Thursday, 28 May 2015

Calum's EdStone

When historians look back at the 2015 general election in years to come, we can be sure that they will recall the infamous "EdStone", a list of vague statements and meaningless "promises" which Ed Miliband hoped to erect in the garden of 10 Downing Street.

The list was headed by Promise No. One: "a strong economic foundation".

The six "commitments" on the EdStone were closely paralleled by the words on pledge cards handed out at the launch of Labour's Welsh campaign in Ammanford. There were five pledges, headed by "a strong economic foundation", with "invest in our Welsh NHS" in third place.

The Welsh NHS is, of course, devolved and run by the Labour administration in Cardiff, so its inclusion on the list was particularly cynical and empty.

As we saw, so vague and meaningless were the pledges that quite a few of Labour's top brass who turned up in Ammanford struggled to remember any of them.

In the run-up to this non-event, Labour's candidate for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, Calum Higgins, launched a petition calling for an expansion of services at Amman Valley Hospital. The petition was launched on 17 March and it closes tomorrow on 29 May.

The importance of this issue to Calum and the Labour Party, and the extent to which they campaigned on it can be seen from the results here.

In 73 days they managed to collect just one signature, and that came from a young woman living in Gloucester.

But that did not matter because this exercise was all about PR rather than actually achieving a result, and the South Wales Guardian duly rewarded Calum with a headline on 18 March.

The election is over, the dogs have barked and the caravan has moved on, leaving a bit of crumpled virtual paper on the verge. Amman Valley Hospital is nowhere nearer to getting additional resources, and this one-day campaign is just another footnote in electoral history.



Wednesday, 27 May 2015

More strange tales from the planning department

Carmarthenshire County Council has been advertising for a new head of planning as Eifion Bowen, the current incumbent, prepares to step down and head off into retirement. Although the job is being advertised, the smart money is on the appointment going to an internal applicant, Julian Edwards.

Eifion Bowen is a personable and approachable man, and he must be feverishly counting down the days left in the hot seat. Of all the top jobs in County Hall, the role of head of planning is probably the toughest. The planning system itself is a Kafka-esque nightmare, and is subject to frequent legislative and policy changes, while the seas around those shifting sands are filled with large numbers of predatory sharks assisted by consultants and lawyers who are far better resourced than local authority planning departments. Then there are the lesser fry who include a fair number of cranks and obsessives.

If that was not difficult enough, the head of planning has also had to accommodate interference from above, as the "dream team" seeks to impose its own particular vision and pet projects on the county, often in collaboration with greedy big money interests and the funny handshake lobby.

No wonder that Eifion Bowen has had such a rough ride in the job, and no wonder that there have been so many questionable and strange cases.

Red sky at night

One long-running saga was back in the news again last week when the local press reported that a proposed Aldi store in Newcastle Emlyn was subject to a legal challenge by an unnamed third party.

The development was approved some years ago, and the new store was meant to have opened its doors this year, but the scheme has been dogged by opposition from a rival developer just up the road who would dearly like to build a much larger supermarket on his own land, for which there is also extant planning permission.

Incredibly, planning officers concluded that this small market town could support three supermarkets, the third being an existing CK's "superstore". Neither of the two additional stores has so far materialised, and as the supermarket chains themselves retrench, the prospect of a large new store on the Cawdor site looks ever more unlikely.

The Aldi development is now heading off for judicial review, despite the council's planning department having shown itself to be very accommodating towards the aggrieved developer on numerous other occasions, including the granting of retrospective planning for a large car showroom and enormous neon signs which bathe part of the town in a red glow at night. More recently it supported a bid by the developer to extricate himself from a Section 106 agreement to improve pedestrian access to the site - something which was presented as a key requirement of the original planning application.

Planning is a funny old business.

Rocky road

Meanwhile in Maesybont, Natural Resources Wales has begun looking into the destruction of part of the Cernydd Carmel SSSI and SAC conservation area. Despite its clear designation under both UK and European law, the council has so far acknowledged only that it has "potential" conservation value.

Mrs Trisha Breckman has provided NRW with extensive video and photographic evidence of the work carried out by her wholesale scrap and waste dealer neighbour, only to be asked why she had not raised her concerns with the agency when the work first started.

Somewhat taken aback by this, Mrs Breckman replied that she had informed Carmarthenshire County Council at the time, as the local planning authority, on the assumption that it would inform NRW as the statutory body with responsibility for the protection of designated SSSIs and SACs.

When presented with the same photographs and video evidence of the quarrying work, the council told Mrs Breckman that it was seeking legal advice internally to determine whether this material could be used as evidence. A "no" from the legal eagles in County Hall would, of course, enable the council to claim that it has seen no evidence, an excuse which could be very useful in due course.

There have been two major quarrying episodes on the land - the first last autumn and a second round earlier this year. In addition, the site owner has created a road, part of which has a tarmac surface, across the site. This was carried out without planning permission, although a retrospective application has now gone in. Furthermore, the owner has begun depositing scrap on part of the site again - a previous episode ended in a public inquiry - with the council once again considering what to do about it.

It would seem to be the case that the council did not trouble NRW with the bad news about what was taking place at Cernydd Carmel, and instead issued Enforcement Notices requiring the site owner to put back some topsoil and reseed the area with grass.

Interestingly, the council could have issued Stop Notices compelling the owner, Mr Thomas, to cease quarrying of the land forthwith, but instead opted for the softer option of Enforcement Notices which enabled Mr Thomas to go on quarrying for several more weeks on both occasions. The first Enforcement Notice was preceded by an "advisory letter" asking him to stop work, and that was duly ignored.

The planning authority bent so far backwards in its dealings with Mr Thomas that it was practically horizontal. When Mr Thomas resumed quarrying in February of this year and the council issued a second Enforcement Notice, Mrs Breckman asked why it had not resorted to issuing a Stop Notice after its experiences the previous autumn. A planning officer wrote to Mrs Breckman to explain:

Stop Notices were considered but it was not considered appropriate in either case as the unauthorised activity ceased and Mr Thomas has sought to comply with the requirements set out in the Enforcement Notices.

