Monday, 30 April 2012

City regions: Quangopolis?

With less than a week to go before the county council elections, the chief executive of Carmarthenshire, Mark James, has given the South Wales Evening Post his views on why Carmarthenshire should become part of a city region embracing Swansea, Port Talbot and Llanelli. The article can be found here, and there can be no doubt that he is very much in favour of it, as he promises both jobs and cash.

It is probably fair to say that most people in Carmarthenshire will not have come across the concept of city regions before, and so it is worth spending a little time exploring what it means.

In the UK, the idea goes back to Tony Blair's initiative to set up regional assemblies in England. This initiative fell at the first hurdle in 2004 when voters in the North East of England rejected the Government's proposals in a referendum, with attention then shifting to the creation of large regional city "hubs" to promote a framework for transport, planning, skills training and economic development which cut across local authority boundaries.

The Blair Government went on to create a legal framework to make this kind of collaboration possible, and in 2009 it was announced that Greater Manchester and Leeds would be the first city regions to be given the new powers. The Tory-LibDem coalition which took power in 2010 overturned the idea, although it did allow the creation of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in 2011. Responsibility for economic development and regional planning was handed to Local Enterprise Partnerships.

In Wales, however, the Government is looking at the matter again, and Edwina Hart, Minister for Business, Enterprise and Technology, launched a consultation back in March (here).

The consultation was not exactly well publicised, and it does not appear on the Welsh Government's official list of public consultations, but it has nevertheless attracted responses from bodies such as the WLGA, the quango which represents Welsh councils, and various academics. Whatever else this exercise is, it is hard to see it as in any way rooted in local democracy.

"So what?" might be the reaction of many people in Carmarthenshire. It all sounds a little remote and technical, but there are determined efforts to breathe life into the concept of a Swansea Bay City Region, as we can see from another South Wales Evening Post article here.

The article names no fewer than 5 Labour MPs who are all in favour, but none from any other party. Only one of them, Nia Griffiths, actually represents a Carmarthenshire constituency, but the scope of their ambition is clear from comments made by Dr Hywel Francis, Labour MP for Aberavon, who thinks that "Swansea Bay City" would cut across 6 separate local authorities, including "Dyfed", which older readers may remember included Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion as well as Carmarthenshire.

Certainly, there is a debate to be had here, and there may well be merits in the arguments put forward by the Swansea Bay City lobby, but so far discussion seems to be restricted to Labour MPs (why no AMs?), and a minibus load of unelected academics and council chief executives. How many of the academics appointed to Edwina's consultative panel have links with the Labour Party is another pertinent question.

Most people would probably agree that Welsh local government is in need of serious reform and that we have far too many local authorities. The current Labour Government in Cardiff made it clear from the outset that it would not be embarking on a root and branch reform, but would instead encourage cross-border partnerships in education, waste management and social care. The City Region idea shows all the signs of being another exercise in tinkering at the margins and transferring more local government functions to quangos.

There is an alternative vision to this eastward-looking view of South West Wales, and that was set out by Adam Price in his programme to mark the 50th anniversary of Saunders Lewis's famous broadcast on the fate of the Welsh language.

Adam advocated new local government structures for the whole of West Wales, from Carmarthenshire in the south to Gwynedd in the north. He pointed out that these parts of Wales have more than attachment to the Welsh language in common, and certainly there are swathes of Carmarthenshire which have much stronger economic, cultural and geographical ties with Ceredigion and North Pembrokeshire than ever they do with Port Talbot or Swansea.

But back to the local government elections. Despite being a Labour Party project, the idea of city regions does not make it into Labour's manifesto for Carmarthenshire, and it is not mentioned in Plaid's manifesto either. Since the Independents don't bother with a manifesto, there is no point asking what their view is.

The chief executive's intervention is also remarkable, bearing in mind that just two weeks ago he told the BBC that he could not comment on a report about the Towy Community Church because of the elections. After all, the City Region idea would have much more profound and lasting consequences for the county.

Whatever the results of the council elections this week, there will be no mandate for anyone to pursue the Swansea Bay City idea, but no doubt the academics, the quangos and the chief executives will continue to push it.

What we have, then, is two radically different views of where we belong, and it is relevant to see the county's proposed Local Development Plan, with its allocations of huge housing developments, as part of the Swansea Bay City vision. If we go down this path, Carmarthenshire would turn east and become a kind of development zone wrapped around the older urban and industrial centres.

Both the Local Development Plan and the City Region concept go to the heart of how we see ourselves and what kind of future we want for our communities.

Let's not leave it to the academics, chief executives and quangos to decide.

Friday, 27 April 2012

School Bus and other Education cuts in Carmarthenshire

Observers of the February meeting of the County Council meeting in Carmarthen will remember that the authority passed budget plans for the next three years after what was some extremely cynical media manipulation.

At the end of 2011 the council published its budget proposals, and there were howls of protest at some of the cuts outlined. Those included inflation busting increases for school meals, charges for blue badge holders, a halving of support for Mentrau Iaith and the closure of the county's two museums.

If anyone wanted to create a smoke screen to push through much more serious cuts, they could not have picked four areas of spending more likely to generate headlines and noise. In the case of the school meals increase, reversing the proposal was only going to cost £34,000, so this was a particularly cost-effective piece of PR, as it would enable Meryl & Co. to claim that they had the well-being of families at heart, etc.

Blue badge holders, in the main elderly drivers, were clearly upset, and people who care about the Welsh language were up in arms about the halving of support for the Mentrau Iaith.

All of a sudden in January, after a put-up media campaign in which the Carmarthen Journal ran pictures of concerned-looking members of the Executive Board hearing pleas from young children to save the museums, the council's press office announced that these changes would not be going ahead, small-print: for the time being. There would be no increase in school meals, there would be no charges for blue badge holders, plans to close the museums had been deferred, and the Mentrau Iaith cuts were being "re-profiled" to come in over three years.

While all this was going on, a host of other shockers were waved through without comment and without so much as a squeak from the local press.

Here are just a few taken from a document setting out details of "managerial" and "policy" spending cutbacks as they affect school children. What follows are the main items listed under "policy" spending reductions.

  • Post 16 school transport - the council will abolish free school travel for children aged 16+ from 1 September 2013. If you live in a rural area, as many of us do, expect to have to find a hefty amount of money to pay for the school bus once your child has turned 16. This will obviously affect many children in their GCSE year, as well as Sixth Formers.
  •  As from 1 April 2013 the council will remove fare paying bus services for children who live within the statutory walking distance to school.
  •  There will be a "progressive reduction" over three years in After School clubs, Play Wales and early years education.
  • The council will reduce its spend on Education Welfare Officers, meaning that more responsibility will be placed on individual schools to deal with problems like truancy.
  • There will be a reduction in the service to families with blind and deaf children (weigh this spiteful £15,000 cut against the millions the council throws at its pet projects).
  • There will be a reduction in child psychologist support.
  • The schools music scheme is being scrapped.
  • There will be a massive cut in the Athrawon Bro scheme of Welsh-medium teaching support.
  • Although the council allocated an extra £34,000 to school meals in 2012/13 to avoid an increase in charges, it plans to cut £150,000 from the service over the following two years.
  • £300,000 is due to come off special education in 2014/15.
 There are many more cuts, particularly affecting children with special needs.

Some of these cuts have come in this year, and the rest will follow over the next 2 years.

Reversing at least some of the cuts is not impossible, but Meryl Gravell and Kevin Madge have made sure that there will be precious little left in the kitty after all of their PR stunts and pet white elephants have been paid for.

A very good example of what these cuts will mean for rural areas is highlighted in Pat Racher's blog here.
Pat is standing as Plaid candidate in Llandovery, where local parents will no doubt be surprised that their existing Independent councillors forgot to tell parents about the school bus time bomb. 

Election round-up: the gloves are off (Part 2)

If Labour's choice of candidate in Hengoed ward in Llanelli is mystifying, it is doubly so over in Glanaman, where disgraced entrepreneur and Twitter twit Shahid Hussain is Labour's official candidate. Despite hitting the headlines for a string of abusive messages about women, older people, gays and other groups the Labour Party would normally claim to champion, Shahid now has the support of Labour leader Kevin Madge, who is upset (see story here) that Shahid's conduct is being criticised by Plaid.

Kev thinks that Shahid's apology should have been enough, and he has said in previous interviews that Labour will be putting resources into the Glanaman campaign to try to win the seat for its man. The fact that nobody in their right minds would consider Mr Hussain a fit and proper person to take public office is not important in Kev's eyes, it seems.

Kev is also upset by criticism of council leader Meryl Gravell, saying, "she’s the longest-serving council leader in the country so she must be doing something right." Presumably he made the same argument about Margaret Thatcher when her reign was coming to an end.

If anyone had any doubts about Kev's willingness to buckle down to another 5 years of coalition with Queen Meryl and her closet Tories, doubt no more.

Meanwhile, in Ammanford itself, a bitter row has broken out between Labour and Plaid (details here). There Labour's Hugh Evans, who is stepping down from the council, has claimed that he has been targeted by Plaid with rumours about his health and his retirement plans.

Only those directly involved will know whether or not this is true, but for the rest of us, you have to wonder what possible advantage Plaid might gain from an attack on a man retiring from local government politics.

