Monday, 30 June 2014

Council governance review - some more food for thought

If the WLGA panel which is about to start looking at governance in Carmarthenshire is going to do a thorough job, it will certainly have its work cut out gathering evidence and talking to "key partners and stakeholders" over the next month.

Following on from the letter written by Caebrwyn and Cneifiwr which concentrated on the council's constitution, here is some more food for thought for Mr Byron Davies and his colleagues.

Some of Carmarthenshire's failings can be put down to the cabinet system of local government which concentrates power in a very few hands, and the poor calibre of some of the councillors themselves. No amount of "member development" and training courses can turn those sows' ears into silk purses.

These problems are not unique to Carmarthenshire, but apply to local government across Wales.

What is unusual about Carmarthenshire, however, is that these factors have combined with the extreme longevity of a few key players at the top of the council. The chief executive, some of his hand-picked team of senior officers and some key members of the cabinet (known in Carmarthenshire as the Executive Board) have been running the council for the best part of 15 years.

Stability is a good thing, and so too sometimes is having people at the top who know, trust and even like each other, but the flip side of that coin can be an arrogant and self-perpetuating oligarchy which is never wrong, and where cronyism takes root.


All of that is outside the remit of the review panel, but the symptoms of it are not.

So here are some more areas for the panel to consider.

The Appointments Process

Last year the process of appointing a new technical services director was derailed by one senior councillor after pressure was brought to bear from outside the cross-party committee responsible for making the appointment. This not only wasted a lot of time and money, but constituted gross interference in the democratic process.

It was not the first time that questions have been raised about the appointment of senior officers. On a previous occasion the normal procedures were bypassed and an acting director of education was brought in through the back door.

The current head of administration and law has been in post now for several years in an acting capacity, and councillors have not been given an opportunity to decide for themselves who should occupy this very important role.

With a large proportion of the council's senior officers about to go into retirement, it is vital that the appointments process is cleaned up. It is for elected councillors to decide who to appoint to these posts, and the process is meant to ensure not only that the best candidate gets the job, but also that senior officers enjoy cross-party support and don't owe their jobs to particular individuals or factions.

The Monitoring Officer

In addition to other responsibilities, the Head of Administration and Law is also the council's Monitoring Officer. Monitoring officers have a number of duties, including overseeing the constitution (see previous post for what has gone wrong there) and ensuring that the actions and decisions of the council comply with the law.

The role of Monitoring Officer is one of the few statutory posts in local government, the others being head of paid service or chief executive, and chief financial officer. By law, the chief executive and monitoring officer cannot be the same person, the idea being that having a separate monitoring officer will ensure that there are checks and balances in place to prevent abuse of power.

When you have an acting head of administration and law and monitoring officer who has not been through the normal appointments process and who reports to and depends on the chief executive for their next pay cheque, you have to wonder how sound those checks and balances really are.

There have been countless disputes about the constitution and standing orders over the last few years. On how many occasions has the Monitoring Officer come down with a ruling which does not favour the executive over backbench and opposition councillors? Answer: none.

Carmarthenshire is not unique in this either (see Pembrokeshire), but by accident or design we have ended up with a monitoring officer who, fairly or unfairly, is widely perceived to be little more than a legal fixer for the boss.

The closest this arrangement came to being upset was the recent scandal over the pension and libel indemnity payments to the chief executive. These were branded unlawful by the Wales Audit Office, and the Monitoring Officer was very closely involved in both.

Bearing in mind that one of the monitoring officer's primary duties is to ensure that the council acts within the law, acceptance of the WAO's findings would have had very serious consequences for the monitoring officer and others, and so Carmarthenshire County Council refused to acknowledge that the payments were unlawful, and it went to great lengths, and huge expense, to avoid accepting that what it did was contrary to law.

In what looks for all the world like political fudge, the WLGA "will not consider the specific issues of the WAO's recent Public Interest Reports", but they will "form part of the evidence base".


Press and PR

One area of the council's activities which has repeatedly come under fire is its press office. There have been complaints about its behaviour and partisan output for years. These include attacks on opposition politicians and others outside the council, and attempts to bully and bludgeon newspapers into refraining from criticism of the council. All are well documented, and not once has any action been taken to discipline the culprits.

During the recent scandals over the unlawful pension and libel indemnity payments, the press office launched a string of attacks on the integrity of the Wales Audit Office itself. Again, no action has been taken.

The press office is in reality nothing more than the public manifestation of the image-obsessed, never-wrong culture which has developed at the top of the council.

It is no coincidence that Carmarthenshire has ended up with a chief executive who has by far the highest media profile of any local authority boss in Wales. The chief executive of Ceredigion, Bronwen Morgan, may not be loved and admired by the public, but then outside the council hardly anyone has ever heard of her.

One result of the obsession with the media is that Mr James has appeared to cross the line which separates civil servants from politicians. And that in turn has undermined the integrity of both senior officers and the council itself.

Whistleblowers

Social services is the most challenging and difficult part of the council's responsibilities. It employs large numbers of people and is responsible for the welfare of many more. There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of staff are hard working and dedicated, but in any operation of this size things will sometimes go wrong.

We all know how badly things can go wrong from other local authorities, and that makes it all the more important that there is a culture and robust processes in place to ensure that whistleblowers can come forward.

In recent years there have been three known cases of whistleblowers, and all three have ended up being dragged through disciplinary procedures, employment tribunals or had to take their cases to the Ombudsman.

What message does that send to staff who witness abuse, bullying and criminality? Doing the right thing all too often means that you will have a very heavy price to pay.

The best known of the whistleblower cases involves Delyth Jenkins, whose story has been documented extensively on this blog and Carmarthenshire Planning. It is hard for anyone who reads the material, and most particularly the press reports and council's own published meeting minutes, not to conclude that the main priority of some of the senior officers and councillors involved was PR management.

