Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Review of the Year - Part Two: The Ombudsman Calls

Part Two of our depressing round-up in which the council returns to business as usual, and the deckchairs are rearranged.


As the rain continued in what was to become the wettest summer on record, Carmarthenshire County Council under its new dynamic leader, Kevin Madge, showed its determination to get to grips with the challenges of local government by taking a record three month holiday.

For others there was no holiday, including the Ombudsman for Public Services who delivered a report rejecting a whole string of complaints made by the chief executive, Mark James, against Councillor Siân Caiach. Complaints included describing Meryl Gravell as a cash cow, saying she did not believe a word the chief executive said about the funding of a new school and "asking too many questions". See the Western Mail for more.


Fresh back from his holidays, Kevin Madge took delivery of a new Mercedes for his use as council leader. This meant he no longer had to share a limo with the Chair of Council or suffer the humiliation of using the council's official people carrier.

The council published a huge, glossy document entitled "Annual Report 2011-12 and Improvement Plan 2012-13". Among all of the pictures of smiling children and happy pensioners, the council told us that "Carmarthenshire has a stronger and more prosperous economy" thanks to its efforts, while 82% of residents were satisfied or very satisfied with the council.

Dave Gilbert, the Director of Regeneration (total remuneration of £147,000 in 2011-12), was awarded an OBE in the Jubilee Honours List and went off to Windsor Castle..

The council met for the first time since June, and things got off to a negative start with a discussion of the Ombudsman for Public Services' report on the case of Mr M, a disabled man who had battled with the council for years to have a wheelchair ramp installed at his home. Councillors lined up with stories of their own which cast doubt on claims that this sort of thing was all in the past.

The chief executive eventually snapped and wished Mr M and family had been left homeless; as for all those yarns, they were ward matters and should not be raised in a meeting of the full council.

The council's press office published a press release ostensibly written by Kevin Madge accusing MP Jonathan Edwards and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM of deliberately sabotaging two planning applications submitted by Sainsbury's which had been called in by the Welsh Government. Evidence quickly emerged that Kevin Madge's accusations were false.


In the ensuing row over the press release, Plaid councillors submitted a notice of motion for the October council meeting. The chief executive ruled that it was invalid because it was not dated, although according to standing orders, he is supposed to record the date and time each notice is submitted.

At the council meeting Plaid councillors tried to raise the matter as an emergency motion. In the fracas which followed, the Monitoring Officer ruled that this was not valid but seemed unable to pinpoint where the standing orders backed up her argument. The Chair eventually said she had been told to close the meeting.

The Ombudsman was landed with another investigation as a result.

Kevin Madge reported back from a trip that he and a posse of other council worthies had made to Llanelli to mark the building of some old people's bungalows. The knees-up was graced by the presence of Lady Dena Lloyd-Waterford, who has also been known under several other names.

Yet another BBC documentary, this time under the Week In Week Out banner, had Carmarthenshire residents glued horrified to their screens as we heard the truly appalling tale of the council's treatment of Mrs Trisha Breckman and her partner.

The programme led to calls for a public inquiry into the council's planning service, a debate on the report in the council chamber and the long delayed distribution of copies of the report to councillors. None of these things happened.

Carmarthenshire County Council once again won the Chartered Institute for Public Relations' annual award for "Outstanding In-House PR". The council's submission to this august body said it employed 20 people in its PR operations.

A council scrutiny committee agreed in a cross-party vote to recommend that members of the public should be allowed to record council meetings.

Two members of the public who were taking part in a phone-in programme on BBC Radio Wales to discuss the county council's restrictions on people observing council meetings, were shocked to hear a statement from County Hall read out live on air saying that they were spreading untruths against the council and had "an agenda". The Ombudsman has been asked to investigate.


The Ombudsman was back again, this time with a report on a case in which an young woman with autism was wrongly taken away from her parents for six months in the most distressing circumstances imaginable. The case itself is understood to be subject to legal proceedings.

The Welsh Government issued a stopper notice on the controversial Stradey Park site. It is currently considering whether to call in this proposed housing development for the third time.

The council's award-winning PR department sent a notorious conman an invitation to come and stay in Carmarthenshire together with a hamper full of cheese after he wrote a scathing review of the county's delights in Oldie magazine. As a result, the council picked up Private Eye's "PR Plonkers of the Year" award.

The new East Gate development in Llanelli opened to a mixed reception. The county council said it would empty some of its offices and move the staff into rented office accommodation in the new development under a deal struck with the developer. This will cost the taxpayer £5 million.

Visitors to the new Odeon cinema which forms part of the East Gate "shoppertainment" complex were surprised to see a plaque thanking the county council for chipping in £20,000 towards the cost of a 3D system. Odeon is owned by Terra Firma, a global private equity group with billions of pounds worth of assets on its books.

Sainsbury's withdrew its planning application for a supermarket at Llandeilo.

The chief executive was given a two page spread in the Carmarthen Journal to warn that the council was running out of money. The article was described by the paper as an "interview", although it did not feature any questions.


The South Wales Guardian announced that it had been blacklisted by the council after it ran a piece criticising the authority over its handling of the Sainsbury's press release scandal. The paper had received virtually no advertising from the council for three months. The council issued a press release attacking the paper, and claiming that this was a purely commercial decision. A flock of pigs flew past County Hall.

At the final meeting of the full council in 2012, a cross-party recommendation to allow recording of council meetings by the public was thrown out in a whipped vote. The meeting saw more manipulation of the council's constitution and standing orders by the Executive. One Labour councillor said he was voting against recording in the interests of openness and transparency, and Independent leader Pam Palmer was worried that members of the public might fall from the balcony while filming.

Not discussed at the meeting because it was not on the chief executive's agenda, was the extremely depressing news that Carmarthenshire showed the largest decline in numbers able to speak Welsh of any of the 22 local authorities in Wales according to the census.

The Welsh Government's Data Unit had more depressing news for the people of Carmarthenshire. Only 25% of the county's schools were deemed fit for purpose despite the much publicised Modernising Education Programme. Half of the county's secondary schools were placed in the Government's bottom two bands. The county was third from bottom for road maintenance, second from bottom for reviewing care plans and third from bottom for adult carer assessment. The council was also permanently blocked from accessing the DVLA database for improper or negligent use.

During the December council meeting the Chair rebuked Meryl Gravell for scurrying round the chamber and holding what appeared to be a rival meeting. It turned out that she had slipped out of the council meeting to tell listeners of Radio Wales that Carmarthenshire was the best run council in Wales, and had come back to update her pals on her success in putting the record straight.


Sunday, 23 December 2012

Review of the Year - Part One: a CBE, rabble and an election

As 2012 draws to a close Cneifiwr has been trawling through the archives to see what, if anything, we have learned this year.


Church bells rang and people danced the conga in the streets as the news came through that the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council had been appointed Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in the New Year Honours List.

2012 kicked off with a meeting of the council's Executive Board which chucked out the public and press to discuss two top secret items. The first involved a decision to increase financial support to the National Botanic Garden of Wales, while the second concerned a mysterious council officer (actually the chief executive) who had become embroiled in a libel case.

At the first meeting of the full council in 2012 Cllr Siân Caiach rose to offer congratulations to the council on being named runner-up in Private Eye's Legal Bully of the Year award. She was told to sit down.

