Monday, 30 May 2016

Under new management - business as usual

The other day Cneifiwr was talking to a retired county archaeologist from England who had a lot of tales to tell about the vandalism and wanton destruction of scheduled ancient monuments. One such incident involved the remains of a Roman temple which had stood on a bluff overlooking a valley. The archaeologists knew about the temple, but had reason to believe that there was more waiting to be discovered.

The landowner owned both the land at the top of the cliff and a site beneath it where he ran a caravan sales business. Taking matters into his own hands, he used a JCB to re-profile the top of the cliff, removing a large chunk of the archaeological site.

A planning officer and the horrified archaeologist were dispatched to find out what had happened, reminding the landowner that this was a site protected by law.

Producing his trump card, the landowner said that his planning consultant and solicitor had been having sleepless nights because of the health and safety risk to customers of the caravan business who could be struck by falling stone from the cliff face.

The council's solicitors concluded that a prosecution was likely to be both costly and unsuccessful. What was left of the temple and any other remains had gone after 2,000 years, carted off by lorries.

In some cases, my friend said, damage to protected sites was so severe that they had lost their protected status, and where culprits had been taken to court, fines were often modest. Sometimes hard nuts would refuse to pay the fines and would spend a couple of months in prison, after which the courts usually deemed that they had paid their debt to society.

Planning authorities and agencies such as Natural Resources Wales often feel similarly impotent in the face of actions by landowners who know how to play the system, but in Carmarthenshire the county council appears to have hit on a novel approach to such problems.

Rather than create difficulties by trying to enforce planning regulations, why not weave a narrative arguing that the applicant is doing a wonderful job of restoring their property and creating a successful business? If the landowner has already carried out the work without bothering to put in a planning application first, you can simply suggest that they might like to apply retrospectively, and everything will be all right.

This is what has happened at a modest smallholding called Ffynnon Luan near Maesybont. Here is the planning officer's report.

Ffynnon Luan appeared on this blog before after a spectacular fire in a large pile of tyres and timber on the night of 5th November 2015 left the taxpayer with a bill of nearly £30,000, no questions asked.

The owner of Ffynnon Luan, Mr Andrew Thomas, has also featured numerous times on this blog as the owner of nearby Blaenpant Farm where his activities since acquiring the property in 2001 have created a lot of work for the council's planning department, Natural Resources Wales, the police, the Ombudsman for Public Services, VOSA, various other agencies, the courts and members of the legal profession.

The key to Mr Thomas's successful transformation of Blaenpant from a quiet rural backwater enjoying protected status as a SSSI and European Special Area of Conservation into an industrial wasteland has been his exploitation of the planning status of Blaenpant as an agricultural holding, even though nothing resembling agriculture goes on there, apart from breeding horses and dogs.

Mr Thomas's main business interests are road haulage and quarrying, with occasional forays into scrap metal.

The latest row at Blaenpant has been rumbling on for a couple of years now after Mr Thomas started quarrying and building a network of roads on the protected site, and a planning application (retrospective, of course) for the "agricultural track" has been held up while the council and Natural Resources Wales wring their hands and work out a way forward.

Despite Mr Thomas's wrecking of a part of the SSSI/SAC at Cernydd Carmel, the authorities have ruled out a prosecution and concluded that restoration of the site is not feasible. Instead, they have been negotiating a management plan to protect what is left, with rules governing the numbers of horses kept on the land, the times of year they may graze, etc.

Nobody familiar with the turbulent history of Blaenpant believes that the management plan will be honoured, apart from the council and NRW, of course, but in return for a signature Mr Thomas will get retrospective planning for his roads which are, of course, purely for agricultural use.
Unlike Blaenpant, Ffynnon Luan is not a protected site, but like Blaenpant it lies on commercially valuable limestone, and like Blaenpant the planning department is proceeding on the basis that it is an agricultural holding.

When Mr Thomas acquired it in 2014, Ffynnon Luan was in a sorry state. The house was dilapidated, and the fields neglected. Renovation and extension of the house have been proceeding, and Mr Thomas has constructed a 550 metre stretch of tarmac road across the fields.

Planning applications have to be considered on their individual merit, meaning that Mr Thomas's history down the road at Blaenpant would not be regarded as relevant to his new venture. Fair enough, but the planning officer's report paints a glowing picture of Mr Thomas's heroic endeavours to breathe life back into Ffynnon Luan.

It is unfortunately true, the officer notes, that the application is retrospective, and there are some minor quibbles about the removal of "significant lengths of hedgerow" contrary to the Hedgerow Regulations 1997, and the importation of "unauthorised materials" onto the site, but these are subject to separate investigations, and clearly not something which should stand in the way of a ringing endorsement.

