Thursday, 28 August 2014

Whistleblowers

"The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it." - Albert Einstein.

This quote came up on Twitter the other day, shortly after I had received a detailed account of the experiences of several county council employees who had decided to do the right thing and report a case of abuse.

Since starting this blog, I have been contacted by a number of people who have had similar experiences, and although each one is different, their stories have a great deal in common and they have all been through hell.

More often than not what begins as an attempt to flag abuse of vulnerable people in the care of the Council or abuses of process ends up with the whistleblowers themselves being subjected to disciplinary procedures and dismissal.

These cases usually drag on for many months or even years, and the staff involved find themselves caught up in a Kafka-esque nightmare as the bureaucratic machinery is turned against them, senior managers close ranks, people change statements, reports are shelved and not acted on, key information is withheld and rules are turned upside down. Frequently they are subjected to bullying and find themselves ostracized.

Not surprisingly, these experiences are deeply traumatic, and complainants find their reputations trashed, future employment prospects ruined and their lives turned upside down. They are let down by the bodies which are meant to protect them. The Ombudsman is powerless to act, the CSSIW fails them; the unions often act half-heartedly. Appeals to senior management are ignored, and some elected political representatives turn out to be useless.

A common thread in all these cases is that the complainants begin to doubt themselves. "You probably think I am obsessive", they say. "You probably think I am unhinged".

As an outsider it is natural to wonder, especially when you hear that there have been charges of misconduct and disciplinary procedures, whether these are not just embittered former employees who have an axe to grind.

And of course, that is almost certainly what we are all supposed to think. But why, you end up asking yourself, would someone get in touch, identify themselves, provide very detailed accounts of what they have been though, and ask you not to write about their cases?

The Council has whistleblower procedures, and perhaps they are applied correctly sometimes and we never get to hear about it. But that seems to be far from true in the cases I have seen.

Concerns over the treatment of whistleblowers was one of the points I raised in my submission to the current review of governance, but this is a huge and complex subject. I suspect that as often as not councillors never get to hear about the real-life cases.

The horrific events in Rotherham are a timely reminder of what is at stake and why whistleblowers need to be taken seriously and given protection.

I hope that this is something the council's Audit Committee will take up and examine in detail in the months to come.

For those of you wondering whether the series on grants has now come to an end, there is one more thrilling installment to come next week.



Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Grants III - Tourism and Leisure

This is the latest in a series of articles looking at the grants industry. Today we look at tourism, leisure and the heritage industry.

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A few years ago Cneifiwr had visited what must have been one of the most depressing holiday destinations in Wales. The holiday complex is just outside a small village in Ceredigion, and at the time it specialised in holidays for the disabled, although it was open for general bookings as well.

The owner was a rather terse and deeply religious man who had been keen to provide holidays with a Christian ethos.

The chalets and cottages were shabby, damp and in as much need of a good clean as a lick of paint. In the centre of the complex was a cold and drab entertainment centre (a glorified shed), next to which stood a very large wooden cross which dominated the grounds. The idea was presumably that the holidaymakers would contemplate the meaning of life as they made their way to play tiddlywinks.

Tucked away to one side of the extensive grounds in an area which had become badly overgrown was an adventure playground with rope walks, turrets, ladders and slides. The whole thing had been cordoned off with red and white plastic tape and clearly had not been used for some time. Somewhere next to the enormous decaying wooden structure was a plaque to commemorate the official opening of the play ground which had been built with generous funding from some grant fund or other.

The adventure play ground was not that old and could have been tidied up and repaired, but it was clear from talking to the owner (a man originally from the Birmingham area) that he was not very keen on children, and the facility almost certainly ended up as firewood.

There was enough wood there to keep the fires going for several winters, so at least someone benefited. The complex was eventually sold to new owners.

And that raises a general question about many of the grants awarded to private businesses in this part of Wales - to what extent are they really contributing to the local economy and creating jobs?

Hot tubs

Last year this blog noted that a holiday cottage business near Newcastle Emlyn had picked up £25,000 for two hot tubs and gazebos to protect them from the elements. You can buy a very good hot tub for around £6,000, and even if they are carefully maintained they will not last much more than ten years. 

Looking after a hot tub is a time consuming business. You need to test the water and add chemicals several times a week, and the filters need to be cleaned at least twice a month because they get clogged up with hair and other detritus. How many holiday cottage owners go to all that trouble? Some perhaps, but not all. Why bother when it will be easy enough to get more grants in a few years time?

Those two hot tubs will probably cost the tax payer around £3,000 a year for 8 years, after which they will be scrapped.

As the owner of a holiday cottage business, the next step is to apply for a grant to install solar panels to heat the hot tubs. Another Carmarthenshire business was awarded £10,000 for solar panels for one holiday cottage and hot tub. If our friends near Newcastle Emlyn follow suit, which by all accounts they are very likely to do, we could be talking about £45,000, or somewhere in the region of £5,600 a year over the lifetime of the installation.

Hot tubs certainly make a holiday cottage more marketable, but do solar panels? And will these grants really translate into local jobs and more than £5,600 a year in spending in the wider local economy?

A short hop away from the luxury hot tubs and gazebos is another family-run holiday business near Drefach Felindre. 

Dirt jumps

The Ceridwen Centre offers slightly alternative holidays with a green feel, tipis and composting toilets. In 2012 Meryl awarded it £23,000 for a wedding tipi, and she was pictured with the lucky winners in a press release last year. 

A couple of months back Meryl handed the family another £24,630 for a "pump track, set of dirt jumps and technical skills area". The grant went to a company called West Wales Trails Ltd, a new business set up by a member of the family which owns Ceridwen, and the track will form a new attraction alongside the wedding tipi.

It brings the known total of grants for this outfit to £100,000 over the last few years, and there may be more.

Good luck to the owners, but how many local jobs have been created, and what is the benefit to the wider community? Trip Advisor, usually a good place to look if you are deciding to stay somewhere, has nothing to say about Ceridwen. You could be the first to provide a review, it says.

Peeping Tom

Just down the road from Ceridwen was another major recipient of grants at Penboyr. This was run as a charity called Harvest Trust specialising in holidays for deprived children.. The charity's founder is currently languishing in prison after it was discovered that he had secretly filmed children naked, and the holiday complex was sold off at a knock down price.

Another private business not far away from the scene of all this grant action has just been awarded over £22,000 to install a wood burning stove, solar panels, double glazing, landscape its garden, etc.

And while the public is constantly baffled by the rules which govern declarations of interest in council meetings, it seems that no declarations of interest were necessary when Meryl dished out a £27,000 grant to her chum, Cllr Andrew James (Ind) for solar panels, a hot tub and work on a toilet block at his caravan site last year. Meanwhile Towy Community Church, the beneficiary of so much council generosity, has just been given another £2,135, although we are not told what for.

Up there with Towy Community Church among the biggest recipients of grants and other public money in Carmarthenshire is Llanelly House.

Feasibility

By all accounts, Llanelly House is a good place to visit, and it has brightened up a corner of Llanelli, so no complaints there. It is owned and run by a charity called the Carmarthenshire Heritage Regeneration Trust (CHRT), a charity which aims to save various old buildings for posterity.

CHRT's most recent accounts (to March 2013) boast that turnover rose again during the year, although closer inspection shows that turnover was almost entirely grant income, and expenditure exceeded income.

Strangely there is no mention in the accounts of a funding crisis which caused the Executive Board of Carmarthenshire County Council to approve an interest-free loan of up to £250,000 to Llanelly House in 2012. Half of that loan was supposed to be repaid in July 2013, but when the council's chief executive was asked whether the loan had been repaid in a meeting of the full council, he replied that the matter was not on the agenda.

We can probably take that as a "no".

CHRT has noble aims, and there is no suggestion that its trustees are spending money on themselves, but there are legitimate questions to be asked about the way it operates.

In addition to Llanelly House, CHRT has a number of other major projects on its books. These include the restoration of Gelli Aur, the huge, rambling Victorian mansion near Llandeilo. The recent history of this house is one of appalling neglect, incompetence, greed and even fraud (see previous post here). Nothing seems to be happening to reverse the fortunes of Gelli Aur, and the scale of the undertaking would dwarf what the trust has done in Llanelli. It looks very much as though the charity's ambitions have far outstripped its capacity to carry out its aims.

