Thursday, 25 August 2011

Welsh councils - the vultures come home to roost

First it was Angelsey, then it was Pembrokeshire, and now Blaenau Gwent. The commissioners have not been sent into Pembrokeshire yet, but as Caebrwyn reports, the war of words between Leighton Andrews, Minister for Education, and the hapless council leader, John Davies, is hotting up. Meanwhile, the first shock troops have already gone into Blaenau Gwent (see the Photon for details).

Pembrokeshire illustrates well what is wrong with so much of our local government in Wales. The council is dominated by Independent councillors who have delegated most of their powers to a very powerful chief executive; in this case Bryn Parry Jones, who has been busy keeping his head down in the slanging match between John Davies and Leighton Andrews. Interestingly, one of the excuses offered by Mr Davies for his council's failings was that so many of the council's powers and responsibilities had been delegated to non-elected officials.

Carmarthenshire's constitution is a very good example of the way this works. Huge swathes of powers and responsibilities have been delegated to the chief executive, who also decides what can and cannot be discussed in the council chamber.

As in so many other parts of Wales, the Independents are an old boy network (with a few old girls thrown in these days). We all know the type. Typically aged between 65 and 80, their ranks are made up for the most part of retired businessmen, well-to-do farmers, retired police officers, Freemasons and the like. Many of them are returned unopposed at elections, and so what you get is a self-perpetuating oligarchy which looks after itself and the interests of its friends. To be fair, there are some good Independent councillors, but the key question is, how do you become an Independent?

Just as no one is born wearing grey slacks and a blue blazer, nobody grows up thinking, "I am an Independent with a capital I". Like the secret service, the magistracy, the masons and other hallowed institutions, you do not apply to join. You are "approached".

As an Independent councillor, you will from time to time be asked to appoint a chief executive, who then knows that provided he keeps his trousers up and his hands out of the till, his job is safe as long as the Independents retain political control. The chief executive then appoints his own team of senior officers, and the appointments are rubber-stamped by the councillors. The chief executive and his client officers can then get on with running the council, safe in the knowledge that nobody is going to ask awkward questions or rock the boat provided that the outside world can be convinced that the ship is running smoothly. Hence the need for a strong and ultra-loyal PR team. Any cock-ups or unfortunate failures can usually be discreetly dealt with behind closed doors.

So while we all applaud the brave protesters in Arab countries who are fighting to end one-party rule and bring down the oligarchs, here in Wales we ignore the perpetual one-party states which are our county councils.

That is not to say that councillors who belong to political parties are always good; there are some bad and mediocre examples wherever you look. But, with the exception of the Conservative Party, the mainstream political parties are open and democratic. There are also some (not many) genuine independents to choose from as well.

So tempting as it is to place all the blame on councillors and over-mighty council officers, we the electorate must also shoulder a lot of responsibility for councils which fail our children, the elderly and others. Local democracy should mean that all councillors have to fight for re-election every four years, and that we see administrations being kicked out of office a lot more often than is the case now. If John Davies and Bryn Parry Jones knew that there was a real risk that the voters might send them packing, it is unlikely that Pembrokeshire would find itself in the mess it is in now.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Reorganising local government in Wales

A report produced by Estyn and the Care and Social Services Inspectorate has highlighted serious failings in the way Pembrokeshire County Council is run, and some of the criticism of the way in which the council is dominated by its non-elected officers sounds very familiar to us neighbours in Carmarthenshire.

The Western Telegraph's coverage of the report can be seen here, along with some interesting comments. Some of those commenting would seem to work for the council, and one advances a conspiracy theory that Estyn is somehow involved in a plot with the Welsh Government to discredit councils as a prelude to a shake-up of local government in Wales. The same anonymous individual warns that if Pembrokeshire is not careful, it could end up being ruled from Carmarthen, a fate surely worse than death.

In a measured piece, Vaughan Roderick also thinks the Welsh Government is preparing the ground for a shake-up.

Of course, the fact is that Wales does not need and cannot afford 22 separate counties and county boroughs, plus three national park authorities.