The meeting saw a row about what opposition councillors said was misuse of the council's press office for issuing a partisan party political press release about the budget settlement. The chief executive ruled that the press release was perfectly in order, but strangely it was pulled from the council's website.

The Chief Constable of Dyfed Powys Police (since retired) popped in to tell councillors that he would be asking for a 5% increase in the police authority precept. He complained about the cost of a PFI scheme for Ammanford police station (since mothballed). The station was built at a cost of around £2.5 million in 2001, and is expected to cost us at least £22 million (and possibly a lot more) by the time the 30 year deal ends. Annual payments were £644,000 in 2008-09, and have been rising every year.

Council leader Meryl Gravell got into hot water for saying that people protesting against plans to close the A&E department at Llanelli's hospital were "rabble". She went on to say that "Mark and I employ 9,000 people" and wished that they would all work as hard and show the same dedication as staff at the Chooselife charity she was visiting. Cllr Gravell later claimed she had been quoted out of context.


Rabblegate led to a motion of no confidence in Meryl's leadership at the February meeting of the full council. The motion was eventually defeated after a lot of procedural wrangling. Labour leader Kevin Madge leaped to Meryl's defence.

It emerged that the Executive Board had not only agreed to pay the chief executive's defence costs in the Jacqui Thompson libel case, but had also agreed to fund an action for defamation against the blogger. Carmarthenshire thus became the first Welsh council to attempt this, bypassing the long standing convention that branches of government do not sue for libel.

A brief and heated round of correspondence about the council's decision to pay Mr James's court costs appeared in the pages of the Carmarthen Journal. This came to an abrupt end following the intervention of the chief executive himself.

The council approved its annual budget, and the county's museums were saved from the chop for the time being. Independent leader Pam Palmer told councillors she was working on plans for a £3 million package of grant funding to secure the future of the museums. Nothing has been heard about this since.

Champagne corks popped at the announcement of a deal between an arms manufacturer and R&A Properties at Llangennech near Llanelli. The story brought together that special Carmarthenshire mix of council chiefs, rugby bosses and property developers and added an exciting new twist with a company involved in the manufacture of drones.

The Towy Community Church saga rumbled on, with the pastor telling an evangelical blog that the council had bought the Johnstown site at the church's suggestion, "and in a remarkable act of generosity transferred it to the church free of charge". Wasn't that nice? The council gives a very different version of events. Surely they can't both be true?


And they were off! The council election campaign fizzled into life, with one of the most interesting contributions coming from Shahid Hussein, Labour's candidate in Glanaman. Shahid let it all hang out on Twitter with a highly offensive stream of abuse masquerading as humour. After a smack on the wrist, Kevin Madge blamed the whole affair on Twitter and campaigned for his youthful neighbour.

Carl Sargeant, the Minister for Local Government, finally got round to criticising the county council's decision to use public money to sue blogger Jacqui Thompson for libel. "Local authorities should not allow indemnities to enable members or officers to sue for defamation, and the 2006 Order reflects that".

Carmarthenshire took no notice.

The BBC's investigative programme Taro 9 reported on the Delyth Jenkins whistleblower case. The county council refused to take part in the programme and called the police to keep an eye on the BBC production team. The programme attracted a great deal of media attention, but the story somehow escaped the notice of the Carmarthen Journal.


The local election campaign ground on. Peter Hain, the veteran Labour politician, attacked Independent councillors as closet Tories who had no manifesto and no clue. In Carmarthenshire Labour and the Independents discussed election strategies and continued their love-in. The Independents under Pam Palmer didn't bother with a manifesto. At least nobody could accuse them of breaking their promises.

The BBC was at it again with another documentary looking this time at the Council's bizarre relationship with the evangelical Towy Community Church, which promises non-believers that they face a future of eternal conscious punishment. Both the council and the church refused to take part in the programme.

The chief executive said that it would be wrong to comment on the Towy Community Church project in the run-up to an election. He did, however, find time to attack Llanelli residents opposed to the Stradey Park housing development and people who had objected to plans for the new Ffwrnes school.

The Carmarthen Journal was told by County Hall not to report on the grievances of council bin men following the imposition of new pay and working terms. It didn't.


The election saw Labour overtake the Independents as the second largest group on the council. Labour, which was recovering ground lost under Gordon Brown, did well in Llanelli but failed to make progress across the rest of the county.

In the ensuing carve-up, the Independents secured five of the ten seats on the new enlarged Executive Board despite having been pushed back into third place.

The Scarlets published a dire set of accounts, with the club's auditors warning that there was "material uncertainty" about the business's viability.


The new administration under Kevin Madge (Lab) brought forward proposals for yet more changes to the county's constitution, reducing the powers of the scrutiny committees, and delegating more powers from the full council to the Executive Board or unelected officers.

After that little burst of activity, the council went to sleep for three months.


Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM tried once again to get to grips with the true cost of the council's propaganda sheet, Carmarthenshire News. The council solemnly informed him that it was not possible to work out how much of the paper's revenue came from internal and external advertisers. Anyone wanting to try to work it out for themselves would struggle because the council said it did not keep back copies.

The Ombudsman for Public Services produced a report on the Breckman case. In the run-up to release of the report, he complained to the Welsh Government about how he had been frustrated by the council's delaying tactics. He generously gave the council three months to provide copies of the Breckman report to councillors. They are still waiting at the end of December.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

School bandings - a confused parent writes

There should probably be a law against it, but Cneifiwr has raised five children. Three have now flown the nest and have all found decent jobs, in part thanks to their ability to speak more than one language. The fourth is at university in Cardiff, allegedly studying languages, and the fifth - a happy accident was how the doctor described him - is a year and a half away from going up to senior school. Smug, I know.

The subject of which school he will go to is a bit of a hot topic in Tŷ Cneifiwr. In practice he has a choice of two, and Cneifiwr is very keen to see him cross the border and go to Ysgol Dyffryn Teifi in Llandysul (no offence to any school governors who may be reading).

Cneifiwr Junior is going through that difficult stage where everything English is cool, and Welsh is not. Except when Wales does well in rugby. Cneifiwr, who has Victorian Dad tendencies, keeps trying to explain that while all those nasal mutations may be just a little bit of a pain, he will thank his old dad for it one day.

If you don't currently have a child at one of the secondary schools, and sometimes even if you do, getting a good feel for what the different schools on offer in your area are really like can be very difficult. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence doing the rounds. Ysgol Bro Preseli in Crymych has a very good and probably well-deserved reputation; Ysgol Uwchradd Aberteifi went through a rocky patch but seems to be on the up under a new head; Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn has also gone through a bad period but the early indications are that it will turn itself round. Ysgol Dyffryn Teifi certainly has had its own share of problems, but the school is on a human scale, has a positive atmosphere about it and is trying very hard. And it has a strongly Welsh ethos.

Ceredigion schools also appear to have performed rather better in the GCSEs than their counterparts over in Carmarthenshire, although GCSE results are a statistical jungle.

Change the names, and whether you live in Gwynedd, Gwent or Neath Port Talbot, the picture is likely to be more or less the same.

Apart from the anecdotal evidence and open evenings when all schools will try to present themselves in a positive light, where else can parents go who care about their child's education?

Well, they can take a look at what different local authorities have to say about their schools, but you might as well ask George Osborne if he thinks he's doing a good job as Chancellor of the Exchequer. No matter how poor or mediocre some of the GCSE results were at a local authority level this year, they all found something to crow about.

