Thursday, 24 April 2014

Warthogs and a Man with a Van

No sooner had the Wales Audit Office received a complaint about the Scarlets/Marstons land deal in Llanelli than Rebecca Television has published further revelations about David Pickering, chairman of the WRU, and another interesting property deal involving many of same characters just up the road at Llangennech.

Our story begins back in 2007 when the Ministry of Defence, which then owned what locals know as the RN, began discussions with Carmarthenshire County Council about the feasibility of turning the 37 acre site in Llangennech into a mixed development of housing, retail units, a hotel and what an MoD official quaintly termed "drinking establishments".

The idea was to get the site adopted for redevelopment under the council's Local Development Plan, and documents obtained under FOI show that discussions had reached a fairly advanced stage by 2008, with meeting notes revealing that the Ministry and the council had been talking about how to overcome objections from public bodies such as the Countryside Council for Wales, Welsh Water and the Environment Agency. At one point an MoD bod happily notes that the Environment Agency appeared to be taking a rather more pragmatic approach to the concept.

For reasons which are not clear, the meetings came to an abrupt end and the MoD decided to sell the site. According to reports from the time, this was to have taken place by public auction, but at the last minute up popped Carmarthenshire County Council which was very keen to secure ownership of the site - not for itself, but for "persons known to some of the officers" who had a potential employment opportunity which could bring many new jobs to Llangennech.

Enter Carmarthenshire County Council

Things then moved rather swiftly, with the chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council going before the full council to persuade them to approve a deal whereby the council would purchase the site from the MoD and then immediately resell it to the investors - unknown except to Mr James and possibly a couple of other senior officers, with the investors reimbursing the council for any expenses incurred.

Several councillors who were present at the meeting in February 2009 recall feeling somewhat queasy with what they were being asked to sign off, and the minutes of the meeting show that questions were asked as to why the mystery investors could not deal with the MoD direct.

There has never been a satisfactory answer to the question why the MoD, which had been preparing to sell the site by auction, could not or did not want to deal with the private investors.

Also unexplained is why the deal went to the full council for approval, when the size of the transaction was well within the scope of powers delegated by full council to the Executive Board and officers. Even more unusually there is no record of the deal ever having been discussed by the Executive Board, which at the time was headed by Cllr Meryl Gravell.

What appears to have swayed the more nervous councillors present was the prospect held out by senior officers of new jobs being created in the area after staff previously employed by the MoD had been made redundant.

And so the deal was approved, and the council purchased the site before immediately reselling it to the investors "known to some of the officers". At the last minute a clause was inserted into the sale agreement to keep local councillors happy. This gave Llangennech AFC the right to buy a portion of the MoD site for £1 at any date up to May 2014, as the club desperately needed a larger ground.

That some councillors at the time did feel uneasy about the way the deal was done was borne out a few months later when the Western Mail disclosed that the two men behind the venture were David Pickering, then as now chairman of the Wales Rugby Union, and a business partner, Robert Lovering.

Or not, as the case may be.

The plot thickens

According to Rebecca Television, Land Registry records show that the site is owned by Robert Lovering alone, and that he paid £845,000 for the 37 acre estate which was sold in two lots (not £700,000 as reported by the Western Mail).

The same nervous councillors told the Western Mail that they wondered why other potential bidders had been prevented from competing to buy the RN, and according to Rebecca another developer had been proposing to offer over £2 million for this piece of real estate.

Securing best value for the taxpayer does not appear to have been top of the priority list, but Carmarthenshire County Council is adamant that the deal was subject to an independent valuation. In view of what we now know about the council and independent valuations (see Caebrwyn), this assurance will probably not put inquiring minds at rest.

The council nevertheless rejected a freedom of information request asking for disclosure of the valuation report.

A bargain

For those unfamiliar with the area, the Llangennech site (now renamed Stradey Business Park, although it is nowhere near Stradey Park) is impressive, and huge. It contains a large number of well-maintained buildings, including office accommodation and some very large warehouses. The MoD certainly did not leave a wreck behind when it went.

Bearing in mind that Marstons paid £850,000 for a 120 year leasehold on an undeveloped site of 1.17 acres nearby in 2012, the value of a 37 acre site with lots of well-maintained buildings just up the road must be rather more.

Messrs Pickering and Lovering ("known to some of the officers"), or possibly just Mr Lovering, had bagged themselves an amazing bargain which must be worth several millions today.

Defending the deal to the Western Mail back in May 2009 (a separate article here) assistant chief executive Chris Burns said "Local authorities are often criticised for being slow to react. In this case we have been entrepreneurial". Unfortunately for the council taxpayer, being entrepreneurial meant helping someone else make pots of money.

Corporate collapse

This brings us to one of the most extraordinary aspects of the deal. As Rebecca Television reports, David Pickering had and has a less than glorious track record in business, with a whole string of companies in which he was involved as a director and/or shareholder going bust in the years prior to the Llangennech deal. One of the biggest losers in these corporate collapses was HMRC which Rebecca Television estimates lost around £4 million in unpaid National Insurance, VAT and other taxes.