In the search for a motive, Miss Marple would almost certainly be taking a very close look at the Labour camp, which seems to have decided that playing the victim might get it the sympathy vote.

All very naughty.

The South Wales Guardian also features a little contribution from the chief executive who has been forced to explain why his visionary overhaul of working practices has meant that many people across the county are finding that their rubbish is no longer being collected.

In a piece on the council's website, he explains that this has all been caused by getting rid of archaic working practices, such as actually emptying bins, and signs off as "Mark James CBE", a reminder to everyone that he is a Very Important Person.

He assures readers that the council will use "all means at its disposal" to ensure continuity of the service they are paying for. Anyone want to lend him a yellow jacket?

Election round-up: the gloves are off (Part 1)

A couple of weeks ago, the BBC's Dragon's Eye programme looked at the bizarre way in which a small group of evangelical Christians in Carmarthen have been given massive financial support by the County Council to build a bowling alley and what will effectively be a new church. Nobody from the council could be found to explain the decision, and the chief executive declined to comment, claiming that it would be wrong for him to do so in the run-up to the council elections.

Although there are many issues in the election campaign, it is fair to say that the Towy Community Church's project is not one of them.

With a week to go before the elections, the chief executive has however weighed in to give his views on the controversial Stradey Park housing development, which is very much an election issue. There campaigners have been fighting a long campaign to halt the proposed development of 355 executive homes, which they argue will increase the risk of flooding for existing residents.They also say that the plans do not include any affordable houses.

Campaigners have now lost their latest bid to secure a judicial review in the Court of Appeal, and the council's press office has sprung into action to record the chief executive's joy, as he blasts opponents of the scheme:

This has been an unnecessary waste of time and money, and we shall be seeking to recover our costs on behalf of the council taxpayers of Carmarthenshire. It has also meant a delay in the payments agreed with Taylor Wimpey to the County Council.
We hope that Taylor Wimpey will now get on site as soon as possible to build much needed new homes, including affordable homes, for the people of Llanelli.
This is yet another unfortunate example of a small group of people in Llanelli trying to stop any development taking place; this includes the new school for Furnace and the development of derelict land such as the Grillo site.
This is costing Llanelli much needed construction jobs and investment at a time when it is sorely needed. It is also denying the children of Ysgol Ffwrnes the opportunity to have first class facilities in which to learn.

Bearing in mind that the Furnace school project is also politically contentious, this casts his reluctance to speak about the Towy Community Church project in a very odd light.

Staying in Llanelli for a moment, Cneifiwr has seen a copy of a letter written on behalf of Labour's Cllr Keri Thomas. Cllr Thomas has been seriously ill for the past year, and has been unable to attend any council meetings. That has not prevented him from seeking re-election, however.

A concerned resident wrote to Cllr Thomas to ask him where he stands on the Stradey Park development.

Back came a reply dated 19 April 2012 on council paper saying that he would give any new planning application for the site due consideration, but he could not comment since no new application had yet gone in (this refers to the campaigners' contention that Taylor Wimpey will need to submit a new planning application because the old one has now lapsed).

Strangely, the letter was signed on his behalf with a "pp" signature, Cllr Thomas apparently not being well enough to write his own name.


Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Spending priorities - Chiefs and Indians (updated)

Times are tough in local government and going to get tougher, so with an election now just over a week away, this is a good time to look at some of Carmarthenshire County Council's spending priorities, as set out in the recent budget.

Last year Dennis Warwick, who is standing for the People First group in Trimsaran against Meryl Gravell, produced this leaflet looking at the cost of the council's senior officers. Dennis was previously employed by the council in child care and, he produced the leaflet for Unison.

He estimated that 28 of the council's most senior officers were together costing the council £4.1m a year, and although the council complained about the leaflet, it did not contradict the claims. If anything, some of the figures look a little on the low side, with the chief executive weighing in at "just" £230,000 (basic salary currently £168,000).

Calculating on-costs is notoriously difficult, but to his basic salary we need to add pension and NI contributions, expenses and perks as well as the hefty fees (with associated pension entitlements) received in his capacity as chief returning officer. Not to mention the massive legal bills incurred in his various libel entanglements - costs which will dwarf everything else.

As Caebrwyn has pointed out (here), there was an explosion in both the number of senior and middle managers in the council in the years following the appointment of Mark James as chief executive in 2002, and in the salaries paid to them. For example, the number of officers earning more than £50,000 a year rose from 4 in 2002 to 49 just five years later. Inflation during that period was low, it should be recalled.

Criticism of officers' pay is one of the things guaranteed to make council leader Meryl Gravell very cross indeed. A year ago she lashed out, saying:

I am getting pretty fed up of hearing about how we pay our chief executives too much.
They are worth every penny that we pay them because if we did not have that quality, Carmarthenshire would not be where it is today.

So, where are we today, Meryl? Well, the budget passed in February makes gloomy reading for just about everyone in Carmarthenshire, with redundancies and cuts pretty much across the board. Except for those at the top, of course. We are most definitely not all in this together.

The chief executive has given the impression that the authority's higher earners will feel the pain of efficiency savings, but a glance at the budget tells a different story.

The council is organised into 6 departments, with the list headed by the chief executive's own. Its responsibilities include "setting the strategic direction of the council", communications and HR. There are lots of other things which most of us would probably not miss a great deal, including "modern records; business efficiency and effectiveness; business planning; organisational consultancy; community planning (different from the putting-up-an-extension kind of planning); internal communications; the press office; information points; corporate strategy and policy; corporate marketing and publications; and corporate consultation".

The department also includes legal matters, which range from libel cases to land searches, and the "Statutory Service" which covers things like registrars of births, deaths and marriages and land registry.

Staff costs in this department are forecast to fall from a fraction under £11m in 2011/12 to £10.4m by 2014/15. This reduction comes from shedding 8 jobs which together produce an annual saving of £213,000. The largest single saving comes form one HR post, which yields a saving of £35,000.

This pattern is repeated across all of the other departments, with all of the jobs being "deleted" coming in the range £15,000 up to £35,000.

In other words, the ratio of Chiefs to Indians is set to rise.

A glance at some other areas of spending also tells us what the priorities are. £440,000 will be cut from the Learning Disability and mental Health Division by "reprovisioning" the service. If you thought that "to provision" something meant putting in supplies and resources, the Carmarthenshire dictionary definition means the opposite.

£487,000 will be saved by removing free school transport from children aged 16+.

£518,000 will come off road resurfacing.

The list goes on and on, and there can be hardly anyone in the county who will not be affected.

But there are some holy cows. "Direct communications", which almost certainly includes that much-loved publication Carmarthenshire News, will see its budget provision rise from £653,000 in 2011/12 to £751,000 in 2014/15. "Business support and consultancy and development" suffer only a very slight dent in their £600,000 a year, while the "Compliments and Complaints" team will see its budget rise from £160,000 to £200,000. Presumably they are expecting lots more compliments.

The appendix which contains all these numbers can be found here, and it neatly categorises everything as "statutory" (i.e. services which the council must provide by law), non-statutory or both. All the communications activities are non-statutory, as are the compliments and consultancy operations.

The Welsh language, on the other hand, is a statutory requirement, and here the budget is set to fall from £254,000 to £204,000, mainly by cutting support to the Mentrau Iaith.

But at least we'll still have our bilingual Carmarthenshire News to look forward to.


By coincidence the South Wales Evening Post published a story on this topic at the same time (here). The article puts a figure of just under £190,000 on Mr James, still the highest in the region, and that excludes fees earned as returning officer.

A spokesman for the county claimed that it had reduced the bill for senior and middle management by more than £1 million over the last two years. It would be interesting to see how that figure is arrived at. Certainly the budget for the next three years does not involve any cuts in numbers of highly paid managers.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Labour in Carmarthenshire - will it be the Sun wot won it?

Ian ap Harri asks on Twitter, "is this the second Welsh election in a row where Labour will get away with running an irrelevant Westminster campaign, without media challenge?"

His question neatly sums up the campaign being fought by Labour in Carmarthenshire at least.

Some of the more ancient readers of this blog will remember a time when  BBC journalists with clipped accents and enormous microphones would doff their trilbies and respectfully ask the Prime Minister of the day, "Do you have a message for the nation, Sir?"

The rot set in with Robin Day who would ask all sorts of impertinent questions and try to get answers, but
for those of you who hanker after a gentler, more deferential form of intercourse between politicians and journalists, welcome to the journalistic Jurassic Park which is Carmarthenshire.

The County Council is notorious for the importance it attaches to PR and spin, and its press office churns out a relentless stream of good news stories and propaganda. On occasion this machine is used to attack and denigrate political opponents and critics of the ruling powers-that-be. Why Carmarthenshire needs a PR machine that would be the envy of some countries is a question that has never been satisfactorily answered.

All the more reason, therefore, to have a lively and inquisitive local press, but what we get instead is the following "interview" (here) with Kevin Madge, deputy leader of the Council and Labour's leading light in Carmarthenshire.

"We're well ahead of the Tories", he boasts as he pontificates on the local government elections, referring to an opnion poll commissioned by Murdoch's Sun. The Welsh contribution to that poll, if it was proportionate to the UK electorate, would be about 5%, and while it may give an insight into thinking in Manchester or Tyneside, it is hardly a barometer of public opinion in Wales, let alone Carmarthenshire.

