Friday 23 December 2011

Building on sand - a convoluted planning saga

It's the time of year when just about everyone is nominating something or other for an award, so here is Cneifiwr's award for the most convoluted planning story of the year.

Some years ago it was decided by a group comprising a developer, a landowner and the great and good of Ceredigion County Council that what Cardigan needed more than anything else was a big new supermarket and a new cottage hospital. There was strong local opposition to the plan, but people were given to understand that in order to get the new hospital, there would have to be a supermarket as well.

The existing cottage hospital is housed in what was once a grand house and has been added to over the years. Part of the justification for the proposal to close the existing site was that it is prone to flooding, and it is true that occasionally part of the extensive grounds next to the Teifi have been under water. When the buildings themselves were last flooded, I do not know.

In anticipation of a favourable decision, all but essential maintenance of the buildings stopped some years ago, with the result that the hospital is now looking very sad.

Eventually the supermarket (Sainsbury's) got planning permission, but the plan for a new hospital ran rather less smoothly. When funding was agreed it turned out that there was no agreement for the land where the new hospital was to be sited. The landowner held out for a very high price, and was threatened with compulsory purchase. Earlier this year, that hurdle was finally cleared. Then the new Labour administration in Cardiff announced that it was putting all such projects on hold while it carried out a review.

It seems that Cardiff has now given the green light, but for a long while it looked as though contrary to what had been promised, Cardigan would get a new supermarket and no hospital.

During the last 18 months work on the site infrastructure has been in full swing, and the town has had to endure a near constant stream of heavy lorries trundling through the High Street on their way to or from the Bath-house site. At one point about a year ago, all work had to be stopped because the developers had felled a lot of trees, which it seems, the planners had forgotten to put under preservation orders.

In response to the Sainsbury's plan, Tesco announced plans for a huge expansion of its existing store. Uproar ensued. Tesco eventually "compromised" by scaling back its plans to what it probably really wanted from the start, and it got its way.

Until very recently, it seemed that the hospital and the supermarket would both go ahead, with the new Sainsbury's opening in mid-2012. But now the venerable Tivyside Advertiser reports that problems with land stability at the site of the proposed supermarket and also on one of the access roads have thrown the whole thing up in the air again.

Meanwhile rumours recently started flying that Tesco had done a deal with the owner of a neighbouring car dealership to purchase his site. Previous rounds of negotiations between the car dealership and the supermarket group apparently failed because of the price being demanded by Mr Davies, the car dealer (star earlier this year of a piece of excellent investigative reporting by ITV's The Ferret), and Tesco announced that it did not need to buy the site anyway.

Mr Davies then went on to upset users of the town's allotments behind his dealership when he made an offer to the county council to take a chunk of the allotments to expand his business. The council declined his offer. Not long after that episode, he went on finally to win another planning battle to build a supermarket on the site of another car dealership under his ownership in nearby Newcastle Emlyn.

Still with me? This story has more twists and turns than an Alpine switchback.

In the case of Newcastle Emlyn, planning permission was granted in the teeth of very strong local opposition and despite overwhelming evidence that the site itself (like the hospital in Cardigan, next to the river) was highly unstable.

According to recent rumours, Tesco have reached agreement with Mr Davies to buy both the Cardigan and Newcastle Emlyn sites, although there are reasons for taking these with a very large shovelful of salt, not least because part of the Newcastle Emlyn site is a county council car park, and Carmarthenshire County Council have said that in the event that they are approached with a request, they will sell using a system of sealed bids.

It is understood that no approaches have been made to the county council to date, and until the car park has been sold, no supermarket can be built.

Just up the road from Mr Davies's car lot is another vehicle dealership in Newcastle Emlyn (pop. 1,500) which secured planning permission for a discount store (Aldi, Lidl, etc.) just over a year ago. A deal between the owners of the site and Lidl fell through, and so far it seems there are no takers. Given that the "town" is already served by one supermarket and two large convenience stores, the supermarkets themselves have shown what they thought of Carmarthenshire County Council's support for the plans on the basis of quantitative need. Bollocks, is the word that springs to mind.

And so it seems that in Cneifiwr's square mile there is now a hat trick of supermarket plans which are going nowhere.Two different planning authorities, and two out of three sites prone to subsidence. Indeed, if Mr Davies's Newcastle Emlyn ever does get developed, locals are betting how long it will be before the otters in the Teifi find themselves swimming through the wreckage and the remains of the buy one, get one free offers.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Dewi Prysor - Nostradamus Cymru?

Dw i newydd gael benthyg cyfrol fach o farddoniaeth Dewi Prysor, gweledydd Llan Ffestiniog a boi aml-dalentog. Cyhoeddwyd Limrigau Prysor yn 2003, ac mae'r flwyddyn yn bwysig yn y cyd-destun yma.

Roedd Jeremy Clarkson yn ffenomen cymharol ddiweddar ar y teli bryd hynny. Pwy a wyddai, ar wahân i Dewi Prysor, y byddai Clarkson yn mynd yn un o wancars mwya' Prydain?

Wrth gerdded yn Stratford on Avon
Fe welais i Jeremy Clarkson
Yn halio uwch lun
Ohono ei hun,
Dydi clywed ei hun ddim yn ddigon.

Mae'n edrych ymlaen at y Gemau Olympaidd o dan reolau Iechyd a Diogelwch prydeinig:

Iechyd a Diogelwch (Deifar yn Rolympics 2)
Troellai tua dŵr y pwll nofio
O uchder, fel llafn yn chwyrlïo,
Ond aeth ffwrdd o'i gyfeiriad,
Lladd ei hun a dau feirniad,
-Mae'r sbringbord angen ajystio.

Rhagwelodd hyd yn oed y Cynlluniau Datblygu Lleol sy'n bygwth Cymru:

Mae Dafydd Llwyd Ifan yn ffarmwr
Sy'n arwain cyngor sir llwgwr,
Mae 'di gwerthu ei dir
I gynllun troi'r sir
Yn swbwrb i Loegar, y bradwr.
 Diolch i Dewi Prysor am wneud i fi chwerthin ar ddydd byrraf y flwyddyn.
Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda i bawb sy wedi cyfrannu at y blog 'ma neu sy wedi ei ddarllen e. Gan gynnwys Cyngor Sir Gaerfyrddin a'r Ifanjelicals!