You could also plunge into Estyn's reports. These come in two main forms: a review at local authority level, and a report on individual schools.

It is unlikely that many parents will take the trouble to read Estyn's reports, and having waded through the turgid prose and jargon on quite a few occasions, Cneifiwr can sympathise. To be fair to Estyn, its reports are aimed at several very different audiences (local authority education departments, school governors, teachers and parents), but the value of some of the local authority reports is very questionable.

Here are a few selected quotes taken from the report on Carmarthenshire earlier this year:

Senior leaders have taken difficult decisions which are responded to proactively.

Key plans align well at all levels and senior leaders work in a sophisticated way with a range of strategic partners across public services to set high level priorities together.

Senior leaders understand clearly the impact of wider regeneration and social care on educational outcomes.

If you understand that, well done.

The overall judgment on Carmarthenshire in 2012 was "good", and the county council's Ministry of Spin was quick to seize on this with a press release headed "Education in Carmarthenshire is Good".

But who are these "senior leaders"? Presumably they are the highly paid officers who sit at the top of the county's education department. And what is Estyn referring to when it talks about regeneration? The county's shiny new shopping malls? The closure of large numbers of village schools? Plans to build a new school in a flood plain? Parc y Scarlets?

At about the same time as this back slapping was going on, Estyn published a report on Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn, one of the schools those senior leaders are responsible for. The overall finding was: unsatisfactory. Reports on other schools in Carmarthenshire are a mixed bag. Ysgol Gyfun Pantycelyn in Llandovery was labelled "adequate". Quite a few others have not had an inspection for years.

Our local newspaper, the Carmarthen Journal, found space for the first report on the county ("good"), but did not have a word to say about the dire report on one of the main secondary schools in its area. But that's another story.

So much for Estyn. What about the new banding system? The BBC has produced a handy summary here.

There are five bands, with 1 being the best and 5 the worst. Carmarthenshire does not have a single school in Band 1. Its best scoring school comes in at number 49 out of all secondary schools in Wales, and its flagship Queen Elizabeth High in Carmarthen on which tens of millions have been spent is down in Band 5. Half of the county's schools are in the bottom two bands.

Ironically one of the best performers, Ysgol Gyfun Pantycelyn, is earmarked for closure. Remember that the same school was given a measly "adequate" by Estyn.

Somehow it's hard to square this with Estyn's overall grade of "good", isn't it? But then it's also hard to understand why other schools in different parts of Wales have crashed from Band 1 to Band 4 in the space of a year, or how others have soared from Band 5 to Band 2.

When you compare what the local authorities, Estyn and the Welsh Government's banding system have to say, they might as well be talking about three completely different school systems in parallel universes. Perhaps the gossip down the pub is the best indicator after all.

Black propaganda, blacklisting parking vouchers

This week's South Wales Guardian takes Carmarthenshire County Council to task for the press release issued last week claiming that the decision not to place any more advertising with the paper was taken solely on commercial grounds. Lead article here and editorial here.

The paper notes that the council's statement throws a lot of mud around, alleging that the paper has habitually carried biased and unbalanced stories about the council, but without offering a single example to back up its claims. It also reminds readers that just a few weeks before what appears to be a permanent blacklisting came into force, the manager of the council's press office, Debbie Williams, was caught telling the authority's marketing department to pull advertising because of an article about regeneration work in Ammanford. So much for County Hall's claim that this was a purely commercial decision.

Finally, the paper takes the council to task for its use of very selective circulation figures. It points out that the Guardian has a much higher share of local and regional press readership in its home patch in Ammanford than any other title.

The council's use of circulation figures for the county as a whole was nothing short of dishonest, in other words. That in turn means that by withholding advertising from the Guardian, the council is failing to meet legal requirements to ensure that official notices have the widest possible circulation.

There are other interesting questions about the council's press release last week which ought to make councillors sit up and ask what on earth is happening here.

First, who wrote this attack piece, and who authorised it? If it was the work of the council leader, Kevin Madge, or other members of his Executive Board, you would expect to see their names cropping up in the statement, along with quotes. No names appear in it, which suggests that the statement was put together by officers rather than elected councillors.

But that does not let Kevin Madge off the hook.If he was shown the piece before it went out, why didn't he veto it? If he wasn't shown it, he should be asking why the hell not.

Aficionados of Carmarthenshire's PR machine will have noticed striking similarities between the style and tone of this piece and other classics of the genre, including the notorious Sainsbury's press release. The combination of intemperate bluster, distortion and arrogance point to a common authorship, as does the phrasing.

The Guardian might like to try to establish more about the authorship and authorisation process with a Freedom of Information request. It almost certainly also has a strong case for making a formal complaint to the poor old Public Services Ombudsman.

Another bizarre and worrying aspect of the council's press release was the way in which it goes to town over a car parking voucher scheme.

The voucher scheme itself is almost laughably obscure and petty, but clearly the council's top brass does not think so.

Normally at this time of year shoppers in Carmarthenshire are given a holiday from parking charges in the run-up to Christmas, but this year there is so little money in the kitty that the scheme will run for the week between Christmas and the New Year only.

At its meeting on 5 November the Executive Board of the council approved the new car parking arrangements and also considered proposals from Carmarthen Town Council and the Llanelli Star. The Town Council's proposals were dismissed, but the Llanelli Star's suggestion of free parking vouchers to be distributed with the newspaper gained some traction.

Minutes of the meeting show that the Executive Board decided to run with the Star's scheme, but wanted to cut it back to just 4 hours on 24 December.

I know, I know, but bear with me.

As the council never tires of telling us, waiving car parking charges costs the council lots of money. So who was going to pick up the bill for free Christmas Eve parking? The Executive Board's keenness to limit the scope of the scheme suggests strongly that it is the Council and not the Llanelli Star which is taking the hit.

Now roll forward to last week's meeting of the full council, where several councillors asked about the voucher scheme. Colin Evans (Lab), a member of the Executive Board, told councillors that the scheme was initiated by the Llanelli Star. We wrote to other newspapers about it, he said, but added that this was a newspaper initiative and outside the council's control.

A little later Glynog Davies (Plaid) asked about the voucher scheme and the report on the blacklisting of the South Wales Guardian. This time we got a response from the chief executive himself. "We're not putting vouchers in newspapers", he told councillors. This was a newspaper initiative. As for the Guardian, this could be discussed another time, he purred, almost certainly aware that while councillors were getting worked up about council plans to shut down public conveniences, the Ministry of Truth was about to send out a press release attacking the newspaper.

Councillors may well wonder why, when the voucher scheme had nothing to do with the council, the council was busy promoting it and funding it.

Finally, the thought probably occurred to some of the legal brains in County Hall that if the council was seen to be working with just one newspaper on a discount scheme (a newspaper which just happens to be under the effective editorial control of the council) to the exclusion of others, it might risk falling foul of competition law.

That would explain why the statement issued last week makes such a big deal about the car parking voucher scheme.

The one mystery remaining is why the council found it necessary to be so disingenuous with councillors about the nuts and bolts of the voucher scheme.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

News from the Planning Portal - Part Two: Penybanc


The Penybanc application was rejected, partly on the grounds of concerns over the impact on the language it seems. Rejection of an application which has been recommended for acceptance by the officers is a rare event indeed in Carmarthenshire. One of the last occasions this happened was at Waungilwen near Drefach Felindre. On that occasion the officers refused to accept the decision, and eventually got it reversed.