As a Natural Resources Wales officer repeatedly told Mrs Breckman, it was "a pity" nobody had told them about all of this sooner.

Perhaps the council's letter was lost in the post.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Snog, marry, avoid

Normally the Annual General Meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council is best avoided unless you are the sort of person who has an obsessive interest in fashion trends among women aged 60+, bouquets and endless rounds of applause. Is that pink number Debenhams, Marks and Sparks or, my goodness, Ededa J?

What will Meryl be wearing this year? Aubergine chiffon with orange chinchilla?

On that point at least we were disappointed this year as Meryl had to attend a board meeting of Swansea Bay City Region because the chair of the board had flown over specially from his home in Canada to be there. Yes, Swansea is such a great place that Sir Terry Matthews would prefer to live several thousand miles away from it.

The 2015 AGM was, uniquely, actually quite interesting, and for that we have the Labour Party to thank.

First up was the "election" of a new chair. Unlike Pembrokeshire County Council where there was a real election this year with a surprise outcome, Carmarthenshire chooses its Chair using the principle of Buggins' Turn. This year it was Plaid's turn; next year it will be Labour, and the year after that it will be an Independent, assuming that Pam Palmer can find one with a pulse.

The result of this system is a bit like hereditary monarchy. If you are very lucky you might get one with an IQ which runs into three figures, but you are more likely to get a non-entity, a buffoon or a simpleton.

This year saw both ends of the spectrum as Elmer Fudd (Daff Davies) handed over the reins to Peter Hughes Griffiths.

PHG was born to be chair, in the same way that Lionel Sachs was born to chair The Good Old Days, whereas Daff, a retired farmer, probably had sheep with a better grasp of procedure.

The consensus of those paying tribute to Elmer was that he was "a character". This is a euphemism used to describe people you would not want to spend more than about five minutes with.

Referring to Daff's farming days, Mark James showed that his understanding of agriculture was on a par with his in-depth knowledge of the cockle industry. When he set out on his career in local government, one of his first jobs had involved meeting a lot of farmers. They were jolly types who liked their food, the chief executive declared. All that was missing from this description were the rosy cheeks, the smock, and slap and tickle with a buxom milk maid.

If Welsh farmers were all like Daff, agriculture in this country would be doomed.

The main piece of business, however, was the annual report of the previous Leader of Council, Kevin Madge. This ran on for a staggering 32 minutes, with Kev reminding us that he was first elected as a councillor 36 years ago in 1979, at the same time as Margaret Thatcher moved into 10 Downing Street.

He had two things in common with Mrs T, Kev told us, one of which was the date of his election. The other thing they shared would have to wait until he was off-camera at the municipal buffet.

Unless Kev likes dressing up in blue frocks and wielding a handbag when he goes to the Ammanford Miners Welfare Club, Cneifiwr's money is on the shared experience of being stabbed in the back by an ungrateful party which had finally realised that allowing its leader to go "on and on" would mean electoral suicide.

Kev duly went on and on as he listed all his achievements, including roundabout improvement schemes (in Llanelli) and his grand council house building programme. Only a carping blogger would point out that no new council houses were completed in the year covered by the report, and that prior to that he notched up just 11 two bedroom old people's bungalows (in Llanelli and massively over-budget).

Yes, Llanelli had had money poured all over it, and this was the way the ungrateful bastards had repaid him.

Rather unkindly, none of Kev's fellow Labour councillors had chosen to sit next to him, but viewers of the webcast can enjoy the sight of three or four of them sat behind him, desperately trying to look interested. Derek Cundy wore earphones throughout, although almost all of Kev's parting speech was in English. Perhaps Derek was tuned into Classic FM.

If a rambling monologue could be said to reach a crescendo, we finally reached one at about 30 minutes as Kev thanked just about everybody (except most of his Labour colleagues) and sat down choking back the tears.

Somewhat later in the meeting, councillors turned their thoughts briefly to job specifications for senior officers.

What would a job specification for a political representative look like, Cneifiwr mused. And what were the minimum requirements?

As regular views of Carmarthenshire County Council webcasts can see for themselves, there clearly are no minimum requirements or essential skillsets.

If pushed, most people would probably say that strong communication skills were a must for anyone going into politics, but most of the backbench Labour and Independent councillors rarely if ever speak in council meetings. As they climb the greasy municipal pole, not saying anything becomes a bit more tricky, but as Cllr Jim Dog Muck Jones has shown us, you can land a job on the Executive Board and a nice salary and still manage to get by without opening your mouth.

On the one occasion Jim was pushed into a corner by Cllr Siân Caiach and asked searching questions about pollution of the Burry Inlet, Jim showed his mastery of his brief by telling her to ask Dŵr Cymru instead.

Kev's misfortune was to land the one job in the council where effective communication skills really are important. Kevin Madge was, in short, living proof of the infallibility of the Peter Principle, where people rise to the level of their own incompetence.

A decent man and a good ward councillor do not necessarily make for a good council leader.

This being the AGM, nobody was about to be so churlish as to point out that Kevin Madge had been a disaster as council leader.

The only sour note was introduced by Cllr Giles Morgan (Ind) who stole Cneifiwr's copyright by describing himself as "the youth wing of the Independent Party".

Wearing his trademark white linen jacket, Giles Morgan ("Martin Bell minus the ethics" it was once memorably said) recalled that Kevin Madge had said that his career at the top had begun with a kiss from Meryl Gravell. Giles noted unkindly that there was unlikely to be a queue of people forming to kiss Cllr Jeff Edmunds, Labour's lugubrious new leader, either now or in the future.

Kevin Madge had been treated "shabbily", he opined.