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Carry On on the Titanic

Showing in Carmarthen this Christmas, and set to run relentlessly for the next three years regardless of public demand, is this re-make of the old classic Carry On series. A catastrophic time for all the family!


Matron Meryl.............................................................Hattie Jacques
Captain "Skipper" James.............................................Kenneth Williams
First Mate Madge.......................................................Sid James
Nagging wife (Cllr Caiach)..........................................Joan Sims

It used to be said of Harold Wilson that if he had been captain of the Titanic, passengers would have been told not to worry because "we are just stopping to take on some more ice".

So it is that anyone who has been to County Hall in Carmarthen in recent times to observe a meeting of the full council will have heard Council Leader Meryl Gravell, chief executive Mark James and Labour leader Kevin Madge, taking every opportunity to tell councillors and the world at large how lucky we are to have such a wise and prudent county council. No matter what it is, Carmarthenshire is, they claim, the best in Wales, even generously giving its advice to lesser councils on how to do things. We have the best chief executive, we are told, and Kevin Madge never loses an opportunity to perform his favourite routine of "things were bad, but now they are getting better".

At the most recent meeting of the full council in early December, Meryl basked once again in tumultuous applause at the announcement that some quango or other had awarded her a cut-glass vase for her outstanding achievements in the field of social care.

Just a few days before this latest North Korean-style outpouring of gratitude to the Dear Leader, the Executive Board had met to consider a report proposing swingeing budget cuts and sharp increases in charges across the board. The detail can be found here.

Now fast forward to 22 December and a meeting of the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee, which will be considering the council's budget strategy for the next three years. The same headline figures are presented but without any of that unnecessary detail about cutting respite care; closing residential homes; lopping £30,000 off the budget for holidays for disabled children; cutting road maintenance to the bone; making 16-18 year-olds pay for school buses; closing libraries; slashing adult eduction or reducing care levels for children at risk of abuse.

In other words, unless members of the Scrutiny Committee have taken the time and trouble to read the relevant Executive Board reports, they will be discussing the strategy without being aware of the impact on all sorts of people across the county.

What we are left with are neat tables of figures which show, broadly, that central government grant funding is rising at well below the rate of inflation; income from car parking, etc. is down as the recession bites; and demand for some services, especially care for the elderly, is rising.

To combat this, the council is proposing a 4% rise in council tax for next year combined with cuts in services and staffing levels.

The cuts, which are termed "efficiency savings" are divided between "managerial" and "policy" proposals, with managerial efficiencies in 2012-13 totalling £6.9m and policy savings totalling £1.7m. The report says that managerial efficiencies will "result in no perceivable change to the overall level of service delivery but may in some instances affect quality of service provided."

Policy efficiencies, on the other hand, will "directly affect service delivery".

At first sight, you may think, that will be painless enough apart from throwing a few council bureaucrats out of a job, but think again. Nearly all of the jobs scheduled for the axe are frontline staff.

The other big ticket item in the council's finances is the capital budget, which is treated separately. This includes schools buildings, housing, "corporate", regeneration, etc., and is relatively modest compared with the revenue budget. For example, in 2012-13 revenue expenditure is forecast to reach £312m, while capital spending will total just over £40m.

On top of all this is the council's stock of debt which is now running at around half a billion pounds, and the cost of servicing that debt is currently about £16m.

The capital budget includes a number of big ticket items, including the highly controversial Dinefwr schools plan. Spending on just two projects - the Ffwrnes arts centre in Llanelli and the Dinefwr schools plan total £7.7m in 2012-13.

There is much to be said in favour of both, although there is vehement opposition in Llandovery to the proposed closure of their secondary school as part of the Dinefwr scheme.

Renovation and refurbishment of council-owned offices and properties is scheduled to take a further £3m in the coming year.

Set against the revenue efficiency savings (i.e. cuts) which will have a real impact on just about everybody in Carmarthenshire (if you drive a car, have children, if you are elderly, etc.), and devastating consequences for many of the most vulnerable, it is hard to see how continued high levels of spending on prestige projects can be justified.

To be fair to Carmarthenshire, their hands are tied somewhat by government restrictions which prohibit them from transferring funding from capital to revenue budgets. But we should also remember that they may only borrow against capital projects. £500 million of capital borrowing compared with revenue of around £315 million is a very clear indication of where this council's priorities have lain; and if only that capital had been wisely spent. Too many of the "investments" have been vanity schemes which have wasted huge amounts of money.

The problem is that Mark, Meryl and Madge still believe their own propaganda, even if nobody else does. Will Meryl hand back that vase? Not bloody likely. Will the offices at Ty Elwyn be refurbished next year at a cost of £500,000 while £30,000 is saved from respite holidays for desperate families? You bet.

Saturday 17 December 2011

Carmarthenshire and the Equalities Act

The County Council's Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee will turn its attention in the New Year to its draft "Strategic Equality Plan" and consider the responses received after the completion of a consultation in 2011.

This is needed to bring the council in line with the Equalities Act 2010, the aim of which is to prevent discrimination on the grounds of sex; race; sexual orientation; religion; age; disability; gender reassignment and pregnancy and maternity.

The draft report considered by the committee back in October notes that on the basis of the 2001 census, Carmarthenshire is 98% white; 58% are of working age, and that apparently almost half of those of working age also have a disability. Hard to believe, but that's statistics for you. 75% claimed to be Christian, although as we know less than 10% actually go to a place of worship regularly.

The statistics contain no data on sexual orientation, gender reassignment or pregnancy and maternity.

After pages and pages of padding, the report eventually gets down to telling us what this will mean in practical terms for the council. One of those is that it will have to carry out equalities impact assessments when making policy and financial decisions. The report states:

Assessments are required of ‘policies’ which is understood broadly to embrace the full range of functions, activities (including service delivery) and decisions for which the council is responsible. This includes both current policies and new policies under development.

To what extent the council is currently compliant with the Act is unclear, and Caebrwyn has noted that a Freedom of Information request has been made to ask for disclosure of the equalities impact assessments carried out in respect of the council's Christmas Toybox Appeal and its decision to provide £1.4m worth of financial aid to Towy Community Church's bowling alley project. A response is due on 10 January, but if the council's track record is anything to go by, the response will be (a) late, and (b) refused.

