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.

______________________

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.




Friday, 4 April 2014

Caebrwyn does it again!

The list of finalists for this year's Wales Blog Awards has just been announced, and three perennial favourites have made it in the Political Blog category - Jacqui Thompson's Carmarthenshire Planning Problems, Owen Donovan's Oggy Bloggy Ogwr and Cai Larsen's Blog Menai.

The full list of all the blogs nominated under the various categories can be found here.

As blogs go, all three have stayed the course for a remarkably long time. Owen is the baby of this year's crop, weighing in at just over three years. Jacqui recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of her blog, while Cai has been at it for just over ten years.

Over on Blog Menai, Cai is currently having another pop at his favourite Aunt Sally, veteran journalist Gwilym Owen who reckons that S4C's decision to relocate its headquarters to Carmarthen was down in part to divine intervention by the Archbishop of Wales. Oggy Bloggy Ogwr is currently analysing childhood obesity in Wales, having recently completed an in-depth analysis of drug abuse in Wales. Jacqui, meanwhile, has just taken a look at the media and press policy of the Kremlin on the Tywi, complete with a flattering snap of Cllr Pam Palmer.


Congratulations Caebrwyn!

The Welsh blogging scene is alive and kicking, and all three deserve to be winners. However, recent events in Carmarthenshire have helped shine more light on the scale of the injustice done to Jacqui Thompson, and so for sheer dedication and determination not to be silenced despite everything that has been thrown at her, let's hope that Jacqui will walk off with the prize of a year-long subscription to Private Eye. The added bonus being that a win for Jacqui would also go down like a bucket of cold sick in County Hall.



Thursday, 3 April 2014

Malcolm Tucker in a Frock - the Ministry of Spin under the spotlight

The subject of Carmarthenshire County Council's relationship with the press came up at a meeting of the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee at its meeting on 24 March as councillors were presented with a document headed "Press and Media Protocol".

Despite cuts to just about everything else, this particular "service" remains pretty much intact, and operates on a scale which would be the envy of the press and PR outfits of quite a few of the smaller member states of the United Nations.

One of the key functions of the press officers is to deal with questions from media organisations, and a high proportion of those will come from the local press. To put things into context, there are far more press officers in County Hall than there are journalists working on any of the local papers.

In addition to dealing with queries from newspapers and other media organisations, the press office says that it churns out around 2,000 press releases a year. There are around 250 working days a year, so that works out at about 8 press releases per day.

The protocol distinguishes between three types of news story. Press releases
  • "Promote ‘good news’ stories- for example the opening of a new facility such as a school or success at securing grant aid.
  • Deal with a potentially negative news story - for example closure of facilities or an increase in Council Tax.
  • Provide public information - for example disruptions due to bad weather, public protection information or forthcoming events."
For most journalists there is no good or bad news - just news, but if you have built into your charter a black and white view of the world in which there are "good" and "bad" news stories, it follows that the news needs to be managed and coverage monitored.


Journalists sometimes have to be warned off reporting stories which might show you in a less than positive light. Editors have to be cajoled and threatened when they step out of line. If they persist, you may have to complain to the proprietors and seek to have the offending individual removed. Valuable advertising revenue may be withheld or doled out as circumstances dictate, and newspapers which behave themselves can be rewarded with preferential access to information.

Fair and balanced



All of this takes up a lot of effort, energy and resources, and the holy grail is "fair and balanced" coverage. Left to its own devices this process ends up with the sort of press people in Eastern Europe used to enjoy in which harvests were always bountiful and industrial production targets always smashed, even if the supermarket shelves were empty.


When politicians and civil servants start deciding what is a fair and balanced press, you can be sure that the end result will be anything but fair or balanced.


The council's press and media protocol is also very hot on reminding staff that they must not say anything which may bring the council, its officers or members into disrepute. Fair enough, but completely lost on the Press Office is the irony that in recent years, and earlier this year in particular, it was the Press Office which  did more to bring the council into disrepute than anything else, with a stream of toxic press releases spewing out of County Hall like radioactive emissions from Chernobyl.

It is probably no coincidence that the Ministry of Spin and News Management has been very quiet since the chief executive stepped down from his duties in February. Attacks on critics, opposition politicians and the Wales Audit Office have stopped, and the daily output now consists of stories about bug hotels, literary festivals, keep fit initiatives and the like.

