Saturday, 18 April 2015

90 days to save Kevin, Meryl and Pam

Ever since Ted Heath swept away the old counties in the first local government reorganisation back in 1974, the way many of us identify with the local authorities where we live has changed. Most people under the age of 50 probably think that Glamorgan sausages were named after a cricket club. Some counties which re-emerged following the 1996 reorganisation, such as Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion and Sir Fôn/Anglesey, retain a strong local identity, while the bonds in others are weaker.

Carmarthenshire is such a geographically, culturally, linguistically and economically diverse county that it is sometimes hard to see what binds us together apart from council tax demands and Meryl Gravell.

If you were to create a graphic showing the relative strength of local identities in Wales, Carmarthenshire would probably fall somewhere in the middle in the grey zone between Pembrokeshire at one end, and the people who live in places such as Penderyn (was Brecknockshire, then Mid Glamorgan, now Rhondda Cynon Taf, soon to be something else) at the other.

Leighton Andrews will unveil proposals for another reorganisation of local government boundaries in July, and at the moment it is anybody's guess what he will come up with.

Carmarthenshire could remain as a standalone authority, but would probably be one of the smallest in any new order. It could be merged lock, stock and barrel into a re-created Dyfed, or it could be divided up, with Llanelli becoming part of a new greater Swansea, and the rest becoming part of a new entity which combines Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion.

One idea favoured by Elin Jones and others is two new entities, north and south, with the northern half being made up of North Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion and the northern half of Carmarthenshire. It has a lot to recommend it.

To the uninitiated, last week's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council looked like a show of unity, with Plaid, the Independents and Labour joining forces to call on Leighton Andrew to leave Carmarthenshire alone, and there can be no doubt about the sincerity of Cllr Emlyn Dole, the leader of the Plaid group, and Kevin Madge, the Labour leader, although Kev's claim that his Labour group is "100% behind this" is questionable.

Equally sincere in their defence of Carmarthenshire were Cllrs Glynog Davies and Alun Lenny, with Alun Lenny making the valid point that we have to differentiate between the county itself and the administration running the county, although that is difficult after so many years of Meryl, Mark and Madge.

Not far below the surface, things are a lot more messy and party membership matters less than local loyalties. Almost certainly some of those who voted in favour of keeping Carmarthenshire as a standalone authority are busy lobbying Leighton Andrew to take Llanelli out of the county, and there are other powerful voices outside the county council who want the same thing.

Without Llanelli, Carmarthenshire cannot survive as a separate unitary authority.

In their vote on Cllr Dole's motion calling on the Welsh Government to keep Carmarthenshire as a standalone authority, only Cllr Siân Caiach voted against.

Kevin Madge then got himself into the pages of the South Wales Guardian, saying that we had just 90 days to save Carmarthenshire. Yes, we the people have to "step up" and make it clear that we want to save Carmarthenshire, presumably by lobbying our Assembly Members, although his idea of leadership does not extend to what practical steps he wants "the people" to take.

In reality, Keith Davies, the Labour Assembly Member for Llanelli, has already made it clear where he stands, and it is not with Kev.

Also, whatever proposals Leighton Andrews comes up with will be subject to public consultation, although perhaps based on his experience of how things work in Carmarthenshire, Kevin Madge does not seem to think that will be anything other than a formality.

But what do you think?

Friday, 17 April 2015

Don't know

Less than three weeks ago, but it already feels like the distant past, Labour launched its Welsh election campaign in Ammanford. Why Ammanford? Well, Labour is desperate to regain a seat it lost to Plaid back in 2001.

The press gathered, and there was a small forest of red and yellow placards held up by people, most of whom appear to have been shipped in specially from further afield, including Huw Tippex Thomas, Labour's accident prone candidate for Ceredigion. Lurking at the back somewhere was the leader of Carmarthenshire County Council, Kevin Madge. Kev had probably been ordered to keep a low profile and just make up the numbers, what with Labour's record in Carmarthenshire not really being the stuff which votes are made of.

Also lurking in the throng was Rod Richards, former Tory, former Ukip convert and now lost in political no-man's land.