In the case of the toybox appeal, the council, police, NHS and others have been busy collecting toys which have then been handed over to three fundamentalist evangelical churches for distribution to families in need. 

Bearing in mind that those of us who do not share these churches' beliefs (rather more than 90% if attendance at a place of religious worship is anything to go by) face an eternity of conscious punishment and/or hellfire, according to their websites, you might want to think twice before nipping along to a branch of the Carmarthenshire Taliban to pick up some presents for the kids. And you may feel more than a little nervous about approaching them if you are Muslim, Jewish, atheist, agnostic, a same-sex parent, divorced, sexually promiscuous, if you've had an abortion or possibly even if you are a follower of the Anti-Christ (pace the Revd. Ian Paisley, or Catholics to you and me).

It will be interesting to see if an impact assessment was carried out before launching this appeal, just as it will in the case of the bowling alley because council tax payers are effectively being made to subsidise the building of a new church (sorry, auditorium) to house Towy Community Church.

It also remains to be seen whether the Equalities Act 2010 will have any effect on members of the council's ruling Executive Board. Two weeks ago Cllr Gwynne Wooldridge, whose portfolio includes education, stood up to tell councillors that in his view there was only one book that mattered: the Bible. How would he or other councillors feel if we had, say, a Muslim member of the board who said that about the Koran? 

The county council is not known for its sense of humour, but there does seem to be some subversive at work who delights in dishing out top jobs to the most unlikely candidates. In the case of Gwynne Wooldridge, the old dinosaur was made "Young People's Champion". Pam Palmer was given the job of "Modernising Local Government"; if this were the nineteenth century she might be considered mildly progressive. "Older People's Champion" is Kevin Madge, the Labour leader who was much too busy to meet a deputation of frail and elderly people from Llandeilo when they came to present him with a petition against the closure of their Day Club.

It is unclear whether we have an "Equalities Champion", but if any of the board members are closet Klu Klux Klan members, it's theirs for the taking.


Friday 16 December 2011

Mercy Mysteries - Towy Community Church responds

In the wake of critical reporting in the press, here, on Caebrwyn's blog and elsewhere, Towy Community Church has written to its members to give its own version of the truth, or perhaps I should say Truth with a capital T. Perhaps it is a sign of these straightened times, with so much else being in short supply, but the letter is very economical with the Truth and in parts utterly misleading.

Here is the link to the letter on the church's website. Given the church's record on editing out inconvenient statements and claims, a full copy has been made. Just in case.

The letter begins by saying that one individual disagreed with the Council's decision to loan the church money (on extremely favourable terms, ed) because of perceived links between Mercy Ministries UK and the now defunct Mercy Ministries Australia.

If by individual they mean the author of this blog, Cneifiwr will set the record straight. Cneifiwr disagrees with the entire £1.4m package of funding the church is getting for its bowling alley project from Carmarthenshire, and not just the loan. There are many reasons for opposing this project, but to put things into focus, in the same week that the Council approved the latest funding request from the church, it published plans for spending cuts which will hit everyone in the county, but in particular many of the most vulnerable and defenceless people.

How can you square building a bowling alley with huge injections of public money when the council is planning to close homes for the elderly, close a respite home, scrap respite holidays for disabled children, reduce care for children at risk from abuse, etc., etc.? Answers from members of Towy Community Church on a postcard, please.

The church says that concerns expressed in this blog and elsewhere about Mercy Ministries were based on false information linking Mercy Ministries' operations in the UK and Australia. That is utterly misleading. Mercy Ministries is an international organisation with operations in a number of different countries. What links them is the parent organisation founded by Nancy Alcorn in Monroe, Louisiana.

Mercy Ministries is not shy in making claims for itself, as you can see for yourselves with a simple Google search. And the same Google search will throw up many and varied accusations made against the organisation. Books published by Alcorn claim that girls with eating disorders, who engage in lesbianism or who lead sexually promiscuous lives, open themselves up to demonic possession. She went on,

Secular psychiatrists want to medicate things like that. But Jesus didn’t say to medicate demons, he said to cast them out.

Copies of manuals used to combat "demonic possession" were leaked to the press, and in response to criticism the organisation told the world that it had now adopted a new curriculum, and it says it does not perform exorcisms as part of its treatment.

You can make your own minds up, but several key facts remain.

(i) Towy Community Church carried an article on its website announcing its support for and affiliation with Mercy Ministries. It also said that it was hoping to open a Mercy Ministries home in Carmarthen. Cneifiwr was able to locate a copy of that article as recently as 12 November 2011.
(ii) At the beginning of December, the church's pastor, Mark Bennett, responded to a number of written questions put together by Caebrwyn and Cneifiwr. Here is what he had to say about the Mercy Ministries article:

The Mercy Ministries article which was previously on our website but had been removed in June of this year (by New-wave design) was written some years ago.  Our motive at the time was to see young women who were self harming receive help.  We are not planning to set up a Mercy Ministries home in Carmarthen. To answer your question ' Why not?'   Not everything that begins in seed form gets off the ground.   
Somehow, then, an article which Mr Bennett says was removed in June 2011 (before the negative press coverage) was still there in November 2011, which was of course when the scandal broke and the article really did disappear. 
(iii) The church now says:
In relation to the Towy Community Church links to Mercy Ministries UK, the church gave a very modest monthly donation of £20 for a short period of time to support its work to help vulnerable young women. It is one of many relationships we have with organisations that do very important support work in the community, and whilst we are unable currently to help fund their work, we wish them well with their difficult and important work.

It is not clear when the monthly contributions ceased (within the last couple of months perhaps?), but you can see for yourselves that Towy Community Church still supports the aims and operations of Mercy Ministries. 

(iv) Finally, the letter dismisses criticism that it is less than transparent in its financial affairs. Mr Bennett told us that for legal and operational reasons the church had changed its legal status in 2010. The fact remains that the only places the public could go to inspect the church's accounts, namely the Charities Commission and Companies House, have nothing to show, except for a brief statement on the Charities Commission website that the church's income and outgoings fell below the £10,000 annual threshold for reporting for the relevant period in 2010. How transparent is that? 