Whether we need such a Rolls Royce service to tell us about 90 year-olds using the Carmarthen Leisure Centre or a kids' Zumbathon to raise money for Help for Heroes is another matter. The same is true of the bi-monthly council newspaper with its regular crop of pics of Cllr Colin Evans posing in a hard hat and fluorescent jacket.

In neighbouring Ceredigion the county council survives with a much more modest press office, and the last press release on the council's website is dated 1 November 2013. No bumper council newspaper there.

But back to the meeting of the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee on 24 March where one of the assistant chief executives announced that there were "weaknesses in the system" before proposing a cross-party group to examine the council's press and media protocol.

Despite not being a member of the committee, Cllr Pam Palmer (Ind) was on hand to try to steady the ship. As someone who has been at the forefront of efforts over the years to remove democratic accountability and transparency from the council's constitution and as the leading opponent of filming council meetings, it is perhaps not surprising that press and media should be a part of her Executive Board portfolio (along with undercover surveillance).

As the committee members prepared to vote on a proposal to review the council's press and media operations, Pam called out to remind everyone of the need to put pressure on the local press to ensure that it remained "fair and balanced".

Fortunately her warning went unheeded, and Carmarthenshire's answer to Malcolm Tucker and Alastair Campbell will now come under the spotlight.






Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Meryl yn ofni - am ddyfodol y Saesneg

Yn ei gyfarfod misol ddoe pleidleisodd Bwrdd Gweithredol Cyngor Sir Gâr o blaid mabwysiadu argymhellion grŵp dan arweinyddiaeth Cefin Campbell i gryfhau'r Gymraeg yn y sir.

Er bod Kevin Madge yn cydnabod bod "rhaid newid pethau ar frys" (yn ôl y BBC - erthygl yma a clip oddi ar y Post Prynhawn yn fan hyn), y cam nesaf fydd ymgynghoriad cyhoeddus. Felly, ni fydd fawr o ddim yn digwydd cyn 2015.

Does dim cyfrinach mai difaterwch ac hyd yn oed gelyniaeth tuag at yr iaith oedd nodweddion y Cyngor dan Meryl Gravell a'i "dream team". Wyddwn ni ddim beth oedd barn arweinydd y Blaid Annibynnol a chyd-ddeinosor Meryl, Pam Palmer ("a town whose name I shall not attempt to pronounce", h.y. Machynlleth), ond datgelodd Mrs G ei gwir deimladau yn ystod y cyfarfod ddoe. Yn ôl y BBC:

Mi ddywedodd hi ...... bod y cynnig yn ei "dychryn" a bod angen i'r sir fod yn "agored ar gyfer busnes ac i bobl fuddsoddi". Dywedodd hefyd bod yna ddyletswydd ar yr awdurdod i ddenu'r staff gorau.

Yr enghraifft amlycaf o ddenu'r staff gorau, wrth gwrs, yw'r Prif Weithredwr, Mark James.
Mr James fel Swyddog Canlyniadau








Friday, 28 March 2014

Counting the Cost of Mr James

The decision by Carmarthenshire County Council's Labour-Independent leadership to fight the Wales Audit Office and employ the services of Mr Timothy Kerr QC to defend the council's unlawful payments to chief executive Mark James was always going to be expensive, and now the bills are coming in.

Information obtained by Plaid Cymru this week via the Freedom of Information Act confirmed that on top of the £55,000 of payments deemed ‘unlawful’ by the independent Auditor, the Council has racked up a bill of £15,000 for the legal services of QC Tim Kerr.  Not known yet are the costs of Mr Kerr’s attendance and services in the council’s extraordinary meeting on 27th February as this has not yet been billed.

If that was not bad enough, a meeting of the Carmarthenshire Council’s Audit Committee today (Friday 28th March) was informed that the authority would be facing an additional bill from the Wales Audit Office for its damning public interest reports and their associated costs.  This bill, the Wales Audit Office said, could be in the in the region of £70,000.

Member of Parliament Jonathan Edwards said Carmarthenshire residents are paying through the nose for the ‘unlawful’ actions of the Labour party running the county council.  His Assembly Member colleague Rhodri Glyn Thomas said the severity of the bill is a direct result of the council leadership’s attempts to challenge the auditor’s findings.

