Monday, 28 July 2014

Peace Vigil for Gaza

After last weekend's huge demonstration in Cardiff and smaller events in Machynlleth and Bangor, an unexpectedly large number of people turned out in Carmarthen this evening to call for peace in Gaza. Among the speakers were Catrin Dafydd, Mererid Hopwood and Menna Elfyn, and there were powerful contributions from others, including Mrs Devra Appelbaum, one of the very few Jewish people living in the town.

Devra reminded us that not all Jews and not all Israelis support what the Israeli government is doing.

That so many turned out on a Monday evening, young and old, shows the depth of revulsion and horror which many, many people in Wales feel about what is happening there.

There have been so many shocking images of the death and destruction being wrought in Gaza that words seem inadequate, but the following short report by Jon Snow on Saturday's Channel 4 News is one of the most moving and eloquent testimonies imaginable.

Doom and gloom

In his latest monthly message to council staff in Y Gair, the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council tackles spending cuts and local government reorganisation, before ending with a brief mention of the National Eisteddfod.

It's worth taking a closer look at each of these in turn.

Spending cuts

Whereas Welsh councils had previously been told to budget for a 1.5% cut in funding from the Welsh Government for 2015-16, the likelihood is that they will now face a reduction of up to 4.5% next year, with similar reductions in the years after that.

In the run-up to the UK general election, Tory attacks on Labour's management of the NHS in Wales have hit home, and Carwyn Jones is planning to divert resources away from local government services to shore up the creaking health service.

The calculation is that "Labour boosts health spending" will stick in voters' minds more than headlines about cuts to council services. We'll see.

Mark James reckons that the next round of spending reductions will translate into cuts of between £45m and £60m over the next three years for Carmarthenshire. 

What is not yet clear is whether the Welsh Government will continue to protect education from spending cuts. Given the very negative headlines about education standards, it is hard to see Carwyn Jones taking the knife to schools budgets as well, which will mean that spending cuts will fall disproportionately hard on everything else: social services, roads, libraries, public health and the environment to name but a few.

On top of that there will be job losses, with Carmarthenshire planning another round of voluntary redundancies in the autumn, and the prospect of compulsory job losses after that. 

You don't need a degree in economics to work out that cuts to services and many thousands of job losses will drag down any recovery in the Welsh economy over the next few years, but outside Wales nobody really gives a damn.

And so as the countdown to the next general election begins, expect Labour to trot out its usual mantra about "sending a message to Westminster". The trouble with that is that Labour has signed up to George Osborne's spending plans and the result would be same under Tweedle-Cameron or Tweedle-Milliband.

As you can read here, "an attempt to commit Labour to abandoning coalition spending plans for 2015-16 was heavily defeated" at a closed meeting of the party's national policy forum last week.

As Milliband and Balls see it, the way out is "big reform, not big spending". And that is just what Carwyn Jones is planning to do with his reorganisation of local government. Fewer councils will mean more efficient councils perhaps, but council mergers are three to five years down the line, and budget cuts are happening now.

Local Government Reorganisation

Carwyn Jones's attempt to reorganise local government in Wales could fairly be described as botched before it has even started.

Following publication of the Williams Commission's report, the First Minister set a goal of getting cross-party consensus on reform by Easter so that the process could move swiftly ahead. The first problem for Carwyn was that he did not have consensus within the Labour Party: getting rid of some of the Labour baronies in the south and the forcible expulsion of apparatchiks from the gravy train was never something they were going to agree to.

To nobody's surprise, the Welsh Local Government Association came out against the proposals as well.

Easter came and went, and there was no agreement.

As an incentive to try to get the ball rolling, Local Government Minister, Lesley Griffiths, recently suggested that the Welsh Government could legislate to delay local government elections by another year until 2018 for those councils which opted for early merger with neighbouring authorities. As it is, the next round of council elections had already been put back a year to 2017 to avoid a clash with elections to the Welsh Assembly, which had in turn also been put back a year because of the UK general election.

It remains to be seen whether holding out the prospect of another bonus year of special responsibility allowances before having to face voters is enough to swing it for members of council cabinets the length and breadth of Wales.

Overall, the number of councils in Wales is set to fall from 22 to 12, with Carmarthenshire being one of the few which continue as before.

Set against the recommendations of the Williams Commission and the goals described by Carwyn Jones as he responded to questions in the Senedd last week, Carmarthenshire's survival looks a little odd because
in any list of councils which have hit the headlines because of failings in scrutiny and accountability in recent years, Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Caerphilly would occupy the top slots.

Leanne Wood, the Plaid leader, pointed out the importance the Williams Commission attached to scrutiny and accountability.

The First Minister agreed with her, and recalled that when there were just 8 councils, including Dyfed, there had been a very high level of scrutiny. Fewer councils would mean fewer, better councillors more capable of carrying out their responsibilities, he said, adding for good measure:

I think that it is right to say that, for some local authorities, certainly, the impression has been given that the officers have been in the driving seat and members have not been as proactive as they might have been in terms of scrutiny. That will be important.

Despite that, Carmarthenshire will continue as before with its complement of 74 councillors, including all those Labour and Independent backbenchers who rarely if ever speak but always loyally vote as instructed.
Cllr Anthony 'Whitey' Davies (Ind., Llandybie) was first elected in 2007, but has yet to get round to making his maiden speech. Neither has Cllr Theressa Bowen (Ind. but elected in 2012 as a Labour councillor for Llwynhendy).

Not to mention Cllr Meryl Gravell who speaks often, usually to tell us that it is "always right to defend the officers". No matter what.