It is not often that Cneifiwr finds himself coming to the defence of the Labour Party, but Giles should perhaps spend more time reading the history books. Louis XVI was guillotined; the Romanovs were shot, hacked to pieces and thrown down a mine shaft; Mussolini was shot and strung up feet first from a lamp post, and Edward II apparently had a red hot poker inserted into a place where the sun does not shine.

Compared with those political departures, being voted out in a democratic ballot looks very much like a soft option.

As usual, Giles had missed the point. It would have been kinder if Labour had not elected Kevin Madge leader in the first place, but having made their mistake and lived with the consequences for three years, they were right to retire him.

But, as Peter Hughes Griffiths said, let's end this review of the AGM on a lighter note and take up Giles Morgan's game of municipal snog, marry, avoid.

Actually, PHG did not propose a round of snog, marry, avoid, but wouldn't it have been fun if he had, readers?

Here is Cneifiwr's contribution:

Snog: Cllr Linda Evans - phoo-arr!!!
Marry: Cllr Siân Thomas - unfortunately already snapped up by a debonair Sean Connery lookalike.
Avoid: We are spoiled for choice, and it would be ungentlemanly to name names, Tegwen.

But what about you, dear reader?

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Hoe fach - short break

This blog will be taking a short break, but will return next week with an update on new developments in the Trisha Breckman case, a look at the new administration in County Hall and tourism.

Friday, 15 May 2015

A wake-up call

This week's Carmarthenshire Herald carries a two page exposé of one of the most shocking cases to involve social services in the county in recent years. It has been covered in some detail on this blog and by Caebrwyn before, but the Herald has managed to explain this highly complex and long-running case clearly and succinctly, and it has taken the time to go beyond the dry official reports and speak to some of those involved.

The result is that for the first time the human cost of the case is clear for all to see.

In summary, a couple living in Carmarthenshire had their severely disabled daughter taken away from them without warning after accusations were made by an agency care worker that she was being sold into prostitution.

This extremely malicious accusation triggered a course of events which turned the family's life into a nightmare, and years later the council is still dragging its feet on implementing a settlement which was agreed out of court.

From reading the reports, it is clear that the parents accepted and understood that the council had to act and respond to the accusations, but what followed was a catalogue of blunders and inexplicable delays in returning the young woman to her home even after the police had concluded that the accusations were without foundation.

Why social services managers acted in the way they did and why they prolonged the agony has never been satisfactorily explained. Neither is it known whether anyone faced disciplinary proceedings or any form of sanction for the harm inflicted.

It is also not clear whether the care workers who triggered this horror story are still employed in that capacity.

There are clearly important lessons to be learned from this, and an investigation is needed. It will come as no surprise to learn that the usual suspects have so far managed to block scrutiny and discussion of the case by councillors.

Some senior councillors, particularly Cllr Jane Tremlett who holds the social services portfolio on the Executive Board, should have been aware of what happened and also that the council has so far taken four years to implement the settlement.

Why has she not intervened? If she was not aware, why not?

Let us hope that the new administration acts swiftly in this case and sends a clear signal that cover-ups, denials and complete indifference to the suffering of real people are no longer acceptable.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Changing the guard

A week ago people were trooping off to the polls in an election the outcome of which nobody predicted. Although it looked likely that Kevin Madge would be given the order of the boot in Carmarthenshire after the election, nobody would have put money on Plaid Cymru taking over leadership of the council in coalition with the Independents within the same week.

Both Labour and the Independents have been in power for far too long in County Hall, and the choice before Plaid was far from ideal. But politics in a democratic society is all about compromise, and Emlyn Dole has shown that he is not an exponent of tribal politics.

As Anon commenting on the previous post pointed out, Emlyn is his own man, and the Plaid group on the council has always guarded its independence. The idea that he had to seek permission from Leanne Wood or anybody else can safely be ruled out.


How much freedom of manoeuvre Plaid will have now that it is leading the council is another matter.

With the fate of the Liberal Democrats fresh in everybody's minds, Emlyn and his colleagues would do well to remember that being perceived, fairly or otherwise, to have compromised your principles too far can produce very harsh results at the ballot box.

A coalition with Labour would have been better for two reasons, but it is interesting to note Cllr Lenny's comment on the previous post. Labour broght nothing to the negotiation, it seems.

First, apart from Meryl Gravell and to a lesser extent Pam Palmer, the Independent benches are a talent-free zone, and Meryl and Pam are the sort of talent Carmarthenshire could do without. The Labour group does have some capable players who could have helped raise the level of the game, but that was not to be.

Second, there was much more likelihood that Plaid in coalition with Labour would have been in a position to deal with the problem of an over mighty chief executive.

The Independents have retained their five seats on the Executive Board, even though four would have been a better reflection of their actual numbers in the council. They clearly demanded and received a high price for their support, and keeping Mark James may well be part of the package. Time will tell.

In the longer term the best thing for local government in Carmarthenshire would be a heavy defeat at the polls for the Independents. Whether that would be more likely to happen with the Independents out of power is anybody's guess, but Carmarthenshire's Independents are in reality not much more than a vehicle for ensuring that Meryl Gravell and Pam Palmer keep their hands on the levers of power. Without seats on the Executive Board and the patronage which goes with it, Pam and Meryl would have lost their raison d'être.

For Labour this is an opportunity to recharge the batteries and decide what sort of party they want to be. Let's hope for their sake that Plaid insists on rolling back the undemocratic and authoritarian changes to the constitution implemented by Labour in coalition with the Independents which make it so hard for any opposition to make its voice heard and hold the Executive to account.

We will find out in due course what the new coalition will look like and what its priorities are, but it will have to deal with huge spending cuts, and the likelihood that there is much worse to come.

That's the bad stuff, but what sort of things might we see from a Plaid-led council?

In no particular order, here is a shopping list.

