Friday, 29 November 2013

Back behind closed doors....

Following the recent outburst of transparency by a member of Carmarthenshire County Council's ruling Executive Board when Cllr Jeff Edmunds gave Cllr Siân Caiach the low-down on the increasingly byzantine tactics used to funnel more money into Parc y Scarlets, the Board is returning to form next week with two separate meetings, both of which contain exempt (i.e. secret) items.

The second meeting, on 4th December, is the more interesting, but there is no point in any readers going along because the meeting will be applying a public interest test to determine whether the sole agenda item should be discussed behind closed doors.

One of the certainties of life in Carmarthenshire is that the Board will decide that press and public should be excluded.

The mysterious item is advertised merely as "Review of the Authority's Pay Supplement Policy to Senior Officers". You can read the policy for yourselves here, and it's a pretty anodyne document.

If the Board were doing what it says it is going to do on the agenda, i.e. review the policy, it is hard to see why the item should be exempted from disclosure because tweaking the rules would be unlikely to reveal any sensitive information. However, that has not stopped the council from slapping on exemptions in the past when it feels that it needs to hide its blushes.

Perhaps, and we can only speculate here, there is a clue in paragraph 10.2 of the document, where we are told that senior officer employment contracts deal with matters such as salary, telephone allowances, and oh, pension contributions. Who'd have thought it?

This may be pure coincidence, but we are rapidly approaching the time when the Wales Audit Office has threatened to publish two separate public interest reports dealing with the libel indemnity and.....pension contributions. 

This may take some time, but watch this space.

The first meeting deals with a range of issues, including community asset transfers and a very weighty report on Swansea Bay City Region Economic Development Strategy 2013-2030. Boiled down to manageable proportions, the report concludes that the region is underperforming economically, and that more emphasis needs to be put on creating jobs. Turning to how those goals might be achieved, the sea mist rolls into Baglan Bay.

Here's a flavour of what the report says needs to be done in the form of four "cross cutting themes":

● Thinking and Delivering Together for City Region Success (effective partnership working);
 ● Quality and Intelligence-driven Leadership and Action (long term Vision; strong and capable leadership; decisions based on robust evidence and intelligence);
● Being and Acting Connected (strengthening links within and outside City Region); and
● Understanding Sustainable Growth (embracing long-term solutions to deliver growth for present and future generations).

Bearing in mind that Meryl Gravell and Chief Executive Mark James both played a prominent part in a recent Swansea Bay City Region conference, readers can probably work out for themselves what vision and strong and capable leadership mean.

The council's management summary notes that this "bold and ambitious" plan has no financial implications, but at least it's creating employment for the report writers and conference organisers.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Scarlets, the Red Room and some puce faces

If Carmarthenshire County Council were not already mired in enough scandals, it now seems that the council gifted the Scarlets around £600,000 of the £850,000 sale price of an overflow car park site next to Parc y Scarlets. While council leader Kevin Madge (Lab) was kept in the loop, and Cllr Jeff Edmunds (Lab) and some senior officers were directly involved in the decision, there are suggestions that other members of the ruling Executive Board may have been unaware of just how generous the council had been when they recently signed off the recent bailout package to reduce interest on the club's outstanding £2.6 million debt to the council.

It has taken a long time for this information to come out, with the council unsurprisingly vetoing a Freedom of Information request and a subsequent appeal from Cllr Siân Caiach. In a surprising turn of events, it was Cllr Edmunds himself who spilled the beans in the end despite last-minute attempts to stop him.

Why Cllr Edmunds decided to come clean is something that he himself will no doubt explain in due course.

The Executive Board gave outline approval for the sale of the land at a meeting in July 2012, with councillors delegating authority to negotiate a deal to the head of Corporate Property in consultation with the "appropriate Board Member" (Cllr Jeff Edmunds). The Board also agreed that an independent valuer should be appointed to determine an appropriate split of the proceeds.

In a written answer to Cllr Caiach in July 2013, the head of Corporate Property confirmed that a sum of £850,000 was paid for the land leased to the Scarlets under a 150 year lease. He added that following "normal negotiation and agreement of allowable costs etc", the remaining proceeds were shared equally between the Freeholder (the Council) and the long leaseholder (the Scarlets), as would be legally expected.

