Monday 31 October 2011

Junk Mail and the true meaning of "consider"

After a week spent up in North Wales it was good to come home to some excellent news: Jacqui Thompson, alias Caebrwyn, won the award for the best political blog at this year's Wales Blog Awards. A very deserving winner who has succeeded in putting the spotlight on the rotten borough that is Carmarthenshire County Council.

In her latest series of posts, Caebrwyn has shown again why public scrutiny of this local authority is so important, even uncovering another sinister change to the constitution which was buried deep in the agenda of the last meeting of the full council meeting. So deep in fact, that it went through unnoticed and without any discussion whatsoever.

This blog has commented again and again on the perpetual tinkering with the council's constitution. The last meeting of the full council considered two changes: delegation of more powers to planning officers and a change in the rules on procedures for submitting motions for debate.

There was no discussion at all on the delegation of more powers to planning officers, and after some passionate pleas from a minority of councillors to safeguard free speech and democracy, the proposal to raise the threshold for motions was duly passed. As Caebrywn has discovered, no other council in Wales has anywhere near such a high threshold, with motions needing the support of 7 or 8 councillors (the drafting of the change is unclear on this point) compared with just one or two in almost all other Welsh councils.

Although a minority of Plaid Cymru councillors voted against the amendment, the Plaid leader on the council, Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths, defended his decision to support it on the grounds that it would prevent individual councillors or minority groups from submitting motions for debate which lacked substance. This was a reference to the People First group which has tried unsuccessfully on a number of recent occasions to secure a debate on a range of topics, including the closure of day clubs for the elderly. What Cllr Hughes Griffiths forgot was that none of the motions submitted by People First had ever made it to the chamber, but were all vetoed by the Chair and Chief Executive. So the constitution was changed to prevent something from happening which has never actually happened.

Tucked away deep in the same document was another rule change to alter the procedures for the submission of petitions by the public to the council. Until now, petitions had to be submitted to the Chair of the Council, whereas now they will have to be sent to the Chief Executive.

The justification for this change is to enable the Chief Executive to direct petitions to "the most appropiate political decision-making group for consideration". In practice that means that he will be able to bypass the full council and send petitions "for consideration" to the Executive Board, where there is never any discussion on anything and where everything is always approved unanimously. In other words, petitions which the Chief Executive does not like (i.e. in reality all of them) will be treated like junk mail.

Sadly, this change will make precious little practical difference because even when petitions were submitted to the full council, no debate was permitted under the constitution. But at least members of the public could have the satisfaction of knowing that their grievances would be heard by all of the councillors and the press instead of just the ruling elite, which is extremely unlikely ever to listen to anything which smacks of criticism of their decisions and policies (you only have to recall council leader Meryl Gravell ticking off councillors for showing "extreme weakness" by listening to people protesting against school closures).

Thanks to the new rule, bad news, criticism and unwelcome PR can safely be buried unnoticed by the ruling Executive Board in rather less time than it takes an abbatoir to deal with a pet lamb.

The change also undermines an important democratic principle, which is that petitions should be submitted to elected representatives who are accountable to the public, rather than officers who are not.

If this were not enough, there is plenty more tinkering with the constitution to come. The Executive Board's Forward Work Programme sets out a timetable for the next raft of changes in early 2012. No indication of what those changes might be will be available for another 4 months.

The latest meeting of the Executive Board on 31 October is an unusually busy one with a large number of items up for "consideration" (if consideration can be used to describe something normally despatched in well under a minute).

Three items concern what the council euphemistically calls its "Modernising Education Programme" (i.e. school closures). Two of the items concern highly controversial plans for schools in Llanelli, Llandeilo and Llandovery, and both have attracted formal objections from boards of governors, parents, etc. That means the final decisions will now have to go to the Welsh Government. The third announces the start of the statutory consultation on the primary school at Cwmifor, near Llandeilo.

Anyone familiar with how schools are closed in Carmarthenshire may feel a sense of deja vu when they read that there has been a sudden drop in pupil numbers at the school. That is usually achieved by undermining a school over a period of a couple of years and suggesting that it may not have much of a future. Stand back and watch pupil numbers fall as parents decide that they had better send their children somewhere else, and then start your statutory consultation. Simples.