It is worth relaying Rhodri Glyn Thomas's comments in full:

“It would be fair to say that had the council leadership accepted the Auditor’s findings many months ago instead of engaging expensive legal teams at public expense, then the Wales Audit Office may not have needed to produce the two damning reports it did.

“I would therefore suggest that this extra £70,000 bill is a direct result of the council leadership’s attempts to challenge the auditor.  The consequences of the unlawful payments will cost more than the unlawful payments themselves.

“It seems the Labour party has not thought for one second about the cost to county taxpayers.  The council leadership has been more interested in covering its own back and trying to defend the indefensible.

“Plaid Cymru is on the side of Carmarthenshire residents who are fed up to the back teeth with the council leadership wasting public money.”

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Cyngor Sir Gâr a'r Iaith Gymraeg - Cyfle i greu hanes

Wedi trafod yr heriau sy'n wynebu'r iaith yn Sir Gaerfyrddin am flwyddyn, cyhoeddodd Gweithgor y Cyfrifiad dan gadeiryddiaeth Cefin Campbell ei adroddiad terfynol yr wythnos hon.

"Mae’r iaith Gymraeg wedi bod yn rhan annatod o fywyd cymunedau Sir Gâr ers canrifoedd ond y tristwch yw ei bod hi bellach yn diflannu’n araf fel tywod mân rhwng ein bysedd", yn ôl y rhagair. "Credwn.... fod yr adroddiad hwn yn cynnig cyfle i’r Cyngor Sir i greu hanes. Byddai mabwysiadu’r adroddiad hwn yn arwydd bod y Cyngor o ddifrif ynglŷn ag adfer y Gymraeg."

Derbyniodd aelodau'r gweithgor bob un o'r argymhellion yn unfrydol, ac mae hynny'n dyst i arweinyddiaeth fedrus Cefin Campbell. Bydd Bwrdd Gweithredol y Cyngor (h.y. y cabinet) yn trafod yr adroddiad mewn cyfarfod ddydd Llun.

Ymhlith yr argymhellion niferus mae:
  • cynyddu darpariaeth addysg cyfrwng Cymraeg trwy symud ysgolion cynradd ac uwchradd ar hyd y continwwm iaith;
  • cynyddu’r defnydd o’r Gymraeg o fewn y Cyngor Sir a dwyieithogi ymhellach gweinyddiaeth fewnol y Cyngor gyda’r nod o weinyddu’n bennaf trwy gyfrwng y Gymraeg gydag amser;
  • cynnig bod Llywodraeth Cymru'n grymuso'r Bil Cynllunio a TAN20 i sicrhau bod yr iaith Gymraeg yn cael ei hystyried fel rhan annatod o'r broses cynllunio;
  • cynnig bod y Cyngor Sir yn newid ei bolisi tai fforddiadwy er mwyn sicrhau "argaeledd uwch o fewn datblygiadau tai";
  • cynigion i fynd i’r afael â’r llif cyson o bobl ifanc yn gadael y sir trwy fynd ati i greu cyfleoedd gwaith a swyddi lleol er mwyn galluogi ein pobl ifanc i aros yn yr ardal.
Dyma adroddiad arloesol a radical, felly, a bydd pob un o'r argymhellion yn her i'r Cyngor cyfan. Ym milltir sgwâr y Cneifiwr, er enghraifft, bydd unrhyw gais i newid statws ieithyddol yr ysgolion yn gwylltio lleiafrif gwrth-Gymraeg sy wedi dod i'r casgliad bod addysg ddwyieithog yn niweidiol i'w plant.

Nid oes modd newid pethau dros nos, ac does neb yn disgwyl hynny, ond mae'r adroddiad yn hynod o amwys o ran gosod amserlen. Bydd rhaid newid "dros gyfnod o amser" a'r gobaith yw y bydd y Cyngor yn gweinyddu trwy gyfrwng y Gymraeg "gydag amser". O brofiad, mae yna le i amau y bydd arweinyddiaeth y Cyngor yn derbyn yr argymhellion gyda gwên cyn llusgo ei thraed a rhwystro newid. Ond newid sydd eisiau, a newid sylfaenol ym meddylfryd yr awdurdod.