Rod had agreed to take a look at Labour's campaign for a programme on S4C called Y Ras i 10 Downing Street (available here for a couple more weeks), with other reasonably well-known figures packed off to tail the other parties. Poor old Siân Lloyd got the LibDems.

Rod probably gargles with gravel, and his first victim was First Minister Carwyn Jones. Rod growled, and Carwyn looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights. It turned out that his minders had told him not to speak to strangers, and he mumbled something about having to do as he was told before sloping off.

Next up was Owen Smith, the oily Shadow Secretary of State for Wales. Notwithstanding Trident, how many nuclear submarines were there in the Royal Navy, Rod wanted to know.

Smith didn't know. Three or four? It was not his bag, but he was very sure that Labour's policy is to renew the Trident fleet (correct). "There's no difference between us the Tories on this", he added proudly and correctly.

The question about how many was "recondite", and he was not going to be drawn into point scoring.

Quite a lot of ordinary voters in Ammanford not planning to sit around the Cabinet table could tell you that the renewal of Trident will cost around £100 billion over the lifetime of this useless weapon of mass destruction. The initial down payment is expected to come in at somewhere in the region of £20-£25 billion. By comparison, the Welsh government's budget for 2015-16 was £15 billion.

If we are unfortunate enough to end up with Owen Smith as Secretary of State in a few weeks from now, we will have someone who will have no qualms about voting to support Trident renewal, even though he doesn't really seem to know what he will be voting for.

Having dealt with Smith, Rod was off canvassing with Calum Higgins who had dressed as an undertaker's assistant. Rather strangely Calum was out canvassing in Llanelli, rather than in the constituency he hopes to represent, and we got a rear-view of Nia Griffith.

The reception as he trailed around the housing estates was not exactly encouraging.

"Have you made your mind up?" Calum asked one householder.

"No", came the reply. "Not yet", said another one.

Picking up one of the leaflets Calum was handing out, Rod wanted to know if there were any pictures of Ed Milliband in it.

"I don't know", said Calum

It turned out there weren't any, but Calum thought that Milliband would make a good Prime Minister, even if the local party seemed less than keen to talk about their leader.

Asked about education, Calum said this was a devolved matter. Nothing to do with him, therefore, although he acknowledged that there was room for improvement.

But let's head back to Ammanford for the launch.

On hand was a BBC reporter who decided to sound out some of Labour's hopefuls and its bigshots to find out what the party's five key election pledges were. One would-be MP could not name any, a few others had a go at guessing, and Carwyn Jones scored two out of five.

Carwyn also showed that he had no idea what the pledge card was all about:

"Well if you look at the pledges, they are UK pledges. They are pledges around UK issues as you know. What we've got to be careful about is to make sure the pledges affect the UK and not just of course Wales."

One of the pledges is a vague promise to invest in the Welsh NHS, something which should go down a storm in Norfolk and Sunderland

Memorising the five short and meaningless pledges would not be difficult, but even Labour's top brass seemed to have come to the sensible conclusion that it was not worth the effort.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

The politics of parking


The council is now saying that the tickets were issued in error, but it insists that it will enforce new charges for parking on Sundays from May. This begs the question why did traffic wardens turn out on a Sunday and slap tickets on cars. Were they acting spontaneously, donning their uniforms for fun and working for free? Or was it a full dress rehearsal?

As far as Llanelli is concerned, the proposed 6-month pilot is good news. If you believe Meryl, Kevin
Madge and the rest, the town has never had it so good. Last week an independent retail analyst ranked Llanelli 499th out of 500 UK retail centres, which sums up what 15 years of Meryl and Madge have achieved.

But ever-increasing parking charges are not just killing Llanelli.


Carmarthenshire County Council would not be Carmarthenshire County Council if we were not treated to a monthly constitutional wrangle, often involving Labour 'amendments' to motions which negate the original motion and spurious interpretations of the rules by the chief executive and Linda Legal.

So this month did not disappoint, and you can read a blow-by-blow account by Caebrwyn here, but in a nutshell Cllr John Jenkins (Attila the Hun was a Lefty, Unaffiliated) had submitted a motion calling for a 6 month trial of free parking in council car parks in Llanelli.