There are, of course, no Tory councillors in Carmarthenshire now, and it is highly unlikely that there will be any more after the election results. This would only be newsworthy if Madge and his troops were running behind the Tories.

Kev wants to send a message to the coalition in Westminster, forgetting that for the last eight years he has been playing Nick Clegg to Meryl's Cameron. And the coalition in Westminster will not be in the slightest bit bothered with what happens in Wales, leave alone Carmarthenshire. Their attention will be fixed on the shires and cities of England.

The Journal could have asked him about that, or the very long list of meaningless bullet points which make up most of Labour's election manifesto here. It could have asked him about his record in supporting cuts to public services, closing schools or even about his role in the Delyth Jenkins case, when he was responsible for social care on the Executive Board.

Instead it opted for doffing its trilby.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Election report: Hotting up in Hengoed

Time to rev up the election bus and head off for Hengoed, stomping ground of People First's Cllr Siân Caiach, who has probably joined Caebrwyn and Cneifiwr on the Evangelical Alliance's List of the Damned following her appearance last night on Dragon's Eye. Best take a crash helmet, though, because there's a right old dust-up going on down there.

In Hengoed the Rural Council candidate slate has caused a big stir. There are 4 seats and 10 candidates: 4 Labour, 3 People First, 2 Plaid and one independent. The Labour slate contains only one local person, George Edwards, and two ladies from Dafen who are unknown to the locals.

The fourth candidate is inexplicably Cllr Keri Thomas. Despite being unable to attend a county council meeting for the last year because of serious illness, Keri Thomas is standing again. He was an active and enthusiastic vice chair of planning at County Hall. Together with his Labour colleague Terry Davies, known as the Keri and Terry Team, he would propose or second any planning application approved by the officers at the drop of a hat and, on at least one occasion, misinterpreting a pause in the officer's delivery of the recommendations, proposed the motion to pass an application half way through the opening remarks.

In any ward except Hengoed he would probably be a safe "paper candidate" as he would not be recognised as the same Cllr Keri Thomas who proposed the motion to develop the Stradey Park site, ignored pleas from the residents of Sandy Rd., Denham Avenue and the Iscoed council estate to modify the plans when the developers' own hydrology report showed that raising the 335 new executive homes out of the flood plain on an enormous artificial plateau several metres high would not only give the toffs a great "Gower View" over the existing homes, but significantly increase the risk of flooding which the aforementioned areas are already prone to.

Cllr Keri Thomas, who could certainly advise his fellow Labour councillor Anthony Jones on alcopops, is the man who on the last application proposed passing the plans "because we need affordable housing". When reminded that there was no affordable housing on this site, he paused, (possibly for thought, on the lines of "note to self, must start actually reading the papers before the meeting one day") and with slight irritation, repeated his proposal without the qualification. On a previous "site visit" he was amongst a group of councillors who drove through the site without getting off the bus. He has also supported the £40m plus subsidy to the Scarlets in grants and loans, as well as the new stadium and a free 150 year lease, etc.

This has gone down like a lead brick amongst the locals who heroically prevented the development for six years through various legal challenges. They will now oppose the new planning permission, the old one having expired.

In the convoluted world of Hengoed politics, independent candidates are spreading the rumour that Labour have deliberately put up Keri Thomas again as part of a "deal" with People First, discrediting their own string of candidates in Hengoed in order to give "People First" an advantage.This is no more true than claims that Kevin Madge once won a public speaking competition.

A doctor writes to say that under the circumstances, the Labour veteran's absence from canvassing may be a blessing in disguise, since being given a taste of local opinion would definitely not help his recuperation.

Towy Community Church - a study in local government failure

Last night's Dragon's Eye put the spotlight on Towy Community Church and its involvement with Carmarthenshire County Council. For anyone who missed it, the programme can be viewed here.

Caebrwyn began raising questions about this project two years ago; this blog has taken several critical looks at it over the last year, and so we can both feel some satisfaction that at last people are sitting up and taking notice.

The programme itself added little to what the two blogs have been saying for so long, but within the 15 minutes allotted to the item, it did a good job of summarising the story so far. The main thrust of the criticism from the various speakers who took part, was that this use of public money is difficult to justify at a time when other services are being cut. That criticism is certainly valid, but the affair raises much wider questions about how local government is operating, the influence of powerful lobbies and the weakness of institutions which are supposed to act to protect the interests of the public.

The Towy Community Church affair is not an isolated incident in Carmarthenshire, but rather a symptom of local government failure, and few of those involved emerge from this story with any credit.

Both Caebrwyn and the author of this blog submitted information to the Wales Audit Office in relation to the planned bowling alley, etc. some months ago, and apart from acknowledgements and a standard reply saying they would look into the matter, nothing has happened to date. In the light of what was said on last night's programme, the WAO now needs to sit up and take this unfolding scandal seriously, because whatever happens, it is crystal clear that the County Council has already committed significant amounts of public money which can never be recovered.

Here are some of the questions which need to be answered for starters:
  • What exactly were the circumstances surrounding the council's purchase of the St Ivel creamery in Johnstown? There are two conflicting versions from the chief executive of the council and the church itself. Did the council use public money to buy the building for the church, or did it purchase the site, as the chief executive has previously claimed, for another interested party which subsequently pulled out of discussions? Only one of these versions can be true, and either way we are looking at a scandalous misuse of public money.
  • If the council purchased the building on the strength of negotiations with another interested party, why was the site bought apparently without a binding contractual commitment from that unnamed party?
  • The cost to the taxpayer of the purchase of the creamery site is now almost certainly in excess of £1 million (purchase price plus fees plus business rates and security/maintenance). What has the council spent on the site to date?
  • From the footage shown in the programme last night, the site looked derelict, and yet according to Towy Community Church and the council, a significant amount of work has been carried out on the exterior and interior of the building by church volunteers. In December last year, the council stated that the value of that work was £119,000; a month before that the chief executive claimed the figure was £200,000. An independent assessment needs to be carried out.
  • The church's own financial contribution to the project is also shrouded in some mystery. In May 2011 it was said to be £17,000; in December that figure had leaped to £388,000. For a church with 150 members, that is impressive. Again, an independent audit is needed.
  • What involvement have the Evangelical Alliance and Gweini, its offspring organisation specialising in local government, had in this project, both with the county council, the Welsh Government and the Big Lottery Fund?
  • Are there any conflicts of interest among senior councillors and officers of the council in the form of membership either of Towy Community Church or other bodies with links to it?
  • The WAO also needs to establish whether the council has followed all of the required legal and regulatory processes. There are certainly question marks over the use of EU rural development funds to help finance the bowling alley, and it is also clear that the council did not meet the requirements of the 2010 Equalities Act which stipulates that equalities impact assessments need to be carried out in such projects.
  • When councillors approved the latest funding package in December 2011, much was made of the church's claims that the project involved a furniture recycling centre, a foodbank and a debt counselling service. What has never been clear is whether any of these services is already operating, when they were launched and how many people have been helped. And is help provided without strings attached, or do they involve commitments by those seeking help to the church? Is prayer an element in the debt counselling service, for example?
From the very beginning, there have been serious inconsistencies in public statements made by the church and the council; anyone who has looked at the figures and the scope of the project would have heard alarm bells ringing.

One of the most important roles of our elected representatives is to question and where necessary challenge the actions of the executive and senior officers. In this, they have failed spectacularly. One councillor told me that when the project came up for review in closed sessions, the chief executive had been a forceful and eloquent advocate of the scheme. Any concerns had been brushed aside.

At the only meeting to be held in public, when the public interest exemption was lifted in December 2011, Cllr Siân Caiach was the only elected representative to question the wisdom of proceeding with the project, although it was clear that a couple of Plaid councillors had their own reservations. Almost all of those who spoke supported the proposal, which was approved by an overwhelming majority despite evidence which should have caused them to pause. The meeting also followed a very negative press report in Wales on Sunday exposing links between the church and Mercy Ministries. This was ignored.

Both Siân Caiach and the Unison representative, Mark Evans, expressed concerns about the outsourcing of parts of the council's social care services to evangelical organisations, both in terms of ethical considerations and the impact on jobs. From comments made by council leader, Meryl Gravell, and others, it is clear that outsourcing to the voluntary sector is on their agenda, although councillors have never discussed whether this should be council policy.

The Wales Audit Office has also repeatedly failed to perform its role in ensuring that councils such as Carmarthenshire are discharging their duties in accordance with the public interest. One other current test of that is to ask whether they are actively monitoring the escalating costs involved in the chief executive's libel actions; it would seem not.

When invited to take part in the programme, Carl Sargeant, the Local Government Minister in Cardiff, once again retreated behind the walls of his Trappist monastery. In fact, as we saw, nobody from the council or the Welsh Government was willing to say anything at all about the Towy church project.

The public has also once again been let down by the local press which has failed to report on the more controversial aspects of the affair or carry out any investigative reporting of its own. While readers of Wales on Sunday were told about Mercy Ministries, readers of the Carmarthen Journal were left in blissful ignorance of what had been happening on their doorsteps. In fact, the paper was a key supporter of the Christmas toy box scheme run by the council in collaboration with Towy Community Church and similar organisations.