Council leader Kevin Madge was cock-a-hoop when "Welsh" Labour's Executive Committee recently announced that Carmarthenshire would remain as a standalone authority, and the council's press office duly churned out a press release welcoming the news.

But if Kevin Madge is celebrating, his boss in County Hall seems less sure about Carmarthenshire's prospects in the longer term.

In his latest sermon in Y Gair, the newsletter which goes out to all 9,000 (soon to be rather less) staff, the chief executive writes:

"The Welsh Government have now responded to the Williams Commission.  The Welsh Government have accepted that there should be fewer Councils in Wales.  They consider that the current 22 Councils ought to be reduced to no more than 12.  On the maps they have produced Carmarthenshire is one of only two Councils that will survive as a stand-alone Council.  Swansea is the other.  Powys will be merged with the Powys Local Health Board.  All other Councils will be merged.  Given the catastrophic budget cuts we are facing, being left to end up as the smallest Council in Wales, may not be the best financial option!  However, the timescale for the proposed implementation of all this is 2019/20, so frankly, it is the least of our worries at this time."

Siarad Cymraeg

And finally, Mr James looks forward to the National Eisteddfod, which is this year being hosted by Carmarthenshire. According to unconfirmed rumours, Mr James will be presiding over the first day as honorary president, presumably in recognition of all that he and Meryl Gravell have done for the language over the last 10-15 years, in the same way that President Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong Un have advanced the cause of parliamentary democracy.

Despite agreeing to learn Welsh when he was appointed chief executive, Mr James's knowledge of the language does not seem to extend to much more than reading out "ymddiheuriadau am absenoldeb" (apologies for absence) at meetings.

But never despair, at this rate he might just about qualify for Learner of the Year the next time the Eisteddfod comes to Carmarthenshire, probably in about 2044.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

"A development most councils would give their eye teeth for"

When Roger Jones, Carmarthenshire County Council's Head of Resources, attended his last meeting of the full council a few weeks ago before retiring, councillors marked the end of an era. He was one of the very few senior officers to come from Carmarthenshire and to have spent his entire career working in local government in the county. Councillors were fulsome in their tributes, and it was noted several times that he treated taxpayers' money as though it was his own.

Nobody gave any examples of his prudence and reluctance to see taxpayers' money wasted, but one which springs to mind was his objection to the extraordinary deal cooked up when the council sold a long lease on a former overflow car park at Parc y Scarlets to Marstons. Readers will remember that although the land had been leased to the Scarlets, they had in reality never paid anything for it, but still ended up with around £600,000 of the £850,000 sale price.

Objections from Roger Jones and Jonathan Fearn, Head of Corporate Property, were swept aside and the two officers were over-ruled. When the bizarre details of the deal eventually became public, council leader Kevin Madge went on the offensive in his by now familiar role as fall guy. It was a development most council's (sic) would give their eye teeth for. Cllr Siân Caiach was being hysterical, he said, in a statement which had clearly been written by somebody else, before going on to claim that "the facilities" had created 193 jobs.

It is not clear which facilities he was referring to, but at a guess it was probably the Marstons pub and the Scarlets bar and shop in Eastgate. 107 of those jobs, it seems, were accounted for by builders and shop fitters most of whom would have spent just a few weeks working on the sites.

Some, not many, of the remaining 86 full and part-time jobs would have been accounted for by the Scarlets' Red Room and shop in the Eastgate development in Llanelli. Under the deal, the Scarlets were given £280,000 in "allowable expenses" to cover the cost of fitting out the shop and bar, and they eventually opened in August 2013, with Kevin Madge on hand to cut the red ribbon.

Less than a year later, and the shop has closed. The Scarlets have been left holding the lease, and the premises will now apparently be used as an overflow for the Red Room, although how often it will be pressed into use is not at all clear.

A meeting of the Scarlets Supporters Trust this week heard that the shop had closed and that the Red Room was struggling. KooGa, the retailer which had taken over the running of the shop, could not justify running it because of the lack of footfall in Eastgate.

On the wider issue of the ongoing crisis in Welsh rugby, the deadline set by Regional Rugby Wales for an agreement with the WRU came and went over a week ago. It seems that the two sides are back in negotiation again and that the very public slanging match has ended, at least for the time being, with supporters being told that the regions' "Plan B" (going it alone without the WRU) was still an option.

Friday, 25 July 2014

A death warrant

You probably haven't heard of Claire Perry, but she is the Under-Secretary State for Transport elected to a safe Tory seat in England, and her brief includes freight. It is worth making a note of the name because Claire Perry has just signed a death warrant for what could be scores of people who live in rural areas by increasing the speed limit for lorries on country roads from 40mph to 50mph. She would also like to increase the speed limit for lorries on dual carriage ways from 50mph to 60mph, claiming that these measures will save the road haulage industry £11 million a year.

Control over speed limits is one of the many non-devolved powers, and so although nobody in Wales voted for Claire Perry, and the coalition she is part of took just 13 out of 40 Welsh seats, Mrs Perry gets to decide how fast lorries should be allowed to drive on Welsh roads.

Two years ago on a very dark and stormy night in January I had to travel 19 or so miles to Lampeter. It was windy and raining very heavily, so unsurprisingly there was not much traffic on the A475, but I encountered two very large lorries coming in the opposite direction. One had his lights on full beam, and blinded me in what were already dangerous conditions. I had to slam the brakes on and stop.

The second came round a sharp bend on the wrong side of the road, forcing me right up against a bank. There were just inches to spare.