Watch this space. It will also be interesting to see how many of the usual suspects voted in favour of the application.


As reported previously a company domiciled in Guernsey and represented by an agent living in Berkshire would like to expand its existing planning permission for a site just outside Ammanford from 141 houses to 336.

The Planning Committee decided in October that it had better go and take a look at the site, and the application will come back before them today.

Anyone reading the planning officer's report can hardly fail to notice that the plan has attracted almost universal opposition from local people and their representatives, and all of the agencies involved which are not under direct council control have expressed either serious concerns or are in outright opposition to it.

Despite this, the planning officers are recommending acceptance.

The list of concerns and objections is a very long one, but one of the biggest fears concerns the impact on the Welsh language.

The Welsh Language Board (since replaced by the Commissioner) was unusually strong in its criticism of the proposals, and the planning officers have spent a great deal of time and effort on refuting the Board's arguments. In places, the council comes close to accusing the Board of being unprofessional. The Board makes "broad and unfounded" assertions that there is no local need for a development on this scale, the Planning Department fumes.

Fortunately the Board no longer exists, because making what the council considers to be an unfounded or unsubstantiated allegation would suffice to put the Board on the council's blacklist of abusive complainants.

Coming only a week after the Census figures revealed that Carmarthenshire has seen a bigger decline in numbers able to speak Welsh than any other Welsh local authority - and that by quite some margin - it is hard not to conclude that the county council has to shoulder a significant portion of the blame.

Not that any of this will bother the Independent and Labour councillors on the committee who habitually vote as the planning officers have instructed.

News from the Planning Portal - Part One

"A good time to bury bad news" is a phrase we have become familiar with from the spin doctors, and in Carmarthenshire, developers and the council itself have long known that Christmas is a good time to set controversial planning applications in motion.


Plans for a new super-school at Ffairfach just outside Llandeilo have been on the cards for a long time, so the decision by the council to introduce a planning application in the week before Christmas when it is least likely to be noticed and attract objections suggests that the council's spin doctors have been at work again.

The siting of the new school has been controversial from the start as it is both in the middle of a C2 flood plain and a Special Landscape Area. The closure of Ysgol Pantycelyn in Llandovery means that many children will have to spend hours travelling each day, and the introduction of travel charges for children aged 16 and over will be a crippling burden for many families.

Building in areas prone to flooding is something which Ffairfach has in common with Stradey Park in Llanelli.

Last week the house builder Taylor Wimpey moved to establish a symbolic presence in the form of a workman's hut and a JCB on the site, conscious no doubt that its existing planning permission is about to run out.

The Stradey Park story already has enough twists and turns, skulduggery, threats and allegations to fill a fat book, but let's concentrate on the planning process itself.

What happens next will be an interesting test of whether Environment Minister John Griffiths was spouting more than hot air when he said the other week that the Welsh Government would act to prevent more new houses being built in areas prone to flooding.

The problem, right from the beginning, was that Carmarthenshire County Council, as the local planning authority, was inextricably caught up in a massive conflict of interest of its own making. It was never for a moment in a position to carry out its quasi-judicial responsibilities as an impartial and even-handed arbiter because of the depth of its financial and political investment in the Scarlets project. If and when the Welsh Government ever gets round to tackling the mess which is the planning system in Wales, one of the first things it should do is ensure that the planning process is removed from local authority control from the start whenever a council has a significant commercial or political interest in the outcome of a planning application.

The first time the Stradey housing development was called in by Cardiff was back in 2006. Scarlets showed at a public inquiry that the Tidal C2 flood plain was not as extreme as the maps suggested, and outline planning was granted.

It subsequently turned out that the maps used by the Environment Agency were incorrect, and the Welsh Government called the application in for a second time in 2010 on the basis that the revised maps showed what local people had known all along: Stradey is in a Fluvial C2 flood plain.

Behind the scenes there was a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing after the call-in, with the developer threatening legal action on the basis that once the principle of development has been established such decisions, once made, cannot be reconsidered even though the information on which the planning decision had been made was now clearly wrong. The Government backed down, and the application was handed back to Carmarthenshire. Carmarthenshire, not often known for the speed of its decisions, managed to rubber stamp the reserved matters stage of the development within a day of Cardiff relinquishing its hold.

Llanelli residents believe that the legal advice provided to the Welsh Government was wrong because while tidal flooding risk was not an issue, the risk of fluvial (river) flooding had not previously been correctly identified.

We now roll forward to 2012 where the existing planning permission is about to expire (in January 2013). Taylor Wimpey applied for an extension of permission and greater freedom in deciding the eventual mix of housing types to be built. Needless to say, the council's planning committee was eager to oblige, but had to settle for saying that it was "minded to approve" the extension following an intervention from Cardiff, where the matter currently rests.

Unfortunately for Taylor Wimpey and County Hall, the latest call-in request coincided with dramatic flooding of communities in various parts of Wales, including the Glasdir housing development in Rhuthun. Glasdir was developed by Taylor Wimpey.

In its defence, Taylor Wimpey said that it had been assured by the relevant government agencies that adequate flood defences were in place before development began. The site was purchased by Taylor Wimpey from the now-defunct Welsh Development Agency, and the company has called for an investigation of what happened.

Objectors to the Stradey Park development believe that the flood defences and control measures being proposed for the site in Llanelli actually fall quite a long way short of what was in place in Rhuthun. Part of the proposals will involve raising the land to 7 metres above ordnance datum (above sea level to you and me), and pumps would be installed. Unless plans have changed, the pumps would appear to be located in areas prone to flooding. As other communities have seen only too clearly, they stop working when needed most. It was also proposed that each property on the Stradey site will have attenuation tanks in their gardens to hold surface water before releasing it gradually into the Cille River. These tanks and their maintenance will be the responsibility of the home owners.

The net result would be an enormous plateau rising above the surrounding area where people feel, not surprisingly, that even if the new Taylor Wimpey houses are less prone to flooding, existing properties in places such as Sandy Road will be much more likely to flood.

How the minister, John Griffiths, responds to the gauntlet which has been thrown down in Llandeilo and Llanelli will be watched with interest in other parts of Wales.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Unacceptable complaints


One of the other recommendations contained in the Ombudsman's report was that the council should carry out a review of its planning enforcement policy. Let's remember that that recommendation was made in July.

Nothing at all happened for a long while, until recently when there has been a strange game of bureaucratic pass the parcel, all of which has had the unfortunate and no doubt unintended consequence of slowing matters down even further.

The game began in November when the Planning Department asked the Environmental and Public Protection Scrutiny Committee to undertake an "urgent" review of planning enforcement policy.

The council has five scrutiny committees, and it turns out that the Planning Department sent the request to the wrong committee because responsibility for planning matters comes under the Community Scrutiny Committee.

The Environmental and Public Protection duly deliberated and resolved to forward the matter to the Community Committee, which duly acknowledged the referral at its most recent meeting on 3 December. Minutes of that meeting are not yet available, but the likelihood would seem to be that the urgent review will have to take its place in the queue behind other matters in the committee's pipeline.

Odd, wasn't it, that the Planning Department did not know which committee was responsible for scrutinising it? Surely the council isn't dragging its feet?


On 16 October this year BBC Wales broadcast a documentary on the planning enforcement case involving Mrs Trisha Breckman.

