Friday 29 July 2011

Do Welsh market towns have a future without a Tescobury's?

A stormy meeting took place in Llandeilo a couple of nights back to discuss an application by Sainsbury's to build a supermarket on the edge of town, and both Newcastle Emlyn and Narberth have been locked in similar battles for the last couple of years. A decision on the Newcastle Emlyn application, which has been on slow-burn for the last 18 months, is now expected by early September.

Both Narberth and Llandeilo have successfully reinvented themselves in the last few years and built a reputation based on the quality, range and choice of their shops. There are signs that Newcastle Emlyn, which staged a very successful food festival earlier this summer, could be heading down the same route.

Where that road leads was shown by a documentary on towns on BBC2 last night, where the presenter Nicholas Crane, took an extended look at Ludlow.

Ludlow is larger than Llandeilo, Narberth or Newcastle Emlyn, and it has a very rich architectural heritage, but like its smaller Welsh cousins it is off the beaten track and not close to any major towns or cities. Another thing they all have in common is that they have very few of the chain stores which so dominate other towns in Wales and England. Even better, Shropshire County Council is also currently investing a lot of money in schemes to revive its market towns.

Ludlow does have a Tesco, but the supermarket was built only after a battle lasting some 9 years, with the supermarket group having to adapt the design of its store to make it blend in with the rest of the town. What the long-term effects of Tesco's arrival will be in Ludlow remain to be seen.

The three Welsh market towns all have existing small-scale supermarkets, with Newcastle Emlyn (population around 1,500) boasting a Co-op, a large Spar and a CK's supermarket, as well as a large number of independent food retailers. We even have a fish monger.

There is no doubt that Ludlow is quite an upmarket place nowadays, but the range of shops and the strong local attendance at the recent food festival, show that small towns in less favoured areas like Newcastle Emlyn can survive and prosper, and with fuel prices soaring, people are starting to realise that a long round trip to a large supermarket can end up costing more than shopping locally.

So wouldn't it be great if Carmarthenshire and other Welsh counties took a look across the border and decided that, rather than more and more Tesco's, Sainsbury's and Morrison's, it would be better to invest relatively small sums in helping out their market towns and encourage more farmers' markets and local producers to create more jobs and retain more wealth in the area.

We live in a part of the world which produces some of the best meat and dairy products you can buy anywhere, and we could become a lot more self-sufficient in fruit, vegetables and other staples. Both the FUW and the NFU are missing a trick here.

Next time you go to one of the big supermarkets, have a good look and see how much of the food on sale came from within a 5, 10, 20, 50 mile radius of where you are. Most likely next to nothing.

Good luck, Llandeilo. As recent cases have shown, Carmarthenshire's planning department is running scared of having to fight planning appeals even when the applicants are two local women. So don't bet on even a token show of backbone when faced with a mega bucks corporation.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Helping the young people of Llanelli - a challenge for County Hall

Carmarthenshire County Council has emerged as the successful bidder to take over the failed Technium business centre in Dafen, Llanelli. The full story can be read here.

The terms of the deal are confidential, but it seems the council will initially lease the building rather than purchase it outright. It probably won't be long before the top brass decide that this is another must-have strategic investment (like the Johnstown creamery, now being given to an evangelical Christian group).

It was also disturbing to see that two of the three bidders were cash-strapped public bodies (the Council and Dyfed Powys Police). Why the police should want to take over a facility like this is not clear, especially after they have spent so much money on extending their HQ not far away.

The aim of the deal is, however, a good one - to train and provide young people with work experience, as well as apprenticeships according to the council leader Meryl Gravell. As we all know, apprenticeships are like hen's teeth nowadays, so let's hope that this is more than just words, and that the scheme really will help young people on a career ladder which leads to something other than the jobs in the retail sector.

County Hall is not exactly Warren Buffett when it comes to spotting good investments, and only time and an unwonted degree of honesty on the part of the council will show whether this scheme does what it says on the tin.

Let's wish the scheme well, hoping that for once the county council can get things right and avoid strangling a good thing with red tape and incompetence.

Monday 25 July 2011

Chwedlau cyfoes: Y Moch bach a Blaidd Bwrdd yr Iaith

Amser maith yn ôl mewn gwlad bell bell i ffwrdd o'r enw Sir Gâr roedd dau fochyn bach am godi tai mewn pentre' bach. Ond druan â'r moch bach, doedd neb yn y pentre eisiau cael ystad o dai newydd.

"Dydyn ni ddim eisiau cymaint o dai newydd," meddai 500 o drigolion y pentre, y cynghorydd lleol a'r cyngor cymunedol. "Does neb yma'n gallu eu fforddio nhw, ac rydyn ni'n ofni bydd pobol sy ddim yn siarad ein hiaith ni'n mynd i brynu'r tai crand hyn", medden nhw.

Gwylltiodd pawb. Yna ysgrifennodd y moch bach chwedl arloesol i ddangos na fyddai'r tai newydd yn difrodi iaith y pentre'. Doedd neb yn credu'r moch bach.

Yna gofynnodd adran cynllunio'r Cyngor Sir i'r hen flaidd Bwrdd yr Iaith am ei farn. Fe wnaeth yntau chwythu a chwythu. "Dw i ddim yn hoffi'r cynllun hwn," meddai Blaidd y Bwrdd, "bydd e'n tanseilio'r iaith gymunedol."

Druan â'r hen flaidd. Doedd dim dannedd yn ei ben, ac roedd y Llywodraeth wedi penderfynu i'w roi i gysgu.

Gofynnodd yr adran cynllunio i'r hen flaidd unwaith eto. "Erbyn hyn, mae'r moch bach wedi bod yn garedig iawn a dweud wrthon ni faint yn union o dai maen nhw eisiau eu codi. Dim ond adeiladu 13 o dai y maen nhw nawr, ac yn ôl polisi'r Cyngor Sir sy'n seiliedig ar ganran o 20%-30% o dai fforddiadwy, mae'r moch bach wedi addo codi dau dŷ isel eu cost." Dyw'r adran cynllunio ddim yn dda mewn mathematig.

Fe wnaeth yr hen flaidd chwythu a chwythu a chwythu. "Caiff y datblygiad effaith ddrwg ar iaith y gymuned. Dw i ddim yn hoffi'r cynllun newydd chwaith," meddai.

Dyn penderfynol iawn yw pennaeth yr adran cynllunio, felly gofynnodd i'r hen flaidd am y tryddydd tro. "Gwranda, yr hen flaidd", meddai, " mae'r safleodd hyn yn rhan o'r Cynllun Datblygu Unedol."

"Yn wir?", atebodd yr hen flaidd. "Os felly, chaiff y Bwrdd ddim sylwi ar y peth, fel arfer." Sleifiodd ymaith a'i gynffon rhwng ei goesau.

Roedd pawb yn y pentre' bach yn drist iawn, ond aeth y moch bach i'r banc dan chwerthin.

Dim ond chwedl yw hon. Os ydych am ddarllen hanes sy'n wir yn erchyll, trowch at yr adroddiadau yma ac yma.

Saturday 23 July 2011

Cyngor Sir Gâr a'r tŷ bach tra chyfrinachol

Mae llawer iawn o bethau'n gyfrinachol ym Mhrydain - rhif ffôn y frenhines (oni bai eich bod yn gweithio i Rupert Murdoch), lleoliad sybs niwclear, ac yn y blaen. Pethau pwysig a sensitif, mae'n debyg.

Bydd Bwrdd Gweithredol Cyngor Sir Gâr yn cwrdd ar 25 Gorffennaf i drafod pethau tra chyfrinachol hefyd, gan gynnwys cyfleusterau hamdden a thoiledau. Gwybodaeth "eithriedig" yw hon wrth gwrs, a bydd rhaid i'r cyhoedd adael y cyfarfod. Chaiff neb ar wahân i'r aelodau o'r bwrdd a'r uwch-swyddogion weld yr adroddiadau.

