an end, and Carmarthenshire County Council's current administration breathed its dying gasp.

The final meeting encapsulated neatly everything that is wrong with this institution. Any discussion of the chief executive's libel indemnity was quashed, and there has not been a single opportunity for councillors to consider whether this is an appropriate use of public money, thanks to skilful management of procedures. And approval was given to a gigantic development scheme which the people who are represented by the council don't want.

The chair congratulated himself on surviving his first year in the hot seat "unscathed". Let's hope the voters give him a rougher ride as they remember his wriggling, ducking and diving over the future of Ysgol Pantycelyn.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Last chance to see - March council meeting (Part One)

After reading the declaration, giving the council our addresses and signing individual declarations and visitors' slips, four of us were at length escorted up to the public gallery, with one warden in front and another behind.

The council meeting had not yet got underway, and the chief executive was in deep discussion with the council's acting head of law. Perhaps he is planning to sue someone else, who knows?

After the usual rigmarole of the formal procession and prayers (not on the agenda, but a standard feature of all council meetings), we settled down to hear the announcements and apologies. A deputation of councillors had gone to the Welsh Assembly to deliver a petition objecting to proposals to downgrade the Prince Philip Hospital in Llanelli, and along with the usual roll-call of the sick, lame and otherwise engaged, this meant that the chamber was half empty.

Unlike the BBC nature series called "Last Chance to See" which is full of cuddly pandas, tigers and cute, furry mammals, this would have been our last chance to see some of the less cute and cuddly specimens which inhabit County Hall before the elections in May. Sad to report, therefore, that we were deprived of the chance to hear Cllr Stephen James spouting opinions fresh from the Daily Mail, but fortunately several regular old monsters had turned up.

There was a brief flicker to remind us of past meetings when Cllr Siân Caiach rose to query the minutes of a meeting of the Executive Board. The minutes in question contained the decision to give chief executive Mark James a blank cheque to go off and pursue his libel case, and because of the quirky rules which govern council meetings, at least in Carmarthenshire, these had been nodded through without comment in February along with a truck load of other matters, in order to prevent the meeting running out of time and being declared void.

The chair, Ivor Jackson, acted immediately to prevent Cllr Caiach from speaking. Once the minutes had been approved, he growled, they could not be re-opened. End of.

As we shall see, Cllr Caiach went on to score a number of bullseyes later in the meeting, and so this month she is Cneifiwr's official Woman of the Match.

The first items on the agenda, which included setting the council tax for 2012-13, the council's redundancy programme and the pay policy for its chief officers, were dispatched within minutes and with barely a murmur. At least we could take comfort from the knowledge that the chief executive's household, where renumeration has been frozen since 2009, must be really struggling to get by on around £200,000, including salary and perks such as exorbitant fees for acting as chief returning officer. Strange, then, that he has not been spotted wheeling a trolley round Lidl.

Next came a lengthy discussion on alcohol abuse, as councillors considered a proposal to try to curb the number of licensed premises in a part of Llanelli.

There was unanimous agreement throughout the chamber that binge drinking by mainly younger people was a major problem. A large number of speakers blamed variously pricing, the supermarkets, alcopops and the last Labour government which relaxed licensing hours and sought to encourage "continental-style" drinking.

Let's face it, the continental cafe culture was never going to take off in Carmarthenshire, and the thought brought to mind Rhod Gilbert's famous rant about al fresco dining in Cardiff.

Along the way we learned that Cllr Pam Palmer never touches the stuff, while Cllr Clive Scourfield, the soon-to-be ex-executive board member for regeneration showed us that he has not set foot in a town centre for a very long time (that could explain some of the projects he has championed) when he launched into a tirade against off licences, which he said had proliferated everywhere. Most people under the age of 40 would not know what an off licence was, of course.

Unlike most speakers, Cllr Scourfield did not mention the role of supermarkets once as the source of cheap booze, but then of course, Cllr Scourfield is very keen on supermarkets, as we know. Others who have championed supermarket developments in the county over the years saw no problem in blaming Tesco et al.

Cllr Anthony Jones, who runs a club, went on the rampage against alcopops. Remember those? Presumably his club does not attract many young people, because if it did he would know that nowadays the "youngsters" prefer "bombs": combinations of stuff like Redbull and Cointreau which are guaranteed to have anyone climbing the walls in minutes. Mrs Cneifiwr drinks nothing else.