Delyth was treated appallingly badly, and her life nearly destroyed. Nobody was prosecuted, and nearly all of those involved directly or in management were later rewarded with promotions.

And that brings us back full circle to the difference between effective management and leadership and an oligarchy whose main objectives are self-preservation and protecting their image.






Sunday, 29 June 2014

Jonathan Edwards - Remembering the First World War


___________


I would like to associate myself with comments made by honourable Members on all sides of this House in paying tribute to the millions of people – of all nationalities – who lost their lives during the First World War.
Coffâd y Rhyfel Byd Cyntaf / World War One Commemoration

I must admit, however, that I have been somewhat uncomfortable with the way in which debates surrounding the commemorations of the ‘great war’ have been framed in recent months.

At the end of October 2012, my colleague, the honourable Member for Arfon [Hywel Williams], and I tabled an Early Day Motion criticising the government’s decision to spend £50 million on plans to commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the war, in an attempt, as the Prime Minister put it, to replicate the same national “spirit” as the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

We argued then that, keeping in mind that an estimated 10 million soldiers and seven million civilians lost their lives during or as a result of the conflict, not to mention the millions who were injured or left in mourning, any attempt to observe the centenary in a positive manner would be deeply insensitive.

This should not be, as some have argued, an opportunity to celebrate the ‘best of British’ spirit; it should not be used as an excuse to redraft the national curriculum so that schoolchildren in England at least are taught a skewed, victorious version of history.

The First World War should rather be remembered as the unnecessary massacre that it was: it was, after all, the first industrialised war of its kind, and marked the first time that chemical gas, machine guns, and tanks were used on this scale. Men and boys rushed to enlist, thinking that it would “all be over by Christmas”. The military leaders who led them into battle were utterly unprepared for how long the conflict would last, or what horrors ‘trench warfare’ would bring about.

And the fate which awaited them, as Wilfred Owen had it, was that they “die[d] as cattle” – truly, the sheer numbers of the dead meant that the army was forced to review the way in which dead soldiers were buried: rather than mass burials and unmarked graves, each soldier’s name was recorded, and then engraved on the war memorials which are to be found in villages and towns throughout Europe.

In another of Owen’s celebrated poems, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, the poet exposes “the old lie” that it is sweet and noble to die for one’s country. But quite apart from the horrendous ways in which the young men died – which, of course, was what the poet was referring to in his closing couplet – the war itself was not a war sprung from noble causes. It was instead inspired by competing imperial foreign policies. Speaking at an event in Bosnia and Herzegovina earlier this month, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire argued that:

“The shot fired in Sarajevo a century ago set off, like a starting pistol, a race for power, two global wars, a Cold War, a century of immense, rapid explosion of death and destruction.”

The worst lie of all was that it would be the “war to end all wars”: in hindsight, the end of that conflict in 1918 only marked the prelude to mass unemployment, depression, and eventually a Second World War.

During a period of convalescence in July 1917, the soldier and poet, Siegfried Sassoon, wrote a letter renouncing the war effort to his commanding officer. Copies of the letter, under the title ‘Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration’, were printed in newspapers and his words were quoted during a debate in this place by Hastings Lees-Smith MP.

In his letter, Sassoon lamented the fact that: “the war upon which [he] entered as a war of defence and liberation ha[d] now become a war of aggression and conquest.”

Sassoon said,

“I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.”

Sassoon only escaped a court martial by being diagnosed with shell-shock, and was declared unfit for service.

A year later, the English Officer Charles Carrington said that, “England was beastly in 1918 … Envy, hatred, malice and all uncharitableness, fear and cruelty born of fear, seemed the dominant passions of the leaders of nations in those days.”

Hardly a sentiment worth commemorating.

Yet a recent editorial in the Irish Times summarises the political capital of the debate rather well. The piece, published on 18th June, points out that: “[T]he first World War has been a battle for the control of memory as much as it has been about remembering those who were killed.”

It also argues that: “Today, the fight to control history continues, since the war is seen through the prism of the growing debate about the need to define and assert “British values” in a changing cultural landscape.”
This is perhaps what Jeremy Paxman had in mind when he commented recently that: “The events now are so built upon by writers and attitudinisers and propaganda that the actual events seem submerged.”

It is fitting, of course, that part of the commemorations will include the reopening of the Imperial War Museum. The museum fulfils a highly important role in educating generations about the realities of war, and it should be commended for the work it does. But we should not forget that when the museum first opened on 9th June 1920, the Chairman of the museum, the Rt Hon Sir Alfred Mond MP, said that: “The museum was not conceived as a monument to military glory, but rather as a record of toil and sacrifice.”

Those in public life today would do well to keep this in mind.

During debates on the Imperial War Museum Act (1920), Commander Joseph Kenworthy MP had said:
“We should forbid our children to have anything to do with the pomp and glamour and the bestiality of the late War, which has led to the death of millions of men. I refuse to vote a penny of public money to commemorate such suicidal madness of civilisation as that which was shown in the late War.”

A distinction should be made, of course, between celebrating the “pomp and glamour and … bestiality” of war, and commemorating those who died. I am firmly in support of the campaign to erect a Welsh Memorial in Flanders, which has already raised over £100,000 of its £150,000 target. I understand that the Welsh Government has also pledged money to the project. The memorial, which will be made from stone donated by Graig Yr Hesg Quarry in Pontypridd, will be unveiled during a ceremony on 16th August this year.

In May, my colleague, the Rt Hon Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd [Elfyn Llwyd], hosted a reception in this place to raise awareness of the campaign in parliament. I was glad to lend my support then and to do so again now.

Because it is only right that a memorial of this kind should be in place. More than 20,000 Welsh men died during the war, and every village in Wales was left in mourning.