Technically, the Executive Board is supposed to consider (yes, that word again) the objections, and that is what the agenda formally states. In the next breath, however, the board is recommended to plough ahead and approve the plans anyway. That kind of gives the game away about the meaning of the word "consider" in Carmarthenshire. If the council were truthful, it would use the word "ignore".

Sunday 30 October 2011

Porth Neigwl

 Most of us will have read reports and seen documentary footage of the growing problem of plastic waste in the seas and oceans, but it nevertheless came as a shock last week when we went to Porth Neigwl on the south coast of the Llŷn Peninsula and were confronted with unimaginable quantities of plastic rubbish.

A day or so earlier, we had been to the excellent Sea Zoo near Newborough on Angelsey. The Sea Zoo is an aquarium specialising in the wildlife to be found in the seas around Wales, and it includes a display on the problems of plastic waste which included pictures of a minky whale and a turtle washed up dead. Both were found to have huge quantities of plastic waste in their stomachs, and the whale had almost certainly died a slow and very painful death because the plastic had blocked its digestive tract.

Porth Neigwl, or Hell's Mouth to give it its English name, is a spectacular bay, with a beach that runs for at least two miles. The sand is backed by banks of shingle and low clay cliffs topped with sand dunes. Beyond that is a large area of low-lying and very sparsely populated farmland, criss-crossed by single track roads. It is remote and beautiful still.

At the eastern end, the beach is approached by 300 or 400 yards of track through the dunes, and there is a small car park. Even the car park is littered with plastic waste, most of which has obviously been dumped by visitors. Crisp packets, drinks bottles and other food containers nestle among the piles of dog shit, left despite the signs telling dog owners to clean up and the row of bins provided by the county council.

Someone had clearly decided to have a go at cleaning up, and a large tray of plastic rubbish lay abandoned half way down the track. The beach itself was covered with bits of nylon fishing net, syringes (quite a few of those), more plastic bottles and assorted bits of plastic rubbish. A lot of it had clearly been washed up, but a surprising amount had obviously been deposited recently by visitors coming from the land.

At the far western end of the bay and overlooking it from a headland stands Plas yn Rhiw, a National Trust property.

Despite its name, Plas yn Rhiw is not a grand house. In fact it is little more than a large farmhouse which was bought in a derelict state by three sisters in 1938. The Keatings were only modestly well-off, and they poured everything they had into renovating the house and gardens, always with the intention of giving it to the National Trust, which they did in the early 1950s. They continued to live in the house, and gradually bought bits of the land surrounding it to be gifted to the Trust.

The last of the sisters died in 1981, but the house is still pretty much as they left it. Walking into the house brought back memories of visiting old aunts, with the smell of coal tar, the ancient wireless set, the whiskery kisses, shelves of old books and battered old kitchen utensils.

The Keatings not only gave everything they had to restore their little corner of Llŷn, but also campaigned tirelessly against pylons, caravan parks and proposals for a nuclear power station on the north coast of the peninsula.

The power station was never built, and the pylons were not erected; but the caravan parks proliferated, and the sisters would be horrified to see the state of the beach.

Part of Porth Neigwl's problem is perhaps the fact that it is so remote. There are no nearby communities capable of generating gangs of volunteer cleaners. Undeniably some of the waste washed up in Porth Neigwl comes from far away, but equally, a great deal of it is Made in Britain.

Until public attitudes change, places like Porth Neigwl face a bleak future as giant dumping grounds and doggy toilets.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Foregone Conclusions

Time to put the spotlight back on planning in Carmarthenshire's increasingly out of control County Council.

In recent days we have seen a Conservative cabinet minister brought down for failing to stick to the rules and putting himself and his department in a position where there was a serious lack of transparency in decision making processes, thereby leaving both himself and others open to charges of commercial favouritism and worse.

Perhaps he should have taken advice from Carmarthenshire on how to get away with it, because the top brass there have developed lack of transparency into a fine art.