David Pickering was nevertheless the public face of the rebranded Stradey Business Park in Llangennech. Although it is not clear what his stake in the venture was, he remains the public face of R&A Properties, the private partnership which operates the site.

It is also reasonable to suppose that he was one of the investors "known to some of the officers" that the councillors were told about.

What is clear is that councillors were not told that they were being asked to sign off the sale of a publicly owned asset to a partnership which included someone with a very chequered financial record, a history of bad debts to HMRC and County Court judgements against him.

Whether the MoD was made aware of the identity of the mystery investors is not known, but both councillors and the MoD might have had second thoughts if they had been told.

Companies House records show that some of the companies associated with Pickering and Lovering have continued to lead a rather volatile existence since the Llangennech deal. One of them, Aggrelek Ltd, was dissolved in March this year. It was registered to an address on the Llangennech site, and both men were directors. Unusually, it went through five changes of name since 2010, with three name changes taking place in 2011.

Jobs, jobs, jobs

In the first Western Mail article from May 2009 David Pickering told Martin Shipton that the blue chip client he had up his sleeve was "sure" to provide 100 jobs before Christmas.

Back at the council meeting in February councillors were told that there could be 25 jobs by September, 65 jobs within a year and up to 400 in the long term.

Whether five years counts as "in the long term" is not clear, but the council says that 170 people are currently employed on the site. These include a cafe, a "man with a van", a gardening services business, an office run by the Prince's Trust (yes, Old Big Ears), a major road haulage firm, a small manufacturing company and Thales, the French defence giant.

More jobs are about to be created by the imminent arrival of a night club where you will soon be able to bop the night away despite objections from some of the other tenants to the recent licensing application. The site's operators supported the licensing application by saying that a night club would provide entertainment for some of the many prominent visitors they get (more on that below).

Back in 2009 David Pickering said that if he and Robert Lovering had not secured the deal, there was a danger that their blue chip client would have moved to France. Thales (the mystery blue chip client) is of course a French company.

Why Thales, a massive defence group, decided it would rather be a tenant to two small-scale Welsh businessmen than buy the site itself is another mystery, but sure enough, they moved in and started work on Warthog armoured vehicles for the MoD.

A glance at the site on Google maps shows that the part of the Llangennech estate where Thales operates was never going to employ large numbers of people for the simple reason that car parking is limited to about 18 vehicles. Unless they are employing Oompah Loompahs.

Transparency

Staying with our Western Mail article from May 2009, David Pickering explained that the venture would be operated by R&A Properties. Despite the name, this is not a limited company but a private partnership.

"We've been advised to do it this way by our professional advisers", he told Martin Shipton.

It is certainly unusual for a fairly large business undertaking not to operate as a limited company because it leaves the owners with unlimited liability in the event that things go wrong. On the other hand, partnerships do not have to disclose details of who is involved, shareholdings or accounts.

Shortly after the Llangennech site was acquired, David Pickering told the Western Mail that the partnership had invested £200,000 in renovating some of the buildings. Where that money came from is not known, but more renovation work was carried out later. In December 2011 the county council awarded a grant of £281,000 to R&A Properties to refurbish two buildings, and newspaper and other reports show that senior council figures continued to retain a close interest in the venture.

Staying in touch

Shortly after the council approved the purchase and simultaneous resale of the site in February 2009, the chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council accepted an invitation from David Pickering to a rugby international. As we can see from the following response to a freedom of information request, Mr James turns down the vast majority of the invitations he receives:



Around the same time Mark James, Meryl Gravell and David Pickering were spotted having lunch at nearby Machynys Golf Club.

This was reported on Scarletfever, a forum for Scarlets fans, by an observant member of the public who identified herself as "Corgimum":

David Pickering was having lunch in Machynys Golf club two weeks ago- sitting at the next table to us with Carmarthenshire Chief Excutive, Mark James and Meryl Gravell. He was with another man with white hair and who had a hearing aid. After their lunch ended and the Carmathenshire people left, he and the other guy ordered a bottle of white wine and looked like they were celebrating something.( With lunch they had drunk sparkling water). 

There were many more get togethers and photo opportunities following the 2009 deal:
Llanelli Star
Regeneration and Leisure executive board member Cllr Clive Scourfield, Robert Lovering of R&A Properties, Council Leader Cllr Meryl Gravell and Chief Executive Mark James.
Handing over the keys (BBC)
In May 2011 R&A Properties submitted a retrospective planning application for an array of 1,600 solar panels which had been installed on the rooftops at Llangennech. It seems that nobody had thought to check to find out if planning permission was needed, but R&A Properties need not have worried because the county council obligingly granted planning, with Mr James popping down to Llangennech for another photo opportunity and interview:

/English/news/PublishingImages/SOLAR 02 LOW.jpg
Retrospective planning permission granted (council website)
The council's press office issued a celebratory press release which included the following contribution:

Mark James, Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, said: “This is very innovative thinking by R&A Properties – especially so because of the location of the solar-powered panels on the roof which means that no-one can see the cells, yet they are able to produce thousands of pounds of clean energy which is used on the business park to drive industry.  It is a win for the businesses and a win for the environment.”