Pam hynny? Chawn ni ddim gwybod.

Dyma'r agenda:





Thursday 21 July 2011

Spam, scams, phishing, junk mail and cold calling - why it's good to speak Welsh

David Crystal wonders in his blog whether phishing occurs in languages other than English. The short answer is that it does, but the question made me think. Are other languages, including "small" and minority languages, somehow less susceptible to the unwelcome attentions of phishing scams, junk mail and cold calling?

So let's turn over a few stones at random to see what is happening in these murky waters, starting with those infuriating cold calls from factory-like centres in India and elsewhere.

It is estimated that about half a million people are employed in call centres in Germany, and since cold calling (Kaltakquise  as well as cold call in German) is illegal there, it is safe to assume that the vast majority of these will be employed in answering calls rather than pestering people at home. I can also state from personal experience that in seven years spent in the German speaking part of Switzerland, I never once received a cold call, possibly because Swiss German is not big in India.

Until relatively recently, the big Indian outsourcing companies concentrated on English-speaking countries, but in the search for new markets, some attempts have been made to recruit staff from several European countries. The fact is, however, that most Europeans outside the UK live their lives largely untroubled by cold callers from India, etc. trying to sell various products and services.

Germans, Swedes, Swiss, Dutch and other nationalities who call their banks or insurance companies are also very unlikely to find themselves speaking to a non-native speaker based in another part of the world, and Welsh speakers who want to contact BT or one of the other large companies in the UK are at a distinct advantage. Calls made to BT in English are notoriously frustrating, but select the Welsh option, and you are much more likely to be a happy customer.

Spam is also a largely Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. When did you last receive spam (sbam) in Welsh? In the Nordic countries most e-mails advertising Viagra, penis enlargements, etc. are in English, although there are reports of an increase in spam mail advertising gambling. Many Internet users in Norway, Sweden and Denmark say that they have never received spam in their own language, and the most commonly used term for spam in all three countries is, well, spam. The Swedes differ from their neighbours in often preferring to coin a native term for Anglo-Saxon imports, and the suggestion for spam is skräppost (skräp = rubbish),  a term which also serves to translate junk mail, for which the suggested Welsh term is post sothach.

Moving on from cold calling and spam, both of which are illegal in some countries, to activities which are criminal offences everywhere.

Scams are not restricted to the Internet, of course. Dodgy geezers in pubs, shady characters offering cut-price Chanel perfumes on the high street, Welsh farmers doing interesting things with VAT - their ancestors were at it back in Ancient Rome. No matter which language you speak, there have been scams in it. The suggested Welsh translation for boiler room scam is twyll ystafell bwyler, although it is probably safe to assume that there has never been one through the medium of Welsh.

Thanks to the Internet, however, we now have phishing. Phishing is definitely a multi-lingual phenomenon, although I have yet to hear of gwe-rwydo (web netting) conducted through Welsh.

A report from the Swedish University of Åbo in Finland talks about an attempt to acquire passwords in an e-mail which, "if not completely free of errors, was written in unusually good Swedish". German, Danish and Norwegian sources all report illegal attempts to acquire bank account details and other personal information, including e-mails announcing tax rebates. As usual, German tends to stick to the Anglo-Saxon phishing, while Norwegian and Swedish have tried phisking, nettfiske and nätfiske, fiskeri respectively.

What they all have in common is unusual or incorrect use of the target language. Could the culprit be Google Translate?

Here is an example quoted by David Crystal (the italics are his to highlight non-standard English):

This is an important information regarding your Google account. We have just realized that your account information on our database system is out of date, as a result of that we request that you to verify your Information by filling your account information below.

Here is what Google makes of this in Welsh:

Mae hon yn wybodaeth bwysig am eich cyfrif Google. Rydym newydd sylweddoli bod eich gwybodaeth cyfrif ar ein system cronfa ddata yn hen, yn sgil ein bod yn gofyn i chi i wirio eich gwybodaeth drwy lenwi eich gwybodaeth cyfrif isod.
It does a pretty good job with the mutations, and anyone reading this would have a reasonably clear idea of what the message meant. But it sounds odd, and the term "gwybodaeth cyfrif" is definitely wrong.

The story is the same for French and the Nordic languages. My old French teacher would probably have awarded a C+ to this:

Ceci est une information importante concernant votre compte Google. Nous avons juste rendu compte que vos informations de compte sur notre système de base de données est à jour, à la suite de cela nous vous demandons de vérifier vos informations en remplissant vos informations de compte ci-dessous.

Surprisingly, Google makes a much better stab at Welsh than it does of German. The grammatical genders are wrong, the case endings are incorrect, the structures are odd and the vocabulary used is not what a native speaker would expect. This one gets a D-. Nevertheless, it still makes sense.

Dies ist ein wichtiger Informationen zu Ihrem Google-Konto. Wir haben gerade festgestellt, dass Ihr Account-Informationen auf unserer Datenbank-System nicht mehr aktuell ist, als Ergebnis, dass wir verlangen, dass Sie Ihre Informationen, indem Sie Ihre Kontoinformationen zu überprüfen unten.

Top marks go to Welsh if you want to steer clear of cold calls, spam and phishing. Speakers of many other European languages are also less likely than their Anglo-Saxon neighbours to be plagued with unwanted telephone calls or spam, although it is likely that French and Spanish will be more susceptible because of their wider geographical distribution. Phishing seems to be a universal phenomenon, although the complexities of German grammar come to the rescue. The same is almost certainly true for the Slavonic languages, Finnish, Hungarian and the highly inflected Lithuanian and Latvian languages.

Without doubt, speakers of English are more likely to be pestered with unwanted telephone calls and spam; they are also more likely than most to be the targets of phishing, but since Anglo-Saxon capitalism has been the driving force behind outsourcing, call centres and the general commercialisation of life, there may be some justice in all of this.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Carmarthenshire's LDP - the fog descends as you pamper your pooch

County councils do a lot of important things, from running schools and social care to collecting the rubbish, but probably the subject which arouses more passions than anything else is planning, and the council's overall framework for planning is its unitary or local development plans which come along roughly once every 10 years.

These plans are among the most important things your council produces because they are about what our towns and villages will look like, and what it will be like to live and work in them for years to come.

But you would not know that if you decided to look at the council's main window on the world, which is its website.

Users who google Carmarthenshire County Council will first be presented between a choice of Welsh or English. The Welsh structure and content is so poor that sadly I would not recommend trying to use it, a subject I will come back to another time.

Having chosen English therefore, you will be presented with the home page, which has lots of menu options. In the centre of the page is a window with a selection of revolving "top stories". Until yesterday, one of those was the LDP, and you could navigate from there into the vaults. Today the LDP has disappeared, and you will see instead items telling you about how to make a complaint or compliment, about the Carmarthen Food Festival, the county's annual "Improvement Plan" and a newsletter dealing with rural crime.

The LDP is currently the subject of a major statutory consultation which runs until 19 August, but the home page now does not even mention the LDP, leave alone explain that you have a right to comment on it.

But let's imagine that you have heard something about the LDP and would like to find out more. The next logical step would be to select the menu option headed "Environment and Planning". This brings you to another page with menu options on lots of things from the dog warden service, rubbish recycling and waste to planning and biodiversity. Still no mention of the LDP.

Only when you click on Planning will you be presented with another page of menu options and find Local Development Plan listed as one of the topics.

In other words, to find out about the LDP, you have to know of its existence and tunnel away to find the information. If you are blissfully unaware of the plan, you will remain that way if you access the council's website.