Earlier this week Jonathan Edwards, the Plaid MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr wrote a powerful piece for the Morning Star (here) highlighting the extent to which cronyism, quangos and clientism have damaged civil society in Wales at a national level. What he said applies in large part to local government as well.

The Conservative AM, Angela Burns, also drew a parallel with the AWEMA scandal.

If the Council and Towy Community Church want to put their case and deal with the criticism, both will need to open up their books and discover the merits of transparency and warts-and-all honesty. In the case of Carmarthenshire County Council, at least, nobody should hold their breath.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Soch, soch! It's councillor expenses time

One of the aspects of language which keeps Cneifiwr amused is how different languages perceive the noises made by animals. Take the humble pig, for example. English pigs go 'oink, oink' in their refined, rather effete way. Swedish pigs, on the other hand, say 'nuff, nuff', and German pigs say 'Grunz, Grunz'.

Welsh pigs, of course, are much more realistic and say 'soch, soch', a sound which English pigs, incidentally, find very hard to make. The other fascinating thing about Welsh pigs is that, in common with things like bees, children, mice and most types of tree, the language reasonably expects that if you come across one, there are sure to be more lurking nearby, and so the base form 'moch' means pigs, whereas if you want to specify one pig, you have to add something on to the end and say 'mochyn'.

Before anyone says this is rude to the English, it is important to understand that pigs traditionally get a pretty good write-up in Wales. There are villages with pigs in their names, and the people of Angelsey are sometimes known as "moch Môn", or Angelsey pigs, although not always kindly.

But it's time to confess that in true gutter-blog style, the title of this piece is rather misleading because, on the whole, Carmarthenshire's councillors don't have their snouts in the trough; in fact some of them are probably too abstemious for their own good. As always, there appear to be a few exceptions, however.

Let's start with allowances. The basic allowance for a county councillor is currently £13,868. When the allowance was increased a couple of years ago, some councillors decided to forgo the increase, and so whereas quite a lot trouser the full amount, others don't. Here, as in other respects, People First leader Siân Caiach is very thrifty, and takes just £13,029, the lowest of any councillor.

Swimming against the tide of public opinion, Cneifiwr thinks that allowances need to be rather more generous if we want councils to be representative, with more people of working age and more men and women with school age children. Perhaps one way of doing that would be to pay much lower allowances to people entitled to a pension and rather more generous allowances to younger people to compensate for loss of earnings. But that's not going to happen, is it?

Next we have so-called "special responsibility allowances". This is where the water starts to become a little murkier. At the top end, the council leader is paid a handsome £35,462 on top of her basic allowance. Her deputy, Labour's Kevin Madge, gets £18,600 on top of his basic allowance. Other executive board members receive allowances which vary slightly from £17,300 up to £18,600.

The patronage system really starts to kick in when we get to chairs of committees, for whom the going rate is £9,700. A glance at some of the committee chairs in Carmarthenshire shows that whatever it was that landed them the extra allowance, it certainly wasn't merit.

Perhaps this is all about to change, but members of the public who have sat through a few committee meetings over the last few years will have seen several elderly and befuddled Independent councillors struggling to get to grips with procedures and the on and off switch on their microphones, sometimes with hilarious results, and sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Next come travel expenses. Of course some councillors have to travel quite long distances (30 miles one way is about the maximum), and others are almost within walking distance of County Hall. Some have large, rural wards, and others have geographically compact urban wards. Not unnaturally, expenses claimed vary from nothing (e.g. Plaid leader Peter Hughes Griffiths, People First's Arthur Davies and Plaid's Mari Davies) to the top three who are streets ahead of the rest of the pack at more than £2,000 per annum.

It is worth noting that travel expenses cover only formal council meetings and those described as "approved duties". They do not cover informal meetings between councillors and the public in their communities. For the first 10,000 miles, the rate claimed is 40p per mile.

Gold, silver and bronze in the tax year 2011 went to Kevin Madge (Labour) £2,488; Tom Theophilus (Independent) £2,366; and Gwynne Wooldridge (Independent) £2,363. The runners up are all quite some way behind in the range £1,000-£1,700. These include the oldest Independent councillor, Dai Thomas, who last year clocked up £1,575 in travel expenses from his home in Penybont, about 13 miles from Carmarthen.

Perhaps they drive Chieftain tanks.

Finally, there is a subsistence allowance. Many do not claim on this at all, but leading the pack by miles once again we have Cllrs Dai Thomas and Tom Theophilus at £349 and £207 respectively.

In this regard it is also worth mentioning veteran Independent Wyn Evans whose last contested election was apparently when Ronald Reagan was in the Whitehouse. Several of his fellow Executive Board members do not claim travel or subsistence, but Wyn does. But then with just £32,000 a year to survive on as well as a pension, he probably needs the extra cash.

You can check out your councillor's allowances and expense claims here.

Soch, soch!

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Sunday round-up - election fever and a randy ram

Here at the modest shack which Cneifiwr likes to call home, only one election leaflet has so far made its way past old Zip, the sheepdog, and Ianto, the sexually voracious ram who humps anything that moves. This was from a town councillor asking for Cneifiwr's vote to enable him to be re-elected.

Fortunately for the old monster concerned, Cneifiwr was not at home, and Zip and Ianto were otherwise engaged, or he would have reminded this candidate that he was never elected by anyone, but co-opted by pals of a local businessman involved in a controversial planning application. Cneifiwr would also have pointed to this candidate's very poor record of attendance at council meetings, so poor that he only just avoided disqualification a couple of years back.

Perhaps this is why not many aspiring politicians beat a path to Cneifiwr's door. Or perhaps things are unusually quiet in this neck of the woods.

Elsewhere it seems voters are angry with Meryl, with canvassers reporting that candidates known to support her are having a rough time. It also seems that the poison is rubbing off on Kevin Madge's Labour troops who are facing awkward questions about what Labour has been up to for the last eight years.

Meanwhile Old Grumpy (see his latest musings here) has pointed out the strange coincidence that wherever the Tories have a strong presence on a Welsh council, you have hardly any independents, and vice versa. The only exception to this rule is Conwy, for some reason. Here in Carmarthenshire there are currently no councillors who describe themselves as Conservatives, but 27 Meryl Independents of whom David Cameron would be very proud.

Over in Llandovery, Plaid candidate Pat Racher has started recording her election experiences in a nicely written blog, which you can read here.

The campaign in Llandovery is a gentle affair compared with the sparks flying in Cilycwm ward next door. Here we have a three-way fight between veteran Tom Theophilus, blogger Jacqui Thompson and a Tory would-be squire who spends his time hunting the wastes of northern Carmarthenshire when he is not being a barrister in London.

The Tory candidate is Master of the Emlyn Beagles, whose website describes this part of the world as follows:

the Country is principally mountain and moorland, with some more cultivated areas around Newcastle Emlyn and Cilycwm.

Tom Theophilus, now not far off his 80th birthday, has been a councillor for over 30 years. His election material makes no mention of the fate of Ysgol Pantycelyn in Llandovery, an issue which many local people will be worried about, but instead concentrates on attacking Jacqui Thompson and her husband for complaining about his role in a local planning application back in 2009.

Tom, who is chair of the powerful Licensing Committee, has also got into a spot of bother with Plaid Cymru for claiming that he has the support of Plaid. He does not, but that did not prevent him from making it up.

Cneifiwr has been taking another look at travel expenses claimed by county councillors, and will treat you to a more detailed run through next week. Suffice to say that Tom Theophilus and two others consistently claim significantly more than anyone else. His travel expense claims for the last three years average £2,350 per year compared with a grand total of £60 over three years for Cllr Siân Caiach from Llanelli.

Finally, back to Llangynnwr where Elwyn Williams has a good chance of taking the seat for Plaid. His Independent opponent is David Watson. Mr Watson works for Swansea council and lived in London before moving to Wales. A Cockney Jack, perhaps! Anyone interested in following the election there can subscribe to Papur y Plwyf (The Parish Paper), which is available in Welsh and English to anyone who e-mails

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Tom Theophilus and the Independents

As this blog suggested a few days ago, Mr Tom Theophilus, Independent councillor for Cilycwm ward, has been running an extraordinarily negative campaign. Now it turns out that he has also been claiming to have the support of Plaid Cymru in his fight to retain his seat on the council (see Caebrwyn's blog here for more details).

These claims have come as news to Plaid, a source has told Y Cneifiwr, and a statement is expected later.

The problem for voters in getting to the truth extends far beyond the confines of Cilycwm ward, however.

Cllr Pam Palmer, who along with Council Leader Meryl Gravell leads the "offiicial" Independent group which has been running the council with Labour since 2004, told the Carmarthen Journal last week (here) that, "we have never had so many Independents standing".

What is true about that statement is that a large number of people are standing as independent candidates, although a good many of them are standing against Mrs Palmer and her colleagues and would never join her group. Jacqui Thompson in Cilycwm ward is just one example. How many of the "independents" support Mrs Palmer and her group is quite another matter.

We don't know, and she won't tell us.