It is fair to say that Mark James and Meryl Gravell were not the only visitors. 
Despite his jet set lifestyle, David Pickering remains a loyal supporter of the Labour Party. In 2010 he got into a trouble for using a WRU e-mail address on invitations to a £1,000 a plate fund raising dinner for Labour in Cardiff.

Here is another snap from September 2009 from the blog of former Labour county councillor Steve Lloyd-Janes:

Photobucket
A family day out in Llangennech

Coming up to date

Rebecca Television's latest report says that yet another Pickering company, Stradey Safety Products, appears to have stopped trading. It is registered to an address on the Llangennech site.

But there is good news as well. Hydro Industries, a company in which Pickering's partner Robert Lovering is involved, also operates from premises on the trading estate. It supplies water treatment technology, and was recently involved in a greening project down the road at Parc y Scarlets along with CWM Environmental (wholly owned by Carmarthenshire County Council), and Dragon Energy Solutions (previous post here).

Sadly, things have worked out less well for Llangennech AFC, which was given an option to buy part of the site for £1 back in 2009 as a sweetener and a gesture of commitment to the local community. 

When the club tried to exercise its option, it ran into opposition from Mr Pickering (here). Discussions dragged on, with attention turning to an alternative site and the possibility that Messrs Pickering and Lovering might help fund a new site in return for cancelling the option.

Subsequently, in 2013, the club was persuaded that the plot at the Llangennech business park was too small, and the club was looking at the possibility of using the sports field at Llangennech Junior School instead. It is understood that efforts to find the club a new home continue.

Governance

Rebecca Television is continuing its investigation into the story, and this blog will monitor any new developments.
All of the information in this piece has been gathered from newspaper reports, freedom of information requests and other sources in the public domain. It is important to stress that there is no suggestion that any of those involved have acted illegally.

Nevertheless, serious questions remain to be answered, and the conduct of senior figures in the County Council once again raises concerns about governance and ethics.

It is highly unlikely that the 2009 deal would have gone ahead had it not been for personal relationships, and it is hard to imagine that the council would have given such a big helping hand to anyone not "known to some of the officers". 

The story also illustrates the extent of personal ties between key players in the council and rugby bosses and the way in which their activities are now very far removed from the world of the players and ordinary supporters. Put simply, this is unhealthy and bad for both the council and the game.

Anyone with further information is welcome to get in touch through the e-mail address at the top of this blog. Similarly, the author of this blog will be pleased to correct any errors contained in this piece and to provide any of those mentioned with a right of reply, provided the response is not defamatory.




Wednesday, 23 April 2014

An awayday with Pam and Meryl

This week's sizzling Carmarthen Journal carries a feisty letter from Simon Buckley of Evan Evans, the Llandeilo brewery company.

Cneifiwr harbours suspicions that Simon has Liberal Democrat tendencies, which if true makes him a very rare and endangered species in Carmarthenshire, but whatever his politics he certainly does not like Carmarthenshire's Independents whom he refers to as "Meryl Gravell's Gang".

In common with so many other observers of Carmarthenshire politics, Simon wonders how you can be independent if you join a political group, accept a party whip and take your orders from Matron.


Residents of Carway near Kidwelly probably thought that they were hosting a Saga Tours coach trip this week as the massed ranks of Pam's Independents descended on the village for a group away-day. Unlike corporate team building sessions, it is unlikely that the event would have featured gruelling exercises on army-style assault courses or raft building competitions, unless the party's youth wing (Giles Morgan, still short of his half century the babe of the group) performed solo. And while Bruce Forsyth might still be able to trip the light fantastic, ballroom dancing was probably also ruled out on health and safety grounds.

That probably leaves just listening to the thoughts of Pam and Meryl over tea and buttered scones.

As fates go it's probably better than death. But only just.

Accountability and a round of bullshit bingo - Updated

The Executive Board of Carmarthenshire County Council will meet on Monday to consider a huge raft of proposals ranging from reviews of charges for sports grounds and plans for a council-owned solar farm, to a "pledge" to make the world a better place in collaboration with the University of Wales Trinity Saint Davids.

One man, one vote

Buried in the small mountain of reports before them is a recommendation made by the Wales Audit Office that the council should "consider how to improve elected members' contribution to the development and scrutiny of the Council's Key Improvement Objective Priorities and Improvement Plan".

In rather less diplomatic language what that means is that the WAO came to the conclusion that democracy in Carmarthenshire has lost out in the council's relentless march to establishing a miniature version of Putin's Russia on the banks of the Tywi.