At the recent council meeting which approved the latest funding package for the church, many councillors justified their support on the basis that it would enable Towy Community Church to offer services including a food bank, furniture recycling centre and debt counselling service (run on "Christian principles" of course). A brief glance at the church's website says that the food bank and debt counselling service are up and running and have apparently been operational for some time. The furniture recycling service, which one councillor claimed to have used personally, is not mentioned until you turn to the Xcel project itself where it is described in the future tense. All very confusing.

The truth is that none of these services, which were used to justify the council's funding, were actually dependent on that funding. 

The final, and possibly the most innovative example of the church's approach to telling to truth, lies in Phase II of Project Xcel, which will involve the creation of a 500 seater auditorium (this appears to have shrunk from 600+ in earlier versions). In answer to a question from a councillor, Mr Bennett confirmed that this facility would be used for church services, although the church's website neglects to mention this minor detail.  

So here's a question. What do you call a building run by a church and used for church services?

Answer, if you are Towy Community Church in search of public money, "an auditorium".

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Carmarthenshire hits rock bottom

The Executive Board of Carmarthenshire County Council has published proposals for budgetary cuts for the next three years, and they make for extremely grim reading. The report can be found here (with thanks to Caebrwyn for digging it out).

For some time now council leaders have been warning about the escalating cost of social care provision, and that combined with cuts in central government grants and Carmarthenshire's obsessions with prestige development schemes and various pet white elephants mean that the elderly, the disabled, children, motorists, parents struggling to make ends meet, the Welsh language - in fact everyone in the county with a few privileged exceptions will now have to pay a high price indeed for the reign of Meryl Gravell, Kevin Madge and Mark James.

The report is very poorly formatted, and you need to scroll quite a long way down to find the detail.

What the detail shows is not just council job cuts across all departments, except of course for the top brass, but a long litany of cuts to all kinds of services along with hikes in charges for just about everything from transport, school dinners and car parking to rent increases on homes, shops, farms and anything else owned by the council.

School dinners will, the report admits, be the most expensive in Wales, with above inflation increases and a reduction in choice in Year 1, to be followed by more rationalisation and "regionalisation" in following years. Here are a few more turkey twizzlers, in the council's own words:

Childcare for children on the at risk register in Carmarthen:

(3 fte staff) A centre in Carmarthen offering support and childcare to children on the child protection register and/or are vulnerable Children will be less protected and one in 4 childcare places bought back from the private sector - will result in a much poorer service to the most vulnerable families in Carmarthen town and potentially additional care proceedings as children at risk receive less support and monitoring. (saving just £30k over three years).

Reduction in holiday schemes for breaks for children with disabilities (saving of £66k over two years)

Close one Respite Home with up to 30 children with disabilities no longer having respite care. In the long term may result in greater family breakdown and an increase in costs as children become looked after permanently at an earlier stage (saving of £375k).

The list goes on and on - reductions in spending on coastal defences and drainage; reductions in basic bridge maintenance; reductions in basic road maintenance schedules; a 50% cut in grants to Mentrau Iaith; cuts in youth club provision (already very poor); massive cuts in adult education schemes; cuts and outsourcing in the care of people with mental health problems, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, etc.

Only last week councillors voted through a further £270,000 of financial support to Towy Community Church's bowling alley project, and the capital budget shows continued high spending on a whole range of council office developments and refurbishment schemes. Money continues to flow to the Scarlets in Llanelli.

Pastor Mark Bennett was understandably very pleased to secure the additional funding for his project; I wonder if he and his congregation will be sparing a thought for the vulnerable children, the frail and the disabled who face a very bleak future now as work commences on the bowling alley, and later the subsidised new church premises.

Shame on the councillors who voted it through.

Shame on the Labour group and its discredited and shambolic leader, Kevin Madge, for continuing to prop up his Tory Independent chums. Most of the Labour group have travelled so far from their roots that they have taken on a distinctly blue tinge. Without Kevin Madge's unswerving support for Meryl and Mark, things would have looked very different.

Wake up Plaid Cymru. For too long you have stood wringing your hands from the sidelines, and too often you have voted along with the Independent/Labour coalition. It is time to set out a different vision for the county.

Of course every local authority is facing cuts, and some will emerge with more credit than others. Anti-democratic, officer dominated, bureaucratic, arrogant and wasteful Carmarthenshire will not be one of them.

Monday 12 December 2011

Turning our countryside into a dump - Press Release

Further to my previous post, the residents of the tiny hamlet of Five Roads near Drefach Felindre have issued an excellent press release explaining their opposition to the proposed recycling centre. They have also formed a Facebook group "No Dump at Five Roads" and produced a bilingual information site (address below).

One of the things which never ceases to amaze is how, even in the smallest communities in Wales, you can find passionate and talented people. Five Roads is a tiny pin-prick even at the level of county council wards, and yet something tells me that the County Council has picked a fight with more than it bargained for.

The press release makes reference to the rich birdlife of the area, something Cneifiwr can attest to. There are buzzards, red kites, ravens and flocks of curlews up there in the winter. Also, just a couple of hundred yards from the proposed dump site is a stretch of World War II defences in the form of huge concrete blocks stretching across the fields. This is one of the best preserved stretches of a defensive line which ran for more than 70 miles across the South West of Wales. Pob lwc iddyn nhw.

Five Roads Action Group formed to fight against site of proposed ‘North West’ recycling Centre

11th December, 2011 – Residents of villages in the vicinity of Five Roads, five miles from Newcastle Emlyn, have come together to form an Action Group (FRAG) to campaign against plans for a substantial recycling centre for Northwest Carmarthenshire on a green-field site at Five Roads to the South of Drefach Felindre.  The FRAG committee is keen to point out that it believes in recycling but is strongly opposed to the location of the proposed site with its forecast 3000 tonne annual throughput and numerous drawbacks.

Local residents were not consulted about Carmarthen County Council’s (CCC’s) planned site for the recycling centre (application W/25658) on a plot of land at Five Roads, where planning permission was refused for a bungalow in 1975 and applications continue to be rejected because the area falls outside the County’s ‘development areas’.  The plot of land immediately adjoins an active smallholding along its boundary to the South.