  • Securing the earliest possible departure of Mark James without a massive pay-off.
  • Start actually building social housing rather than just talking about it.
  • Go for a big increase in the numbers of affordable homes being built and insist that developers stick to the quotas they sign up to as well as the terms of Section 106 agreements. If that means fewer housing developments for which there is no local need, so much the better.
  • Tackle the festering sore of planning. Fresh blood is needed, and action is needed to root out one or two rotten apples who are much too close to some of the developers.
  • Crucially, the council needs to restore the independence and integrity of the planning department and stop treating it like an arm of the executive to push through pet projects. 
  • The press office needs to be cut down to size, and the awful Carmarthenshire News scrapped, along with the 'Newsroom' which is not only p*** poor, but also a shocking waste of money.
  • Later this month, the council will finally publish the results of its review of the WLGA governance peer review. All the indications are that the result will be a very watered down version of the WLGA recommendations. This must not be the final word on making the council more open and accountable, and much more work needs to be done to encourage public questions and participation.
  • The council is notoriously averse to criticism and defensive. This has led to several serious failures to protect whistleblowers doing their civic duty to bring abuses to light. One way of doing this might be to create a whstleblowers' champion who reports not to the chief executive or other senior officers but to an independent lay member.
  • Just as with the WLGA recommendations, the council has been dragging its feet and watering down the recommendations made last year on the Welsh language. The council has a hugely important part to play here, and the policy must be pursued with new vigour. Start by making Cefin Campbell chair of the cross-party advisory panel and get to work on making Welsh the working language of successively more parts of the administration to create career opportunities for young Welsh speakers.
  • Insist that all new appointments have to be bilingual. The argument that you can only recruit the best if you import monoglot English speakers is nonsense - just look at what that policy has brought us.
  • There is growing evidence that the council's Modernising Education Programme has concentrated on bricks and mortar at the expense of what goes on in schools. Carmarthenshire has for some time performed significantly less well than most neighbouring authorities. This decline must be reversed.
  • And finally, the council has a key role to play in protecting employment rights. There is growing pressure on all councils to outsource social care, and all too often the result is substandard care and exploitation of low paid care workers. The council needs to establish effective monitoring to ensure that all of its "partners", in social care and other fields, sign up to and adhere to the council's own policies on pay, equality and the language.
That's quite a list, and some of these will take much longer than two years to implement.

Emlyn Dole is a highly intelligent and thoughtful man, and will certainly be a refreshing change from what has gone before. He made it clear in his interview with the BBC yesterday that he wants to make a difference, and he deserves to be given a chance.

Chwarae teg a phob lwc iddo fe. Fair play and good luck to him.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Mating season

It's all kicking off in County Hall. As predicted, Labour's choice of Jeff Edmunds does not appear to have gone down well with the Independents. There is no love lost between the WI cabal on one side of the fence, and the Weird Sisters of Llanelli Labour on the other. According to the latest reports, the Plaid group is now meeting to consider offers of a coalition from both Labour and the Independents.

For Plaid this is like being asked to choose between a caravan holiday at Chernobyl and a camping trip to Fukushima.

Choices, choices, but let's hope Emlyn Dole can resist a flash of leg from Pam and Meryl.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Is anybody there?

A brief postscript to the previous post about the coup d'état in County Hall.

Jeff Edmunds was first elected to the County Council for Bigyn ward (Llanelli) in 2012 and is therefore unusual in being able to measure his career at the top in County Hall in years rather than decades.

Since becoming a councillor, Jeff has been a member of the Executive Board with responsibility for resources (that's money to you and me), and his style could not have been more different to that of Kevin Madge. Where Kevin waffled incoherently, Jeff Edmunds is known for giving clear, crisp and generally straight answers to questions.

His most striking contribution to date was when he spilled the beans on the terms of the controversial Marstons land deal, when it is alleged that Mark James intervened in the negotiation to award the Scarlets the bulk of the proceeds against the wishes of other senior officers.

It is understood that Jeff Edmunds released details of the extraordinary arrangement against the wishes of the chief executive who very much wanted to keep them under wraps.

His apparent willingness to stand up to Mr James may be part of the explanation for his victory yesterday, but to survive as leader of the council he will have to depend on the support of Mr James's political wing (Meryl, Pam & Co), so holding the coalition together while putting clear red water between Labour and Mr James will be difficult to put it mildly.

Jeff is sometimes known as the "Prince of Darkness". Whether this reflects his somewhat lugubrious style, mastery of the dark Machiavellian political arts or his enthusiasm for spiritualism is not known, but to anyone wishing to contact the dear departed in Llanelli, Jeff is a well-known operator of the ouija board.

Image result for aleister crowley


His victory will not go down well with all of his allies in the coalition, including the WI faction on the Independent benches and key players in the Ammanford Labour group. He may find it easier to communicate with the deceased than some of his colleagues and "friends".


Monday, 11 May 2015

Kevin Madge loses leadership of Carmarthenshire Labour Group

As predicted, Kevin Madge has been booted out after three years as Labour leader on the County Council in what was described as a very emotional meeting, and replaced by Cllr Jeff Edmunds.

The full council will be asked to elect a new leader when it meets on 20 May, and it is not clear whether Cllr Edmunds will face a challenge from Labour's coalition partners, the Independents.

Rumour has it that Meryl Gravell, in reality the de facto leader of the Independents, is far from happy at the prospect of working with Cllr Edmunds who enjoys the support of Tegwen Devichand and the Llanelli Labour faction.

On a personal note, this blog has long been critical of Kevin Madge's leadership of the council, but those who know him, friend and foe alike, agree that he is a fundamentally decent man, and the loss of office will come as a bitter blow to him.

Whether it was his handling of the various crises and scandals which have rocked the council in the last couple of years that caused his downfall, only Labour insiders will know, but in a report on Newyddion 9 this evening, the BBC noted that with just two years to go before the next council elections, the prospect of going down with Captain Madge at the helm may have had something to do with it.

It's worth noting that Labour in Carmarthenshire is not alone in the bloodletting. With Mandelson, the Milibands and dozens of others slogging it out in Westminster, Labour in Cardiff has booted out its leader, Phil Bale, just a couple of months after backing him in a vote of confidence.