One of the properties on CHRT's books is the Gatehouse of the former Penlan workhouse in Carmarthen. This is a modest sized building, and the 2012-13 accounts report that the charity received a grant of £11,500 from the Rural Development Programme, EU funds managed by Carmarthenshire County Council.

The grant was awarded so that the trust could commission a feasibility study to determine whether the Gatehouse could be turned into holiday or office accommodation.

£11,500 is a great deal of money for a report of this kind on a modest property, and whoever wrote it did very well out of the commission. Common sense and a chat with a few local property specialists would have been enough to work out that turning the building into holiday flats or offices was a non-starter, and that appears to have been the conclusion of the £11,500 report because the Gatehouse is now up for sale, boarded up, as an "exciting opportunity" for conversion into a family home. Yours for less than £80,000.

So the future of the Gatehouse is once again in doubt, and grant money which could have been spent on something worthwhile has been wasted on a report which quite possibly only helped the author towards his or her next Range Rover.

A common feature of quite a few of the charities receiving grants in Carmarthenshire is that they are almost entirely dependent on grants for their income. Form filling rather than the arduous process of holding raffles, auctions, jumble sales, sponsored swims and rattling tins is how they get their money.


Major restoration projects will always be heavily dependent on financial support from the lottery and other funds, but being obliged to go out to the public and drum up support in local communities is surely a healthy thing. No only does it get local people to buy in to projects, but the likelihood is that charities will be much more careful in how they spend money if they have local trustees who have raised funds from the people around them.

Dylan was 'ere 

Also in the big league when it comes to grants are some other privately owned businesses. One which has benefited from an enormous amount of free publicity this year is Browns Hotel in Laugharne, which was briefly a favoured drinking hole for Dylan Thomas.

Browns was owned for a while by actor Neil Morrissey who sold it to one of the Scarlets' directors, Nicholas Gallivan. It underwent a major refurbishment and re-opened in 2012, with the Welsh Government chipping in £230,000 and Cadw offering a further £62,500 according to a BBC report.


The newly reopened Browns seems to be a success, and the grants have helped restore a Grade II building, create employment and give somewhere for visitors to go.

What is questionable however is whether quite so much public money should be handed to businesses which could well afford to invest from their own resources.

Meanwhile, Mr Gallivan and Nigel Short, chairman of the Scarlets, have been making quite a name for themselves in Bulgaria where they are involved, through a maze of Channel Islands and British Virgin Islands offshore companies, in a scheme to build a gigantic holiday complex and series of "eco villages" at Karadere Beach, one of the last remaining undeveloped parts of the Bulgarian coast.

A Guardian piece with a description of the project can be found here, while an investigative article on who some of the investors in this project are can be found here (in English after an short piece of text in Bulgarian). The scheme has sparked major protests in the Bulgarian capital as well as in Karadere itself.

What we need, and not just in Carmarthenshire, is a much more open and rigorous audit process to establish whether the public is really getting value for money. If you receive £100,000 from public funds to invest in a private business, transparency should be a condition.

 Did the money translate into more business, and what was the benefit to the local economy? 



Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Grants II - Therapeutic and Emotional Support


Update 27 August

As we can see from the comments below, views of YMCA Llandovery differ sharply. It has certainly received a great deal of money in the last few years, and it is reasonable that this should come under scrutiny.

Someone who knows Jill Tatman well and whose judgement I respect has been in touch to say that she has worked very hard to serve Llandovery for the last 25 years.

As Jac's article contains detailed claims, it seems that the best way of clearing up any misunderstandings would be for YMCA Llandovery to respond and exercise its right of reply on that blog.

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We interrupt this series to report breaking news over on Jac o' the North's blog. For those not familiar with Jac it will probably suffice to say that Cneifiwr and Jac don't always see eye to eye on politics, but the old boy has an annoying habit of being right, at least some of the time.

The latest revelations concern YMCA Wales and the YMCA in Llandovery in particular, with its "Jesus Cares" foodbox distribution programme that one very well-informed source reckons must rival Ocado* in size and reach - assuming that it is actually delivering what it claims to deliver.

You can read Jac's piece here (scroll about half-way down), and there you will see among other things that YMCA Llandovery has also been very successful at applying for grants, including:

  • £44,000 from Carmarthenshire County Council in 2011
  • £103,000 from the Big Lottery in 2012
  • £16,000 from Carmarthenshire County Council in 2013
  • £250,000 from the People and Places Lottery Fund in 2014 for a "groundbreaking therapeutic and emotional support project"
The County Council also chipped in with £737,000 towards the Llandovery and Llangadog Townscape and Heritage Scheme, some of which went towards renovating a property in Llandovery bought by one of the YMCA's trustees.

As Jac reports, the police have been asked to investigate YMCA Wales by the Welsh Government. YMCA Llandovery is a separate charity, albeit with close links to YMCA Wales, including until very recently a shared trustee, Mo Sykes.

More on this in due course, including questions which have been raised about the remuneration enjoyed by YMCA Llandovery's management, generous pension schemes and to what extent Carmarthenshire County Council has been involved in advising the charity's management on ingenious financial engineering practices.

Questions are also being asked about why this charity in what is one of the more affluent parts of Carmarthenshire was apparently distributing twice as many "Jesus Cares" foodboxes as a broadly similar operation in the Rhondda, and why it was necessary to ship the contents of the boxes all the way from the King's Church in Newport.

*Ocado is a very upmarket grocery delivery business run by Waitrose, part of John Lewis. The nearest Waitrose to this part of the world is in Barry, about 90 miles away. If you fancy paying £3.50 for an unwaxed lemon, you know where to go, otherwise stick to Aldi and Lidl like a good Cardi.

Grants: Reputational risk

This is the first in what will be a series of pieces looking at the world of grants, and the millions of pounds of public money handed out every year in Carmarthenshire to charities, private business interests and council projects, often with very disappointing results.

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The other day Caebrwyn noted that the Wales Audit Office has once again repeated its warnings that, "weaknesses in the Council’s grant management arrangements .... present a significant financial and reputational risk to the Council".

The council's officers were having none of the WAO's criticisms when they first surfaced last year. In last September's meeting of the full council there was an orchestrated response to the auditor's concerns. The criticisms were pedantic and nit-picking. There was nothing to worry about and nothing to see, so move on. And this interference from the WAO was costing the council a lot of money.

So it's been business as usual, with the Queen of Grants, Meryl Gravell, happily continuing to splash the cash.

Meryl has quite a track record in this field, extending at least as far back as the Technium fiasco more than 10 years ago. Not only was there massive incompetence on the part of the County Council and the now defunct Welsh Development Agency, but also what looks very much like large scale fraud from some of the beneficiaries.

As you can see from this earlier post, this spectacular debacle featured some familiar names - Pam Palmer (Ind), now deputy leader of the council, and Rob Sully, now director of education, for example.

The affair was quietly brushed under the carpet, and no lessons were learned. In the case of one "investor" who walked off with hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money, nobody seems to have carried out even basic checks to find out about his business background, and the same error has been made repeatedly since then. People with histories of company failures, bad debts and defaults find that the Council is open for business, especially if they know the right people.

When a less than grateful electorate demoted Meryl's Independents to third place at the last elections in 2012, the veteran councillor and near-eternal leader was visibly put out when she had to hand over the reins to Kevin Madge.

In the early days of the rickety Madge administration Meryl would frequently remove herself from the front seats and sit glowering at the usurpers from her perch among the old codgers on the depleted Independent benches, even though she was still a member of the cabinet or Executive Board, as it's known in Carmarthenshire.

Happily, Meryl has come to terms with her new position and discovered that power without responsibility can be quite enjoyable. So while poor old Kev has to deal with the drains, sort out the rubbish and shut down village schools to howls of protest from the rabble, Meryl can get on with all those nice regeneration projects and handing out grants. The only fly in the ointment is leisure, where attempts to jack up fees for sporting facilities have gone down with the public like a lead balloon.

