Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Cost neutral?

Update 1 December

Simon Thomas, the Plaid AM, has called on Ken Skates to move quickly to make a decision on the Egin grant.

He argues that no Welsh Government money is being used to relocate S4C's headquarters, but that the creation of a cluster of creative industry businesses around the new centre is a much bigger plan, and one he supports.

Without the cluster, it is hard to see that the relocation of a few dozen jobs from Cardiff would bring anything more than marginal benefit to Carmarthen.

UWTSD's lack of transparency, and some would say honesty, in its handling of the project has rightly attracted criticism, but if the scheme is to have any meaningful impact, it is vital that funding for the cluster is put in place.


An extraordinary row has broken out about the relocation of S4C's headquarters to Carmarthen after it emerged that University of Wales Trinity Saint David's (UWTSD) has applied to the Welsh government for a grant of up to £6 million to fund the development, known as Yr Egin.

News of the grant application broke late last week, and has been greeted with anger by those who supported rival bids from other towns, with suggestions that the UWTSD bid was not entirely honest and calls for the bidding process to be re-opened.

Yesterday questions were asked in the Senedd:

(Diolch i Seimon Brooks)

Ken Skates suggested that the funding gap had arisen because of problems in obtaining EU funding. More on that below.

He went on to say that the government's response to the grant application would now depend on UWTSD being able to demonstrate that the application would bring additional value, and that the new centre would create jobs which would not otherwise have been created by S4C's decision to move to Carmarthen.

However,  the minister was keen to distinguish between the new S4C headquarters and the wider plan to house companies in the creative industries.

As things stand, the project is in a mess with many unanswered questions.

Work on the building is due to begin in December. Will that now go ahead? To what extent is the project dependent on the grant? To what extent was it clear when S4C opted for Carmarthen in March 2014 that the project was, at least in part, dependent on grant funding? What happened to an application for EU funding which UWTSD told Carmarthenshire County Council was being prepared back in April 2015?

Don't expect answers to these questions this side of Christmas. Meanwhile, UWTSD will have to jump through a good many more hoops before Skates makes a decision weeks and probably months from now.

It is unlikely that the growing number of influential critics of the Carmarthen decision will give up and go away. Here are some of them:

 "Remember that Aberystwyth and others applied for this project. Carmarthen won. Would it be fair to give more money to this bid?"

And here is Siân Gwenllian, Assembly Member for Arfon, raising a red flag:

("Up to £6m in public money to relocate S4C to Yr Egin? No cost in plan to relocate to Caernarfon!! Time to re-think?")

The next day Siân was asking more questions:

("Clarity needed - does the plan need government money to go ahead? Or does the university want to add to the plan at the last minute?")

Richard Wyn Jones, Professor of Welsh Politics at Cardiff University, was even more blunt, arguing logically enough that if UWTSD was asking for money to build the headquarters, it was asking for money to house S4C.

"This is a real scandal. If this had been known at the time, S4C's decision would have had to be different."

In other tweets, Professor Jones describes what has happened as "deeply cynical behaviour" and wonders whether S4C knew when it made its decision that funding was not in place to build the new headquarters.

S4C will be a tenant in the new building, and it opted for Carmarthen on the basis that UWTSD's proposals would be cost neutral. Work on the new centre, which is expected to create 98 jobs of which 55 will be S4C staff relocating from Cardiff, is due to begin in December.

The hope is that the partial relocation of S4C to Carmarthen will bring hi-tech media companies in its wake, creating a hub, and give the Welsh language a much-needed boost in an area where "economic regeneration" has all too often boiled down to jobs in burger joints, and developing yet more low-pay retail capacity topped up with more unwanted office space (see Eastgate in Llanelli).

Enter Carmarthenshire County Council

Back in April 2015 Carmarthenshire County Council's "Welsh Language Advisory Panel" met representatives from UWTSD and S4C to discuss the project. The minutes show that an application for EU funding was in preparation.

It may be that the application got caught up with the Brexit vote, but equally plausibly it may be that Carmarthenshire County Council's cavalier management of EU grants and ongoing investigations put paid to UWTSD's hopes of obtaining European funding. The council has since been quietly stripped of responsibility for managing whatever is left of EU grant funding.