Whether they were driving faster than 40mph is impossible to say, but they went so fast and the conditions were so bad that the only thing I could have sworn to with certainty was that one of them was a large livestock transporter.

As local roads go, the A475 is by no means the worst, but a yellow council sign at the Horeb junction says a lot of people have been killed and injured on it in the last few years.

According to a UK Government report, the cost of road traffic accidents in Britain in 2011 was £15.6 billion. That was for reported accidents. The same report estimated that the cost of all accidents was probably around £34.8 billion. The average cost of a single fatal road accident was put at £1.87 million.

If inflation is factored in, just five fatal road accidents involving lorries would wipe out the savings which Claire Perry (or possibly the Road Haulage Association) reckons would be achieved by increasing the speed limits, quite apart from the cost in lives and human misery.

In 2013 the Campaign for Better Transport published a report which claimed that:
  • On motorways: More than half (52%) of fatal accidents on motorways involve HGVs, despite HGVs only making up 10% of the traffic on motorways
  • On A-roads: HGVs are involved in 1 in 5 fatal crashes on A roads, a ratio that has worsened over the last 5 years
  • On minor roads: An HGV is five times as likely to be involved in a fatal accident on a minor road than other traffic
The UK Government's own figures show that in 2010 there were 7,103 accidents involving an HGV, with 9,686 casualties and 263 fatalities.

Weighed against this, Claire Perry's £11 million is a meaningless irrelevance.

All of this, of course, is just about speed limits and road safety.

Not factored into the cost to society of cutting red tape for road hauliers is the sort of scene all of us will be familiar with as gigantic HGVs manoeuvre their way around narrow country roads.

Twice in recent months one of my neighbours has taken delivery of goods delivered by John Lewis and a bedding company in massive lorries which each spent an hour trying to get in and out of the single track road which leads to Mrs Bucket's des res, blocking the whole area off as they did so.

Having smaller delivery vehicles would be inefficient, you see.

In Cenarth (the A484 this time), the number of very large lorries struggling to get over the ancient, narrow and picturesque bridge is rising. They not only hold themselves up, thereby incurring cost, but everyone else as well (incurring cost). Not to mention the damage caused to country roads and ancient bridges and buildings as they rumble past.

And with the boom in online shopping set to continue, the problem will only get worse.

Perhaps it has got something to do with the traditionally very close links (lots of juicy donations) between the Conservative Party and the road hauliers, but whatever it is, Wales needs to be able to decide what happens on its roads, not Mrs Perry.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Silly season

Some might say that it's always Silly Season at Carmarthenshire's Press Office, but every so often they surpass themselves. The latest gem is a breathless report on the appointment of a temporary "camping concierge" at Pembrey County Park.

Pictured sitting in the tent alongside the successful applicant, Kieran, is none other than Cllr Meryl Gravell wearing what looks like a pair of retro sofa covers converted into one of those "cozee" all-in-ones you see advertised in the back pages of Sunday colour supplements.

Perhaps readers with more knowledge of the fashion scene can enlighten us. Also, is it my imagination, or is Meryl sending a two-fingered message to the rabble public?

Cllr Meryl Gravell gets a taste of canvass life with Carmarthenshire tourism officer Rhys Anthony in the course of looking for a camping concierge. Pic: Ron Cant
Happy Campers

Meryl is always keen to ensure that jobs go to the best possible candidates, so obviously no local people were up to scratch, and Kieran had to be shipped in from Hereford on the other side of Offa's Dyke.

Perhaps he could be the next Director of Social Care, Health and Housing, because the Appointments Committee - Directors is due to try to choose one tomorrow (post advertised in the Sunday Times), or even the new Director of Technical Services after the last abortive attempt to appoint one was derailed at the last minute in highly unusual circumstances.

As we brace ourselves for the next round of cuts, it's good to know that the Press Office is still there to keep our spirits up with some good news stories.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Pembrokeshire: Inspector Knacker calls again - Updated

Update 23 July 10am

The BBC and the Pembrokeshire Herald are now also reporting the latest developments in Haverfordwest. The Herald carries a copy of Cllr Paul Miller's letter to council leader Jamie Adams calling for the suspension of Bryn Parry-Jones.

In his account of last week's council meeting, Cllr Jacob Williams makes some interesting points about the local press which has burst back to life since the Herald entered the fray.

Meanwhile, the South Wales Argus reports that Chris Burns, Assistant Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, has been appointed interim CEO of troubled Caerphilly.

Llongyfarchiadau mawr Chris!

End of an era


Following the Western Telegraph's recent scoop with the Bryn Parry-Jones letter revealing that he had transferred the loot paid unlawfully in lieu of his employer pension contributions to Mrs P-J, the paper has now come up with another exclusive that it says will rock what must by now be the very shaky foundations of County Hall in Haverfordwest.

Gloucestershire Constabulary are once more back on the case after a whistleblower emerged, and serious allegations have been made.

Paul Miller, the leader of the Labour group on the council, has called for Mr Parry-Jones to be suspended. Rather oddly, though, Cllr Miller and his Labour group apparently abstained from a vote registering the council's disapproval of Mr Parry-Jones's failure to repay the unlawful supplement (see Jacob Williams).

Over in Carmarthenshire, it will be recalled, the Labour leader, Kevin Madge has defended the unlawful payments for all he is worth.

In this month's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council Kev put on his very cross voice when the subject of unlawful libel indemnity to the Chief Executive came up. It was time to move on, he said.