The proposed site conflicts with CCC’s unitary plan intentions for preserving the character of the area overlooking the Teifi Valley:  a local bird specialist (Sally Hall) says “It is in an area dominated mainly by large, open, exposed fields so this particular piece is quite unique and forms a valuable wildlife habitat with much potential as a food source and nesting area for birds”.  This area of natural beauty mixes upland agriculture and forestry with a number of tourist businesses and attractions such as the Nant Gronw Country Park used by equestrians.  Increased lorry traffic on the approach road to the proposed recycling centre would seriously affect the riders approaching the Park, which is accessed from that road. 

The large-scale site, set at an altitude 270 metres, would be floodlit by night and visible from the other side of the valley as well as having an adverse effect on the various and numerous wild-life species in the locality that includes birds in red and amber danger categories.  The site is very exposed and winds are much stronger than in the valley, allowing rubbish to be blown around the locality.  Snow settles here when valley roads are clear and Five Roads has been cut off for weeks as a result.

The large expanse of the concreted-over site could affect and contaminate both surface-water run off and boreholes for dwellings in the vicinity and it is not known whether an environmental impact assessment has been made.  The approach roads from North and South are small country roads, single track on much of their length and with poor surfaces that always erode badly and develop bad potholes in the winter as a result of water runoff and frost.  The five road junction, where at least two school bus stop twice a day, is very dangerous and vulnerable to heavy lorries travelling too fast on the transverse East/West road connecting the A484 and the B4333: the new centre would introduce three new entrances to the junction.  It is not believed that a ‘movement impact assessment’ has been carried out.

Along with the local impact on a remote rural area is the more general point of needing to meet the Welsh Assembly’s constitutional commitment to sustainability.  The main centre of population is at Newcastle Emlyn, where a new supermarket has been approved.  An assessment needs to be made of how many more car trips would be made as a result of the inhabitants of NCE making trips to the recycling plant rather than those in outlying areas combining a trip to town with one to a recycling plant were it to be situated closer to the town.  Carl Sergeant, Minister for Local Government, has recently introduced a ‘Compact between the Welsh Government and Welsh Local Government’ setting out a framework for closer cooperation between Welsh local authorities in three key areas: education, social care and waste.  It does not seem sensible for Carmarthen to forge ahead with its own site when cooperation with Ceredigion could open up the Cardigan site to people from neighbouring counties and tie in with the Welsh Assembly attempts to increase efficiency.

If you would like to help with the fight to protect the unspoiled area at Five Roads then please contact the Five Roads Action Group at

For press enquiries, contact:

John Ellis, Press Officer, Five Roads Action Group (at address above)

Having your cake and eating it: the Evangelical Alliance

Last week a representative of the Evangelical Alliance Wales wrote a long and rather sinister comment on Caebrwyn's blog (here) in response to a story about Carmarthenshire County Council's decision to vote through yet more funding to prop up Towy Community Church's bowling alley project - a project which could before long see council taxpayers in Carmarthenshire going into the church building business..

There is no doubt that the highly critical analysis of the county council's involvement with the church both on Caebrwyn's blog and here has angered the church and the various organisations to which it has links. It appears that both of our blogs have attracted a great deal of interest from the Evangelical Alliance in particular, with many hours spent combing our posts, presumably trying to find evidence of defamation.

Mr Stewart, speaking on behalf of the Evangelical Alliance, makes some very big claims for the evangelical movement. He boasts that there are now probably more evangelical Christians in Wales than there are Anglicans, and he says that worldwide there are 600 million people who share this religious outlook. He also points out that evangelicals have a long history in Wales, although it is fair to say that in the long run of Welsh history the hundred or so years when Welsh life was dominated by this brand of religion was a mere blip.

Although there were some positive by-products of the religious revivals and the chapel culture, such as literacy and the survival of the Welsh language; the social repression, tyrannical sour-faced deacons and small-mindedness which characterised life for many people in Wales during that period are, thank God, things of the past. Attendance at places of religious worship has been in sharp decline for a long time, and the latest figures from the British Social Attitudes Survey (link here) show that nearly two thirds (64%) of people in the 18-24 age group do not belong to any religion. Across the UK as a whole, only 14% of people from all religions attend a place of worship regularly, and according to Gweini, another evangelical organisation, the figure for Carmarthenshire is now just 9%.

So contrary to the picture which Mr Stewart paints, evangelicals are a minority within a small minority in our society. But there is no shortage of evangelical groups, many of which have links to Towy Community Church, which are dedicated to increasing their influence in all levels of government. Gweini recommends using known Christian council chief executives as one the the most effective routes to influence within a council, for example.

Mr Stewart says in his comment that he finds some of Caebrwyn's comments defamatory and adds, "of course churches that provide public services, which will be the case with Towy Community Church, now have legal protection against discrimination on the grounds of such beliefs."

 It is not clear from Mr Stewart's statement whether he is here making a veiled threat to bring action against Caebrwyn for making remarks which he considers to be discriminatory, or whether he is referring to a court ruling which upheld the rights of religious groups to continue to discriminate against groups they don't like.

Either way, his comments are alarming to anyone who believes in free speech and that it is wrong to discriminate against people on the grounds of religion, sex, race or "lifestyle".

On its website, the Evangelical Alliance makes no bones about its political ambitions, and it is involved in campaigning on a range of issues, including opposition to civil partnerships and same-sex marriage in Scotland, and in favour of teaching creationism and "intelligent design" in schools. It asks its readers to report instances where they believe councils have rejected applications for funding by faith groups, and it highlights a ruling by the Court of Appeal this year in which the court decided that volunteers in activities run by religious groups were not protected by equalities legislation. Here is what the Alliance has to say, in welcoming the ruling:

Of course, Christian charities will seek to do all they can to treat fairly and in an honourable way those people who voluntarily give considerable time and energy in support of their work. However, sometimes difficult issues and questions arise. What if volunteers don't share your faith? What if you don't agree with their lifestyle choices? What if they have a disability which makes it impractical to allow them to volunteer? 