As a reminder, Meryl Gravell awarded millions of pounds in EU grants to shell companies with no trading record (see Meryl's Millions for one example).

Among the schemes to receive millions of pounds in EU money was a meat processing plant which, it turned out, was simply relocating from Carmarthen to Cross Hands with only vague hopes that a few new jobs would be created. Moreover, the money came from an EU fund managed by the council which was not supposed to aid primary food processing. Another scheme saw the development of an office block for a property lettings firm.

What is undoubtedly the case is that the millions of pounds squandered on projects which will at best create a few low-paid jobs would have been far better spent on creating a hub for hi-tech, high paid jobs in and around Yr Egin.

Given the importance of this project to the town and the county, it is disappointing to put it mildly that neither the council's chief executive, Mark James, nor his two assistant chief executives could find time to attend the meeting back in April 2015.

Even more so because the Egin project has very important ramifications for the huge, embryonic Carmarthen West housing development to the south of the proposed new centre.

A key feature of this green field development sprawling its way across open countryside is a £5 million link road which will link UWTSD with the A40. The county council has picked up the bill for the road, but is hoping to recoup the money from a £12,500 per house roof tax on new houses completed above a certain threshold.

Just as the council was limbering up to begin negotiations with the developers, who include what appear to be a consortium of shy and retiring East Anglian grain barons, Meryl Gravell popped up helpfully declaring that the road would be needed for the new S4C headquarters anyway.

In the case of Carmarthen West, those sunlit uplands appear to be receding into the distant future, with reliable reports that punters are not flocking to buy the relatively small number of houses built so far.

If the Egin project fails, it may be that all Carmarthen gets is a very expensive stretch of asphalt running across some scenic countryside and going nowhere in particular.

In line with the council's policy of mitigating the impact of large housing developments by adopting Welsh names for new roads, perhaps they should call it Ffordd Mark James Way to remind us all of what he did for Carmarthenshire when he has gone.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

RIP Cantref

When the "merger" of Newcastle Emlyn-based Tai Cantref was pushed through in August, this blog noted how the few wavering voters were persuaded to back the deal with last minute and vague assurances about Wales and West's commitment to the Welsh language, and promises to continue to use local trades to maintain the housing association's properties.

It is now clear that the promises were not worth the paper they were not written on.

The first wave of sackings of staff followed immediately after the final vote, and Tai Cantref's website has now disappeared, with searches for Tai Cantref being redirected to WWHA's website where commitment to the Welsh language boils down to copying and pasting English-language material into Google Translate, which spits out what amounts to pigeon gobbledygook.

Cantref tenants calling the Wales and West Helpline are instructed to select Option 2 if they wish to speak to someone in Welsh, only to find that calls are then answered from WWHA's call centre in Cardiff in English.

As for the commitment to continue using local tradespeople for maintenance and repair services, maintenance vans with the WWHA logo are now becoming an increasingly familiar sight in the Cantref area.

The speed with which WWHA has broken its promises is breathtaking, and former Cantref staff and tenants alike must be asking themselves why no effort was made by some of the old assocation's more prominent members to ensure that WWHA's promises were committed to writing, and that no mechanism was put in place to hold the Cardiff-based housing group to account.

The demise of Cantref and the likelihood that more small local housing associations will follow means the death of local accountability and the quaint idea that housing associations exist to serve the interests of local people.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Curse of Gelli Aur

If you search "Golden Grove Wales" on Youtube, you will be presented with an episode from one of those daft ghost hunter shows aimed at the sort of people who read the Daily Express, but if Cneifiwr's rather more discerning readers (that doesn't include you lot in the council press office) were to enter the old mansion, they would undoubtedly be able to detect a rather more real ghostly presence in the form of the  Cold Hand of Cllr Meryl Gravell.

Cllr Gravell has been at the top table of our council since Carmarthenshire emerged from the ashes of Dyfed all those years ago, and she has been closely involved with the Victorian pile near Llandeilo for pretty much all of that time.

The story began with dreams of turning the place into an incubator for media companies, dreams which ended pretty quickly with the council's chosen partner skedaddling with hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money. In the years that followed, more interesting investors came and went at a dizzying rate. It was going to be an hotel, upmarket flats, a rest home for forces' veterans - in fact, pretty much anything you can think of except for a "wellness village".