Bydd hi'n hanfodol, felly, bod y Cyngor yn sefydlu pwyllgor parhaol i fonitro gweithrediad yr argymhellion.

Braidd yn siomedig hefyd yw ymateb y Gweithgor i bolisïau recriwtio'r Cyngor. Dylai'r awdurdod "gynnal adolygiad cynhwysfawr o swyddi’r Cyngor fesul adran er mwyn adnabod swyddi lle ddylai’r Gymraeg fod yn hanfodol. Dylid canolbwyntio yn y lle cyntaf ar swyddi sy’n darparu gwasanaeth uniongyrchol i’r cyhoedd".

A fydd modd cymreigio'r Cyngor o'r gwaelod i fyny? Y prif-weithredwr a'i swyddogion uwch sy'n gosod naws y Cyngor, nid y rhengoedd is. Cafodd Mark James ei benodi yn 2001 a dywedodd wrth y Western Mail,

"I am looking forward to working in Wales again and having an opportunity to learn the Welsh language which is so central to life in Carmarthenshire."

Erbyn hyn mae'n gallu dweud "Bore da". Er bod "sgiliau cyfathrebu yn y Gymraeg" yn "hanfodol" mewn sawl swydd, mae'r Cyngor yn dal i recriwtio ymgeiswyr di-Gymraeg iddyn nhw ar yr amod eu bod nhw'n mynychu cwrs. Yn union fel Mr James.

Wedi dweud hynny, mae'r adroddiad yn llawn gwybodaeth a syniadau adeiladol, ac mae'n debyg mai dyma fydd y cyfle olaf i'r Cyngor wrth-droi'r dirywiad yn Sir Gaerfyrddin.

Llongyfarchiadau mawr i Cefin Campbell a'r Gweithgor, felly.



Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Suspending disbelief - Updated

Update 27 March

The South Wales Guardian cover this story here.

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Something which has had a lot of people scratching their heads for the last few weeks is what exactly is the status of Mark James, Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, following his decision voluntarily to "step aside" from his duties.

A useful rule of thumb when it comes to the top brass in this council is that if you think you smell a rat, there is almost certainly a rodent with whiskers close by. Back in the middle of February this blog noted that Mr James had not been suspended, but was merely "stepping aside" - whatever that meant. He has been on full pay ever since and is likely to remain on full pay at home for many more weeks and months to come.

The arrangement, which looked then and looks now like a shabby compromise deal to keep the Labour-Independent coalition together, means that despite being at the centre of a police investigation, Mr James will act as returning officer in the European elections in May as if nothing had happened.

It now emerges that there are no restrictions on meeting or communicating with council staff, and Mr James continues to have access to the council's IT network. Officially he is still chief executive, and Dave Gilbert is still just deputy chief executive, and not acting chief executive.

Earlier today the Minister for Local Government in Cardiff, Lesley Griffiths, confirmed in the Senedd that Mr James had not been suspended, and a statement was read out from council leader, Kevin Madge, saying that Mr James was no longer carrying out his duties. Welcome to the Carmarthenshire twilight zone.

There is no provision for any of this in the council's constitution under which officers are either suspended or carrying out their duties as normal, and as Unison and numerous members of staff have pointed out, under circumstances such as these any other employee would have been escorted from the building and suspended.

Meanwhile in Westminster, Jonathan Edwards MP has once again raised his concerns about Mr James's role as returning officer in the May elections. He was told that the situation was being monitored.

In other news another strand in the council's recently implemented budget has unravelled with the announcement that plans to scrap trade union facilitation time (voted through without a murmur by the Labour and Independent councillors) has now been suspended.

Unison has run a strong campaign and gained a lot of public support on the issue, and no doubt we will shortly be told by Kevin Madge that this is more evidence of the council's policy of listening to people - as distinct from the policy in place when the budget was approved in the teeth of opposition a few weeks ago.

With the Carmarthenshire branch of Unison calling on Unison in Wales to withdraw all support from the Labour group on the council until such time as secondments were reinstated, a more likely explanation would be that someone in Cardiff tapped Kev on the shoulder.


