Friday, 27 February 2015

A new venue for gay weddings in Carmarthen?

It has been a long time since we heard anything from Towy Community Church which operates Xcel Bowl at Johnstown just outside Carmarthen, but it is now set to steam ahead with Phase II of the development.

The bowling alley received over £1.4 million in grants, soft loans and publicly-owned assets from Carmarthenshire County Council, with the Big Lottery Fund contributing a further £800,000 to the project which was estimated to cost around £2.25 million (not including the cost to the taxpayer of buying the site).

The bowling alley was Phase I of the overall development, and a condition of the planning grant was that Phase II would have to go ahead within five years (i.e. by the end of 2016).

The original plans for Phase II will involve building an auditorium with a seating capacity of 600 to be used for Sunday worship, a cafe and debt counselling centre, and the church said that the overall cost of the two phases would be more than £5 million. Based on the church's own projections, Phase II will cost nearly £3 million.

So where will all that money come from?

Any profits from the bowling alley are supposed to be ploughed back into deserving community projects, and it is a racing certainty that the new church auditorium will qualify. However, there will still be a large funding gap, and back in January 2012 the church's pastor, Mark Bennett, told Golwg that Phase II would mean applying for more grants.

A slightly tricky issue could be persuading those who dish out grants that Phase II meets all the requirements laid out in equalities legislation, and is not just a ruse to get taxpayers to fund the expansion of a fundamentalist religious group.

The church's 150 or so congregation currently meets at Queen Elizabeth High School, and so should fit easily into the new auditorium, but the church is adamant that this new place of worship is not a church.

The debt counselling service is also likely to be rather different from the sort of help provided by organisations such as the Citizens Advice Bureau, featuring invitations to engage in prayer.

How the church would react if someone wanted to book the facilities for a gay wedding, and how comfortable a Muslim family might feel about using the debt counselling service is anyone's guess.

Based on their track record, it is unlikely that the council will find it too difficult to award more grants to an organisation which proclaims that it believes in the literal truth of the Bible and that those who reject Christ face "eternal conscious punishment", but the Wales Audit Office and other scrutinising bodies are likely to be asked to take a very close look.

Given the council's new-found respect for the Welsh language, councillors may also want to consider why the church's bowling venture makes so little effort to promote and use the Welsh language. Its main online vehicle is its Facebook page which is in English only.

One other thing which is certain is that public scrutiny of the church has become very much more difficult.

After it attracted unwelcome publicity over its plans to work with the highly controversial Mercy Ministries and open a hostel for young women in Carmarthen, Towy Community Church took the unusual step for an evangelical organisation of practically erasing every trace of its existence from the internet.

All that is left is a skeleton website giving contact details and a statement saying the church hopes to have a new website up and running in the "near future". And that is how it has stayed for the last three years.

It is no doubt entirely coincidental that Towy Community Church's decision to remove itself from the web occurred at the same time as Carmarthen's Living Word Church also retreated from the digital age and shut down its website which used to advertise Bible study groups and other social get-togethers at the home of the council's chief executive.

And entirely unrelated to any of this is the chief executive's recent refusal to allow the rainbow flag to be flown from County Hall to celebrate LGBT Month, although other councils and public bodies in Wales had no problem with showing their support.

As Caebrwyn pointed out last week, County Hall decided instead to hoist the Union Jack to celebrate the 55th birthday of Prince Randy Andy whose private life is, of course, entirely beyond reproach.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Mr James's Budget

There are occasions when you have to keep reminding yourself that elected councillors are supposed to be there to give a political lead, i.e. decide the shape and direction of policy, while the officers are supposed to implement what elected representatives have decided.

For years now in Carmarthenshire things have worked the other way round, and that was especially evident at this week's budget meeting, where Mark James once again completely dominated proceedings and made sure that he got his desired outcome.

Just in case anyone has forgotten, we have a council run by Labour in coalition with the Independents, and while Ed Miliband and Ed Balls bang on and on about the "cost of living crisis", what they delivered this week was nothing short of an attack on working families, courtesy of a few senior council officers who, as Kevin Madge never ceases to say, are doing "a wonderful job".

Pay more, get much less

One again, up goes council tax by 4.85%, way above inflation and way more than any pay increases most people in Carmarthenshire will remember.

Up goes the price of school dinners by much more than inflation, and up goes the price of a parking ticket by much more than any increase in the cost of living (20p across all bands). Rents for council houses will rise above inflation (4.3%). Some leisure facilities will close, and others will reduce their opening hours. The roads budget is once again being slashed, with the recent Government local authority performance stats showing that Carmarthenshire was ranked 20th out of 22 councils for road maintenance.

In social care the council aims to stop providing home care for the elderly, instead passing this work on to the tender mercies of private sector operators. Fewer frail and elderly people will be able get a placement in a care home.

School budgets will be slashed by £14 million for the period 2016-18 thanks to what the council believes will be rapidly falling numbers of pupils - rather at odds with the council's recently approved Local Development Plan which believes that the population of the county is set to rise significantly.

School Bus Charges

In come new charges for school transport for children aged 16 and over. These charges will, we are told, be phased in (i.e. introduced and then increased) over a period of years. Not clear is whether children in the GCSE year will have to pay once they turn 16, but abundantly clear is that anyone who stays on to sixth form will have to cough up.

The justification for this is that it is not compulsory to stay on at school after 16. So much for any idea that children should be encouraged to stay at school and gain qualifications and skills which will help them and the economy.

We are heading back to the days when some children will be forced to leave school as soon as possible because their parents cannot afford otherwise. And it is a Labour-run council taking us there.