There was nothing normal about this transaction, however, not least the fact that the club has never actually paid for the lease from which it has benefitted so spectacularly.

The £850,000 sale price is understood to break down as follows (numbers rounded off):

Fees to agents and architects                      £50k
Allowable expenses to Scarlets                  £280k
Finders fee for buyer  to Scarlets                £30k
Compensation to club for loss of lease        £76k
Share of remainder :-             Scarlets  -     £220k
        Carmarthenshire County Council  -     £200k    

"Allowable expenses" were the costs of fitting out The Red Room, the Scarlets' new bar and shop in the private Llanelli Eastgate development, developed and owned by leasing company Henry Davidson. The Eastgate shops were supposed to be 70% let before the build, and the Scarlets were offered some units to make up this number, as there was difficulty getting commercial commitments to let. The club could not afford to fit out the shop and restaurant, and so were advanced the money by the landlords in order to make up the numbers.

It seems that the £280,000 in "allowable expenses" were subsequently used by the Scarlets to repay the temporary loan from Henry Davidson.

The officers' justification for this part of the deal was that the Scarlets shop would create jobs and increase footfall in the Eastgate development.

Readers may also recall that the council has been moving hundreds of its staff into an office block in the Eastgate development. The official explanation for this is that emptying council-owned buildings and paying rent to Henry Davidson will save the council money. It is understood that the council is paying £250,000 a year for the offices on a 20-year lease.

If you believe that the office deal is a cost saving measure, you will probably also believe the council's line that slashing interest on the Scarlets loan is a fantastic commercial deal, and that 4% is better than 7%. To quote the (highly misleading) minutes of the most recent meeting of the Executive Board, "The Board was also advised that the Council was now receiving a higher sum of interest on the loan than for each of the last three years".

The truth of the matter was that the council was receiving 7% interest, but with a sum equivalent to 4% being rolled up into the loan. In cash terms, the council is now very slightly better off as a result of the deal (about £8,000 a year at current rates), but overall the council will forfeit somewhere between £750,000 and £1 million of revenue over the remaining 10 years of the loan.

And finally, Cneifiwr was recently taken to task by a reader for publishing a transcript of Kevin Madge's recent rant on the subject of the Scarlets. Stripped of the waffle and meaningless platitudes, the transcript contains the following interesting sentences:

And I am proud of what has been achieved here, and what has been done with the Scarlets. They've asked us for a little bit of help here, and we've supported them.....So at the end of the day, Chairman, I think that those two decisions needed to be done. Again, we make the tough decisions. We are answerable here now. I've asked the legal, erm, Linda, to give the, erm, run-down on that, but I think we have got the power to do what we did.

Cneifiwr understands that several public spirited individuals have now asked the Wales Audit Office rather than Linda (the council's Head of Law) to give the legal run-down on one of Kev's tough decisions, and the council's own internal auditors have been asked to look into what happened.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Acutely aligned - the South Wales Evening Post

It didn't take long for the South Wales Evening Post to respond to directions from Local World chairman, David Montgomery, to open up the newspaper to content provided by a key "partner" in the shape of Swansea City Council, and it has now added an exciting new tab on its website headed Swansea Council News.

Clicking on the tab takes readers straight to what appears to be an undiluted feed of "news" produced by the Labour council's own press department, complete with what is presumably "aligned" advertising for private health insurance ("Jump NHS Queues!"), a property letting agency, an advert placed by ING Bank promoting wind power financing, teeth whitening and an online gambling site.

The paper has not got around yet to adding a tab for Neath Port Talbot council news, but if it had, it is probably unlikely that it would carry a report on the arrest of Labour councillor Mark Jones after police searched his house in connection with suspected drugs offences.

Nye Bevan would be so proud!

It surely cannot be long before readers of the group's Carmarthen Journal are treated to something similar, with the Ministry of Spin on Jail Hill being given its own official platform to complement the unofficial control it exerts over the rest of the paper.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Cuts consultations

The county council is holding a cuts roadshow in different parts of the county. Yesterday it was the turn of Newcastle Emlyn, although thanks to very poor publicity, hardly anyone turned up.

