Monday, 11 April 2016

The Doctrine of Officer Infallibility

After almost a year away from blogging it is depressing, if hardly surprising, how many of the long-running scandals chronicled by this blog continue to rumble on.

In a recent piece about the Pembroke and Pembroke Dock Commercial Property Grants Scheme fiasco, Old Grumpy referred to what he calls "the doctrine of (council) officer infallibility".

In practice, the doctrine involves a council adopting a stance on a particular issue, and then defending its position to the hilt in the face of mounting evidence that something is not right, while tying itself in increasingly absurd knots. Rule Number One is never, ever to admit that you have made a mistake or done anything wrong.

In the case of the Pembroke Dock scandal we are talking about grants (mis)managment, but in Carmarthenshire there are several long-running cases in which the lives of real, innocent people have been wrecked not by a single random act, but by years and years of denial, deceit and foot dragging as senior council officers shore up their increasingly absurd defensive positions.

As Old Grumpy and other Welsh bloggers have noted on numerous occasions (see the unlikely pairing of Oggy Bloggy Ogwr and Jac o' the North on the Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales land sales scandal, for example), there is a tendency for internal and external auditors, regulators and other bodies charged with protecting the public and upholding the law to draw up their wagons in defensive rings around beleaguered authorities. "Investigations" are carried out, reports are written, complaints are dismissed, whistleblowers and complainants are attacked or ignored, and buckets of whitewash are liberally applied absolving civil servants, council officers and the public bodies they work for of any blame or responsibility.


Sometimes, as Carmarthenshire's chief executive, Mark James CBE, discovered, it is possible to nip all this investigation nonsense in the bud, stamp your foot and tell bodies such as the Wales Audit Office to sling their hook:

Click to enlarge


An inquiry into the workings of the council's planning department, subject of countless complaints and scandals, was thus averted. Note the sneering tone used in the references to members of the public and their elected representatives, Adam Price (then MP) and Rhori (sic) Glyn Thomas (AM).

It is often only the sheer perseverance of a few bloody-minded individuals over years that finally shines a light through all the audit sign-offs and exculpatory reports to reveal the truth of what happened.

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One of the most frightening examples of the infallibility doctrine in action in Carmarthenshire is the case of Mrs Trisha Breckman, her partner Eddie, and other residents who live along the B4297 to the south of Maesybont.

The council's view, as articulated by the chief executive and the now retired head of planning, Eifion Bowen, is that the last fifteen years of complaints, court cases, investigations, a public inquiry, TV documentaries, arrests and a truckload of reports and correspondence are nothing more than a dispute between neighbours. Mr Andrew Thomas, the owner of the neighbouring Blaenpant Farm, is just a farmer going about his lawful business, and the real villains of the piece are the pensioner couple next door.

This argument was on shaky ground from the beginning because, as Mrs Breckman belatedly discovered, the council held a file of complaints from other local people against Mr Thomas dating back to his purchase of Blaenpant in 2001, two years before she and her partner moved in, and fifteen years later the complaints are still rolling in.

Just about everyone ever involved the events at Blaenpant, apart from council officers, has noted the lack of evidence of agriculture. Councillors on the planning committee also had their doubts about whether Blaenpant was really a farm when they were asked to approve two truly massive sheds on the site, but those reservations were swept aside, and the then head of planning used delegated powers to reverse a refusal of planning in the case of the second shed.

And despite a planning inquiry in 2010 which effectively demolished the council's position and a damning report from the Public Services Ombudsman, Carmarthenshire County Council has not budged an inch from the line it has pursued since 2001, which, coincidentally or not, was the year when Mark James blew in from Lincolnshire.

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How to destroy an SSSI

Before going off air, this blog looked at Mr Thomas's activities on a large field which borders one side of Mrs Breckman's cottage.

Trees had been felled, vegetation stripped and topsoil removed before quarrying began on the site. There were two separate quarrying episodes, and in response to complaints, the head of planning eventually applied enforcement orders. The orders were about as effective as chocolate teapots because they allowed Mr Thomas to carry on quarrying for a month before levelling the ground, job done.

When asked why the quarrying was taking place, the council's head of planning showed remarkable foresight. Some of the rock was to be used for drainage, he declared, while more was to be used resurfacing a track. Was there planning permission for the track, he was asked. Um, no, but he was expecting a retrospective application. The Minerals Officer explained that the reason for levelling the land was that it would make it easier for horses to run across the field. 

