Monday 28 November 2011

Tesco - Aberystwyth fights back - Updated

Eurwen has posted a comment on the story dealing with Tesco's plans to build a new superstore close to the historic centre of Aberystwyth which deserves a wider audience. It is reproduced in its entirety below.

Do look at Ceredigion Cllr Alun Williams' blogspot. It's not only Mrs Jones' street that's threatened with demolition, but the Park Avenue Daycentre for elderly and disabled people and related groups (Arthritis Care, Visually Impaired, Gateway Club for people with learning difficulties). An emergency group has been established to fight this demolition and Mrs Jones supports it. A petition with 4,000+ signatures is to be presented to Ceredigion Council on 6 December at 9.45am when Cabinet next meets. Silent vigils are held in protest each Saturday at Park Ave, 2-3pm. All welcome.

Cllr Williams' blog can be found here

It was a supermarket planning battle which led to the creation of this blog. In Newcastle Emlyn we fought for almost three years against a proposed development for yet another supermarket, and lost by a whisker in September when the Independent and Labour members of Carmarthenshire's planning committee voted as a group to accept the application, which contained serious and obvious flaws.

The developer insisted throughout that no specific supermarket group had done a deal to take over the site, but now a couple of months after planning was granted, rumours are circulating locally that he has done a deal with Tesco, which will expand its Cardigan store and build another in our town.

Fighting supermarket planning applications can drag on for years and years, and this process inevitably wears down local opposition. But Aberystwyth has some good cards in its hand, and there should be no shortage of people with the stamina and skills needed to dig in for the long haul. A campaign which brings together local people, politicians and the skills and expertise which exist in the university could well succeed in getting the plans changed.

Pob lwc i chi i gyd.


Another correspondent has informed me that in addition to the houses and the Day Centre, the Tesco plan will also require demolition of the Drill Hall, which may be a listed building.

Not only that, but work has already started on fitting out the Town Hall to house the Day Centre, which suggests that the public consultation on the plans is like the public "consultations" we are so familiar with in Carmarthenshire.

Sunday 27 November 2011

Friends in high places

Recent stories about links between Carmarthenshire County Council and a small number of fundamentalist evangelical Christian groups raise questions about the extent of their influence and their aims. This is not whacky conspiracy theory because, as we shall see, the groups themselves are quite open about what they are doing and some of their methods.

What is of concern here is not the voluntary work carried out by ordinary church members, but the overtly political aims of their leadership and the shadowy organisations these churches belong to.

Times have certainly changed. Nowadays the Trotskyists, Moscow-funded fronts and groups such as Militant Tendency have been replaced by a multitude of evangelical and fundamentalist Christian groups burrowing away in political parties and government at all levels. We have seen how sections of the Conservative Party have fallen under the sway of religious fundamentalists such as CARE, which is steadily growing its influence in the party through a self-perpetuating network of client MPs and interns.

Local government is also proving to be fertile soil for them in some areas. Unlike some of the reds under the bed of old, these groups are quite open about their aims, although often less than frank when it comes to funding and the operation of their "ministries". One example is an organisation called Gweini ("serving" in Welsh), of which Towy Community Church is a member.

Gweini, which also calls itself the Council of the Christian Voluntary Sector in Wales, is an umbrella organisation which is overtly political. Its aims are:

Representing…to all levels of government.
Networking… locally and nationally.
Informing… about funding and best practice.

The Gweini website gives quite a few tips on how to go about this. Here are two of them:
  • Setting up special charities works well for large projects, but for smaller ones it is often better to work under the radar using unincorporated associations, needing less paperwork and admin.  They can be multiplied as the work grows;
  • Use all the contacts you already have on the inside, e.g. Christians working in LAs [Local Authorities, ed.] with influence (ideally Chief Executives!);
 We are now entering a world which is every bit as complex as the most complex webs of trusts and companies so beloved of tycoons, with links to other organisations shooting out in all directions. Suffice it to say that Gweini was set up by CARE, an organisation with links to the American religious right, and which sees itself as a spearhead to influence government policy at all levels. It also issues "guidance" at election times, and encourages its adherents to stand for election or to campaign for favoured candidates.

