Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Stormy waters in the Welsh blogosphere

The Welsh blogosphere has shrunk somewhat in recent years, so it was heartening a couple of years ago to see what looked like a promising newcomer on the block in the shape of WalesEye.

WalesEye probably does not think of itself as a blog, and it set out with high ambitions to be a sort of Private Eye for Wales. We would be served a mix of satire and high quality investigative journalism.


Satire is in short supply in Wales, and it is no coincidence that nearly all of it is in Welsh (Cnex, Ddoe am Ddeg and the brilliant Dim Byd on S4C, the spasmodically updated LlywodraethCymru.org, and Lol, which really is a lot like Private Eye).

Why it should be that nobody is writing satire about Wales in English is a subject worthy of a PhD thesis. The answer to that question would probably also solve the mystery of why BBC Radio Cymru manages to produce some interesting programmes, while BBC Radio Wales has Oliver Hinds and Jason Mohammad.

At any rate, WalesEye is not the place to go if you want satire.

The serious stuff is more of a curate's egg, but Cardiff-and-occasionally-bits-from-the-surrounding-area-Eye would be a more fitting name for this particular organ.

WalesEye has a very high opinion of its output, and so it was only natural that a year or so after its launch it should follow the lead taken by The Times and The Financial Times and place itself behind a pay wall, where most of its content now resides.

Who pays to read this stuff is anyone's guess, but it is unlikely that many of its subscribers pay to read WalesEye out of their own pockets.

Shortly before it decided to ask readers to cough up for the pleasure of reading what it likes to call its "premium" articles, WalesEye came to Cneifiwr's attention for an attack on the Welsh World War One poet, Hedd Wyn. The piece cited that literary authority Rod Richards (now residing in the parish of Ukip) in support of an argument that Hedd Wyn's work was mediocre, and that it was unjust that people should remember an anti-war poet (and probably a crypto nationalist) who was killed in action in 1917, while a man who had bayoneted a lot of Germans and lived to a ripe old age should die in obscurity.

It can only be a question of time before we have WalesEye interviewing Nathan Gill on the menace posed by that evil old nationalist Quaker and poet Waldo Williams. They will probably disclose that Williams went to prison for refusing to pay income tax.

WalesEye has a bit of a thing about nationalists.

A majority of the independent countries in the world owe their existence to nationalist movements and agitators. Gandhi was one of them. Here he is on the subject of nationalism and internationalism:

It is impossible for one to be internationalist without being a nationalist. Internationalism is possible only when nationalism becomes a fact, i.e., when peoples belonging to different countries have organized themselves and are able to act as one man. It is not nationalism that is evil, it is the narrowness, selfishness, exclusiveness which is the bane of modern nations which is evil. 

WalesEye seems to subscribe to Owen Smith's British Labour brand of "internationalism".

Internationalism is Gordon Brown stomping about on a stage decked out with Union Jacks and ranting about British values; Ed Milliband getting very angry at Emily Thornberry for tweeting a picture of a house decorated with England flags; Trident, flag-waving, military parades, futile wars and now a growing Tory-Labour obsession with plastering the Union Jack on driving licences and projects "funded by the UK Government".

Sometimes Labour's internationalism looks quite a lot like what the French call chauvinism.


For the last few weeks WalesEye has been running a campaign against Jac o' the North, and in one recent piece it cited this blog as another source of nationalist filth for referring to Jac as a sort of black sheep uncle.

Well, it's time to fess up. Cneifiwr was one of a group of abandoned waifs and strays who was adopted by wicked Uncle Jac from Margam Workhouse and other institutions in the late 1960s and 70s. Whereas our peers were going to Urdd camp or the Scouts, we went to secret training camps somewhere near Machynlleth and were brainwashed with tales of Owain Glyndŵr. Kalashnikovs being in short supply, we were given water pistols and told to shoot at life-size cardboard cut-outs of the Queen Mother and the Duke of Kent.

Our uniform consisted of druidical robes emblazoned with the "satanic" red dragon of Wales (see The Coventry Telegraph for more details). To be frank, this was not a very practical uniform, and Cneifiwr eventually rebelled and turned out to be a bit to the left of Uncle Jac.