The leisure centres are also a bit of a problem in a time of cuts, but here Meryl and friends have hit on the novel idea of grabbing lots of money from the schools budget to keep them afloat.

And to show what a consummate political operator she is, Meryl has somehow managed to get Kevin Madge to take all the flak for the playing fields fiasco. While Kev was out there defending the policy to outraged sports clubs, Meryl was nowhere to be seen.

Thanks to a change (another one) in the council's constitution a couple of years ago, members of the Executive Board now hold private decision meetings. Some, like Pam Palmer (Ind), hardly ever have to make decisions, making you wonder quite what she is doing for her £31,250 a year.

This new arrangement suits Meryl down to the ground, however, because not only are the meetings secret, but the reports which they rubber stamp are also declared exempt from publication. And the grants approved in these private sessions are just the tip of the iceberg because many others can be approved using delegated powers without any public record. This makes scrutiny and holding Meryl and the officers to account next to impossible, and even better the Regeneration brief encroaches on a good many other departments, so you can interfere and ride roughshod over any opposition with backing from where it matters. Thankfully planning, which is a very useful tool in the regeneration box, is also in the hands of Meryl's "Independent" puppets.

Effectively, then, Meryl gets to run all the nice bits of the council which will be largely immune from any spending cuts, while Kev gets the rest, plays at being leader and takes all the flak.

In the next piece we will look at tourism and ask how much benefit some of these grant schemes really bring to the local economy.




Friday, 22 August 2014

In disarray and not fit for purpose

The WLGA panel which is reviewing governance in Carmarthenshire has been busy hearing evidence and taking submissions, and is expected to present its conclusions in the autumn.

What they are hearing is tale of two very different local authorities. One is open, transparent, the winner of multiple awards and has a glorious track record of innovative regeneration projects. The problems which have beset the council over the last few years are a storm in a tea cup whipped up by nit pickers and malcontents; it is now time to move on.

The other is a secretive and undemocratic place, run by a tiny and self-perpetuating cabal which tramples over the rules, hates all forms of criticism and bulldozes its way through no matter what. It has developed a culture which is the enemy of good governance.

Culture is a word that the panel members have heard a lot in the last few weeks, and if their final report reflects what they have been told, it will make for very uncomfortable reading in County Hall.

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A copy of an e-mail has come in which was certainly not meant for your eyes or mine, and which was not forwarded by any of those it was addressed to. Publication is however very much in the public interest because of what it says about the way in which Carmarthenshire County Council is run, and it was written by someone the Chief Executive cannot dismiss as a scurrilous representative of a tiny minority of malcontents determined to run the council down or, Cneifiwr's all-time favourite, someone "who has a problem with local government".

The someone in question is Sir David Lewis, a co-opted voting member of the Council's Audit Committee, former Chairman and Senior Partner of a global law firm, former President of the City of London Law Society, alderman and councillor of the City of London and Lord Mayor of London 2007-8. As UK financial services ambassador with full cabinet rank he advised and reported to the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary.

Sir David felt that he had a public duty to make his findings and experiences known to the WLGA Review Panel, and so he went along to the Chief Executive's secretary to ask for an appointment to be made with the panel. Whether the message was not relayed or the WLGA panel felt they had no need to speak to Sir David, he was somewhat surprised not to be taken up on his offer.

And so, just like members of the public, Caebrwyn and Cneifiwr, he put pen to paper, emphasising for good measure that he is not and never has been a member of a political party.

The letter runs to about two pages and is explosive.

There has been a breakdown in trust between the electorate and the Council, he says. "The governance of the Council is in disarray and not fit for purpose".

The values of any well governed Council include openness and transparency, honesty and integrity, tolerance and respect, and equality and fairness. "In recent years these values have evidently not been applied or followed".

Sir David believes that this is not the fault of the general body of councillors but that responsibility lies in the hands of the Executive Board and the Chief Executive. "There needs to be a change in culture".

It is not that the rules and procedures are inadequate, more a case that they are not applied in practice because of "the internal culture in County Hall".

Basic rules and values concerning conflicts of interest which should be obvious to all have not been applied by some members of the Executive Board and senior management. "They are not mere technicalities as some have suggested" (see Minor Matters).

Sir David does not name names, but for anyone who has followed this blog or Caebrwyn's you won't find it hard to put two and two together.

Recent events should not happen in a well-managed Council, he says, before adding that they "will not happen if there is a proper professional relationship between the Chief Executive, the Executive Board and the Council generally and if the Scrutiny Committees are given the full facts."

No amount of changing rules and constitutions will alter matters without a change in culture.

Sir David is scathing about the Council's notoriously short and uncommunicative minutes of meetings. Worse, "there is a culture of hiding difficult or troublesome items".

"It is unclear to me whether or not the committee clerks are instructed to adopt this unhelpful approach and if so by whom."

He is full of praise for the way in which financial statements are prepared, but speaking as a very senior and experienced lawyer he concludes that the quality of internal legal advice he has seen, and the advice given on the WAO reports in particular, was "cavalier at best and incompetent at worst". A much more senior person needs to be appointed urgently.

Ouch. She was only acting on orders, M'lud.

Sir David goes on to suggest that councillors should be given an opportunity to meet and question the Executive Board and Chief Executive at regular intervals, with full and complete answers given.

Hell will probably freeze over before that happens, and as most of the members of the Executive Board are spectacularly clueless, any such event with current personnel would rapidly turn into a one-man show featuring the Chief Executive giving answers which may be rather less than full and complete.

Sir David ends rather understatedly by saying that if the Executive Board and Chief Executive really want to make the Council "the most open and transparent council in Wales", there is a very major task ahead of them.

The culture which Sir David refers to has been nurtured and developed over a long period by a small number of key players at the top of the pecking order. He does not say it because it hardly needs to be said, but changing the culture of the council without changing the senior personnel is doomed to failure.

Let's hope someone is on hand to administer a stiff brandy and smelling salts in the Executive Suite as they digest this message. The press office may also need medical attention.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Newcastle Emlyn Supermarket Sweep - an update

The saga of plans to turn Newcastle Emlyn (population around 1,500) into the supermarket capital of Wales has taken another turn.

Amended plans for an Aldi supermarket opposite the existing CK's supermarket were approved at a meeting of the county council's planning committee last week, along with revised plans for a much larger store on the Cawdor Cars site.

Apart from a handful of supporters of the rival Cawdor development, which we will come to in a minute, there was very little opposition to the Aldi scheme, and the general consensus seems to be that it will be good for the town. Not least, perhaps, because if you go to the nearest Aldi in Cardigan, you now usually have to queue to get in.

Far more controversial were the plans for a much larger supermarket on a site currently occupied by the Cawdor car showroom and a car park owned by the county council.

Observant readers may have clocked at this point that there is a huge and glaring conflict of interest built in to this planning application, with the council standing to be a major beneficiary in any deal which comes out of it.

Meanwhile, it is still not known who if anyone is interested in taking on this site which will be hugely expensive to develop.

The application was first approved by the Planning Committee way back in 2011 and has since sat languishing on the backburner because the owner of most of the site was unable to sign a Section 106 agreement that would have involved improving the route leading through into the main part of town.

The original application and the planning officers went to very considerable lengths to emphasise the importance of this link and the benefits it would bring. Reading the planning officers' earlier reports, it was one of the main selling points for the development.

The problem was that the owners of the land across which the access route was supposed to go had no wish to see it developed, and matters reached an impasse.

Now two remarkable things have happened.

First someone has turned up a covenant entered into by the former Carmarthen District Council when it bought the land on which the car park stands. Remarkable because the Cawdor dispute has been rumbling on for the best part of five years and the covenant had never previously come to light.

The upshot of this is that the County Council says it has the right to allow people using its car park to cross the disputed land into the main part of the town. That is not a public right of way, but the next best thing.

The council has its own Rights of Way Section which was tasked with finding out about whether or not there was an existing right of way, but for reasons which are not clear, the Planning Department decided it couldn't wait to find out what their researches threw up and brought determination of the application forward, noting that whatever the Rights of Way Section found would now be academic.