Whatever the truth, we could be in for an interesting couple of weeks on Jail Hill.


Saturday, 9 May 2015

Infallible

The departure of Chirstina Harrhy after just three months in post as Director of Environment at Carmarthenshire County Council has been picked up by the Carmarthenshire Herald, and it is significant for two reasons.

Neither the council nor Ms Harrhy has commented on the reasons for her resignation, but it is understood that she realised too late that she was expected merely to act as a figurehead, with all the decisions being taken by the old boys club which actually runs things.

Anyone considering applying for the well-paid post when it is readvertised would do well to bear that in mind, but if you are willing to accept a big salary in return for asking "how high?" when told to jump, this could be the job for you.

The second point to note is the course of events which led up to Ms Harrhy's appointment. Back at the end of 2013 the council went through the lengthy and expensive process of trying to find a successor to Richard Workman, who was Director of Technical Services (now rebranded Director of Environment).

The cross-party appointments committee met to consider two candidates and was a whisker away from appointing one of them when, it is alleged, the chief executive decided that the councillors were about to make the wrong choice, and Cllr Meryl Gravell obliged by derailing the process.

The result was that the meeting failed to appoint anybody and Richard Workman was asked to postpone his departure, with the appointment of a successor put back for another year.

Peter Hughes Griffiths, who was then leading the Plaid group, was furious and made his feelings known in a meeting of the full council. In all his years as a councillor, this was one of the most disgraceful scenes he had ever witnessed, he said, and he pointed out the enormous waste of money involved.

In response, Mr James smiled sweetly and blamed the fiasco on political disagreements between the councillors.

A year and a half further on, and the council is gearing up for a third attempt to find someone who ticks the right boxes, with costs continuing to mount.

Perhaps Mr James should take advice from the College of Cardinals which regularly manages to select God's Representative on Earth with much less fuss and in much less time than it takes our council to appoint a senior director.

___________

Mystery also surrounds the post of Head of Administration and Law where Mrs Linda Rees Jones clocked up what must have been a Wales all-comers record as "acting" head since the retirement of Lyn Thomas in 2011. By installing Mrs Rees Jones as acting head, Mr James avoided the messy business of having to get the appointment approved by councillors, and so matters remained until recently when Linda Legal suddenly began signing herself off as Head of Administration and Law, no longer just acting.

It will be recalled that the eminent lawyer and co-opted member of the council's Audit Committee, Sir David Lewis, described the quality of legal advice put out by Mrs Rees Jones's department as "cavalier at best and incompetent at worst".

Strangely this transformation appears to have happened without the involvement of an appointments committee.

Perhaps there is a legal loophole somewhere, or perhaps Mrs Rees Jones was canonised by the Almighty himself without the involvement of mere mortal councillors.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Fallout

As the dust settles on the election, here are one or two snippets which may be of interest.

Llanelli

Elections can be rough justice, and commiserations go to Vaughan Williams who worked incredibly hard. He ran a positive campaign while Labour fought dirty. At one hustings a gaggle of trolls shouted down anyone who was not Nia Griffith, and there were some extremely nasty attempts at smearing opponents - tactics which are routine for Labour in Llanelli.

Anyone who stayed up for the count last night would have seen Mark James reading out the result in very halting Welsh (he's only had 14 years to learn), a task for which he is very handsomely paid as Returning Officer.

Shortly afterwards a line formed of people hoping to speak to Nia, including a reporter from the Llanelli/Carmarthenshire Herald. Before the poor dab could say anything, the Returning Officer allegedly intervened to advise the victorious Labour MP that she should not speak to him because "he's from the Herald".

Let's be generous and assume that this was just an example of Mr James's famous sense of humour, although it's a safe bet that the Heralds are not part of his favourite bedtime reading.

Indeed, reports are reaching Cneifiwr that the council is resorting to the time honoured tradition of blacklisting newspapers which upset it, with orders going out to "partner" organisations to withdraw advertising from the new titles.

Ammanford

How long ago it now seems since Labour launched its national campaign in Wales in Ammanford. The party had high hopes back then of taking the seat from Plaid, and Ammanford received wave after wave of visits from Labour's top brass, including Ed Balls (remember him?), several of them beating a path to a very excited South Wales Guardian. 

A week before polling day, Labour realised the game was up, and Ed Miliband told a senior press source in an off the record briefing that campaign resources were being switched to Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire where it was felt that prospects were better. Labour failed there as well.

Jonathan Edwards has become the first Plaid Cymru MP in the history of Carmarthenshire to hold the constituency in an election when the Tories have been in power, and he also increased his majority from 3,481 to 5,599. Labour's share of the vote fell by 2.3%.

Calum Higgins deserves praise for running a generally positive campaign and for putting more work into it than any of his recent predecessors, and yet Labour concentrated almost all its efforts on the urbanised parts of the Amman and Gwendraeth valleys, as Lisa Childs notes here in a very well written piece about the election in Carmarthen East and Dinefwr.

Calum's two biggest problems were being shackled to a dull and uninspiring national Labour campaign fronted by Owen Smith, that dull and inspiring man in a grey suit, and the track record of the Labour-run County Council of which he is currently a member. The main messages boiled down to  "vote for us to stop the other lot getting in", and saying NHS a lot.

Ahead of polling day, Owen Smith boasted to the press that he had "never seen a campaign fought with such passion".

That is surely the first time the words "Owen Smith" and "passion" have every appeared in the same sentence.

It was not only that Labour offered no hope and no vision, but even its core message did not ring true with the voters it was hoping to win over.

The problem with saying that the NHS is the best health service in the world and rejecting all criticism of it, as Smith did, is that very large numbers of people in Wales know that it is not always as good as 'Welsh' Labour likes to claim. It can be excellent, it can be quite good, it can be mediocre and it can be truly appalling, with operations being repeatedly cancelled, growing waiting lists, sometimes very poor care, too many serious clinical errors and food you would not serve your pet cat.

