Once a year the Wales Audit Office pays a visit to County Hall in Carmarthen for a routine box ticking session called the annual Improvement Report.
All Welsh councils go through this, and the very name of the report is a bit of a giveaway, because the auditor is looking for evidence not of maladministration, incompetence, wasteful spending or megalomania, but of improvement. And sure enough, there is always some improvement to be found, enabling the council's spin doctors to issue "news" items with headlines such as "It's official! Carmarthenshire continues to get better and better".
The title Improvement Report also results in some truly horrific mangling of language, such as, "planning and arrangements to deliver improvement are improving." Yes, sorry about that. I should have warned readers of a nervous linguistic disposition at the start that a sick-bag is advisable when reading this piece.
Some of the audit team's conclusions lead readers to wonder whether they spoke to anyone outside the executive suite. For example, we are told that, "the Council’s approach to engaging with the public is good", whereas if you were to pick a random sample of, say, 100 residents and ask them about their experiences of Carmarthenshire County Council, you would need (a) a pallet of man-size tissues, (b) a team of trained trauma counsellors, and (c) a few taser guns on standby. Ask members of the Forward Planning teams who ventured forth to present the council's Local Development Plan to the public.
Quite a lot of the report seems to have been produced after what must have been lengthy conversations with the chief executive and senior officers. You can almost hear them speak as you read.
So it is that the report says, "Planning and arrangements to deliver improvement are improving
although some member decisions have made implementing some plans difficult." Yes, that phrase keeps popping up, I'm afraid. But what's this bit about member decisions? We are not told, so we can only guess that this is a reference to the one and only time that the ruling junta had one of its proposals rejected in a vote by the democratically elected councillors. I refer, of course, to the vote in February 2011 when councillors rejected plans to close two care homes in Llanelli*.
The chief executive and Dear Leader, Meryl Gravell, have been furious about this ever since, and the auditors may well have spotted that the expensive carpeting in the executive suite has been chewed quite badly.
Is the auditor saying, then, that councillors were wrong to form their own view and vote accordingly? Should they always just roll over and vote the way they are told?
There is another echo from the executive suite when we are told that one of the changes to the council's constitution had been made to stop a growing tide of notices of motion. This was a reference to the People First Group which tried to submit several (not many, but more than two, Press Office please note) notices for motion to be debated by councillors. Not one of the motions made it to the council chamber, with all being vetoed by the chief executive. Nevertheless, it was thought necessary to change the constitution so that now 7 signatures are required to bring forward a motion (which could still be vetoed by the chief executive). Labour members might like to ponder that they are now only a couple of votes above that threshold, and that they may come to regret supporting this anti-democratic tinkering.
The auditor was also satisfied that the Council had complied with the terms of its deeply unambitious Welsh Language Scheme. No surprise there, considering how fluffy and non-committal the policy is. The auditor did not seem to mind that the council is supposed to produce an annual report for Bwrdd yr Iaith and other bodies. Whether it has done so, we do not know, because two years ago the Council stopped publishing these reports.
But back to the constitution. Almost every year we get a bumper crop of amendments and changes to this document, and more are planned for this year. They will include a reduction in the number of scrutiny committees, we are told. They may, or they may not, also include something to do with filming and recording public meetings; the auditor does not tell us. Either way, it seems that the new changes will not come in until after the elections in May.
Here, even the auditor seems to have become very mildly concerned about the drift away from openness and democratic accountability which has been such a feature of the last few years:
"The Council should ensure that, in reviewing the constitution, it encourages open and
thorough discussion, debate, scrutiny, questioning, reporting of decisions by officers
and members, and public engagement across its committees."
That is about as critical as the report gets, and needless to say, such squeaks will be ignored.
Visitors to this week's council meeting can be sure of one thing: the Labour leader, Kevin Madge, will be certain to give us all another rendition of his "things are getting better" speech when the Improvement Report is aired.
* A brief reminder to Cllr Stephen James, who wrote to the Carmarthen Journal last year claiming that the vote against closures showed that the Independents were truly independent. He forgot to mention that he had voted in favour of closure as had all but a tiny handful of Independent members. He also forgot to tell readers, while claiming that the Independents were not political but just a group of like-minded individuals, that he is an deputy chairman of Llanelli Conservative Club. How very forgetful!