The latest owner, Mr Richard Salmon, is a reclusive art dealer who bought the house and park and set up a trust, to which he transferred ownership along with a £1.5 million debt which the trust, devoid of any assets other than the house, is somehow expected to repay a year or so from now.

The park had been open to the public, but under Meryl's watch, it had fallen into a sad and sorry state. Soon after Mr Salmon's arrival the BBC boomed "Gelli Aur Country Park reopens to the public".

Time went by, and reports began to emerge that all was not well. The park was not as open as we had been led to believe, and the trust was on the verge of being struck off by the Charity Commissioner for failure to provide any returns.

Luckily, Meryl and her friend Edwina Hart came riding to the rescue in September 2015 with a grant of £989,000 to restore the park and ensure it remained open to the public.

Meryl was ecstatic:

With the financial challenges we face as a local authority, we are delighted to have brought our lease to a close with this happy outcome. The authority is grateful to the Trust for having the foresight and ambition to maintain and hopefully improve the public access and public offer at Gelli Aur. We look forward with much anticipation to watching this wonderful facility evolve.

But, as with so many of Meryl's regeneration schemes, things soon turned out to be rather less wonderful. The park opened on fewer and fewer days, and then closed a few months back, with the council removing the brown tourist signs.

One of the many mysteries surrounding Gelli Aur is the current owner, Mr Salmon. Unusually in this digital age, especially for a successful businessman, there is almost no trace of Mr Salmon on the internet. He had somehow managed to keep a lower profile than even the late Howard Hughes.

The last time Cneifiwr came upon someone as reclusive as Mr Salmon was Norma Woodword, the very shy UKIP candidate for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr who ended up threatening to sue her own party.

Thanks to a Daily Mail reading contributor, we now know a little more about Mr Salmon who is facing litigation in the High Court for recovery of 70 art works created by the late Derek Jarman.

Mr Salmon rejects the claims made by Jarman's former lover.

It is with some reluctance that Cneifiwr links to the rotten Daily Mail, but this latest twist in the Gelli Aur saga is too good to let pass.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Fear and Loathing in Llanelli

Confronted with what is rapidly turning out to be the nastiest, most extreme government in living memory, we have the weakest, most ineffective official opposition since the Ramsay Macdonald era, with the SNP and Plaid's three MPs doing the job which Labour was elected to do.

Labour's latest leadership election may be over, but the civil war continues, with many of the red princes and princesses happily working with the Tories to undermine their own leader. Read Professor Richard Wyn Jones's account of the Wales Bill, currently working its way through Westminster.

Only a very limited amount of parliamentary time has been set aside for debate, he writes, "which would be a pretty outrageous way of proceeding were it not for the fact that the official opposition has made such ineffectual use of the time that has been allotted."

And then this:

The Conservatives and Labour’s Owen Smith combined to veto every single substantive recommendation made by Silk for further devolution in the field of justice, this apparently in order to protect the integrity of the unitary England and Wales legal system.

There are Smith and other Labour colleagues representing Welsh constituencies working their expensive socks off to frustrate the lack lustre Labour administration in Cardiff to ensure that all real power and control over Wales stays in London. George Thomas must be smiling in his pit in hell.

A couple of weeks ago, Labour tabled a motion in the House of Commons calling on the UK Government to withdraw support for Saudi Arabia's lethal campaign in Yemen where good old British bombs are being used to terrorise the civilian population. Children there are starving to death.

Around 100 Labour MPs absented themselves from the vote, some with legitimate excuses, but most with nothing more than a desire to humiliate Corbyn. Again it seems that some Labour MPs actively worked with the Tories to defeat their own party's motion.

Among those absent from the vote was Nia Griffith, MP for Llanelli. Nia Griffith who joined Corbyn's shadow cabinet, then resigned from it in Owen Smith's botched coup, then re-joined it and now seems to be running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.

Never one to mince his words, here is Leighton Andrews commenting on his party leader last weekend:

The narrative being put about by Labour's red aristocracy is that Trotskyists and other extreme elements are taking control of the party's machinery, and that across the length and breadth of Britain constituency parties are dusting off the guillotines for a wave of brutal de-selections. Obviously, the Tory press has been only too pleased to trumpet that message for them. How true any of that is remains to be seen.