CARE is a sophisticated organisation and is very careful in what it says on its website. Anyone wanting to know details such as CARE's view of Darwinian evolution, homosexuality, etc., is told to contact the organisation direct. But this is what they have to say about equalities legislation:

In recent years, however, equality legislation has begun to be unpacked in a way that is making life increasingly difficult for Christians subscribing to theologically mainstream and orthodox views.

Of course what CARE describes as mainstream and orthodox views would be regarded by many, including many truly mainstream Christians, as bigoted and extreme. In CARE's view of the world, people such as  Barry Morgan, Archbishop of the Church in Wales, would not be regarded as mainstream or orthodox.
A Gweini report tells us that only about 9% of people in Carmarthenshire regularly attend a place of worship, so that what we are talking about here is a minority within a tiny minority, but one which is beginning to exert a completely disproportionate influence over public policy.

But let's go back to those helpful tips. The choice of language in the first point about keeping projects "under the radar" is a little unfortunate, perhaps. But given the lack of visibility into Towy Community Church's finances, perhaps it is not just the small projects which are being kept under the radar.

Of course, there is nothing illegal about using contacts "on the inside, e.g. Christians working in Local Authorities with influence (especially Chief Executives!)" from the point of view of the churches themselves, but it should concern us all very much if powerful council officers were using their positions to further the interests of external pressure groups.

Normally the author of this blog would argue strongly that the religious beliefs and affiliations of someone such as the chief executive of a council are private and no concern of ours. But if those same beliefs and affiliations are determining council policy or major funding decisions, we have a right to know and a right to demand an end to this backdoor influence.

    Friday 25 November 2011

    Towy Community Church - feeding the 5000

    A few days ago Cneifiwr reported that Towy Community Church was a little late in providing the Charity Commission with its annual return. Accounts for previous years had been removed following a change in the church's legal status in 2010, when it de-registered as "Towy Community Church Trust" and re-registered as plain old Towy Community Church.

    Since then the church has provided the Commission with the delayed figures for 2010, but anyone hoping that these might cast light on the church's finances will be sadly disappointed because the church apparently falls below the £10,000 threshold which triggers publication of figures.

    By contrast, the smaller Living Word Church in Carmarthen reports income and expenditure of just under £29,000 for the year.

    Dearly beloved brethren, let us spend a few moments contemplating this miracle. Towy Community Church has persuaded the Welsh Government, the Lottery and Carmarthenshire County Council to stump up the best part of £2 million to finance Phase 1 of its estimated £5 million Project Xcel (bowling alley, 600 seater conference centre, cafe, furniture recycling, debt counselling, performing arts.....). One of the high street banks has also loaned an estimated £500,000 towards the project (secured on who knows what?). Meagre though it was, the church also contributed £17,000 to the project, council chief executive Mark James told councillors in May this year. It also somehow manages to support the pastor and his wife, pay the rent on its offices and pay the rent for the school and other council-owned buildings it uses (assuming that the council is charging rent).

    Even more miraculous, the Council Leader, Meryl Gravell, recently proudly boasted that Towy Community Church is the largest social enterprise in Carmarthenshire.

    Of course it may be the case that there is some other legal entity through which this funding and expenditure is being channelled, but searches on likely candidate names on the Charity Commission website fail to turn up anything.

    In March 2010 a company called Towy Community Church was registered with Companies House, which tells us that the company is dormant with assets valued at £0. 

    What we are left with is a modern equivalent of the parable of the loaves and fishes in reverse, with the church's revenue apparently now being rather less than it would cost to feed a family of 5, leave alone 5,000.

