Thursday 13 October 2011

The Council of Despair Part II

Memo to self: Charles Dickens used to end each of his installments with a cliffhanger. Kevin Madge's ramble (has anyone ever heard him give a different speech?) hardly fits the bill, does it?

The Chair switched on his microphone, but looked down and mumbled something to introduce the next item. He repeated this act throughout the meeting, and was clearly having difficulty reading the lines. Perhaps he should go and see Mr Sully for a remedial reading session.

Up next was something to do with sunbeds. Questions? No. Proposed? Seconded? Next, mumble mumble mumble. Yes, we had reached the bit everyone was waiting for. Constitutional amendments. Over the last few years many of the councillors have seen more of these than most people have had hot dinners. Thoughtfully, the Executive Board had batched two amendments together to save time on what was a foregone conclusion.
  •  Changes to planning procedures to give officers more powers to determine planning applications without consulting elected councillors on the Planning Committee
  • A new requirement for any motions submitted for debate to have the support of at least 7 councillors
Delegating powers to officers is a very common occurrence in Carmarthenshire, and so nobody was too excited about it. After all, the elected councillors have voluntarily surrendered so many of their powers to the unelected officers that there is not much left in the cupboard to give away. This was exemplified a little later in the meeting by Cllr Pat Jones who is executive member with responsibility for Social Care. She repeatedly thanked her lucky stars that she did not have to take any difficult decisions; all that was left to the officers. Otherwise she would have difficulty sleeping at night. So why are we paying you £30,000 plus, then, Mrs Jones?

There were several passionate speeches on the subject of the change of the rules on motions, with several of the Plaid councillors defending the right of free speech and democratic principles. The People First members pointed out that the new rules would make it impossible for minorities to be heard. Another Plaid member said that, as for democracy, he had never seen any sign of it since he first became a councillor.

It was quite stirring stuff until Cllr Stephen James (Tub of Lard Independent, Burry Port) heaved his massive frame to a vertical position. This was in fact a very democratic measure, he opined, because it would save both time and money, and that's what his voters wanted.

Cllr James is one of the younger councillors, being slightly south of 50, and he is a big fan of Tesco. He even issued a welcoming press release to mark the opening of their new store in his home patch. Judging by appearances, he seems to be a big fan of their Finest Cream Buns as well. On another occasion he got so excited by all of the improvements the council has made under the wise leadership of the woman he loves, Meryl Gravell, that he claimed Burry Port was on its way to becoming the Saint Tropez of South Wales.

This blog does not usually give medical advice, but on this occasion, Stephen, a trip to the Embarrassing Bodies clinic for a chat about those man boobs may be in order before you go topless in Burry Port.

Following the line of Cllr James's logic, the council should also abolish voting and elections because they take up time and cost money, and very few people are actually interested anyway.

Cllr Siân Caiaich, fresh from rounding up the sheep, rose to speak. The journalists on the press bench quivered with excitement at the prospect of a punch-up. Instead she calmly pointed out that not one of the handful of motions submitted by her group had ever made it to the chamber; all had been rejected by the chief executive.

In fact a motion of no confidence in Mery Gravell put down for debate that day had also been rejected by the chief executive, Mark James. Mr James told the Carmarthen Journal that he had rejected it because in his opinion the proposers of the no confidence motion (Cllrs Caiach and Davies) were really trying to make a point about the proposed constitutional changes.

No, I can't see the link either. But in saying this, Mr James neatly summed up the county's constitution. It is whatever Mr James decides, in his opinion, it is. 

Cllrs Caiaich and Davies bravely fought on, pointing out that unlike previous changes, these new rules were being brought in in a rush and there were no background papers or justifications.

A bizarre tussle then broke out between the Chair, the chief executive and Cllr Arthur Davies. Cllr Davies never tires of trying to point out that Carmarthenshire County Council has become a one-man band. No matter what the issue, from drainage to finance to law, the chief executive takes charge of the meeting and gives all the answers. Although several millions pounds worth of senior officers responsible for this, that and the other attend these meetings, they leave all the talking and explanations to Mr James.

Cllr Davies wanted his question on the legalities of the proposed changes to be answered by the new interim (yes, another one) Head of Administration and Law, sitting next to Mr James, rather than by Mr James himself.

The chair was not standing for this. Questions had to be addressed to him, he glowered, and he would decide who would answer them. For a fleeting moment I swore I could see Mr James's arm operating the old dummy.

Mr James was now very cross. "Everything I do is legal, and I am empowered by the Constitution (the one what I wrote) to carry out these functions." L'état, c'est lui.

Round and round the argument went, until finally the interim Head of Administration and Law showed us why she is worth a five figure salary.

The essence of Cllr Davies's question was, "Do you agree that the proposed changes on voting are discriminatory to minority groups?"

"No, I don't", snapped Mrs Rees Jones, showing us in just three words why legal advice is so crippling expensive.

After a small tussle over whether the two changes should be voted on separately, the Yoof champion and head of Modernising Local Government, Cllr Pam Palmer, briefly stopped trying to pretend that she was tweeting, and sneered that she graciously agreed to allow separate votes as a "gesture towards democracy" .

The vote on changes to planning procedures was carried by a large majority. Although half a dozen Plaid members broke ranks and voted against the proposals on procedures for motions, Mark James carried the day.

Once again the butterfly of liberty lay crushed and lifeless on the floor of County Hall.

Mumble, mumble, mumble. The chair was moving us on to the next item. Caebrwyn has reported on the discussions on Single Status and Social Care, but special mention should be made of Councillor John Edwards. Cllr Edwards is a shining light in the gloom of County Hall. He opposed the motion to change the constitution, and throughout the meeting asked consistently intelligent and challenging questions. His grasp of issues puts the highly paid executive members to shame, with one of the most shameful being Kevin Madge who treated us to yet another rendition of his "improvement, progress, things are getting better" speech.

Then, right at the end, something rather odd happened. A Plaid member asked whether the Independent and Labour members of the Planning Committee had held a pre-meeting meeting on 15 September when a controversial supermarket planning application was being discussed.

The response was a blustering rendition of "How dare you suggest such a thing" from various members, including Labour's Terry Davies. Imagine a very pink, shiny round ball of smug self-satisfaction wearing glasses. Got the picture? Good. Mr Davies was feeling particularly pleased with himself, having just been voted in as deputy chair of the Planning Committee.

Despite their outrage, none of the Independent or Labour members was able to come up with an explanation as to how they just all happened to vote against local objectors and in favour of a the supermarket en bloc.

Next Cllr Pam Palmer, hyperactive today, stood up to announce in regal tones that it had been brought to her attention that some councillors had had a conversation in the gents' toilets in which it had been suggested that she had been heard instructing three members of the planning committee on how to vote in the supermarket planning application. If she was going to do that sort of thing, she said, she would do it discreetly by phone, before realising her mistake.

Fortunately for Cllr Palmer the seriousness of the charges were forgotten amid loud guffawing from the Independent benches at the mention of the gents' toilets.

So for any stand-up comedians booked for this year's Independent/Labour Christmas Party, all you have to do is stick to slavery and toilets, and they'll be rolling in the aisles.

The public in the gallery were left waiting for the Beadle to escort them back to the Workhouse, while the councillors shuffled off for lunch. Oliver decided for once that he would rather not ask for more.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant! Love it.

Anonymous said...

I think there are the makings of an important stage play here.

Cneifiwr said...

I'm not sure about an important stage play, unless you count pantomime as serious literature.