As an illustration of just how bad the Welsh content of the service is, I tried searching "Cynllun Datblygu Lleol". 10 results are returned, including information on councillors' allowances, how to apply for a service and "Llaeth am Ddim" (milk for free). But there is nothing about the LDP. Zilch. Nada. Dim byd o gwbwl.

The other main window on the world for the council is its "newspaper" Carmarthenshire News. The most recent edition covers the period May and June 2011, which is also when the consultation on the LDP began. In 20 glossy pages with features on all of the current prestige development projects, pictures of the council bosses grinning as they cut cakes, ribbons, etc, a big half page piece on "dog friendly county pampers pooches", you will find not one mention of the LDP.

Both the website and the "newspaper" are run by the council's press department, the main responsibility of which, you would think, would be to ensure that the public and press are kept informed about important things like the LDP. Instead, the press office is actually a PR business which strives to ensure that good news is broadcast and bad news is buried. Pamper your pooch, by all means, but don't worry your pretty little head about that boring old LDP.

Carmarthenshire does not have a good track record on consultations, and this failure to inform and engage is only the latest example. It may come back to bite them.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Local Development Plan comes under fire

It is not often that I feel sorry for the county's planning officers, but today I thought for a while that I was going to have to wade in to save a couple of them from a public lynching.

The occasion was an exhibition of the proposed LDP held in Newcastle Emlyn, where two young representatives of Forward Planning had come along with a stack of maps and plans, probably thinking that they would spend their time looking out of the window and twiddling their thumbs. Instead they were being treated to a roasting from assorted groups of angry residents from the town and surrounding villages.

If Newcastle Emlyn is anything to go by, Carmarthenshire County Council may well have to take its master plan back to the drawing board, especially if the Planning Inspectorate is anything like as well informed and rigorous in its questioning as the locals were.

The plan itself is set out in lorryloads of documentation, but in essence it is based on the premise that the population of the county is about to explode, and that we will need thousands upon thousands of new houses to accommodate all the people wanting to move here.

Preparation of the plan started way back in 2007 when property prices were at their peak, the markets were booming and Gordon Brown was telling us that he had put an end to boom and bust. Obviously things have changed a bit since then.

But despite all the thousands of man-hours spent in the production of the glossy documents and maps, the consultation meetings with "Key Stakeholders", etc., the grand plan is starting to look like one of those sad TV programmes where some hapless couple has poured their life savings into a Spanish villa complex, only to find a few goats grazing under some olive trees when they get there.

If Newcastle Emlyn is a microcosm of the rest of the county, things are really not looking good. Of the 5 sites proposed for housing, only one looks like a realistic proposition. One site is notoriously prone to subsidence, and any developer, surveyor or planning officer who knows what's good for them would run a mile rather than face the lawsuits which building on that site would inevitably trigger. Another site is accessed by two single track roads with dangerous junctions out on to the main road. Without spending huge amounts of money improving road access, it is hard to see how this site could ever be developed. Two other sites are in the grounds of a large private house whose owner is reportedly opposed to any development. Certainly, any development there would run into opposition from householders whose properties back onto the site.

And from what I could tell, the picture was much the same with the developments proposed for neighbouring villages.

I asked about the county's population estimates. These are based partly on the 2001 census and a study carried out by a university. No account will be taken of the 2011 census because the results will not come out in time, even though the plan itself is not due to be adopted until 2013. The officer I spoke to was unable to comment on suggestions made by Cllr Alun Lenny and others that the reality at the moment is zero population growth.

It's all about the future, you see. The population may be stable at the moment, but the council is convinced that people are queuing up to come here.

One very serious issue is, of course, the impact on the Welsh language. The Welsh Government's policy is not to allow large scale development of housing in areas which are deemed to be "linguistically sensitive" (which means that 25% or more of people are Welsh-speaking). No language impact assessments have been carried out in the 4 years that the plan has been under preparation. And in the thousands and thousands of pages of documentation, the Welsh language seems to merit less than a single side.

One way round the language obstacle is to phase development of large housing estates over a period of years. In that way, there is less likelihood of triggering an impact assessment. And guess what the Head of Planning, Eifion Bowen, has said will happen in the controversial Carmarthen West development (1,200 new houses)? Yes, you've got it, development would be phased. And the impact would be mitigated by putting up lots of nice bilingual signs and using Welsh place names. So that's all right, then.

The Welsh Government is currently revising its policy in this area to give language impact assessments more teeth. So, for example, rather than taking one smallish development in a town or village into consideration, planners would have to look at the cumulative impact of all proposed developments on an area.

Unfortunately for the language, the revised policy will not be ready in time to affect the LDP.

Many people have started asking where all the money will come from to build new schools, hospitals, doctors' surgeries, etc. The planning officer was optimistic. Development would unlock funds to do all of that. Except, as we now know, the Welsh Government's coffers are empty. Money for its schools building programme is not there. Commitments have already been made without the money to fulfil them.

In many of the smaller communities, unsuitable land or land with shockingly poor access has been allocated for housing, sometimes against the wishes of the owners of that land. Targets have been set for so-called affordable housing which will never be built. Land has been zoned for light industrial or office use against the wishes of the landowners.

In the larger towns and settlements, which are what really matter to the county council, the reverse is the case. There huge developments have been pencilled for Llanelli, Carmarthen, Cross Hands and Ammanford. Objections will be brushed aside, ways will be found to get around obstacles such as linguistic impact assessments.

Why are they doing this?

The answer is that councils like development. Working on big, brash exciting new projects where you can stamp your "vision" on the map is much more exciting than dealing with Mr and Mrs Jones's single storey extension. But more importantly, big development means money. Money for new roads, schools, hospitals, more council officials, more council tax. More of everything. And more money means more power.

What can we do?

The LDP needs to go back to the drawing board and be made to reflect the realities of the world we now find ourselves in and what communities across the county want. As it now stands, the plan is being driven by developers and council power machines.
  • Respond to the LDP consultation by filling out this form. You have until 19 August.
  • Lobby your county councillor and give him or her a wake-up call.
  • Lobby your Assembly Member. For many of us that will be Rhodri Glyn Thomas
  • Sign this petition which is calling for the re-call of all LDPs across Wales.

Friday 15 July 2011

Killing Democracy the Constitutional Way

I had planned to write about something other than Carmarthenshire County Council today, but it seems that hardly a day goes by just lately without something happening which shows just how authoritarian and undemocratic our council has become.

While the farce over filming continues, the Carmarthen Journal reported how Councillor Siân Caiach had suffered another setback in her attempts to get a debate on the closure of day clubs for the elderly. A motion to debate the matter and reconsider the policy being pursued by the council was rejected by the chief executive, Mark James, on the grounds that this area of policy comes under the remit of the Executive Board, as set out in the county's constitution.

Time to take a deep breath and examine the constitution therefore.

You can find the constitution on the website under the heading Councils Constitution (yes, they don't know how to use apostrophes). We are told that the council has adopted a new constitution, although as none of the documents is dated, it is not possible to determine when this came into force, to find out how it differs from the old one or why the council decided it need to change the rule book. It is also clear, as I shall explain below, that tinkering with the rules is still going on.

The constitution itself is set out in a very long list of bulky documents, and the language used is a schizophrenic mix of the folksy (e.g. What's in the Constitution?) and pure, hereinafter legalese. It is also liberally sprayed with lots of nice warm words, such as accountable, transparent, democratic.

Fortunately, the council has made the critic's job slightly easier by using a pdf format, so that words can be searched. Searches for filming, recording, photography return nothing. On the other hand, search for chief executive and you get an avalanche.

As you work your way through, a pattern emerges. Rights of councillors and the public are described in clear terms, only to be qualified, restricted or made irrelevant by provisions elsewhere.

Let's take a couple of examples.