The case was the subject of an exhaustive investigation by the Public Services Ombudsman who delivered his report to Carmarthenshire Council in early July. The Ombudsman asked the council's officers to distribute copies of the report to councillors within three months. That did not happen, and the council, in the shape of its senior officers, asked the Ombudsman for a two week extension.

The broadcast went out at about the time the two week extension lapsed, and councillors still had not received copies of the report.

Peter Hughes Griffiths (Plaid), the leader of the opposition on the council, responded to the broadcast with a statement as follows:

"Despite the Ombudsman's report being published at the start of July, Councillors have yet to be provided with either a copy of the report or an opportunity to discuss the findings openly in the council chamber. This lack of discussion is a direct contravention of the Ombudsman's recommendation.

What is clear from the Ombudsman's comments is that the authority lost all objectivity in the case and subsequently failed Carmarthenshire residents.

The leadership of this authority must do better and never allow such an injustice to happen again. I expect the Leader of the Council to present the Ombudsman's full report at the next meeting of the Council."

Two months have passed since that statement, and the report has still not been presented to councillors. There were suggestions at one point that the report might instead be discussed at a meeting of the Executive Board. That has not happened either.

Calls for a public inquiry into the planning department were subsequently also rejected by the Welsh Government.

One of the Ombudsman's criticisms concerned the council's policy on persistent complainants, and it is perhaps for that reason that the Executive Board will tomorrow discuss an amended policy which is now called "Policy on Unacceptable Actions by Complainants".

The policy is a very one-sided affair indeed. The council and its officers will decide what is unacceptable.

The legal brains behind the document have a stab at defining "unacceptable", but do what weak and lazy lawyers always do in such situations: they throw in that little catch-all "includes but is not limited to" . The document is spattered with this phrase.

Of course council staff and councillors should not be subjected to violence or threatening behaviour, but the council gives itself enormous latitude in determining what constitutes abusive behaviour. Making what a council officer in his or her opinion considers to be an unsubstantiated allegation counts as abusive behaviour, we are told.

Not only is the drafting lazy, but it is also badly written and drafted. Take the following sentence:

"We will also consider any combination of these elements or any other behaviour which the Authority considers amounts to inappropriate conduct, to a single member of staff or to a group of different staff."

It is not clear what "these elements" are to begin with, and the wording is so opaque that it could mean whatever you (or rather, the council) decide it means at the time.

Stand by for many more members of the public being told that their behaviour is [but not necessarily limited to] inappropriate, offensive, abusive or unacceptable, depending on the mood of the person they are talking to at the time.

If you would like the Welsh Government to establish a public inquiry into the Breckman case, please feel free to sign this petition.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

December Council Meeting - Part Three: Toilets and Turkeys

After the manipulated farce of the vote on recording, we were treated next to the annual report of the chairman of the Standards Committee, A mercifully brief summary was delivered in a very upper crust English accent. After intensive investigation and analysis, he found that everything was tickety-boo.

Apart from Pam Palmer, the Independent councillors rarely have much to say for themselves. In fact in over a year of attending council meetings Cneifiwr has yet to hear some of them say anything at all, which makes their concerns about being quoted out of context even odder. But veteran Independent Tom Theophilus broke cover to complain that councillors who were accused of breaches of the code of conduct were not compensated for the hours spent defending themselves. He would like to bill the taxpayer for all this hard work, presumably because as an 80 year-old, he could have spent this time earning money in different ways.

Cllr Theophilus regularly tops the league of expenses claimants. Just saying.

Next up was a brief discussion about the ban on open-air drinking in the centre of Llanelli. There was widespread support for this measure, but Peter Hughes Griffiths said that licensing policy was out of control. Anyone who wanted a licence seemed to be able to obtain one. Winston Lemon (Plaid) said that cheap alcohol from supermarkets was a major factor.

The chief executive took the opportunity to advertise the new East Gate "shoppertainment" zone, and added that licensing was a matter for the licensing committee.

From drink we turned to another vice, namely gambling. Pam Palmer wanted to send more letters to everyone and anyone complaining about advertising for betting and gambling, and she is certainly right to be worried. A pity then that she can do nothing about it.

Next came a debate on public transport and bus services. As Executive Board member for rural affairs, this is a key issue for Pam Palmer, and unlike advertising by betting firms, it is something she has some control over. Needless to say, she remained silent throughout.

The long and the short of it is that the Welsh government is creating regional transport consortia which will take responsibility away from councils, and huge cutbacks in public funding are in the pipeline. Cllr Colin Evans, who has executive board responsibility, spoke at great length and kept referring, presumably as a convinced Royalist, to Wales as the "Principality". No doubt he had been busy tugging his forelock in preparation for a visit this week by Charles Windsor.

After all that time on the buses, we now took a very extended comfort break in the council's public toilets. Readers of the blogs will remember that this subject has come up several times over the last year, with the Executive Board ejecting press and public each time it approves a new masterplan to persuade community councils to take over the running of the top secret loos.

Once again the spin doctors have been at work. In the most recent Executive Board minutes on the subject, readers are given the impression that there is a popular clamour for a change, and to meet demand from someone (we are not told who), the county council has increased the number of toilets it wants to get rid of.

Cllr Colin Evans was off again with another long-winded explanation of what lay in store for the toilets in this part of the "Principality". Apparently the list of toilets to be offered up for transfer had been increased in response to representations about discrimination. It was unfair that toilets in what he described as "so-called" tourist destinations should be excluded. He claimed that the county council had received a "very encouraging response".

This claim was immediately undermined by Cllr Hazel Evans (Plaid) who pointed out that in her ward Cenarth Community Council was being asked to take on the public toilets near the Cenarth Falls at an annual cost of £4,000. The council's entire precept was just £8,000. Moreover, the county council was trying to shuffle off liability for any future redundancy costs by transferring cleaning staff along with the toilets.

If you need to go to the toilet in Carmarthenshire, hurry. The whole lot will be shut down from April in time for the new tourist season.

In the middle of all this we had a brief diversion as councillors asked about a car parking scheme being promoted by the Llanelli Star. This was a newspaper initiative, said Colin Evans, and outside council control. He let it slip, however, that the council had written to other newspapers inviting them to participate.

A little later the subject came up again in conjunction with the South Wales Guardian, and Glynog Davies (Plaid) asked about the headline in the newspaper that day saying that it had been blacklisted by the County Council.

Mark James replied that the council was not responsible for the voucher scheme, and that a debate about the Guardian could be had another time.

Very odd, then, that later the same day the County Council should issue a blistering attack on the South Wales Guardian in which the following sentences appear:

We have even agreed to work with them this Christmas on a free parking initiative which will be promoted via their newspaper. A large part of the reason for this is to help local newspapers with their circulation, as well as shoppers and local traders by boosting trade.

County councillors may well be wondering if the Executive was being entirely truthful when it claimed the scheme had nothing to do with the council.

Winston Lemon (Plaid) asked what, if anything, was happening to plans for a new school at Seaside in Llanelli. The Director of Education, Robert Sully, was about to reply, when he was swept aside by the chief executive, who once again blamed the delay and slippage on the locals for disagreeing with the council's choice of site for the new school.

For a moment it seemed that we had moved on from the issue of the toilets, but speaker after speaker came back to express concern. The mystery of all those "very positive" responses that Colin Evans had received grew.