It is hard to make comparisons with other countries because systems of local government vary so much. Switzerland, with a population of just under 8 million, has 26 cantons. These vary in size and population enormously, and some of the smallest cantons are also the whackiest. That may sound familiar to residents of Angelsey, Wales's own leading basket case. Possibly the most notorious of the Swiss cantons are the two "half cantons" of Appenzell, where women did not get the vote until the 1970s, and where people voted strongly against joining the United Nations in 2002.

France, with a population of about 63 million, has 96 mainland departements, yielding an average of just under 660,000 people per departement.

How ever you look at it, we are pretty close to the top of the league table of most over-governed places in Europe, and probably in the world, but bringing about change will inevitably upset more people than it pleases.

Hands up in Angelsey if you want a merger with Gwynedd. Oh, all right then.

Come in Llanelli. So you are not happy with being part of Carmarthenshire, something we can understand. How about a merger with Swansea? No?

Calling Ceredigion. In many respects Ceredigion makes obvious sense as a county, but it is struggling in some important areas, including education where a budgetary crisis is looming. Not many takers in Ceredigion for a return to the days of Dyfed.

Powys is probably one of the few existing counties which should have a secure future, although there may well be a Radnorshire Liberation Front for all I know.

Then we have a clutch of Labour fiefdoms in Rhondda Cynon Taf, Merthyr, Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen, etc., some of which are very obviously failing local people and children in particular. Compare pupil-teacher ratios, and you will see what I mean.

It's not just local resistance that is holding up change, of course. There was not much discussion about reorganising local government in the recent Assembly election campaign, was there? Partly because the last two reorganisations were so badly botched, and partly because the patchwork quilt of local government provides so many jobs, and no politician wants to throw thousands of people out of work at a time of rising unemployment.

But we must bite the bullet, nevertheless. The report on children's services in Pembrokeshire is one of the most damning ever to be published in Wales, and its criticisms of the way in which the council is run apply to quite a few other Welsh councils. In some parts of Wales local authority education provision is so under-funded and inadequate that it should constitute a national scandal.

Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire are not alone in having undemocratic and secretive officer-led regimes. The Local Development Plans which threaten so many parts of Wales with massive housing developments and the obliteration of local communities are a product not of local democracy, but of a system in which a small elite of career administrators have gained control and are seeking to stamp their vision on the rest of us. The busier and bigger councils become, the less likely they are to be abolished; that may be the thought at the back of a few minds in county halls across Wales.

And then we have the ordinary, everyday lunacy of local government. The nearest council waste recycling centre to me is about 10 miles away, but I live a few hundred yards away on the wrong side of the river. So I have to do a round trip of about 45 miles, instead. Great for the environment.

How about a nice project to improve river access to local residents and tourists alike? Best not even think about it because the river is a local authority boundary, and any project which involves cross-border cooperation is almost certainly doomed.

So let's hope the conspiracy theorist is right, and that Cardiff is contemplating a root and branch reform; that the fiefdoms and rotten boroughs will be swept away; that the overmighty chief executives, secrecy and undemocratic ways of Welsh local government are consigned to the rubbish bin where they belong; and that our national politicians rise to the challenge and set about building a system of local government which is the envy of the rest of Europe.

Well, we can but hope.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Freedom of Information and Bloodymindedness

Newcastle Emlyn, with Adpar on the other side of the river Teifi, has a population of about 1,500, but we have a lot of shops, banks and cafes. There is a medium-sized independent supermarket and a Co-op and a large Spar, and a range of independent food shops, including two butchers, a bakery, a delicatessen, a fishmonger and a shop specialising in locally produced food.  Apart from the Co-op, CK's and Boots, all of the shops are locally owned. Together, they provide a livelihood for quite a few families and employment for many more.

Like everywhere else, the retailers here are feeling the pinch, but the town has proved remarkably resilient, and there are almost no empty premises.

Against this background, you can imagine the shock felt here when two planning applications for supermarkets were submitted within a couple of months of each other back at the end of 2008 and early 2009. The first was an application by Lidl to build a store just outside the town centre, opposite the existing CK's supermarket.

At the time, the consensus was that Lidl would not present a serious threat to the livelihoods of the existing shops, and would help many local people struggling on low incomes as a source of low-cost basic foodstuffs.

The second application, known as the Cawdor application, was to build a much larger store on the very edge of the town centre with a floor area 2.5 times the size of CK's, currently the largest retailer, and as large as all of the existing convenience goods retailers in town put together. The owner of the site would not reveal the identity of the supermarket group which would operate the site, and he still refuses to do so.