Needless to say, Cllr Kevin Madge had to wade in. Even his fellow Labour councillors seemed to cringe as he rose. Off we went on an amble down memory lane, as Kev donned his flairs for a 1970s night out at Top Rank in Swansea. Recently he had been back with his son and "the gang", and had been shocked by what he saw, before he made a quick diversion to talk about the price of petrol. Fortunately he stopped short of advocating Unleaded as a recipe for a hangover.

For anyone considering a night out in Swansea, the thought of bumping into Kev and the lads might make you think twice.

Remedies proposed by various speakers included raising prices, restricting the sale of alcohol so that it could not be sold in shops which sell clothing and food (the respectable matrons who shop at Marks & Spencers would not be impressed), and education.

A more effective one would be to send out Cllr Pam Palmer on Saturday nights. That should clear the pubs, clubs and drinking dens in no time.

However, it was eventually decided to write a letter to the Welsh Government asking them to act, but not before someone had checked to see whether the Welsh Assembly has the power to do anything.

Next up we had the draft Strategic Equality Plan, the council's very belated response to the Equalities Act 2010. Showing how seriously it takes this sort of thing, the council had delegated responsibility for this policy to Cllr Kevin Madge.

After a bit of mumbling from Kev, Cllr Caiach rose to ask what the council was doing to ensure that women might one day also be able to make it to the top and become senior officers.

Arranged before us on the podium were 11 men and two women. One of those women is the current deputy chair of the council (an elected councillor), while the other is the acting head of law, presumably acting until they can find a man with qualifications to take over.

Lips curled at this outrageous slur on the good name of the council, and Meryl rose to purr that the council took equality very seriously and was very supportive of women.

Looking at the motley collection on the podium, a thought struck Cneifiwr. Whoever is responsible for the senior appointments would seem to have a bit of a fetish for men with bald or shaven heads. Perhaps if more women adopted a Sinead O'Connor look circa 1980 they might stand a chance.

Cllr Caiach then turned to the subject of gyspy and traveller communities, suggesting that schools should do more to educate children about them so that they did not have to rely on the prejudiced opinions of many of their parents.

More lips curled. Cllr Gwynne Wooldridge, executive member for education and children's services, rose to say that he had visited a school where children from the gypsy and traveller communities had been successfully "integrated into a specialist unit".

Another Independent councillor rose to cite the example of a village school with 40 children, 20 of whom were from hippy families, and the hippy children were all doing very well.

Both resented Cllr Caiach's suggestion that Carmarthenshire was not doing enough, and both missed the point she had been making.

Next on the agenda was Fairtrade. This was dealt with in a nanosecond. Proposed? Seconded? Yes. Questions? Next!

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Peter Black and powers of general competence

Readers of the blog written by Peter Black, Liberal Democrat AM for South Wales West, may have spotted that Cneifiwr has been involved in a mild spat with him over his pontifications on the subject of local government.

It all kicked off when Peter Black launched an attack on the Welsh Government for deciding not to adopt Eric Pickles' plans for local government in England, and in particular for not giving Welsh councils a general power of competence, which essentially means giving councils the power to do whatever they like within the bounds of the law.

Along the way Black gave as an example Eric Pickles' recent decision to include in his localism bill a clause giving councils in England the right to hold prayers as part of their formal proceedings if they so wish, and the focus of the debate then switched to the emotive but rather unimportant subject of the role of religion in council meetings.

In Black's article, which you can read here, he criticises the Welsh Government and in particular Carl Sargeant, the Local Government Minister, for what he sees as excessive meddling by Cardiff in the way Welsh councils are run and for tying them up in unnecessary red tape. He may well be right about some of this, although he does not get round to citing any specific examples apart from the government's intervention in the affairs of Anglesey, the biggest basket case among Welsh councils.

Anglesey was an example of local democracy which had gone spectacularly wrong, with constant in-fighting and bickering between councillors effectively bringing the council to a grinding halt. A good many of those councillors were returned unopposed at elections, and one of the concerns expressed by the commissioners put in place by Carl Sargeant was the prevailing political culture on the island and the lack of democratic choice available to voters.

As with the issue of prayers, singling out Anglesey was perhaps not the smartest thing for Peter Black to do in support of an argument for less central government interference.

Cneifiwr pointed out that under the 1972 Local Government Act, councils already have pretty sweeping powers to do whatever they like under Section 111 of that Act. Carmarthenshire County Council, for example, appears to be relying on those powers to justify the unlimited indemnity it has given its chief executive to fund libel proceedings against blogger Jacqui Thompson, even though the Welsh Government says it has given Welsh councils clear guidance that they should not act in this way.