Members of the public who live in the county or own a business there may submit questions to the chief executive in writing no later than 7 days before a meeting of the full council. But you have to name the member of the council to whom the question is to be put. 99.9% of people in the county will not know who is responsible for what on the council, and unless they understand the labyrinthine structure of the council, their question will be invalid.

If your question has surmounted those hurdles, the chief executive then decides whether the question is to be allowed. He may determine that he thinks the question is frivolous or offensive, is subject to his interpretation of "exempt" information or whether it is substantially the same as a question which has been put to "a council meeting within the last six months". A council meeting is a very broad term. During the course of six months, there will have been many meetings, and the questioner has to be familiar with all questions asked at all meetings to get round this one.

Then, you may ask only one question. If you wanted to ask, for example, Is the council providing funding to third sector bodies which have taken over the running of day clubs? If so, how much? And will the funding continue next year, you would be asking three questions. Go back to Square One.

But even if your question does make it all the way, what are the chances that it will get a straight answer?

Now let's look at Siân Caiaich's little difficulty.

Councillors may submit motions, in writing, within certain time limits, etc., etc. to the (you've guessed it) chief executive, who then checks to ensure that all the rules have been followed. He must then confer with the chair of the council to decide whether the motion needs to be considered by the full council, or whether it should be sent instead to one of the committees or the Executive Board.

In plain language, this means that the chief executive can have a chat with the chair and simply remove the ball from the football pitch before play has started.

In the case of the day club motion, it is not clear whether this procedure was followed because the chair, Ivor Jackson, told the Carmarthen Journal, that the decision had been made by the chief executive and head of law and administration. "Nothing to do with me, guv", he wept as he peeled an onion.

Now, if Cllr Jackson as chair was not consulted, the chief executive has exceeded his powers and is in breach of the constitution.

But before he loses any sleep, there are plenty more get out of jail clauses to help him refuse a debate. Let's turn to Section 3. Here, under Functions of the Executive Board you will find among the (many, many) powers delegated to the chief executive:

Strategic issues in relation to the provision of adult services
Commissioning for Social Services

All client care services in residential settings (including
accommodation services)

Meals on wheels

So it's game, set and match. These are just a few of the swathes of policy which have been delegated by the Executive Board to the (unelected) chief executive and may therefore not be debated by councillors, unless he is in a good mood.

Although that still leaves the question as to why, at the most recent meeting of the full council, councillors were invited to consider the council's annual report on Social Care and to debate it. Surely, under the constitution, it has nothing to do with them?

Finally, if this was not depressing enough, the tireless work of improving the constitution and making the council more "transparent" continues. The most recent change has been a decision to end the right of councillors to call for recorded votes in committees. A recorded vote means that the names of the councillors and how they voted are put on record, so that we, the people who elect them, can see how they voted on a particular issue.

In reality, there are not many recorded votes at any level of the council, but let's imagine that there was a highly contentious planning application and that the planning committee was split. It has been known to happen. No longer will you know which way the various members voted unless you attended the meeting in person. But, of course, the layout of the chamber means that councillors who sit at the back of the chamber cannot be seen by the public.....

If you have got this far and know about the constitutions of other councils, it would be interesting to hear how we compare.

Thursday 14 July 2011

Keeping things under wraps - Part 2

Local government has many ways of concealing and withholding information from the public. One of the most powerful tools in the box is a provision under the Local Government Act 1972 which allows councils to declare information "exempt". In practice, what this means is the councils can withhold publication of information and exclude members of the public from otherwise public meetings while this information is being considered.

The purpose of this clause is broadly to protect the identity of individuals in circumstances where their financial affairs or other private information would otherwise be discussed in public and published; to protect the financial interests of the council itself to prevent disclosure of sensitive commercial or financial information which might affect a negotiation, or give companies, developers, etc. an unfair advantage in their dealings with the council; and to prevent publication of information in criminal cases. Fair enough.

All councils make use of these clauses, and Carmarthenshire is no exception. The question is whether the use of these powers is always justified, and whether there are sufficient checks and balances to prevent abuse, particularly in local authorities such as Carmarthenshire where a great deal of power has become concentrated in the hands of a very small number of people.

Carmarthenshire changed to a cabinet system of local government in 2004, and the most powerful body within the council is therefore the Executive Board, which is made up of senior members of the ruling political group (Independent and Labour) with attendance by the chief executive and various senior officers. It is usually the case that elected councillors will be heavily outnumbered by unelected officers at these meetings.

Minutes of the Executive Board meetings show that there is, at least on the public record, never any dissent or disagreement on any of the issues up for discussion and agreement. All motions are passed unanimously, always. In theory, the board is meant to decide at the meeting whether or not to apply a public interest test before declaring a report exempt under the Act and excluding the public. In practice nobody ever challenges a recommendation for exemption, and the motions to exclude the public are, of course, carried unanimously.

In the seven years since it came into being, the Executive Board has met 157 times, and there have been 78 instances of the use of the exemption clause. Sometimes several meetings will pass without an exemption, and then, like London buses, several will come along all at once.

Exemptions are usually, but not always, announced in the published agenda for a meeting, and it is sometimes possible to gain a sense of what was under discussion from the subsequent minutes. On other occasions, all you will read was that the board noted the contents of a report, or that they unanimously adopted one of the options outlined, without disclosing what that option was.

As an outsider, therefore, it is impossible to judge whether an exemption was applied for good reason or not, and at least on the face of things, it would seem that most of the occasions when it has been applied by Carmarthenshire are within the letter and spirit of the law. However, a number of oddities stand out, some possibly trivial, others less so. Here are a few of them.

Ammanford Cemetery makes two appearances in 2004, including one meeting held to discuss specifications for grave stone erection and amended rules and regulations.

A report on fees and charges levied by the Parc Gwyn crematorium was also declared exempt.

In 2006 the board considered a major capital investment in sports and leisure facilities at Ysgol Tregib in Llandeilo. Fast forward to 2011, and the council has just voted to close the school and move it to a new site.

Several of the county's pet white elephant projects make repeated appearances, usually with appeals for more money. These include Parc y Scarlets and the National Botanic Gardens.

For some reason the community hall at Llangennech makes two appearances on the secret list. First in connection with the relocation of a public library, and second when the hall management committee asked to be let off part of its financial commitments.

The county's Waste Strategy Implementation Plan is also considered so sensitive that it is twice covered with exemptions.

The abortive Carmarthenshire TV project is also hush hush.

In 2007, the council decided to purchase the former St Ivel creamery at Johnstown as a strategic investment. In 2010 it decided to give this site to the Towy Community Church, an American-style evangelical group. It is understood that the council paid around £750,000-800,000 for the site and it is clear that the church's ambitious projects will receive further substantial injections of cash from the council. Some strategic investment that turned out to be!

In 2010 the council undertook a review of its ownership of farms. The results of the review remain shrouded in mystery.

Some of the property deals come back again and again. A prime example is land at Machynys, Llanelli, which was sold for redevelopment as a hotel. It seems that the developers went back repeatedly to secure better terms for the deal.

The sums of money involved in these deals vary enormously from just a few thousands of pounds to many millions. Some involve investments which have turned out to be extremely bad for the council tax payer; others are exempt, it would seem, for no good reason at all. The transfer of ownership of a property from the county council to a town or community council (e.g. the YMCA building in Llanelli) is one such example.

It may be the case that some of these exemptions are simply the work of over-zealous council officials whose philosophy is to exempt "just in case". Other exemptions, such as the Johnstown creamery and Xcel bowling alley project, are hiding what look like incompetent decisions and waste of public funds.

The lopsided structure of the council and the powerbase built up by the chief executive mean that bad decisions can be swept under the carpet, and more public money poured down the drain without anyone appearing willing or able to challenge what is going on.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Democracy under lock and key - Part 2

By the time I had managed to get into today's meeting of the full council (after reading and signing statements, signing in, waiting for my escort, etc.), I had missed the first 15 minutes or so of the meeting, including the bit where councillors were asked to approve last month's porky pie minutes. The seven or eight lost souls in the gallery were all leaning over the edge of the balcony when I came in, either because something interesting had just happened below or because they were contemplating collective suicide.