The council team came armed with banners and stacks of questionnaires and booklets explaining what the exercise is all about. The team itself was made up of Chris Moore, the council's Head of Financial Services,  Cllr Jane Tremlett, Executive Member responsible for Social Care and Health, and for some reason a representative from the council's press office. But perish the thought that this is a PR exercise.

The three VIP visitors were squeezed into a broom cupboard in the town's library, which has probably also been ear-marked for closure.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the exercise is that while lots of work has gone into producing questionnaires and glossy brochures outlining very broad proposals for people to comment on, almost no detail is available.

For example, the council is proposing that one area of savings would be to start charging for school transport for children aged 16+. If you are a parent, there are a number of questions you might want to ask.

  • Will the charge apply to all children once they have reached their 16th birthday? If so, that will hit a good many children in the year running up to their GCSEs.
  • Will the charge be based on mileage, or will it be a flat fee?
  • What happens if you have two or even three children who are aged 16+?
  • Will there be means testing to ensure that families who really cannot find the money are not hit and forced to take children out of school? And if so, what would be the cost of means testing?
Mr Moore and Cllr Tremlett do not have the answers, as it seems that these little details have not been worked out yet. But they would like you to put a tick in a box saying whether you agree or disagree anyway.

Cllr Tremlett's brief includes residential care for the elderly. Which homes is the council planning to close? She does not know.

The council is very keen on independent living because that saves lots of money on residential care. So is it a good idea to ramp up charges for home care services? And can she really guarantee that transferring home care services to private operators will make no difference to people who receive the service despite saving £1.5 million a year? And what difference will it make to council staff currently employed as home carers when they are transferred to the tender mercies of the profit-driven private operators?

Anyone who has read the council's very glossy annual reports will know that we are apparently all healthier, happier and better off than before thanks to Carmarthenshire County Council, and healthy living is something which County Hall is very keen to tell us about.

You might wonder, for example, how plans to hive off playing fields and ramp up charges for using council sports facilities contributes to healthy living. You might also wonder how cutbacks at leisure centres is healthy living. Or how will the health and fitness of children be helped when schools are told to find money they don't have to pay to use the leisure centres which were built purposely alongside them? Especially when those schools lack gyms and other sports facilities precisely because they were built alongside leisure centres?

You might like to ask these questions and more when the roadshow comes to a place near you (assuming that you know it is happening), but it is unlikely that Mrs Tremlett or anyone else from County Hall will be able to give you an answer.

So just put a tick in the box, and make them happy.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Ebenezer Madge's Christmas Message

The latest 42-page edition of Carmarthenshire News has just arrived at Tŷ Cneifiwr, with jolly Christmas messages on the front page. Rather less jolly is Kevin Madge, our council leader, on page 2 warning of drastic cutbacks and belt tightening, and he urges us to turn to pages 6 and 7 of the council rag to read about where some of these cuts may fall.

The list is by no means as extensive as the ideas presented to attendees at the now famous Ffwrnes Farce, but most of the big ticket items are there, together with an invitation to readers to have their say.

This is rather more honest than some previous "consultation exercises" which presented residents with a set of fixed options. At least this time people can write in with suggestions such as scrapping the Carmarthenshire News, making do without a chief executive, or cutting back on the number of assistant and deputy chief executives. Perhaps a ban on extremely expensive litigation by the chief executive might be up your street, or perhaps you think the council should stop funnelling money into fringe evangelical churches and be slightly less generous towards the Scarlets at a time when it is planning to cut its support for the sports facilities used by children and ordinary members of the public.

Whether any of these suggestions would be acted upon is another matter.

Honesty and openness have their limits, of course, and so the council paper talks in very vague terms about saving £1.7 million on residential care for the elderly, without specifying which homes it might close.

It also says that it could save £1.5 million a year by transferring all long-term home care for the elderly to "independent" (i.e. private sector) providers, adding that "there will be no impact on service users".