Meanwhile in Llanelli a real purge is underway, but here the party is lurching to the right, parachuting in red Tory reinforcements and morphing into a kind of pink UKIP-lite with a side-helping of Trump, amid accusations of bullying and character assassination.

Bye bye Bill

If you listened carefully while outside County Hall the other week you would have heard the sound of champagne corks popping in the Executive Suite at the news that Cllr Bill Thomas (Lab), one of the chief executive's bêtes noires, had been de-selected from his ward in Lliedi.

Bill Thomas has ploughed his lonely furrow for 17 years, doing the sort of things which most people would like to imagine that all councillors do. For starters, he has a mind of his own, which marks him out from a good many of his colleagues. He has stood up for his ward through thick and thin, fought a long campaign to try to get justice for the cocklers whose livelihoods have been wrecked by releases of raw sewage into the Burry Inlet. He has fought an even longer and equally fruitless campaign to get justice for Mr and Mrs Clive and Pam Edwards, victims of incredible incompetence and an even more incredible refusal to put matters right by the council. He has banged on for years about the madness of building new homes on flood plains, and he played a key role in uncovering Mark and Meryl's plans to flog off Parc Howard in Llanelli - while Labour was running the council.

Mr James in a rare encounter with the public

Needless to say, none of this has endeared him to Mr James, and he has been ordered to sit down and shut up at more council meetings than most of us have had hot dinners. A few years back he stood up in a meeting of full council to allege, clearly very upset, that he had been put under covert surveillance by the council. The chair stepped in quickly to ask him for a quiet chat off camera. Last year, it emerged that Bill had received an e-mail from Mr James warning the councillor that the council had a file of documents which could land him in the High Court on unspecified criminal charges.

As thanks for all those years of service and Bill's courage in fighting for his ward, Labour has now unceremoniously dropped him. Bill is said to be considering standing as an independent.

Lliedi is a two-member ward, the other incumbent being Cllr Jan Williams. It is safe to say that Cllr Williams has been less turbulent than Bill Thomas, but quietly and efficiently she too played an important role in exposing the seedy deal which was being cooked up for Parc Howard.

Both of these councillors are the sort of people anyone, no matter what their party politics, would feel comfortable discussing their problems with, but it seems her face no longer fits Labour in Llanelli, and it is claimed that she was bullied into standing down at the next election in May 2017.

One of the prospective replacements for Bill and Jan is a young Labour councillor from Neath Port Talbot called Rob James.

Young Gun

James is one of those young careerists Labour and the Tories specialise in nurturing. A degree in politics, followed by a job working as research and press officer for Glenda Thomas in Cardiff, and now constituency manager for Geraint Davies MP. In 2015 he tried and failed to become Labour's candidate for Cynon Valley for the 2016 Assembly elections.

After all that hobnobbing with Labour aristocracy, carrying out the humdrum duties of a county councillor  must have been a bit of a let-down. His attendance record since being elected as a councillor in Neath Port Talbot has never been anything other than poor, verging on very poor. Here are his statistics for the last few months, with thanks to Stan at the Neath Ferret:

1. Council

Date                Attendance
12.10.16           Present
07.09.16           Absent
06.07.16           Absent
25.05.16           Absent
11.05.16           Present          Total attendance  40%

2. Environment and Highways Scrutiny Committee

Date                 Attendance
01.09.16            Absent  
07.07.16            Absent
26.05.16            Absent    Total attendance  0%

3. Social Care, Health and Housing Scrutiny Committee

Date              Attendance
15.09.16          Absent
14.07.16          Absent
09.06.16          Absent
12.05.16          Absent    Total attendance  0%

4. Licensing and Gambling Acts Committee

Date               Attendance
25.05.16          Absent         Total attendance   0%

5. Registration and Licensing Committtee

Date              Attendance
26.09.16          Absent
01.08.16          Absent
16.05.16          Absent       Total attendance  0%
6. Annual Meeting of Council
Date              Attendance
20.05.16       Absent          Total attendance 0%

Out of a total of 17 meetings, Cllr James made it to just two.

Perhaps old Cneifiwr is being selective, and choosing just a particularly bad patch when young Rob was indisposed, you may think. You would think wrong.