Back in November a seminar of councillors made a number of suggestions for improving governance, transparency and openness, and as a result it is recommended that what might be termed a rediscovery of the virtues of democratic accountability should be written into the council's objectives for 2014-15.

What those suggestions were we are not told, but the seminar in November 2013 took place as the storm clouds were only just beginning to gather in the crisis which was to engulf the council earlier this year, and it is likely that any seminar held now would press for rather more urgent action.

The release last week of documents which show that the chief executive over-ruled the Director of Resources and Head of Commercial Property to give the Scarlets the lion's share of proceeds from the sale of land in Llanelli to Marstons illustrates vividly how governance in Carmarthenshire came to mean the whim of the chief executive, shrouded in secrecy and spin.

The Western Mail reports on the deal in a piece today (not yet available online), and says that the WAO has been asked to investigate. Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM wonders why elected members were not consulted, and how one officer could apparently insist that the deal proceed on terms which other senior officers had strongly objected to.

_____________

Update

The Scarlets/Marstons story has now made it to the Western Mail website and is covered by the Carmarthen Journal.

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This blog will shortly report on another deal which raises even more questions about governance and just who has benefited from some of the council's decisions.

But back to Monday's meeting of the Executive Board.

Micro-managing

The Board will decide to freeze the introduction of dramatic increases for the use of sports facilities in the south of the county while entering into "wide ranging and meaningful" discussion with those affected.

At the time (November 2013) the charges were introduced without consultation, and the acting Head of Administration and Law (Mrs Linda Rees Jones) dismissed calls by Peter Hughes Griffiths to allow councillors to review the plan as an attempt to "micro-manage" Executive Board decisions.

Mrs Rees Jones has a dual role as Monitoring Officer, responsible for overseeing the democratic process, and the council's top legal officer. In a (leaked) e-mail to the chief executive a couple of years ago the manager of the council's press office opined that councillors who had questioned this arrangement and the independence of the Monitoring Officer and Council Chair might be guilty of slander, and that any newspapers which printed their outrageous views might be guilty of libel.


More accountability

Also on the agenda is another piece of back-tracking in the form of a review of the decision taken in February to abolish trade union facilitation time.

The policy will now be put on hold for six months while a review is carried out. Part of the review will consist of a bureaucratic time and motion study in which union officials will be required to complete "request for time off proformas". This is apparently in response to intervention by unnamed members (of the Board) who were worried that there was a lack of accountability in current arrangements enabling union representatives to support staff.

No prizes for guessing who raised those concerns, and note the ironic use of the term "accountability".

Webcasting

The one year pilot to broadcast council meetings has come to an end, and the Executive Board will have to decide whether to continue for a further period or scrap broadcasts. There is £32,000 of Welsh Government money left in the kitty to pay for a continuation, and a further £28,000 would pay for the service for the next five years.

Making the world a better place

The county council and the University of Wales Trinity Saint Davids (UWTSD) have worked together for years as members of the Local Service Board, and so you would think that they have a rough idea of what their respective responsibilities are.

Not so, it seems, because the council's chief executive has had discussions with the Vice Chancellor to identify their various objectives with a view to signing a "pledge" to work together in a number of areas.

It must have been a fairly lengthy meeting because the outcome is a report loaded with very vague but highly aspirational outcomes, such as:

Sustainable Development: The partners will commit to providing strong community leadership for sustainable development in Carmarthenshire.

Anti Poverty, Tourism and Economic and Community Development: The partners will support co-operation between companies and institutions to develop initiatives designed to benefit economic development within Carmarthenshire and the broader city region. 

Aficionados of "bullshit bingo" will recognise that two masters of the game were at work here, with maximum point scores for the inclusion of the words "sustainable, community, commit, development, leadership and strong" in a single short sentence.

Two senior staff will be appointed to liaise and cooperate in "pledge development", reporting back to their bosses once every six months.

Solar Power

Continuing the theme of sustainability, the Board will consider a report recommending that the council goes into business as a solar farm operator. No specific scheme has been identified yet, but officers reckon that it could all be financed by borrowing, and would be cash positive in three to four years.

One of the council's preferred contractors (unnamed) has provided a break down of costs likely to be incurred, and the next step will be to identify a site and draw up detailed proposals.

To date Cornwall County Council is the only local authority in the UK to have taken the plunge, but Wrexham and Telford and Wrekin councils are looking into similar schemes.

The council has also looked at setting up wind turbines on council-owned land, but has been unable to identify any potential sites which are at least 1.5 kilometres from the nearest house. 

Accountability in Education 

One of the proposals with the most far-reaching consequences concerns setting up a new body to manage education across the counties of Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Powys, Pembrokeshire, Swansea and Neath Port Talbot.