Clearly all the recent scandals about the quality of care provided by some private sector providers have escaped the council's notice, including what several prominent charities have described as the disgrace of 15-minute care visits.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Acutely aligned segmentation

A quick rummage through the pages of this week's Carmarthen Journal showed that the newspaper must be raking in the advertising revenue at the moment, with pages and pages of special advertising features and other promotions. Rather more difficult to find were actual news stories, which is generally pretty high up on most people's list of reasons for buying a local newspaper.

Reading the blog of the great Robert Lloyd, elder statesman of journalism in Carmarthenshire, suggests that those of us who still naively cling to a belief that local newspapers are about reliable reporting of local news need to wake up and smell the coffee, at least as far as the titles belonging to the Local World group are concerned (the Journal, Llanelli Star and South Wales Evening Post).

Robert carries the text, without comment, of a bizarre, jargon-ladened fatwa delivered by the group's chairman, David Montgomery, to the earthlings who work for the newspapers. Here is what he has to say, for example, about reporting crime and police stories:

"the publisher acts as the main conduit for police information of every type - not for the odd photofit in a dramatic crime but for all humdrum information like crime prevention that the police seek to promote. In return the journalist will offer an attractive platform for this content and a large measure of control presumably by the police information office." 

In non-Newspeak what that seems to mean is that the newspapers will create a nicely designed platform (something Mr Montgomery reckons most 12 year-olds can do nowadays) into which the PR merchants can channel their output, pretty much free of editorial interference.

In case that message was not altogether clear, Mr Montgomery adds, "the senior journalists. ...will extend further the principle of partnership, with third party institutions supplying an increasing amount of content."

That does not mean to say, he says, that the newspapers won't report on things that the police bosses don't like, but the relationship between the press and police will be "insulation from the inevitable stresses and strains between the media and the public services".

Just in case you think he is talking just about the relationship between the press and the police (rather a hot topic in recent times), he goes on to make it clear that this new approach to journalism will extend to all sorts of other public bodies, such as health boards, sports clubs, schools, businesses large and small and presumably, although he does not say so, local government.

They will churn out their press releases and have a large measure of control over how they appear in the Journal, etc.

In other words, the newspapers will be very much like the good old Carmarthenshire News, but with rather more advertising.

Come to think of it, that's not far off what we have today. After the Carmarthen Journal got into trouble with the control-freaks in County Hall a couple of times for running stories the council top brass did not like, Cneifiwr was reliably informed that an understanding had been reached whereby the newspaper would generally print what the council wanted us to hear in return for lots of lovely advertising. As a fig-leaf, the newspaper retained the right to report on stories the council is less keen on, occasionally even from a critical angle.

Needless to say, that right has not been exercised in the last couple of years, and the partnership policy is now set to be extended to Hywel Dda Health Board, companies and other champions of free speech and transparency.

While Mr Montgomery's message is full of talk of segments, enrichment of the user experience and the need to acutely align content with the commercial operation, readers will search in vain for old-fashioned terms such as independence and integrity.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Legless down at the Quercus Petraea

The sessile oak, or quercus petraea, is a species of oak which grows over much of Europe and parts of western Asia. Someone or other designated the tree as the national tree of Wales, and Bruce suggests derwen ddigoes as the Welsh name. Derwen ddigoes translates literally as 'legless oak'.

Perhaps the marketing executives at Marstons who came up with the name "The Sessile Oak" for their new pub next to Parc y Scarlets were cracking a little joke.

The Sessile Oak
The pub stands on a site leased to the Scarlets by Carmarthenshire County Council for 150 years. Despite never having paid anything for the lease, the club nevertheless received a hefty chunk of the £850,000 paid by Marstons for the plot. Quite how much the club received, the council refuses to say, although the club will presumably have to disclose the figure when it publishes its next set of accounts.

It is also rumoured that legal fees consumed an unusually large share of the proceeds, something which perhaps reflects the rather unusual nature of the transaction.

While the terms and conditions of the deal remain secret, what does seem clear is that the council did not consider it necessary to insert a clause ensuring that the brewery group respected the Welsh language, which is entirely absent from the bungalow-like exterior of the pub.