It soon became clear that the county's planning department preferred the Cawdor application, but to cut a long story short, the Lidl application was eventually approved, with some important conditions attached, while the second application was refused on largely technical grounds, such as colour schemes and the lack of a traffic survey on a Saturday. Lidl later abandoned its plans because of what it felt were unduly onerous restrictions placed on its grant of planning.

The Cawdor application was refused in September 2009 and resubmitted a couple of months later. There have been long and unexplained delays in processing this application, but it now seems that it will go before the Planning Committee in September, almost certainly with a recommendation to accept from the planning officers.

There are many aspects of this long running saga which do not cast the County Council in a good light, but one of the worst concerns the council's culture of secrecy and the way it has handled legitimate requests for information from the public.

The planning officer's reports on both the Lidl and Cawdor applications cited various studies and reports commissioned by the council. The most important of these were a critique of the retail impact assessments and a report on road safety and traffic implications.

The action group set up by local residents and businesses requested copies of the reports. The planning officer rejected the requests. The traffic assessment was eventually released in response to an FOI request, while the critique, written by Nathaniel Lichfield Partners for the council, was eventually also released after very intense lobbying.

The Nathaniel Lichfiled critique, the planning officer's report and the retail impact assessment submitted by the applicant all made reference to a document referred to as Nathaniel Lichfield's "emerging" Retail Study for the county as a whole. In fact, it was clear that key parts of all three documents relied on evidence presented in the Retail Study, but that evidence was not available to the public. The council's attitude is best summed up as "we believe that there is a need for a fifth large food store in your town, and you're just going to have to accept that we are satisfied by the evidence we have, but which we are not going to show to you."

An FOI request to secure release of the Study was rejected. Adam Price, our MP at the time, also had a similar request rejected on the grounds that release of the information might show developers across the county where there were development opportunities, and thereby damage the environment. The requests were dealt with under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, rather than FOIA.

A third request was submitted, this time saying that the Action Group wanted only the data on Newcastle Emlyn, and pointing out that it was highly unlikely that the Study would reveal opportunities for even more supermarkets. The reason the Study was so important was that this was the primary evidence being cited by both the council and the developer of the need for the supermarket.

The third request was also rejected, and it was clear from the response that the FOI officers had not read the request or understood that the information sought related only to Newcastle Emlyn. A complaint to that effect was answered with a letter saying that the complaint would be taken as a request for an appeal.

More weeks went by. By this time, almost a year had gone by with the council sticking doggedly to its guns.

Eventually the council announced that it had also rejected the appeal, before going on to say that an edited version of the relevant sections would be released in due course.

More weeks went by, until a heavily redacted and very slim document was released. Redacted is probably not the right word, because the document had effectively been hacked to pieces, with bits then stuck together again at random. Imagine a lunatic chainsaw murderer butchering his victim, and then sticking the head and a few other bits together before dumping the results in your front garden. Human, certainly, but without the torso and legs, and the head stuck onto a foot. Gruesome and senseless.

The letter helpfully added that if the requester was not satisfied, they could now appeal to the Information Commissioner, fully aware no doubt that by the time the Commissioner responded, the planning application would be ancient history.

And that is how things stood until the recent publication of the deposit Local Development Plan where you will find, among the evidence proffered, a copy of the Retail Study. You know, the document which could not be released to campaigners fighting to protect their community from greedy developers and supermarket chains because publication would (EIR 2004 is clear about this as grounds for refusal: not might but would) damage the environment.

So what has changed?

Odder still, the Action Group also complained to the council that the developer and his agents had cited key findings from the Retail Study in their application, and that it was reasonable to assume that they had had access to evidence which was being denied to objectors. The council replied that it had not given the developer or his agents sight of the Retail Study, neglecting to explain how the applicant had been able to quote from it. Clairvoyance, perhaps.

So for anyone worried that publication of the LDP documentation will have opened up the floodgates to supermarket developments across Carmarthenshire, you can probably safely assume that they had already seen it. It was only members of the public who were not allowed to read it.