The truth is that what you experience from the NHS in Wales is becoming more and more of a lottery.

One person, one vote

As the long-winded battle gets underway to anoint a successor to Ed Miliband, it seems that a rather speedier change of personnel may be about to take place in Carmarthenshire, where Kevin Madge is said to be facing a challenge from Anthony Jones and Jeff Edmunds.

Miliband's successor will be chosen by a combination of Labour's parliamentarians, rank and file members and union bigwigs.

If things were not already bad enough for Labour in Carmarthenshire, someone should gently break it to rank and file members in the county that their next leader will in reality be chosen by Meryl Gravell, the de facto leader of their Independent coalition partners.

It is understood that Meryl will not entertain Llanelli Labour's choice at any price.


Thursday, 7 May 2015

Why I voted Plaid today

When this blog began almost five years ago, I was not a member of any political party, but observing meetings of Carmarthenshire County Council and a conversation with Adam Price, who was then MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, convinced me that Plaid Cymru most closely represented what I believe in.

What also stood out were Plaid's closeness to the grassroots and the party's extraordinary ability to attract talent. Unlike Labour or the Tories, there are no safe seats, there is no patronage and there are no passports to a risk-free career in politics, and yet Plaid in Carmarthenshire has produced Adam Price, Jonathan Edwards and Rhodri Glyn Thomas - three first-rate politicians who would have risen to the top in any political party in any country.

Adam Price is one of the most outstanding politicians of his generation, something which has been widely recognised across the political spectrum, and when he decided to step down as MP, he was a very tough act to follow.

Jonathan Edwards is very different to Adam, but he quickly put his own stamp on his new role after being elected. His brief in Parliament includes Treasury matters, business, innovation and skills, transport and local government, and his grasp of complex issues is really impressive. His work on the Housing Revenue Account, HS2 and the Barnett Formula has benefited the whole of Wales, and not just Carmarthenshire.

It has been my pleasure to spend quite a lot of time with Jonathan over the last year or so, and Jonathan in private is no different to the Jonathan you see in public. He is every bit as passionate, and sincere.

In Llanelli and in Ceredigion Vaughan Williams and Mike Parker have worked as hard as any candidates anywhere, and both would make excellent MPs. Let's hope they are given a chance to serve.

Wherever you live in Wales, put a cross against the Plaid candidate and give Wales a voice in Westminster.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Highlights

The general election campaign has certainly been long, and much of what we have been subjected to by Labour and the Tories has been fake, stage-managed and carefully controlled PR events, but there have been occasional rays of sunlight as well.

Here are Cneifiwr's top three highlights:

1. Comedy

S4C's "Y Ras i 10 Downing Street" with Rod Richards plodding round the Labour campaign trail in Carmarthenshire. Five minutes of pure comedy featuring the dire Owen Smith, the lacklustre Carwyn Jones and a very nervous looking Calum Higgins.

2. Interviews

Nick Robinson has in the past attracted a lot of flak for supposedly being too close to the Tories, but in a relatively brief interview last week he skewered David Cameron quietly and devastatingly. Cameron, it is clear, is pinning his hopes on a future renegotiation of EU treaties with very little prospect of success. He is then committed to submitting the unknown results of those negotiations to a referendum with an entirely unpredictable outcome.

He is prepared to bet the farm on a leap in the dark which could have catastrophic consequences for Wales and the rest of Britain, and as Robinson established, Cameron has no Plan B.

3. Quote of the campaign

Leanne Wood in the final Welsh leaders debate who in one short line summed up what this election is all about for Wales: "Time is up on taking people for granted, Owen Smith".

Image result for leanne wood


But how was it for you?


Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Council of Despair - Restless Natives

After another extended stay in the Beti George Clinic, Sali Malu-Cachu is back!

______________

The distinguished group sat around the gigantic walnut table in the oak panelled billiard room, each with a neat pile of papers before them.

The silver normally on display had been carefully removed out of temptation's way, and coffee had been served in polystyrene cups tastefully decorated with a sticker emblazoned with the authority's coat of arms.

In pride of place over the massive fire place hung a newly commissioned portrait of Muriel and the Chief displaying their collection of medals against a backdrop of shopping centres, info-tainment complexes and a huge empty sports stadium, with Muriel holding up a parchment from Windsor Castle. Clearly discernible were the words,

To my loyal and faithful servants for services rendered to property development and for dealing with the natives. E II R

The Chief was in good spirits. "Well, ladies and gentlemen, this has indeed been a most productive meeting of our new Constitutional Review Working Committee, or CRWC for short. Our work is almost at an end, but I have one small additional item which unfortunately came too late for the published agenda."

The Chief produced a small piece of paper.

"After extensive consultation between myself and Linda, I think you will agree that this small clause should rightfully be given a place at the end of our new, improved constitution."

He cleared his throat and began to read.

Whereas and notwithstanding the provisions set out in the paragraphs above and all ancillary schedules, codicils and subsidiary parts thereof and in accordance with the powers invested under the Fiefdoms and Rotten Boroughs Act (Wales) 1862, the Head of Paid Service may without reference to any lesser personages change or cause to be interpreted any part of this Constitution at any time or at the drop of a hat, whichsoever shall be the lesser of these two eventualities, in circumstances extraordinary or otherwise in any manner deemed appropriate, and his word shall be final in all matters pertaining thereto.

"It only remains for this to be run through Google Translate, and our work is done," he concluded.

A man at the far end of the table fidgeted uncomfortably and raised his hand. The chief couldn't help noticing that despite the torrential rain and the very gloomy skies outside, this guest had a pair of sunglasses propped on top of his head.

"Yes, what is it, Emyr?"

"Um, it's Emlyn, Sir. I just couldn't help thinking that this new clause sounded a little, well, sweeping. Would it be possible to see a copy and vote on it?"