Officially the Independent group is not a political party, and it does not stand for election as a group. It does not publish a manifesto, so voters cannot know what their plans are for the next five years. It does not even tell us which candidates are part of the "official" Independent group.

However, it seems pretty obvious from Mrs Palmer's remarks that she knows which candidates are "in" and which are not,

"We have our eye on every seat that we fight and we will do our best to put up candidates and get them elected."

The "we" bit gives the game away. "We" know who is on our side, but we are not going to tell you, the voters, who they are, and we are not going to tell you what we will do if we are elected.

Unless you know your local independent candidate personally and can trust them, voting for an independent if you are unhappy with the way the county council has been run is a bit like Russian roulette.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Welsh blamed for town's economic problems

As regular readers will know, this blog occasionally strays across the border into Ceredigion where a bitter dispute has been simmering for months now over plans to turn the primary school in Cardigan, Ysgol Gynradd Aberteifi, into a Welsh medium school.

This week, the story made it to the front page of the Tivyside Advertiser (here).

Under the plan the school would become Welsh medium only by 2019 in order to enable children now in the English stream to complete their schooling through English.

The Tivyside story paints a picture of hardline Welsh-language activists driving through a change which will undermine the town's economic competitiveness.

The facts, on the other hand, are simple, and a little local knowledge helps to cast a rather different light on the affair.

The local authority notes that there has been a very significant drop in the number of children in the English stream in recent years, and currently there are just 2 pupils out of 30 in the Year One English stream.

The school and the local authority argue that it would be better to put the resources it is having to devote to maintaining the small English stream to use for the benefit of the school as a whole.

There has been vocal opposition to this from some parents, and now the Chamber of Commerce has weighed in, led by its chairman Paul Oakley. Mr Oakley runs a small business a couple of miles outside the town selling and repairing outboard engines for small boats. He is not originally from the area, and does not have children of school age.

The Chamber of Commerce has had problems of its own, with a split among the membership just over a year (story here). The Christmas lights fiasco referred to was straight out of an episode of Dad's Army. Mr Oakley's Chamber of Commerce raised a large amount of money from local businesses to buy new Christmas lights for the town. Unfortunately when volunteers started to try to put them up, it was discovered that the new lights were too heavy for the brackets on buildings in the High Street, and Cardigan's High Street had no Christmas lights at all in 2010.

That, and other rumblings of discontent, led to a split in the membership.

So Mr Oakley speaks on behalf of only a part of this market town's businesses.

Cardigan has a long-term problem with unemployment. The town is geographically remote with poor transport links. It does not have any significant industry, and there are no large employers outside the public sector. In recent years a lot of effort and investment have gone into restoring and renovating the town centre, which is now very attractive.

Currently the Cadwgan trust is finalising plans to restore the historic castle, and during the summer months the town is very busy with the tourist trade. All the signs are that tourism will steadily grow in importance.

While that has been going on, the town has also seen a large influx in recent years of families from deprived areas of cities in England, and Cardigan now has far more than its fair share of social problems, including drugs.

The result of this has been to expand the pool of unskilled labour and social deprivation in a town which already had serious structural weaknesses. How can that be blamed on the Welsh language?

The other myth which the Tivyside story perpetuates is that children in Welsh-medium schools somehow emerge with a weaker command of English. That is simply not true.

Cneifiwr's youngest son is 9 and is in the Welsh stream at a local school. He is now reading Harry Potter in English, and roughly half of his homework assignments are in English. Compared with the children in the English stream in his school, he is receiving a richer and more varied education.

Earlier this year a meeting was held in Cardigan under the auspices of the county council to review a wide range of activities and projects underway to ensure that the town has a bilingual future. There were presentations from Menter Iaith, Coleg Ceredigion and pupils from the town's secondary school, Ysgol Uwchradd Aberteifi.

Disappointingly, only two non-Welsh speakers showed up, and one of those was a local journalist, even though the council had laid on a translation service. Mr Oakley was nowhere to be seen.

Best of all was the presentation by the sixth formers who gave lively account of their efforts to promote the language in the school. One of their initiatives is a lunchtime club, or Clwb Amser Cinio.

CAC also sums up Mr Oakley's attack.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Tactical voting for town and community councils

Tactical voting is not something the political parties like very much, at least not officially. And that is for understandable reasons, because it usually involves putting a peg on your nose and voting for someone or something you would rather not vote for, all things being equal.

But community council elections are rather different.

For many of us in Carmarthenshire, voting for our local community or town council will be a new experience or something we have not done for a very long time.

If you live somewhere where there are more candidates than there are seats on the council, there will be an election. If not, there is no need to read on.

Here's how it works.

If there are, say, 10 seats on your local council and 12 candidates are standing, you will be presented with a ballot paper with all 12 names on it. You may select up to 10 names.

Here's where the tactical bit comes in.

Under this system, the more voters restrict their choices to, say, three, four or five names, the more likely those candidates are to win. Or to put it another way, not putting a cross next to a candidate gives a double benefit to those you do favour and select.

For a fuller explanation and feedback from a local resident, you can visit the excellent website here.

Appallingly immature but still a candidate

Labour's response to Shahid Hussain's outbursts on Twitter has been to give him a bit of a telling off and hope the whole thing goes away.

Kevin Madge, Labour's leader in Carmarthenshire, weighed in with his tuppence worth in the Carmarthen Journal:

I have pointed out to him that Twitter is dangerous and it's not something I support.

I don't use it and I do not want any of our political candidates to use it — it's only for young people and not a good thing to use for politics.

Phil Grice, Labour secretary in Carmarthenshire, described Hussain's comments as "appallingly immature".

But Shahid Hussain, who is an immature 31, is still the party's official candidate, and Kevin Madge said the party would be putting resources into Glanaman, presumably in order to get Shahid elected as a county councillor.

Let's go back to Kev's comments. Is Twitter dangerous? Well it's a bit like everything else, isn't it? Facebook and e-mail can be dangerous too. So is putting pen to paper if you write something you may live to regret. If you're a real idiot, you could poke your eye out with the pen.

Kevin Madge may not know anything about the social media, but he does like talking. He cannot get through a council meeting without bobbing up and down, usually several times. Sometimes he goes off for a trip down memory lane, reminiscing about going to Top Rank in Swansea and the good old days when people got legless on cider and had a good bop. Or he reminisces about the bad old days, and contrasts them with the new Golden Age of Carmarthenshire ushered in by Meryl and Mark, his "dream team".

The Labour councillors behind him sit stony faced, trying not to show their embarrassment.

When Meryl got into trouble for calling protesters "rabble", Kev came to her rescue. You could tell she  would really rather he hadn't. "Come on, it's the sort of thing we've all done", he said. "I've done it, you've done it, we've all done it." The "it" in question was of course engaging mouth before putting brain into gear.

Yes, we've all done it, but then we are not all deputy leader of Carmarthenshire County Council making decisions about other people's lives. And unlike Kevin Madge, most of us don't do it every time we speak.

See, Kev, speaking can be dangerous too.

Look at Shahid, for instance. When asked if he had deleted his Twitter account, he blurted out, "Following orders, yes." Actually, that bit of probably unintended honesty was to his credit.

What Kevin Madge is telling us is that it is OK to stand for election if you're stupid and hold lots of nasty prejudices. Just as long as you don't tell anyone.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Social care in Carmarthenshire - spin and reality

Back in February of this year Carmarthenshire's county councillors were told of the upbeat assessment of social care in the county made by CSSIW (the Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales) in its annual report for 2010-11.

A small team from CSSIW was on hand to guide councillors through the report, led by a smartly dressed woman who used a great deal of impenetrable jargon such as the need for triangulation of service delivery.

The chief executive, Mark James, and council leader, Meryl Gravell, were clearly delighted. In December 2011 the council chair, Ivor Jackson, brandished a couple of cut glass vases which had been awarded by Carwyn Jones to Meryl and some council officers for their contributions in the field of social care.

Not long after that, the BBC made a programme in its Taro 9 series, broadcast on S4C, which told a rather less happy story about abuse of vulnerable adults in a council-run day centre. The council was furious, and for reasons which remain a mystery, the Carmarthen Journal decided to run a lengthy summary of the CSSIW report (six months after publication) praising the council in the same issue which contained a brief letter from Delyth Jenkins thanking people for their support in the abuse scandal.

One week later and the CSSIW has had to intervene to close down a private care home for the elderly at Ferryside, near Carmarthen. You can read the story here.

It quotes a spokesperson for the CSSIW as saying that the closure was urgent, adding:

This is a very rare action and one not considered lightly given the impact on service users and the livelihood of staff and owners.

No doubt, more details will emerge in due course, but it seems that the home effectively went bust.

Carmarthenshire County Council has been trying to close several of its own homes for the elderly, and the chief executive and council leader made no secret of their anger and frustration when a few Labour and Independent councillors joined with the opposition to vote the plans down. The county council also has a duty to carry out assessments and inspections of privately run homes, such as the one in Ferryside.

Amid all of the significant improvements and progress reported by CSSIW, the agency noted,

CSSIW regulatory inspectors report that assessments in some care home inspections had been found to be out of date and did not reflect the current needs of service users.

Another of the council's responsibilities is to carry out assessments of elderly people when deciding what level of care they need. Here CSSIW noted,

The number of older people waiting for an assessment was not provided.