Yes, there are right-wing, left-wing and middle-of-the road nationalists, but Wales being Wales, a lot of Welsh nationalists are a bit left-leaning and they go around believing in things like social justice, that Westminster does not work in the best interests of Wales, and that along with all those other countries, we would be better off governing ourselves.


But back to WalesEye which occasionally releases tidbits that everyone can read for free.

One recent example was a piece about the leader of the Welsh Greens, Pippa Bartalotti, and her attack on Leanne Wood.

The attack came in the form of a press release which was covered and discussed just about everywhere, but true to its grating, self-inflating house style, WalesEye wrote that the Greens had issued an "extraordinary statement..... WalesEye can disclose".

"Disclose" and "reveal" are WalesEye's favourite words and they suggest that readers are being given some sort of privileged insight, rather than being served up a piece of lukewarm Labour Party spin on stories which have often already been covered everywhere else.

And then a few weeks back WalesEye ran another piece headlined, "I disagree with what you say, but defend to the death your right to say it".

In true Eye fashion, the headline had nothing to do with the following article which was a brief piece about the passing of the Freedom of Information Act.


Bearing this apparent love of freedom of speech in mind, it was somewhat ironic that a couple of days later WalesEye should launch another attempt to have Jac o' the North's blog silenced.

There have been several such attacks recently, the first being a claim that Royston Jones, the author of Jac, had said some unkind things about a man called Jacques Protic who had subsequently complained to the police after claiming to have received a threatening telephone call.


It is fair to say that Protic has quite a few bees in his bonnet about the Welsh language, a deep hatred of Welsh-medium education and a belief that Rhodri Morgan and Carwyn Jones are closet nationalists. Owen Smith may possibly be one of the few people in Wales who would agree with him on that latter point.

Protic also claims to be a card-carrying member of the Labour Party. Here he is spouting on the BBC Wales website:






The Protic story was strange for a variety of reasons, with WalesEye claiming to have been given the inside track on an investigation by North Wales Police. North Wales Police subsequently denied the substance of the story.

Next up, WalesEye claimed that Jac was once more under investigation by the cops for supporting a campaign to give local (i.e. Welsh) people priority when it comes to allocating social housing.

A legitimate point of view, and surely not a criminal matter. It seems that the police agreed.

And so the row rumbles on. A couple of weeks back there was an open outbreak of hostilities, which degenerated into name calling after WalesEye decided to change tack and accuse Royston Jones of flirting with some paramilitary types back in the 1960s, something which would have shocked readers as much as news that the Pope is a Catholic (as WalesEye will probably disclose shortly).

Next came a bit of cod history revealing - who would have thought it - that probably everyone in the British Isles has bits of DNA floating around in them from all over the place. The piece read a bit like a 15 year-old's history homework, but turned out to be the work of someone rather closer to 60 who is currently studying law with the Open University.

The article warned of the dangers of nationalism, the suggestion being that nationalists believe in some sort of Nazi racial purity rubbish. Tell that to all those who vote for the SNP.

The latest development is that the Western Mail had to publish a correction after repeating WalesEye's claims that Royston Jones was the subject of a South Wales police investigation and incorrectly stating that he had launched the housing petition.

Jac o' the North is one of the best written Welsh blogs, and it is a fair bet that his readers include a good many who disagree with some or all of his political views. He is often hilariously funny, and has a long track record of exposing charlatans, crooks and hypocrites in Welsh public life from Naz Malik to Nathan Gill. In the last few days he has been asking important and interesting questions about just who is behind recent attacks on the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon renewable energy project.

And all of that is a great deal more than can be said for WalesEye.




Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Red Kev comes to the rescue of their lordships

Updated 3 March

As predicted, an item relating to the Carmarthen West development has appeared on the agenda for the Executive Board meeting on 9 March, although that part of the meeting and the report will be subject to a public interest exemption, meaning that press and public will be excluded while the rubber stamp is applied.

If you have a Labour or Independent councillor why not ask them why the council is bailing out people who live in stately homes in England but cannot afford basic services for its residents.
Part-funded by Carmarthenshire County Council


____________________


Last week's budget meeting saw Labour and Independent councillors reject a Plaid motion to use £6.2 million of Carmarthenshire's £73.5 million cash pile to avoid the need for cuts to public services and above-inflation increases in council tax, rents, car parking charges and school dinners.