The Chief looked like thunder.

"How many times have I told you all that we must cut down on paper? It will be provided to you electronically along with the minutes in due course. And as for voting, may I remind you that you have been invited, albeit temporarily, to witness the workings of the highest levels of this organisation. We do not vote, but agree unanimously. On everything."

Emlyn decided to have one more go.

"But Sir, I am not happy that some of the changes you have proposed have already been implemented, such as the new rule banning the use of the past tense in meetings."

"Now look, Gandalf, the minutes stated quite clearly that there was unanimous agreement on this. We must look forward and not back. Did you not read the minutes?"

"I did, Sir, and I wonder if the minutes were, well, strictly accurate on that point."

"May I remind you that you just agreed along with all your colleagues that the minutes produced by my staff compare most favourably with anything produced by any lesser authority. Now if that is all, I have urgent business to attend to."

With that the Chief swept from the room, leaving the visitors to shuffle out through the tradesmen's entrance.

_______________


The Chief entered the drawing room and settled into his favourite Louis Quinze damask chair.

"Time for some me time", he sighed, picking up the remote control to activate the giant 72" screen and relax watching his favourite film, Zulu.

And what a thrilling film it was, full of patriotic scenes acted out under the Union Flag with plucky Welshmen such as Michael Caine proudly wearing their smart red British uniforms and knocking seven bells out of a lot of fuzzy-wuzzies. And all for Queen and Country.

But how this once great country had gone to the dogs. If Zulu were re-made today, the Chief mused, it would have to be set somewhat closer to home, with wave after wave of wild Nationalists assaulting a bastion defended only by himself, Muriel, the dog woman, the Reverend Bonnett and Mr Mudge waffling indecisively in the background.

He could picture that awful woman from the Rhondda urging them on; the wild looking bard from the barren mountain slopes of Cwmpengraig hurling penillion at the defenders and that dreadful man Lenny Henry brandishing his asegai and asking a lot of impertinent questions.

Things were not much better down south, with reports coming in of hand-to hand fighting in a town he had showered with every conceivable benefit of British civilisation: Shakespeare, Superstars of Wrestling, Jim Davidson...what more did these ingrates want? And yet people were flocking to the banner of rebellion raised by a mild-mannered young school teacher. Even that fierce woman in the beehive was looking rattled. What was her name? Patsy? Myfanwy?

Image result for angry old woman



The Chief's reveries came to an abrupt end at the sound of a polite cough.

It was Walters, the new butler dressed in a smart page-boy uniform and closely cropped hair.

"What is it, Bob?" the Chief asked.

"Bad news from the Servants Hall, I am afraid, Sir. Fudd the gamekeeper is out of action again."

"What has he done this time?" the Chief snapped.

"I regret that he has shot himself in the foot. Again. And there is more. Miss Harpic, the woman you recently appointed to manage the grounds and the drive has walked out, saying this place is a shambles."

"What?" yelled the Chief. "I knew no good would ever come of appointing a woman, Bob. Well she won't be getting a reference from me!"

"She won't be needing one, Sir," Walters replied. "I am afraid she has been poached by Smithers, your old butler."

At that moment a large black cloud blotted out the sun, and the Chief snapped the remote control clean in two.



Monday, 4 May 2015

The Breckman case - an update

After a great deal of prompting from Mrs Breckman and others, Natural Resources Wales has finally confirmed that it is investigating the destruction of part of the Cernydd Carmel Special Area of Conservation near Maesybont.

As a reminder, this involved felling trees, stripping off vegetation and topsoil, quarrying, the construction of a road across the site and the storage of scrap metal, all done in the name of agriculture.

Apart from the landowner, the other party closely involved in all of this is Carmarthenshire County Council which has told Mrs Breckman that it has received a planning application from Mr Thomas for the retention of the road. In other words, this is a retrospective application.

In correspondence with Mrs Breckman, the planning officer sticks to the now official line that only a small section of the road may require planning permission because the bulk of it follows an old track which showed up on an Ordnance Survey map in 1881 but which disappeared from the records sometime between 1881 and 1901.

As Mrs Breckman has shown, the old track and the course of the new road are at right angles to each other.

The planning officer notes in a reply to Mrs Breckman that any application(s) submitted could be determined by planning officers rather than the planning committee, and goes on to say:

I note your comments on the question of agricultural justification, and the reference to sites with potential conservation value,  and these are areas that will be considered as part of the determination of any planning application, with the relevant weight being attached to all material factors, including consultation with the relevant external agencies where appropriate.

It would seem that in the council's view, the fact that a site has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation gives it only "potential conservation value".

Let's hope Natural Resources Wales is taking note.

________________ 

In a separate development, Mrs Breckman decided to write to the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council on 8 April this year to remind him that the council had agreed (albeit very belatedly) with the findings of the Public Services Ombudsman back in July 2012.

Bearing in mind that the Ombudsman found that this was one of the worst cases he had ever dealt with and that at the time of the report in 2012 it had already been eight years in the making, he asked the council to pay compensation to Mrs Breckman and her partner in recognition of the distress and huge costs involved.

The Ombudsman has few teeth, and the extent of any financial compensation is never more than a token.

One aspect of the case which attracted the Ombudsman's attention was the erection of what were described as "privacy boards" by Mr Thomas directly alongside Mrs Breckman's cottage, blocking not only her view but also natural light.

A glance at the map shows that Mrs Breckman's view from her windows was of a small paddock and the two enormous sheds built by Mr Thomas for agricultural use, even though nothing resembling agriculture is carried out on the site. It will be remembered that the council's planning committee rejected both applications, with the second decision being overturned by the head of planning using delegated powers.

Mrs Breckman could not see Mr Thomas's house from her cottage, and so Mr Thomas's motives for erecting the boards would not seem to have anything to do with privacy.