This point was questioned by a couple of councillors at the meeting in February, and it became apparent that the inspectors had not bothered to chase the council on this point.

More proof if proof was needed that the council's leadership is much more concerned with PR and news management than it is with the day-to-day reality of social care services. And more proof too that there is something seriously wrong with the incestuous, mutual backside covering which goes on between councils and agencies such as CSSIW, the WLGA and the Wales Audit Office.

In praise of community councillors

In the political pecking order community and town councils are as low as you can get, and as with so much else in life, that's where a lot of the hard graft and the dirty jobs get done that nobody else wants to do. They try to keep the place tidy; they run the village halls; they get called out when there's a burst pipe in the community centre; they badger the county council to come and fill in pot holes; they put up Christmas lights; mow grass and sit through lots of boring meetings on miserable winter nights. They are certainly not in it for the money - there isn't any, and they have next to no power.

They get to comment on planning applications, but certainly in Carmarthenshire the county council rarely if ever takes notice of what they think.

Across Carmarthenshire, as elsewhere, there are hundreds of them, and like any other large body of people there are good ones, bad ones and indifferent ones. But we should be thankful that they take on this role.

Looking at the nominations (here) there will be elections in some places that have not seen a contest in years. And the nominations also tell you a bit about the character of the various towns and villages.

As you might expect, the larger towns go in for political representation, with Plaid and Labour the dominant players. There are small pockets of LibDems in Llanelli, and just 5 Tories standing across the county as official Conservative candidates (about a third of the number standing in the county council elections).

There are almost twice as many people standing for People First (9) as there are Tories. Perhaps the barrister/investment banker/would-be squires of the Tory Party are too grand for this sort of thing.

There are no UKIP or BNP candidates, it is pleasing to note. There is a sole Christian standing in order to "proclaim Christ's Lordship" in Ammanford.

In Kidwelly a local group calling itself "Community and Heritage for a Change" is fielding quite a few candidates.

For reasons which are unclear most of those standing in Abernant found it necessary to describe themselves as a "local government elector for the area". Isn't everyone over the age of 18?

The majority of candidates do not give a description, but where they do, it is usually either a political party or an occupation (lots of farmers, a milkman, teachers, a gas driver). Occasionally we get something more interesting.

In Cynwyl Gaio (Farmers), one candidate describes himself as a Red Dragon. In Laugharne another describes himself as "Creator of the Tin Shed Experience". Another one in Laugharne describes himself as "Farmer and Creator of Dylan's Birthday Walk". Presumably that's Dylan Thomas.

In Drefach Felindre, Mrs Jones describes herself as "cyn athrawes, gweithgar a chydwybodol" (a former teacher, hard working and conscientious). In Llansawel Mr Davies describes himself as "dyn onest, gweithgar yn y gymuned" (an honest man working hard in the community).

In Llanwinio Mr Huw James describes himself simply as "Cymro Cymraeg, Ffermwr Lleol" (a Welsh-speaking Welshman and local farmer). Down in Pendine, Mr Allen is simply "a person who cares about Pendine".

There's a sociology PhD thesis in here somewhere.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Carmarthenshire council elections - town and community councils

Before anyone asks, the election bus will not be setting off for a tour of these. We'd be at it for weeks. However, if there are any interesting stories out there, please let me know.

The full list can be found here.

From Cneifiwr's own neck of the woods, we have one new entrant for Newcastle Emlyn Town Council. Kathryn Rich runs an award-winning bed and breakfast at Maes y Derw (highly recommended, as you can see here).

As there are 11 candidates for 10 places, the Town Council will be having its first election in years.

With the straight-talking Kathryn on board, town council meetings should be a little livelier in future. Cneifiwr has also been told that while in the RAF she learned how to kill a man with her little finger.

You have been warned.

Election news - twt, twt Tom

Time to get the bus out again for a quick trip to see what naughty things some of our wannabe councillors are up to.
First stop Kidwelly, where four candidates are battling it out. The sitting councillor is Labour's Keith Davies who has recently been heard saying that "we need to get rid of Meryl". Odd, then, that he voted to keep her in the no-confidence vote back in February.

Next up are Huw Gilasbey for People First and an "independent independent", Ray Day Davies.

Bringing up the rear we have Fran Burke-Lloyd who is understood to have been round to see Aunty Meryl for a chat over the rock cakes on how the "Independent" group are planning their campaign.

This is very strange indeed, because officially the Independent group is not a party, does not stand on a manifesto and does not run a campaign. It's just, in Stephen James's phrase, a "group of like-minded individuals" who come together after election day and suddenly realise that they all agree on everything.
While we head across county to our next destination, we have time to look at Labour's manifesto. This came out very late indeed, but has now landed with a thud on Cneifiwr's desk. Look, here it is. Whoever wrote it is very fond of bullet points.

Plaid has done a really good job (here) of comparing the promises with what Labour has actually done with its Independent chums over the last 8 years. It's a kind of political hokeycokey. First you vote to close luncheon clubs, try to foist public toilets on unwilling community councils, etc., then you promise to do the opposite.

And after we've done the hokeycokey, here's another old-fashioned game to keep you all amused. All you need to do is take a statement from a political leaflet, manifesto, etc. and insert the word "not" to decide whether you are being palmed off with flannel or worse.

Labour's bullet points will keep the family entertained for hours. Here are some taken from their "Key Commitments":

  • Provide our communities with strong leadership
  • Become beacons of best practice in the workforce
  • Ensure best practice in Quality Service Delivery
  • Support the principles of equality across the County
  • Promote the Welsh Language across the County
To which you could add a continuing commitment to ensuring that bears use wooded areas when answering the call of nature, and that only Catholics may become pope.

As you read on, you will see that there is a lot of reviewing planned. A Labour administration would, for example, review the work of the Tourism Review Board. And as anyone who has had to prepare a corporate presentation knows, when you run out of ideas, you start promising to "liaise" with other people.
In the case of elderly people, Labour promises to "liaise widely".

Quite what all that means, is not clear. But at least they will be busy reviewing and liaising.

On town centre regeneration, residents of towns such as Llandovery, Llandeilo and Newcastle Emlyn may be surprised to hear that Labour considers them to be "black spots". That actually sounds more like a threat.

But time to stop all that, because we have now arrived back in Cilycwm, where sprightly Tom Theophilus has been spotted armed with leaflets which talk about Jacqui and Kerry Thompson's fraught relationship with the county council.

At least that means he doesn't have to talk about his own record, and his stand on the issue of local schools (crouching behind a wall may be more appropriate than the word stand here).

Cneifiwr will be awarding brownie points to anyone who can provide more examples like this from Cilycwm or anywhere else across the county.

Monday, 9 April 2012

C4M - bigotry on the march in Carmarthenshire - Updated

You may not have heard of C4M, or the Coalition for Marriage, but it is active here in Carmarthenshire and has been persuading chapel-goers in the Amman Valley to sign a petition calling for the government to abandon its plans to allow gay marriage, and attacking prominent supporters of equality, including our MP Jonathan Edwards.

Supporters of C4M are of course entitled to their views, but their tactics and the message of hatred they are spreading have no place in a civilised society.

It is worth emphasising that the issue here is a very simple one. The government is proposing to give same-sex couples the right to marry in civil ceremonies. There will be no obligation on the churches, chapels or other religious bodies to carry out same-sex marriage ceremonies.

This blog has looked in the past at the bewildering maze of fundamentalist lobby groups which has grown up in recent years. It is usually fairly easy to work out how they are related to each other by looking at their websites, but C4M is rather more secretive.

It is registered as a company, however, and its relationship to other organisations becomes clear when you look at its leading personnel. And there we find our old friends the Evangelical Alliance and CARE (Christian Action, Research and Education), as well as the Christian Medical Fellowship, Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre.

Looking at the C4M website, it is sometimes hard to know whether to laugh or cry. It carries a "news" section with links to newspaper articles attacking the proposals. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of these come from the Daily Mail, Sun and Daily Telegraph.  There is also a blog which reports among other things on the implications of gay marriage for the monarchy and courtesy titles. One Tory MP, it says, is worried

it could allow a lesbian Queen to rule together with a Queen consort, or a gay King with a King consort.

And what will happen if a gay man is knighted? What title would his same-sex partner be entitled to use?

Perhaps the talk in the vestries of Ammanford is about nothing else.

Don Horrocks, head of public affairs for the Evangelical Alliance, has compared same-sex weddings to humans marrying animals. "Soon there will be people wanting to marry their horse or perhaps three or four people all want to get married," he is on record as telling the Guardian.

Cneifiwr lives in a small, rural community where two local businesses are run by lesbian couples. Everybody knows about the relationships, and nobody has batted an eyelid. Both couples have integrated well, and are well-liked. If they chose to marry in a civil ceremony, the likelihood is that very few people would see that in any way as a threat to anyone or anything.

If Rhys and John or Rhian and Jane down the road want to get married, in what way does that harm me or infringe on my rights? The second question is, where's my invite?

Jonathan Edwards said yesterday that C4M is deliberately spreading hysteria and ignorance, and the truth is that many chapel-goers will find it difficult to refuse signing a petition in public in front of their peers.