Over 4,000 Welshmen died in Mametz Wood alone in July 1916 – most from Monmouthshire and Brecknockshire – indeed, it is bitterly ironic that some of those killed had survived the mining disaster in Senghennydd in 1913. I know that Owen Sheers has written a poem about Mametz, which is now on the GCSE curriculum, and that his play Mametz is being staged by the National Theatre of Wales this week in Usk.

It is pertinent, though, that the new memorial will be in Flanders, where the majority of Welshmen lost their lives – including our celebrated poet, Hedd Wyn.

“Hedd Wyn” was the pen name of Ellis Humphrey Evans, who was awarded the prestigious ‘Chair’ prize in the Eisteddfod of 1917 for his winning awdl, ‘Yr Arwr’, or ‘The Hero’. Evans was killed during the Battle of Passchendaele on 31st July 1917. During the chairing ceremony the following September, when his poem was declared the winner, it was also announced that he had died in battle, and the chair was draped in a black cloak. Ever since, Evans has been referred to as ‘Bardd y Gadair Ddu’, ‘The Bard of the Black Chair’. In a moving poem of that name, R. Williams Parry imagines that the arms of the chair itself are reaching, “mewn hedd hir am un ni ddaw” (“in everlasting peace, for one who will never come”). I should note that the English meaning of “Hedd Wyn” is white, or blessed, peace.

I would of course wish to associate myself with tributes being made to those who died – and believe that it is only right that their sacrifice should be commemorated.

But, as my colleague and I argued in our EDM, it would surely be more appropriate to commemorate the end of the war in 2018 rather than its beginning.

In Goodbye to All That (1929), Robert Graves said of the Armistice, “The news sent me out walking alone along the dyke above the marshes of Rhuddlan (an ancient battlefield, the Flodden of Wales), cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead.”

Even peace, for some, served only to emphasise the futility of the war and the senselessness of so many dead.

This year’s commemorations should provide an opportunity for sombre reflection, for pausing and for remembering those who died.

But we should not forget the pity of war and the pointlessness of the conflict which began in 1914.

As history has shown, it was far from being the “war to end all wars”.
I’d like to end by quoting an englyn, by William Ambrose (Emrys):

“Celfyddyd o hyd mewn hedd — aed yn uwch
O dan nawdd tangnefedd;
Segurdod yw clod y cledd,
A’i rwd yw ei anrhydedd.”

The closing couplet translates as:

“Idleness is the glory of the sword
And rust is its distinction”.

Diolch yn fawr.

_________________________

Here is a beautiful setting of the R Williams Parry poem performed by Meibion Prysor.

video

Friday, 27 June 2014

A second-hand tyre salesman


Someone who clearly knows a thing or two about the mysterious Gill tyre business posted a comment on an earlier piece about Nathan Gill, the recently elected Ukip MEP, to say that the tyres were all legally disposed of. While it is accepted that that was the case, Anon's comments overlook several important points:

1. It was the Environment Agency Wales which took out an enforcement order to have the tyres legally disposed of. Disposal was supervised by both the EAW and the county council. It was not exactly done voluntarily. An interesting FOI would be how much this cost the EAW and the council.

2. How many houses in built-up areas have 5,000 tyres in their back gardens?

3. Nathan Gill was in business with the occupants of this house just a few miles from his own home, and one of the occupants was his mother. The property itself is a large Victorian house run as a B&B. The website has a great many pictures of the house and surroundings, all copyright of Nathan Gill, so either way it is reasonable to assume that our MEP was a frequent visitor. Did he ever wonder what all those tyres were doing there?

4. North Wales police raided a second property in conjunction with the illegal tyre stash a few miles away in Llangefni where Nathan Gill lives. Perhaps that was just a coincidence. Perhaps Anon would like to tell us more?

Not only were the tyres being stored illegally, but it is clear from news reports at the time (Daily Post and BBC, October 2011) that the authorities had reason to believe this was part of a scam to ship used and worn tyres to Ghana where they would presumably have been sold and re-used.


Thursday, 26 June 2014

A lynch mob and a gooseberry bush

News even more shocking than the rumoured defection of Ken Rees to Ukip has come in from Llansteffan, where the Community Council has passed a motion of no confidence in Cllr Daff Davies, affectionately known as Elmer Fudd.

Press Release

Last night, Llansteffan and Llanybri Community Councillors voted in favour of a ‘NO CONFIDENCE’ motion in their Community Council Chairman, Councillor David ‘Daff’ Davies.

The motion of no confidence was directly linked to Cllr Davies’ conduct and perceived influence in the recent controversial decision by County Councillors to over-rule planning officers and vote in favour of a 45m commercial wind turbine at Mwche Farm, Llansteffan.

This Wind Turbine, will become a permanent blight on one of Wales’ most iconic landscapes.  A world renowned view that was made famous by Wales’ most famous son, Dylan Thomas.

Llansteffan and Llanybri Community Councillors strongly opposed the proposal when it was brought to the group during consultation, yet Councillor Davies continued to fully back and publicly support the application.  With numerous complaints from residents over the lack of representation and blatant disrespect for his constituents, questions were being raised over the conduct of the Community Council as a whole.

Community Councillor David Hunter called for the motion of NO CONFIDENCE: ‘I have called this motion as I believe you have brought Llansteffan and Llanybri Community Council into disrepute’.

He further stressed that the vote in a motion of no confidence is not in the capacity as County Councillor, but only in capacity as Community Councillor.

Councillor Davies read a pre-prepared statement in his defence:

‘I can tell you quite categorically that I have not taken any money in a brown envelope or any other colour envelope’.  He further challenged anyone who has said this to provide hard evidence.

