Further to the recent post about the destruction of part of the Special Area of Conservation and SSSI at Cernydd Carmel, a sharp-eyed correspondent has uncovered a letter written last year by the chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council to William Powell AM in his capacity as chair of the Assembly's Petitions Committee.
The letter can be found here and was written in response to a letter from Mr Powell advising the council that the committee had received a petition calling on the Assembly to set up a public inquiry into the Breckman case.
Mr James's response can be summed up as "nothing to see here, please ignore and move on".
But the committee duly plodded on. It asked the Ombudsman for his views. The Ombudsman said he had been assured by the council that it had implemented his recommendations, and so that was that, apart from noting his disappointment at the tone of the apology the council had made to Mrs Breckman (see How to Say Sorry).
Eventually in May 2014 the committee decided to close the petition and take no further action after it considered legal advice in closed session, and the advice remains secret.
That was the end of the petition, but by no means the end of the story which prompted it.
A familiar recipe
Mr James's letter contains much that will be familiar to seasoned observers, with its mixture of patronising smarm, spin, sly digs and a large helping of half truths.
There are a couple of swipes at the Public Services Ombudsman for a start, including a clear indication that in Mr James's view he should not have meddled with the case in the first place. He also questions the Ombudsman's professionalism in several places, including an assertion that the Ombudsman only heard one side of the story and failed to interview Mrs Breckman's neighbour, road haulier, wholesale scrap merchant and part-time horse farmer Mr Andrew Thomas.
The obvious reason for this is that the Ombudsman was investigating the way in which the council had treated Mrs Breckman and her partner, and not the ins and outs of Mr Thomas's colourful planning history.
The council's attitude to the Ombudsman was very neatly set out in a very snotty letter about the case written by Meryl Gravell, then leader of the council, to Carl Sargeant, then minister for local government, in 2012. Roll forward a year, and the council had accepted the Ombudsman's findings, meaning that all of Meryl's confident assertions to Carl Sargeant must have been wrong.
Mr James is very keen for the politicians to see the affair as nothing more than a dispute between neighbours with the council caught in the middle, whereas the Ombudsman found an extraordinary catalogue of failures by the council to implement planning controls and the victimisation of residents who had brought those failures to the council's attention.
Even more striking are the many omissions and half truths contained in the letter.
The council did everything it could to prevent the Ombudsman's report from seeing the light of day. The chief executive even removed "Other Items of Business" from the agenda of meetings of full council to stop Cllr Cefin Campbell (Plaid) from asking when councillors would get to see and discuss the report's findings.
At that point the council had sat on the report for six months, and it even asked the Ombudsman for an extension to the deadline set for responding to it. In the end, the report never went before full council and councillors never received a copy.
As evidence that the council took the report very seriously, Mr James
reveals that the council employed a barrister to fight it, or as he
puts it, "I can assure you that the Council has taken this matter very
seriously, including taking Counsel's Advice at the draft stage of the
Eventually the report was "considered" by the Executive Board, and the Planning Committee was presented with a version of the report rewritten by the very same officers who were the subject of so many of the complaints. That was dealt with in closed session.
Bizarrely copies of the full report had up to then been freely available to any member of the public who wanted to read it - but not to councillors.
A Soft Option
After dragging its feet for more than six months, the council had found a way out. By accepting the Ombudsman's findings, the report was downgraded and no longer a Public Interest Report, but what Mr James describes in his letter as "the much softer option" of a Section 21 report.
The version of events described to William Powell AM and the real, extraordinary history of the report are entirely at odds.
Down on the Farm
One of the most glaring half truths and omissions in Mr James's letter concerns what he describes as a "cattle shed proposal".
There are now two very large sheds on the site.
The application for the first shed was for 'agricultural implements' and 'tractor
and hay store'. The planning officer, Ceri Davies, recommended refusal on the grounds there
was no agricultural justification due to lack of agriculture. It was
refused. Mr Thomas appealed, and the Appeals Inspector stated in her report
amongst other things, that 'the council acknowledge the site is
The Inspector was left with no choice but to approve it.
The second shed
applied for was for 'agricultural implements hay and tractor store' as
the implements were 'out in the open'. The planning officer assigned to the case again recommended
refusal on the grounds of lack of agriculture. It was refused.
The head of planning then overturned his planning officer's report and the planning
committee's decision and approved the second shed using delegated powers.
In his letter to the Petitions Committee, Mr James writes that "Mrs B also claimed that its [i.e. the council's Ed] decision to allow the development of the shed was perverse". Mr James clearly did not think it was, but others may disagree.
A few lines later, and Mr James says that the Ombudsman formed the view that the process followed by the council was "flawed".
No mention of the head of planning's decision to overturn a decision by elected councillors.
The second shed was in reality used not for storing farm implements, but for Mr Thomas's road haulage business. The council rejected Mrs Breckman's complaints as "unfounded".
The fact remains that apart from about 30 horses, there is very little about Blaenpant Farm that most people would recognise as farming.
Mr James goes on to mention that the council has been "involved in a multi-agency dialogue" with the police, the Police Commissioner and the Assembly Member (Rhodri Glyn Thomas).
What lies behind this rather bland assertion are very serious complaints about the way in which Mrs Breckman and her partner were victimised, with Mrs Breckman having been arrested in her own home at one point.
This aspect of the case is currently under investigation by West Mercia Police.
The extent to which the council mended its ways in the wake of the Ombudsman's report and sharpened up its planning enforcement can be seen in a recent post, Wild West Planning News.
Meanwhile, William Powell and other Assembly Members may feel that Mr James was rather "economical with the actualité" when he wrote to them last year.