Meanwhile, the Evangelical Alliance and CARE are pursuing their strategy of building up positions of influence in national and local government. In Wales, the Evangelical Alliance is doing that in part through its offshoot called Gweini. Gweini is busy taking on social service work for councils which are seeking to reduce costs by involving the so-called "third sector". The aim is to develop a network of influence in councils and to put local government in a position of dependency on the evangelical movement.

In Carmarthenshire, this strategy is starting to pay off. As we have seen, huge amounts of taxpayers' money are being channelled into Towy Community Church's projects, and at Christmas the council outsourced the distribution of toy boxes to three evangelical churches.

They are all signed up to Gweini and the Evangelical Alliance.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Carmarthenshire County Council is, probably unwittingly, funding and encouraging religious bigotry and hatred.


Thanks to 'Welsh Agenda' for alerting me to the antidote to C4M - the Coalition for Equal Marriage. You can find their website, resources and a petition here.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Election Tour. Are we nearly there yet? Yes!

Some interesting snippets have been coming in along the way. If you have any (non-libellous) news from the frontline, good or bad, please send them in as comments or e-mail to:

Outside the fleshpots of Llanelli and Ammanford, life in some parts of Carmarthenshire seems to move at a different pace. What's the time in St Clears? About 1906 would seem to be the answer if Selwyn Runnett, Lib Dem candidate, is anything to go by. For those not old enough to remember (there are a few Independent councillors who might), 1906 was the year the Liberals swept to power with a landslide.

Selwyn even has his own website. For those of you who think that Peter Black is wonderful, Selwyn is your man.

Sorry, Selwyn!

Also standing are the current Independent councillor, Philip Hughes (a butcher and Freemason, according to his declaration of interests), and a second Independent called Edmund Davies. Edmund lives at Gothic Villa. Knock on that door, if you dare.

Back in St. Ishmael, Independent councillor Mair Stephens will have her work cut out fending off a challenge from Delme Bowen who is a professor of cell biology AND Lord Mayor of Cardiff. He is in the process of moving to Ferryside where his great-grandmother was a cockle woman.

Meanwhile, over in Swiss Valley, the youngest of the current batch of Independent councillors, Giles Morgan, is uniquely still some way off his 70th birthday. Giles runs a computer company, a concept many of his colleagues on the Independent benches may have trouble getting to grips with.

Also standing are Ifan Rhydwyn for Plaid and Bill Thomas for Labour.

Next stop Trelech. For anyone unfamiliar with the area, Trelech is a small village in the middle of a vast rural area criss-crossed by a labyrinthine network of mainly single-track roads. There are almost no signposts, and the few that there are have almost certainly been turn round by Young Farmers. Forget GPS; this is the Trelech Triangle. It is said that there are still English tourists  in Austin Cambridges and Morris Oxfords who have been trying to find their way out since the 1960s.

Trelech has been represented since anyone can remember by Dai Thomas who seems determined to be the first serving councillor to get a telegram from Buckingham Palace on his birthday. Hoping to knock him off his perch are Mrs Lindsay Runnett (see St. Clears) and Anthony Thomas for Plaid. Anthony is currently also president of Hoelion Wyth, which I once saw translated as "Big Knobs".

Moving swiftly on, we now approach Trimsaran, the abode of Queen Meryl herself. Before we enter the village, I'm afraid all riff-raff and rabble will have to get off the bus, and everyone else should wipe their feet. People First, Labour, the Tories and Plaid are all hoping to unseat her, and Plaid has been especially clever by selecting a candidate called Mark James. Labour's candidate, Ryan Thomas, is taking time off his GCSE revision to campaign.

All of this contesting of elections business is, of course, an utter disgrace and shows a distinct lack of gratitude to our distinguished leader.

Next up we have another confusing contest in Tycroes, where Calum Higgins (Labour) is standing against Rhian Higgins (Plaid). They are not married. Calum sometimes goes on lads nights out with his good mate Shahid Hussain (see Glanaman).

On now to Tyisha, a two member ward. Defending their seats are Roger Price for Plaid and Keri Thomas for Labour. Keri has been on long-term sickness absence since April 2011. Also standing are Jeff Owen for Plaid, David Griffiths for Labour and Anthony Aubrey for the Tories.

And finally! Our last stop is Whitland where a crowded field of runners is aiming to put an end to the reign of Queen Susan Allen (Independent). Here is our fourth LibDem, Huw Llywelyn Jones, while for Plaid we have Diane Evans. Labour's canary is Dr Steve Morris, about whom nothing is known.

The tour grinds on - Lliedi to Saron

In response to overwhelming demand (Rhys), I have been asked to say a few words about Llanddarog. Erm..there must be something. No, it escapes me, but if anyone has any interesting stories, drop me a line.

Rather more lively will be the contest in Lliedi ward (2 members), where 2 Plaid and 2 Labour candidates are slugging it out with an Independent and what was for a long time thought to be the only LibDem in the village. However, three more have come out of hiding for this election.

In common with every other Labour candidate in the Llanelli area, Jan Williams and Bill Thomas are worried about the future of the town's Prince Philip Hospital, you know - the one the Labour Party wants to downgrade. This is a difficult concept, but it's a bit like turkeys joining the Bernard Matthews Party.

Plaid has two interesting candidates in the shape of Tom McPhilips and Tony Urquhart. Tom is probably the only candidate in Wales who has also stood as an SNP candidate in Glasgow, where he came very close to winning the Gorbals from Labour in the 1970s. Respect!

Confusingly, the other Plaid candidate also has a Scottish name, but is 100% local.

Ken Rees, the LibDem, was strongly criticised for deciding to throw his lot in with Meryl's Independents no sooner than he had been elected on the LibDem ticket. A very good explanation of how these things work and why the concept of an Independent group is so dishonest can be found on Old Grumpy's blog here.

Next comes Llwynhendy, yet another 2 member ward. In the 2008 elections Meilyr Hughes for Plaid took one, and Don Davies (Independent) took the other. Don Davies is bowing out this time, while Meilyr is standing again.

Contesting the ward this year are two each for Plaid and Labour, one Independent, one with no description and one for People First.

Theressa Bowen for Labour appears to be a building contractor. Her recent work includes lots of road resurfacing and re-tarring. In addition she says, "I hope to be involved in the new build of 26 bungalows in Y Waun."

Pontaman is unusual in being one of the few wards where we have a straight fight between Plaid and Labour, with Marie Binney defending for Plaid. Marie has recently been the victim of some fairly nasty smear tactics by her opponents. The same is true for Quarter Bach, although the previous Plaid councillor, Helen Wyn, is standing down in favour of Glynog Davies.

Saron is another two member ward, previously shared by John Edwards for Plaid and Peter Cooper for Labour.

John is a real loss, not just to Plaid, but to the council as a whole. From his questions in council meetings, it was clear that he had read the reports and understood them, and for this and his quiet, unassuming manner, he was one of the most respected councillors.

Standing for Plaid this time are Alun Davies and Nigel Evans. Labour is fielding only one candidate (Peter Cooper), with an Independent and a Tory also trying their luck.

But now it's time for a trip back in time as we head for St Clears.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Election special - Llandeilo to Llansteffan


Four candidates are contesting this ward, including Dai Williams for Plaid, Anthony Frost, chairman of the Conservative Constituency Association,  and two Independents. The previous Independent councillor is stepping down.

Whoever wins in Llandeilo will have to tackle the fallout from the recent bitterly contested supermarket planning battle which has just ended in victory for Sainsbury's, the thorny question over the plans for a new secondary school and the problem of poor air quality caused by traffic congestion.

Dai Williams is a former headteacher who also runs a business, and one of Plaid's strongest candidates.

Carmarthen East and Dinefwr Conservative Association has not got round to publishing details of its candidates on-line or gone to the bother of producing a manifesto for the county. Size matters in politics, however, and Mr Frost and his association boast a great deal about, well, not very much. According to the association's website, they have succeeded in turning Carmarthen East and Dinefwr into a marginal constituency (they came a very distant third in both the last general election and the Welsh Assembly election).

In 2010 the association issued a press release after the Cenarth by-election.

'The Conservative candidate nearly caused a sensation by taking the seat' , it screamed.

The result? Plaid Cymru 638, Conservatives 141.

Cneifiwr wishes Mr Frost a similar degree of success in Llandeilo.


This one has to be in the top five of contests to watch, as Ivor Jackson (Independent) seeks to fend of an assault from Plaid's Pat Racher, Gill Wright (an independent independent) and Andrew Morgan.

As noted in a previous post, Pat is would make a very good councillor, with experience which is directly relevant to this rural area.

Andrew Morgan is a Llanelli man who previously contested the Carmarthen East and Dinefwr seat in the 2010 election. Having played his part as an investment banker in wrecking the global economy, he now wishes to turn his attention to Llandovery. What Llandovery has done to deserve this, I don't know.


Another two-member ward, this time being contested by three independents, and one candidate each for Plaid, the Tories and Labour. Once again, the previous Independent councillor is stepping down.

Anthony Jones is hoping to be returned for Labour. He is involved in running the village's Miners Welfare Club, and it was in that capacity that he recently launched a passionate plea for something to be done about alcohol abuse. One of the main culprits, he said, was alcopops.