Irrespective of what the council has negotiated with bus companies, the fundamental economics are that its costs the same, give or take a little diesel, to transport 30 children on a bus as it does to carry 40.

This scheme is not about saving money but raising revenue.

Cash Pile

Plaid Cymru's response to all this was that the council could use some of its £73.5 million reserve cash pile instead of hitting residents in every way possible. £6.2 million from the piggy bank would have meant no cuts, no council house rent rises and practically no council tax increase.

The £73.5 million in so-called earmarked reserves has doubled from £36 million in 2009, and the council's total reserves currently stand at £122 million, which is twice as much as is held by the much larger Cardiff council.

The Plaid amendment to the council's budget plans clearly rattled the chief executive who initially refused to allow the acting head of finance to comment on the proposals to use reserves, arguing that it would not be proper for an officer to respond to ideas put forward by "a political group". Despite being an officer himself, he appeared to be under no such restraint, and it was abundantly clear that he saw this as an attack on his budget.

Kevin Madge vacillated ineffectively, before the chief executive shoved the hapless chair of council to one side and called for a vote.

Labour and the Independents then rejected the Plaid amendment before joining forces once again to accept the budget proposals.

For the record, Labour's candidate for the Westminster elections, Calum Higgins, voted to implement the cuts and rent and council tax increases.

Leighton Andrews

Just three hours after this meeting took place, the Minister for Public Services issued a statement questioning the way in which Welsh councils were using their reserves. He said:

A situation where the Chief Finance Officer provides a statement to Members that ‘reserves are adequate and represent prudent financial management’, does not demonstrate to me sufficient opportunity for Members to consider and challenge the levels of reserves held.”

He went on: The evidence shows that in recent years, the levels of reserves held by Local Authorities have significantly increased.  Whilst it is prudent for Authorities to prepare for more challenging financial times, it is also reasonable to want to see evidence that Authorities are making financial decisions in the best interests of their communities.

Silent movie

Anyone wanting to watch the archived broadcast for themselves should be warned that the first 18-20 minutes of the meeting are silent, and so Meryl's stomach-churning eulogy for Dave Gilbert has been lost to posterity.

Also, anyone wanting to watch hear the original soundtrack without the English translation voice-over should be advised that that is not working either.


The saga of the Dylan Thomas Memorial Wind Turbine at Mwche Farm in Llansteffan has taken a new twist. Cllr Daff Davies vigorously supported the application (W/29387 which went to judicial review) and praised the environmental credentials of the applicant. However, it seems that rather less importance has been attached down on Mwche Farm to planning regulations and Carmarthenshire’s archaeological assets.

In 2010 the landowner was granted planning permission (W/21375) to erect a cattle shed on part of his land. One of the conditions attached to the permission was that an archaeologist must be present when any groundworks were undertaken.

Forward to August 2013, and the landowner decides to increase the size of the shed by more than 50%. The trouble is he forgets to apply for the necessary planning permission to do this.

In 2014 an enforcement officer is made aware of this breach, and in October the landowner (presumably on the advice of the officer) puts in a retrospective application for the extension (W/31560).

It’s not until 10th February 2015 that the application is validated by the planning department. On the 19th February the officer receives a reply to his inquiries from the Dyfed Archaeological Trust stating that no watching brief was undertaken by them on the original works as per condition 6 of the original permission, or for that matter on the subsequent extension. So the site of a “significant early-medieval chapelry” could have been totally destroyed.

The judicial review did not cost the landowner a penny. Had it gone in the Council’s favour, he would have benefited from a significant annual income from the turbine. So far it has cost the council/tax payer £21,275 plus its own legal bill. They fought for the option of an appeal, so there will already be additional legal costs for the consideration of this and the potential for more if they do decide to appeal.

Purely by coincidence the retrospective application was not validated until the judgement of the judicial review was due to be made public. It would not have looked very good for the council to be spending thousands supporting the application of a landowner who had breached planning regulations and perhaps destroyed some of the county's significant archaeological assets in doing so.

Coming soon: Mr James's Budget

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

A Herald of Spring

The February-March edition of Carmarthenshire News, the council's propaganda sheet, arrived yesterday wrapped in its customary eco-friendly plastic.

The most important piece of council business to be transacted in the period covered by the "newspaper" will be the approval of the budget for 2015-16, with deep cuts to a whole range of services and another inflation-busting rise in council tax (see Caebrwyn for an account of the budget meeting).

The cuts will affect everyone of us, but incredibly for a publication which is supposed to keep us informed about the council and its services, there is not a word about the budget or the spending cuts which will have been implemented by the time the April-May edition reaches you.

Instead, there are smiling pictures of Executive Board members Kevin Madge (Lab) dishing out awards, Tegwen Devichand (Lab) and Jim Jones (Ind) in a sea of ribbon cutting, self-congratulation and good news.

As the council is well aware, for many people Carmarthenshire News is the only way they get to see what their local authority is doing, and the picture they are presented with bears little resemblance to reality, as some voters in Hengoed will discover shortly when services they rely on are cut and they receive another sharply increased demand for council tax.

So it is good news that coverage of what our council gets up to is about to receive its biggest shake-up in years with the launch of two new titles - the Carmarthenshire Herald and the Llanelli Herald - sister papers of the Pembrokeshire Herald which has played a major role in uncovering council sleeze and abuses of power on the Western Cleddau.

Control over media reporting of council news has been a top priority at Carmarthenshire County Council since Mark James arrived at the end of 2001. The council's press department was beefed up and is now the largest operation of its kind outside Cardiff. Despite cuts to everything else, press and PR have been spared. The council's own newspaper has undermined struggling local newspapers, taking advertising revenue and readers away from them, and editors who upset County Hall have found that life can be made very difficult.