Of all the regional clubs, the Scarlets have the strongest connections with the language. A recognition of those traditions, perhaps choosing something like Y Sosban, would have cost nothing in a deal which was otherwise all about money.

The sessile oak is not just the designated national tree of Wales, but also the symbol of a rather more endangered species, the Welsh Conservatives. Perhaps that was part of the little joke as well.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Carmarthenshire and the Bedroom Tax

The campaign to kill off what is left of democratic debate and decision-making in the council chamber in Carmarthen is hotting up. Caebrwyn recently reported on discussions which have taken place in the shadowy Business Management Group, and this blog looked at proposals for new-look council meetings back in October (see A Managed Democracy).

In a nutshell, the top brass would like to stop the practice of putting committee minutes before the full council and fill the vacuum with Powerpoint presentations by visiting company executives and other external bodies. Increasing use is also being made of the chief executive's powers to veto motions or divert them away from councillors to the Executive Board. This has happened twice this month, with a motion calling for a debate on the Scarlets bailout being vetoed, and another motion on the bedroom tax being diverted to the Executive Board which dispatched it on Monday. More on that in a moment.

At last week's meeting the acting Head of Law took Cllr Darren Price to task for thinking that the full council was, in her words, "a super scrutiny committee", i.e. with the right to hold the executive to account.

Because of constant tampering with the constitution over the last few years, the much-amended document can be read to support almost any argument, but of course the only arguments which count are those made by the executive. There are certainly some key passages of the constitution which entirely contradict the line being taken by Mrs Rees Jones and the chief executive.

This is by far the most serious assault on democracy in Carmarthenshire to date, and there will be at least some backbench Labour councillors who feel uneasy about what is happening, not least because there will come a time when Labour finds itself in opposition and on the receiving end of the measures it has waved through.

The latest motion to be diverted away from the full council was a Motion on Notice submitted by Cllr Alun Lenny, calling on the council to follow the lead taken by some other councils, such as Brighton, and halt evictions of tenants who fall foul of the bedroom tax.

Labour has promised to scrap the measure if it comes back to power in 2015, and it could well have won a vote on the matter in the House of Commons last week if 40+ of its MPs had not decided to stay at home. All the Plaid, SNP and Green MPs voted for the Labour motion, which was defeated by just 26 votes.

Back in Carmarthenshire both Kevin Madge and his deputy Tegwen Devichand (responsible for housing) have both stood in the chamber to deplore the bedroom tax on several occasions recently. Here was a chance for them to do something about it.

Brighton, an authority which is roughly the same size as Carmarthenshire in terms of population, has set aside just £70,000 to fund its no evictions policy over the next year. Set against what Carmarthenshire spends on consultants and QCs, that is small beer, and as Cllr Lenny has pointed out, the cost of evictions and having to re-house people made homeless because of the change will be much higher.

Normally in a democratic institution motions are debated, with the proposers speaking in favour. Not in Carmarthenshire, where the Executive Board decided not to allow anyone else to speak.

The motion was dealt with in five minutes, with nobody speaking in favour of a non-evictions policy, and Tegwen Devichand wielding the axe.

For its part the council says that it is assessing people on a case-by-case basis, but the problem is one which is likely to affect tenants across the county. A proper discussion in the council chamber in front of the cameras should not be a problem, unless the Labour leadership is trying to keep the issue away from its backbench councillors and out of the public eye.

A five minute hatchet job in a meeting which is not filmed, on a Monday morning when very few observers could have been present is simply not acceptable.

Speaking after the Executive Board meeting, Cllr Lenny said,

“A large number of councils across the UK have already introduced a no eviction policy for tenants who genuinely cannot pay their rent due to this nasty little tax. But the Labour-Independent regime in Carmarthenshire obviously care little for tenants who fear the heartbreak of being evicted from their homes. They also seemed unaware that covering families’ rent shortfall and using Discretionary Housing Payments would be more economical than evicting and relocating families. So it’s a blow to taxpayers as well.

“It’s also disappointing that the Plaid Cymru motion was not debated in Full Council, but referred to the so-called Socialists and closet Tories on the Executive Board – with predictable results. We had a lot of crocodile tears at today’s meeting, but no action to protect tenants who may face losing their homes in the run-up to Christmas.”