Secondly, the much vaunted access route from the Cawdor site through to the town - previously such an important feature of the development - is no longer in the plans. It is like the famous Norwegian Blue parrot - an ex-access route, defunct, obsolete and gone to planning heaven. It is not even nailed to its perch any more.

The owner of the Cawdor site has made a number of attempts to buy his way out of the Section 106 agreement in recent months, beginning with an opening offer of £10,000. That was subsequently upped to £15,000, and has now jumped to £38,000.

It is now also unclear what this money is for because the Section 106 agreement seems to have bitten the dust, and town will not see a penny of it, whatever happens.

The planning officer's report states that it is not the council's policy to ask for financial contributions from retail developments - a statement which must leave some other retail developers gasping in disbelief and wondering why they were obliged to enter into S106 agreements.

In fact the tone of the report which went before councillors is frankly amazing. In places it is almost chatty, and at one point it speculates on the motives of the owners of the piece of land where the new improved access route was supposed to go.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the report could not be more favourable to the would-be developer if he had written it himself.

Amid swirling rumours of funny handshakes and certain officers being "leaned on" to come up with the right answers, it is unlikely that we have heard the last of this saga yet.




Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Carmarthenshire News

Wrapped in its eco-friendly plastic bag and addressed to 'The Occupier', the latest edition of Pravda is dropping through letter boxes across Carmarthenshire. Three things stand out this time.

The biggest event in the county's recent history, with heavy involvement from the County Council and all the other members of the local service board which contribute to Carmarthenshire News, was the National Eisteddfod in Llanelli. Among other things the Eisteddfod was a showcase for Carmarthenshire and a chance to show off to a large audience - a public relations dream opportunity in other words.

Admittedly the timing of the Eisteddfod was a little awkward for Carmarthenshire News, with the first week in August coinciding with the paper's publication schedule, but there is no law which says that it must be published on a certain date (in fact there is no law which says that it must be published at all), and it would have been easy enough to postpone publication by a couple of weeks.

As it is, the Eisteddfod does not make an appearance in the paper until page 5, half of which is given over to an advert for concerts and other events which have already happened. There is no point in ringing 0845 4090 900 to order your tickets.

Whoever paid for that either has money to burn or may want their cash back.

And that is about it as far as the Eisteddfod is concerned. No mention of any of the competitions or the winners. What we get instead is the drearily familiar litany of awards won by the council and its partners interspersed with overt propaganda.

Hywel Dda Health Board goes to town on page 4 with a piece telling us that a High Court judge kicked out an application for judicial review of its plans to reorganise health services, the downgrading of Prince Philip Hospital in Llanelli in particular.

Only Hywel Dda's management doesn't like the word "downgrade", and what we get is an entirely one-sided account celebrating the court victory which attacks critics for forcing it to spend £300,000 on legal costs.

No attempt at objectivity, no explanation as to why people felt it necessary to challenge the authority's plans or what was worrying them.

Carmarthenshire News is and always was a mouthpiece for those in power, with precious little in the way of genuine news and no hint that there is anyone out there who has a different point of view to those running the show.

For example, it would not be Carmarthenshire News if we did not get at least one picture of the Labour council leader Kevin Madge cutting a ribbon, turning a first sod or admiring a project in a hard hat.

In a piece which gets as much space as the National Eisteddfod, Kev is pictured turning the first sod at the planned new Gwili Railway Station in Carmarthen.

Carmarthen has six county councillors, and all of them are members of Plaid Cymru. The current Mayor of Carmarthen is also from Plaid.

If any of them were invited to the ceremony, they have been airbrushed from the official photograph, and we are treated instead to a snap of Kev (Lab) and his "Independent" coalition partners (Pam Palmer and Irfon Jones), along with the deputy mayor of Carmarthen (Ind).

The third thing which stands out from this edition of Carmarthenshire News is that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of private sector advertisers. Perhaps advertising space is being sold at a heavy discount, but what is evident is that the council is employing someone to sell it. Is that what we pay council tax for?

This edition features adverts from an estate agent, NFU Mutual, the FUW, a half page advert extolling the benefits of private sector education, various contractors who almost certainly do a lot of business with the council, the evangelical bowling alley (of course), a solicitor encouraging people to sue for medical negligence and a few who really should know better. Why is Gwasg Gomer, the Llandysul-based publishing company, supporting a publication which from its inception has been dedicated to undermining a free and independent local press? What price free speech and pluralism?

Hang your heads in shame, Gwasg Gomer.

And finally, to end where we began.

Carwyn Jones's latest initiative to show that he is trying to promote the Welsh language is called Pethau Bychain ("little things"). Pethau Bychain has splashed out on a half page ad inviting readers to pop over to Maes D at the Eisteddfod for a chat - too late for readers of Carmarthenshire News, and a truly appalling waste of scarce resources.

As Dewi Pws would say, MOMFfG.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Demons

If there is one programme on the radio which is guaranteed to turn just about anyone into a militant atheist it is Radio 4's Sunday Programme which bills itself as a weekly look at religious and ethical news. And boy is religion creating a lot of news at the moment.

I try not to listen to this programme more than once in a blue moon because replacing radio sets which have been hurled at the wall or smashed with a sledge hammer can get a bit expensive.

The final item on yesterday's programme involved a woman called Vicky Beeching. Probably like most readers I'd never heard of Vicky before this week, but she is a bit of a star on the evangelical Christian rock scene, and this week she announced that she is gay.

Vicky is 35, eloquent, attractive, intelligent and clearly someone who has a very strong Christian faith. Earlier in the week she was interviewed on Channel 4 News, and the programme brought one of those good 'ole American evangelical pastors into the discussion. He began by saying that he has a sister who was (note the past tense) a lesbian.

That's right, she had been 'cured'. In Scott Lively's words, she had overcome her homosexuality. He felt sorry for Vicky Beeching because she had given into the "lie that she is homosexual".

Rev Lively didn't mince his words, and seemed pretty convinced that Vicky would not be joining him in heaven unless she changed her tune.

Roll forward to Sunday where the BBC had found a rather more mealy-mouthed, home-grown fundamentalist to go up against Vicky Beeching in the form of Susie Leafe, director of an evangelical campaign group called Reform. Reform is part of the Church of England and also active in the Church in Ireland, although thankfully not it seems in the Church in Wales.

Ms Leafe, who describes herself as a "radical feminist", is strongly opposed to woman bishops. What followed was a fairly lengthy exchange in which Ms Leafe made it clear that, like Pastor Lively, she thought that Vicky could overcome her affliction. Farcically she refused to utter the words "gay", "homosexual" or "lesbian", and insisted on describing Vicky Beeching's "problem" as "same sex attraction".

The distinction between homosexuality and same-sex attraction is probably lost on most of us, but the idea seems to be that homosexuality does not really exist ("a lie" according to Pastor Lively) and that it's just like a headache or cold. All of that dressed up as theology.

As a small boy in the 1960s I remember asking my mother about Miss Pugh, a lady who used to go to coffee mornings in the Congregational Chapel with us. Miss Pugh was tiny, and she always wore trousers, a grey gaberdine mac and had very short cropped hair. Tucked under her arm was a very snappy Pekinese.

I can't remember what my mother said, but Miss Pugh lived with another lady, and nobody batted an eyelid. Whatever it was, Miss Pugh was not going through a passing phase.

Vicky Beeching grew up in a pentacostalist family, and she realised that she was a lesbian as a teenager. The response of her family and her church was that demons were the cause, and at the age of 16 she was put through a public exorcism at a church summer camp. Unsurprisingly this had left psychological scars, she said, but she was still  passionate about her faith and her love for her family.

It is not clear what is happening to Towy Community Church's plans to set up a Mercy Ministries hostel for young women in Carmarthen, although the last we heard from the pastor just after the opening of the bowling alley was that the hostel was back on the agenda.

Since then the church has all but disappeared from the internet, preferring to keep its activities and plans out of the public gaze.

There are plenty of young men and women in Carmarthen with drug and alcohol problems, and some of them will be gay. We owe it to them to make sure that these peddlers of pseudo-science and theological mumbo jumbo aren't given a chance to mess with their minds.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Go for it Scotland - Ewch amdani Alba!