A lot of the rock disappeared who knows where on the back of Mr Thomas's lorries, but some was used to create what would become a new private road network across his land capable of carrying HGVs.

The planning department took up its usual defensive stand. The tracks were for agricultural purposes, and a large section of the new road was simply the resurfacing of a track (footpath?) which last appeared on maps in the nineteenth century. It is doubtful whether that track/path had ever been surfaced, and it is unlikely that it had been used by HGVs in Queen Victoria's day.

Undeterred, Mrs Breckman took a look at the ancient map, and spotted that the supposed track ran at right angles to the new road.

The council performed the local authority equivalent of a polite cough, and suggested to Mr Thomas that he might like to submit a retrospective planning application for a small part of the new road, no permission being required for the section which supposedly followed the old path.

In due course, an application went in seeking retrospective approval for the work, and the application was accepted by the planning department as valid even though it contained a number of glaring "mistakes" and omissions. Did the track create any new exits onto the public road? "No", came the reply, although the accompanying map showed two new access points.

More seriously, the application forgot to mention that the new roads and all of the quarrying, tree felling, vegetation stripping and top soil removal which preceded their construction had been carried out on land which was a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC).

The council was, surprise, surprise, initially defensive about the conservation status of the land. It may possibly fall within such a designated area, opined a planning officer, clearly reluctant to look at any more maps.

But a quick check on the boundaries of the Cernydd Carmel SAC showed that the field clearly was an SSSI and had been designated as an SAC in 2005. SACs have a higher level of legal protection than SSSIs and were set up to protect particularly valuable and rare habitats under UK legislation which flowed from the EU's Habitats Directive.

Damn those bloody Europeans coming over here and trying to protect special parts of our countryside from development as quarries and scrapyards.

In a letter to local residents, the minister responsible at the time, a certain Carwyn Jones, welcomed the decision and explained that SACs were very special places. Any plan or project that might damage a site - for example, a proposed development or an activity requiring a license - would first be assessed and could only go ahead if certain strict conditions were met. These rules also applied to projects or activities outside the the SAC boundaries which might impact on an SAC.

Statutory responsibility for assessing the impact of activities such as quarrying or building lies not with the county council, but Natural Resources Wales, and the council's planning department would have been well aware of that.

Massive redevelopment has taken place at Blaenpant during the last 15 years, and the entire character and  profile of the land around the farm has been changed. Surely the council would have told NRW about what had happened and that a chunk of an SAC had been utterly destroyed? Wouldn't it?

This is how the farm looked before Mr Thomas took over in 2001:

And this is how it looks now. You would scarcely believe it was the same place.

 

A freedom of information request asking to see correspondence between the council and NRW on the subject of Cernydd Carmel was sent to County Hall. The 22 day limit for a response came and went. A couple of polite reminders were sent. "We're working on it", came the reply. At length, three months after the request was made, the council refused to release the information.

So a second request went in asking a straight question. When had the local authority told NRW about Mr Thomas's activities?

Amazingly, a reply came back within the 22 day deadline - a very rare occurrence in Cneifiwr's experience of Carmarthenshire County Council - saying simply that it had not informed NRW which had found out thanks to a complaint from a member of the public. 

Cneifiwr suspects that that refreshingly honest reply somehow slipped through the usual screening processes. Perhaps Mr James was on holiday at the time.

In fact, it has since emerged that not once in the last 15 years has NRW or its predecessor been asked to give any consents for quarrying at Blaenpant, and it seems to have been kept in the dark about everything else.

Another FOI went into NRW asking to see correspondence with the council on Cernydd Carmel, and back came a large file with the names of Mr Thomas, his agent and the council's planning officers redacted. No need to call Sherlock Holmes to work out who the black blobs were.

That file showed that following the various complaints and reports, NRW and the council had started talking to each other, and there had been several meetings both on and off site, although no minutes or written records of those meetings appeared to have been kept. Evidence for what had been discussed was sparse, but two interesting facts emerged.

First, representatives of the county council and an officer for NRW had agreed among themselves that it was too late to save the site. Restoration was out of the question. And second, Mr Thomas, through his agent, was asked to submit what amounted to a plan to try to protect what was left. At no point does anyone seem to have considered taking Mr Thomas to court, even though destruction of habitats protected as an SSSI and SAC is a criminal offence.