A couple of days later the Planning Committee met to consider various applications, including the highly controversial Carmarthen West planning brief.

The plan for a tranche of 250 new homes had previously come before the committee for approval on 10 February (see A Slight Hitch), but had to be aborted at the last minute thanks to an intervention by the Welsh Government which placed a stopper order on the scheme because of concerns about the impact on the surrounding road network (i.e. gridlock).

Roll forward to 26 February, and the planning officers had some good news. The stopper order had been lifted, the Welsh Government had withdrawn its objections and it was all systems go - subject to a condition in the small print that only 60 houses could be built on the greenfield site until the completion of a new link road.

These boys could teach the council's Ministry of Spin a thing or two about how to present bad news. Boys being the appropriate word, because planning in Carmarthenshire is clearly not suited to women who are much more interested in kittens, ribbons and make-up.

To put it mildly, this is a bit of a problem because the link road, originally estimated to cost £4.5 million, is now expected to cost £5 million, and the final bill is likely to be rather higher.

The meeting was told that there were now a couple of options. Either the council could pay for the development and recover the money later, or the developers could build the road in sections as the development progresses.

By now, readers can probably guess where this is heading.

The council's Executive Board will meet this week for one of its famous pre-meeting meetings behind closed doors, and on the agenda drawn up by the chief executive it appears that there will be a proposal to take £5 million or so out of reserves to pay for the link road in the hope that a roof tax on new houses will eventually pay this money back.

If Mr James's other schemes (Stradey Park, for example) are anything to go by, taxpayers could be left waiting a very long time to see the money recouped, and experience of all these "it won't cost you a penny" projects suggests that the money may well never be recovered.

We will have to wait for the official public rubber-stamping open session on 9 March to find out, assuming that the plan is not an exempt (i.e. secret) item.

Practically nobody in Carmarthen wants the mammoth Carmarthen West project which will fundamentally alter the character of the town, but the council's top brass is determined to plough ahead regardless, despite mounting problems.

The big idea is that the link road will be financed eventually by a roof tax of around £12,500 per property. In addition to that developers will be expected to make hefty contributions to a Section 106 Agreement to help finance a new primary school as a part of the overall Carmarthen West scheme.

Under the recently adopted LDP, developers will also be expected to provide a quota of 20% of affordable houses. There have already been whispers that this may have to be relaxed.

The recent history of housing developments in Carmarthenshire is that developers sign up to S106 agreements and affordable housing schemes, get planning permission and then return to the council a couple of years later saying that the developments are no longer economically viable. The council then relents, and conditions are relaxed or dropped.

In the case of Stradey Park in Llanelli, for example, there will be no affordable homes at all, and another pet scheme for 250 houses on a greenfield site at Ffos Las is also currently asking the council to let it off its S106 and affordable home commitments.

Partly as a result of this, Carmarthenshire is one of the worst performers in Wales when it comes to delivering affordable homes (21st out of 22 local authorities according to recent government rankings).

But the problems don't end there.

Dŵr Cymru has warned that the sewage infrastructure in Carmarthen is operating at capacity, and it currently does not have the money to carry out the necessary upgrades, although it might be able to tack the project on to its capital investment programme at some unspecified point in the future.

So the council has come up with an amazing wheeze to side-step the problem by bringing in another "licensed operator", i.e. in all likelihood an English water company, to put in and operate a system just for the Carmarthen West development.

Note how once again planning officers in Carmarthen appear to be doing everything they can to "facilitate" a private sector development in the teeth of overwhelming local opposition.

The planning meeting was also told by a couple of councillors that the Tawelan brook which crosses the development site is tidal. This came as news to planning officers, but Plaid's Cllr Jeff Owens who worked for many years in the water industry assured them that he was very familiar with the area, and that flooding would be a serious consideration, especially in Johnstown.

A further concern voiced by Cllr Alun Lenny (Plaid) was the company planning to develop the site. Carmarthen Promotions Limited is, as we have seen (here), a very small company with no track record, owned by a group of landowners, a lord and business types living in East Anglia. The same individuals are involved, in varying combinations, in a whole string of other small companies which appear never to make a profit and have nothing much in the way of assets.

