Thursday 10 November 2011

The vultures circle over County Hall

Another month has gone by, so time for another meeting of the full council in Carmarthen's Black Lubianka, otherwise known as County Hall. This one was strangely different from recent sessions, and there was a distinct feeling of tension, raw nerves and paranoia about the whole thing. Perhaps it's the thought of next year's looming elections which, with any luck, will see a good many of the old dinosaurs and monsters consigned to the dustbin of history. As we shall see, the vultures are already eyeing up some of the Independent councillors.

I arrived to find a small throng clustered around the Reception desk. Lost souls from some Kafka novel trying to negotiate their way in to see local democracy in action. This time they included a minor celebrity in the shape of Chris Segar, the presenter of ITV Wales' consumer affairs programme, The Ferret. 

The poor woman behind the desk has the unenviable job of applying the dictats of chief executive Mark James to a less than grateful public; in a just world, she would be paid twice as much as Mr James. One fellow blogger was refused entry for declining to sign the statement on recording and filming, even though he had been given a visitor's badge. Mr Segar was patiently trying to explain to some official that he wanted to do a bit of filming (shock horror), and he was led away, presumably to a padded cell.

Caebrwyn and I mortgaged our souls yet again, and were escorted by two wardens who had been briefed to explain that the doors would open automatically in case of fire. "What about the fire exit nearest the gallery?" asked Caebrwyn. They had not been briefed on how digital technology would somehow turn the key and slide back the bolts.

"All be upstanding for the Chair, Deputy Chair and Chief Executive", we were ordered. A few of us in the public gallery remained seated, desperately clinging to our last vestiges of self-respect, before we were launched into this month's round of congratulatory announcements.

A round of applause greeted the announcement that Carmarthenshire had won a prize for "best in-house team" by the Welsh Chartered Institute of Public Relations in its awfully named "PRide Awards", and the bi-monthly Carmarthenshire News had been short-listed for another award. Now, Wales is a small place, and it is fair to say that anyone who is involved in PR here is likely to find themselves both on the nominations list and in receipt of an award. This institute is full of wannabe Malcolm Tuckers, hoping that their abilities will one day be recognised on a larger stage.

Carmarthenshire's in-house PR team is, it is true, adept at the black arts of spin. On instructions from the executive suite they churn out a relentless flood of "news" of targets being met, outstanding achievements and bountiful harvests. Sometimes, critics of the regime are the subject of smears and insinuations. Occasionally there are patently daft exercises such as the Pam Palmer Twittergate affair, when Democracy Week was celebrated with a short burst of tweets allegedly written by one of the senior councillors in English and flawless, if very stilted Welsh. Cllr Palmer never speaks Welsh in the chamber and has to use headphones when other councillors use the language, and not one of the tweets from members of the public asking her questions was answered.

The Carmarthenshire News is one of those glossy local authority propaganda sheets we have all had to recycle, arriving as it does unloved and unwanted and full of pictures of grinning councillors and senior officers cutting ribbons and celebratory cakes.

Another winner at the awards was Dyfed Powys Police whose dire PR department fell foul of New Statesman magazine for its truly dreadful handling of the #daftarrest affair.

So much for the awards, then. But Cllr Siân Caiaich stood to announce that blogger Jacqui Thompson had won this year's award for best political blog in Wales. Mrs Thompson is a perpetual thorn in the side of the chief executive and ruling clique, and the announcement that a local woman had received recognition for her brave battle against County Hall was met with deafening silence.

Next Cllr Caiach rose to make a formal complaint to the Chair about the blocking of a motion of no confidence in the Leader. She asked the Chair for a response. The Chair, Cllr Ivor Jackson, would be out of his depth in a paddling pool, and here was Cllr Caiach chucking him into a shark-infested ocean. Fortunately, the chief executive leaned over and whispered something.

"Ah, um, give me that in writing, and I will deal with it", said Cllr Jackson. Nobody was under any illusion that Cllr Jackson would deal with anything; he would get the chief executive to pen a suitably paralegal reply.

The first major piece of business was the presentation of the Standards Committee's annual report by its outgoing chair, an independent (i.e. not capital I) member of the committee. The presentation was competent, and there was frankly not much of interest, although he noted that the number of applications from councillors asking for dispensations to speak or vote when there was a possible conflict of interest had declined dramatically since 2007, when the rules were changed so that councillors did not need to notify the committee in cases where their interest was less than £500.

Conflict of interest was a subject which came up several times during the rest of the meeting, and it is clearly a very touchy subject for Carmarthenshire's councillors. Many councils now publish their registers of interests on-line; but not in award-winning Carmarthenshire. Recently there have been two separate Freedom of Information requests for information from the Register, and both have been refused. Members of the public wanting to see it have to make a request and an appointment, at the council's convenience of course. For many residents, this will mean taking a half-day to trek to County Hall, with attendant petrol and parking costs, to inspect documents which could so easily be published for all to see. But then that would be making things a little too transparent, wouldn't it?

Next came one of the major set piece debates on a proposal to delegate powers to the Director of Regeneration, Dave Gilbert, to give small and medium sized businesses grants of up to £35,000 without consulting councillors. A number of opposition councillors expressed disquiet about the delegation of yet more powers and the removal of another shred of democratic accountability.