Anyway, I arrived just in time for a very long statement read by one of the senior officers in a monotonous Ulster drone. The subject was social services, and the councillors were being asked to consider his annual report. On and on he went, and a couple of people left the gallery, presumably because they had decided not to end it all. Chief executive Mark James (why does he remind me of "Something of the Night Michael Howard"?) shared a joke with council chair, Ivor Jackson. Both looked pretty pleased with themselves. A victory for them, a defeat for democracy. Tee hee.

The debate then started. There was a reference to respite care. The Ulsterman showed a slight flicker of emotion at this point because the BBC had claimed in a recent report that Carmarthenshire had been cutting respite care. Not true, he said, studiously avoiding going into detail such as the closure of Yr Hafan, a respite care home, or the way in which eligibility for respite has been "developed".

Councillor Kevin Madge (deputy leader of the council and leader of the Labour group) stood up to huff and puff about the achievements of the council under the wise stewardship of Madge and Meryl. Everything had been turned round and was "coming to fruit". During his ramble, Cllr Madge repeated the phrase "to be honest" several times. My old grandmother warned me about people who did that.

Councillor Arthur Davies (People First), one of the more intelligent councillors, pointed out that the collapse of Southern Cross showed that councillors were right to reject Meryl's plans to close down a council-run residential home. The Ulsterman replied that the council had never veered away from a mixed public/private approach to residential care. It's just that the council had wanted to close (sorry, "develop") some of its homes.

A lady with a cut glass English accent put bolshy Councillor Siân Caiach in her place next by pointing out that the questions she was hoping to put to the Social Care Scrutiny Committee were too late, as the meeting had already been held. So there, with hockey sticks.

Questions were also asked about the development (closure) of day clubs for the elderly. Some of these have now been taken over by voluntary organisations, such as the WRVS. An officer helpfully explained that the council's day clubs were supported with public funds, whereas the WRVS were community organisations not supported by public funds, well all right then, supported with public money but at arm's length.

At this point Councillor Gwynne Wooldridge popped up. Cllr Wooldridge is not someone who has obviously spent much time in academic institutions, which is perhaps why he is cabinet member responsible for education. He was very proud that the auditor general had given the council such a clean bill of health, he said, and went on to praise himself and his colleagues for generally making everything better.

Some of the Plaid heavyweights then spoke up. Councillor John Edwards set the tone for the rest of the debate by raising concerns. The report contained some dark warnings for the future, he said. The council was now spending £77 million a year on social care, and this was clearly not enough. He warned again that the council should not become over-reliant on the private sector.

The council leader, Meryl Gravell, summed up. She began by reminding everyone just how important she is, as she had recently met a "very senior civil servant" in Cardiff and been interviewed by someone else. Having got that off her ample chest, she said that the "next administration" (hint, hint, there's an election next year) would face some very difficult choices. There was no more money, but demands on the services were growing. She did not seem too worried though. Perhaps she is planning on spending more time in the rose garden after the election.

Next up came the minutes of the two most recent meetings of the Executive Board. The main concerns raised here, again by Plaid members and Cllr Arthur Davies, were alcohol abuse and the fact that licences to sell alcohol are being showered around like confetti. In just one ward in Carmarthen 105 licences had been granted. Lots of tut-tutting.

Up to this point, very little Welsh had been heard in the chamber, but Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths and a couple of others now spoke eloquently and intelligently. A few people fiddled with their headphones. Mark James appears not to need them; or he just doesn't bother listening.

Councillor Pam Palmer (the one who complained about filming last time) sat primly in her twin set and pearls. She fiddled with her headphones, started listening to what the Plaid members were saying, then took them off. She was possibly worrying about the effect of the headset on her perm. Then she spoke. Cllr Palmer is so posh that she probably owns what we locals call a "ty ha", or holiday home, in the Surrey stockbroker belt. Quite how she puts up with all the rain and the uncouth local Welshies is a mystery. What she said was somehow lost on me.

At that point Cllr Madge stood up and started saying "to be honest" and I had to make a quick decision.

Faced with the choice between ending it all in a desperate leap from the balcony or trying to escape, I chose freedom. Only to get trapped in the stairwell, where the wardens picked me up.

Democracy under lock and key

County Hall in Carmarthen used to be a prison, and the place still looks and feels like one, with bare walls and corridors, flights of stairs and pokey offices which used to house the inmates. Until today, members of the public interested in observing the council in action would go round the side of the building, through an open door, up about half a dozen flights of stairs and along a corridor before emerging in the public gallery, which sits high up above the chamber itself.

Today the doors were locked, without a notice to explain why or what to do.

Visitors now have to go the the main entrance and queue up at the reception desk. Visitors wanting to go to the public gallery are then presented with a laminated sheet of A4 with a lot of verbiage on it saying that filming or otherwise recording of meetings is not allowed. You are instructed to read this first before being given a slip of paper with another statement on it. You have to sign this, confirming that you will not film or record any meetings. You then have to sign another visitor's slip which is then stuffed into a clip-on badge and wait to be escorted to the gallery.

It seems that two staff are employed for the purpose, and after a few minutes, I was duly escorted through three sets of locked doors, up the stairs, along a corridor which has a strong, indefinable and very unpleasant smell before being ushered into the gallery, where there are a couple of rows of hard, wooden benches, oh and numerous angry laminated signs reminding you that all forms of recording are forbidden. You are then locked in, and have to call extension 4208 and wait for one of the warders to come along and let you out (down the smelly corridor, through the locked doors, down the stairs, etc., etc.).

One of the warders was friendly and chatty. I asked him why the place had been turned into Fort Knox. Oh well, he said, it was all about a row over filming. "I'd best not say anything", he confided, before adding that he hoped they would install a camera system, although he had been told this would be very expensive. The other warder was rather less welcoming. Using my initiative, I decided I could let myself out when I wanted to leave, rather than phoning and waiting. I managed to get through the first set of doors which is operated by a switch, but then found myself stuck because I needed a swipe card to get through the next lot.

After a couple of minutes, the warders came along. Grumpy warder told me to go back up, phone and wait (except I couldn't because I was now trapped). Nice warder said, "no problem, I'll take you out."

There are no public lavatories, and because the gallery projects out across about a third of the chamber below, you often cannot see who is speaking. An even more sinister thought is that the spooks in County Hall will now be able to name-check every visitor to the public gallery and monitor us.

At least there is no strip search. Not yet, anyway.

Croeso cynnes i Gaerfyrddin. A warm welcome to Carmarthen.

I will follow this up with another report about what I saw when I was finally allowed in. And some of it was even smellier than the corridor.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Cynllun Iaith Sir Gâr - mwg a drychau

Cyhoeddodd Cyngor Sir Gâr ei gynllun iaith newydd ar gyfer y cyfnod 2011-2014 yn ddiweddar. Nod y cynllun yw trin y Gymraeg a'r Saesneg ar y sail eu bod nhw'n gyfartal, a chafodd polisi'r Cyngor ei gymeradwyo gan Fwrdd yr Iaith. Mae'n swnio'n dda, felly, gyda llu o eiriau cadarnhaol - mae yna sôn am strategaeth, gwella gwasanaethau, datblygu, hyrwyddo defnydd o'r Gymraeg, cydraddoldeb, gweledigaeth ac yn y blaen.

Dyfodol llachar yn ôl y Cyngor, ond beth am y gorffennol? "Ar y cyfan, rydyn ni'n hapus â'r ffordd y cafodd y Cynllun diwethaf ei roi ar waith, gan i ni weld cynnydd mewn rhai meysydd. Er hynny, rydym yn ymwybodol o feysydd eraill y mae angen eu gwella." Pa feysydd? Mae'r cynllun yn ddistaw.