Newspapers which report news not to the council's liking have been threatened with the loss of valuable council advertising. On at least one occasion that threat was carried out, and at least one editor paid for his independence with his job when the council went to the publisher to make its grievances known.

On a regular basis editors who publish items not wholly to County Hall's liking have received telephone calls from the council's press office, and on occasion those calls have come from the very top, including a demand to withdraw an FoI request for disclosure of senior officer pay.

Declining sales, intense pressure on advertising revenue and pressure from publishers for whom revenue is more important than journalism, have all combined to make our local newspapers very vulnerable to bully boy tactics - with predictable results. In the case of one title currently, those results look very much like Stockholm syndrome, with a weekly dose of stories praising individuals who not so long ago were complicit in an attempt to shut the paper down.

In Pembrokeshire the Western Telegraph was seen as little more than a mouthpiece for the council, and painful though the arrival of the Pembrokeshire Herald was for that paper, there has been a big change in the Telegraph's reporting.

Even more encouragingly, it seems that the Herald has succeeded in growing the market for local newspapers.

Staffing levels on the existing local titles have been successively cut back in recent years and are now down to the bare bone. With no fat left to cut, the launch of two new titles will mean that they face a fight for survival, and some may not succeed.

Hard though it will be, their best hope of staying in business will be to re-focus on reporting local news and sticking two fingers up to County Hall.

For more on this story, see the Press Gazette.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Cawl crawl

Crawl being the appropriate word for a picture in the latest edition of the Carmarthen Journal (full story here).

Surely this must be in the running for Private Eye's prestigious Order of the Brown Nose award.

Anyone fancy a caption competition?

Councillor Meryl Gravell OBE enjoying a bowl of cawl
"Councillor Meryl Gravell OBE enjoying a bowl of cawl"

Hengoed Result - Crunching the Numbers

Thanks to everyone who has commented on the Hengoed result. Some of the comments on Twitter are not borne out by an analysis of the numbers, so here is what the maths actually say.

The first thing to note is that the County Council elections in 2012 saw a turnout of just over 37%. Turnout for the by-election was 35%.

Secondly, Hengoed is a two member ward. This complicates matters slightly, but Plaid, Labour and People First all had two candidates in 2012, and so it is simple to calculate their share of the vote for both elections.

In absolute terms, Labour and Plaid stood still. George Edwards polled 338 votes in 2012, while Penny Edwards polled 335. Martin Davies for Plaid polled 313 votes this time (315 in 2012) and lost out by 22 votes (23 votes in 2012).

The two parties were neck and neck, in other words.

More interesting is the parties' share of the vote.

Labour's share rose from 28% to 33%. +5%
Plaid's share rose from 28% to 31%  +3%

The biggest shift occurred in the performance of Siân Caiach's People First which saw its share drop from 29% to 8%.

Ukip, which did not contest the 2012 election, took 15% of the vote, which is only slightly higher than their current poll ratings across the UK which are hovering around the 12% mark.

On that basis it looks very much as though the main story here was a switch from People First to Ukip, which just happen to be at opposite ends of the political spectrum.


As expected, it was a very close race for the county council seat in the Hengoed by-election, with Labour beating Plaid by just 22 votes. The turnout was just 35%.

Labour - 335
Plaid Cymru - 313
UKIP - 152
People First - 80
Independent - 76
Conservative - 54

Penny Edwards is thus elected for Labour.

Susan Phillips for Plaid won the election for the vacant seat on Llanelli Rural Council by a rather more comfortable margin:

Plaid 351
Lab 285
Ukip 165
People First 65
Ind 37

The result leaves Labour with 22 councillors on the County Council, while Plaid has 29.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Fancy that!

The latest figures for donations to the political parties in the final quarter of 2014 make for exceptionally depressing reading. The system is corrupt and corrupting.

One interesting fact to emerge was that Labour's largest private sector donor was again PwC - PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Here is a selection of recent headlines:

"Jon House resigns his post as chief executive of Cardiff Council" [to join PwC, ed.], Western Mail, 21 May 2013.

"Labour received £600,000 of advice from PwC to help form tax policy", Guardian, 12 November 2014.

Margaret Hodge MP (Lab): Pricewaterhouse Coopers "implementing tax avoidance on an industrial scale". BBC Radio 4 World at One, 6 February 2015. 

"Labour's biggest non-union donation is from PwC" (another £385,000 in Q4 2014 to be precise), New Statesman 19 February 2015.

Meanwhile, the Welsh Local Government Association, that Labour dominated quango, is proud to announce that PwC is a sponsor.

But PwC does not hold sway everywhere. Over at SOLACE, the publicly-funded quango which represents the interests of council chief executives, the partner of choice is rival accountancy firm Grant Thornton.

When it comes to legal matters, SOLACE's preferred partners are Eversheds which last year billed Pembrokeshire County Council a staggering £106,000 for the advice it provided on Bryn Parry-Jones's unlawful pension arrangements and his eventual golden handshake.

Champagne all round.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Doh! Duffer Daff's Daft Decision - Updated

News just in that the High Court has quashed Carmarthenshire County Council's controversial decision to approve a wind turbine at Mwche Farm, Llansteffan, overlooking Dylan Thomas's old home in Laugharne.

Readers may recall that the planning committee last year ignored planning officers' advice to reject the application, with local "Independent" county councillor and current Chair of Carmarthenshire County Council, Daff "Elmer Fudd" Davies, playing a key part in persuading the committee to support the turbine on his old friend's farm.

The County Council will now pay the claimants' full costs of £21,275 in addition to its own no doubt considerable legal bill. Not much change out of £50,000, then.