Mr Thomas is, we are told, pursuing a "genuine attempt" to restore Ffynnon Luan as a working farm. All 35 acres of it. The 550 metres of road are "field access" to be used only by HGVs delivering feedstuffs, agricultural implements and transporting livestock.

The council's Head of Transport agreed, arguing that "the proposed access is better than using the existing access which would lead to HGV lorries and agricultural vehicles travelling through a narrow back lane". How all these HGVs and agricultural vehicles would get to Ffynnon Luan avoiding public roads is a mystery, as is why such a small holding would generate so much traffic.

Members of the planning committee were told that it was Mr Thomas's intention to keep sheep and beef cattle at Ffynnon Luan. 35 acres of rough grazing would support a small flock of sheep and a few cattle, and according to the planning officer's report, the land is already being grazed.

Another eye popping feature of the planning officer's report is the revelation that the applicant has been in discussion with the council over plans to build sheds and a "slurry lagoon" at Ffynnon Luan.

Mr Thomas managed to build two enormous sheds down the road at Blaenpant using agriculture as the justification despite lack of evidence then or now of any genuine agricultural operations at the site, and it emerged at an inquiry in 2009 that the farm had in fact been used as a depot for his HGV business.

As for a slurry lagoon, how many 35 acre smallholdings with a few sheep and, possibly at some future date, a handful of cattle, warrant one of those? Unless Mr Thomas is planning to buck industry trends and go into dairy farming on a surprisingly large scale for a smallholding, it is hard to imagine what use the lagoon will see, unless it is for storing something else, such as scrap or stone.

Presented with this some councillors clearly had their suspicions and called for a site visit. They lost by a single vote, and the application was then duly passed, with the support of the local member, veteran Independent Wyn Evans.

As pointed out ad nauseam on this blog previously, genuine farmers who try to abide by the law and play by the rules must be left wondering why they bother. Equally gobsmacked will be the likes of Mr Andrew Redman whose mobile horse shelter in a field near Broad Oak incurred the full wrath of the council's planning officers. Mr Redman was taken to court by the council on three separate occasions for this outrage, and is still trying to extricate himself from the nightmare.

A highly illegal shed

A perfectly legal road with some unfortunate hedge destruction and importation of unauthorised materials
to be used for agriculture, and definitely not for commercial quarrying

The council's former head of planning, Eifion Bowen, author of countless controversial planning decisions, is now enjoying an early retirement, but the early indications are that nothing much has changed under his successor.

Pictures courtesy of West Wales News Review.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Small earthquake

Well, that's it. After weeks of campaigning, some lively debate, a marginally better voter turnout and what would anywhere else be significant shifts in the popular vote, the hybrid first-past-the-post, semi-proportional electoral system decreed for Wales has left things pretty much as they were. It's five more years of Labour, minus the over-inflated ego of Leighton Andrews.


Writing in this morning's Guardian Professor Richard Wyn Jones notes, "the operation of this system meant that a drop in Labour’s constituency level support from 42% in 2011 to 35% in 2016, and in regional list support from 36.9% to 29%, resulted in the loss of only a single seat".

In another piece written ahead of the election, he described the voting system as "sticky" and perverse, giving Labour a big in-built advantage. "Huge shifts in the patterns of party support at the ballot box have very little impact in terms of the make-up of the Senedd in Cardiff Bay", and yet the operation of the regional list system also manages to be unfair to Labour voters, and this time round, for example, those who put a cross in the Labour box on the regional list in the North unwittingly secured the election of the appalling Nathan Gill and a non-entity called Michelle Brown for Ukip.

Rotten apples

Ironically, and more by accident than design, the system delivered seven regional seats for Ukip, reflecting the 13% of the popular vote they achieved across Wales. The winners include Gareth Bennett who thinks that migrants are "unhygienic", Neil Cash-for Questions Hamilton and this idiotic woman reading very badly from a script who thinks that the EU is preventing the police from getting out on the beat, and that her job as an AM is to secure more powers for Westminster.

Two of the Ukip crop do not even live in Wales. If you want to be a community councillor, effectively an unpaid volunteer prepared to mow grass, pick up litter and deal with dog mess, you must by law live in or within a few miles of the small town or village you represent. The Senedd must be one of the few legislatures in the world where you can become a member without bothering to live in the country whose laws you help shape. If you bother turning up, of course.

Neil Hamilton's response to questions about his home address was to say that he lives "near the M4".

If that was not perverse enough, we have lost the services of two of the most able and widely respected former AMs in the shape of William Powell and Aled Roberts (both LibDem).