The referendum on Scottish independence will take place on 18 September, and to show support for the Yes movement a rally will be held at 2pm on 13 September outside the Senedd in Cardiff. If you can, please go along and enjoy what will certainly be a great Welsh occasion.

Without doubt the event will be better supported than a No "rally" staged outside the Senedd yesterday. This was organised and addressed by Dan Snow, the BBC's youthful military historian and latest all-purpose presenter. Snow is married to the second daughter of the Duke of Westminster, one of the largest landowners in Scotland. Around seven people showed up, and most of those were apparently bussed in Labour staffers, keen as young Daniel is to support his father-in-law's hereditary privileges and property interests.

A rather more interesting debate on Scottish independence took place last night on Radio 4, where James Naughtie hosted a meeting of Scottish voters at the Edinburgh Festival drawn from various civic groups. Unlike a lot of the BBC's coverage, this was a much more balanced affair; if anything the Yes camp appeared to have the edge.

The programme, available for a few more days here, is worth listening to. None of those taking part was a politician or political insider, and two things came across very clearly.

The first was the strength and distinctiveness of Scottish identity. Scotland really is a different country - something that is all too easy to forget for the rest of us who rely on Dan Snow and the rest of the London-centric media for our view of the world.

The second was the quality of the debate and the extent to which ordinary people have become engaged in it. Speaker after speaker, from the Yes, No and undecided camps, said how the referendum campaign had caught people's imagination and brought political discussion to life.

If the 'Better Together' campaign had had its way, this debate would not be taking place, of course, and whatever happens on 18 September, this flowering will be one of Alex Salmond's greatest legacies.

As we look forward to September, the rally in Cardiff and the vote itself, here is a short film featuring some of the best and brightest in Welsh life sending their messages of hope and support to Scotland.

Ewch amdani Alba!


















Saturday, 16 August 2014

Money matters

In common with other Welsh local authorities, Carmarthenshire is bracing itself for another round of spending cuts as the Labour government in Cardiff prepares for next year's general election and the Assembly elections in 2016 by trying to take the sting out of criticism of its handling of the health service.

Carmarthenshire had been expecting to have to make savings of £20 million over the next three years, but it now looks as though they will have to cut around £46 million.

To pave the way, the council is carrying out a review of its spending on the so-called third sector. In plain terms that's all those charities and not-for-profit organisations which have become such a feature of public life in recent years. An industry which includes a very mixed bag of good, bad and indifferent players.

Incredibly, the County Council is not really sure how much it spends on these organisations, but thinks after some initial housekeeping that it may be around £35 million a year. It also suspects that there may be quite a bit of overlap in the services they provide.

An example of that would be pumping money into Towy Community Church which set up an evangelical debt counselling service in competition with Citizens Advice.

There is certainly money to be saved here - one litigious third sector chief executive in Carmarthenshire awarded herself whopping pay increases and got the taxpayer to fund her "essential" MBA degree course - but many of them provide extremely important services.

The concern is that some of the smaller organisations - the ones without sophisticated lobbyists, PR operations and "special relationships" - will be those that lose out.

And finally...

Losing out is an alien concept among the council's senior officers. It seems that two of those who recently retired on what everybody else in Carmarthenshire would consider extremely generous pensions have resurfaced in County Hall as consultants on very generous rates of pay.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Spam

Have you received a letter from that nice Mark James recently in his capacity as returning officer for Carmarthenshire? The chances are that you have, and that it will have told you that the system of voter registration is changing, but that you have been added to the new register and that you don't have to do anything unless your details have changed.

There are concerns that the new system under which people have to register as individuals rather than be registered by the "head of household", will lead to many more people not bothering to register. Time will tell, but in the short-term the vast majority of us will continue to be registered without having to lift a finger.

All of which makes Labour's latest leaflet drop in Carmarthen East and Dinefwr something of a mystery, with Calum Higgins telling readers that he is contacting them because "if you wanted to vote at any election, you couldn't - because you are not on the electoral register", before going on to reassure them that he can help.

This came as worrying news to some of the recipients of Calum's letter because they vote at every election, and had every reason to believe that they were registered. In fact, they were.


No doubt there is an innocent explanation for this, but unnecessarily worrying elderly voters and others who take their civic duties seriously looks like the sort of thing you would associate with those daytime TV ads or unsolicited text messages telling you that you may have a claim. Just text WHIPLASH to .....






Thursday, 14 August 2014

Do they work for you?

The Western Mail has provided its readers with what it calls a handy tool to let them find out how active their MP is in Westminster.

There are 40 Welsh MPs, and in the 2010 general election 26 of those constituencies returned a Labour MP. The Tories got 8, with Plaid Cymru and the LibDems on 3 each. The Western Mail names 7 Labour MPs (three active performers and four duds), one Tory and one LibDem. The Tory (Stephen Crabb) and the LibDem (Jenny Willott) are both close to the bottom of the league table.

Martin Caton (Lab.,Gower) and Dai Havard (Lab., Merthyr Tydfil) both vie with Stephen Crabb for the title of least active Welsh MP in the House of Commons, and neither of them has the benefit of the excuse that they have spent most of their time in the whips office. Showing its political colours somewhat, the newspaper makes no mention of MPs such as Jonathan Edwards (Plaid), even though his record on contributions to debate is up there with the most active Labour members.

What gets the Western Mail really excited, however, is that Chris Bryant (Lab., Rhondda) is top of the pops, appearing in more debates and speaking more often than any of his colleagues.

The problem with that of course is the difference between quality and quantity, and Bryant has made some notably disastrous appearances. Here is the Labour supporting New Statesman with a example of Bryant at work.

Tucked away at the end of the WM article is a more telling graph showing the average number of debates MPs have taken part in by party since 2010. Here Labour is in seventh place. Even Tory MPs do better, despite all their business commitments, time spent chasing foxes and other extra-curricular activities.


Simon Hart MP
For every Chris Bryant the law of averages dictates that there are rather more Labour MPs who seldom open their mouths.

When looked at by party, the list is topped by the Green Party, Democratic Unionists, the SDLP, SNP and Plaid Cymru.

With the exception of the Greens (one MP, Caroline Lucas), the most active parties are those representing the devolved nations, which is even more remarkable when you consider that Plaid and SNP MPs only take part in debates which have a bearing on their countries. Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Green Party work together as a group in the House of Commons, by the way.

If you live in the Rhondda, you might wonder why your MP is busy asking questions about Birmingham schools, welfare benefits in Scotland or housing benefit in the North West (of England). The people of Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan, Lab) may also be puzzled as to why, when education is a devolved matter, their MP spends so much time asking about education in Northern Ireland, academies and free schools (none of those in Wales), and schools in Birmingham.

Bearing in mind that agriculture is another devolved matter, the people of Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire may be surprised to hear that their MP (Simon Hart, Con.) spends so much of his time talking about English badgers.

Not to mention the irritation that people in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland understandably feel when they see MPs who sit for Welsh constituencies voting and speaking on matters which have nothing to do with them.


(Source: They Work for You)

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Fiddling the books

After the row about massive increases in sports charges for council-owned football, rugby and cricket pitches and bowling greens in the south of the county, Carmarthenshire County Council has very belatedly begun a public consultation on its plans, and the first of a series of roadshows took place in Newcastle Emlyn earlier this week.

The Council has a track record of holding consultations on controversial subjects in the summer when people are on holiday or occupied with entertaining their children, and the decision to begin in Newcastle Emlyn which is not effected by the proposals suggests officers were hoping for an easy ride.

They were in for a shock.

Fortunately the various sports clubs here own and maintain their own grounds, but people wanted to know why Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn, the secondary school, was now being asked to pay £100,000 a year to use the leisure centre next door.


Possibly to make the locals feel better, the officers present told them that it wasn't just Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn, but schools in Carmarthen were also being told to pay or stay away.

This was about as well received as a bag of cold sick, not least because the land on which the Newcastle Emlyn leisure centre stands was gifted by the school, the idea being that the school would benefit.