    Monday 21 November 2011

    Hell Fire and Santa Claus - Updated

    At the risk of sounding like Ebenezer Scrooge, I wonder why the council thinks it is such a good idea to get into bed with Christian fundamentalists to help distribute Christmas presents for deprived children in the county? Here is the council's official announcement of the initiative.

    Of course the aim of the scheme is a good one, and if it helps struggling families to avoid taking on more debt, we could welcome it. But the police, local higher education bodies, the health board, etc. are all involved in collecting toys, which will then be delivered to Towy Community Church, Myrtle House (aka Elim Pentecostal Church), Ammanford Evangelical Church and Communities First Pantyffynnon for distribution to needy families.

    In other words, apart from Communities First in Pantyffynnon, the council is outsourcing the last links in the chain to three fundamentalist churches, and it is they, presumably, who will decide who gets the toys. Perhaps parents wishing to pick up a toy may even be given a spot of evangelising and a few leaflets while they are at it. Who knows?

    A quick glance at the websites of these churches will give you an insight into what they are all about. Here's Elim Pentecostal Church on its core values:

    "We believe in the universal sinfulness of all men since the Fall, rendering man subject to God's wrath and condemnation."

    And that's it - their core values in their entirety. Short and to the point. Not much about love and forgiveness there.

    What about Ammanford Evangelical Church? Here's what it has to say about the Bible:

    "The Bible is God’s completely true Story about who He is, what He has done, what He is doing, and what He will do. It was given by God to human writers and so reflects their backgrounds, styles, and use of language. The Bible is the final authority on all matters of which it speaks.

     In His own time and in His own way, God will bring the world as we know it to an end. According to his promise, Christ will return personally and visibly to judge the living and the dead. Those who have received God’s grace will spend eternity in Heaven, whilst those who have not will receive their just punishment in Hell."

    Spot the difference between this view of the world, and that of Islamist fundamentalists.

    Which brings us back to our old friends at Towy Community Church, the council's own favourite Christian grouping, which told Wales on Sunday yesterday that it was a partner church in Mercy Ministries, the Tennessee-based organisation which believes, the paper tells us, that homosexuality and bulimia are caused by demonic possession.

    Like its friends in Llanelli and Ammanford, they too believe that the Bible is literally true and the "final authority in all matters of faith and conduct". Anyone who does not share their faith will suffer a similar fate to the sinners of Llanelli and Ammanford:

    "We believe in the second coming of Christ as the blessed hope set before believers, in the resurrection of the dead and in the final judgment of the world, the eternal conscious bliss of the believer and the eternal conscious punishment of those who reject Christ."

    In recent years there has been a growing crescendo of attacks by religious groups on what they see as the secularisation of society, with the fiercest condemnation coming from the religious right and the Catholic hierarchy, which still thinks it has a right to tell us all how to live and behave despite the multiple scandals involving the abuse of children and young women over decades. Let's imagine how things might have looked if they had had their say in the last 50 years.
    • Divorce would be illegal, or we would be stuck with the old divorce laws which caused so much suffering to so many people.
    • Suicide would be a criminal offence still.
    • Gays would be subject to persecution by the police and state and live in constant fear of being denounced and arrested.
    • Women with unwanted pregnancies would be visiting back-street abortionists kitted out with knitting needles.
    • Children would be taught creationism and "intelligent design" at school.
    Oh, the good old days!

    Are these really the sort of organisations local government should be collaborating with? There is something deeply worrying about the path Pam Palmer, Meryl Gravell, Mark James et al are taking us down.

    Bah humbug.


    Caebrwyn, triumphant winner of a year's subscription to Private Eye, has spotted an interesting report in the current issue here.

    I wonder when readers of the local press will finally get to hear about what their council is up to? After all, it's now been in Wales on Sunday as well. Let's hope there have not been any suggestions from County Hall that it might review its advertising spend with the Northcliffe Press.

    Under the circumstances, it was also a little unfortunate that the local papers should have thrown their weight behind the toy box campaign without getting their hacks to check out the story first.