In regards to his bias towards the applicant and his personal friend he added: ‘I supported the application as I didn’t feel the objectors had any grounds’.  Councillor Davies went on to reiterate professional and government bodies that did not object to the wind turbine.  He also stated that there has been many single wind turbine applications across Carmarthenshire that have all been approved.

Following Councillor Davies’ statement and prior to the vote, a request for questions from the public was made by interim Chair Community Councillor, Carys Jones. Proceedings were quickly hushed by Councillor Davies who blatantly refused to be questioned by what he termed a ‘Kangaroo Court’.

All but one of the Community Councillors were in favour of the motion of no confidence.

Community Councillor Alan Cooper objected to the motion as he ‘believed the Community Council are at fault and should not have forced Daff Davies to be Chair when he was also Chair of the County Council.

Community Councillor Cooper went on to say that by being Chairman of both Community and County Council’s put pressure onto his role and forced a conflict of interest.

It was highlighted that Councillor Davies had every opportunity to stand down in his position at anytime during, or prior to this process in order to avoid any conflict of interest.

Community Councillors also voted in favour to form a sub-committee to fully investigate the conduct of Councillor Davies and report any finding back to the Community Council on the 21st July 2014.

Following the vote of no confidence, he continued his derogatory onslaught stating: ‘I’ve already chosen my tree in Llanybri, it’s a gooseberry tree…its only that high (Knee high)..so you’ll have to wait some time before you see me hang!’

Councillor Davies is now seeking legal guidance before deciding his next steps.

A Ukip defection in Llanelli

On the face of it the LibDems and Ukip are poles (no pun intended) apart politically, with the LibDems claiming to be the most pro-European of the unionist parties. So rumours that Ken Rees, the veteran LibDem from Llanelli, has told his party friends that he has joined Ukip may take some by surprise.

When it comes to switching political allegiances Ken has form, however. Back in 2008 it is understood that he promised Plaid Cymru he would support the Plaid group on the council if one of the two Plaid candidates in his former ward stood down and gave him a better chance of being elected.

Not long after being elected, Ken threw in his lot with Meryl Gravell's Independents, but crashed to fifth place in the 2012 county council elections and lost the LibDems' only seat on the council.

It is being whispered that he hopes to make another comeback as a Ukip Assembly Member in the 2016 elections.


A letter to the Editor

Update 26 June

It is understood that Daniel Hurford of the WLGA has offered himself as a contact. Anyone wishing to send in their views or suggestions can e-mail to:  Daniel.Hurford@wlga.gov.uk

_______________


The following letter from two of Carmarthenshire's bloggers has appeared in the South Wales Guardian, and we hope that, whatever readers' political views, they will join us and make their views known about what sort of County Council they want to see.

"Dear Editor

Carmarthenshire County Council  has announced that it will be beginning a review of its governance arrangements in the near future. On the face of it, this sounds like a very dry and technical subject, but it goes to the heart of what sort of local government we want.

Readers of the South Wales Guardian will know that Carmarthenshire County Council has been through a very turbulent year and has often made the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The Council Leader, Kevin Madge, has gone on record as saying that he would like a fresh start, and we think that the review which has just been announced is an opportunity for the council to do just that.

Although the review panel will be talking to councillors and officers, we feel strongly that they should also listen to the views of the public in Carmarthenshire, and we would like to encourage everyone who cares about local government and the services it provides to write in and give their views on what needs to change.

Local government directly affects all of us in our daily lives, often more so than what happens in the Welsh Assembly or Westminster. It is responsible for education, social services, the roads, waste and the environment, planning, public health and much else besides. Only a minority of voters turns out to vote in council elections, and many councils are effectively run year in, year out by the same old faces. They are often less than welcoming when their actions and decisions are questioned by the press and public. That needs to change.

In Carmarthenshire a recent survey commissioned by the Welsh Government showed that more people than in any other part of Wales felt that they were unable to influence council decisions.

In recent years the constitution which governs the democratic functions of the council has been amended many times, and the cumulative effect of these changes has been to reduce the ability of ordinary councillors to scrutinise the actions of the governing board and senior officers.

Not long ago a request from opposition and backbench councillors to get the council to consult them on charges for sports facilities in the south of the county was rejected by a senior officer as an attempt at “micro-managing” executive decisions. On another occasion a planning officer rejected a request for a report on traffic and road safety in connection with a planning application saying that it was the council’s policy only to publish what it was legally obliged to publish. On several occasions in the last year the council executive has refused to allow debate or questions on a number of serious matters.

We believe that the default should be set to “open”, with the council withholding only what it is legally prevented from publishing.

Here are some of the changes we would like to see:


  • ·         Encouraging public participation, with time set aside for public questions and answers at monthly meetings and a much simplified procedure for submitting questions.

  • ·         Restoring urgent items to the agenda to enable councillors to raise pressing matters with the executive.

  • ·         Set aside a part of meetings of the full council with an open session of questions for the Leader and members of the Executive Board.

  • ·         Removing unreasonable restrictions on the numbers of signatures councillors need before they can submit a motion.

  • ·         Restoring recorded votes in committees so that members of the public can see how councillors voted on controversial matters.

  • ·         Extend filming to all committees, and the Planning Committee in particular. If this cannot be done for reasons of cost, the council should allow members of the public to record these public meetings.

  • ·         There should be fewer meetings held behind closed doors and independent opinion sought whenever the council applies the so-called “public interest test” before excluding press and public.

  • ·         The registers of interests for councillors and senior officers should be published online and updated.

  • ·         The Business Management Group which makes important decisions on council business should publish its minutes as a matter of course.

  • ·         Details of councillors’ attendance records should be published online.

  • ·         Carmarthenshire should follow the example set by Monmouthshire and publish details of council spending online.

  • ·         Groups bringing petitions to Council should be heard by the full council, and ordinary backbench councillors should be given an opportunity to speak on the petition.