Older readers may dimly remember alcopops, although nowadays, as Cneifiwr knows, the "youngsters" prefer things like Sambucca and Skittle Bombs.

A check on the club's upcoming gigs shows that there is nothing planned currently, but Showaddywaddy may be available.


The ward was contested by 4 candidates in 2008, with veteran Independent Daff Davies taking it. This time it is a two horse race, with Daff facing stiff competition from Carys Jones. Carys conducts the Llansteffan Male Voice Choir, which reminds me that Con Passionate was set somewhere not a million miles from Llansteffan.

For anyone not familiar with life in this part of the world, this clip shows a fairly average Saturday night (including a useful tip on alternative uses for Bruce, the monster dictionary):

Friday, 6 April 2012

The next leg - from Gorslas to Laugharne


Vaughan Roderick (of TV fame) has noticed that several candidates have registered their nicknames, such as Chris Corgi Jones, Audrey Paper Shop Jones and John Y Gof Wigley. In a slightly different vein, we now arrive in Gorslas where Rupert Henry St. John Barker Moon has thrown his jockstrap into the ring as an Independent.

Rupert was, of course, a rugby star and is now employed as bursar on the Titanic Commercial Director of the Scarlets, a subsidiary of Carmarthenshire County Council plc. When he announced his decision to stand, the Carmarthen Journal carried a piece with quotes from Mr Moon and Clive Scourfield, who is stepping down from his role as Executive Member for Regeneration and Planning and his seat on the County Council.

For reasons which are not entirely clear, Mr Scourfield asked the paper to print a statement the following week to make it clear that he was not endorsing Rupert Moon. Perhaps as a shareholder of Llanelli Scarlets RFC, Mr Scourfield was dissatisfied with the club's commercial performance.

Strong ties remain between rugby officials and the council's top brass, as we saw when the Council intervened in 2009 to buy an MoD site at Llangennech for "persons known to the officers". One of those persons turned out to be Chairman of the WRU, David Pickering.

Ties between the council and the Scarlets are of course even closer, so for the club to have its own councillor would seem like a logical next step. Perhaps the two organisations could merge, so that the annual ritual of having to agree to debt write-offs, equity swaps, grants and new subsidies will become a thing of the past. In that way lots of embarrassing questions could be avoided.

Also standing in this two-member ward are veteran Labour councillor, Terry Davies, two more Independents and Darren Price for Plaid. Darren has previous experience as a councillor in Swansea, where he led the Plaid group, and he works in the finance department of the Hywel Dda Health Board.

Back now to Llanelli where the fur is certain to fly in Hengoed, another 2-member ward.

Eight candidates are slugging it out here, including Siân Caiach and one other for People First. The previous Plaid councillor is stepping down, and Plaid is contesting both seats in the ward as is Labour. In addition there is one Independent and one unlabelled candidate.

Siân Caiach has had a turbulent time as county councillor, to put it mildly. For the last year, both she and fellow People First councillor Arthur Davies were put under "special measures" by the chief executive, who banned them from asking questions of any officer, apart from himself. Several motions tabled by People First were vetoed by the chief executive, before the council's constitution was changed to require a minimum of seven names before any motion could be considered by councillors.

She next came under fire for objecting to proposals for a new primary school on the grounds of size and location. Senior officers, Independent, Labour and Plaid councillors all rounded on her in the council chamber and the press.

Siân Caiach's response to all this was neatly summed up when she described her reception at the infamous "rabble" protest in Llanelli. Ken Rees, the sole LibDem (in reality a part of Meryl's group), painted a picture of a baying, vicious mob.

Siân, on the other hand, told councillors that she had not noticed anything out of the ordinary. "When I arrived, I received a little light booing, but nothing unusual".

Laugharne Township

A straight fight between bookseller and literary show-off, Jane Tremlett, and Labour's Jean Myers, a former teacher, organic farmer and cheesemaker.

Mrs Tremlett likes to adorn her contributions to debate with quotations from Dickens, Shakespeare and other English classics, although somehow I don't think Dickens would have approved of her politics. She is most frequently heard sternly rebuking Siân Caiach from her perch on the far right of the chamber.

Recently residents of Laugharne and the surrounding area have been learning to live with massive explosions coming from the beach at Pendine where Qinetiq has been conducting experiments on explosive devices. So loud and powerful have some of the explosions been, that residents have reported cracked walls, shaking buildings and things falling off shelves. The church was reported to have shaken as though hit by an earthquake.

One or two voices have been raised in support of Qinetiq's activities on the grounds that the company is helping "our boys". Mrs T's reaction to all this is not known.

Next stop: Llandeilo

Council election tour: Carmarthen to Glanaman Updated

All aboard for the next leg of our alphabetical tour of Carmarthenshire. Actually, everybody off again, because it's time to look at Carmarthen itself.


The town is divided into three wards, each with two members, and there will be some real grudge matches here.

To the north, Plaid's Peter Hughes Griffiths and Gareth Jones face two Independents and a Labour candidate. The independents include Mike Elias, best known for his stream of very angry letters to the Carmarthen Journal. Mr Elias does not like the saintly Plaid leader one little bit, but hopes of seeing some of PHG's killer cynghanedd on the subject in the poetry section of the Journal's letters page have so far been dashed.

To the south Labour's Phil Grice is up against Alun Lenny for Plaid. Alun is a former journalist for the BBC, a lay preacher and an outspoken critic of the county council's Local Development Plan, which seeks to turn Carmarthen into a kind of Croydon on the Towy, with lots of big name chain stores and thousands of new houses to accommodate the shoppers. He is also passionate about care for the elderly.

Mr Grice leads guided tours of Carmarthen.

In the west, which is threatened by plans for a vast new housing development needed to boost the town's population now that it has a Debenham's and Franky and Benny's, Arthur Davies for People First and Alan Speake for Plaid are both standing again, and both are likely to be returned. Arthur believes strongly that councillors need to take more control and responsibility for the council, and he has been put on the Naughty Step by the chief executive as a result.


If sparks are likely to fly in Carmarthen, the contest in Cenarth, or as local people call it, Newcastle Emlyn, is a foregone conclusion.

Skipping from the pages of an Enid Blyton adventure story with her trusty labradors bounding along behind comes the figure of Henrietta Hensher, Conservative and Unionist Party candidate. In the 19th century, Ms Hensher would have headed for Africa to teach the natives dinner party etiquette, but her mission now is to plant the Union Jack among the unruly and ungrateful tribes of West Wales.

Hattie, as she is affectionately known to the bemused people of Castellnewy', cannot see an election without wanting to stand, much in the same way that the late George Best could not resist strong drink.

At the 2010 by-election which saw Hazel Evans returned for Plaid, Hattie's enthusiasm for painting this part of Wales blue was matched by her complete lack of knowledge of local issues.

Hazel, who rules the Town Council with a rod of iron, has not yet really got into her stride in County Hall, but watch out when she does.

On our way back from the outer fringes of the county, we pass through Cynwyl Elfed where the old-guard Independent Dorrien Thomas has decided it is time to hand the baton on to someone younger. No such thoughts have troubled the incumbent councillor in our next ward, however.


If Gwynne Wooldridge is defeated in Bynea but Meryl still miraculously clings on, Tom Theophilus would be the obvious choice for Younger Persons Champion in a new administration, as he heads towards his ninth decade.

Tom may face some tricky questions from local people over his ducking and diving on the issue of the council's Modernising Education Programme, which will see the closure of Ysgol Pantycelyn in nearby Llandovery and some local primary schools.

Standing against him are a Tory and the redoubtable Jacqui Thompson, briefly held as a political prisoner on the orders of chief executive Mark James and council chairman Ivor Jackson.

Jacqui probably knows more about Carmarthenshire County Council than just about anyone else, and she would certainly bring her forensic skills and encyclopedic knowledge of council affairs to the job. In addition to campaigning on increased transparency and accountability, her interests include education and social care.

Although Cneifiwr has only met Jacqui on a handful of occasions, he has been struck by her quiet, calm determination, an impression shared by others who have met her for the first time.

Jacqui lives in Llanwrda where she keeps pigs, including a prize boar called Mark (no relation).

Update The Tory candidate is a London barrister who doubles up as master of the Emlyn Beagles. Enough said.


Frequently and unfavourably compared to a chocolate teapot by people who like chocolate is Kevin Madge, deputy leader of the council and Labour's leader in Carmarthenshire. So close is the relationship between Kev's Labour group and Queen Meryl that for the last eight years Labour has almost ceased to exist as a separate entity at county level.

Whenever Kev has spoken, which unfortunately for his party has been far too often, he has churned out endless variations on a speech in praise of Meryl and Mark.

This is a straight fight between Labour and Plaid's Emyr Williams. If Kev loses, he may decide to spend more time on Garnant golf course, one of the more spectacularly unsuccessful white elephants that have become such a speciality of the county council.


Another straight fight, this time between David Jenkins (Plaid) and Labour's Shahid Hussain, whose campaign has run into a spot of bother over his thoughts as expressed on Twitter about women, Tottenham Hotspur fans, older people, rugby and the regrettable necessity of having to go to meetings.

Shahid's future now depends on an internal party investigation.

Next stop: Gorslas.