After the row about massive increases in sports charges for council-owned football, rugby and cricket pitches and bowling greens in the south of the county, Carmarthenshire County Council has very belatedly begun a public consultation on its plans, and the first of a series of roadshows took place in Newcastle Emlyn earlier this week.
The Council has a track record of holding consultations on controversial subjects in the summer when people are on holiday or occupied with entertaining their children, and the decision to begin in Newcastle Emlyn which is not effected by the proposals suggests officers were hoping for an easy ride.
They were in for a shock.
Fortunately the various sports clubs here own and maintain their own grounds, but people wanted to know why Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn, the secondary school, was now being asked to pay £100,000 a year to use the leisure centre next door.
make the locals feel better, the officers present told them that it
wasn't just Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn, but schools in Carmarthen were also being
told to pay or stay away.
This was about as well
received as a bag of cold sick, not least because the land on which the
Newcastle Emlyn leisure centre stands was gifted by the school, the
idea being that the school would benefit.
council is proposing, then, is to take money out of one pot and put it
into another as part of its budget savings programme. If you are
wondering how this will save money, it won't. But what it would do is take £100,000 out of the education budget,
which the Welsh Government has ring-fenced, and put it into leisure services.
For a council which is obsessed with PR and news management, and a Labour Party which is worried about what massive increases in sports fees and the possible closure of leisure centres are doing to votes, the manipulation of budgets has a lot to recommend it: nobody will notice the loss of a couple of teaching posts, and the press won't report on it, whereas the closure of a leisure centre or massive increases in charges would create uproar.
The Labour Party finds itself in a sticky situation here. This is a Labour run council implementing cuts under a Labour Welsh Government. Normally they would blame the Tory-Lib Dem Government in Westminster, but a few weeks ago Labour's national policy forum met in England (report here) to approve plans to stick to George Osborne's austerity programme.
Calum Higgins, the 20-something barrister who would like to represent us in Westminster, has come up with a cunning plan to deal with this. In a leaflet offering to help people with voter registration, he blames the cuts on Plaid Cymru, which is in opposition, presumably on the assumption that many Labour voters won't know who is actually running the show.
Last week Calum had himself photographed on Shelter's stand at the Eisteddfod, praising their work. He must have forgotten to tell the homelessness charity that last year he voted against proposals to protect people hit by the bedroom tax from eviction.
The row about sports charges has been rumbling on for many months now, so if you can't quite remember what it is all about, here is a potted history of the story so far.
Towards the end of last year, and not part of the annual budget setting exercise, Carmarthenshire County Council quietly tried to introduce massive increases in charges for the playing fields and other sports facilities it runs in the south of the county. Unfortunately for the Council, people did notice, and gradually there was a rising groundswell of protest.
Kevin Madge, the council's Labour leader, went to the press to defend his decision, saying that it was all about creating a level playing field.
The protests continued to grow, with local sports clubs saying they would be forced to close, and individuals facing astronomical increases in fees for using bowling greens, etc. In Tumble the village football and rugby clubs were told they would have to pay £1,000 a week to use the grounds. Adults who want to play cricket were told that the charges they have to pay would rise from £49 in 2013/14 to £690 in 2016/17.
Understandably, people wanted to know how these charges had been arrived at. The council stumbled. Kevin Madge continued to maintain that it was all about creating a level playing field.
There was a very heated phone-in on Radio Cymru, and then came news that while all this had been going on, Kevin Madge and colleagues had approved the renegotiation of a loan to the Scarlets, and given them around £600,000 out of the £850,000 raised by the sale of a plot of council land. Together the two deals are worth between £1.25 million and £1.5 million to Scarlets Regional Limited.
The Plaid Cymru group asked for the sports charges to be referred to the full council so that the matter could be discussed. Kevin Madge put on a show of fireworks. He was proud of what he had done, how dare they. The ever-reliable acting Head of Law, Mrs Linda Rees-Jones, said the matter could not be discussed as that would mean micro-managing Executive Board decisions.
Then in April Kevin Madge wobbled, presumably at the sight of all those Labour votes going up in smoke.
Whereas just a few short weeks earlier the very idea of letting councillors discuss the increased charges was outrageous, he now said the plan would go out to consultation.
And so, eventually, it came to pass that the Council began its consultation, and in time honoured fashion it was decided to run the exercise during the summer holidays when lots of the people who use the sports facilities will be on holiday or trying to keep their children entertained.
This one is set to run and run.
For anyone interested, a campaign group has been set up to fight the council's plans for pitch fees. Carmarthenshire Unified Sports Committee (CUSC) has its own website (here), and is also on Twitter: @cusctweets.