Oh, and Nathaniel Lichfield, the authors of the Retail Study, are trusted long-term partners of the County Council, according to the Head of Planning. Funnily enough, if you look at Nathaniel Lichfield's website, you can read similar testimonials from the supermarket chains it helps to win planning applications.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Secrecy and Incompetence

Carmarthenshire County Council has been re-jigging its website again, and managed both to "lose" a lot of important information and make the service even less user-friendly.

Want to find out who the members of the Planning Committee or the Education and Children's Services Committee are? Well, tough. Want to find out the linguistic preferences of councillors so that you know whether a letter in Welsh will be answered in Welsh? No longer possible. Click on the link headed "Councillors and Committees", and you find yourself looking at the council's constitution.

The website gives you a good idea of what the council's priorities are, and they are all about projecting an image rather than making basic, important information easily available to the public.

The main banner page features a selection of "top stories" which refresh every 30 seconds or so. The stories tend to change every couple of weeks. Currently we have a piece on job evaluation and equal pay for council staff; an advertisement for the upcoming Merlin Festival; information on how to nominate a member of council staff for a "Shine" award, and a notice stating that the council is going to review its polling districts and polling stations. Nothing about the Local Development Plan, which is now entering the last few days of its formal public consultation, and without doubt the most important thing the council is doing at the moment. Oh, and before you get too excited, the review of polling districts is really just a legal notice announcing that a review will be carried out, without any information on the scope of the review.

As Caebrwyn has pointed out on her blog, the council's Policy and Resources Committee reported in July that the council has seen a 10-15% rise in the number of Freedom of Information Requests in the last year, and concerns were expressed about the authority's ability to deal with them with the resources it currently has available.

So here are some suggestions to help reduce the number and complexity of FOI requests:

  1. The prevailing culture within the council is best summed up as "if we are not legally obliged to publish something, we won't". Want to obtain a consultant's report on the road safety implications of a planning application? You have to submit an FOI request. You may not get a response until after the application has been decided, but the council has met its legal obligations. The approach should be to turn this on its head in favour of a presumption that everything will be published unless it breaches data protection legislation, compromises the council's financial interests in e.g. a competitive tender, or would compromise legal proceedings or criminal investigations.
  2. Revamp the council's website and newspaper. The website needs a radical re-design to make it easier and more logical to use, with a much better search engine. A search in Welsh for "Cynllun Datblygu Lleol" retrieves nothing on the LDP, but tells you instead about the council's free school milk scheme. Again, a fundamental shift in thinking is needed, away from "how do we make ourselves look good" to an emphasis on making important information accessible. Wonderful though they may be, the "Shine Awards" are not a priority for people interested in the LDP, planning, education, social care, waste, the environment, etc.
  3. Set a target to halve the number of public interest exemptions applied in meetings of the full council and its committees. There can be no justification for keeping secret a report on transferring the council's public toilets to community councils, or for withholding another report on an action plan for the county's leisure centres.
Do this, and the number of FOI requests would fall. And we might end up with a council that actually deserves the praise it is so desperate to receive.


Doh! How could I have missed it? The website does still have a document showing membership of the committees. All you have to do is select 'Council and Democracy', then click on 'Councillors and Committees'. Next select 'List of Committees'. This pulls up the council's constitution, but bear with me. Scroll down to the end of the long list of documents, and you will find a heading '8. Bilingual Composition pdf' just after '7. Councillors' Names and Addresses'.  And bingo! There we have it. Obvious really.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

The Berlin Wall - ordinary people, extraordinary lives

Last weekend marked the fiftieth anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall, an event which for many people under the age of 40 probably ranks alongside the Siege of Troy in terms of meaning and historical importance. So here are a couple of personal memories of a place which not long ago seemed destined to remain divided for ever.

My brother in law's wife was born in East Berlin a couple of years before the Wall went up, and her parents moved across to the West while they still could, leaving the grandparents behind. Fred, the father, built up a business as a jeweller and watchmaker far away in a small town on the Rhine. Eventually, in the 1980s, the grandparents were allowed to travel to the West because by that time they were retired, and the East German regime was not too worried by the prospect of economically unproductive pensioners defecting.

One grandmother in particular was a fairly regular visitor, and I remember sitting across the table from her thinking how strange it was to be talking to someone from a place which, for most West Europeans, might have been on the other side of the moon. People younger than her were still being shot for trying to make the same journey.