A former US Supreme Court justice once said “sunshine is the best disinfectant” when it came to ensuring good government, and we believe it is time for Carmarthenshire County Council to pull back the curtains at County Hall and let the light in.

Jacqui Thompson, Llanwrda
Richard Vale, Newcastle Emlyn

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Stakeholders

The WLGA has now announced who will make up the panel which will look into governance in Carmarthenshire County Council. The four members of the panel will spend the next few weeks talking to members of the council as well as "key partners" and stakeholders.

The four members are:

Byron Davies (former chief executive of Cardiff City Council)
Rod Alcott (formerly of the Wales Audit Office)
Cllr Paul Griffiths (Lab) - a serving county councillor in Rhondda Cynon Taf
Anne Nicholl (Plaid) - a former ministerial adviser

Mr Alcott has had the pleasure of working with Carmarthenshire's chief executive, Mark James, before when the two men were part of a special recovery team sent in to sort out education in Monmouthshire.

Whether the people who live in the county will be allowed to have their say is not clear, although nobody has a bigger stake in it.

Yesterday's political press release on the deliberations of Welsh Labour's National Executive is a timely reminder that the top brass in County Hall have learned nothing over the last year. After a brief lull in abuse of the council's press and PR machine while the chief executive took his extended leave of absence, it's clearly back to business as usual.

Monday, 23 June 2014

News from the Kremlin

Older readers will be able to recall how under Soviet communism there were familiar organs of state, such as a president, a prime minister and a parliament, but real power lay with a tiny self-perpetuating elite within the party which formed a body known as the Politburo.

All that was more or less swept away by history, but it seems that the winds of change did not make it to all parts of Wales.

Carmarthenshire County Council's online Pravda has just announced to jubilant collective farm workers and steel combines across the county that Welsh Labour's National Executive Committee has decided that Carmarthenshire will be allowed to continue as a standalone local authority, and will not be merged with any of the neighbouring councils.

Kevin Madge is mightily relieved, and says that the removal of uncertainty means that the council can now get on with recruiting new senior officers.

Where the Welsh Assembly and voters fit into this scheme of things is not clear, and it's a two-fingered salute to the Ombudsman for Public Services who told Kevin Madge and the council off only last year for allowing the press office to be used for party political purposes.


Madge's Blue Badges

In Labour's election manifesto for the county council elections two short years ago, Kevin Madge promised that a Labour-led Carmarthenshire County Council would "keep current systems of Blue Badges" and "oppose any attempts to charge Blue Badge holders for parking".

This was just one of a very long list of commitments, many of which were either meaningless ("provide strong leadership" and "continue to support Glangwili and Amman Valley hospitals"), or bizarre ("establish new bridleways for horses"), but the promise to keep the Blue Badge scheme and oppose charges for Blue Badge holders seemed clear enough.

We also have a Labour-led council, unless Kevin Madge has quietly defected to another party in the last few days.

Introducing charges for Blue Badge holders was one of a very long list of proposals considered by Kevin Madge and his fellow Executive Board members when they were putting together the budget for 2014-15, and it was duly rubber-stamped and passed by the Labour and Independent members without a single abstention or dissenting voice.

Perhaps Labour's councillors had not read their own manifesto.

Needless to say, the council decided not to make a fuss about what it had done, and its press releases after the budget was passed concentrated on telling us which services were not being cut and which charges were not being raised.

All went very quiet until recently when the council issued a draft off-street parking order. Buried somewhere in the fine print are changes to concessions for Blue Badge holders. The story was picked up by the Carmarthen Journal which noted the concern this was causing disabled people across the county.

The newspaper contacted John McEvoy, the council's transport and parking manager, and the man whose name appears on the new order.

Mr McEvoy has obviously undergone training by the council's press office in how to deal with inquisitive journalists because this is what he said by way of clarification:

"The current suite of off-street parking places orders contains a clause in the main body of the order outlining the first three hours free parking concession for disabled badge holders.

"The relevant clause is located within that part of the order titled Disabled Persons' Vehicles. The proposed off-street parking places consolidation order does not contain reference to a three- hour free parking concession for disabled badge holders."

That'll be a 'yes' then.


Sunday, 22 June 2014

Hanes dwy faton

Baton Mrs Windsor

Ychydig wythnosau nôl ar ddiwedd mis Mai bu cyfle i weld baton Ei Mawrhydi dros gyfnod o bum niwrnod wrth iddi fynd igam-ogam trwy'r wlad ar ei ffordd i Gaeredin a Gemau'r Gymanwlad. Mi aeth y BBC ati o ddifri i godi cefnogaeth i'r ffon gyda diweddariadau o Gwmsgwt a threfi mwy, twîts a thudalen arbennig ar Facebook.

A hyn i gyd - y darllediadau allanol, y gohebwyr gorgynhyrfus, y cyfweliadau â selebs, hoelion wyth lleol a chyn bencampwr y wib ganllath -  yr holl syrcas ar gyfer digwyddiad tu hwnt i Glawdd Offa.

Yn ôl y Bîb, roedd "wal o sŵn" i'w glywed wrth i'r faton gyrraedd Aberteifi, a'r lle dan ei sang.

Gan gofio taith ddiflas y ffagl olympaidd trwy'r dre, penderfynodd y Cneifiwr aros gartre a chwynnu'r ardd, ond y diwrnod wedyn gwelais i Mrs S yn Aldi.

Darllen y Daily Mail mae Mrs S, ac rwy'n amau'n gryf bod yna dyweli sychu Wils a Kate yn ei chegin. Dyw Mrs S ddim yn orhoff o genedlaetholwyr, felly.

"Rwtsh llwyr", meddai. "Roedd 'na dipyn o bobl yn dre, mae'n wir. Hanner tymor a diwrnod braf, wel, mae pobol yn dod ma's, on'd ŷn nhw? O beth welais i doedd y lle ddim dan ei sang o bell ffordd."