It was a disastrous night for the LibDems, deservedly so in Ceredigion where their candidate Elizabeth Evans ran one of the most dishonest and negative campaigns anywhere in the country.

Room 101

The Tories also had a pretty dire time of it, and have thankfully been relegated to third place. In Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, Matthew Paul saw his party's share of the vote drop from 20% to 15%. Writing in this week's Carmarthenshire Herald he spends a lot of time talking about Hitler's astrologer before going on to compare Adam Price to the bonkers David Icke. Er, no.

Matthew notes that his own Daily Mail horoscope predicted that "doors that have been firmly shut will spring open this week".

The only thing that opened for Matthew was a trap door.

Plaid had a mixed night. The fantastic outcome in the Rhondda and stonking victories in Carmarthen East and Dinefwr and Ceredigion were balanced by disappointing results in Aberwconwy (close), Llanelli (even closer) and Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (a poor third).

Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire must surely qualify as one of the most unnatural constituencies in Wales, bringing together places as diverse as Tenby and Carmarthen, Saundersfoot and Llanboidy, and the result is that most of its voters are effectively disenfranchised, no matter which party wins.

The C Factor

Llanelli is a special case all on its own. Helen Mary Jones and her team worked incredibly hard and nearly pulled it off. Her quiet dignity and good humour were characteristic after what must have been for her a bitterly disappointing defeat.

There were a number of factors at play here. First, Helen Mary was unlucky to be up against a strong Labour opponent. Lee Waters is young, bright and has strong local roots. In a party dominated by the likes of Kevin Madge, Tegwen Devichand and Kerry Thomas, Lee cuts a lonely figure.

On his blog he tells us that he has "an intolerance for mediocrity". If he is true to his word, he is likely to burst more than a few blood vessels as he settles down to life with Llanelli Labour.

A second factor which won't have helped Helen Mary is Carmarthenshire County Council, until recently led by Labour in coalition with the evergreen poison ivy Independents who have managed to maintain their stranglehold on the new Plaid-led administration.

It seems like only yesterday that Kevin Madge was robustly defending decisions on sports pitches and parks in the south of the county, only for Lee Waters to blame the mess on Plaid.

Last but not least, Plaid's prospects were probably sunk once again by the presence on the ballot paper of Siân Caiach.

Siân is a brave, principled and obstinate force of nature, and unlike any other county councillor in Carmarthenshire, she has a large personal following. The tragedy for her and for Plaid in Llanelli is that what began largely as a personality clash has been allowed to fester for so long and cause so much damage.

Almost for sure, that is not how Siân would see things, but she is one of those people it was always going to be better having in the tent. At which point the analogy breaks down for biological reasons and the law of gravity.

If a repeat is to be avoided next time round, personal animosities and resentment need to be set aside, and an olive branch offered from inside the tent.


As far as the rest of us are concerned, a priority must now be to tackle the absurd voting system. Labour will for obvious reasons be uninclined to want change, but the looming reorganisation of Westminster constituencies which will see Wales reduced from 40 to 29 seats should be the catalyst. No political party in its right mind wants to end up fighting elections on constituency boundaries which differ wildly from year to year.

And looming over all of that is the NHS. After 17 years of Labour in control, the service is moving ever closer to meltdown.

It was obvious from the leaders' debates that health is by far the most important issue for most voters, and yet Labour is in denial. The NHS will be an even hotter topic at the next election, for sure.

The last word goes to Lyndon Rosser who had this to say on Twitter:

Sunday, 1 May 2016

A Norwegian Blue writes

Only four more sleeps until we get the results of what has to be one of the most extraordinary election campaigns any of us can remember. It sputtered into life under the shadow of the EU referendum, and seemed destined to be a low-key affair with an even lower turnout - the warm-up act for the main event.

The Tories were busy tearing themselves to pieces in what still promises to be a revival of the old Carry On franchise.

Carry On down the Khazi, starring Michael Gove as Kenneth Williams, Boris Johnson as Terry Scott, Chris Grayling as Bernard Bresslaw, Theresa May as battle-axe Joan Sims and a special guest appearance by Nigel Farage as Sid James will be returning to a TV screen near you soon.

Labour was clearly nervous at the start of the campaign, concentrating its canvassing efforts on what should be rock-solid constituencies in Cardiff and the Valleys. Places like Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, once Labour strongholds, were abandoned and activists packed off to shore up the likes of Leighton Andrews, Jane Hutt and Jenny Rathbone, supplemented by a busload of students from Birmingham.

Then came the steel crisis, which was undoubtedly a welcome distraction for Labour because the issue that is exercising voters the length and breadth of Wales more than anything else is the NHS and social care, with education coming not far behind.

