County Hall in Carmarthen used to be a prison, and the place still looks and feels like one, with bare walls and corridors, flights of stairs and pokey offices which used to house the inmates. Until today, members of the public interested in observing the council in action would go round the side of the building, through an open door, up about half a dozen flights of stairs and along a corridor before emerging in the public gallery, which sits high up above the chamber itself.
Today the doors were locked, without a notice to explain why or what to do.
Visitors now have to go the the main entrance and queue up at the reception desk. Visitors wanting to go to the public gallery are then presented with a laminated sheet of A4 with a lot of verbiage on it saying that filming or otherwise recording of meetings is not allowed. You are instructed to read this first before being given a slip of paper with another statement on it. You have to sign this, confirming that you will not film or record any meetings. You then have to sign another visitor's slip which is then stuffed into a clip-on badge and wait to be escorted to the gallery.
It seems that two staff are employed for the purpose, and after a few minutes, I was duly escorted through three sets of locked doors, up the stairs, along a corridor which has a strong, indefinable and very unpleasant smell before being ushered into the gallery, where there are a couple of rows of hard, wooden benches, oh and numerous angry laminated signs reminding you that all forms of recording are forbidden. You are then locked in, and have to call extension 4208 and wait for one of the warders to come along and let you out (down the smelly corridor, through the locked doors, down the stairs, etc., etc.).
One of the warders was friendly and chatty. I asked him why the place had been turned into Fort Knox. Oh well, he said, it was all about a row over filming. "I'd best not say anything", he confided, before adding that he hoped they would install a camera system, although he had been told this would be very expensive. The other warder was rather less welcoming. Using my initiative, I decided I could let myself out when I wanted to leave, rather than phoning and waiting. I managed to get through the first set of doors which is operated by a switch, but then found myself stuck because I needed a swipe card to get through the next lot.
After a couple of minutes, the warders came along. Grumpy warder told me to go back up, phone and wait (except I couldn't because I was now trapped). Nice warder said, "no problem, I'll take you out."
There are no public lavatories, and because the gallery projects out across about a third of the chamber below, you often cannot see who is speaking. An even more sinister thought is that the spooks in County Hall will now be able to name-check every visitor to the public gallery and monitor us.
At least there is no strip search. Not yet, anyway.
Croeso cynnes i Gaerfyrddin. A warm welcome to Carmarthen.
I will follow this up with another report about what I saw when I was finally allowed in. And some of it was even smellier than the corridor.