Here are the percentages for meetings of full council Rob James has attended since being elected in 2012:

2012/13  55%
2013/14  29%
2014/15  20%
2015/16  30%

His attendance figures for the various committees he is a member of are, if anything even worse. In 2014/15 he failed to attend a single one.

If the good people of Lliedi opt for Rob James next year, his track record in Neath Port Talbot suggests they won't see much of him, and that he'll be waving them goodbye just as soon as he finds a constituency willing to adopt him.

Anyone in Lliedi expecting a young radical determined to break with Labour's deeply entrenched, privileged elite will be deeply disappointed. Rob James' ambition is to board the first class gravy train and take his rightful place alongside Stephen Kinnock, Owen Smith, Chris Bryant, and the rest. 

A big clue about his politics is contained in the name of his blog, Centristvision, which rather like his activity as a county councillor, has not seen much action since 2012.

Announcing his decision to move west, Cllr James told his followers on Facebook that he looked forward to campaigning on the future of Parc Howard. Despite the hard work put in by Bill Thomas and Jan Williams to halt the "exciting" plans which Meryl Gravell cooked up under the previous Labour-led administration, and despite Plaid's prompt removal of Parc Howard from the "asset transfer" list when it took over, Labour in Llanelli is now less interested in the boring process of obtaining grant funding for the house and park than it is in creating the impression that, under Plaid, the future of the place somehow hangs in the balance.

A good example of the post-factual politics which are now all the rage. Why bother with the facts when you can just make up a story?


Appalling though Rob James's attendance figures are, they look positively exemplary when compared with Labour stalwart Keri Thomas who has surely notched up what must be the worst attendance record of any councillor in Wales over the last 10 years.

Prior to the 2012 council elections, Keri Thomas was absent for the best part of a year while undergoing treatment for a condition which, to put it delicately, was ironic for someone who hit the headlines in 2012 with an attack on Llanelli's Polish community and what he claimed were their drinking habits. Incredibly, he was nevertheless nominated by Labour to stand again, and was duly elected despite being unable to campaign.

Even more remarkably, upon his return he was put on several important committees, including the Planning Committee. After a year or two of showing up to some meetings, his attendance fell off again to the point where recently he actually faced disqualification for not meeting the minimum of one attendance every six months - something which even Rob James managed in Neath Port Talbot.

Rather than waving goodbye to someone who was clearly unable to perform his duties and serve the people who elected him, Llanelli Labour's finest decided to persuade their man to discharge himself from hospital so that they could wheel him into County Hall just in time to make sure that Cllr Thomas kept his £13,000 a year allowance for doing nothing, while avoiding a by-election.

But all good things must come to an end, and Labour has now finally decided to wave goodbye to Keri Thomas at the next election, about ten years too late for the people of Tyisha ward.

Like Lliedi, Tyisha is a two-member ward, the other incumbent being Cllr Jeff Owen, now an unaffiliated independent.

Hoping to replace Keri Thomas and Jeff Owen is this pair:

Mcpherson is yet another of those third sector/charity bosses who thrive under the network of patronage and nepotism cultivated by 'Welsh' Labour, and it should come as no surprise to learn that both he and Suzy Curry were fervent supporters of Owen Smith in his doomed leadership bid.

Pictured alongside Oily and Nia Griffith are Mcpherson, Suzy Curry and Ryan Thomas, who was rehabilitated by Labour in Kidwelly after he narrowly avoided trial for sexual assault after waiting almost a year before apologising to his victim at the last minute.

That's red Tory Owen Smith with his laddish misogynism and dogwhistle comments about immigrants who consistently blocks every attempt to devolve power to Wales and who bears more responsibility than anyone for the fact that Theresa May, Boris Johnson and the rest are facing an open goal where there should be an official opposition. 

Nest of vipers

Ryan Thomas is not the only Labour lost sheep to be rehabilitated. Over in Llwynhendy and Pemberton, business woman Fozia Akhtar stormed out of Labour after the last council elections with her former friend Theressa Bowen in a vicious spat with the grande dame of Llanelli Labour, Tegwen Devichand.

Somehow, a reconciliation was effected in the case of Fozia Akhtar, and she returned to Labour in time to see her sister made Mayor of Llanelli and become embroiled in a row about a large Labour delegation nipping over to France to enjoy the delights of the Festival of Prunes in Agen.