No doubt something very similar was said at the more recent meeting of Pembrokeshire County Council, only the part of the meeting dealing with the unlawful pension supplement was held behind closed doors.

And in any case, if Kev hopes it will all go away let's not forget that Mark James told council staff in his recent sermon in Y Gair that the pension scheme in question had been withdrawn "for now".

But before we get too concerned for the structural integrity of County Hall in Haverfordwest, let's not forget that the boys in blue from Gloucestershire took three months to complete their last "investigation" and managed to do it without interviewing anyone involved or entering into correspondence with the council.

Farewell to Bruce and Blade, hello to Stephen Crabb

As readers may have noticed, there was not exactly spontaneous national mourning at the news that the dour and deeply uncharismatic David Jones MP had been sacked as Secretary of State for Wales. His most remarkable achievement seems to have been that he managed to upset just about everybody, including his own side.

Working under David Jones in Gwydyr House, the London home of the Welsh Office, does not seem to have been much fun either according to this BBC report, and one of the few things which seemed to get the old misery really excited was the chance to fawn over William and Kate.

Almost exactly a year ago, here he was tweeting in ecstasy at the birth of little George:

As a North Walian, I'm massively pleased by the interest the whole world is showing in the birth of a baby to an Anglesey couple.

Kate had already long moved out of the couple's temporary home in Angelsey by then because of fears that the Welsh NHS might not be up to the job of delivering a baby.Not long after that Wills himself headed back to the less wild and dangerous environs of Kensington Palace.

Strangely David Jones, who is apparently a bit of a dog lover, did not consider it worthwhile tweeting what happened to the royal couple's redundant guard dogs which were put down a couple of days later, and sadly Rolf Harris was not on hand to look misty-eyed into the camera as Bruce and Blade were sent off to the great kennel in the sky.

Fortunately, then, David Cameron opted for a more humane way of getting rid of his Secretary of State for Wales.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that, with the possible exception of Rolf Harris, just about anyone who took over from David Jones would have been welcomed with open arms, and not being David Jones is a huge asset to Stephen Crabb, the bearded wonder from Haverfordwest as he embarks on his new job.

Stephen is still only 41, but he comes with a surprising amount of baggage for one so young. The Western Mail recently reminded us that not so long ago he thought devolution had "the potential to cause huge and permanent damage to our country" (our country being the UK), and he thought the post of Secretary of State for Wales was "emptied and somewhat meaningless". But not meaningless enough to reject a promotion and increase in salary, obviously.

Yesterday the pinko-lefty Daily Telegraph weighed in with other reminders of Stephen Crabb's pre-bearded existence, pointing out that his online biography has airbrushed his connections with the fundamentalist and rather creepy Christian Action Research and Education (CARE) from the historical record, even though he began his parliamentary career as a CARE-paid intern in Westminster, along with around 20 other mainly Tory and Labour MPs.

The Torygraph notes that "the member for Preseli Pembrokeshire has never spoken publicly about the charity, and does not refer to it anywhere on his website", which is not only ungrateful but also rather strange since Stephen and CARE share many of the same opinions on matters such as gay marriage (wrong) and making it more difficult for women to have abortions (right).

In what must have been a dull news period at the end of 2011, Cneifiwr did a bit more digging into Stephen Crabb's past, and you can find out more about his views on Israel (very good), Palestinians (misguided at best), the Welsh language (waste of money) and some of his more exotic friends here.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Alice in Wonderland's Local Development Plan

Carmarthenshire's Local Development Plan continues to grind its slow, bureaucratic and remorseless way towards the finishing post with yet another round of consultations, this time on "Matters Arising during Hearing Sessions of the Examination".

It would be hard to imagine a more mind-bogglingly complex system of putting together a plan than the one laid down by civil servants for Welsh local authorities' development plans, and yet the plans will affect all of us and determine the future shape and character of the towns and villages we live in.

In the case of Carmarthenshire there are now scores of reports and heavyweight documents scattered across the council's website, all referring to each other and often without links which would help readers move from one to another. The effect is a sort of bureaucratic maze from hell:

"In this respect, reference should be had to the Housing Clarification Paper (Examination Paper H2P) April 2014 which sought to consider the projected reduction outlined within the 2011 projections against the strategic context of the Plan and its objectives."

This comes up in a very important section dealing with population and projections of housing need. There is no link to the Housing Clarification Paper, but you can track it down by entering H2P as a search term on the council website. Click on that, and you will receive a stark message:

Access Denied

Little wonder that almost the only people turning up to the public examinations are not members of the public, but representatives of the big house building companies, their agents and consultants. It is they and the County Hall visionaries who want to see massive new housing estates springing up across the county who are calling the shots.

One of the main building blocks for the Local Development Plans now winding their way through the bureaucratic machinery of Welsh councils was a set of population projections handed down in 2006 by the Welsh Government on behalf of the Department for Communities and Local Government in London (see Jac o' the North for how this works).

The main assumption of these projections was that inward migration from England would continue and even accelerate in years to come, resulting in massive additional housing requirements.

In 2008 the expectations were revised slightly downward, but only ever so slightly.

In 2009 actual inward migration slumped to its lowest level in years, but the LDP mandarins carried on regardless.

The Census in 2011 provided the statisticians with some hard facts rather than the speculative projections churned out by the consultancy industry, and in February 2014 the Welsh Government released a new set of projections covering the period of Carmarthenshire's Local Development Plan which is due to run until 2021.

In 2006 Carmarthenshire was told that it would need to provide 1,193 new homes each year in order to meet population growth and growth in the number of households.