"'Sen nhw wedi hysbysebu'r digwyddiad, bydde mwy o bobol wedi troi ma's", meddai hi. "Wen i ar y ffordd i weld y chiropodist, chimod."


Baton Ras yr Iaith

Cynhaliwyd Ras yr Iaith am y tro cyntaf ar ddydd Gwener, a rhedodd hyd at 1,000 o bobl yn ystod y dydd o Fachynlleth trwy hyd a lled Ceredigion cyn cyrraedd Aberteifi. Troiodd miloedd o bobl allan i ddathlu a chefnogi'r rhedwyr.

Nod y digwyddiad oedd dod â phobl at ei gilydd a dathlu'r iaith. Yn hytrach na gweision sifil ar bwyllgorau swyddogol, gwirfoddolwyr lleol dan arweiniad Siôn Jobbins a drefnodd bopeth, a llwyddiant anferthol oedd hi.

Daeth y syniad o gynnal ras dros yr iaith o ddigwyddiadau tebyg yng Ngwlad y Basg, Llydaw ac Iwerddon, ac heb os aiff Ras yr Iaith o nerth i nerth yn y blynyddoedd nesaf.

Tra bod neges "gyfrinachol" ym maton Palas Buckingham, roedd neges ar ffurf englyn gan y Prifardd Ceri Wyn Jones, a byrdwn yr englyn oedd pasio'r iaith ymlaen i'r cenedlaethau nesaf.

Adroddiad 8 llinell oedd ymateb BBC Wales, a dim ond ychydig mwy oedd gan BBC Cymru i'w ddweud.

Yn anffodus, doedd dim lle i'r digwyddiad ar BBC Wales Today chwaith.



Saturday, 21 June 2014

A rushed job

Update 22 June

Caebrwyn has written a powerful and very eloquent piece about this review over on her blog. She is absolutely right, and we must ensure that the voice of the public is heard this time.

___________

Kevin Madge, the Labour leader of Carmarthenshire County Council, announced that the council would be holding a review of its governance procedures when he spoke at the Extraordinary General Meeting called to discuss the Wales Audit Office's findings on unlawful payments at the end of February. The review would be carried out under the auspices of the Welsh Local Government Association, he said.

More than three months have passed since then, and at the most recent meeting of the full council we were told that a panel would be appointed and begin work before the end of June, with the aim of completing its task by the end of July. All councillors would have an opportunity to give their views to the panel.

There was no announcement of who would sit on the panel, except that it would include a former council chief executive and someone who used to work for the Wales Audit Office, but we were assured that it would be completely independent.

A couple of days ago it was announced that the panel would be headed by Byron Davies, the former chief executive of Cardiff City Council, but there has been no confirmation yet as to who will be joining Mr Davies.

Given the timescales, this is a little odd.

Why is it taking so long to put together a panel which is supposed to start work within days and complete its task within weeks?

Although councillors will be invited to give their views to the panel, there has been no word from Kevin Madge or anyone else as to whether the county's long-suffering residents will be allowed to tell the experts what they think about how their council should be run.

Who is Byron Davies?

It would be hard to find anyone who is more of a local government insider than Byron Davies. He picked up an OBE in 2008 (Mark James is higher up the ludicrous honours pecking order with a CBE, by the way) before retiring as chief executive in 2009. His CV includes stints as President of the Chartered Institute of Management in Wales, President of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives in the UK and President of the European Federation of Local Authority Chief Executives.

On retiring he set up a "strategic management" consultancy. He is or was also a Welsh Government Commissioner on corporate governance, Chairman of the Wales International Business Council, International Spokesperson for the Welsh Local Government Association, Honorary President of the Federation of Local Authority Chief Executives in Europe and a Deputy Lieutenant of South Glamorgan.

He was also one of the commissioners appointed by the Welsh Government to take over the running of Anglesey when the county council went into meltdown in 2011.

A large part of Carmarthenshire's problems stem from a democratic deficit and lack of openness and transparency, with power and control being taken from elected representatives and handed to a managerial elite.

Mr Davies's CV is very strong on management, but the word "democracy" does not appear to feature anywhere.


Friday, 20 June 2014

Lessons English


Earlier this week Estyn published a report (here) on English language skills among 7-14 year olds in Wales, based on a sample of 13 primary schools and 7 secondary schools in different parts of Wales. Unsurprisingly the report showed that standards vary across Wales, that there are some excellent schools and some which need to do better, but that overall standards are improving and that most pupils achieve good standards:

"The quality of teaching and assessment of English is good or better in a majority of primary and secondary schools."

The report also concluded that in general although standards in English are improving in Welsh schools, there is still a gap in attainment between schools in Wales and schools in different regions of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

To get to the statistics which back up that conclusion, you have to leave the Estyn report and drill down into a statistical bulletin issued by Statistics for Wales in January 2014. These show that at Key Stage 3 83% of pupils in Wales were achieving a level 5 or better in English in 2013, compared with 84% in the West Midlands and 88% in the North West of England (88% being the best).

In other words, there is a gap, but it is hardly a yawning gap, and we need to remember that these very high level statistics mask differences in achievement between different local authorities, different schools and of course the pupils themselves.

In the case of Wales, the England and Wales comparison also masks a very interesting difference between English and Welsh medium schools, although here Estyn notes:

In Welsh-medium schools, pupils’ performance in English in key stage 2 [i.e. pupils aged between 7 and 11, Ed.] has also improved over the past five years and is around two percentage points higher than pupils’ performance in English-medium schools.

In key stage 3 [pupils aged between 11 and 14, Ed.] in Welsh-medium secondary schools, pupils’ performance in English has been consistently higher than in English-medium schools by around five percentage points.