Elmer's disastrous year as Council Chair will come to an end in May, but he will no doubt continue to sit on the Planning Committee until the next local government elections scheduled for 2017. Such is his standing that he is currently vice chair of that august body.

The battle may not be over yet, however, because the High Court decided that the council could appeal the decision. An appeal would be madness, of course, but that has never stopped them before.


The full text of the judgement can be found here.

The principal reason for quashing planning permission was that despite proposals to screen the turbine with trees, the top part of the turbine could still clearly be seen across a wide area, and the decision to grant planning permission therefore flew in the face of legal requirements to take into account the  visual impact on a landscape of historical and cultural significance.

The judge makes short shrift of Daff Davies's contribution:

 The Committee considered the application at its meeting on 3rd June 2014. It was addressed by, among others Councillor D B Davies, who was the local member and had stood down from the Committee for the purposes of considering the application after declaring a personal interest. He made representations on the application, including a representation that the hill and application site were obscured from the boathouse by woodland. It is quite plain from looking at the photographs that his representation could carry no weight. The Committee could not have been misled, because the photomontage demonstrating the visual impact was exhibited at the Committee Meeting.

Or to put it another way, Daff Davies was spouting rubbish, as would have been obvious to anyone who examined the documents. In Carmarthenshire it would however be wrong to assume that all members of the planning committee actually go to the trouble of reading the reports or looking at the evidence before them.

The planning officers do not get off lightly either:

There is at best, some considerable confusion in the thinking of the Officer. It is not possible to read his words that "it will not give rise to any adverse environmental impact upon the surrounding area" in the context of his report which had taken great care to set out all of those impacts.

In other words, the officer listed all sorts of reasons why the proposals did not meet planning policy before concluding the exact opposite.

This is known to aficionados as a Carmarthenshire planning department handbrake turn.   

A Big Day for Hengoed

Voters will go to the polls in Hengoed today to elect a new county councillor and a new member of Llanelli Rural Council.

This must be one of the most hotly contested local government by-elections anywhere, with six candidates standing for the county council seat. If the 2012 result is anything to go by, a few votes either way will decide it.

Labour's standard line in pretty much any election in Wales is that the result will send a message to Westminster. Of course it won't, but it will send a message to Carmarthen.

If you think Madge, Meryl and Mark are doing a great job, vote Labour for business as usual. If not, vote for Martin Davies and Susan Phillips.

Pob lwc iddyn nhw.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Scrutiny Carmarthenshire Style


And lo and behold, councillors will be presented with the latest Ombudsman's report at next week's meeting, which just happens to be the budget special. Only a cynic would say that this unfortunate timing was engineered so as to ensure that the report is dispatched with minimum fuss and bother.


The Western Mail has picked up on a report produced by the Ombudsman for Public Services involving a very disturbing case in which a family in Carmarthenshire went through hell, and had their daughter taken away for six months while very protracted and flawed investigations took place into what turned out to be unfounded accusations of sexual abuse of a vulnerable adult.

The report can be found here (case number 201101540).

The case is highly complex, and the Western Mail provides a reasonable outline of the main course of events, although a key detail is what triggered the chain of events which led to the father's arrest and incalculable human misery.

The young woman at the centre of the case, identified as 'H' in the Ombudsman's report, is severely autistic and was receiving care from the council's social services department in the form of agency care workers who would take the young woman out on shopping trips, etc.

The parents would give the care workers pocket money with which to buy food and drink for their daughter, and it is understood that eventually questions were raised about what was happening to the money. The suggestion is that one of the carers felt that she was being accused of stealing or misappropriating the money, and whether by coincidence or not, then went to the council's social services department and made extremely serious allegations to the effect that 'H' was being sold into prostitution by her father.

Entirely reasonably, the council took immediate action, and 'H' was removed from her home. It is understood that the care workers arrived as usual and took the young woman out, but this time not to return, with the parents not suspecting that anything was about to happen.

'H', who is unable to speak, was kept in care for six months, and the Ombudsman upheld the parents' complaints in a number of key areas, including the use during the investigation of a discredited technique called Facilitated Communication and unnecessary and unreasonable delays in returning 'H' to the care of her parents, long after the police had concluded that the allegations were unfounded.

All of this took place in 2010 and 2011, and the investigations dragged on for long after that. It is understood that there is still an unresolved legal action brought against the council - a legal action which could and should have been resolved but which the council is contesting.

Dyfed Powys Police were also criticised by the Ombudsman, and by coincidence the force also found itself under fire today for its handling of child protection cases (see Western Mail report here).


This brief outline takes us to the present and Cllr Siân Caiach's attempts to get the report discussed by the council's Health and Social Care Scrutiny Committee.

Enter Mrs Linda Rees Jones, the council's Monitoring Officer and acting Head of Law and Administration, a figure who will be familiar to anyone who has followed the trials and tribulations of the council in the last few years.

Whether or not Mrs Rees Jones has been actively preventing discussion of the report is not clear, but she told the Western Mail that only the Ombudsman's public interest reports had to be submitted to full council.

So we have the bizarre spectacle of a scrutiny committee which, it seems, has been told it may not discuss a report on very serious failings by the council's social services department even though the report is freely available to anyone who wants to read it on the Ombudsman's website.

Mrs Rees Jones goes on to say that the issues raised by the report have been addressed, implying that there is no need therefore for councillors to poke their noses in, but anyone who has read the report will be left with a lot of unanswered questions including the use of agency staff, why the council unnecessarily and unreasonably prolonged investigations after the police had found that the allegations were unfounded and why it is still contesting the dispute.

So much for scrutiny.