What the council is proposing, then, is to take money out of one pot and put it into another as part of its budget savings programme. If you are wondering how this will save money, it won't. But what it would do is take £100,000 out of the education budget, which the Welsh Government has ring-fenced, and put it into leisure services.

For a council which is obsessed with PR and news management, and a Labour Party which is worried about what massive increases in sports fees and the possible closure of leisure centres are doing to votes, the manipulation of budgets has a lot to recommend it: nobody will notice the loss of a couple of teaching posts, and the press won't report on it, whereas the closure of a leisure centre or massive increases in charges would create uproar.

The Labour Party finds itself in a sticky situation here. This is a Labour run council implementing cuts under a Labour Welsh Government. Normally they would blame the Tory-Lib Dem Government in Westminster, but a few weeks ago Labour's national policy forum met in England (report here) to approve plans to stick to George Osborne's austerity programme.

Calum Higgins, the 20-something barrister who would like to represent us in Westminster, has come up with a cunning plan to deal with this. In a leaflet offering to help people with voter registration, he blames the cuts on Plaid Cymru, which is in opposition, presumably on the assumption that many Labour voters won't know who is actually running the show.


Last week Calum had himself photographed on Shelter's stand at the Eisteddfod, praising their work. He must have forgotten to tell the homelessness charity that last year he voted against proposals to protect people hit by the bedroom tax from eviction.

And finally...

The row about sports charges has been rumbling on for many months now, so if you can't quite remember what it is all about, here is a potted history of the story so far.


Towards the end of last year, and not part of the annual budget setting exercise, Carmarthenshire County Council quietly tried to introduce massive increases in charges for the playing fields and other sports facilities it runs in the south of the county. Unfortunately for the Council, people did notice, and gradually there was a rising groundswell of protest.

Kevin Madge, the council's Labour leader, went to the press to defend his decision, saying that it was all about creating a level playing field.

The protests continued to grow, with local sports clubs saying they would be forced to close, and individuals facing astronomical increases in fees for using bowling greens, etc. In Tumble the village football and rugby clubs were told they would have to pay £1,000 a week to use the grounds. Adults who want to play cricket were told that the charges they have to pay would rise from £49 in 2013/14 to £690 in 2016/17.

Understandably, people wanted to know how these charges had been arrived at. The council stumbled. Kevin Madge continued to maintain that it was all about creating a level playing field.

There was a very heated phone-in on Radio Cymru, and then came news that while all this had been going on, Kevin Madge and colleagues had approved  the renegotiation of a loan to the Scarlets, and given them around £600,000 out of the £850,000 raised by the sale of a plot of council land. Together the two deals  are worth between £1.25 million and £1.5 million to Scarlets Regional Limited.

The Plaid Cymru group asked for the sports charges to be referred to the full council so that the matter could be discussed. Kevin Madge put on a show of fireworks. He was proud of what he had done, how dare they. The ever-reliable acting Head of Law, Mrs Linda Rees-Jones, said the matter could not be discussed as that would mean micro-managing Executive Board decisions.

Then in April Kevin Madge wobbled, presumably at the sight of all those Labour votes going up in smoke.
Whereas just a few short weeks earlier the very idea of letting councillors discuss the increased charges was outrageous, he now said the plan would go out to consultation.

And so, eventually, it came to pass that the Council began its consultation, and in time honoured fashion it was decided to run the exercise during the summer holidays when lots of the people who use the sports facilities will be on holiday or trying to keep their children entertained.

This one is set to run and run.

For anyone interested, a campaign group has been set up to fight the council's plans for pitch fees. Carmarthenshire Unified Sports Committee (CUSC) has its own website (here), and is also on Twitter: @cusctweets.





Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Looking on the bright side

The management of the Scarlets recently sent an update out to registered supporters to let them know that the accounts for the year to 30 June 2013 have now finally been signed off and will be "lodged with Companies House when the Board deem appropriate".


By law the accounts should have been filed by the end of March, so they are now more than four months late. While we wait to find out when the Board deems it appropriate to comply with the law, the men in blazers have some good news that they wish to share.

Season ticket sales are the best of all four regions, we are told. Or viewed through the cynical eyes of some seasoned supporters on the Scarlet Fever Forum, that almost certainly means that sales are down on last year, the logic being that if ticket sales were up, we would have been told. They may have a point.

Then there's the tricky subject of the Red Room (financed by council tax payers). This venture is "not as successful as had been hoped, but we may see changes in the near future" (my italics).

So that's all right then. One visitor to the forum noted that the Red Room offers an attractive breakfast menu, but doesn't open until 10am.

On the bright side again, supporters are told that current financial targets are "very much on track", although we will probably have to wait another year to find out how true that is.

There is still an "impasse" between the regions and the WRU, but some progress has been made. Only a pedant would point out that you cannot make progress when things have reached an impasse.

Having dealt with the awkward business of the accounts in one line, supporters were told that an exciting new venture with Scarlets in the forefront would be announced very soon.

We didn't have to wait very long to find out what this venture is because a statement has since been issued announcing "a groundbreaking partnership" under which the Scarlets will adopt the .cymru .wales domain name on the internet.

This is good news and shows, as the rather hyped up press release says, that the Scarlets is committed to promoting Wales and the region's Welsh identity.

A very good time and place to reinforce that message, you would have thought, would have been at the Eisteddfod in Llanelli. The Scarlets certainly had a presence, and quite a few of their players were on hand during the week, but supporters on the Scarlet Fever forum felt overwhelmingly that this was a missed opportunity, with poor marketing and poor planning.

Whereas some of the other regions were promoting and selling their new kit, the Scarlets' new shirts were not available for sale on the Maes, and there was no other merchandise on sale. Someone blamed this on poor internet connections, but none of the scores of other vendors at the event seemed to have a problem with credit and debit card payments.

To their credit, the Scarlets still did better than the WRU which stubbornly refuses to recognise the existence of the Welsh language despite the fact that many players and supporters are Welsh speakers. A stone's throw from the Scarlets on the Maes, standing out like a sore thumb, was the gleaming WRU lorry emblazoned with English-only slogans. Even the ice cream vans did better.

video


Monday, 11 August 2014

Medals, memory and reputations

The Welsh mainstream media is in a pretty sorry state, but the Welsh blogosphere is alive and well with all sorts of players on the field. One of the stranger entrants is a site called Wales Eye which was set up in 2013. It sees itself as a kind of Welsh Private Eye, dedicated to a mix of investigative journalism and satire, with the noble aim of holding the establishment to account.

Wales Eye usually puts out one story a day. If there is any satire, Cneifiwr has so far failed to spot it, but every so often there are pieces which could fairly be described as investigative journalism, dealing with subjects such as fat cat academics and possibly fraudulent practices in the rollout of high speed broadband in Wales.

Those occasional nuggets aside, the staple offering of Wales Eye is a daily dose of stories quoting unnamed but invariably "senior" sources and unsubstantiated claims that something or other has sparked a major row - rows so major that nobody outside the febrile bubble inhabited by Wales Eye has heard of them.

Friday's piece, entitled "Beyond the Bard", is a case in point. It begins by claiming in its rather grating tabloid style that "serious questions have been raised about the veneration of a bard who died during the first world war", and goes on to take a swipe at the National Eisteddfod, suggesting that its "honours system" is not up to the job because it awarded the Chair at the 1917 National Eisteddfod to Hedd Wyn, rather than a soldier from Llanelli who was awarded the Victoria Cross for killing lots of Germans in the same year.

It is not entirely clear who is raising these "serious" questions, but it would appear to be Rod Richards, the former Tory MP and Assembly Member now turned Ukip. Many adjectives could be used to describe Mr Richards, but serious is not one of them.

Richards tells Wales Eye that he has read Hedd Wyn's work, and "it is pretty mediocre stuff".

Of course, Rod Richards is entitled to his literary opinion, but Hedd Wyn is one of the best loved Welsh poets, and his poems are still popular a century after his death at the Battle of Passchendaele in July 1917. Somehow it seems unlikely that anyone will be reading Rod Richards' collected speeches 100 years from now.