Whether the Unison protesters were still outside County Hall, I don't know, but at last the issue of a living wage was raised. Peter Hughes Griffiths noted that the response by the Executive Board had been extremely disappointing (Kevin Madge had been too busy to attend that meeting).

Kevin Madge said (a verbatim quote this), "Yeah, in the real world we'd like to take this forward. But we're not in the real world". It was all the fault of government spending cuts. Where was the council supposed to get the money to fund this? Many questions remained to be answered, and he therefore wanted to wait to see what the Welsh Assembly had to say and for a report to come back. He was opposed to pursuing what could turn out to be a "reckless policy".

That would presumably be the same reckless policy being advocated by Ed Milliband and the rest of the Labour Party.

By this time the Chair was beginning to fret. We were nearly three hours into the meeting, and were still on the first page of the agenda. Councillors would have to decide whether to adjourn the meeting and return at 2 o'clock or simply pass the huge stack of reports awaiting approval without any further discussion.

The public gallery was now down to two people, and Cneifiwr was losing the will to live.

We will have to wait a couple of weeks for the minutes to discover whether scrutiny of the Executive's decisions won out over the prospect of a long turkey dinner.

Friday, 14 December 2012

December Council Meeting - Part 2: The Rogues' Gallery

After the opening announcements, complete with squirrel, it was time for the council to get down to business, and first up was Peter Hughes Griffiths presenting a motion which called on the council to allow filming and recording by the public of council meetings beginning in January 2013.

Caebrwyn carries a thorough account of what happened next here. The arguments in favour (openness, transparency and the fact that it would not cost the council a penny) were well put by Peter Hughes Griffiths and Alun Lenny for Plaid. Of greater interest are the arguments and tactics employed by those against.

Carmarthenshire County Council was about to show to the world and the people of Carmarthenshire why it has gained such a dire reputation. Politicians who complain about lack of public engagement, cynicism and the low esteem in which politics and politicians are held need look no further than this debate.

No sooner had the case for the motion been put than Kevin Madge was on his feet reading very badly from a piece of paper. The delivery was so poor that it was impossible for the public to understand what was being said. In the last couple of months the chief executive and others have made a great deal of fuss about sticking to the published agenda for the sake, allegedly, of the public. The amendment was not printed on the published agenda, and the public were not provided with copies of it.

From what emerged over the next half an hour, the amendment was a actually a rival motion which made no reference to the proposal tabled by Peter Hughes Griffiths, and it had the effect of negating it. That is not allowed under council standing orders, but the Monitoring Officer was on hand to rule that the amendment was fine; it was just deferring matters. As we shall see, matters may have been deferred for a very long time indeed.

One of the main arguments against allowing the public to record meetings was that councillors might be quoted selectively or out of context. So here is a selection of quotes which are all firmly in context. Cneifiwr's comments in red.

Kevin Madge (Lab): People in the public gallery would use recording for political purposes. It was also contrary to the Equalities Act because not all councillors could be seen from the public gallery. It was democratic that the press should report on council meetings, and this had been going on for generations.

Meetings of the full council are political meetings. It is true that some backbench opposition councillors cannot be seen easily from the gallery, but the people who actually run the council are all clearly visible. While Kevin Madge was suggesting that press reporting was enough, people in Ammanford were reading in their local paper how the council has been doing its damnedest to muzzle the local press.

Pam Palmer (Ind): When Jacqui Thompson was spotted filming part of a meeting in June 2011, Pam Palmer appealed to the Child Protection Act. If people could not film children at random, why should they be allowed to film councillors in public meetings? This time she changed tack to warn that members of the public might fall from the public gallery as they leaned over to film proceedings. Filming by the council could turn out to be very expensive, and it might attract very few viewers. People in the gallery might use very sophisticated editing techniques to distort what had been said. Later she said that control had to be taken away from the public gallery.

In other words, Pam agrees with Kevin Madge that the public is not to be trusted, and she remains opposed to filming and recording full stop.

Giles Morgan (Ind), absent from meetings of the full council in recent months, agreed with Pam.

Calum Higgins (Lab), the youngest councillor by miles, chirped up that he was backing the amendment.

Bill Thomas (Lab) reckoned that we were in the silly season before going on to show what he meant: people recording meetings might fall from the balcony. 

Jeff Edmunds (Lab) wanted openness and transparency, and so was going to vote against allowing the public to record.

Darren Price (Plaid) wondered why councillors who had supported allowing public recording in the Policy Scrutiny Committee not so long ago had changed their minds.

The answer is, of course, that unlike the scrutiny committee meeting, this was a whipped vote. And all those independent-minded Independents did what Pam had ordered them to, as did every Labour councillor. The council which says it will be open and transparent in everything it does made sure that the lights remained switched off.

The amendment, which was not an amendment, was carried by 41 votes to 23.

We had now reached part two of the debate in which the "amendment" had now been reborn as a motion.

The debate continued in the same vein, and I will not bore you with it.

What did emerge in the second part of the discussion was that after kicking the can down the road for 18 months, the proposed pilot has not been costed and there is no budget for it. Kevin Madge, referring perhaps to a permanent filming service, said he was not prepared to spend £100,000 on filming when he was busy making cuts to social services.

So no recording by the public and quite a strong possibility that the whole thing could be killed off next year.

The last word goes to the normally sensible Derek Cundy (Lab) who urged caution and spoke of the global scale of the consequences of any decision.

Perhaps Cllr Cundy thought he was addressing the United Nations General Assembly, or perhaps he was dimly aware that the council had once again made itself a global laughing stock.


Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Empire Strikes Back: The South Wales Guardian

Normal blogging service will be resumed as soon as possible, but events involving the blacklisting of the South Wales Guardian have taken another turn with the publication by the council of an extraordinarily bad-tempered and disingenuous press release (here).

Underneath all of the bluster, this press release says two things:

1. The withdrawal of advertising from the Guardian was a purely commercial decision and had nothing to do with the paper's reporting.

2. The council does not like the way the paper reports council news.

The fact that advertising all but ceased when the paper was critical of the council over the Sainsbury's press release at the beginning of September was therefore entirely coincidental, we are asked to believe. And it had nothing whatsoever to do with discussions which were going on in County Hall in July when the manager of the press office was asking the council's marketing department to stop advertising with the Guardian until "issues are resolved" between the council and the newspaper.

That exchange between the press office and the marketing department (both part of the chief executive's fiefdom) was leaked to the press, and assistant chief executive Chris Burns was tasked with explaining matters. He said:

We spend quite a lot with the Guardian and there's no intention to stop this advertising. As I understand it the trader's concerns were that the story appeared to suggest that the town was likely to be 'closed for Christmas'. The article concerned was not, I must say, particularly critical of the county council and I cannot see any reason why this would have led to us removing advertising completely.

Only six weeks separated Mr Burns' declaration and the "commercial" decision. At the very least, Mr Burns may feel that his colleagues have undermined his credibility.

As usual, the council rather gives the game away by devoting so much of the press release to saying how much it dislikes being criticised by the newspaper. 

Let's imagine for a moment that this was taking place in London, rather than Carmarthenshire, and that 10 Downing Street and the Civil Service had decided that from now on, no government advertising would be placed with the Daily Mirror, Guardian or Independent. Only the Daily Mail and the Sun would be allowed to advertise civil service jobs, etc. It could truthfully say that the Mail enjoyed a much larger readership than the Guardian.