A Track Record

The councillor with responsibility for Health and Social Care on the Executive Board is Jane Tremlett (Ind), but remarkably she appears to have had nothing to say, leaving the talking to her party boss, Pam Palmer, who told the Western Mail that the council was looking at ways of strengthening scrutiny arrangements as part of its efforts to increase transparency.

As readers will know, Cllr Palmer's track record does not exactly scream transparency.

Meanwhile councillors are waiting to be given an opportunity to discuss another report from the Public Services Ombudsman involving the council's failure to respond adequately to concerns about the welfare of a young child.

The report was published on 8 January, which was just too late for the monthly council meeting on 14 January.

For reasons which are unclear, it was not tabled for the February meeting, even though that meeting had a very thin agenda and was all over in two hours. Perhaps it is waiting to be slotted into a rather busier agenda when councillors are distracted.

Meanwhile, the council has gone on the offensive, with Executive Board member Keith Davies (Lab) telling the Carmarthen Journal that an apology has been made to the complainant and many of the Ombudsman's recommendations had been implemented.

However, anyone who has read that particular report will be left wondering to what extent the council really accepted the findings. In a section headed "The Council's Response", the Ombudsman recorded that the council was of the view that it had acted correctly throughout.

And perhaps it may never make it to full council, because although Mrs Rees Jones acknowledged that public interest reports have to be put before meetings of the full council, readers will recall the extraordinary way in which the Breckman case was handled.

That was a public interest report which hung around for months, with the council asking the then Ombudsman for an extension of the deadline while it decided what to do. All attempts by Cllr Cefin Campbell (Plaid), the local member, and others to be allowed to discuss the report were blocked, and a watered down version of the document was eventually presented to a closed session of the Planning Committee.

The history of that exercise in transparency can be found here.

Siân Caiach has asked Leighton Andrews to intervene, but as usual it seems that the Welsh Government will wring its hands on the sidelines and say that it is up to the council to sort itself out.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Er Cof

Maenclochog (diolch i Jan Hallé)

Enwyd pob rhan ohoni
Unwaith; rhoi'n hiaith arni hi
Yn nod; enwi pob nodwedd;
Rhoi gair i bob cwr o'i gwedd,
Yn afon, ffynnon a phant,
Enwau i ffridd a cheunant,
Enwau i hen dyddynnod,
Enw i bob erw'n bod.
Ein hunaniaeth yw'n henwau,
Yn hwyrddydd ein bröydd brau
Mae synau i'n henwau ni,
Synau sy'n hanes inni.
 Diolch i Ifan Prys.

Er cof am Yr Athro John Davies, un o'r mawrion.

Monday, 16 February 2015

From our foreign correspondent

It is not often that local papers cover foreign affairs, but when they do the results can be bizarre and even disturbing. A couple of weeks ago the Carmarthen Journal ran a piece about the Greek elections, quoting the new Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, who had cited a line from Dylan Thomas in support of his government's plans to overturn austerity measures.

According to the Journal, Mr Varoufakis's party Syriza had "seized power", when Syriza had actually won a free and fair democratic election.

The original article seems to have disappeared from the online version of the newspaper, but you can still find it here.

It is unlikely that the Journal spends much time monitoring the world's media to pick up references to Dylan Thomas, and the most probable explanation for this bizarre piece is that it emanated from the press office in County Hall down the road which has enough staff with time on their hands and a long track record of churning out sub-standard rubbish.

A rather more disturbing hate-filled rant which definitely did not emanate from the council's press office last night appeared on the South Wales Guardian website

This piece deals with the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden in which it is estimated that at least 25,000 people, overwhelmingly women, children and civilians, were incinerated in the notorious bombing raid.

The raid and the British Government's policy of targeting civilian populations were controversial even at the time, with George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, taking a brave and principled stand against the practice. Bell argued that bombing of unarmed civilians was barbaric and would undermine the case for a just war. A few Labour MPs took the same line.

The controversy over the bombing of Dresden has continued to flicker every since, and there can be little doubt that such an act now would constitute a crime against humanity as defined by the Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal:

To fall under the Rome Statute, a crime against humanity which is defined in Article 7.1 must be "part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population".

In some of its reports on the anniversary, the BBC sought to justify the raid by claiming that Dresden was a "Nazi stronghold" and a major industrial centre, although this line was dropped in later bulletins.

In the last free elections of the Weimar Republic in November 1932 the Nazis took 37% of the popular vote, compared with 47% for the Social Democrats and Communists in Saxony, of which Dresden is the capital. The Nazis' share of the vote in the city itself would have been somewhat lower. Across the whole of Germany, the Nazis took 33% of the vote in that election, which was in any case marked by violence and intimidation.

It is true that there was industry around Dresden supplying arms and components to what in 1945 was left of the Nazi war machine, but the bombing raid took place on the city centre and not the industrial areas.

Waldo Williams' great poem Y Tangnefeddwyr ("The Peacemakers") was written against the backdrop of the bombing of Swansea in 1941. Referring to his parents, he wrote:

Cenedl dda a chenedl ddrwg -
Dysgent hwy mai rhith yw hyn

Which means, loosely translated, that they taught him that the idea of good and bad nations was a mirage.

Whether or not you believe the bombing of Dresden so close to the end of the war was justified, surely 70 years on it is time for reconciliation, forgiveness and regret at what happened, and to concentrate instead on ensuring that future generations learn the lessons for all humanity handed down by the Second World War.

This was not the South Wales Guardian's finest hour.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

When is a report not a report? February's Council Meeting

This month's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council was once again a very thin affair, with half of the new-look agenda relating to reports from the various scrutiny and other committees having been roped off and declared out of bounds.