In 2014 the Welsh Government handed down a revised set of numbers which concluded that the county would need only 5,500 new homes in the period 2011-2021, or 550 per year.

You don't need to be a mathematician to see that expectations of housing need have halved, so what has been the response of Carmarthenshire County Council's "Forward Planning" department to this news?

Well, they have given the new statistics careful consideration and decided that what we need is a higher target for new housing.

Whereas the previous incarnation of the plan reckoned that the county would need 15,197 new homes by 2021, the revised plan now up for consultation opts for a target of 15,727, or almost three times more than the Welsh Government's revised projections.

The Council's planners say that this target will give them flexibility and allows for uncertainty over the future direction of the economy and population growth.

While the planners hope that towns like Carmarthen will still get the thousands of new houses they would like to see built, they have decided to revise the target for affordable homes down from 2,915 to 2,121.

Housebuilders and developers don't like affordable homes, you see.

And when councillors approved a package of new measures to promote and safeguard the Welsh language back in April, planning was an important part of their considerations. They will therefore be surprised to see the latest incarnation of the Local Development Plan which has dramatically moved the goal posts.

Whereas the plan previously defined almost all of the county as linguistically sensitive, with at least 25% of Welsh speakers, and provided for some very flimsy "mitigation" measures to protect Welsh-speaking communities from over-development, such as bilingual signs and phasing of development, the revised plan sweeps all this away.

Under the new plan only communities with at least 60% of Welsh speakers will be afforded any kind of protection in the form of phasing development, and there are only 5 communities where this applies: Llannon, Pencarreg, Quarter Bach, Gorslas and Pontyberem.

That's consultation Carmarthenshire style for you.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Blessed are the Council Chief Executives

Update 13.04

Pembrokeshire County Council went into closed session at its meeting today to discuss the chief executive's pension arrangements. All we know so far is that they voted not to pursue repayment of the money paid out unlawfully.

Aled Scourfield from the BBC was tweeting from the chamber prior to being asked to leave along with the rest of the press and the public. He reported that the council leader, Jamie Adams, told councillors that one member had broken the code of conduct by leaking the letter, and he apologised to the Chief Executive and his wife.

The Monitoring Officer will be asked to conduct an investigation.

It will be interesting to see what Old Grumpy and Jacob Williams make of this.


Carmarthenshire County Council has already begun its long summer nap, but down in Haverfordwest the final meeting of the full council before the summer recess promises to be a very long and rather fractious affair.

One point which will be of interest to Carmarthenshire residents is the saga of the chief executive's pension payments, although it seems this sensitive matter will be dealt with behind closed doors.

Unlike Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire's county councillors voted to ask the chief executive ever so nicely if he wouldn't mind paying back the payments which the Wales Audit Office deemed had been paid unlawfully in lieu of pension contributions.

Thanks to the Western Telegraph and what must be a very disgruntled council insider, we now know that Mr Bryn Parry Jones has no intention of paying the money back, and that he has taken the precaution of transferring the loot to his wife.

In a letter from that most exclusive of trade unions, the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives, written on behalf of Mr Parry-Jones, there is even a hint that the council could find itself in court for its appalling treatment of Wales's highest paid chief executive (yes, Bryn earns slightly more than Mark James, although these matters are relative).

You can read the story for yourselves here, but it is worth reminding ourselves that Bryn Parry-Jones and Mark James were brothers in arms when it came to fighting off the Wales Audit Office earlier this year.

Although the arrangements were not supposed to cost the county councils a penny, they engaged the services of expensive consultants and the even more costly services of Mr Timothy Kerr-ching Kerr QC to defend payments which the WAO had decided were unlawful.

Carmarthenshire County Council remains adamant that the pension payments were lawful, and Mr James reminded staff recently in his latest sermon in Y Gair that the payments were made "on condition it did not cost the Council any money.  Many employers make similar arrangements and whilst of itself not intrinsically unlawful, there were some procedural deficiencies in how the decision was taken and the Council decided to withdraw this scheme for now." (my underlining).

Interestingly, the leaked letter says that Mr Parry-Jones has suffered "significant detriment" since he opted out of the local government pension scheme because he is no longer receiving employer pension contributions "as contractually required".

We do not know whether Mr Parry-Jones was given the option of re-joining the local authority pension fund and refused, or whether his opt-out was final and irreversible.

This raises the question of what has happened in the case of Mark James. Has he re-joined the pension scheme?  Has he been invited to re-join?

Also, when will the scheme be re-activated, as hinted in Mr James's Sermon on the Mount Jail Hill?

There is no likelihood that he will be asked to repay the unlawful payments because the logic of the line pursued by Labour's Kevin Madge is that the payments were not unlawful in the first place.

Amazing to think that Kev has ended up defending tax avoidance schemes for top earners, isn't it? 

As a footnote to this, readers who are not on Twitter or regular readers of the Pembrokeshire Herald may be surprised to learn that Pembrokeshire County Council is apparently paying the insurance on a Porsche Panamera sports saloon driven by Mr Parry-Jones's son but designated for use as a family vehicle.

Have your say

The WLGA review of governance in Carmarthenshire County Council, or as the Council's own website neatly puts it, "how the Council works and takes decisions", has finally got underway.

Members of the public and other interested bodies, including town and community councils, were initially given until 23 July to respond, with Carmarthenshire County Council not getting round to publicising the consultation until earlier this week. Following representations, the deadline has now been extended to 20th August.