O dan Ddeddf yr Iaith mae'n rhaid i'r Cyngor Sir gyhoeddi adroddiad blynnyddol am ei gynllun iaith. Daeth y cynllun diwethaf i ben ym mis Mawrth, ond hyd yn hyn, does dim adroddiad blynyddol ar gyfer 2010-2011 ar gael. Rhaid troi at adroddiad 2009-2010.

Fel arfer, mae periaint gormodiaith y cyngor yn mynd ati i chwythu geiriau hyfryd fel hadau dant y llew dros yr adroddiad. "Rydym wedi bod yn gweithio i sicrhau fod y ddarpariaeth o ran dysgu a gloywi iaith yn effeithiol (t4)".Mae yna sôn am strategaeth, gwella safonau ac ychydig iawn o ffeithiau nes i ni gyrraedd "Dangosydd Iaith 3 - Nifer a % y staff a gafodd eu hyfforddi yn y Gymraeg at lefel benodol o gymhwyster".

Enw’r cwrs                               Nifer                     Canran%
Ymwybyddiaeth Iaith                  28                             0.3%

Cwrs preswyl Glan-y-fferi           20          

Datblygu’r Iaith – llafar                23

Datblygu’r Iaith – ysgrifenedig      14

Cymraeg yn y gweithle                 48

CYFANSWM Y DYSGWYR   133                           1.7%

Roedd y Cyngor yn cyflogi dros 9,200 o bobl (ac eithrio athrawon a staff ysgolion) bryd hynny. Cafodd 133 hyfforddiant yn y Gymraeg.Yn ôl yr adroddiad, roedd 2,418 o'r staff yn gallu siarad Cymraeg - dim ond 26% mewn sir lle mae 50% yn siarad Cymraeg.

Polisi anonest ac anghredadwy yn y bôn yw cynllun iaith y cyngor, ond yn waethaf oll wrth gwrs yw ei bolisi cau ysgolion pentrefi a'r cynlluniau newydd i godi mwy na 11,000 o dai ym mhob rhan o'r sir, polisi sy'n mynd i arwain at seisnigo'r sir o fewn deg mlynedd.

Saturday 9 July 2011

Local Development Plan - it's consultation time again!

Two very interesting news items were carried yesterday by Golwg, the Welsh language news service, reporting comments made by Alun Lenny, a councillor on Carmarthen Town Council. They deserve to be widely reported because they concern the future of our county and the "vision" which our county council has for us. The original articles can be found here and here.

Last week, Carmarthenshire County Council published what it calls its "deposit Local Development Plan", or LDP, which will replace the current Unitary Development Plan. The consultation period extends until 19 August. Responses will be evaluated by an "independent planning specialist", and the plan will come into effect in 2013 and run until 2021.

The county council has decided that we will need 11,200 new homes by 2016 despite the fact that
the population is not growing. It justifies this partly by pointing to an increase across the UK in the number of people living alone, but also predicts that the population of Carmarthenshire will grow by 11% over the next decade.There are, however, good reasons for believing that the vast new housing developments being proposed would instead attract a new influx of settlement from England.

Just to the west of Carmarthen, the council has earmarked 320 acres of farmland for a development of 1,200 houses, with the consultation period for this particular development due to end next week.

Llanelli, Cross Hands and Ammanford have also been allocated massive new housing developments, and even the smaller settlements across the county have swathes of land earmarked for housing. In Newcastle Emlyn (population roughly 900), a total of 89 new houses are planned, equivalent to a population increase of between 20% and 30%. It is the same story across the rest of the county.

Alun Lenny says that there are currently over 2,000 properties which have been empty for quite some time, and anyone who has travelled around the county will know that there are forests of For Sale and To Let signs wherever you go.

Cllr Lenny wonders whether our infrastructure (roads) and services (hospitals, social services and schools) are capable of handling such a large influx. In Carmarthen the Glangwili Hospital is already struggling to meet demand, and the plan does not tell us whether money will be forthcoming for massive expansion or a new hospital. With jobs like hens' teeth, it is also pertinent to ask where all these additional people would work.

Carmarthenshire has the largest population of Welsh speakers in all Wales, and approximately half of the population speak Welsh. As Alun Lenny points out, a large influx of non-Welsh speakers will forever change the identity of our biggest towns and deal a shattering blow to the language.

But even if you don't worry about the survival and well-being of the language, you should care about what the council has in store for us all. In the last few years it has wrecked the historic town centre of Carmarthen and succeeded in turning the oldest town in Wales into just another clone town. Now it wants to build huge, sprawling housing developments around all of the larger towns, dealing a huge blow to our quality of life.

Cllr Lenny goes on to hit the nail on the head by asking whether the real reason for all this development in Carmarthen is to justify the St Catherine's Walk shopping centre, one of the crown jewels of the county council under chief executive Mark James, who should list breeding white elephants as his hobby on Facebook.

Pointing out that the LDP consultation has been set to coincide with the summer holidays, Cllr Lenny says he believes the timing is a cynical and deliberate attempt by the county council to ensure that as few people as possible respond to the consultation.

He might have added that to make double sure, the LDP itself is buried deep on the council's flaky website under tons and tons of documentation, with the feedback form designed to put off anyone but the most determined of objectors. There is also a fair chance that the "independent planning specialist" who will assess responses to the consultation will turn out to be Nathaniel Lichfield Partnership who have a close and loving relationship with the county council's planners.

Carmarthenshire County Council does not have a good record on consultation. Actually, that is an understatement. The council has an appallingly bad record on consultation, as it regularly ignores any messages it does not like and ploughs ahead regardless. Only last week we saw the council approve plans to merge two secondary schools in Llandeilo and Llandovery despite 91% of respondents to the statutory consultation opposing the proposal.

Of course, if we don't bother the LDP will be forced on us anyway, so let's hope that as many people as possible go to the public meetings being organised around the county or take time to fill in the response form. I have no doubt that Cymdeithas yr Iaith will take up the challenge, but let's hope also that public bodies such as the Countryside Council for Wales, the political parties, the Environment Agency and others lead the way.

Friday 8 July 2011

Respite care and Telecare

Anyone who cares for a severely disabled child, an elderly relative with Alzheimers, Parkinson's, etc. will know how important respite care can be. BBC Wales carried a report earlier this week on how a few Welsh authorities have been cutting respite provision, and it came as no surprise to residents of Carmarthenshire (slogan "improving the way we live") that our county is one of those leading the way towards the "Big Society" and a braver new future where people are told to stand on their own two feet.

No surprise either that Carmarthenshire County Council should deny that it has been cutting respite care to save money. Just as it recently announced that it was "developing" day clubs for the elderly by closing them, it is also busy changing the rules on eligibility for respite care. Here is Head of Integrated Services, Sheila Porter: "The service for accessing respite care has not changed, although we have applied the rules on eligibility to make it fairer for all".

Good to see that Sheila has passed her spin GCSE with flying colours.

Another service offered by the council is called Telecare. This involves installing electronic sensors in the homes of mainly elderly people to detect unusual patterns of movement, carbon monoxide, front doors left open, etc. For many it means the difference between independent living and moving into residential care or sheltered housing. So it's good for the people who use it and good for the council's finances.

Recently the council decided to introduce charges for the scheme, and the rate has been set at a modest £2.59 per week. Not much, but for many of the people who use the service and for whom every penny counts, that is another big drain on their squeezed budgets.

The only record of the meeting where this was decided tells us only that the charges were agreed. More than likely, nobody present (i.e. the councillors we elect and pay to do these things) thought to ask how much it will cost the council to administer these charges. £2.59 or more quite possibly.