    Sunday 20 November 2011

    Towy Community Church in the news

    Thanks to Caebrwyn's tireless combing of the press, Cneifiwr can report that Wales on Sunday has picked up on Towy Community Church's links to Mercy Ministries. The article can be found here.

    WoS has done a bit of its own digging, although it is very wide of the mark in its claim that the church has received council grants of just £55,000. The total value of council funding given so far is well over £1 million.

    Unsurprisingly, the county council's award winning PR department appears to have taken Trappist vows of silence, although I was informed by a reliable source that someone in County Hall was searching blogs using the term "mercy missionaries" (sic) a few days ago.

    They can't even get that right.

    At the most recent meeting of the full council, chief executive Mark James rounded on critics who had questioned why the council "does regeneration". They may do regeneration, but it seems they don't do due diligence.

    If and when the press get round to it, they may also like to ask him how the decision to buy the Johnstown creamery, now earmarked to house the bowling alley, was made and why a few years later the decision to pay this evangelical church a huge sum of money to take it off the council's hands came to be described by the council's award-winning PR department as evidence of sound financial management.

    Wednesday 16 November 2011

    The strange tale of Mrs Enid Jones

    Last night's Week In, Week Out on BBC Wales told the story of a supermarket planning battle in Aberystwyth, where Tesco wants to build a superstore close to the town centre.

    The site chosen is a council-owned car park which is surrounded on three sides by private housing (Cneifiwr sometimes parks there). Residents had known for a while that the council intended to redevelop the site as a supermarket, and Mrs Jones was not put off by that when she bought her house. In fact she indicated that her decision to buy was largely motivated by the thought of living close to the centre of town, so that in her old age she would be close to the shops and other facilities.

    Ceredigion County Council invited expressions of interest, and eventually selected a submission from a property development company acting for Tesco. The report which went before the council's cabinet was exempted from publication under the Local Government Act 1972, meaning that the public could not see it and that councillors could not disclose its contents to the people they represent.

    It turned out that the developers wanted not just the car park, but also 12 houses in one of the streets bordering the site. Those houses would be demolished to make way for Tesco.

    Because the report was exempted, Tesco, the property developer and the Council knew what was being proposed, but the people of Mill Street whose homes would be bulldozed were kept in the dark. You might innocently think that although the council, Tesco and the developer had a very large financial interest in the deal, the people with the biggest interest in the proposals were Mrs Jones and the other home owners.

    Mrs Jones and the other home owners became aware of what was happening when they were approached by a local estate agent offering to buy up their houses. Three of the 12 owners refused. Quite a few of the other houses were owned by buy-to-let landlords, Aberystwyth being a university town.

    Mrs Jones was then subjected to a campaign of what amounted to harassment, with people calling at her property outside working hours, and attempts were made by the estate agent to bypass what they came to see as an obstinate woman by contacting her daughter on Facebook to ask her to talk sense into her mother.

    Mrs Jones, it was clear from the programme, is a quiet woman who simply wants to lead an ordinary, quiet life. She would not see herself as an eco-warrior battling global capitalism.

    The position now is stalemate, but the developer (Tesco is silent on the whole story) now wants the council to put procedures for compulsory purchase into motion.

    Most people would consider compulsory purchase orders to be weapons of the last resort to be used sparingly and only in cases where there is some overriding public interest at stake (e.g. building a new hospital or some road projects). They most definitely should not be used to further the interests of supermarkets.

    The story also highlights the perverse way in which Local Government exemptions sometimes work. Of course there are cases where confidentiality is vital, but local authority lawyers operate under the maxim "if in doubt, exempt it to be on the safe side", and their decisions are rarely challenged. In cases like this, the senior officers and councillors should have asked themselves how they would feel if they were in Mrs Jones's shoes. They should also have asked themselves when considering the public interest test whose interests they were protecting. Tesco, the developer and the council all knew the detail of what was being proposed; only the public were kept in the dark.