The arrangements are highly complex, and involve creating a joint committee of senior councillors (either the council leaders or the cabinet member responsible for education). The committee will then delegate responsibility to a large new Executive Board made up of a Managing Director, the directors of education of the participating authorities (or their representatives), one member of the Joint Committee, a Welsh Government observer and up to five appointees taken from a list put together by the Welsh Local Government Association and the Welsh Government.

The six participating councils will then come together to form three "educational hubs", with Carmarthenshire joining forces with Pembrokeshire. 

When it comes to education, Pembrokeshire would not be high up on most people's lists of preferred partners. But then Carmarthenshire's record in recent years is not exactly the envy of Wales either.

So where we started with signs that councillors in Carmarthenshire want to reassert their authority and have more of a say in the running of the council, we end with a new bureaucratic body which will take responsibility for education away from locally elected representatives and place it in a thicket of hubs, committees and executive boards.








Thursday, 17 April 2014

An own try

To use a rugby analogy, the chief executive of Carmarthenshire, Mark James, voluntarily removed himself from play to sit in the sin bin on 14 February, and there he remains. The sky has not fallen in and the council has continued to function, leading more and more people to wonder why on earth we needed a chief executive on close to £200,000 a year in the first place.

In fact the extraordinary thing is that we have gone, almost overnight, from Chernobyl on Tywi to Boring Council where the bins are emptied and people quietly get on with their jobs. Even the bloated press office appears to have been muzzled and brought to heel.

Whatever happens in the ongoing investigation by Gloucestershire Constabulary it is hard to imagine that things will be allowed to return to they way they were before 14 February, but just as with Chernobyl the toxic legacy will be with us for a very long time to come.

Over on Caebrwyn's blog (here), the decontamination squad have just fished out some documents relating to the Scarlets-Marstons deal which show how the council ended up with just £200,000 from the £850,000 sale of a piece of land leased to the Scarlets.

Despite protestations at the time (i.e. before 14 February) that all was above board and perfectly normal, it is now clear that senior officers including the Head of Corporate Property and the Head of Resources regarded the outcome as anything but normal and acceptable. Given that Cllr Jeff Edmunds (Lab), the member of the Executive Board responsible for resources, spilled the beans on the deal to Cllr Sian Caiach, it also seems that at least some senior elected representatives had serious misgivings.

To return to our rugby analogy, Jonathan Fearn (Head of Corporate Property) and Roger Jones (Head of Resources) were robustly fighting the council's corner to ensure that the council and the taxpayer got a reasonable deal, when the team captain grabbed the ball and ran the entire length of the field to score a try for the other side.

Before anyone writes in, there is no such thing as an own try - at least not under the normal rules.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

A message from Cllr Alun Lenny

Irrespective of the issue involved, yesterday’s discussion was an uplifting and refreshing experience and showed that the county council is capable of sharing a common vision and sound leadership. It gave us a glimpse of what could be achieved if all three political groups worked together as a coalition. Unfortunately, the destructive system which gives all the power to the Labour-Independent group while denying formal input from Plaid Cymru (the largest group on the council) often results in us being at each others throats in Full Council meetings. While accepting the need for robust internal political scrutiny, it means that the experience and expertise of Plaid members go to waste. In this rare example of pooling cross-party talent through the Welsh Language Census Working Group, Cefin Cambell’s professional expertise in the linguistic field proved priceless. Yesterday’s event also showed that the Welsh language can be an issue which unites people of goodwill, whichever language(s) they speak and irrespective of party politics. 

Cllr Alun Lenny

Council Meeting: The Welsh Language

The main item on the agenda at yesterday's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council was the report and recommendations of the Census Working Group on the Welsh Language

The report (available here in English and here in Welsh) contains 70 recommendations, some with far-reaching and radical consequences. It took almost a year to produce, considered a wide range of different evidence, and it is fair to say that the final result took even the most hard-bitten cynics by surprise.

Cllr Cefin Campbell (Llanfihangel Aberbythych, Plaid) who chaired the group made it clear from the outset that he did not want the language to become a political football, and he succeeded in building consensus across the various political groups on the council to back a plan which represents the best and probably last hope of turning the tide against the language in Carmarthenshire.

The result was that the council showed that whatever the political differences, the Welsh language can be a bridge to bring people together. Whether you speak Welsh or not, the language is a defining part of what it means to be Welsh, and there were notable contributions to the debate from Winston Lemon and Siân Caiach, neither of whom can speak Welsh.

Two of the most important parts of the report deal with education and the internal administration of the council itself.

The aim of the report, which was adopted by the council, is to extend Welsh-medium education so that eventually every child in the county is given the chance to become bilingual. Cefin Campbell emphasised that an essential part of this process would be a marketing to campaign to explain the benefits of bilingualism to parents, and the process will be subject to consultation.


An important aspect of the report is that it recognises that the teaching of Welsh as a second language does not work. This was also the conclusion of a report commissioned by the Welsh Government (here) which came out back in 2012.