Monday, 24 March 2014

Hereditary Socialism - More on Stephen Kinnock

Stephen Kinnock's selection as Labour candidate in Aberafan at the next election has attracted less than flattering attention in the Danish press, whereas the response from the mainstream UK media has been decidedly muted.

Michael Bjerre, writing in Berlingske, manages to capture the sense of resignation and powerlessness felt by many locals as he spoke to people in the Working Men's Social Club:

"It doesn't matter what we think", said one. "In the case of Stephen Kinnock, it was decided at the top - by the party in London and the union - that it was him they want to see elected."

Another man, aged 69, said he was the third generation in his family always to have voted Labour, "but I don't think for a minute that we'll see him again once he's been elected. He's not from round here".

The union concerned is Community, headed up by General Secretary Roy Rickhuss who was elected unopposed in January 2014 (no, I'd never heard of him either). Rickhuss is a member of Labour's National Constitutional Committee, and Kinnock secured the union's backing.

So ordinary voters can only look on as they watch a carve-up of their constituency by party and union bosses, with strings being pulled from the House of Lords.

Stephen Kinnock, we learn elsewhere, set up some sort of home for himself in the constituency a few weeks ago (alongside his homes in Copenhagen and London) and has been busy talking to the BBC:

1h
BBC News - Stephen Kinnock to be 'truly active' if elected Aberavon MP





the Left Futures blog and the decidedly un-left leaning Guido Fawkes.

Sending children to be educated in the private sector is just as controversial for Danish Social Democrats as it is for British Labour politicians, and Kinnock's first response was to react with a combination of bluster and contempt at such disgraceful and misleading suggestions.

Within days he was having to apologise for misleading the press on the matter. The fees he and his wife pay to send their daughter to school turned out to be twice as much as he had previously said.

Kinnock argues that the school, which they chose for "private reasons", is not like Eton or Harrow. True enough, but then there are no Danish equivalents of Eton or Harrow for Kinnock to send his children to. Berlingske notes coolly that in his interviews Kinnock downplayed the fact that the Ingrid Jespersen Gymnasieskole is one of the most sought after private schools in Copenhagen, while trying to give the impression that it was really just like a normal state school.

Labour supporters may be surprised to hear that "Gymnasieskole" translates as grammar school.

Back in Wales, Aberavon has one of the highest pecentages of children living in poverty in the country.

Jyllands Posten, like Berlingske, Børsen and Politiken a serious daily newspaper (just imagine that - a small county not much bigger than Wales which manages to sustain a clutch of high quality daily newspapers!), provides a handy run-down on Stephen Kinnock's biographical details to date.

It includes the following summary of developments concerning his tax affairs:

  • In 2009 the Danish tax authorities investigated his tax status because of his job in Switzerland.
  • The Copenhagen tax office approved his tax payments in September 2010, but there were accusations subsequently that Kinnock had been given favourable treatment, according to tabloid daily BT.
  • Details of the tax affairs of Stephen Kinnock and his wife, Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, were leaked to the press. A commission has been investigating the leaks.
  • The commission has also been looking into whether ministers, special advisers or other officials have been involved in handling the affair. A report is expected in the autumn.
After Michael Sheen's bravura performances as Tony Blair and Jesus, is Port Talbot's most famous son now preparing to re-enact the rise and rise of Stephen Kinnock?



Sunday, 23 March 2014

Burry Inlet Coal Gasification - Public Meeting

A public meeting is to be held at the Gorseinon Institute on Tuesday, 25 March at 7.15 p.m. to discuss plans for a major coal gasification project under the Burry Inlet (see previous post here). 

Guest speakers are Jill Evans, the Plaid Member of the European Parliament, and Blaise Bullimore, Carmarthen Bay and Estuaries European Marine Site Officer.

Jill Evans has said that there are huge concerns about the plans in the area, and she has a strong track record on campaigning on the environment, reducing Wales' dependence on fossil fuels and developing an energy policy for Wales which puts Welsh interests first.
 

From spelt rolls and caffe latte to sulphur - Stephen Kinnock

Stephen Kinnock was yesterday selected as Labour candidate for Aberafan, and the BBC and other mainstream UK media sources have all played a very straight bat in their reports, recording only his selection, a few quotes from a press release thanking the local party for their support and the usual promises to stand up for local people. Not reported by the BBC, Guardian, Western Mail, South Wales Evening Post, etc. was a claim from a New Statesman journalist that Kinnock Junior squeaked home by just one vote:

15h
Stephen Kinnock selected as Labour candidate for Aberavon by 106-105 votes.