In other words, performance among pupils at Welsh-medium schools at Key Stage 3 was every bit as good as the best performing region of England.

This was a point which was picked up by Golwg360, and it puts paid to the myth that children in Welsh-medium schools are less good at English. In fact, the reverse is true.

When it comes to finding out what is happening in Wales, most people rely not on Golwg360 but on the infinitely better resourced BBC, and BBC Wales gave the story very different treatment under the headline

Estyn: Welsh pupils behind rest of UK in English lessons

The BBC's report makes no mention of the difference between performance in English and Welsh medium schools; in fact it does not mention Welsh-medium education at all. Children in Welsh schools are worse at English than their counterparts on the other side of Offa's Dyke is the clear message.

Another clear message, according to the BBC, is that too much time is being spent on airy-fairy creative writing, rather than the important business of filling in forms. Here it quotes the author of the report, Wendy Young, although Estyn's report does not actually say this at all:

"We found teachers are focusing too much on story-writing, on fiction, when it's important to make sure pupils have skills in writing which will equip them for not only college but work and everyday life," she told BBC Wales.

"They need to have those practical writing skills so they can fill in a job application or mortgage application."

What the report actually says is that children need to be able to cope with a wide range of different types of English used in different contexts:

"There are six non-fiction genres, including recount, instruction, non-chronological reports, explanation, persuasion and discussion. Most primary and secondary schools include this range of genre in their planning but in a minority of schools there is a lack of balance between the genres. 

Each writing genre has different grammatical features and style characteristics, which pupils need to explore in order to be successful writers."

We don't know who wrote the BBC's hatchet job, but whoever it was, we can bet that their English lessons did not focus on filling in mortgage application forms.

To put this into context, Cneifiwr scraped a grade 6 'O' Level in English (a bare pass), and didn't do English at 'A' Level.







Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Parking charges

Golwg360 reports on a packed public meeting organised by Plaid's six county councillors in Carmarthen to discuss plans by the County Council to introduce charges for Sunday parking, and to extend parking charges to 9 o'clock in the evening in the town's main car parks.

Speakers argued that this would damage struggling small businesses, and others described the Sunday charges as a "tax on religious belief".

This is not the first time the county council has tried to go down this route. Back in 2009 an attempt to introduce charges for Sunday parking was eventually dropped in the face of protests, and the council has established something of a track record when it comes to refusing to accept defeat - the Llanelli care homes closures being another case in point.

It is not just Carmarthen which is feeling the squeeze either, but all of the towns in the county. A quick trip over the border to Pembrokeshire will show a very different attitude to town centre parking charges.

Back in 2009 the council argued that introducing charges for Sunday parking was needed to create a level playing field for the multi-storey car park which serves the St Catherine's Walk shopping centre. And as the Western Mail article shows, the council was also arguing that if it didn't get the additional money, council tax might have to rise.

The courts have since ruled that it is illegal for councils to use parking charges in order to raise revenue, and we also know that the council's car parks are highly profitable. So where is the money going? There is little sign that it is being ploughed back into parking facilities in many parts of the county. In Newcastle Emlyn, for example, the council shut the car park toilets to save money even though they could very easily have been kept open with profits from parking charges.

Part of the answer could lie with the East Gate development in Llanelli where the council is reported to be forking out £100,000 a year in rent for the car park, with shoppers in Carmarthen and elsewhere helping to foot the bill.





Monday, 16 June 2014

June Council Meeting - A Shop Window

This month's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council was a fairly muted affair, but a couple of points are worthy of a mention.

There were apologies from 15 councillors (out of 74), with the roll call of absentees including Labour's Keri Thomas once again. That now makes 11 consecutive meetings of the full council missed, and we will soon be able to celebrate the first anniversary of his last appearance in the chamber to stand up for the people of Tyisha. 

The Chief Executive had been keeping an unusually low profile since returning from gardening leave, but there were several signs this month that things are returning to normal.

Most of the short-ish agenda was made up of reports from various committees and scrutiny committees which it was the councillors' task to "receive", with the main item of business being a review of the council's governance arrangements.

Kevin Madge and Chris Burns, one of the assistant chief executives, were very keen to assure councillors that the panel which had been appointed was both politically balanced and independent. It has been put together by the Welsh Local Government Association, and will include a former council chief executive and someone who used to work for the Wales Audit Office, councillors were told.

For some odd reason the names of the great and good who will make up the panel have not been made public, and so we have no way of knowing yet just how balanced and independent the panel will actually be.

Chris Burns was also very keen to stress that all councillors would have an opportunity to make their views known to the panel, but there was no mention of whether the public would be allowed to venture an opinion.

The panel will begin work before the end of June, and so as soon as we know who the mystery panellists are, Cneifiwr will endeavour to publish contact details so that anyone who feels strongly about how the council is run will be able to send in their unsolicited thoughts.

That over with, councillors turned their attention to "receiving" reports. This produced a lively and interesting discussion on a range of matters including the relocation of Mid and West Wales Fire's control centre from Llangunnor to Bridgend and a decision by Dyfed Powys Police to cut its Bobby Van service, which advises people on home security.

A number of (Plaid) councillors raised questions about the role and purpose of the Local Service Board, a group of bosses from the council, health service board, police, fire service, etc., plus Kevin Madge, which meets to all intents and purposes in secret several times a year to discuss high level strategy - but not Bobby Vans, control centres or anything that you could put a finger on. Meetings are not open to the public, and there is no public record of their deliberations, even though all of those participating represent public bodies.

This was precisely the sort of airing of concerns and exchange of views on current issues which most residents would hope and expect councillors to engage in at their monthly meetings, and thanks to the filming of meetings of the full council, we can now all see them doing it for ourselves. In short, the monthly meeting  is the council's shop window on the world.