So the net effect is that the frail and vulnerable will be digging deep into their pockets to help pay for the county's bureaucracy.

Thursday 7 July 2011

Carmarthenshire - a foggy cloud

Anyone trying to access Carmarthenshire's website by googling "Carmarthenshire County Council" since Monday afternoon this week will first have been presented with a bi-lingual banner page asking you to choose Welsh or English. No matter which language you choose, you will then be met with an announcement, which begins as follows:

Website Downtime
Unfortunately the Carmarthenshire County Council website is experiencing down time due to essential maintenance.
The website will be down from May 13th until the14th May. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause.
Gwefan lawr
Yn anffodus mae gwefan y Cyngor Sir i lawr oherwydd cynhaliaeth hanfodol.
Mi fydd y wefan i lawr rhwng Mai 13eg a 14eg. Rydym yn ymddiheuro am unrhyw anghyfleustra.
 Remembering that we are now in July, you may be forgiven for feeling a little confused.

Somewhere recently, the council published a report praising its own website and pointing out that it enables council tax payers (or "customers" as we must learn to think of ourselves) to access a number of different services, make payments, etc. I'd like to tell you where that report is, but I can no longer find it.

Earlier this week, geeks the world over would no doubt have been thrilled to read the following press release produced by Xsigo Systems Inc. It tells us that the county council, which likes to think of itself as a "technology early adopter", is moving towards cloud computing. At the moment, that cloud seems to have descended very low indeed, with zero visibility for most of this week.

Residents of Carmarthenshire who have tried finding information on the council's website (when it's up), or who have been to a public meeting in County Hall and seen the mainly grizzled old councillors, may well struggle to associate their council with cutting edge technology, progress or dynamism. Only a few weeks back, after all, a member of the public was arrested for holding a small metallic device commonly known as a mobile phone.

The contrast between the council's PR and the reality is, as ever, depressing. The website has suffered a lot of downtime this year, usually at weekends it is true, but to have a almost a week of downtime from an important branch of government in this day and age is simply utterly unacceptable.
When the service is finally restored, it is worth having a look at the main menu page. The main options reflect the way in which the council organises its own departments rather than the way the rest of us might think. Want to know how to register a death? Click on "Community and Living". Want to contact Trading Standards? Go to "Environment and Planning".

 But there is some good news. If you google a specific topic, such as "Carmarthenshire County Council Agendas", you should find that you can access the website through a back door.

Meanwhile, it appears that while the cones and yellow tape have been up, some kind of cleaning has been going on inside, with important documents, such as the "Statutory Consultation on Tri-Level Reform in Dinefwr" (i.e. the row over the merger/closure of secondary schools) disappearing and then re-appearing. Attempts to read some of the public reports produced by the council meet with an angry "Access Denied" message. Let's hope Mrs Mop doesn't flush away any documents which the courts may wish to inspect.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Ar Lafar - tafodieithoedd newydd a dysgwyr

Testun y rhaglen ddiwethaf o'r gyfres wych Ar Lafar yr wythnos hon oedd 'tafodieithoedd newydd', hynny yw dylanwad y Saesneg a'r cyfryngau newydd. Bu sôn am y ffaith bod yr iaith lafar yn benthyg mwy a mwy o eiriau ac hyd yn oed strwythurau gan y Saesneg ers canol yr 20fed ganrif, a bod pobl ifainc yn cymysgu Cymraeg a Saesneg i raddau mawr. Dyw'r "iaith go iawn" yma ddim "mor intimidating fel Cymraeg ffurfiol" fel y dywedodd un o'r cyfrannwyr. Ond fe nodwyd hefyd fod iaith pobl ifainc yn tueddu i safoni wrth iddyn nhw fagu plant a chyrraedd canol oed.

Cafwyd sgwrs ddiddorol iawn gyda'r ieithydd adnabyddus David Crystal am yr effaith gadarnhaol a gaiff y we, tecstio, Twitter, Facebook ac ati ar yr iaith. Suddenly Welsh achieves an extraordinary diversity of presence it never had before, meddai cyn ychwanegu ei bod hi'n bwysig iawn bod pobl ifainc a phobl hŷn yn parchu eu ffyrdd gwahanol o ddefnyddio iaith. The biggest threat...comes not from English, but from within (wrth i'r cenedlaethau ddadlau am safonau'r iaith).

Pwynt da iawn, ond dw i ddim yn cytuno'n llwyr. Does dim dwywaith fod mewnfudiad pobl ddi-Gymraeg i'r Fro Gymraeg yn tanseilio'r iaith yn ein cymunedau hefyd.

Dywedodd Dr Enlli Thomas sy'n ymchwilio i'r berthynas sydd gan blant gyda'r ddwy iaith fod dysgwyr yn mynd i gael dylanwad dirfawr ar strwythurau'r iaith yn y dyfodol. Mae mwy o ddysgwyr na siaradwyr brodorol yng Nghymru, meddai, ac mae nodweddion iaith dysgwyr yn wahanol. Nhw ydy dyfodol yr iaith.

Ydy hynny'n hollol wir? Rydym yn sôn am grwpiau gwahanol yn y cyd-destun yma:
  • Oedolion
  • Plant sy'n cael eu haddysg trwy gyfrwng y Gymraeg mewn ysgolion bach
  • Plant sy'n cael eu haddysg mewn ysgolion mwy eu maint trwy gyfrwng y Gymraeg ond wrth ochr plant Saesneg eu hiaith
  • Plant sy'n cael eu haddysg trwy gyfrwng y Saesneg ac sy'n dysgu Cymraeg fel ail iaith
Ceir gwahaniaeth rhwng yr ardaloedd di-Gymraeg a'r Fro Gymraeg, wrth gwrs, ac mae'n rhaid hefyd ystyried i ba raddau y siaredir Cymraeg gartref.

Sefyllfa gymhleth tu hwnt, felly.

O ran oedolion sy'n dysgu Cymraeg mae'n debyg taw dim ond rhyw 300 o bobl sy'n "croesi'r bont" ac yn mynd yn rhugl dros Gymru gyfan ar gyfartaledd bob blwyddyn. Dim digon i wneud gwahaniaeth i strwythurau'r iaith, felly.

A beth am blant sy wedi dysgu Cymraeg? Faint ohonyn nhw sy'n defnyddio eu Cymraeg ar ôl gadael yr ysgol? Dim ond canran isel, siŵr o fod. Y gwir yw bod yna sawl rheswm am hynny, ond heb os mae'r fath o Gymraeg sy'n cael ei dysgu yn ein hysgolion yn chwarae rhan bwysig.

Yn anffodus, mae'r sustem addysg yn codi ffiniau rhwng plant Cymraeg iaith gyntaf a phlant sy'n dysgu'r iaith trwy bwysleisio Cymraeg ffurfiol ac annaturiol yn lle canolbwyntio ar gyfathrebu mewn ffordd sy'n addas i'r ardal lle maen nhw'n byw. Fe ddylai hi fod yn bosib dysgu "Cymraeg cywir" wrth ochr yr iaith lafar, yn union fel y mae plant Saesneg eu hiaith yn dysgu ein bod ni'n dweud nait ond bod rhaid ysgrifennu night neu knight.

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Consultation - here's how it works in Carmarthenshire

2008  Camarthenshire County Council announces its "Tri-Level Reform" programme, part of which involves the merger of the two secondary schools in Llandovery and Llandeilo.

January-March 2009 The council conducts an "informal" consultation and receives almost 8,000 responses. The report which followed noted that there had been "strong representation" in favour of keeping a secondary school in Llandovery.

February 2010 Despite the strong opposition from parents, governors, residents and others in Llandovery, the council announces that it has chosen a site at Ffairfach just outside Llandeilo to build a new school. For children from Llandovery and the surrounding area, this will mean journey times of up to 3 hours a day.