Akhtar's inexplicable return to the party certainly had nothing to do with left-wing entryism to boost Jeremy Corbyn's prospects because her Facebook page proudly displays pictures of a beaming Fozia hobnobbing with that rarest of visitors to Wales, the noble Baron Kinnock of Bedwellty.

Fozia is also hoping to become a county councillor next year now that she and Tegwen have become friends again.

As seen on TV

A few weeks ago, viewers of the BBC's Question Time, or "Bigotry before Bedtime" as it is known in Cneifiwr's household, were treated to the sight of Labour activist Michaela Beddows hijacking a question about UKIP's latest punch-up to attack her own party's education policy and declare that she has "never had a problem with UKIP".

So alarmed is Ms Beddows by plans to phase out dual stream education in Llangennech that she has vowed to put her six bedroom house up for rent and move out of the village if she does not get her way.

Lee Waters, a red prince if ever there was, has bravely decided that the best way of dealing with the vicious campaign being waged by Beddows and others is to side with the red Ukippers.

The result has been verbal attacks on school staff and governors and a hate-filled campaign of lies and vilification on a website which has drawn heavily on the "expertise" of Jacques Protic, author of the virulently anti-Welsh website, Glasnost.

All of this and the leader of the Labour group on Carmarthenshire County Council, spiritualist Cllr Jeff Edmunds, about whom the Carmarthenshire Herald memorably said that if you looked up the definition of "lugubrious" in an illustrated dictionary, you would find a picture of Jeff.

As if Llanelli did not have enough problems to deal with.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Saint Mark or Mr Burns?

Note to readers: This is a slightly truncated version of a post published yesterday when Cneifiwr was high on Ibuprofen following a visit to the dentist.


Like the ancient mariner's albatross, the Jacqui Thompson libel case is proving impossible for Carmarthenshire County Council to shake off, and the smell from the rotting carcass is getting worse.

This week's Carmarthenshire Herald contains an edited version of Cneifiwr's most recent blogpost, an interview with Cllr Alun Lenny, and a third article setting out a series of very pertinent questions the newspaper addressed to the council which County Hall refused to answer.

In his interview, Cllr Lenny correctly points out that, whatever we may think of the merits or otherwise of the case, a great deal of public money is wrapped up in this. He argues that the council is legally obliged to try to recover the money, although that begs the question as to why the council is not seeking to recover the £41,000 in costs arising from the (unlawful) counter-claim.

Clearly, the council will only ever be able to recover a fraction of the money, and Cllr Lenny suggests a compromise by which the Thompsons could be allowed to remain in their home, with ownership passing to the council.

That is a very reasonable approach, but pigs are more likely to sprout wings and fly before there is agreement from all the various parties involved, not least Mr James and his allies on the Independent benches.

A copy of the Herald's third piece with its unanswered questions can be found at the end of this post.

One of the key questions is what Mr James intends to do with the money he is hoping to raise if and when, like the good practising Christian that he is, he succeeds in forcing the Thompson's out of their home.

Will Saint Mark give the money to "good causes", or will he play the role of Montgomery Burns?

"Trust me, I have a law degree"

Whatever happens, the council has left itself wide-open to challenge thanks to the legal wheeze served up to the council's Executive Board by Mrs Linda Rees Jones and Mr James himself.

If Mr James does not pay the money to the council, it is likely that one of his favourite bodies, the Wales Audit Office, will be asked to find out why not because the Executive Board based its decision to award him an indemnity on the basis of a report back in 2012 which said he would.

If Mr James does pay his damages to the council, the council will be leaving itself open to legal challenge because the deal will have driven a coach and horses through the law. Here is the opening paragraph from a law report published in The Independent back in February 1993:

It was contrary to the public interest that organs of government, whether central or local, should have the right to sue for libel because any governmental body should be open to uninhibited public criticism and to allow such actions would place an undesirable fetter on freedom of speech.
The House of Lords dismissed an appeal by the council from the Court of Appeal's decision (the Independent, 21 February 1992; (1992) QB 770) that a local authority cannot maintain an action for libel.

Although that ruling was later slightly modified in another judgement, it remains the case that councils and other organs of government are prohibited from suing for libel, no matter what Mr James and Mrs Rees Jones would like everyone to think.