As it happens the council's constitution puts this very neatly when it describes the role of the Chair of Council:

To ensure that the council meeting is a forum for the debate of matters of concern to the local community and the place at which councillors are able to hold the executive board and committee chairs to account.

 Of course, this is not how the Chief Executive sees things, and he made it clear that his masterplan to do away with all this unnecessary debate and washing of dirty linen in public has not gone away.

If he had his way, the monthly meetings would not be given an opportunity to review the work of the various committees and raise "matters of concern", but would sit obediently and listen to corporate Powerpoint presentations instead.

So although the rest of us don't know much about the panel that will decide on the future of local democracy in Carmarthenshire, Mr James's body language and eye movements suggested that his crystal ball is working just fine. He commented,

"I believe I was shot down in the press for that [plans to curb democratic debate, Ed], but we'll see what the independent panel makes of it".

As experienced James watchers know, the chief executive rarely if ever ventures an opinion on some future event unless he is pretty sure of the outcome.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Council of Despair - A Gala Evening



The dignitaries were all in place, the auditorium awash with floral frocks, pin-striped suits and glittering municipal chains.


Mrs Muriel Chippings, dressed in a stunning ensemble of badger pelts and puce chihuahua furs, took to the microphone to deliver her opening address to the illustrious assemblage.


"It is with some considerable pride as leader of this great authority for the last quarter century that I welcome you this evening to the magnificent new Robbie Savage Auditorium in the Alabama Center for Divine Retribution.


“Not only do these wonderful facilities include this state-of-the-art auditorium and the popular ice skating experience, but the centre also serves the community in other ways, including the new Jagerbomb Bar and an increasingly popular foodbank.


“I am pleased to announce this evening that after a full consultation with our public relations specialists, the Halelujah Foodbank has been re-branded Pam’s Pantry, a service we set up with the Reverend Bonnett to help those who are too bone idle to go and get themselves a job, with nutritious boxes of pop tarts, spaghetti hoops, pot noodles and instant whip being handed out to provide all the ingredients for a feast.


“It is also with immense satisfaction that I welcome back my good friend and aide Mr Teflon who has been the victim of a vile and scurrilous campaign by sections of the press and even, I am ashamed to say, some members of this authority.


"It is only fitting that we should commence this evening's gala celebration with a reflective thought for the day from the Reverend Eli Bonnett.”


Multi-coloured lights flashed, and dry ice momentarily obscured the stage as the loudspeakers played a dubstep version of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus before the Reverend strode up to the microphone.


“AAALLL RIGHD! I said, AAAAALLLL RIGHD-EEE! Trimsaran ROCKS! Welcome one and all to our new auditorium. As some of you know, none of this would have been possible without the tireless support of our friends in the front row down by ‘yer, and it is with that thought in mind that I ask you to thank the Lord Almighty for the deliverance of my very good friend Mr Teflon from the evil clutches of those interfering auditors who were doing Satan’s work by casting doubt and planting nasty suspicions in the minds of the good folk of this county.


“Be gone Beelzebub, and let us give thanks to the Lord for sending us Mr Teflon. Amen.”


Returning to the microphone, Mrs Chippings peered over her diamond encrusted half-moon spectacles before resuming her address.


“Some of you may be wondering why I am standing before you this evening rather than Kevin who, as you may know, is temporarily occupying my office. Let’s be honest and acknowledge that although he has done his limited best, his best really has not been good enough, and so this arrangement will last only until the next defection or by-election.


“Be that as it may, Mr Teflon simply could not find any time on the agenda for one of Kevin’s, erm, speeches, but I’m sure that if he could speak to you, he would tell you that he has been making some hard decisions.


“But now, we move towards the climax of what Ms Klebb from the Press Office has described as this evening’s "glittering cavalcade of bardic brilliance” with the unveiling of an exact replica of Dylan Thomas’s writing shed. It is a mobile shed. On wheels. Handcrafted, painted and assembled by local craftsmen employed by B&Q  in Johnstown, another demonstration, I might add, of our commitment to local business.


“Part-funded by a modest EU Regional Development grant of £372,769, which I myself approved, this shed will tour the schools of the county and be an inspiration to our budding bards for generations to come.


“But before I have the pleasure of revealing this masterpiece of reproductive shed-craft, I shall hand over to my fellow Executive Board member, Mrs Tremble, who has devoted her not inconsiderable literary talents to writing a more contemporary version of one of Thomas’s dated works. Even more fittingly, Mrs Tremble is responsible for Bugger All, or as Dylan Thomas preferred to call it, Llareggub.


Mrs Tremble made her way to the stage to the accompaniment of Take That’s “Greatest Day”. 


“Dylan Thomas was born 100 years ago and died in 1953, so it is not surprising that Under Milkwood has little relevance to the modern, progressive county we have become under the leadership of Muriel and Mr Teflon. Mrs Organ Morgan’s general store closed down years ago, and we all now enjoy the benefits of shopping at Tesco and Asda. The old village school was rationalised under our Modernising Education Programme, and is now up for sale as a private residence.


“Captain Cat fell foul of the bedroom tax and was assessed fit for work by Atos. The post office closed a while back, and Willy Nilly the postman was made redundant. Most of the gaily coloured houses were sold as holiday cottages, and Ocky Milkman now lives in an older person’s bungalow.

"There is also no mention in Thomas's work of the wonderful amenities we now enjoy at Ffoslas and Nandos in Eastgate.


“It was therefore quite a challenge to bring this work up to date.”


Mrs Tremble cleared her voice and began to read in tones reminiscent of the Queen’s 1955 Christmas broadcast from Balmoral:


To begin at the beginning.


It is spring, moonless night in the small town, now lit by

energy-saving street lights, the one-way streets silent,

and the doggers’ wood limping invisible down to the

sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, turd bobbing sea.


(continued on page 94)