Hundreds of miles further north is the beautiful city of Lübeck, an ancient Hanseatic port which was badly bombed by the RAF. In one of the churches you can still see the crater in the floor of the bell tower left by the bells as they crashed down and melted in the heat of the fire.

Lübeck was very close to the border, and a motorway led from the city to the East German border controls. There were signs giving the distances to towns and cities in the East, but very few people made the journey. We drove up, had a look around and did a U-turn. Years later, after the collapse of East Germany,  I discovered that a short distance beyond the impressive border post spanning the motorway, the Autobahn turned into an old-fashioned cobbled main road which went on for bone-shaking mile after bone-shaking mile through the countryside.

Now, there is no trace of the border post, and the cobbled trunk road has turned into a modern motorway. It is actually impossible to tell where the border was. Strange to think that something which cost so many lives and caused so much misery could vanish so completely and so quickly.

Just to the north of Lübeck is a small village where my partner's first husband grew up. Uwe was a big man, kind and gentle, who died as the result of a terrible car crash. I came to know him and his parents, Karla and Friedrich, or Fritz as he was known, very well.

Karla was a local girl, and her first language was not German, but Plattdeutsch, which is closer to English and Dutch than High German. The language was still spoken at home by Karla's generation, but few young people grow up with it nowadays.

Karla was a devout Lutheran, and led a simple life. She had met Fritz and fallen in love with him not long after the start of the Second World War, but Fritz did not have German citizenship. His family had moved to the area from Denmark before the First World War, and Fritz was a Danish national, although he had been born and brought up in Germany. The Nazi authorities would not allow him to marry Karla unless he took German citizenship; if he refused, he was told he would be deported to occupied Denmark. So Fritz became a German, married Karla, and ten days later he received his call-up papers from the Wehrmacht and was sent to fight on the Eastern Front. Fritz ended up as a Russian prisoner of war, but was lucky enough to survive and be released in 1949. When he got home, he was so thin and so ill that his wife did not recognise him.

Things were not easy at home, either. Karla told me how the villagers in the area had tried to urge the British Army on to keep going east and take as much territory as they could before the Red Army arrived. Nobody knew at the time that the zones of occupation had already been agreed.

As the Russians rolled west, millions and millions of people were displaced from the old eastern provinces, fleeing west often with little more than the clothes they stood up in. Karla's small house was requisitioned by the authorities, and each room was given over to a refugee family, leaving Karla with just the kitchen where she nursed her dying mother-in-law. This was the home that Fritz eventually returned to.

Gradually, very gradually, things improved. The refugees found new homes of their own, and Fritz and Karla settled down to start a family.

Fritz never fully recovered from his ordeals in Russia, but he retained a sense of humour and liked to tell jokes. He took over his parents' business as a wheelwright, making and repairing farm carts, tools and spoked wheels, and his workshop was next to the house. By the 1960s there was little demand for his craft, and Fritz went into retirement.

Fritz died first, and then Uwe. Karla eventually moved hundreds of miles south to live with her other son and his family, before dying in a home on the Swiss border, almost as far as it is possible to get in Germany from her old village. She was born into a Germany ruled by the Kaiser, saw first the Weimar Republic and then the Nazis come and go; she struggled through the hard years after the Second World War and lived to see the border posts pulled down and a reunited Germany.

The family home was sold, but Fritz's old workshop and all the tools of his craft were given to an open air museum. If you are ever in the area, the museum at Molfsee is worth a visit.

By coincidence, another woman called Käthe from a village called Schlutup just a few miles from Fritz and Karla came to live in my home village in the 1950s. She was brought over to work as a cook and housekeeper in a large house, and later came to be one of my mother's best friends.

Schlutup lies between Lübeck and the old East German border post, and the Iron Curtain ran down one side of the village. Käthe had two brothers. One was a Communist, and the other a Nazi, and life at home had been very difficult as a result. As a young woman, Käthe had gone to work in Hamburg, which is not that far away, and had been lucky to survive the firestorms caused by the British bombers.

Käthe was one of the best cooks I ever knew, and a very kind and gentle woman.

Ordinary people who experienced extraordinary times, and they were among the kindest and most generous people I have ever known. We can at least hope that whatever the next few years throw at us, our children will not have to go through what so many Europeans did just a few short decades ago.