The Tories dithered, and Labour seized on this golden PR opportunity to make all the right noises without actually doing anything. A concerned Carwyn went down to Port Talbot, while Stephen Kinnock flew around the world, TV cameras in tow, and was probably jetting off somewhere else when he missed a crucial meeting to discuss the proposed management buyout.

One of Jeremy Corbyn's policy advisers was accused of bragging that the steel crisis had "played well for Labour". Ukip blamed it all on the EU, forgetting to mention that it had voted against proposals in the European Parliament which would have enabled the EU to impose higher tariffs on Chinese steel. Although the measure was passed, it was then blocked by the Tory-LibDem coalition in London and their allies.

The sigh of relief from Labour was audible from Penmaenmawr to Pontypool, but then came the row about anti-semitism, with Ken Livingstone enacting a re-run of this North Minehead by-election.

Meanwhile, over in Ceredigion, voters are quaking in their boots at the prospect of answering a knock on the door only to find the bonkers Tory Dr Felix Aubel glowering at them. Dr Aubel was recently memorably described as the Donald Trump of Trelech, and he is an ardent supporter of nuclear weapons, yelling "Peace through Strength" on Pawb a'i Farn a few weeks back. Dr A's Congregationalist flock can look forward to the traditional fires of hell being replaced by a thermo-nuclear holocaust if their minister has his way.

Yes, all human life is in this campaign, and anyone looking for a little light relief could do worse than turn to Matthew Paul's weekly column in the Carmarthenshire Herald.

As a fox-hunting Oxbridge barrister, Matthew clearly knows what is on the minds of the people of Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, where he is standing in the Boy's Own Conservative and Unionist interest.

This week he does a pretty good hatchet job on Labour's Ladybird Book manifesto, 24 pages of pretty pictures, few words and even fewer explanations about just how we will arrive in the Promised Land. He compares the party's optimistic 1999 vision with the drab 2016 reality before turning his blunderbuss on Adam Price for Plaid.

Matthew's main grouse with his rival is that Adam is not your average, run-of-the-mill non-entity, and has even been described as Y Mab Darogan, a man who wants to transform the fortunes of our nation. This all seems to have been started by the BBC's Vaughan Roderick who had this to say in a prophetic eponymous piece back in 2009:

Ychydig iawn o wleidyddion Cymru sy'n gallu denu newyddiadurwyr gwleidyddol i neuadd cynhadledd er mwyn gwrando ar araith.......Un o'r eithriadau prin yw Adam Price- un sy'n gwybod nid yn unig lle mae "g-spot" ei blaid ond un y wasg hefyd. Mae gan Adam y gallu i bleisio pob carfan o'i blaid gan gyfuno cyfeiraidau at Dryweryn, Streic y Glowyr, Merched Beca a Nye Bevan mewn ffordd sy'n swnio'n gwbwl naturiol.

(Very few Welsh politicians can attract political journalists [out of their hotel rooms, Ed.] to the conference hall to listen to a speech. One of the rare exceptions is Adam Price, someone who knows not only where to find his party's 'g-spot', but that of the press as well. Adam has the ability to please every section of his party by combining references to Tryweryn, the Miners' Strike, Beca's Daughters and Nye Bevan in a way which sounds completely natural.)

Matthew, who must be contemplating whether he will be pushed into fourth or fifth place on Thursday, has this to say.

Matthew weighs in

But while some of us worry about the NHS, schools, whether our children will be able to afford higher education and their future prospects, Matthew has his mind set on the issues which really matter to the people of Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, such as the fate of the bronze cock of Jesus College, Cambridge, a subject he covered at length in his column a few weeks back.

The cockerel was looted by the British along with thousands of other ceremonial pieces from what is now Nigeria just over a hundred years ago. 

The unfortunate independent kingdom of Benin had been unwise enough to resist attempts to subjugate it by the British. An armed force equipped with machine guns took on men armed with spears and bows and arrows. Palaces, temples and much of the rest of Benin City were torched, and uncontrolled looting by British troops ensued.

Or as Matthew Paul sees this most shameful episode, “a gunboat was sent to give the natives a bloody good hiding”.

The loot was shipped back to England, and a great deal of it was flogged off, much of it to the Kaiser in Germany, but the bronze cockerel ended up in Jesus College, Cambridge.  A large number of other items taken from Benin languish in storage in the British Museum.

To their credit, the students of Jesus College recently voted to return the cockerel to its rightful owners.

Matthew was outraged.

Perhaps Jesus College, Oxford might like to follow suit and return Llyfr Coch Hergest, one of the earliest and most important Welsh manuscripts, to the National Library of Wales. 

Toodle-pip and tally ho!