Image result for police cordon
The new agenda
Caebrwryn has already written up a good summary (here), so this post will concentrate on two points only.

Firstly, Cllr Cefin Campbell (Plaid) referred in a question to the Welsh Government's new banding scheme for schools which showed that a third of primary schools in Carmarthenshire were categorised as in need of intervention and special measures. He was concerned that the council, with its Modernising Education Programme, was too focused on buildings and not enough on the standard of education. This picture was borne out by Estyn inspections over the last few years which found that a high proportion of schools in the county needed follow-up action after inspections.

Replying from a written response, the Executive Board member responsible for education, Keith Davies (Lab), said "No", and proceeded to read a list schools which had come out of the new bandings scheme well.

And that is as far as we got. So we can conclude that it is all right that a third of primary schools and a quarter of secondary schools are under performing.

The second point concerns the latest restrictions on the ability of councillors to ask questions and hold the council to account now that reports from the various committees may no longer be discussed, and any questions arising from them must in future be submitted in writing, seven days in advance of a meeting.

Spontaneous questions and discussion will no longer be permitted.

The Chief Executive was very keen to emphasise that this change had been unanimously approved by the group considering the WLGA's recommendations to improve governance and transparency in the council. A group which ironically continues to meet behind closed doors and produce minutes which may only be obtained through the long-winded process of freedom of information requests.

No doubt the group would have received quite a lot of input on this matter from Mr James himself, who has long been itching to put a stop to questioning and discussion.

The change did not need to wait for the council's constitution to be amended, he claimed, because the constitution did not require minutes of meetings to be "received" by council, only reports.

So we were down to the usual Jamesian "how many angels can dance on a pin head" sort of legalistic interpretation. Minutes are not reports, being the substance of this particular argument.

Bearing that in mind, this is what the agenda for the webcast had to say:

Opposition and backbench members of the working group on the WLGA panel recommendations had shot themselves in the foot, to Mark James's obvious satisfaction, as they will realise next time they spot something interesting lurking in the fine print of a set of committee minutes and find their freedom to ask questions has been severely limited.

The last word goes (in what is a first for this blog) to Cllr Anthony Jones (Lab) who was this month's Man of the Match for asking the working group to reconsider its decision.

Someone buy that man a pint.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Promoting Carmarthen

Following on from the previous post about plans to build 250 homes on part of the Carmarthen West development site, a couple of readers have expressed surprise that the developer is not one of the usual suspects - Taylor Woodrow, Redrow, etc. - but a company which nobody in Carmarthen has ever heard of.

Carmarthen Promotions Limited was incorporated in November 2014 and has no track record. Its directors are an interesting mix of agri-business types and City bigshots from the east of England.

They include Mr Robert Edward Quintin Gurney, Mr Richard Barrington Stanton, Mr John Russell Lawrence and Mr Patrick Vavasseur Fisher, aka the fourth Baron Fisher of Kilverstone Hall in Norfolk.

It turns out that Messrs Gurney and Lawrence have other interests in Carmarthen in the shape of a company called Carmarthen Estates Limited (buying and selling own real estate) which for each of the three years to 31 October has reported assets of £45,000 and total liabilities fluctuating between £152,000 and £159,000. Shareholders' funds have been stubbornly negative at between -£114,000 and -£107,000.

Despite its name, Carmarthen Estates has its head offices in Ashford, Kent.

Quite what their connection is with Carmarthen and what they are doing to promote the town is not clear, but we can be sure that Meryl will be delighted at this evidence that Carmarthenshire is open for business, even if it's just for the squirearchy of Norfolk to make a quick buck.

Friday, 13 February 2015

A slight hitch

It has been a while since we looked at the strange world of planning in Carmarthenshire, but this week saw one of the council's pet projects run into the buffers. Unusually, this case does not involve attempts to build on a flood plain.

The planning committee was all set to consider a planning application to build 250 homes on part of what will be the mammoth Carmarthen West development (1,100 to 1,200 housing units depending on which documents you read).

There were numerous objections from local residents, the Town Council and also the council's own Transport Manager.

Naturally, these had all been swept aside in the planning officer's report which recommended acceptance.

Then, at the last minute, the Welsh Government decided to intervene, expressing serious concerns about the implications for the road network.

A key element of the Carmarthen West brief is the construction of a link road, currently estimated to cost £5 million, but there is no money to pay for it. Undeterred, the council decided that it could plough on regardless, with the additional traffic using the existing road network, despite known bottlenecks. Unsurprisingly, the developer, Carmarthen Promotions Limited of King's Road, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, had also formed the view that there was no problem.

The council will now enter into discussions with Cardiff Bay.

A brief report on this month's very thin council meeting will follow in the next few days. Anyone wanting to see the original webcast (without the translator's voice over) will find that the video is not working.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Two Scenes from Britain in 2015

Scene One: The House of Commons

The UK's interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan (both begun by Labour) cost more than £30 billion according to the Royal United Services Institute; the two aircraft carriers commissioned by Gordon Brown in 2008 were expected to cost more than £6 billion in 2013, a figure which can be expected to rise still further by the time the two ships go into service in 2017 and 2020. The Trident replacement is expected to cost more than £100 billion.

£136 billion and rising, and there are plenty more examples of bonkers military spending by Tory and Labour governments determined to maintain the fiction that Britain is a world power with a place at the top table.

Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Greens called a debate in the House of Commons on 20th January calling on the Government to scrap plans to replace the Trident submarine system, with the Labour Party boycotting the event and describing it as a "little stunt".

A week before, Labour joined the Tories and LibDems in voting for another round of spending cuts to come after the election.