But that's enough about Rod Richards. A much more interesting question is why we remember Hedd Wyn, but have forgotten someone who was awarded the Victoria Cross. Come to think of it, how many recipients of the Victoria Cross can most of us name? Unless you are a military historian or relative, not one in all likelihood.

This is not to sully the memory of Ivor Rees, who was awarded his VC for a very bloody action in which he killed seven men during the Battle of Passchendaele. It is estimated that over half a million men lost their lives in that catastrophic event, with many, many more wounded and maimed for life.

Ivor Rees died in 1967 and so cannot speak for himself, but all of us will have known or met men who served in the two world wars and took part in horrific events. Many veterans never talk about their experiences, and if they do, they tend to talk about things they saw rather than the things they did.

Their message to us is the waste, inhumanity, misery and mad destruction of war, not glory or heroics.

A former Royal Navy seaman remembered how his ship had been strafed by German fighter aircraft as it sailed though the Mediterranean. Men who had been working in the metal scaffolding on the bow of the ship designed to protect it from mines had been killed, and their mangled remains could not be retrieved until it docked at Alexandria, by which time the whole ship stank of rotting flesh in the searing heat.


The point of military medals such as the Victoria Cross is not so much to reward individuals, but to set an example, encourage and sanctify what are often bloody suicidal acts.

Hedd Wyn went to war not because he wanted to, but because his farming family was ordered to send one of their sons to the army, and Hedd Wyn, whose baptismal name was Ellis Humphrey Evans, opted to go instead of his brother.

On Saturday, Radio Four's early morning Farming Today programme looked at the impact the First World War had on farming families, and the system of exemptions from conscription in particular. By chance, a complete set of records has survived for the county of Wiltshire, and they show how by 1916 the earlier patriotic euphoria had evaporated and been replaced with increasing reluctance to enter military service. One cowman wrote to the conscription panel that they would have to catch him first, and it seems they never did. The programme, available here for a few more days, helps to put the Evans family into a wider context.

Hedd Wyn won no medals or awards from the British state, but through the Gorsedd, the Welsh "honours system" so contemptuously derided by Rod Richards and Wales Eye, and on the merits of his poetry (submitted anonymously, of course), he won an enduring place in the hearts and minds of the people of Wales.

In one of his best known poems, Rhyfel ("War"), Hedd Wyn describes the war as a time in which God had withdrawn from the world like an ebb tide, leaving it to man and his "ugly authority" to fill the void, with the roar of battle casting its shadow on poor homes.

He does this and more in the space of a few, taut and spare lines.  

Awdurdod hell.

Ugly authority - two words which conjur a picture of bemedalled royals, bishops, generals, faceless bureaucrats, barking sergeant majors and conscription panels.

Another Welsh poet who is just as loved, and who incidentally never won the Chair at a National Eisteddfod, was Waldo Williams, Quaker, pacifist, nationalist and school teacher. No CBEs or knighthoods for him, thank God. Instead he was sent to prison for refusing to pay income tax in a protest against the Korean War.

Waldo wrote:

Daw dydd y bydd mawr y rhai bychain
Daw dydd ni bydd mwy y rhai mawr

Very roughly this means that a day will come when the lowly shall be great. A day will come when the powerful shall be diminished.

As a Christian, Waldo was probably thinking about the life to come, but what both Hedd Wyn and Waldo show us is that history and the fundamentally democratic nature of collective memory decide who we remember and why. Tony Blair may never face a court of justice, but the court of public opinion has already delivered its verdict. And in the long run all titles, medals and honours are consigned to oblivion.

It is a very good thing that we should remember Hedd Wyn. May Ivor Rees rest in peace.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

A tale of two councils

 Jacqui Thompson recently reported on her blog that Mark James, the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, is now taking steps to secure the damages that were awarded to him following the libel trial, and the Western Mail has covered the story in more detail.

There is little to add to these reports, except to clarify that, with interest, the damages have now risen to  £30,000. On top of that are some £220,000 in costs awarded against her, and there is as yet no indication as to how the council and its insurers will seek to recover the money.

The damages were awarded in respect of Mr James's counterclaim, which in the view of the Wales Audit Office was unlawfully funded by the Council. While the council's officers were adamant in their report last month that the indemnity was lawful, councillors opted for a fudge to "note" the officers' views and sit on the fence.

As things stand, one of the highest paid officials in Wales stands to scoop winnings of £30,000 from an unlawfully funded litigation, quite possibly making a family homeless into the bargain.

The only crumb of comfort that can be drawn from this is that contrary to Mr James's assertions that he had blazed a trail which other councils would follow, no Welsh council in its right mind is likely to go down that path ever again.

____________

Meanwhile, the Winter Palace in Haverfordwest looks set to come under siege as three of the largest unions have joined forces to call for the Chief Executive, Bryn Parry-Jones, to step down while the latest round of police investigations into the pension payments is underway. Unison is going a step further and balloting its members in a vote of no confidence, and the unions have also called on the public to join them in a protest outside County Hall.

It's worth recalling that the trouble stems from the tax dodging pension scheme, and that the Labour Party is playing a leading role in trying to call the council chief executive to account.

Next door in Carmarthenshire where the Chief Executive, Mark James, was found to have benefited from not one but two unlawful schemes, Labour has adopted the opposite policy and has defended Mr James for all its worth.

If that was not bad enough, Jacob Williams has published a copy of an explosive letter written by the former lay chairman of Pembrokeshire's Audit Committee explaining the reasons for his resignation. The account given of the chief executive's conduct is extraordinary.

The Audit Committee row relates to suspected fraud in the administration of building improvement grants, and is the subject of a separate and extremely slow-moving police investigation.

How the good people of Ceredigion must be looking forward to merging with their neighbour on the southern banks of the Teifi.



Friday, 8 August 2014

Eisteddfod fever

This year's National Eisteddfod in Llanelli is likely to go down as one of the best ever, helped along by superb weather and a great location.

It is sad to report, then, that there have been two notable absences from the festivities.

The first was the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, Mark James, who went on holiday rather than attend what is without doubt the largest single event to have taken place in the county since he was appointed to the post in 2001.

Fortunately Dewi Pws (look him up if you don't know) volunteered to stand in for Mr James on the County Council's site today. Wearing a suit, tie and a very dodgy looking wig, "Mr James" ordered a large crowd who had come to show their support for the Welsh language in Carmarthenshire off his land, telling them that he needed it for a new housing development.

Earlier in the week Keith Davies (Lab), the Assembly Member for Llanelli famous for an uproarious night on the town with a raven-haired mystery woman (here), was in attendance at an Eisteddfod reception for the great and the good. Mr Davies was described by some present as being "ebullient" until it seems that the effects of a long and tiring day combined with the emotion of welcoming the Eisteddfod to Llanelli, causing the politician to fall over.


He was subsequently admitted to hospital where the Llanelli Star says he was treated for an infection and fever, and he was regrettably forced to cancel all his remaining engagements for the week.

We live in an age obsessed with taking pictures at awkward moments, but for the sake of young readers and those of a sensitive disposition, this blog will not be publishing the snaps.

Here's wishing Keith a speedy recovery and a picture taken in happier times.









Thursday, 7 August 2014

Hitting the wrong notes

The National Eisteddfod is in full swing in Llanelli, and Carmarthenshire County Council's press office has gone into overdrive with a series of short articles, such as one on Carmarthen Choir ("Hitting the Right Notes"), and loads of pictures which tell us a lot about how the Kremlin on the Tywi sees this event.

Whereas the Eisteddfod's official website explains that the event "exists to promote culture and the Welsh language", culture and the Welsh language making only very fleeting appearances in the Council's record of the event, with Labour bigwigs taking centre stage instead.

The photos are hosted on Flickr. Click on that link and you too can enjoy snaps of Kevin Madge

  • sharing fudge with First Minister Carwyn Jones
  • shaking hands with Carwyn Jones
  • talking to Scarlets players with Carwyn Jones
  • shaking hands on the Coleg Sir Gâr stand
  • giving a speech
  • posing with a mixed group of Labour councillors, children and a few parents under the heading "families"
  • meeting Lesley Griffiths, Labour's Minister for Local Government (let's hope the subject of that letter did not come up)

A couple of Kev's "Independent" coalition partners manage to get mug shots in, but if Meryl Gravell and Pam Palmer did attend, they have been air brushed from the record to make way for Tegwen Devichand (Lab), one of Kev's deputy leaders.