Caebrwyn reports on celebrations by three senior councillors to mark a decision by the county council to partner Tesco in the development of a site at Burry Port. At the risk of sounding like an M&S advert, these are not just any old councillors, but Cllr Clive Scourfield, executive member for Regeneration (which includes planning matters). Cllr Pat Jones, executive member responsible for Social Care, and the portly Cllr Stephen James, deputy leader of the ruling Independent group of councillors.

The Tesco store in Burry Port has received what is termed "provisional" planning, but the Planning Committee has yet to meet to give final planning consent. You would not guess that from the effusive press release issued by the Council.

"This is wonderful and long-awaited news", gasps Cllr Scourfield.

Cllrs Jones and James get all weak-kneed and trembly because they have been allowed to meet some of Tesco's regional managers. Mrs Jones describes it again as a "wonderful development".

The council's PR department goes on to gush in words which were clearly dictated down the phone from Tesco HQ, "the store will offer customers a wide variety of food, from the Finest to the Value range, as well as recycling facilities, an ATM machine and improved links to all areas of the town."

Wow. But hang on a minute, the Planning Committee hasn't actually formally given the application the green light yet. Heaven forbid that the committee members would be influenced by anything the council or their superiors might have said.

At this rate it can't be long before we see banners going up over County Hall announcing things like "Buy one golf course for nothing, and get one free."

And heaven forbid that they might in any way be influenced by politics, which is strictly forbidden isn't it? It was of course purely a coincidence last month that all of the Independent and Labour members voted in favour of another supermarket planning application. And the decision by Cllrs Scourfield, Jones, Palmer and others on the Executive Board to approve the sale of a car park for redevelopment as a supermarket a year or more before the Planning Committee had decided the same application clearly had no impact on the planning process, did it?

It was also slightly unfortunate that Cllr Palmer had to rebuke gossips among the councillors who had been whispering that she had instructed three councillors on how to vote on the supermarket planning application. That would be against the rules.

It was also just coincidence, presumably, that Cllr Terry Davies, the only member of the ruling Independent/Labour group to speak in favour of the 15 September decision was elected deputy chair of the planning committee in October with the support of the entire contingent of Independent and Labour councillors. That looks a bit political, doesn't it?

For all I know the good people of Burry Port really do want a new Tesco, but if I were one of them, I'd feel a lot more comfortable if I had confidence that the planning process was truly impartial and transparent. The sight of three of the most senior councillors cavorting about in field and giving the thumbs-up sign before planning consent has been given doesn't inspire much confidence.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Green Fingers and the Dead Hand of Local Government

The Welsh Government recently published its Programme for Government, and just about everyone who read it commented on the lack of detail and vague, unquantifiable targets set out within it. One of the proposed measures which was mentioned a few times in news bulletins was a commitment to encourage allotments. The official document released in Cardiff simply states that the Government will legislate on the amount of land available for allotments. You can't get much vaguer than that, can you?

But let's be optimistic and assume that Carwyn Jones and his team will come up with a measure which leads to a real and substantial increase in the availability of allotments across Wales, and that even councils like Carmarthenshire will be forced to create new allotments in communities which currently have none.

The trouble is that any legislation will have not only to make more land available but also prevent local authorities such as Carmarthenshire from wrecking any initiatives by strangling them in red tape and unreasonable dictates at birth.

In 2009 there was a brief flutter of excitement in Newcastle Emlyn at the prospect of the town getting its first allotments.

The proposed site was close to the centre of town, but discreetly tucked away and pretty much invisible to anyone worried about rickety garden sheds and the usual paraphernalia of allotments. The land was flat, being close to the River Teifi, and probably quite fertile.

A small group of stalwarts was formed to try to get the project off the ground, and discussions got underway.

The first obstacle was the need for the group to purchase a licence to use the land as allotments. The council officers involved did not seem entirely sure how this licence could be purchased or from whom, but they were sure that it would cost £200 plus VAT. VAT on a licence?