Of course this would never happen, partly perhaps for fear of the reaction by press and public, but also because the government in Westminster, whatever else you may think about it, accepts that newspapers have a right to criticise and scrutinise government decisions, no matter how much it dislikes what they say.

Cneifiwr has no special insight into the finances of the South Wales Guardian, but the loss of council advertising revenue, which now seems to be permanent, could well push the paper under. It is a newspaper with a unique voice which serves its community well, and the Ammanford area would be the poorer without it.

Opposition politicians, bloggers and others can shout and scream until the cows come home, but Kevin Madge, the council leader who is so proud of his Ammanford roots, is the one person who could stop this vindictive campaign in its tracks and call the council's out-of-control officers back in line. He may even realise that the negative publicity on his own doorstep is not doing him any favours.

Over to you, Kev.

December Council Meeting - Part One: A rodent in the chamber

It was a bitterly cold and frosty morning, and visitors to County Hall were greeted by the sight of Bob Crachit and about ten other members of Unison staging a small protest outside the main entrance in support of a living wage. How they must have enjoyed seeing Brother Kevin  roll up sun-tanned from his latest cruise in his council Jaguar or Mercedes, heading into County Hall to explain why all that turkey and Christmas pudding would not be good for them. Or perhaps Kev used the special VIP entrance.

Members of the public, meanwhile, found that new entry procedures were in place.

After nearly 18 months of protests and complaints about the county council's treatment of members of the public wishing to observe council meetings, it seems that all it took was a short visit by the county fire officer a couple of weeks ago for new arrangements to be put in place. What that says about the council's repeated claims that the procedures were legal and in accordance with fire regulations, readers can decide for themselves.

Visitors are still required to sign in, but are no longer asked for their home addresses. A council security officer now sits at the rear of the gallery for the duration of the meeting, presumably watching out for threats to security. Good to see that the council has got staff with time to carry out such important duties.

Before the meeting got underway, Cllr Pam Palmer could be glimpsed marching up and down the corridor behind the chamber giving what appeared to be orders to the troops.

There was an almost total lack of Christmas cheer this year, although the Chair had brought along a table decoration featuring a small squirrel. Cllr Siân Thomas was clearly very pleased with her white gwiwer, and Cneifiwr had a short day-dream in which she stroked it while saying "Bore da, Mr Bond". The gwiwer had been purchased at a charity craft stand which is normally allowed into County Hall at this time of year to sell squirrels and other tasteful decorations to councillors.

Perhaps because of the security threat, there was unfortunately no stall this year.

But the Chair was determined to try to cheer everyone up. She would be taking part in this year's Boxing Day Walrus Dip wearing her itsy-bitsy, we were told. Cneifiwr managed to control his passion by closing his eyes and thinking of the council leader and his two deputies frolicking in the icy waves.

This month's clutch of awards included two prizes for the Dyfed Powys Pension Fund, which had been voted the best pension fund in Britain. Pam Palmer immediately rose to ask if she could send them a Christmas card.

The Chair reminded councillors that they too could join the fund, even though most of them are already drawing other pensions. For a small contribution (and a much larger contribution from council tax payers), they could all be part of the best possible pension fund.

But it was time to get down to business, and the little squirrel would soon find out that there were other, much larger rodents lurking in the chamber.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The South Wales Guardian and a DNA sample

Today's issue of the South Wales Guardian leads with the paper's own account of its blacklisting by Carmarthenshire Council. The story can be found here, with an editorial here and and a further comment piece here, in which Cneifiwr gets a mention.

Congratulations go to the paper and its staff for having the guts to stand up to the County Hall bullies. Cneifiwr waits with bated breath to see whether the Carmarthen Journal will now follow suit, or failing that report on the punishment meted out to a fellow member of the local press.

The blacklisting was triggered by the Guardian's decision in early September to criticise the council for the now infamous Sainsbury's press release which falsely accused MP Jonathan Edwards and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM of "deliberately sabotaging" the development of two new supermarkets.

The MP and AM eventually complained to the Ombudsman for Public Services after a coalition of senior Labour and Independent councillors and senior council officers blocked any discussion of the affair by councillors.

By happy coincidence, the Ombudsman was in Carmarthen yesterday and paid County Hall a visit as a part of his investigation. Some of the discussion involved the contents of a leaked e-mail between chief executive Mark James and Debbie Williams, the head of the council's press office.

It now seems that interesting questions have arisen over the authorship of the press release. If you believe that Kevin Madge wrote it, you probably also believe that a jolly elf visits your house every Christmas and leaves lots of toys and other goodies behind.

DNA samples are now on their way to the Ombudsman.

The matter also merited a brief mention at today's council meeting, where Cllr Glynog Davies (Plaid) said he was astonished to read about the blacklisting. Labour and Independent councillors remembered their vows of silence, and it was left to the chief executive to say that there could be a debate about the Guardian another time.

Just don't hold your breath.

More on today's very unfestive council meeting and the decison to reject a motion which would have allowed members of the public to record meetings will follow rather sooner than any debate in County Hall about the council's treatment of the local press.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Independence, irony and ingratitude

The phrase Carmarthenshire County Council uses to dismiss its critics is usually something along the lines of "a small, unrepresentative group which has a problem with local government". In the case of Llanelli Town Council and a good many of the town's residents, County Hall may have to come up with something different. "Rabble" didn't go down too well last time, did it? No, it really will have to work on this one. Fortunately, it has all those PR people to come up with the goods (20 of them, apparently).

The problem is that Llanelli doesn't want to be in Carmarthenshire any more. A motion presented by Mayor Winston Lemon (Plaid) seeks to take back decision-making powers from the county council in what could be the first step towards creating a separate unitary authority.

This is a bit of a PR disaster for the self-proclaimed best council in Wales. If it's really that good, why would a big chunk of it want to leave?

Llanelli Town Council is a democratically elected body, and was here making a democratic decision. The run-up to the vote and the views of quite a few local people were reported by the Llanelli Star here. In a separate piece of equal length (here), readers of the paper were treated to the views of the unelected chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council attacking the motion and complaining at length about the ingratitude of some people. Only a week earlier, he reminded readers, the council had had to step in to deal with whingeing about the East Gate development.

County Hall doesn't do irony.

A second strand of irony was almost certainly lost on the chief executive: the town's wish to have more say in its own affairs is in no small part a reaction to the way he has run the county council  for the past 11 years.

Readers who do not live in Carmarthenshire may find it strange that a council chief executive is so publicly involved in political debate. Where were the elected politicians in all this, they may wonder.

To be fair to Carmarthenshire County Council, it has a bit of a problem here. Fielding Kevin Madge, the shambling, rambling council leader from Garnant would only have inflamed the separatists, while putting up deputy leader Pam Palmer to defend Carmarthen rule would probably have led to the immediate outbreak of civil war. Tegwen Devichand, the second deputy leader, has the advantage of coming from Llanelli, but probably felt that saying anything would be political suicide.

Certainly, if Llanelli (population 47,000) were to become a separate unitary authority, there would be major consequences for the rest of the county (population 180,000).

Llanelli is not the only part of the county which might want to contemplate an alternative future. Llandovery, about to lose its secondary school, might cast amorous glances across the border at Powys, while in the west St Clears and Whitland feel neglected and unloved. Pembrokeshire may be a basket case local authority, but being able to write Pembrokeshire on your address might do wonders for property prices and tourism. Step forward the Selwyn Runnett Liberation Front.