The panel has already received some submissions from the public, and it is currently interviewing councillors and other "stakeholders", including local Assembly Members and MPs, newspaper editors, Estyn, the Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales and the Wales Audit Office.

Early feedback suggests that the four members of the panel have been given some very contrasting views of the council, with loyalists saying how wonderful the local authority is and pointing to the array of trophies and cut glass vases adorning the lobby of County Hall, while others have been spilling the beans about some of the less glorious chapters in the council's recent history.

One area which it seems is of particular interest to the panel is the extent to which the public is encouraged to participate in the democratic process.

Cue film clip of howling wind and tumbleweed rolling down abandoned streets.

If you haven't made your views known, please spend a few minutes doing so. You can send in your views and concerns to:

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Now wash your hands

Once a month the European Commission produces what is known as an infringements package. The subjects cover the environment, taxation, consumer rights, transport, energy, agriculture and other areas in which the member states have signed up to EU rules. As the title suggests, the infringements package deals with all the various ways in which member governments and institutions in member states have flouted or circumvented the rules.

The July package is of special interest to those of us who live in the south-west of Wales, dealing as it does with pollution from the gas-fired power station in Pembroke and sewage pollution in the Burry Inlet.

The text of the announcements can be found below, but in the case of the Burry Inlet, the Commission has given the UK Government two months to respond to its concerns. If the Commission is not satisfied that action will be taken, it may take the matter to the European Court of Justice.

This is by no means a new problem, but one which goes back to at least 2002. In July 2003 the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, then as now Mark James, was snapped by the BBC (report here) haranging local cockle pickers angry about the immense damage which was being done to their livelihoods.

Mark James
Setting the record straight

To be fair to Carmarthenshire County Council, it is only one of a number of bodies which bear responsibility, the others including Swansea City Council, Environment Agency Wales (now rebranded Natural Resources Wales) and Dŵr Cymru.

In 2006 representatives of the cockle pickers and local people submitted their case to the European Commission.

The crisis continued in the years that followed. "Mystery bug killing cockle beds" said the BBC in 2008. Soon afterwards the Environment Agency announced "urgent action" to save the cockle beds by thinning them.

In 2011 the courts fined Dŵr Cymru £20,000 for discharging sewage into the Inlet. The problem of cockle deaths was getting worse, but no compensation was paid to the cocklers because the agencies insisted that there was no proven link to pollution.

The problem refused to go away, and in 2012 the BBC reported that a study produced by Hull University had concluded that sewage pollution was not the problem. The Environment Agency announced that it would be drawing up yet another action plan, and the Environment Minister at the time, John Griffiths (Lab), said it was an emotive issue.

Understandably, the cocklers were sceptical.

In July 2012 the Petitions Committee of the Welsh Assembly produced its own findings. The Hull University report was inconclusive, it found. Despite all the promises and claims of major investment in infrastructure in preceding years, the Committee found that there was a need for short and long-term improvements to the sewage and drainage systems in the Llanelli and Burry Port areas.

The Committee noted that a formal complaint had been made to the European Commission.

Dŵr Cymru delivered a rather evasive response to the Committee. It knew what needed to be done, the company said, but the work might drive up customer bills considerably. The company also admitted that there had been problems with its network models, and that there had been more sewage spillages than expected.

Reading the Committee's report now shows how easily Assembly Members were fobbed off by the agencies. Dŵr Cymru said it was up the Welsh Government and the Environment Agency to determine the priorities, and the Environment Agency dismissed concerns about the impact of plans for 16,000 new homes in the area, saying that it had a memorandum of understanding which required developers to "provide betterment of the situation".

The problem with that is that a memorandum of understanding is not a legally binding document. Swansea City Council is understood to have withdrawn from the agreement, but has restrained development in the north Gower area. Carmarthenshire County Council, on the other hand, has been determined to push on with largescale housing developments on its side of the Loughor estuary.

At a recent meeting with Dŵr Cymru, members of the Llanelli Flood Forum were told that Dŵr Cymru had been allowed to discharge sewage into the estuary by the Environment Agency with the knowledge and approval of the Welsh Government. The Dŵr Cymru spokesman refused to acknowledge that there had been any infringements, and he indicated that the company would be seeking permission from the EU to vary the spillage of raw sewage by a hugely increased margin while it tackles drainage problems. It was also clear that the company will need to seek relaxations of the habitat regulations in order to do so.

Back in 2012 the Assembly Petitions Committee asked all of the agencies and bodies involved to work together and to continue their studies into the causes of cockle deaths. Carmarthenshire County Council was asked to publish the results of water quality tests.

It is by no means clear whether any of the bodies which went before the Committee have subsequently acted on any of the recommendations, with Carmarthenshire County Council putting up signs warning visitors to some of the beaches that "during and after periods of heavy rainfall the water quality at this beach may be reduced - it would be advisable to wash your hands after using the beach".

What is clear from the European Commission's latest news release is that excessive spills of waste water are occurring even during normal weather conditions.

If anyone who has watched broadcasts of Carmarthenshire County Council's monthly meetings has ever wondered why two councillors, Siân Caiach and Bill Thomas, regularly stand up to declare an interest on the grounds of their opposition to developments on the Carmarthenshire side of the estuary before the sewage problems are addressed, now you know..

You may now also understand why the council's top brass has been so determined not to allow either of them to speak on the subject. Indeed, at one meeting last year Cllr Thomas was visibly very angry and upset, alleging that the council had been carrying out surveillance on him.

As we know, the council was also caught red-handed monitoring Cllr Caiach's e-mails.