The group then quickly found itself sinking in the quagmire of council bureaucracy. The project could come under something called "Rural Hubs" and the Rural Development Team, but contact would also have to be made and discussions initiated with Hydrology and Planning.

A couple of meetings took place with council officials to try to find a way forward, but the initially enthusiastic volunteers came to feel that the meetings were being dominated by bossy and unhelpful officials who seemed more interested in laying down the law than trying to make the allotments a reality.

One problem with the site which rapidly became clear was that it was overrun with rabbits. The solution was rabbit-proof fencing at an estimated cost of £1,500. Next, the volunteers were told, work would have to be undertaken to reinforce the ground around the entrance to the site. Cost unknown. Then the council announced that the site would need a toilet, preferably of the composting kind. Cost unknown. Moreover, allotment holders would not be permitted to erect their own little sheds and lock-ups, but would have to fund a single shed serving the whole site, and the specifications and design of the shed would have to be approved by the council. There would also be further charges to have the ground staked out and prepared (but not dug), also work which would have to be undertaken by the council. In addition to that, there would of course be annual charges for the plots themselves.

By this time it was clear that the dozen people who had shown an interest would be facing bills of at least £500 per head before the first spade had gone into the turf. That's a lot of fruit and vegetables.

Sadly, the volunteers began drifting away, and the project broke up in acrimony. Remnants of the group carried on and entered into a few land sharing schemes in neighbouring villages, but that meant travelling four, five or six miles for anyone in town, rather defeating the whole idea.

And so we reach the end of this sorry tale. More suitable land is undoubtedly available, but the problem is that it is on the other side of the river in Ceredigion, and since that would involve cooperation between local authorities, only a madman would give it a second thought.

Meanwhile, Carmarthenshire showed what it thought of allotments in its proposed Local Development Plan. Scores of documents and thousands of pages, but not a single reference to allotments.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Par for the Course

The South Wales Evening Post reports on the latest twist in the row over Garnant Golf Course. According to reports, the course cost £1 million to be build, has been losing money at the rate of £150,000 per year, and a company is now being given a £200,000 golden hello to take the course off the council's hands for the next 25 years, with the first 6 years being rent-free.

At a conservative estimate, the course has cost the council tax payer around £3 million to date.

When the deal was first announced a few weeks back, Cllr Clive Scourfield (Independent), executive member responsible for planning and regeneration, expressed himself "delighted" with it.

Now Labour leader and deputy leader of the council, Kevin Madge, has taken a swipe at Plaid Cymru councillor Marion Binney (note to Evening Post sub - that is her correct name) for criticising what he presumably regards as a good deal.

So whereas council tax payers may have been expecting a little humility from the ruling Independent/Labour top brass on the council, and possibly even an apology, we are instead treated to bluster and arrogance.

Madge goes on to give us all a warning that the council is not obliged to provide swimming pools or other leisure facilities, a hint presumably of more cuts, closures, price hikes and deals with private sector operators to come.

In fact the council has been doing its best to empty its leisure centres for a couple of years now, with a policy of aggressive price increases for users. The result has been that quite a few yoga, aerobics, pilates and other groups have been voting with their feet and moving to halls and other facilities which don't treat them like cash cows.

A woman running one popular group said that the council noticed how popular her class was and upped the fees twice within a short space of time, to the point where she was paying the maximum on the published scale of charges. Still the numbers kept growing, so the council then asked for a share of her takings on top of the hire fee. This class has now moved to a neighbouring authority.

A group of fathers running a football training club for children aged 7-10 found they were being asked to pay more than double their existing fee for a quiet evening slot. That evening slot is now free.

Quite how this fits in with the council's much-vaunted "Feeling Fine" policy on healthy living has not been explained. Care to comment, Cllr Madge?

Meanwhile the public has been left wondering how the council could afford to waste so much money on a golf course (in Cllr Madge's ward, incidentally) while it does not have any money for services on which people rely. As Mr Dunckley points out in his comment on the Post story, Kev and his Independent chums have now cut subsidies for bus travel from the Amanford area to Swansea hitting people on low incomes who rely on bus travel to get to work.

Presumably Cllr Madge would rather see them take up golf.