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Wales Audit Office investigates

No, not Carmarthenshire County Council this time, but the Mid and West Wales Fire Authority which is currently in the firing line over plans to make drastic cuts, including the downgrading of Ammanford Fire Station.

The minutes of the September meeting (here) begin with the usual roll-call of attendees. Cllr Calum Higgins, Labour's young hopeful, was sadly unable to attend.

Item 6 on the minutes states that the Authority is having to pay £10,464 for an investigation by the Wales Audit Office following complaints made against senior officers and the fire and rescue service. A report is expected, although it remains to be seen whether that will be made public so that the rest of us can find out what this is all about.

Anyone with any information is welcome to get in touch.

Mr Blobby and Mr Bloggy

Last week's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council saw the Council Leader, Kevin Madge, go on the rampage in a fit of what looked very much like manufactured indignation in response to a request from Plaid leader, Peter Hughes Griffiths, that councillors should be allowed to discuss the council's plans to hive off playing fields and introduce drastically higher charges for council-owned sports facilities at the same time as throwing more money at Parc y Scarlets.

Here for your delight and delectation is a brief transcript of Kev in full flight. This is certainly a candidate for Cneifiwr's 2014 Christmas Annual of outstanding quotes from the chamber, provisionally entitled Sir Grrrr.

"The answer is no, no, no, and erm, you know, we get to the stage here now, you know, on these subjects, especially the Scarlets, and you know, and, erm, we want to play political ping pong with this one, you know............You ran away from the Ffwrnes, erm, seminar. You've used politics for the last two weeks saying that you're not part of the administration....... So, you know, your group can go on and on and on about these decisions. As I've said all along over the years, we've made those decisions and made tough decisions. And I am proud of what has been achieved here, and what has been done with the Scarlets. They've asked us for a little bit of help here, and we've supported them. Now is the opposition saying, let's pull them down and make everyone redundant then. No, you're not saying that, are you? No, but on the other hand. No, no, no. And I will take the legal advice here. 

"As a council we cannot be like political ostriches, sitting in the sand, and hoping they all go away. That's what this opposition is in this chamber - political ostriches. Any difficult decision, you walk away with it, and you get your spin doctors, Mr Bloggy and other people to, and every time they react, you jump. That's what you do, and when it comes to this council, when the tough decisions are here to be made, you all run away from them, so I would say to them, when you are elected like I am in Garnant, you've got Plaid Cymru people, Tories, Liberals and whatever, and I represent them all when they come to this chamber. You don't, you are one-sided, you just come here with your politics, so at the end of the day Chairman, I think that those two decisions needed to be done. Again, we make the tough decisions. We are answerable here now. I've asked the legal, erm, Linda, to give the, erm, run-down on that, but I think we have got the power to do what we did."

The council's acting Head of Law and Administration followed Kev's rant, dismissing Peter Hughes Griffiths's request as an attempt at micro-managing Executive Board decisions, and going on to give a short speech which sounded much more like the sort of thing you would expect from an elected councillor defending the council's budget.

A couple of minutes later the wind was somewhat taken out of Kev's sails when Peter Hughes Griffiths invited him to a meeting to discuss Plaid's own budget proposals.


It's taken a while for the penny to drop, but Cllr John Jenkins, the non-aligned councillor for Elli, asked an innocent-sounding question at last week's meeting about how many commercial lenders had tendered to take a slice of the Scarlets funding package.

The Director of Resources looked a little puzzled, before replying "None".

Cneifiwr suspects that this was an oblique reference to a claim put out by the council after the bailout that the Scarlets deal was "better than any other commercial investment" (see Numeracy Skills).

That being the case, you would have thought that the banks would have been queuing up to lend their money to the club.
Taking the Difficult Decisions

Monday, 18 November 2013

COASTAL - another investigation on Jail Hill

When the subject of the pensions and libel indemnity scandals finally cropped up in last week's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council, Deputy Leader Pam Palmer (Independent) and Giles Morgan (Independent) were quick to go on the offensive. The auditor had given the council an excellent bill of health; the report was wonderful, and everything was squeaky clean apart from a couple of trivial blemishes. Councillors should rush back to their voters and tell them what a wonderful job the council and its officers were doing. Pam declared that she was certainly going to be doing that.