Stephen Kinnock is of course son of Baron Kinnock, formerly known as Neil Kinnock, and Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead, formerly Glenys Kinnock, one-time Member of the European Parliament. He is also married to Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Prime Minister of Denmark and leader of the country's Social Democrats, and together they have two children. Helle Thorning-Schmidt has held the top job in Danish politics since 2011.

He was born in Tredegar but went to school in London before graduating from Cambridge. Most of his career to date has been spent working as an executive for the British Council in St Petersburg, Sierra Leone and Switzerland. In 2009 he became a director of the World Economic Forum (the annual gathering of leading figures from the worlds of politics and big business in Davos, Switzerland), and in 2012 he became a director of Xynteo, a consultancy firm which advises big business on "resource-efficient growth".

At Xynteo Stephen Kinnock is Managing Director of Global Leadership and Technology Exchange, a partnership which brings together companies including Shell, Unilever and Tata. Tata Steel, which operates the steel works in Port Talbot, would appear to be Stephen Kinnock's only link to the constituency.

If the UK press has so far not had much to say about Stephen Kinnock's latest career departure, the Danish press is full of comment and speculation. In fact, the Danish press provides a great deal more colour and background on yesterday's meeting in Aberafan than rather more local newspapers.

Berlingske, the leading quality daily, says that the smokestacks of Port Talbot are a light year away from the trendy surroundings of the  Østerbro district of Copenhagen, which is where Stephen Kinnock spends his weekends with his wife and family. Smart shops, spelt rolls, freshly brewed barista coffee and private schools contrast with the pervasive stench of sulphur in Port Talbot, the paper says, before adding that even the locals describe the town as a "shithole".

Reporting on the constituency party's meeting in Aberavon Beach Hotel yesterday, the paper says that the vote went to a recount.

Berlingske also speculates that Stephen's move may mean that his wife has plans to move on to a new job outside Danish politics on a broader international stage. Her supporters have a feeling, it says, that they are not sure how much longer they will have her. 

Whatever Ms Thorning-Schmidt decides to do, it is unlikely that she will be moving to Aberafan and taking up a seat on Neath Port Talbot council any time soon.

Politiken, Berlingske's main rival, also reports that the vote yesterday was extremely close. It notes that other candidates included the Mayor of Neath, Parmjit Dhanda (former Labour MP for Gloucester) and someone who won £32,000 on Who wants to be a millionaire?

The paper says that Stephen Kinnock's campaign promises included securing more jobs in Port Talbot, and that he has said he "knows how decision makers think" and can use this to raise the constituency's profile. 

Stephen Kinnock has also featured prominently in the Danish press for other reasons. In 2010 the Danish media questioned his tax affairs. Denmark has one of the best welfare systems in the world, and income and other taxes are high by international standards. Unlike Britain, there is also much less of a gap between rich and poor.

Understandably, it did not go down well when it emerged that Stephen Kinnock, scion of a Socialist dynasty, was based for tax purposes in Geneva, which is something of a tax haven in the low tax destination of Switzerland. Mr Kinnock told the press at the time that he was based in Denmark for less than 180 days a year. The threshold which would have qualified him for Danish tax was 183 days.

In 2009 Kinnock told Politiken, "When I come home on Fridays, I take over the running of the house. I cook, wash the clothes and drive the children to all their activities. I am a well known face in Super Best (a local supermarket)." Apparently that was not enough to qualify him for residency in Denmark as far as the tax man was concerned.

Another newspaper reported that the family home in Copenhagen was owned only by Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and that this meant the couple were able to take maximum advantage of a tax allowance on mortgage repayments. Prior to that a local TV station reported that Stephen Kinnock used diplomatic status as a reason for not paying tax in Denmark.

In the ensuing row Kinnock told the Danish press that he had found himself in a tax grey zone and that he would voluntarily start paying tax in Denmark. According to Danish sources he later reconsidered this promise and decided not to pay tax in Denmark after all.

Aberafan has returned a Labour MP at every election since 1922.

Y Cneifiwr -  Fårklipperen