Tegwen is not exactly known for her commitment to the Welsh language and culture, so you may wonder what she is doing at the Eisteddfod. The answer is a photo opportunity with Jane Hutt (Lab), Minister of Finance.

And finally....

One of the awards handed out on the Council's stand on the Maes was for "Carmarthenshire's loveliest location". The prize went to Cefneithin Village Hall (below), and took the form of a bilingual slate plaque engraved with the words "Hafan hadda' Sir Gâr/Carmarthenshire Loveliest Locality".

A pity nobody bothered to check the spelling because there is an "r" in hardda', and there ought to be an 's after Carmarthenshire.
Hardd



Monday, 28 July 2014

Peace Vigil for Gaza

After last weekend's huge demonstration in Cardiff and smaller events in Machynlleth and Bangor, an unexpectedly large number of people turned out in Carmarthen this evening to call for peace in Gaza. Among the speakers were Catrin Dafydd, Mererid Hopwood and Menna Elfyn, and there were powerful contributions from others, including Mrs Devra Appelbaum, one of the very few Jewish people living in the town.

Devra reminded us that not all Jews and not all Israelis support what the Israeli government is doing.

That so many turned out on a Monday evening, young and old, shows the depth of revulsion and horror which many, many people in Wales feel about what is happening there.

There have been so many shocking images of the death and destruction being wrought in Gaza that words seem inadequate, but the following short report by Jon Snow on Saturday's Channel 4 News is one of the most moving and eloquent testimonies imaginable.







Doom and gloom

In his latest monthly message to council staff in Y Gair, the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council tackles spending cuts and local government reorganisation, before ending with a brief mention of the National Eisteddfod.

It's worth taking a closer look at each of these in turn.

Spending cuts


Whereas Welsh councils had previously been told to budget for a 1.5% cut in funding from the Welsh Government for 2015-16, the likelihood is that they will now face a reduction of up to 4.5% next year, with similar reductions in the years after that.

In the run-up to the UK general election, Tory attacks on Labour's management of the NHS in Wales have hit home, and Carwyn Jones is planning to divert resources away from local government services to shore up the creaking health service.

The calculation is that "Labour boosts health spending" will stick in voters' minds more than headlines about cuts to council services. We'll see.

Mark James reckons that the next round of spending reductions will translate into cuts of between £45m and £60m over the next three years for Carmarthenshire. 

What is not yet clear is whether the Welsh Government will continue to protect education from spending cuts. Given the very negative headlines about education standards, it is hard to see Carwyn Jones taking the knife to schools budgets as well, which will mean that spending cuts will fall disproportionately hard on everything else: social services, roads, libraries, public health and the environment to name but a few.

On top of that there will be job losses, with Carmarthenshire planning another round of voluntary redundancies in the autumn, and the prospect of compulsory job losses after that. 

You don't need a degree in economics to work out that cuts to services and many thousands of job losses will drag down any recovery in the Welsh economy over the next few years, but outside Wales nobody really gives a damn.

And so as the countdown to the next general election begins, expect Labour to trot out its usual mantra about "sending a message to Westminster". The trouble with that is that Labour has signed up to George Osborne's spending plans and the result would be same under Tweedle-Cameron or Tweedle-Milliband.

As you can read here, "an attempt to commit Labour to abandoning coalition spending plans for 2015-16 was heavily defeated" at a closed meeting of the party's national policy forum last week.


As Milliband and Balls see it, the way out is "big reform, not big spending". And that is just what Carwyn Jones is planning to do with his reorganisation of local government. Fewer councils will mean more efficient councils perhaps, but council mergers are three to five years down the line, and budget cuts are happening now.

Local Government Reorganisation


Carwyn Jones's attempt to reorganise local government in Wales could fairly be described as botched before it has even started.

Following publication of the Williams Commission's report, the First Minister set a goal of getting cross-party consensus on reform by Easter so that the process could move swiftly ahead. The first problem for Carwyn was that he did not have consensus within the Labour Party: getting rid of some of the Labour baronies in the south and the forcible expulsion of apparatchiks from the gravy train was never something they were going to agree to.

To nobody's surprise, the Welsh Local Government Association came out against the proposals as well.

Easter came and went, and there was no agreement.

As an incentive to try to get the ball rolling, Local Government Minister, Lesley Griffiths, recently suggested that the Welsh Government could legislate to delay local government elections by another year until 2018 for those councils which opted for early merger with neighbouring authorities. As it is, the next round of council elections had already been put back a year to 2017 to avoid a clash with elections to the Welsh Assembly, which had in turn also been put back a year because of the UK general election.

It remains to be seen whether holding out the prospect of another bonus year of special responsibility allowances before having to face voters is enough to swing it for members of council cabinets the length and breadth of Wales.

Overall, the number of councils in Wales is set to fall from 22 to 12, with Carmarthenshire being one of the few which continue as before.

Set against the recommendations of the Williams Commission and the goals described by Carwyn Jones as he responded to questions in the Senedd last week, Carmarthenshire's survival looks a little odd because
in any list of councils which have hit the headlines because of failings in scrutiny and accountability in recent years, Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Caerphilly would occupy the top slots.


Leanne Wood, the Plaid leader, pointed out the importance the Williams Commission attached to scrutiny and accountability.

The First Minister agreed with her, and recalled that when there were just 8 councils, including Dyfed, there had been a very high level of scrutiny. Fewer councils would mean fewer, better councillors more capable of carrying out their responsibilities, he said, adding for good measure:


I think that it is right to say that, for some local authorities, certainly, the impression has been given that the officers have been in the driving seat and members have not been as proactive as they might have been in terms of scrutiny. That will be important.

Despite that, Carmarthenshire will continue as before with its complement of 74 councillors, including all those Labour and Independent backbenchers who rarely if ever speak but always loyally vote as instructed.
Cllr Anthony 'Whitey' Davies (Ind., Llandybie) was first elected in 2007, but has yet to get round to making his maiden speech. Neither has Cllr Theressa Bowen (Ind. but elected in 2012 as a Labour councillor for Llwynhendy).

Not to mention Cllr Meryl Gravell who speaks often, usually to tell us that it is "always right to defend the officers". No matter what.

Council leader Kevin Madge was cock-a-hoop when "Welsh" Labour's Executive Committee recently announced that Carmarthenshire would remain as a standalone authority, and the council's press office duly churned out a press release welcoming the news.


But if Kevin Madge is celebrating, his boss in County Hall seems less sure about Carmarthenshire's prospects in the longer term.

In his latest sermon in Y Gair, the newsletter which goes out to all 9,000 (soon to be rather less) staff, the chief executive writes:
 

"The Welsh Government have now responded to the Williams Commission.  The Welsh Government have accepted that there should be fewer Councils in Wales.  They consider that the current 22 Councils ought to be reduced to no more than 12.  On the maps they have produced Carmarthenshire is one of only two Councils that will survive as a stand-alone Council.  Swansea is the other.  Powys will be merged with the Powys Local Health Board.  All other Councils will be merged.  Given the catastrophic budget cuts we are facing, being left to end up as the smallest Council in Wales, may not be the best financial option!  However, the timescale for the proposed implementation of all this is 2019/20, so frankly, it is the least of our worries at this time."

Siarad Cymraeg

And finally, Mr James looks forward to the National Eisteddfod, which is this year being hosted by Carmarthenshire. According to unconfirmed rumours, Mr James will be presiding over the first day as honorary president, presumably in recognition of all that he and Meryl Gravell have done for the language over the last 10-15 years, in the same way that President Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong Un have advanced the cause of parliamentary democracy.

Despite agreeing to learn Welsh when he was appointed chief executive, Mr James's knowledge of the language does not seem to extend to much more than reading out "ymddiheuriadau am absenoldeb" (apologies for absence) at meetings.

But never despair, at this rate he might just about qualify for Learner of the Year the next time the Eisteddfod comes to Carmarthenshire, probably in about 2044.