The problem with Peter Black's proposals, unclear as they are, is that giving councils greater powers in order, he says, to "empower local communities" would be much more likely to remove constraints on the tiny elites and overmighty unelected chief executives who run quite a few Welsh councils. Far from empowering communities and voters, the risk is that we would see even more secrecy, cronyism and dictatorial behaviour from some of these self-perpetuating elites.

There are certainly strong arguments to be made in favour of targeting specific new powers to councils in areas such as planning, the environment, education and social care. The Welsh Government's handling of the Local Development Plans in places such as Wrexham is a good case in point. But even then you need checks and balances, because the very nature of local government is that it is always going to be open to abuse, corruption and cronyism.

By coincidence, the day on which Cneifiwr and Peter Black were slugging it out saw a meeting of the Standards Committee of Barnet Borough Council in London to consider charges of breach of conduct against Tory council leader Brian Coleman. Coleman had made some particularly offensive and nasty comments in e-mails he sent to several residents about an issue involving a waste management company. You can read about the background on Mrs Angry's excellent blog here.

In the end, Coleman was found to have breached the code, and as punishment he was ordered to write letters of apology to two people. As the verdict was delivered, he showed his contempt for the process by reading messages on his phone. His solicitor argued unsuccessfully that the sanctions should have been applied under the terms of the new Pickles Localism bill because then he would not even have had to go to the bother of writing an apology.

If that is the kind of empowerment which Black thinks we should have in Wales, dim diolch.

In his response to Cneifiwr's comments, Black says that he is advocating radical change in local government and the way councils are elected. The main evidence for this claim would seem to come from an article he wrote back in 2010 (here). This was, of course, written before the LibDems joined the Tories in coalition, since when he has concentrated his fire on attacking Labour and Plaid Cymru.

To be fair, the article does make some concrete proposals for local government reform in Wales, although whether these ideas still reflect wider LibDem thinking is not clear.

In Carmarthenshire, which is not fertile ground for the LibDems, the sole LibDem councillor has been happily propping up the ruling closet Tory Independent group and loyally voting for Mery Gravell. You cannot see the join because there isn't one.

And so, it seems, is the case with Peter Black, as he advocates importing Eric Pickles and his plans to Wales, "liberating" Anglesey this year so that it can slip back into its old bad habits, and gives his blessing to making prayers part of council business.

We certainly need local government reform and a reduction in the number of councils, but copying England is not what Wales needs.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

An alternative vision for Carmarthenshire

Alun Lenny, the often outspoken Carmarthen town councillor who will be standing for election to the County Council in May, wrote an interesting letter to the Carmarthen Journal this week in which he gave us a glimpse of what may be in the Plaid manifesto for the elections.

No doubt, the finishing touches to the manifesto are being made now, and the document will be an interesting one because this county sorely needs a radical change of direction.

Mr Lenny begins by attacking the culture of bullying and arrogance which has become such a hallmark of the administration led by the "dream team", as Labour's Kevin Madge describes them, of Meryl Gravell and chief executive Mark James, and he goes on to say that, if returned with a majority, Plaid would "create a new democratic structure" to include the most talented and experienced councillors from all groups in the administration.

Back in March 2009 the Plaid group on the council brought a motion proposing a change to what was called a "politically balanced board", only to see the idea rubbished by the council's officers and voted down by the ruling Independent-Labour coalition.

With thanks to Anon (comments below), it is clear that Plaid's options under the Local Government Measure 2011 are very limited when it comes to changing the structure of the council. Under that measure, Welsh local authorities may choose between either:
  •  A leader and cabinet executive (the current system in Carmarthenshire)
  • A mayor and cabinet executive (the system preferred by some of the county boroughs)
What this means is that Plaid would have to continue with the existing arrangements, although it could of course invite some non-Plaid councillors to join it on the Executive Board.

Whether this would appeal to members of the Independent and Labour groups, only time may tell, and the response of the Independents to such an offer would be particularly interesting because, of course, they claim not to be a political party, just a collection of "like-minded" individuals. In reality, the group functions like any other political party except that unlike political parties membership is by invitation only.

Although the idea has its attractions, the danger is that we could end up with a council in which opposition is limited to a tiny handful of true independents, and debate and scrutiny are stifled.

We will have to wait and see what the manifesto says, and this blog will examine what is on offer from any other group which publishes a manifesto in the run-up to the elections. Let's just hope that they contain some real substance and not the usual empty platitudes about "standing up for the community" which is the normal fare on offer.