Wednesday 12 October 2011

The Council of Despair Part I

Being at a loose end, I decided to undertake the trek over to Carmarthen to watch today's meeting of the full Council. I really wish I hadn't.

As usual we had to endure the rigmarole of reading and signing declarations before signing the visitors' book, followed by a long wait until someone came to ferry the latest consignment of lost souls into the Pit of Hell, the foul smelling and stiflingly hot Public Gallery.

Following complaints from various members of the public, the guards now give a little spiel about what to do in case of fire. This involves being told to sit tight and wait until someone comes to rescue you, although the locks on the doors would open automatically, we were told.

But lights, camera, action!

Chair of Council, Cllr Ivor Jackson, began by warning that the fire alarm system was on the blink. If the alarm sounded, the meeting would be adjourned and everyone should go to the Members' Lounge, he said, forgetting that for anyone in the public gallery this would have meant leaping to an almost certain death.

Councillor Jackson is the living embodiment of the adage that in working life people rise to the level of their own incompetence. There are quite a few charmless, unpleasant and incompetent characters on the benches in County Hall, but Cllr Jackson leaves them all standing. In no other organisation would anyone pick him to run meetings or represent the Council to the wider world. But Carmarthenshire did.

There were a few apologies, including one from Cllr Siân Caiach, the flame haired radical leader of the People First group who regularly upsets the chief executive. Cllr Caiach is not well liked by many of the elderly councillors, and a chorus of cat calls met the announcement that she was busy trying to catch some loose sheep.

Cllr Alan Speake (Plaid Cymru) was unable to attend but had asked the Council to note that World Anti-Slavery Day was fast approaching. Cllr Jackson managed to spit this out with what looked like a sneer, and the chamber echoed with guffaws from the ruling Independent Group. Even in this enlightened age, it seems, there are still people who can find slavery amusing.

Next we moved on to a very long and tedious round of congratulations and back-slapping. Someone had had a grandchild, etc., etc. C'mon our boys! (official wishes for the success of the national rugby team in the World Cup). The grizzled form of Cllr Wooldridge (executive member for education and children's services) stood up to give an account of a visit to St. James's Palace in London with Director of Education, Robert Sully, to meet HRH the Duke of Edinburgh on the occasion of some beano to celebrate the DofE Awards. On and on he guffed about the success of schools in his care. He had even been close to the gilded throne, and the Duke had spoken to both him and Mr Sully!

The mention of Mr Sully, who has done for Carmarthenshire's schools what the Luftwaffe did for Swansea, always gets teeth grinding. This is the man brought in from "Special Projects" by chief executive Mark James to head the county's education department. Mr James made use of special superman powers to bypass the usual recruitment procedures and consultation with anyone outside the magic circle to make Mr Sully interim head of education. Normally the post would have to be advertised and candidates sought who have the relevant experience and qualifications, with the appointment being approved by the councillors. But not Mr Sully. He may have a few GCSEs and some civil engineering qualifications, but there is nothing on his CV to suggest that his experience of education was anything other than the fact that he went to school and college.

But I digress.

Another superstar in the form of Cllr Pam Palmer, whose responsibilities include "youth services", got up to ramble on about the DofE awards. There were problems with "the youth" in some areas, she said, but the number of DofE awards being won in Carmarthenshire was fantastic. For some reason she referred to young people once again as "the youth" in her cut glass English accent. Strangely, the PR department forgot to tweet this on "her" Twitter microblog.

Next up was one of those absolutely meaningless local government box ticking and back-slapping occasions when someone called Alan Morris read a statement about the Wales Audit Office Corporate Assessment Letter for 2011/12. The presentation consisted of a (mercifully short) recital of the words "plan, progress, objectives, improvement, satisfied, consultation, improvement, progress, oh and a few minor areas where there was possibly a tiny bit of room for improvement".

To anyone familiar with Carmarthenshire County Council, this was a damning indictment of the Audit Office, which declared itself satisfied with the way the council consults and engages with the public, one of the areas of the council's activities which attracts the most complaints from the public.

Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths, leader of the Plaid Cymru group and leader of the opposition, pointed out some of the areas where there was room for improvement, including missing opportunities for capital savings and other efficiencies.

The council leader, Meryl Gravell, then gave a speech which would have most other council leaders in Wales throwing shoes and spitting if they had been able to hear it. They would have been very pleased to receive such a clean bill of health from the Audit Office, she purred, before going on to claim that no other council in Wales was so well placed to deal with the tough financial climate. In fact, she boasted, Carmarthenshire had been helping out its weaker brethren by accepting budget floors.

Next up was the truly awful Kevin Madge, leader of the Labour group. He could do everyone a favour, including himself, if he simply recorded a message to be played at every meeting. "I am proud...difficult decisions....great improvements have been made.....things are getting better.....the chief executive is delivering for is the leader (nod to Mrs Gravell)....others in Wales are praising Carmarthenshire (WHO, Kev, WHO?)...small swipe at the opposition who are always playing politics and grumbling.....improvement."

A message for all occasions. No preparation or thought needed. No car journeys. Just press the button and play. It would be so much easier, wouldn't it?

But just like Charles Dickens used to, I am going to keep you waiting in suspense for the next installment, where things actually get mildly exciting. But there will be no happy ending.


Photon said...

Brilliant! Take my blog award! What? I didn't win?

Mrs Angry said...

"and a chorus of cat calls met the announcement that she was busy trying to catch some loose sheep."
Cneifiwr: are you trying to tease we gullible English bloggers? I don't know what to believe in your post. As to being locked in the public gallery - surely this must be against all health & safety regs? Has there been a risk assessment of this policy? Have the Fire Service ok'd it?

Cneifiwr said...

Sadly all true, Mrs A. We have also been through the fire hazard and health and safety route.

Come the Revolution, a special invitation will be winging its way to Barnet for the job of tricoteuse. Do you knit?

caebrwyn said...

Can only agree with Photon, brilliant! and spot on. You have a way with words @cneifiwr - Can't wait for part two!

Mrs Angry said...

My knitting, citoyen, used to drive the nuns at my primary school to tears. My rabble rousing skills are better, and I am happy to sit at the foot of Madame Guillotine with blackberry and notepad.