Text of EU Commission's announcements on Pembrokeshire and the Loughor Estuary.

Today the Commission sent the United Kingdom three reasoned opinions on environmental matters. The first concerns Pembroke Power station, the largest gas-fired power station in Europe, where the power plant's cooling system has a damaging impact on the surrounding ecosystem, which is a Marine Special Area of Conservation (SAC) protected under EU law. Under the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive and the Habitats Directive, development consent should only be given after all the potential environmental impacts have been assessed. This does not appear to have been the case with the Pembrokeshire plant, where development and construction consents as well as a water abstraction licence and a permit for the dredging of the cooling system intake and outflow were granted before the full environmental assessments were completed. As a result, warm water with a heavy biocide load is currently being returned to the protected Milford Haven waterway. Many smaller fish, their eggs and other smaller organisms are affected by the cooling system, which passes large quantities of water from one end of the SAC through the plant and out the other side. The Commission letter also raises concerns about the application of the IPPC Directive on the final permits issued, in particular accepting this cooling system as Best Available Technology in this sensitive location and allowing an Environmental Quality Standard to be breached as a result.

The second letter concerns urban waste water treatment. Reports from the UK show a number of agglomerations still in breach of EU standards. Today's reasoned opinion, which follows letters of formal notice sent in June 2009 and June 2013, covers excessive spills of wastewater in Llanelli and Gowerton, Wales, into the sensitive waters of Burry Inlet, which are happening even during normal weather conditions (i.e. as opposed to during heavy rains); failures to provide secondary treatment for waste water in 9 agglomerations including Gibraltar; and failures to provide more stringent treatment for waste water in 24 agglomerations classified as sensitive areas. The UK has two months to respond.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Crunch time

One of the things which is said to put people off politics is bickering, posturing and backstabbing, but if you want to see real anger, Machiavellian manoeuvrings, treachery and bile the place to go is Welsh rugby where the long simmering dispute between Regional Rugby Wales and the Welsh Rugby Union has reached fever pitch.

At the end of last week the RRW issued a very strongly worded statement accusing the WRU in effect of acting in bad faith and seeking to wreck negotiations between the two bodies. The WRU responded with a PR operative's wet dream of a statement claiming it was surprised and disappointed by the line taken by RRW.

While that was going on, the BBC was fed a leaked letter from the RRW to the WRU which was mangled and spun to give the impression that the RRW had asked the WRU to step in and take over the running of the regions.

The full text of that letter setting out RRW's proposals and demands was then published in full in the Rugby Paper (click here).

This was followed yesterday by a report in the South Wales Argus saying that the regions had given the WRU an ultimatum demanding a response to their proposals for a new rugby services agreement by 4pm on 14 July, with a final agreement to be signed by 18 July. If no progress is made, they will terminate all further discussions with the WRU, the Argus was informed.

Whether RRW received a response by 4pm yesterday is not yet known, but what is clear is that the next few days will be decisive for regional rugby, with the Scarlets in particular facing a very grim future if there is no last minute compromise.

One of the strangest aspects of this story is its treatment in what can only loosely be called the Welsh media, where there has been only very patchy coverage. When you consider that this is a highly dramatic dispute about the future of the national game, the fitful and at times rather skewed nature of the reporting is something which should be ringing alarm bells well beyond the world of rugby boardrooms.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Cymraeg i Oedolion - gwerthu'r fuwch i brynu tarw

Diweddariad 14 Gorffennaf

Gweler erthygl gan Heini Gruffudd sydd o'r un farn.


Mae rhaglen Cymraeg i Oedolion "yn bwysig yng nghyd-destun Strategaeth y Gymraeg y Llywodraeth, Iaith Fyw:Iaith Byw, yn enwedig yn sgil canlyniadau Cyfrifiad 2011", dywedodd y Prif Weinidog, Carwyn Jones, ym mis Rhagfyr 2013 cyn cyhoeddi ar waelod yr un datganiad y gallai'r rhaglen ddisgwyl toriad "dangosol" o 8% i'r gyllideb ar gyfer y flwyddyn academaidd 2014-15.

Ar sail y toriad, mae'r gwahanol sefydliadau sy'n darparu cyrsiau Cymraeg i Oedolion wedi llunio eu rhaglenni ar gyfer y flwyddyn nesaf. Roedd hi'n amlwg y byddai toriad o 8% yn golygu llai o gyrsiau a llai o ddysgwyr, ac mae nifer o bobl wedi cael eu diswyddo fel canlyniad.

Yr wythnos diwethaf cyhoeddodd y Llywodraeth y bydd yn cwtogi cyllideb Cymraeg i Oedolion ymhellach o 7%. Toriad o 15%, felly, ac roedd y toriad diweddaraf llai na thri mis cyn dechrau'r flwyddyn academaidd newydd yn hollol annisgwyl. Bydd rhywfaint o'r yr arian sy'n cael ei dorri o gyllideb Cymraeg i Oedolion yn mynd at y mentrau iaith.

Fe fydd llai fyth o gyrsiau a dysgwyr fel canlyniad, a bydd mwy o bobl yn colli gwaith. Mae'r rhan fwyaf o'r tiwtoriaid (rhyw 600 o bobl ledled Cymru) yn ennill rhwng £5,000 a £10,000 yn flynyddol, gyda llaw.

Ar ben hynny i gyd, mae'r maes yn cael ei ailwampio'n sylfaenol yn ystod y flwyddyn nesaf. Rhaid cyfaddef nad yw'r system bresennol yn berffaith o bell ffordd, ond ansicrwydd parlysol fydd y canlyniad o hacio cyllid y gwasanaeth a'i ad-drefnu ar yr un pryd.