Subsequent to the above case [involving a disabled woman, ed.], the courts have again confirmed that genuine volunteers are not protected by discrimination law and do not have the right to bring claims for unfair dismissal. This does not imply a green light for discrimination against volunteers however. Solicitors Anthony Collins recently defended a claim against a Christian charity by a man who had been rejected from volunteering on the grounds that they understood he was in a sexually active homosexual relationship. He argued that he was working under a contract to personally perform work because he received accommodation and food as a result of his volunteering, and therefore was protected by employment legislation. The charity argued, among other points, that these were provided to enable him to perform the functions he had volunteered for, not as a benefit. In the light of the earlier decision by the Court of Appeal the charity felt reasonably confident of its position and the claims against it were eventually withdrawn.

The Alliance goes on to warn its members to be very careful not to create contractual relationships with volunteers unwittingly because contractual relationships are protected by the law. What nice people. It would seem that the unnamed Christian charity heard rumours that one of their volunteers was in a gay relationship and not only banned him from volunteering, but also threw him out onto the streets.

And it's OK, these ambassadors of Christ say, to discriminate against people from other religions, against people who are disabled or because the way they live their lives does not accord with the rule book (single parents, women who have had abortions or who "live in sin" might all fall into this category).

So the Good News is that equalities legislation is being used by evangelicals and other religious fundamentalists (who all claim to be "mainstream") as a double edged sword both to attack their critics and clamp down on perceived discrimination against euphemistically named "faith groups", while continuing their centuries old tradition of persecuting other minority groups.

Sunday 11 December 2011

Carmarthenshire's response to Carl Sargeant: Rubbish!

Last week the County Council met to discuss the recently signed Compact between the Welsh Government and Welsh Local Government. This initiative was the brainchild of Carl Sargeant, Welsh Minister for Social Justice and Local Government, and it was intended to be a framework for closer cooperation between Welsh local authorities in three key areas: education, social care and waste.

Earlier this year the Welsh Government announced that it would be creating new regional groupings of local authorities which would work more closely together in these areas to eliminate waste and pool resources. Carmarthenshire was grouped with Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion and Powys.

There is widespread agreement in Wales that 22 separate local authorities and 2 National Parks are a recipe for waste, and the result for people across Wales has been a proliferation of daft bureaucratic boundaries where often the services closest to you are out of bounds because they fall under a neighbouring authority.

Of course the county councils like to boast of how they cooperate with their neighbours, but the truth is that far more schemes involving cross-border cooperation have been wrecked or never got beyond brain storming sessions because of the obstructionism which is rife between neighbouring councils.

The leader of Carmarthenshire, Meryl Gravell, made a mockery of the Compact when she told councillors that the agreement, which had gone through multiple drafts, would now mean no change in eduction, social care and waste; throwing in for good measure that just because the Council had signed up for something did not mean that it would happen.

Back in the real world, Carmarthenshire has shown just what it thinks of the Compact by submitting a planning application to itself to build a new waste recycling centre at a hamlet locally known as Five Roads near the village of Cwmpengraig, not far from Newcastle Emlyn.

Five Roads is deep in the rural hinterland of Carmarthenshire, with no large population centres nearby. It is made up of about 15 houses and farms on an exposed hilltop (most of the land is around 900 feet above sea level). Life is harsh up there for much of the year, and Cneifiwr himself has seen over a foot of snow lying there when less than a quarter of a mile away there is none. The roads are quiet country lanes.

The recycling centre would have parking for 6 cars and receive household waste. It will operate from 8am to 5 am and be floodlit.

A few yards away is a smallholding, and the owner who also works as a gamekeeper, has brought together the local community to try to stop the plan which would blight the homes and lives of the 40 or so residents, most of whom have very deep roots in the area.

The largest population centre is Newcastle Emlyn itself (population around 900 on the Carmarthenshire side), and the site is approximately 6 miles from the centre of town.

Roughly 12 miles from Newcastle Emlyn is an existing household recycling centre between Cardigan and Pen-y-Parc, but this is out of bounds to residents of Newcastle Emlyn and the nearby villages of North Pembrokeshire because it lies in Ceredigion. Currently people from Newcastle Emlyn wishing to go to a tip have to do a round trip of just over 50 miles. So much for the councils' green credentials.

Given the size of the population involved (small), the simplest and by far the cheapest solution would be to negotiate access for the people from this corner of the county to use the Cardigan site, but then that would involve cooperation with a neighbouring authority and not re-inventing the wheel.

Let's hope that this example of local government at its most arrogant and wasteful gives Carl Sargeant the wake-up call that Cardiff so badly needs to hear.

Saturday 10 December 2011

Christmas Fudge fudged - this month's council meeting

Twas the last meeting before Christmas, and all through County Hall the merry throngs of rosy cheeked councillors were turning their thoughts to the slap-up Christmas lunch being prepared for them in the canteen, with mince pies and a charity auction to be held afterwards in the Members' Lounge. One of the items to be auctioned off by the chief executive was tickets to the council's hospitality box to watch a forthcoming game between the Scarlets and London Irish. Bidding open only to councillors and officers, of course.

Other treats in store were cakes baked by Councillors Pam Palmer and Meryl Gravell. Perhaps Pam is Carmarthenshire's answer to Mary Berry; we shall never know, although one of my informants has raised some alarming concerns about the health and safety aspects of the Palmer kitchen.

To the frustration of Chairman Ivor Jackson we had the tedious business of a meeting to get through first.

A couple of cut glass vases were brandished from the executive podium. These had been awarded to council leader Meryl Gravell and three officers at some local government beano for their outstanding contributions to social care. Thunderous applause greeted this, and thoughts of what might be happening to the old and vulnerable whose day clubs and transport services Meryl has scrapped were banished in this season of goodwill.

First up were the minutes of the last council meeting. This was the meeting at which Cllr Siân Caiach was attacked from all sides for her decision to object to plans for a new school at Ffwrnes in Llanelli. The minutes recorded what Cllr Caiach's critics had said but omitted to mention why she had objected. Cllr Caiach suggested that in future the minutes could give a summary of who said what. Chief Executive Mark James made his first intervention of the day to say, correctly, that minutes of council meetings should provide a brief record of what was discussed and any decisions reached. Fair enough, but this answer completely ignored the fact that the minutes under consideration did not meet those criteria.

Winston Lemon, one of the Plaid councillors, quietly commented that the minutes had been used as an electioneering platform. And so the first of a string of naked monarchs paraded through the chamber, with the majority of councillors approving the cut of their clothes, and a small minority pointing out that you could see all the dangly bits.