In the event, the SNP, Plaid and Caroline Lucas for the Greens were joined by a smattering of rebel Labour MPs, a handful of LibDems and a couple of Tories. Thirty-seven votes in all, with the massed ranks of the Tories and Labour turning out at the end of the debate to veto the call with 364 votes.

Interestingly, one of the Tory rebels was Crispin Blunt who had a distinguished military career before going into politics. He has said that he cannot conceive of any circumstances in which Britain would ever use its nuclear weapons.

In his speech, Jonathan Edwards pointed out that the decision to renew Trident would be the biggest single spending decision to be made by the next Parliament:

Due to the sums involved in the Trident renewal programme, it is vital that this House debates whether or not it is a justifiable use of public money...... It will be the biggest spending decision made by the next Parliament, and with an election in just over three months the electorate deserve to know where those seeking election stand on this issue.

You can read the full text of his speech here.

The only Welsh Labour MP to join Jonathan Edwards, Hywel Williams and Elfyn Llwyd for Plaid was Paul Flynn.

Scene Two: The Hilton on Park Lane, London

There was a rather more enthusiastic turnout of Tory and Labour MPs for the annual parliamentarians' dinner on 2 February hosted by the ADS Group (one of the world's largest arms manufacturers). According to ADS, the event was sold out, with tickets priced at almost £250 a head.

If you are worried that our politicians will be claiming the cost of these exclusive tickets on expenses, don't: they all went as guests of various arms companies and defence contractors.

Thanks to Blog Menai for a list of those who attended, including Owen Smith (Pontypridd), Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) and Ian Lucas (Wrexham) for Labour.

As you can see in Cai Larsen's piece, the event featured an unscheduled speaker in the form of Anne Marie O'Reilly. Anne Marie O'Reilly is four months pregnant, and she managed to point out to the assembled worthies that while they were snuggling up to those nice weapons manufacturers and enjoying a swanky dinner, one million people in the UK had used food banks in the last year.

She was then drowned out by the hubbub of the guests before being bundled off stage.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015


The chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council has been warning for some time that cuts to local authority budgets will mean that councils will have to think out of the box and deliver services in different ways.

As Caebrwyn reports, brace yourselves for the effective privatisation of leisure centres, swimming pools, theatres, museums, libraries, and much else that comes under the banner of culture and leisure.

The council has engaged the services of RPT Consulting Limited, a very small company based in Rowlands Castle, deep in the stockbroker countryside of Hampshire.

RPT are the initials of Mr Robin Patrick Thompson who has carved out something of a niche for himself advising local authorities on how to get rid of all those tiresome culture and leisure facilities they have managed to accumulate over the years.

The company was founded in 2010 and at some point gained the influential ear of SOLACE (the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives). Quite possibly as a result, it has also been given a seal of approval by the Welsh Local Government Association, and that has led to contracts with Blaenau Gwent and Bridgend councils.

A pretty good idea of RPT's pitch can be gained from this Powerpoint presentation, quite possibly coming to a council meeting in Carmarthen some time soon. The future is bright and transformational in the hands of visionary leaders who buy into RPT's message, unleashing a torrent of new investment and innovative solutions, and - as a by-product - possible cost savings. Honey will flow from every lamp post.

Given all this, it was only a question of time before the siren song would be heard by our own visionary and transformational pairing of Mark James and Meryl Gravell, whose portfolio includes leisure.

Mark James has a long track record of visionary and grandiose sports schemes, enthusiastically supported by Mrs Gravell. One of their more recent triumphs was the introduction of drastically increased charges for using bowling greens and playing fields in the south of the county.

The proposals went down like a lead balloon, and Kevin Madge was left defending the decision claiming that they would "create a level playing field". The sort of level playing field that is usually created by bulldozers because, if implemented, the plans would have shut down a swathe of local sports clubs.

Faced with massive public opposition, the council eventually backed down and entered into a consultation.

Remarkably, throughout the entire fiasco, Meryl Gravell managed to remain entirely silent, allowing Kev to take all the flak.

At the heart of RPT's big idea is transforming tired leisure facilities by DBOM (Design, Build, Operate, Maintain), co-locating libraries, swimming pools, gyms and other facilities in shiny, newly renovated buildings.

The problem, of course, is where the money for all this is going to come from now that council coffers are bare.

The solution is to borrow money, something which RPT points out is currently cheap. While councils will retain the freehold over their former leisure facilities, they would be operated by trusts, operated in turn by private companies and possibly "third sector" bodies such as Towy Community Church.

The likelihood is that the council would end up having to underwrite massive loans, and one day, when Mark James and Meryl are enjoying their golden retirements, the bills would come in.

If you look at the RPT presentation, you will find that most of the examples quoted are in very prosperous parts of the south of England. Prosperous and/or densely populated.

Carmarthenshire is neither densely populated nor prosperous, and it is hard to see how the massive increase in revenues from local customers needed to underpin this model can be brought about.

But RPT certainly knows its target audience of massive council egos, and local government egos don't come much bigger than in Carmarthenshire.

The spiel ends with a slide featuring black and white pictures of Maria Callas, Alfred Hitchcock, Picasso and Amelia Earheart and this message:

Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.

As far as we know, none of these ever ran a Welsh county council.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Hengoed hotting up

There are council by-elections somewhere in Britain all the time, and very few of them attract much media attention. Quite often many voters in the wards concerned will be blissfully unaware that an election is even taking place.

Not so Hengoed near Llanelli where the Labour Party is determined to maintain its hold, partly because they are worried about the message that a loss would send out to voters in Llanelli - that Labour is vulnerable in a seat which it has held since 1922; and partly because Labour's coalition with Meryl Gravell's Independents is balanced on a knife-edge. If Labour were to have even one less councillor than Meryl's geriatric shock troops, Kevin Madge would have to get used to playing second fiddle, and we would be treated to a real-life version of that schlock horror film, Return of the Mummy.