Tasg Cymraeg i Oedolion yw cynhyrchu siaradwyr newydd, ac mae'n ddigon naturiol bod y targedau'n seiliedig ar y niferoedd sy'n mynychu'r dosbarthiadau. Bydd y darparwyr - y prifysgolion, cynghorau sir ac eraill - yn gorfod canolbwyntio eu hadnoddau prin ar ardaloedd trefol a dosbarthiadau yn y dydd.

Sgîl-effaith anfwriadol y toriadau fydd llai fyth o ddysgwyr o dan 60 oed. Os mai pensiynwr wyt ti, mi fydd digon o gyfleoedd i gymdeithasu â phensiynwyr eraill a dysgu ychydig o Gymraeg am ddwy awr yr wythnos.

Pob lwc os wyt ti'n gweithio, yn magu plant ac yn byw mewn ardal wledig. Prin iawn y bydd y ddarpariaeth yn dy filltir sgwâr di, er mai hwn yw'r demograffig pwysicaf i ddyfodol yr iaith.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Brace yourselves


The collapse of talks between the WRU and the four regions means that each of the regions is facing a shortfall of around £1.6 million next season, while money from the new European competitions will not begin to flow until October.

The BBC offers a very confused take on the latest developments here, while the Guardian provides a more straight forward account here.

Judging from comments on Scarlet Fever, the Scarlets supporters' forum, Roger Lewis and Dai Pickering, chief executive and chairman of the WRU respectively, would be well advised to stay away from Llanelli for the foreseeable future.


The Scarlets were supposed to have filed their accounts for the year ending 30 June 2013 by the end of March. They still have not done so.

The Western Mail is not alone in wondering what is going on. Back in April the paper was told that the accounts would be filed after the May board meeting. That came and went.

Then a couple of days ago it was told:

“The accounts have not been filed because it was agreed at the Scarlets board meeting in May that we should not file accounts until we could confirm WRU agreement and therefore the forward revenue of the business with auditors.

“At this point, there is still no formal agreement with the WRU in place to date despite ongoing meetings and discussions. Without a formal agreement with the WRU there is still uncertainty on the levels of funding within professional regional rugby in Wales.”

This afternoon Regional Rugby Wales issued a statement announcing that no agreement had been reached with the WRU despite "an incredibly tortuous process", and that the four regions would now have to give urgent consideration to a business model that does not include any form of agreement with the WRU.

Whatever happens next, don't expect good news.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Planning News and two Falls from Grace

Time for some updates for a couple of the stories this blog has been following.

Pwll y Trap, Adpar (Newcastle Emlyn)

Ceredigion County Council yesterday rejected an application by a local developer to build 17 homes on a greenfield site in Adpar after local residents put up a strong fight. The development would most likely have been the first part of a larger development on the land, and the developer has indicated that he may appeal.


Anyone watching yesterday's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council will have seen another side to the normally bluff, bumbling and jovial Council Chair, Daff Davies, as he stamped down and refused to allow Cllr Siân Caiach to speak when she tried to reply to a tirade from Chief Executive, Mark James. Her action was contrary to Rule No.1 of the council's constitution, which is that the Chief Executive must always have the last word.

Fortunately for Cllr Davies, voters in Wales have no right of recall; otherwise he would now certainly be facing a by-election in the local government equivalent of the recent fixture between Brazil and Germany.

Cllr Davies scraped to victory by the narrowest of margins in the 2012 council elections, but has become a pariah for many of his constituents after supporting the controversial Mwche Farm wind turbine application.

There was very strong opposition locally to the plan, which Daff dismissed as the rantings of "newcomers and malcontents". This did not go down at all well with the 422 objectors, 70% of whom were from Carmarthenshire, and nearly all of those from Llansteffan, Llanybri and Laugharne. Judging from the correspondence Cneifiwr has received, some of these newcomers and malcontents have very Welsh names and can write perfect, idiomatic Welsh.

Several formal complaints about the Councillor's conduct have now been sent to the Ombudsman by members of the public, as well as another from Llansteffan and Llanybri Community Council where Daff lost a vote of no confidence. If that were not enough, two separate applications for judicial review are understood to be in the offing.

Newcastle Emlyn

A decision on the controversial Cawdor supermarket planning application was recently deferred for the second time. Although the application was approved by councillors back in 2011, the developer has been unable to comply with the requirements of the Section 106 Agreement which was a condition. It is said to be extremely unusual for a council to allow a Section 106 Agreement to go unsigned for this long (almost three years), and the site owner has been trying to buy his way out.

It is understood that his first offer of a one-off payment of £10,000 was subsequently upped to £15,000, although that is believed to be rather less than half of cost of the works involved in the S106 commitment.


Away from the Alice in Wonderland world of planning to Kidwelly where Labour's baby-faced rising star Ryan Thomas has suffered what may be terminal setback to his political ambitions.

According to the Llanelli Star, Ryan Thomas resigned abruptly from the town council and has been suspended by the Labour Party pending investigations by parties including the Public Services Ombudsman.

Cneifiwr understands that the complaints relate to an unfortunate incident at the recent mayor making ceremony.

Ryan used to write a blog, which now seems to have vanished, but someone with the same name who seems to live in Kidwelly has begun a new creative exercise. The latest offering includes the following quote which apparently comes from Marilyn Monroe:

Imperfection is beauty,
madness is genius,
and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.