A case in which a council chief executive sues an individual for libel with council money and very liberal use of council resources, and agrees before the action is initiated to pay any damages to the council, looks pretty much like a local authority maintaining an action for libel.

Wouldn't it be interesting to hear what the courts have to say?

Whatever happens, this is a nightmare of Mr James's making and it is not going to be over any time soon.

From The Carmarthenshire Herald, 4 November 2016

HERALD readers will this week learn of series of inconsistent statements made by the County Council’s Chief Executive Mark James and the shifting and contorted positions adopted by councillors and council officers to justify bankrolling his defence of a libel claim.

On pages 4 and 5 of this week’s paper, the Council’s position is commented upon by our guest writer, the blogger Y Cneifiwr.

We put a series of questions to the Council asking them to explain, clarify or defend their conduct.
Their reply took three days to arrive and failed to respond to ANY of the issues The Herald raised.
We began by drawing the Council’s attention to the report of a meeting of the Council’s Executive Board held on January 23, 2012.

That report contained the words

‘The Head of Paid Service has confirmed that he is not motivated by a wish to benefit financially and that accordingly should his action be successful any damages awarded to him will be paid over to the Authority and will not be kept by him’.

We asked the Council to confirm that it would hold Mr James to the personal undertaking recorded and whether it will offset those damages against the costs it is pursuing against Mrs Thompson in its own right. 

We also asked that the Council whether it  drew the Court's attention to Mr James's undertaking when seeking to recover its costs.

The Council refused to answer.

We then drew the Council to the fact that Mrs Thompson does not have the means to meet the costs bill – a factor of which the Council was aware before writing a blank cheque for libel costs - and asked the Council to confirm how much the Council has spent both on enforcement proceedings and in respect of the claim, and to set out the value of time spent by council officers in dealing with the case in any event.

The Council refused to answer.

We asked the Council to explain why the Council is NOT pursuing payment of the separately assessed costs in relation to the Counterclaim which formed part of the indemnity it gave to its Chief Executive.

The Council refused to answer.

The notes record that Mr James was ‘authorised’ by the Council to respond to Mrs Thompson’s posts by placing a comment on the madaxeman blog. It was those comments which led to Jacqui Thompson instituting proceedings against Mr James in the first place.

We asked the Council to confirm which councillors and/or officers authorised Mr James to post a response on the madaxeman blog.

The Council refused to answer.

We then drew the Council’s attention to the formula of words used to justify non-disclosure of advice tendered to the Council before it offered Mr James an indemnity.

That note read: ‘The nature of the legal proceedings and the extent to which disclosure of the legal advice contained in it would assist the other party to the litigation and undermine the position of the Council and the Head of Paid Service in the proceedings should be weighed against the public interest in disclosing the information upon which a decision to spend public money is based. On balance it is considered that the public interest rests in favour of maintaining the exemption and ensuring the provision of legal advice within the same degree of confidentiality as enjoyed by the other party to the proceedings’.

We pointed out that, applying the words' rationale meant that as the identified risks no longer existed, the balance must have logically shifted in favour of disclosure. We asked, therefore, for a copy of the advice referred to by return. Otherwise, we asked for the Head of Legal to explain why the view expressed above on disclosure January 23, 2012, is consistent with any current refusal to disclose. 

We drew the Council’s attention to the fact the advice was for the benefit of the Council as a public body, not its Chief Executive as a private individual.

The Council refused to answer.

Moreover, the terms of the refusal are themselves revealing.

We asked the Council to respond as a body corporate and for the Head of Legal to respond in her own right.

What we got was: ‘Neither the council nor Mr James has any further comment to make’.

But we never asked Mr James to comment at all. In the libel action, he acted as a private individual.
If we had questions about Mr James, we would have asked him direct. It appears that, as Mrs Thompson and others have long-suggested, there is confusion about the role of the Council as a public body and Mr James’s position, as its employee and a private individual. In litigation, the roles are distinct; but it now seems as though what Mr James wants and what the Council does are indistinguishable.

The Herald is aware that some councillors have strong misgivings about the policy adopted by the authority and are concerned that the litigation and its aftermath stand to cause irreparable damage both to Carmarthenshire County Council as an institution and to public confidence in their representatives’ ability to hold officers to account, or not just be a rubber stamp for officers’ decisions.