The first major piece of business was a discussion of the council's decision to sign the Compact between the Welsh Government and Welsh Local Government.

What was that all about, I hear you cry. Well, when the new Labour Government came into power in Cardiff, they decided that something needed to be done about the lunatic decision to carve Wales up between 22 local authorities, but sadly they shied away from a root and branch reform and opted instead for a fudge involving collaboration between the councils on a regional basis in education, waste and social care.

Meryl rose majestically to tell us all about it. But first she was pleased to announce that the Welsh Government had agreed to spend £1.4bn over the next 7 years in a schools building programme. Good news, indeed, and Meryl said this was all down to local government, and especially our beloved chief executive, Mark James, who advises the Welsh Government "in many areas". God help Wales.

When faced with the Compact, Carmarthenshire had unleashed its Wunderwaffe (Mark James again), and as a result the original document had gone through 15 or 16 drafts. Meryl said she had not liked Leighton Andrews' (Minister for Education) approach, and so she had asked Sir Humphrey Appleby Mark James to take the lead. The result was a much better solution, she purred, and there were three major areas in which there would be no change (yes, you've guessed it): education, waste and social care.

It would be interesting to hear what Leighton Andrews and Carl Sergeant have to say about that.

Meryl had given us an eloquent little speech, and as usual a crashing of metaphors and gusts of hot air heralded Labour leader Kevin Madge. Here goes.... "now at a crossroads, need to work together....local government family....we will work together....fantastic option but to work together."

Just as David Cameron has to worry about the Eurosceptics, so Meryl has her own bastards (ask John Major) snapping at her heels. Giles Morgan said he agreed with all this, but then went on to explain why he didn't like it at all.

Peter Hughes Griffiths said he was happy with some parts of it, but not happy at all with others. He pointed out some of the things the council had signed up to, including changes to planning procedures for wind turbines.

Meryl responded that "just because we have signed up to something doesn't mean it will happen." Leighton, take note.

Another councillor said the council had advocated devolving responsibility to community councils for matters such as toilets and parks, and yet here it was signing up to an agreement which would concentrate power at the centre. Devolving was the wrong word to use, Cllr Jenkins. Getting rid of the bits that the county council does not like and bankrupting the community councils at the same time is what County Hall has been trying to do.

Meryl answered another point about social care by explaining that Carmarthenshire is a member of a Social Services Policy Forum under Gwenda Thomas. All parties were represented, she said, including Labour, Plaid and the Independents. A member of the public in the gallery guffawed rather loudly at this point because Meryl had dropped her guard and the pretence that the Independents are not a party. Another Freudian slip was that she forgot to mention the Tories while she was at it.

Stephen James, Independent, rose to have a moan. The relationship with Cardiff was one of dictat, he said, but perhaps the compact was the start of a dialogue based on mutual respect. He too was unhappy with some of the words in the document, but on the whole he felt it would be OK if it avoided a wholesale reorganisation of local government, i.e. the one thing which just about everyone in Wales would agree is essential. Imagine a Wales with 11 fewer chief executives......

It would seem that the Welsh Government's fudge has been, well, fudged.

The debate fizzled to an end, and the chair started a mumble to introduce the next item. We were back in Llanelli with a bang, and being given an update on the end of the Statutory Consultation on the future of Ysgol Ffwrnes. This is the school building plan which nearly got Cllr Siân Caiach burned as a witch in November when the council was told that she was the only person to have objected to the scheme.

Director of Education Robert Sully had to inform the council that 16 responses had now been received, and as a result the decision would have to be transferred to the Welsh Government.

Mark James looked very stern and said that if the minister upheld the objections, the money earmarked for the new school would be lost, and no new application could be made for 8 years.

Various councillors then rose to ask about various different school plans, and several voiced concerns that not enough planning was being done to cater for the rise in demand which would come for Welsh-medium education in view of the growth in numbers in Welsh-medium primaries.

One of the councillors asked to make a supplementary question. The chair looked confused and had to ask the chief executive sitting next to him.

Chairman Jackson was in a jovial mood at the thought of that roasting turkey, and he said he would be generous today and allow it. The councillor pointed out that under the constitution, of which Cllr Jackson is supposedly the guardian and font of all wisdom, she was entitled to ask a supplementary anyway.

The debate ended with a display of manufactured and slightly damp fireworks by Kevin Madge. He was very, very angry that people should have objected to the Ysgol Ffwrnes plan. "These people" he spluttered ("these people" being members of the public who had dared to respond to a consultation), "these people should ask themselves why.....these people should come to common sense....Scrooge, poor little boy, turkey, erm, (Madge could not remember the name Tiny Tim)...poor boy...turkey."

Chair Jackson looked a little confused. Was Siân Caiaich trying to steal his turkey?

But no, this was a £10 million turkey in the shape of a new school, and Madge was furious that the money might be lost.

Somehow it had not occurred to Kev that if the ministry did accept the objections and reject the plan, it would be because the plan was catastrophic. As it is, nobody is seriously expecting Cardiff to throw it out, so Kev's show was a waste of hot air.

Next, and as a preamble to the main attraction (the debate about the Towy Community Church project), we had questions about the Council's decision to give the Scarlets another £20,000 to fund a post at the club (a decision in which the councillors had no say because it had been delegated). The successful applicant will be responsible for finding new avenues of funding for the ailing club. They could try turning it into a giant church.

Several councillors were unhappy with the decision to pour yet more money into the Scarlets, especially since the council had just decided to cut the schools' music budget. Millions had been swallowed up by the club already, someone said.

Questions were asked about funding for other groups such as the Young Farmers. Meryl replied that the council would be looking at applications, but warned that there would be cuts here too. 

This was merely a curtain raise for the final set piece of the day: the decision to loan more money to Towy Community Church.

Details of this are covered in a separate post, but to an observer several things stood out. Both Cllr Pam Palmer and chief executive Mark James based their cases on the ridiculous and disingenuous claim that  loaning £270,000 at 3% was a good investment and better than the council could achieve elsewhere.

Quite a few councillors declared that as Christians they welcomed the project, and it had their whole-hearted support. Let's hope they would be equally uncritical of projects not run by Christians.