Because the council failed to act, the planning boards eventually became "immune to enforcement", and the Ombudsman asked the council to use its best endeavours to have the boards removed. Failing that, it should pay Mrs Breckman the modest sum of £1,000.

The council may have been extremely slow to respond to Mrs Breckman's complaints in the past, but this time Mr James wasted no time in replying to her request for payment on 20 April. After a brief preamble, he concludes:

The Council did use its best endeavours to persuade your neighbour to remove the board and he did.  There was therefore no additional payment due to you.

As Mr James knows, what actually happened was that Mr Thomas removed the boards only to replace them with this:


This remains the view from Mrs Breckman's windows, although Mr Thomas has now painted over the Owens logo. And here, as a reminder, is a view of the paddock, the sheds and Mrs Breckman's cottage from the main road:





 




Sunday, 3 May 2015

Silent witness


A reliable source who has been chatting to a high profile Labour insider has been in touch to say that the issue of the Labour-led county council in Carmarthenshire has been proving highly toxic on the doorstep in the general election campaign, so much so that the party is preparing "not so much an inquest as an autopsy" to work out what went wrong.

Kevin Madge, who was seen lurking in the crowd of mainly bussed-in supporters when Labour staged its campaign launch in Ammanford, has been largely confined to barracks over the last few weeks.

Let's hope they give him a general anaesthetic before the scalpels come out.

Disclosure and barring - ask Mam

One of the ticking time bombs under the British establishment is the welter of scandals involving senior politicians, high ranking officers in the armed forces and the security services in the abuse and possibly even murder of children and young people by paedophile rings operating over many years. Leading the investigation and campaign to have these people brought to justice is Exaro, a group of independent investigative journalists who specialise in digging into issues which are usually ignored by the mainstream media.

It is likely that many readers will be familiar with the process of applying for Criminal Records Bureau checks, now replaced by something called the Disclosure and Barring Service. Cneifiwr is, and it is pretty straightforward and painless. Depending on the level of disclosure required, the cost is either £29 or £44 per person, which from memory is quite a lot cheaper than the old CRB process.

Back in January, Cllr Sharen Davies (Lab), submitted a motion calling for all 74 of Carmarthenshire County Councillors to go through the DBS process, just as thousands of council employees have.

Nothing controversial about that, you might think, although it is worth emphasising that DBS checks only show whether an applicant has a criminal record or police cautions which should prevent them from working with children and vulnerable adults. Practically none of the high profile cases we have started to hear about would have been picked up by DBS.

The motion duly appeared on the agenda for the January meeting of the council meeting, only for Cllr Davies to ask for it to be withdrawn and referred to the Executive Board for consideration. Among the members of the Executive Board is Cllr Davies's mother, Cllr Tegwen Devichand, popularly known as 'Dafen Dolly'.

That was in January, and we are now in May, and the Executive Board still has not got round to discussing the matter.

For most councillors, the last thing you want if you are submitting a motion which you presumably feel is important, is to have the rug pulled from under you and see your proposal kicked into the long grass of the Executive Board.

Why Cllr Davies chose to send her motion off to the ruling Executive Board is anyone's guess, and the word is that if and when the matter finally does come up before Dolly, Mark James, Meryl and the rest, it will be rejected on cost grounds, a couple of thousand pounds being too high a price tag.

If the motion had gone before the full council, it would almost certainly have been passed because to be seen to be voting against something like this would have looked very strange indeed, even for Carmarthenshire County Council.

There are theories as to why the motion was brought in the first place, because the upper echeolons of Carmarthenshire County Council operate the reverse of the famous Ronseal advertisement: the contents are rarely what it says on the tin.

Perhaps someone discovered at the last moment that DBS checks could embarrass friends as well as enemies, and so Cllr Davies was told to opt for a quiet funeral.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Whispers, rumours and a prediction or two (updated)



It is anyone's guess what the political map will look like a week from now, but in Ceredigion the Ukip candidate, Gethin James, recently told a friend that Mike Parker will win, based on what he is hearing on the doorstep. His goal now is to beat Labour's Huw Tippex Thomas and take third place.

Nick Robinson was pontificating on the BBC the other day that this is the most localised general election in living memory, with very different scenarios being played out in different parts of Britain.

What Robinson could not have imagined when he said that was that Ukip in Ceredigion would take localism to undreamed of levels, with Gethin James using a general election campaign to bang on at length about public conveniences during a recent hustings in Aberystwyth.

With five days to go, the postman has delivered only Plaid and Labour leaflets, and only Plaid has been round knocking doors in this part of Carmarthen East and Dinefwr. Nothing at all from the Tories, the LibDems or Ukip, who are also standing.

Junk mail

Actually, that's not quite true, because the run-away winner in terms of paper shoved through the letterbox here is Mark Williams, the LibDem candidate over in Ceredigion. To date we have received two leaflets and two LibDem "newspapers" in the last fortnight.

The newspapers, which claim among other things that Mark Williams is standing up for Ceredigion, were printed in Barnsley, and it turns out that they bear an uncanny resemblance to LibDem newspapers being dished out in Brecon and Radnor and Montgomeryshire.

Right down to identical quotes attributed to different people.

"The work that [insert name of candidate] is doing for our area is really amazing, and it's why I'm backing him/her [delete as appropriate] on 7th May", said Mrs K Williams/Jamie from Aberystwyth/Frank from Welshpool [delete as appropriate].

But there is life outside the general election campaign.

The miners strike

More rumours are coming in that knives are being sharpened for a bloodletting in the Carmarthenshire Labour Party once the diversion of the general election is out of the way, with Kevin Madge facing a war on two fronts.

The names to watch are Cllr Jeff Edmunds for the Llanelli wing and Cllr Anthony Jones for the Ammanford tendency.

Men in suits

Meanwhile one recently recruited senior officer is said to have concluded that Carmarthenshire County Council is a shambles and is off to pastures new after just a couple of months in the job. This early departure would help restore the natural order of things in the senior ranks as a preserve for men in suits.