A plan was duly submitted after further discussions, offering to restrict both the numbers of horses grazing, and the the times of year when they would graze.

That nearly brings us up to date. Months and months of discussions have taken place, but no land management or restoration plan has yet appeared among the planning documents, and given the history of what has happened at Blaenpant, you would have to be a wild optimist to believe that any carefully negotiated conditions would be adhered to. As for monitoring, past experience suggests that planning officers could go to Crufft's and fail to see any evidence of dogs.

What about those roads? All of the pointers were that the county council was hoping to be able to rubber stamp a retrospective application and move on, but thanks to the perseverance of Mrs Breckman and others, there are signs that things may not be going as smoothly as County Hall hoped. It now seems to be the case that the council is reluctantly shifting its position on the track/path last seen in the nineteenth century, and that the application may have to encompass the full extent of the network.

However, the council still seems wedded to the idea that there is an agricultural justification for the roads, although in the absence of any livestock apart from horses and no arable farming, it is hard to imagine what that justification might be. Perhaps they are there to keep the horses' hooves dry.

The suspicion has long been that Mr Thomas is planning a return of his road haulage business to Blaenpant, and the private roads would enable him to make short cuts, resume quarrying and, possibly, begin using the land to store scrap metal once again.

Busybodies

NRW had been kept in the dark by the county council about what was happening at Blaenpant, and it was the public which alerted the agency to the unfolding destruction. NRW's local officer was initially very hard to track down, and not obviously wildly enthusiastic about getting involved. Suspicions began to grow that he had been nobbled by the usual suspects.

But thanks once again to perseverance, alarm bells appear to have rung higher up the ladder at NRW. Stating what would seem to be the bleeding obvious NRW recently announced that a "Habitats Regulation Assessment" recently produced in response to the planning application for the road had concluded that the work "has had an adverse impact on the designated site".

As a result, and because the road has been built on an SSSI and SAC, it will now be down to the Welsh Government rather than the county council to endorse any planning decision.

Mr James will no doubt be delighted at the prospect of external bodies sticking their noses in.

A fire and yet more complaints

Having gone some way to transforming a quiet rural backwater designated as both an SSSI and SAC into what resembles a post apocalyptic industrial wasteland at Blaenpant, Mr Thomas has expanded his horizons further up the B4297 following the more recent acquisition of a smallholding called Ffynnon Luan.


Ffynnon Luan, probably for the first time in its history, was in the news last year when the Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Authority (MAWWFIRE) reported that it had attended a large blaze of tyres and timber at the site. The fire broke out on the night of 5th November (funny, that) and took 12 hours to put out, with a specialist environmental protection unit attending because of the tyres.

Cneifiwr wondered how much this had cost the public purse and whether there would be any repercussions.

MAWWFIRE was initially very reluctant to say, but eventually said it estimated the cost of tackling the fire at around £28,000. Although you would have thought that a large tyre blaze on 5th November might have aroused the curiosity of the fire brigade, NRW and the police, no investigation into the causes of the fire were carried out, and no questions were asked about what the tyres were doing on the property.

Perhaps they just spontaneously burst into flame on what Cneifiwr seems to remember was a pretty wet and miserable 5th November.

Mr Thomas's luck held once again.

By now it won't come as a surprise to readers to learn that new tracks/roads have gone in at Ffynnon Luan as well, and more recently thousands of tonnes of earth and rock have been removed from part of the site close to the farmhouse. The farmhouse itself is being renovated and extended, although that activity at least was subject to a planning application before work started.

Unsurprisingly, the council has received more complaints from local residents.

This is how Ffynnon Luan looked before Mr Thomas took over:





And here it is now:






We look forward to hearing the planning department's explanation for this new project.

An Apology

No, not from Carmarthenshire County Council, which still seems to be struggling to remember the helpful tips the Ombudsman gave it on how to say sorry, but this time from Dyfed Powys Police and the Police Commissioner for the appalling way the force had treated Mrs Breckman and her partner.

Mrs Breckman, now in her seventies, was arrested on six occasions and carted off from her home without once being charged. Nearly all of the arrests came about after phone calls from Mr Thomas's late wife alleging assault, and on one occasion Mrs Breckman was arrested for opening a gate the Thomases had erected blocking her right of way onto the public road.