Whether Carmarthen Promotions has the financial clout and resources to see through a major development with huge financial risks is a legitimate question.

Needless to say, the application was passed, and the way has been opened to build 60 new executive-style houses on higher ground, well away from any potential flooding.

Viewers of the webcast will see that Labour's Cllr Peter Cooper could hardly contain his excitement and raised his hand in support of the plan before the vote had been called. Cllr Terry Davies (Lab) also gave the scheme his blessing, although the infamous Terry and Keri double act was not performing this week because Cllr Keri Thomas (Lab) was once again absent. Over on the Independent benches you will also see a small forest of hands shoot up in unison, although any suggestions that there may have been party whipping going on would be absolutely outrageous. For some reason the Indies were all huddled together around the considerable bulk of Cllr Daff Davies of Mwche Farm turbine fame.

Expect Kevin Madge to agree to dip into the reserves any day now to allow the rest of the scheme to go ahead, with the council shouldering practically all of the financial risk, while the landed gentry of Norfolk and Suffolk can look forward to making a handsome profit.


On being relevant

The latest circulation figures for local weekly newspapers in Wales (BBC article here) show that the slide in sales is continuing and in some cases picking up speed, especially in the Valleys and parts of the south-east where some titles lost 20% or more of their readership last year.

Closer to home, the Carmarthen Journal was down to 12,488 (-8.9%) in 2014, the Llanelli Star down to 9,943 (-10.9%), the Western Telegraph down 12.4% at 13,806, and the South Wales Guardian down 7.9% at 4,824.

The least worst performer, somewhat ironically, was the poor old Tivyside Advertiser, down just 5.9% at 5,714. The newspaper was stripped of its editor at the end of 2014 and is now down to two full-time journalists.

Revamps, relaunches, redesigns, hirings and firings have all come and gone, and still the slide continues.

The same is true across the rest of the UK, with practically any title you can think of, daily or weekly, in long-term decline. The figures are truly staggering. The Guardian recently analysed the figures for the last six years which showed, for example, that the Daily Telegraph lost 40.6% of its circulation over the period, while the Times dropped 35.5%. At the other end of the market, the Sun also shed a third of its sales.

A large part of the decline can be attributed to the switch from newsprint to online readership, but the bad news for the three Local World titles (Carmarthen Journal, Llanelli Star and South Wales Evening Post - down 9.8% at 27,589) is that their online offering has become all but unreadable, with unwanted pop-ups and advertising videos obscuring stories, taking over your tablet or laptop and making for a very frustrating experience.

There is no silver bullet waiting to be discovered to halt the slide, but the weekly titles need to find ways of making themselves more relevant to their readers and attract new readers in the 30-60 age range.

Focusing on local news is easy enough to say but expensive to deliver. The newsprint versions of the local titles also suffer from the perennial problem of not being able to tackle fast moving stories. The tragic disappearance of Cameron Comey, the 11 year-old who fell into the Tywi, is a case in point. No matter how good a weekly's coverage is, it will always be several steps behind online and broadcast media.

Where local papers do have a potential advantage is in old-fashioned campaigning journalism - something you will never get from the BBC.

There is no shortage of issues waiting for a campaign in Carmarthenshire: the NHS; ambulances; the police helicopter; changes and cutbacks in social care; the council's local development plan; major developments such as the Carmarthen West planning brief; the state of the roads; schools; council whistleblowers and any number of other council scandals and failings.

Campaigning means more than just reporting and relaying official statements, and it inevitably means confronting powerful vested interests - Hywel Dda, the council, the Labour Party to name a few.

At their best, local newspapers can be catalysts for change, and to do that they need to be a lot less respectful of authority.

In Pembrokeshire the launch of the Pembrokeshire Herald shook up the far too cosy relationship which had developed between the press and the council, and there is potential for the same to happen in Carmarthenshire with the launch on Friday this week of the Carmarthenshire Herald and the Llanelli Herald.

There are interesting times ahead.





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.

Agribusiness

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.

Update

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

Update

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).

Scrutiny

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)


Bro
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.