Voters in Abergwili may soon be in for a rude awakening, because it seems that there are other bodies hidden away in the jungle of the council's accounts which the WAO may have missed first time round, although there is reason to believe that the auditors did catch a whiff of something odd a couple of months back when they wrote a damning report on the council's grant application procedures (see previous post here).

The report came before the full council last month, and a clearly carefully synchronized display of indignation was put on for the benefit of those of us not entrusted with running the show. Giles Morgan and the usual suspects were on the attack again.

The substance of the counter-offensive was that the WAO was petty and nit picking. Worse still, the interference from these busybodies was costing the council a fortune. Carmarthenshire had a great record of applying for and winning grants.

The last point is true enough. The problem is not winning grants, but what happens to the money.

Time for another rummage through the COASTAL woodpile.

COASTAL started optimistically, and was even refreshingly transparent. Reports and business plans were published until, as we have seen,  it emerged halfway through that the scheme had been an epic failure and had zero chance of getting anywhere near the targets which had secured it all that lovely EU loot.

In October 2011 a firm of consultants (Wavehill) was called in to review the project, and their findings made for very depressing reading. Not only had the targets been missed by a mile, but Wavehill warned that the EU might well call time on the project.

At that point things go very quiet, with the exception of Carmarthenshire's PR machine which started to do what it does best. Glossy newsletters were published showing that Carmarthenshire at least had met and/or exceeded selected and unverifiable targets, and the campaign culminated this month with the release of a slickly produced film showing what a wonderful job it had done.

One of the Carmarthenshire newsletters published in July 2012 claimed that 89% of those taking part had had a positive outcome, although no definition of positive outcome was provided.

Shortly after that the COASTAL group met again. The minutes of the meeting can be found here, and the smell of fear and panic is evident.

The Welsh European Funding Office (WEFO) was investigating, and WEFO wanted to know how COASTAL was going to achieve its goals with just £1.5 million left in the kitty. WEFO had also come up with a definition of what might constitute a "positive outcome" (this was nearly 3 months after Carmarthenshire boasted a success rate of 89%).

Reading through the minutes, it is clear that WEFO was bending over backwards to be fair and lenient. In-house courses which were not accredited would be classed as positive outcomes, for example. In plain terms, that means that participants could attend courses without any formal assessment by an external body to ascertain whether they had actually learned anything.

A little bit further down, and we read,

During the WEFO investigation into the complaint that ESF funded staff were undertaking statutory duties, the main form of evidence that we could supply were staff timesheets. The timesheets were all backed up by colour coded entries on the outlook calendar.

What this means is that suspicions had been raised that at least some of the participating authorities had been misusing EU funds to pay staff to perform statutory jobs, and although the minutes do not state this, Carmarthenshire in particular was under the spotlight. Statutory duties are not eligible for ESF funding, and statutory duties, for anyone not familiar with the jargon, are job functions which councils are obliged by law to provide in areas such as children's services and social care.

In a nutshell, what was being alleged was that the council had redirected money intended to help mainly vulnerable people to find jobs into creating council jobs.

It seems that what happened next was that WEFO representatives accepted COASTAL's assurances that everything was in order, the timesheets were all correctly colour-coded, and life went on.

Thanks to the dogged persistence of a member of the public, however, the complaint about the misuse of EU funds has not gone away, and the matter has now been escalated to a senior level within the Welsh Government, with the WAO's own findings giving the investigation additional impetus.

Although the council has steadfastly denied redirecting ESF funds to pay for statutory posts, documentary evidence in the public domain seems to suggest otherwise.

Carmarthenshire County Council's Annual Report on Effectiveness of Social Services 2010-11, for example, states, "We have more than doubled our number of personal advisers through securing European funding."

Personal advisers are council staff with statutory duties responsible for young people leaving care.

The sums of money involved are huge, and an interesting question for the investigation will be who knew what, and whether there was an attempt to cover things up when WEFO first investigated last year.