Siân Caiach said that her daughter had achieved an A* in Welsh as a second language but was unable to speak Welsh. Children were merely being taught how to pass an exam.

A second long-term aim of the report is to make Welsh the working language of the council, as is already the case in Gwynedd.

Some departments within the council already have high proportions of Welsh speakers, and the vision is for transition to take place over time, with parts of the council achieving the change sooner rather than later.

One of the key insights of the report is that while there has been growth in the numbers of children able to speak Welsh in the county, the numbers drop sharply as people move into their 20s and 30s as young people leave Carmarthenshire and Wales to go and find work.

The lack of well-paid jobs for young people is, of course, not just damaging to the Welsh language but also has a huge impact on the social fabric of the county.

As the largest employer in Carmarthenshire, the council has all too often resorted to importing middle and senior managers as local young people head in the opposite direction.

Jobs are advertised stipulating that an ability to communicate in Welsh is essential, only for that condition to be swept aside by a get-out clause which says that successful applicants will be sent on a course to learn the language.

As is all too evident, this requirement has not been taken seriously, and the bar has been set so low that we have ended up with senior officers who by no stretch of the imagination are capable of expressing themselves in Welsh.

At one recent council meeting councillors were treated to a Powerpoint presentation from someone with a heavy London accent whose Welsh consisted of being able to say "Bohre da porb" (Bore da pawb), while the Chief Executive has failed to learn the language despite promising to do so when he was appointed back in 2001.

That it can be done and done well was demonstrated yesterday by Chris Burns, the jovial Assistant Chief Executive, who delivered a brief Powerpoint presentation in confident and clear Welsh.

Speaker after speaker welcomed the report and noted the spirit of cooperation across the floor which had brought about the report, but just as in a Brothers Grimm story there were some bad fairies lurking in the wings.

Meryl Gravell was worried that the council might send out a message to investors that the council was no longer open for business, and that making Welsh the working language of the council would mean that we could no longer recruit the best people (possibly a reference to Mark James).

Pam Palmer was also worried about the staff. Would not being able to speak Welsh mean that avenues to promotion were blocked? As for the brain drain of young people from the county, surely the parents were to blame.

Meryl's contribution seemed to bear out what many have suspected for a long time - that she has very little confidence in the ability of Carmarthenshire or the rest of Wales to produce talented young people capable of running a council department.

There are quite a number of smaller countries than Wales. Do Iceland (population 320,000), Estonia (1.3 million), Latvia (2 million) or Luxembourg (520,000) recruit local authority managers from outside their borders?

If you want to be a civil servant in the Basque Country (population 2.2 million), you have to pass tough language exams to qualify.

Strangely Meryl's contribution received a nervous flutter of applause from the Labour benches.

But let's end on a positive note.

One of the most remarkable and encouraging contributions came from council leader Kevin Madge. Kevin has barely uttered a single word in Welsh in the council chamber, but yesterday he broke out into fluent and natural Welsh and sounded a hundred times better than he does when speaking English.

He also set an example which others should follow.

The First Minister was watching what was happening in Carmarthenshire with interest, he said, and he hoped to invite Carwyn down to see for himself. Kevin Madge noted that the changes outlined in the report would be challenging and would need additional support from the Welsh Government.

Da iawn Kev.

As the meeting drew to a close Cneifiwr emerged from the dank recesses of County Hall, blinking in the spring sunshine. Parked outside the door was a large news transit van covered in colouful pictures and the logo "Visit Carmarthenshire". Sadly not a word of Welsh to be seen.











Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Council Meeting - Springtime in Carmarthenshire

This month's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council was for once a pleasure to observe. Cneifiwr was in the public gallery along with a handful of others, but many more were undoubtedly watching the live broadcast.

There were four items of interest today, the first being nominations for the post of deputy chair of the council.

The three main party groups take it in turns to supply a chair and deputy chair, and this year it is Plaid's turn, with the nomination going to the group leader, Peter Hughes Griffiths.

PHG will therefore become deputy chair at the annual general meeting in May, and will take the chair in 2015-16.

Chairing the council involves presiding over the monthly meetings of the full council, but perhaps more importantly representing the county at numerous events, meetings and functions during the course of the year.

Peter has a long and distinguished record of service to the county, and his particular passions are sport and the Welsh language. It is hard to think of anyone who could be better suited for this role, and on a personal level it will mean that his political career will close on a high note.

We will have to wait until the end of the month to see who takes over as Plaid leader on the council, but there is no shortage of talent on the Plaid benches.

Next up was a rare victory for democracy as Kevin Madge announced that the Executive Board would accept a recommendation to give the full council the final say in school reorganisations (council-speak for closures), rather than hand responsibility over to the experts (cough) on the Executive Board.

This about-turn followed a mini rebellion on the Labour benches a few months back when Cllr Anthony Jones (Llandybie, Lab) stuck a spanner in the works of proposals to "streamline" decision making on the future of our schools and hand power to the officers, aided and abetted by the likes of Meryl Gravell.