Mrs Breckman's complaints were eventually investigated by the force itself, and after what sounded like a promising start with the investigating officer saying that he had uncovered evidence of unethical conduct, the final report effectively branded Mrs Breckman and her partner as liars, including a suggestion that they may have faked CCTV footage showing someone looking uncannily like their aggressive neighbour lurking outside their cottage in the middle of the night.

That report chimed conveniently with the line taken by the top brass in County Hall that Mrs Breckman and her partner were a couple of dishonest troublemakers, and there are strong suspicions that that was the message which was conveyed in a secret report handed to the Welsh Assembly's Petitions Committee when it met to consider a petition calling for a public inquiry into the Breckman case.

A second investigation into the conduct of Dyfed Powys police was much later carried out by West Mercia police. Their report was repeatedly delayed and eventually went back to the Chief Constable in Carmarthen for what could be called "Maxwellisation".

Some time later, Mrs Breckman was invited to meet the Cheif Constable who initially refused to let her have a copy of the report, and the stage seemed set for a repeat of the first investigation. More whitewash, in other words.

And then suddenly Mrs Breckman received a full and unreserved apology from both the Commissioner and the Chief Constable for what had happened to her, including the way in which her reputation had been smeared and her credibility undermined by the first investigation.

Sadly all this came too late to trigger any financial compensation for the couple.

Showing her usual perseverance, Mrs Breckman contacted Mr James to request a meeting to discuss the police apology. Mr James responded curtly that he could not see what there was to discuss. Mrs Breckman persisted, and eventually under pressure from Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM and others, he consented to grant an audience.

Unfortunately that meeting was cancelled at short notice, what with Mr James being such a busy man, although he always seems to have time to talk to the press when he feels the need to communicate with the masses.

So hectic was his schedule that he could not offer her another appointment for seven weeks. Barring any more last minute cancellations, a slot has been fixed for the end of April.

It is unlikely that humble pie or apologies will be on the menu along with the custard creams, especially not now that the Ombudsman for Public Services is showing renewed interest in the case.

A complaint by Mrs Breckman to the Ombudsman last year was dismissed, and unaccountably the investigating officer went off piste to tell Mrs Breckman that he could find nothing wrong with the council's handling of the Cernydd Carmel application, even though she had not complained about that particular matter.

Someone in County Hall seemed to have had words, and not only secured the dismissal of Mrs Breckman's original complaint, but struck gold by persuading the Ombudsman's officer to give the Cernydd Carmel (retrospective) planning application a clean bill of health.

Fortunately, perseverance may be about to pay off again, with the Ombudsman himself now taking a close interest and an even closer look at the what has happened at Cernydd Carmel.

Mr James will be pleased.

Meanwhile, if you are a landowner with a troublesome SSSI or SAC, or even just a large pile of unwanted used tyres, get out the bulldozer, a can of petrol and a box of matches. The council's planning department will help you explain it away should anyone complain.




















11 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is surely a scandal.Seriously,did council planning officers give permission for all those sheds on a SSSI SAC site? What about the quarry? Doesn't one have to have permission to touch sites such as these?
If council officers have given permission for the sheds is it not a criminal offence?
Serious questions need to be asked here.

People First said...

Thank you Cneifiwr for a summary of this environmental destruction and human misery. I have no idea how this is tolerated but i have noted in my years on the council that planning enforcement appears to not be consistent and as you show officers must be infallible and in some cases spend a lot of our money questionably to prove a point eg. appealing cases in a higher court if they lose in a lower one and funding judicial reviews if they don't like the result. money talks and the council has impressive legal resources.
I am disturbed too by a culture of disregard for the environment among elected members who find it amusing to joke about bats, slow worms and rare butterflies and using the "people are more important" argument and the planning committee are happy to pass hideous developments which scar the landscape on the basis that it makes jobs or provides one or 2 "affordable homes".
Trisha's case is particularly disturbing on many points. I have asked the monitoring officer to look into it but she has not replied to my actual request, but criticized me for making the request through democratic services. The doctrine of officer infallibility remains supreme, how presumably, could i even suspect that officer had cocked anything up!? To be honest, i have no certainty as to who has actually been involved in this distressing case and why it had been impossible to stop Mr Thomas' destructive talents but I think someone should find out! Good luck to the Ombudsman!
Sian Caiach

Anonymous said...