For once we had a real debate, with searching questions and good speeches. There were safeguards in the form of the scrutiny committee, it was said, although a couple of councillors pointed out that the scrutiny committees don't always live up to their name. Someone asked about possible conflicts of interest for the Director of Regeneration as he doled out wodges of money to local companies.

The feathers flew. Mr Gilbert was emphatic that he had no conflicts of interest, and a Labour councillor, Anthony Jones, gave a good speech saying that the aim of the change was to cut bureaucracy and speed up help for small companies. But he was furious that Mr Gilbert's integrity should be impugned. Mr Gilbert was one of the best local authority officers in Wales! (As we all know by now, no matter who or what, the official line is always that Carmarthenshire has the best officers/toilets/schools/care homes/refuse collection in Wales, if not the world).

And so it continued, with another good speech from Peter Hughes Griffiths, leader of the Plaid Group and leader of the opposition. PHG was also very cross; the role of councillors was to question and hold to account, and it was deplorable that every time anyone questioned anything, it was regarded as an attack on the council's officers.

Cllr Pam Palmer, an ironically mellifluous name for someone who otherwise has the same effect on people as finger nails being slowly dragged down a blackboard, said she had personally helped lots of local companies to get grants, and she wanted it noted that she had never received anything from them in return. The public will be able to see that for themselves when the register of interests is opened up.

Chief Executive Mark James intervened to give us the benefit of his opinion. He felt that some of the questions had been worded in such a way as to question the integrity of the officers, and that was unacceptable. Councillors should remember, he added with a glance up at the public gallery, that there were members of the public watching this political ding-dong.

Mr James does not like debate or questions, and neither does Cllr Pam Palmer who attempted four times to curtail discussion by trying to call for a vote, but the public can feel relieved that there are some councillors who do their best to hold him and his administration to account.

In the end, the proposal was voted through, and the explanations eventually given by Dave Gilbert were reasonable. Without the questioning and debate we would not have known why the change was a reasonable one.

Next was a discussion on biodiversity. Everyone agreed it was a good thing, and the officer who had written the report before councillors was thanked effusively by all and sundry for her work, just as Dave Gilbert had been praised repeatedly in the session before. In fact a feature of these council meetings is that a significant amount of the time spent is devoted to councillors praising officers.

At the risk of sounding sour, how many other highly paid jobs can you think of where you would be heaped with praise every month, many times over? The culture developed by Mark James is such that anyone who does not offer up their praise and thanks to officers for doing their jobs is (a) a troublemaker, and (b) attacking him and his officers. Got that, Cllrs Caiach and Davies? Dechrau canu, dechrau canmol.*

There were several good speeches at the meeting, and of course the Labour leader Cllr Kevin Madge had to go and spoil all that. Yes, we did get a refrain from his usual "things are getting better" speech, this time when he noted that in the bad old days there had been newts in a pond near his home. Now a whacking great housing estate has been built, and the newts have gone. Things are improving. Why does Kev have such an intense and burning hatred of newts? Is it something to do with Ken Livingstone?

Anyway, good news for newt haters has arrived from North Wales. See this. Incidentally, a couple of cynical councillors pointed out that new rules on biodiversity would almost certainly mean that owners of properties seeking planning permission would in future take care to spray, poison, burn and hack away any wildlife before submitting a planning application.

Just before Cneifiwr left, councillors turned their attention to the euphemistically named "Modernising Education Programme". Step forward Mr Robert Sully, Carmarthenshire's answer to Whackford Squeers and a deadringer for Dr Evil from the film The Spy Who Shagged Me". Caebrwyn has given a good account of the row over Furnace School in Llanelli, but of interest was the contribution of a couple of Independent councillors from the Llandovery/Llandeilo area to Mr Sully's plans to forge ahead with the closure of Ysgol Pantycelyn in Llandovery despite massive local opposition.

Cllr Tom Theophilus said that he had been the victim of malicious rumours and attacks from local people who had accused him of staying silent as opposition to the plan had been steamrollered. He acknowledged that he had been silent, and he blamed that on the code of conduct. He wanted it to be known that he opposed the closure of Pantycelyn. The chair, Cllr Ivor Jackson, perked up. The same had happened to him, he said. He too was opposed to the plan.

All very odd. The reference to the code of conduct is apparently because councillors who speak out against a planning application are effectively frozen out of the discussions on a planning application. Now, there will be a planning application for the new school, probably sometime next year, but that should not have prevented them from talking about the changes to the education system in their part of the county. But by saying that they were opposed to the plan yesterday, they have probably now also ruled themselves out of participation in the planning discussions. 

Stranger still, both Mr Sully and Mr James are on record as having praised Cllrs Jackson and Theophilus for their support for the school plan.

Cllr Theophilus will apparently be stepping down at the next election, but the four other councillors from the area were clearly unsettled yesterday as the vultures perched on the edge of the public gallery and peered down on what may soon be electoral dead meat.

* Mrs Angry, Dechrau canu, dechrau canmol is the Welsh equivalent of your favourite Sunday teatime show Songs of Praise. It means "Start singing, start praising". Funnily enough, Songs of Praise is presented by a Welshman!


Anonymous said...

Most enjoyable and entertaining report of a meeting that clearly wasn't.

Anonymous said...

da iawn,ond yn drist iawn hefyd, mae safon ein cyngor sir yn warthus, a democratiaeth lleol yn cael ei ddisodli gan bobl sydd ar gyflogau mwy na'n prif weinidog sydd yn dinsitro ein cymunedau yn Sir Gar

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