Hardly had we had time to digest that piece of good news than we launched into the main item on the agenda, which was the report and recommendations of the Census Working Group on the Welsh Language.

The report and the discussion which took place deserve fuller treatment, and will be the subject of a separate post in the next couple of days.

Towards the end of the meeting the subject of a planning application by Pizza Hut to extend its premises in Trostre came up.

Bizarrely this planning application has received a strongly worded objection from Swansea council (here) on the basis that it will take business away from Swansea (bear in mind that we are talking about a branch of Pizza Hut), and so runs counter to the Swansea Bay City Region concept which Mark James and Meryl Gravell enthusiastically signed us up to.

It seems that what Swansea Bay City Region is all about is creating a vibrant and successful city centre in Swansea and stuff the rest.

Perhaps councillors should use the chief executive's absence to take a closer look at what being a part of Swansea Bay City Region will actually mean for Carmarthenshire before we go any further down this particular route.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

UKIP graphic

Another go at displaying that UKIP graphic.


On the stump



Apologies to readers who had problems reading this post because of a graphic obscuring part of the text. I hope that this latest attempt to remove the offending code will do the trick.

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Unless you live in a safe Labour or Tory constituency where your vote will be taken for granted, expect to see a lot of canvassers and party campaigners on your doorstep over the next 12 months. The European elections will take place on 22 May as a curtain raiser for next year's general election, and canvassers were out in force across much of Wales yesterday.

Given a choice, most people would probably opt for having a tooth extracted without anaesthetic rather than go knocking on doors and talking to strangers about politics, and if you do bite the bullet and go on the stump for the first time, it is likely that you will be a little apprehensive. Will someone set the dogs on you? Will they tell you to **** off and chase you down the garden path with an axe?

In reality the biggest risk you face in Carmarthenshire is that you are more likely to be invited in for a cup of tea and biscuits (three times in less than 200 yards yesterday). People who come to the door are overwhelmingly either polite or downright friendly and welcoming, and what has struck me as a virgin canvasser is how well informed and interested many people are, despite the best efforts of much of the media to trivialise or distort.

Despite getting almost completely negative coverage in most newspapers, it is encouraging to see how many people understand that Wales is a net beneficiary of the European Union. We get back much more than we put in both directly and indirectly.

If anyone believes that Westminster would suddenly start investing much more in the Welsh economy if the UK pulled out of the EU, you only have to look at HS2, the Olympics and Crossrail 1 and 2. Hundreds of billions have been earmarked or spent on London and parts of England, but Westminster is refusing to foot the bill for the electrification of the Valleys line (an issue which came up yesterday in rural Carmarthenshire).

There is also genuine anger about Maria Miller and other troughing Tory and Labour Westminster politicians, but nobody that I have met so far is thinking of voting for UKIP in protest.

After Maria Miller's belated resignation there will be a lot of attempts to draw another line in the sand, but as BlogMenai reminds us, other politicians have so far got away with it. Chris Bryant (Rhondda, Lab) received over £92,000 in expenses for his various second homes between 2004 and 2009, including nearly £21,000 for a new bathroom and other household improvements. The difference between Maria Miller and Chris Bryant was that what Bryant did was all within the rules.

Even that pales into insignificance, as we were reminded by Nigel Farage's toe curling performance on Have I Got News For You. The UKIP leader once boasted of how he had taken £2 million in expenses as a Member of the European Parliament.

As for the other UKIP MEP's, an interesting graphic has been doing the rounds on Twitter recently charting their track record. Unfortunately the Blogger software does not seem to want to display the picture correctly, but what is shows is that of the 20 UKIP MEPs elected since 2004:

    2 went to jail for fraud
    1 quit to form a rival party
    2 joined the Tories
    1 was kicked out of UKIP for calling women "sluts" and other gaffes
    2 walked out
    1 was expelled
    1 was deselected and quit
    1 retired mid-term

Apart from the EU and electrification of the Valleys line, one other issue rather closer to home has come up consistently over the last few weeks, and that is the scandals which have rocked both Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire county councils in recent months.

Unprompted and genuinely disgusted, it has been truly surprising to hear just how well informed voters in Carmarthenshire are.

Democracy is alive and well out on the streets, despite the best efforts of the top brass in County Hall.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Business News - jobs for some of the boys

In what has otherwise been an unusually quiet month for news from Carmarthenshire, Parc y Scarlets has come up with two interesting stories this week.

The first concerns the Scarlets' Red Room on the Eastgate development in the centre of Llanelli, which opened its doors in August 2013 thanks to a cash donation of £280,000 from Carmarthenshire County Council in what was termed "allowable expenses".

The Red Room was officially opened by council leader Kevin Madge who said, "There's no doubt that this wonderful facility will have a positive impact on Llanelli and the surrounding areas and I wish you all the very best of success for the future."