The pictures Cneifiwr has posted are incredible in showing what developments have been allowed ON A SSSI/SAC site of all things.This must warrant something more than an Ombudsman investigation.It is easy to find out who has been involved and it would certainly be senior officers as opposed to Junior.This does indeed require digging deep in the mire created by the planning department.
An excellent post Cneifiwr.

Brychan said...

It is quite clear that the Thomas’s are running a haulage operation from the holding, yet the planning permissions mentioned specifically restrict its use to purely agricultural activity. As no doubt many genuine road haulage companies in the area will testify, obtaining land and facilities for road haulage HGVs laidage and maintenance is very expensive, so this particular scam puts them at a competitive disadvantage. There is also the issue of road fuel duty as opposed to fuel duty exemptions for agricultural use. It may be worth a spot inspection for diesel redness in plant and vehicles currently on site. Evidently there would be serious criminal implications for misuse of any red diesel and or CHP biofuel in the road haulage activity, and conversely, the use of the buildings for fuel not of this nature would be a breach of use under planning consent. The storage tanks are clearly visible in the 2016 Google image reproduced on your blog. They are to the south of the main building. They would need specific certification by type of storage by the fire authority and is readily available for inspection.

Jennifer Brown said...

Good grief! I could see Misconduct in Public Office coming out of the wood work from all directions and from many different public bodies as your story developed. So many criminal offences yet no law enforcement action concerning them only when they needed to act in support of the wrongdoers and to aid our County Council silence its dissenters. This post of yours deserves to be published in the Herald which is the only local paper with any desire to practice investigative journalism. Public Servants are well reimbursed to act in our interests yet so many abuse that trusted position by allowing themselves to be coerced into turning a blind eye to wrongdoing or even taking part in its cover up (life would not be easy to do otherwise I realise). But surely we do not pay our Public Servants to surrender their principles of public office by supporting the actions of other officers and members who so blatantly act (for reasons known only to themselves) against the public interest and the law. We in Carmarthenshire who have suffered at the hands of the CCC because of its actions in supporting the wrongdoers and its ability to demonise dissenters whether complainants or whistleblowers in aid of preventing outside bodies looking into matters and by doing so infecting them with the need to cover up their own lack of action when made aware of the lies fed to them. Until the Welsh Assembly Government stands up and attacks the way the CCC fails to follow their own statutory duties and guidance and the failure of the bodies in place to police them members of the public will continue to be failed as will the wider environment. Cllr Sian Caiach has personal experience of how whistleblowers are treated by our public bodies and how her speaking up, in the public interest, on behalf of her constituents, draws down on her head the full wroth of Mark James. On some occasions MJ has himself complained to the Ombudsman about her disrespect to him (basically anyone not obeying his orders whether right or wrong disrespects him) only to end up with egg on his face. This proves that any officer or member strong enough to stick to the principles of public office can win through and if more tried we, the public, would be better served and those who are continuing to abuse their positions would hopefully be dispensed with. Lets support the true proponents of public service who have shown by their actions we the public come first and not the reputations of their leaders, party or the body they serve when those entities' actions are self serving and against our interest.

Jac o' the North, said...

It could well be that Mark James and NRW are only following orders.

Cneifiwr said...

An interesting point Jac. We know what has happened in Maesybont, but we don't know why it has been allowed to happen, and theories abound. Someone, somewhere knows why. If that someone reads this, please get in touch.

Hardly a week goes by without some strange new twist. In the latest a complaint has been made about what looks like a very clear breach of an enforcement notice to stop quarrying and excavations, with photographic evidence of continued excavations and the removal of soil bound for a destination in Llanelli. The officer responsible is adamant that there has been no breach, adding that she does not have time to follow lorry loads of soil around.

Anonymous said...

I think someone who knows should tell us and jump ship before it goes down for down it suely will.

Anonymous said...

Interesting Jac'O the North.Whose orders would they be? I am intrigued now.

Jac o' the North, said...

Anon 00:25, It should be obvious to all that the wrongdoer in this protracted affair has enjoyed protection from some authority external to the county council, one that the council seems unable or unwilling to challenge.

Anonymous said...

The only external authority that comes to mind is a body that does not include women.
Am I getting warmer Jac'o the North?