Monday, 5 September 2011

Stop Press: Carmarthenshire County Council admits a mistake was made - by the public

Caebrwyn has given us a report on this morning's 10 minute meeting of the council's Executive Board. Apart from the standard items, such as apologies for absence, there were only three issues of substance up for "consideration", and those were two motions on day care centres and filming respectively, along with a proposal to issue a statutory notice on the reorganisation of secondary schooling in the east of the county.

Five schools are affected, and the council's proposals have been hugely controversial for a number of reasons, including Welsh language provision and a decision to close Ysgol Gyfun Pantycelyn in Llandovery and merge it with Tregib in Llandeilo. Llandovery will thereby achieve the distinction of being a town without a secondary school, and children from Llandovery and the surrounding villages will face a long journey to the new site in Llandeilo.

Not surprisingly, the proposals met with almost unanimous opposition in Llandovery from the board of governors, staff, parents, pupils and other interested parties. The most notable exceptions were the local "Independent" councillors, who chose to back the council rather than the people they were elected to represent.

By law, the council had to go through a formal consultation exercise, and hundreds of responses were received. Some of these were very detailed and reasoned replies. The consultation ended on 17 June, and the consultation document explained that proposals would go before the Executive Board for a decision in September.

To the surprise of everybody outside County Hall, the Executive Board met and ratified  a report recommending go-ahead on 4 July, just 10 working days after the end of the consultation. Governors, parents and others who wanted to make representations to the Board, as is their right, did not find out about the meeting until the last minute and were unable to address the Board because they had missed the deadline for submitting a request. Even if they had been aware of the change of date, they would not have been able to submit a request, since the agenda was not published until 27 June and the deadline for submitting a request was on 23 June (seven working days before the meeting).

Not that addressing the Board would have made the slightest bit of difference, of course, because the reality is that any proposal on the agenda is always decided in private before the public meeting actually starts.

The same rule applies to consultations as well, of course. If the council had stuck to the published timetable, it could at least have given the impression that serious consideration was being given to the public response. By rushing through a decision just a few days after the end of consultation, most reasonable people might well conclude that the council had no intention of changing its plans in response to public representations.

A quick look at the calendar confirms this. There were just 5 working days between the end of the consultation and the publication of the report recommending that the plan went ahead. The likelihood is, of course, that the report was written while the consultation was going on, with a few finishing touches in the days after the end of the consultation period.

In other words, the council had already decided on what it was going to do before the consultation was completed, and nothing that anybody outside the council said was going to change the plan.

All of which brings us back to today's meeting. Seasoned Carmarthenshire Council watchers will be scratching their heads trying to remember the last time the council admitted that it had made a mistake. Here it had two choices:

(i) Admit that the Executive Board was wrong and that the decision should not have been made until September.
(ii) To rule that the (legally binding) consultation document was wrong.

Obviously it was the consultation document which was wrong, and not the Board. Which is tantamount to saying that the Board and the Council were right all the way along because they knew the correct timetable; it was just the public that got it wrong.

The report which went before today's meeting says that this error did not have any material impact on the decision. It might have added that anyone who imagined that the consultation might change anything was delusional.

Let's hope that the people of Llandovery take legal advice before accepting this farce. They would seem to have good grounds for seeking a judicial review. In the meantime, they may want to take inspiration from William Williams, Pantycelyn, whose best known hymn is Arglwydd, arwain trwy'r anialwch (Lord, lead me through the wilderness), known in English as "Guide me, O thou great Redeemer".

Pantycelyn "I am weak, but Thou art strong".

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