Cllr Madge later went on to praise this innovative venture as an example of how the council was helping to create jobs and increase footfall in the centre of Llanelli.

Unfortunately it seems that the jobs created at the Red Room may be rather short-lived. Still some way off its first birthday, it was reported on Twitter that the Red Room's staff have been given notice. The Scarlets responded by saying that it was business as usual, although not denying that the staff had all been given their marching orders.

Subsequent inquiries have confirmed that staff have indeed been told that they will have to look for employment elsewhere.

Local sources say that footfall in the Eastgate development has stayed stubbornly below expectations, and that the promised boost to other businesses in the town centre has yet to materialise. The owner of one local pub told the Llanelli Star recently that business was so quiet in town that he was having to close during the daytime.

The landlord had previously been assured by the council's top brass that Eastgate would not have bars and restaurants when it opened. Now he tells the local paper that Eastgate and Trostre are draining business away from the town centre.

Responding to the news about the partial closure of the Met Bar, Meryl Gravell said businesses up and down the country were struggling, before adding:

"as a council we are doing all we can to encourage footfall in the town centre — we have invested £60 million to improve what we've got to offer which has had a huge impact on the numbers of people coming in to Llanelli.
 
We are continuing to work with businesses at all ends of the town to make the most of this investment and attract new trade.

Having said that, I do believe that businesses need to be innovative to attract new customers and retain them."

Innovation

In another innovative deal  Parc y Scarlets is up for an award for tackling its energy use and carbon footprint after installing a solar array at the stadium.

The project was carried out by three firms in partnership with Parc y Scarlets. They include CWM Environmental, a wholly owned subsidiary of Carmarthenshire County Council, Hydro Industries and Dragon Energy Solutions.

Hydro Industries is based at the nearby Stradey Business Park in Llangennech. The business park was bought by the council for a knockdown price from the Ministry of Defence in 2009 and promptly resold to some private investors. Councillors were told at the time only that the private investors were "known to some of the officers".

It later emerged that the partnership was headed by David Pickering, chair of the WRU, and Mr Nigel Lovering. Mr Lovering is one of the directors and shareholders of Hydro Industries.

Dragon Energy Solutions is based not far away at Dafen, and has been in existence for less than a year. Despite its lack of a track record, it is impressive that the company was selected to take part in this major project.

So new is Dragon Energy Solutions that it does not yet have a website, although one is under construction.

Prior to setting up Dragon Energy Solutions, the two young-ish directors were involved in two other companies, both of which sadly had to be dissolved.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Grand Old Duke of Garnant

Following a campaign by the Carmarthenshire branch of Unison which gathered a great deal of public support, Carmarthenshire County Council recently announced that it would put plans to remove trade union secondment time on hold.

The council employs nearly 9,000 people and is the largest employer in the county. Secondment time is crucial to enabling unions to represent their members effectively, including fighting some very complex cases of bullying, discrimination and unfair dismissal.

In one recent case a former employee won a significant victory at an employment tribunal where evidence was presented to show that managers in a council department had resorted to the nastiest of dirty tricks to smear and blacken the name of a member of staff, including forging poison pen letters.

Recent changes to the employment tribunal system have made it much harder - and more expensive - for ordinary people to bring cases against employers, and the council's abolition of secondment time tipped the scales even further against working men and women.

Incredibly the abolition of secondment time was brought in by a Labour-led council, and not one, repeat not one of the 22 Labour councillors spoke against the measure or even raised any concerns when it was voted though at the end of February.

Council leader Kevin Madge has now announced that the removal of secondment time will be put on hold for six months while an assessment is carried out.

Not quite a U-turn, because secondment time is still under threat, but the latest in a series of recent crab-like scuttles:

  • Plans to ramp up charges for sports facilities in the south of the county will go through this year, but increases for the following two years have been put on hold while the council carries out an assessment. The proposals, hailed as "fair" and designed to "create a level playing field" by Kevin Madge, Colin Evans and others senior councillors, triggered a tidal wave of protest from locals who pointed out that they were anything but fair and would cause a significant number of sports clubs to shut up shop.
  • Plans to close a recycling centre at Llangadog have been put on hold for a year after more public protests. The owner of the site told Radio Cymru that the council had extended its agreement with his company for another year, albeit under terms which will mean a reduced service to the public.
All three plans were signed off by the Executive Board, and the abolition of union secondment time was steam-rollered through the full council with the votes of Labour and Independent councillors for good measure. All three began to unravel under the weight of public protest as soon as they had been rubber stamped.

Dwarfing all of this, of course, is the Grand Old Duke of Garnant's most spectacularly pointless and expensive marching exercise so far which saw Kev lead the troops up to the top of the mountain in defence of Mark James's pension and libel indemnity schemes, before scuttling back down again in what was officially not a surrender, just a exercise in noting the findings of the Wales Audit Office.

Every one of these issues will make an unwelcome return in due course because D-Day has not been scrapped, only postponed.