Cllr Peter Cooper (Labour, Ammanford Tendency) came up with an amendment calling on the Executive Board to review its strategy for the whole of the county, while remaining consistent with "national and regional parking objectives".

Car parking charges are an issue in the election in Llanelli, with the Plaid candidate, Vaughan Williams, highlighting concerns about the impact of parking charges on the town centre. Vaughan also ran a petition calling for the charges to be scrapped and collected 650 signatures.

At this point in the proceedings Llanelli Labour must have had a premonition of newspaper headlines screaming "Labour torpedoes free parking plan for Llanelli", heightening fears that they could lose their 93-year clammy grip on the town.

Voting to accept John Jenkins' proposal would at least have the merit of burying the issue until the election is well out of the way.

Kev's troops were in turmoil, and he decided to call for the meeting to be suspended so that Labour could get its ducks back in a row.

The prospect of an election defeat concentrates minds wonderfully, and Peter Cooper's 'amendment' was duly withdrawn. A large majority then voted in favour of the 6-month parking freebie, and the matter will now go off to the Executive Board next month. It may still be chucked out, what with the election having been dealt with, especially if Labour loses the seat.

Peter Cooper's amendment would have had the effect of kicking the issue into the long grass, but the idea that the council should look at parking charges across the whole county does have its merits. As things now stand, there will only be free parking if you live in a Labour-held constituency.

There being no such thing as a free lunch, the losers in all of this will be residents of Newcastle Emlyn, Carmarthen, Llandeilo, Llandovery and Ammanford. Plus, of course, Labour's candidate in Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, Calum Higgins, who now has the job of explaining to would-be constituents why his party has voted every year to ramp up parking charges in Ammanford and the market towns while agreeing to free parking in Llanelli.

For those of us not fortunate enough to live in Llanelli, there was an indication of tougher times to come last Sunday morning when the county council dispatched traffic wardens to carry out a blitz on church and chapel goers in Carmarthen. Quite a few of them now face having to pay fines which will dwarf anything that they put into the collection.

Luckily there are not many Labour voters in the Welsh-speaking chapel congregations of Carmarthen these days, but as Cllr Colin Evans will no doubt soon be reminding everyone, the council will have to make up the shortfall somewhere.

This blog refuses to stoop to the tactics used by the Cambrian News, but if it did the headline of this piece could have been Calum sends in Nazi storm troop wardens to terrorise chapel goers shock.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

A dead donkey

Some older readers will remember Drop the Dead Donkey, a satirical series about a TV news channel. In one episode the bosses decide to go after a vicar who has upset them for some reason or other. It went something like this....

A reporter is instructed to find dirt on the reverend, and the poor man is tailed. Unfortunately, he leads an entirely blameless life.

"What did he do yesterday?" the editor asks.

"Well, he went shopping. He bought some bread, some fruit and veg and four lamb chops at the butcher's."

"Four lamb chops? Assuming that he buys four lamb chops a week every week over a period of, say, 20 years, that's over a thousand lambs. We've got him! Vicar in sheep massacre!"

Any lingering doubts about what the Cambrian News is up to with its coverage of the election in Ceredigion have been dispelled by this week's front page.

A week ago it was Plaid candidate says incomers are 'Nazis'. He had said no such thing, of course, but as the paper knows, quite a few readers will have glanced at the headline, tutted in disgust and moved on without reading the rest of the story. I met one of them yesterday.

The Labour candidate, Huw Thomas, and several Labour bigwigs were very quick to seize on the headline and call for Mike Parker to be sacked.

A day or so later it emerged that Huw Thomas had suggested throwing Tippex on cars displaying the English flag, made disparaging comments about 'chavs' and women who work in shops, and a good deal more when contributing to an online forum a few years ago.

The story was the lead on that evening's BBC Wales news, just as Mike had found himself in the headlines earlier.

The Huw Thomas story was too late for that week's Cambrian News, and so we have had to wait to find out how the paper would cover the revelations about the Labour candidate. Here's how:

No mention of Labour, and you have to turn to page 15 to find out what all the fuss was about.

The Cambrian News can ill afford to lose even more readers, but it seems determined to do just that.