Up on the #welshtaliban infested North West Frontier, Newcastle Emlyn and the surrounding area (equally unloved and neglected) may be torn out of the existing Carmarthen East and Dinefwr constituency and lumped in with a much enlarged Ceredigion. Perhaps it might be better to go the whole hog and make the area part of Ceredigion full stop.

There may even be a case for creating yet another unitary authority. How about the County Borough of Trimsaran? In a single two-member ward Meryl Gravell and Pam Palmer could become councillors and Executive Board members for life, while the chief executive makes a bid for the 2024 Olympics to be hosted in a new Robbie Savage Stadium, and Pembrey Airport could expand to position itself as the new London hub airport.

The regeneration possibilities would be endless, and council tax hikes in Trimsaran would ensure that the village became rabble-free.

Meanwhile, in this digital age, we will have to wait a few more days to find out the result of the Llanelli vote. Or nearly two months if we wait for the official minutes.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Press censorship - how the Carmarthen Journal was muzzled

One of the recurring themes of this blog since it began just over 18 months ago has been the issue of press freedom in Carmarthenshire, and the county council's obsession with news management and public relations. There have been instances of bullying and intimidation of the press by other Welsh local authorities, such as Cardiff City Council in the past, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Carmarthenshire remains in a league of its own, and a picture is beginning to emerge of systematic and wholesale interference by the local authority in the running of our newspapers. Information has now come to light from several reliable sources who have witnessed the extent of the council's control at very close quarters.

A couple of days ago this blog reported on the council's latest attempts to bring one small local newspaper, the South Wales Guardian, into line by withholding advertising. There have been at least two such attacks on that newspaper this year.

A much bigger target has been the titles published by Northcliffe Media, until recently a division of the Daily Mail and General Trust. The newspapers include the Carmarthen Journal, Llanelli Star and South Wales Evening Post, and together they account for the bulk of local press readership in Carmarthenshire.

This process began more than ten years ago when the new regime, as it was then, formed the view that the local press was "anti-council" and that something needed to be done about it. Soon departmental meetings were being told that some of the troublemakers had been "sorted".

The next step came with the launch of the council's own newspaper, the "Community News" (forerunner of today's bloated "Carmarthenshire News"). For the first couple of years the Carmarthen Journal naively agreed to distribute copies tucked inside its own newspaper, but the council newspaper was steadily beefed up and the arrangement ended as it became clear that the council was bent on producing an alternative to independent local newspapers. As the finances of the local press deteriorated, the council newspaper began draining advertising revenue away from local newspapers, although despite repeated freedom of information requests, the true extent of the council's spend on its newspaper remains shrouded in secrecy.

In what now looks like the last golden age of the Carmarthen Journal, the paper came under the editorship of Robert Lloyd (April 2006 to October 2008). The newspaper has been through five editors in just ten years.  Robert Lloyd did what most local newspapers had always done, and reported on the activities of the council, warts and all. The newspaper gave a voice to local readers, and sometimes the paper ran opinion pieces which were critical of aspects of what the council was doing.

Unfortunately, the rise in the council's ambitions was matched by the decline in the fortunes of the local press, and Robert Lloyd and successive editors have found themselves under pressure to cut costs and protect revenue while coming under attack from the council. The council discovered that a much more effective approach was to bypass editors and go straight to the proprietors who were much more concerned about their bottom line than airy-fairy notions of press freedom.

Certainly the council took its "concerns" to Northcliffe Media towards the end of 2009, and it may well have done so on earlier occasions. Before it did that, the council fired another shot across the bows of the press when it unveiled plans for "Carmarthen TV", which was intended to be the next phase in the creation of a multi-media propaganda platform. The channel, which still lingers in a dark and dusty corner of the internet, carried interviews with the chief executive and other council bigwigs, along with films promoting council schemes. Carmarthen TV turned out to be a complete flop, but it may have had its uses in driving home to  newspaper executives the seriousness of the council's intentions.

Possibly to the surprise of the council, the showdown with Northcliffe was successful, and the formula of docility = advertising revenue was established. The bullies had got away with it. What followed was an uneasy year and a half of generally good behaviour by the paper and its sister publications, with occasional lapses.

The crunch came in mid-2011 with the arrest of blogger Jacqui Thompson for trying to film part of a council meeting on her mobile phone. The story and its immediate aftermath was reported by the Carmarthen Journal in depth, and for a couple of weeks it seemed that the newspaper had rediscovered its former voice.

What happened next is something we can only speculate about, but clearly there was another dramatic intervention, and the newspaper found itself put into "special measures". If Northcliffe wanted any more advertising from the council, the Carmarthen Journal would have to submit itself to the sort of interference and control normally associated with military juntas, Soviet "people's democracies" and dictatorships.

Since advertising revenue from the council was roughly the same as the paper's entire wages bill, the Journal, which has weathered more than 200 years, faced a stark choice between going down with its journalistic integrity intact and all hands on board, or bending its knee to the council.

From that point on, it was made clear to the Journal's reporters that any copy which contained criticism of the council would not be published. Reporters often found their copy extensively re-written to make it acceptable to County Hall. From time to time the council also seems to have submitted its own copy for publication, such as the re-hash of the 6 month-old CSSIW report on residential care which coincided with the BBC's documentary on the Delyth Jenkins case.

Mrs Jenkins has pointed out that she was contacted by a reporter from the Journal at the time, and provided him with documents relating to her case. Needless to say, the resulting story did not get past the red pencils.

Reporters from the Journal who were used to dealing with local authority press offices elsewhere were in for a rude awakening when they had to speak to County Hall. There was an atmosphere of menace, obstructiveness, intimidation, and vindictiveness towards people who for whatever reason had upset the council. Reporters were told by the council's Ministry of Truth not to follow up certain leads, and questioned closely why they wanted this or that piece of information.

One reporter who had submitted a freedom of information request relating to the pay of senior officers was called in to be told that one of the senior officers subject to the request had called the editor in person and "suggested" that the request be withdrawn. It was, for fear of the consequences.

The editor probably thought that the letters page was safe from council interference, and a letter from Mrs Lesley Williams was published in February of this year complaining about the use of public money to fund the chief executive's libel indemnity.

One of the then senior councillors wrote in the following week. He ignored the issue of the libel indemnity and attacked Mrs Williams for her role in a planning dispute years earlier about the St Catherine's Walk shopping precinct. Readers were genuinely outraged, but there followed a letter from the chief executive himself, again attacking Mrs Williams, and the correspondence was closed by order, leaving the last word with the chief executive.

Shortly afterwards, various other stories were spiked by order on the grounds that they were "political" and therefore not suitable for publication in the run-up to the council elections in May.

Whether this regime is still in place after the recent change of ownership at Northcliffe is not clear, but the  double-page spread "interview" with the chief executive a couple of weeks ago suggests that so far nothing has changed.

While the Leveson report has thrown the spotlight on victimisation of people by the tabloid press, we should also spare a few minutes to ask what protection is given to the press and other news media when over-mighty arms of government or business tycoons decide to gun for them. We can sympathise with the aims of Hacked Off, but we also need to remember that the press and media organisations can be victims too.  Just think of Sir James Goldsmith and Private Eye; Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and the BBC as well as our own local bullies.