    The programme included interviews with various people on the ins and outs of the supermarket debate, and unsurprisingly they found a range of opinions. The programme also cited a report produced by the University of Southampton which concludes that supermarkets in town centres can be beneficial to trade, but it should perhaps have mentioned that the report was commissioned by....Tesco.

    The story may yet have a happy ending. The council seemed decidedly nervous about the compulsory purchase idea, and Ceredigion has some notoriously bolshy councillors who quite often show real independence of mind. But the problem is, of course, that little Ceredigion may well find itself waging a battle against an infinitely better resourced opponent.

    When is a complaint not a complaint?

    Carmarthenshire County Council's Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee will be meeting today to consider a number of things, including the annual report on the council's Complaints and Compliments procedures.

    The council defines a complaint as:

    "An expression of dissatisfaction, however made, and irrespective of whether or not the Authority is responsible and whether or not justified."

    That sounds reasonable, doesn't it? But just as the council's constitution sets out rights and then qualifies them away into meaninglessness, so too does the complaints procedure. Here is the crucial wording:

    "Sometimes members of the public have specific rights of appeal or other remedies if they have grievances, and the corporate procedure is not appropriate in these circumstances. Complaints that fall outside of the corporate procedure include:
      Complaints where there is a right of appeal within the Council, or to an independent tribunal, or a legal remedy; Complaints about a Councillor; Complaints about Schools; Complaints about Social Services; Complaints by council staff about employment matters; Allegations of serious officer misconduct and criminal activity. Allegations of financial impropriety."
    That covers quite a few things you may have a complaint about, ranging from late or deficient responses to Freedom of Information requests, the daft and intimidating new entry procedures for the public wishing to observe public meetings, the ceaseless flow of amendments to the council's constitution to remove basic democratic rights and freedoms; to name but a few.

    The surprising thing is that any complaints are registered as complaints at all, but in the last year a total of 782 complaints did make it onto the list. They include matters such as faulty street lighting.

    The report is proud to say that there has been a small drop in the number of complaints (2.5%); but it also notes that there has been a rather bigger drop in the number of compliments (8.3%).

    It is also pleased to note that "resolution" of complaints is very high at between 86% and 100%, depending on the department. We are not told what "resolution" means, but it would seem that responses along the lines of "Dear Mrs Bloggs, after careful consideration we reject your complaint", would count as resolution.

    The author of the report goes on to provide what they describe as an "analysis" of the complaints. The analysis takes the form of several very badly executed tables of numbers and percentages, basically showing the number of complaints by department.

    There is no attempt to describe the complaints or categorise them by subject. All we know is that a number of complaints were received and "resolved", and so what we end up with is a typical local government box ticking exercise which concludes that (a) the council is doing a good job, and (b) the complaints procedure is working well.

    Presumably, this means bonuses will now be payable, and everyone except the complainants will be happy.

    Tuesday 15 November 2011

    County Council endorses Towy Community Church - again!

    I'm not making this up - honest. Stories about the county council and the American-style evangelical church are like London buses at the moment.

    For those old miseries who complain about the council's propaganda sheet, Carmarthenshire News, the latest edition is the stuff of our worst nightmares, with a colour picture of Cllr Pam Palmer grinning out at us and announcing that the county council is now working with Towy Community Church, the Elim Pentecostal Church in Llanelli, the Ammanford Evangelical Church and Communities First Pantyffynnon to distribute Christmas presents to children across the county.

    It seems that, unlike Tony Blair when he was in Downing Street, Carmarthenshire County Council has decided that it does God, and not the wishy-washy kind favoured by mainstream religious groups, but the fire and brimstone, anti-gay, anti-abortion, gun-toting, rootin-tootin right-wing kind of God imported direct from the American Bible Belt. Halleluiah!

    Towy Community Church's website devotes a lot of space to its sponsors' logos, with the county council plastered all over parts of it.

    So I suppose it's only right that the two "brands" should also come together in the council's official "newspaper".
    Will Pam fit down your chimney?