April 2011 The council launches its formal public consultation, with a closing date of 17 June 2011.

May 2011 Councillors and council officials meet parents, governors and others as a part of the formal process. Some very stormy meetings take place, and the strength of feeling against the Ffairfach site is clear.

24 May 2011 The Carmarthen Journal quotes Cllr Gwynne Wooldridge, cabinet member responsible for education, as saying that "the consultation is going very well". He praises three local "Independent" councillors, including the councillor for Llandovery, Cllr Ivor Jackson, for their support. Robert Sully, Director of Education, says that "hearts and minds have been won". Cllr Jackson is interviewed in the same edition following his promotion to chair of the council with an additional £11,000 in allowances.

June 2011 Jonathan Edwards MP and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM issue a statement expressing grave concerns about the way in which the Ffairfach site was chosen.

17 June 2011 The consultation ends. According to the formal consultation document (see page 28), the council will now analyse the responses and its Executive Board will meet in September 2011 to make a decision.

4 July 2011 the Executive Board of Carmarthenshire Council meets and approves the proposed merger and the Ffairfach site, although it notes that 91% of the responses received opposed the Ffairfach site.

In a bizarre footnote to the scandal over the closure of the primary school at Capel Iwan (remember the headlines about the "school with no pupils"?), the report considered by the Executive Board notes with satisfaction that consultation with the staff and parents of Capel Iwan school was completed and the school closed. Except, of course, that there were no pupils or parents because the school effectively closed a year ago, but because of bungling by the county council over the public consultation, it had to remain officially "open" for 12 months with staff on full-pay.

Caebrwyn, who has a child at Ysgol Gyfun Pantycelyn, has written passionately about the Pantycelyn story here. What makes particularly chilling reading is the scathing comments the council's report reserves for all those opposed to the plan.

Although our democracy is far from perfect, as can be seen by the way the council has bulldozed this decision through, we can at least be grateful that the county council cannot yet send its critics off to the gulag for "re-education", although judging from the comments its reports make, this is something Carmarthenshire County Council would clearly like to do.


Mr Sully responded to questions put by South Wales Press on the timing of the decision by saying that the statutory consultation document was incorrect because of a drafting error. Really? Presumably the cock-up over the closure of Capel Iwan school was another of his little clerical mistakes.

With only 16 calendar days between the end of the formal consultation and approval by the Executive Board, it is hard to believe that any serious consideration was given to the views of parents, staff and governors of Pantycelyn.

If the Welsh Assembly Government does not see this as reason enough to stop the council in its tracks, I am sure the courts will.

Update 7 July 2011

The council's website has been more than a little wobbly just lately, and the link to the original statutory consultation document suddenly stopped working. A Word version of the same document can be found on the council's website, although the timetable it sets out is, well, dramatically different. Of course, the document which counts is the version which went out to the public, so just in case it gets "lost" again, here is the revelant section:

The statutory process
Date Process
April 2011 Consultation document produced
May 2011 Consultation meetings with all stakeholders
June 17th, 2011 Closing date for receipt of observations on the proposals to be received by
Carmarthenshire County Council
July 2011 Analysis of responses to Formal Consultation document prepared for
Executive Board
September 2011
Executive Board decision whether to approve publishing a statutory
If approved: publication of statutory notice
If not approved : proposals end
October 2011
End of formal one month objection period.
If there are no objections, the Executive Board of Carmarthenshire County
Council will consider the proposal again and can decide to proceed with
the proposals.
October 2011
Final date for objections to be forwarded to the National Assembly, where
the proposal could be accepted, rejected or modified.
Decision by Welsh Assembly Government (if required)

Monday 4 July 2011

What does Wales want from its councils?

Caebrwyn's campaign to persuade councils to open up and either allow filming or produce their own streaming video of council meetings seems to be getting some traction, as you can see here. But that is just a start to the reforms we need.

There is just under a year to go before all 22 of our county and county borough councils come up for re-election, so now is a good time to start thinking about what we would like from their town halls over the next few years, because election time is the only time many of our councillors listen to what people have to say.

Being able to view council meetings on-line in your own time is probably not the top of most people's Christmas wishlists, but of course the principles at stake go far deeper and touch the heart of local democracy; it's all about transparency and openness and encouraging greater public participation in local government.

The sad truth is that voter turnouts at local elections are low, and very many community councils are returned unopposed because not enough candidates are willing to stand. And we all know that there is deep cynicism and disillusion among the public with the whole process. Like it or not, perceptions that there is endemic corruption in local government, that this or that issue is a "done deal" and all opposition therefore futile, or that freemasons dominate our councils are commonplace. The best cure for that, as an American politician once said, is to let the sunlight in. The more transparency and the more involvement people have in their councils, the harder it will be for corruption and back-scratching to thrive.

But what else do we want? Putting purely local issues and party politics to one side, what else would we like to see in the manifestos across Wales? Here are a few random thoughts.

Council "newspapers". There may be some genuinely good ones out there, but some are nothing more than propaganda sheets which would have us believe that everything is getting better and better under the wise stewardship of councillors XYZ and chief executive Bloggs. Either scrap them or have a code of conduct which ensures that we get real, unbiased information, not pictures of grinning council leaders and chief executives planting trees, cutting ribbons and handing out awards.

What about the age, sex, calibre of people who stand for election? There appear to be some Welsh councils with people under the age of 65 and even women serving as councillors, but others where the average age is probably about 72 and men outnumber women by about 10:1. Wouldn't it be great to have councils which came just a little closer to representing the communities they come from, with a healthy cross-section of ages and social backgrounds and a good many more women?

How about a code of conduct which obliges senior council officers and councillors with executive responsibilities to have an open-door policy? Scandinavia famously has bicycling monarchies, but all too many of our town hall barons shun contact with the public and are whisked around in limos (at least in Carmarthenshire). So let's put them under an obligation to meet individuals or groups who want to talk to them, and let's make them get out of county hall every couple of months to listen and explain. Even some county councillors complain that it is hard to get meetings with the top brass.

Sharing services. There has been much talk of the financial benefits of pooling resources between councils, and you have to wonder if Wales really needs 22 chief executives, deputy chief executives, and heads of this and that. There is also a growing consensus that 22 local authorities plus 3 National Park authorities is, to put it mildly, massive overkill with a huge duplication of effort. But it goes further than that. As I look out of my window, I can almost touch Ceredigion, and the nearest council tip is only about 11 miles from me. But I am not allowed to use it and have to travel twice that distance to a tip on the other side of Carmarthen if I want to get rid of bulky household waste. Time and again we are told that projects which involve cross-border cooperation are a non-starter because of the bureaucracy. Not only is this wasteful, but it is damaging communities, and with 25 different authorities, there must be a lot of people affected by boundary nonsense.

Planning. How much scope there is for modernisation of the planning system without root and branch reform coming from the Welsh Government is open to question, but councils do have some leeway. Perhaps one thing which could be changed at a local level is the way in which major planning applications are handled. There should be mandatory and structured consultation with local communities as a part of the process; at present, this is entirely voluntary.

The list could, and should, go on, and these are just a few ideas.I hope that other Welsh bloggers will take up this theme over the coming weeks and months so that we can create a dialogue across the country and give feedback to the parties, councils and individual councillors. So, bloggers and blog readers of Wales unite! What do you think?

Saturday 2 July 2011

Gŵyl y Ddraig Euraidd yng Nghastellnewy' heddiw

Cynhelir yr ŵyl ddwyflynyddol 'ma am y trydydd tro, digwyddiad sy ddim at ddant pawb a bod yn gwbwl onest. Iep, mae'r 'oes newydd' wedi cyrraedd. Tybed, ydy hi wedi dod i weld y ffalws?