Labour has therefore been throwing the kitchen sink at the Hengoed campaign. Nia Griffiths has been out knocking doors, as has Vaughan Gething - a long way from Cardiff South and Penarth.

The official opening of the new Ysgol Ffwrnes last week saw a whole troop of Labour worthies turn out, headed by the minister Huw Lewis, with parents and other attendees treated to political speeches stuffed with the latest lines from Labour's Spin Central.

Ukip seems to have run out of steam, but does look set to pick up protest votes from people who normally vote Labour.

The Tories have issued a cut 'n paste campaign leaflet based on election material for Selaine Saxby, the Wiltshire-based proprietor of Less Bounce, a sports bra retailer, who is standing for the Westminster seat. The Tories' candidate in Hengoed is a man (Stephen Davies) and Selaine Saxby is a woman, but thanks to some rather careless editing, the party does not seem to be entirely sure of his gender.

In what may be some more sub-Freudian marketing, Stephen's Facebook page shows him holding up what looks like an enormous cheque with a very small amount of money written on it. £149.31 to be precise. Most of us would be reluctant to parade around with something that puny, but this is how much we could have saved if we had all voted Conservative, apparently.

Either way the Tory campaign in Llanelli and Hengoed will need not less bounce, but the sort of movement that could only be achieved by Dolly Parton on a trampoline if it is to get off the ground.

More Bounce

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Premature constitutional ejaculation

Thanks to the eagle-eyed reader who spotted a clause in Carmarthenshire County Council's constitution which deals with the hallowed practice of receiving reports at meetings of the full council. It reads as follows:

4.2 Functions of the full Council
(r) to receive reports from Committees on matters which have been
delegated to them and providing an opportunity for Members to ask
questions thereon;
(s) to receive and confirm or otherwise the recommendations of
Committees on non-executive functions not within their delegation or
which a Committee has referred to the Council for decision, to enable
Members to ask questions, propose amendments, or to pass such
resolution or resolutions thereon as may be deemed appropriate;

That seems clear enough, doesn't it?

One of the regular highlights of meetings of full council over the last couple of years has been watching the chief executive throw his toys out of the pram every time the subject of receiving reports comes up.

They can't be amended, they can't be changed, and they cannot be debated, he regularly snarls, presumably quoting from a different constitution to the one everyone else has seen.

Council watchers will recall that Mr James last year dug his heels in, refusing to accept that councillors who table questions have the right to ask supplementaries.

As a compromise, supplementaries are now allowed at meetings provided councillors have gone through the ritual of suspending the relevant standing orders (which don't say that supplementary questions are banned, by the way).

This game will have to continue until such time as the council is invited to amend its constitution, probably later this year.

It seems that Mr James has decided he cannot wait that long to force through one of his pet projects to shut down discussion and questions relating to committee reports. Incredibly this latest fatwa includes reports from scrutiny committees.

Leighton will not be impressed when he hears about this.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Forthcoming Attractions at the Jail Hill Odeon

The agenda for this month's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council  on 11 February has been published, and once again it is very thin.

The most significant change is that, for the first time, the council will no longer "receive" reports from the various committees and scrutiny committees, and the minutes of their meetings are now merely provided "for information only".

Preventing discussion and questions about matters raised in the various committees has long been on the chief executive's agenda, and it will be remembered that his plan was to do away with them altogether and subject councillors and the public to corporate Powerpoint presentations by invited "partners" to tell us all what a wonderful job they are doing.

This latest change is another step towards the holy grail of turning meetings of the full council into what will be little more than a PR exercise. The idea that the County Council should be a forum, as the constitution says, "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" clearly has no place in modern, visionary local government.

As has now become standard, there are several questions from councillors on a variety of subjects including milk prices (important but nothing to do with the county council), the decision by the Tory Police Commissioner to stop funding CCTV cameras, and budget cuts to libraries, school transport, home care services and children with special educational needs.

Cllr Emlyn Dole's question has been partly pre-empted by the Executive Board's decision not to push ahead with plans to scrap school crossing patrols, meals on wheels and some other services.

This is all part of a tradition whereby council officers put forward the same old, tired proposals to slaughter the first born and slay the innocent every year. This is then followed by a highly publicised  session of the Executive Board which, after much hand-wringing, announces that some babes in arms will be spared, at least for the time being, and press releases rain down proclaiming that Kevin Madge, Pam Palmer and the rest have saved the world. Or at least Garnant and Abergwili.

Cllr Cefin Campbell notes that while some schools in Carmarthenshire are performing well under the Welsh Government's new categorisation scheme, a third are not and will be the subject of special measures and intervention.

Expect Labour's Keith Davies to reply reading very badly from a prepared statement, and possibly an intervention from Kevin Madge singing the praises of the council's Modernising Education Programme and Ysgol y Bedol in Garnant in particular, where he is chair of the board of governors.

Kev had a practice run at this the other day in the pages of the South Wales Guardian in a piece which managed to highlight Ysgol y Bedol while ignoring the problems the government identified in 32 other schools.

And finally, possibly the most interesting question of the day is one submitted by Cllr Siân Caiach about the unlawful pension pay supplement awarded by Kevin Madge and other members of the Executive Board to Mark James in November 2011. How much did the legal and consultancy advice cost the council, and who commissioned the various reports?

Perhaps someone will also be allowed to ask, as a follow-up question, who placed the proposal on the agenda of the Executive Board at that fateful meeting. According to the rules, it can only have been Mark James himself, or his old friend Meryl Gravell.