Clive Scourfield, one of the executive board members, argued that a bowling alley was top of most people's lists of priorities (yes, really), and that it would help keep young people in Carmarthenshire. Both he and Jane Tremlett (posh Independent who likes to make literary references to Shakespeare and Dickens) were very keen on the furniture recycling and food bank - both schemes which are already up and running and not dependent on the bowling alley project.

Hazel Evans wondered why the church would be paying only 3% on their loan when the Scarlets were paying 7%. Mark James was pleased to point out that the Scarlets were now only paying an effective 4% thanks to a decision to defer that particular loan.

Kevin Madge went off on one of his rambles, this time to promote David Cameron's Big Society idea. Kev has spent so much time cosying up with his Tory Independent chums that he really is suffering from an identity crisis.

Gwynne Wooldridge, another executive board member, said there was only one important book - the Bible, and anyone who opposed the scheme was in cloud cuckoo land. Watch this space for dramatic new cutbacks to the library service.

By now Chairman Jackson was becoming impatient. All this democracy nonsense was keeping him back from the most important business of the day: his Christmas lunch.

A vote was taken and the meeting wound up. In a reverse of Good King Wenceslas, the peasants in the gallery were ejected onto the cold and unforgiving streets of Carmarthen, as Cllr Jackson swept off to his bird.

Friday 9 December 2011

Towy Community Church - full steam ahead

In what was almost certainly a first in the history of Carmarthenshire, the county council decided to lift the exemption on the report it had prepared for councillors at its meeting on 7 December, and it also agreed to discuss the proposed loan of £270,000 to the church in open session. This unique concession to transparency was, we were told, because of recent press reports and "rumours".

The council had met on three previous occasions to discuss loans and grants to the church, and on each occasion the public was excluded from the meetings and the reports were not published.

All of which begs the question, why could information be made public at the meeting on 7 December when on legal advice, the same information could not be disclosed at earlier meetings? What had changed apart from public disquiet?

The obvious answer is that the public interest exemptions at previous meetings were wrongly applied, and the likelihood is that many of the other exemptions used by the council in recent years were also applied for no good reason other than that the chief executive and Executive Board did not want the public to see what was being done in their name and with their money.

To nobody's surprise, the proposed loan of £270,000 was voted through by a large majority of councillors, and the project is now well underway. It is unlikely, however, that we have heard the last of this, and there are now five areas of concern:

(i) The discrepancies between statements made by the council and the church and the financial structure of the project.
(ii) The church's links to other organisations with extremist or overtly right-wing political aims.
(iii) The extent to which the council intends to outsource social care to religious groups.
(iv) The likelihood that the tax payers of Carmarthenshire will find that they have not just subsidised a bowling alley, but have also helped pay for the building of a new fundamentalist church. 
(v) That in its eagerness to help the project, the council in the form of its senior officers and the Executive Board, has neglected its duty of care to ensure that the interests of the council and the residents of Carmarthenshire are protected. 

 There are so many glaring differences between what the church has said and what the councillors have been told, that it is hard to know where to begin. Here are just a couple.

Back in May councillors were told that the church had managed to raise £17,000 towards the £2 million plus project. Since then, the church's contribution has shot up to nearly £388,540. The report presented on 7 December states that volunteer time provided by the church's members is valued at £119,864 (a very precise figure), with a further capital investment of £191,000. In addition the church will make a revenue contribution of £78,000.

The contribution of unpaid volunteers to this figure is impressive. As the EB's report coyly notes elsewhere, "some enabling works have been undertaken by TCC to the interior and exterior of the property to reduce the scope and cost of the construction contract and to improve the building at no cost to the Council."

Only a month ago chief executive Mark James said that the church had saved itself more than £200,000 by carrying out some of the building work itself. Was an independent valuation of the work carried out? Why does the report now value the work at £119,000?

The church says that the bank loan of £300,000 is secured on the inventory of the bowling alley. The council says it is secured on the lease of the building.

Despite being the largest investor in the project, the council is ranked only third in the list of creditors, with both the bank and the Lottery having priority claims on whatever is left in the event of a collapse of the scheme. Indeed, the bank, which is contributing the least by a long way, would walk away with the building for the remainder of the 99-year lease.

The council argues that it had to agree to this in order to safeguard the project, because both the bank and the Lottery made funding conditional upon these terms. The councillors and the senior officers have a duty of care to the Council itself and to council tax payers, but it now seems clear that they have put the interests of the Council and the public below the interests of the church and the project.
It was obvious at the council meeting on 7 December that very few of the councillors actually understood the report or how much the council is actually giving the church. All but one of the councillors who spoke underestimated the extent of the council's contribution by a massive extent.

If we examine the reports produced by the Council, the total contribution so far is as follows:

Capital grant: £280,000
Other grants from council funds (including a £45,000 grant from CWM Environmental, the council's wholly-owned waste company) : £104,000 to £172,000*
Loan at 3%: £270,000
Building valued at £750,000 for 99 years.

* There is some uncertainty over whether the church has received a rural development grant of £68,000 in addition to the various other funds.

That adds up to £1,472,000 or £1,404,000, depending on the RDP grant.

Most councillors seemed to think that the total exposure was £560,000.

Normally the chief executive is very quick to correct councillors who make statements which contain factual inaccuracies, at least when it suits him. On Wednesday he sat silent.

Again, most of the councillors seemed to believe that the funding would support a furniture recycling project and a food bank in addition to the bowling alley. The chief executive neglected to point out that both the food bank and furniture recycling were existing schemes which are not dependent on the bowling alley project.

A couple of times Phase II of the Xcel project were mentioned, but the chief executive was quick to say that that was something else, and was a future project.

Phase II of the Xcel project will involve building a 600 seater auditorium, cafe and debt counselling centre. Under the terms of the church's agreement with the council, Phase II will have to complete within 5 years of Phase I (the bowling alley). It may be in the future, but it is not that far down the road, and there is a near certainty that the public purse will be raided yet again when the time comes.

The church's pastor, Mark Bennett, had been invited to address the councillors, and he gave them assurances that the entire project had been scoped carefully, that accountants, etc. had all been involved. He did, however, reveal that the church would be making use of Phase II of the project, and that the building would become the church's new home.

Without Phase I of the project, there could be no Phase II. What this means in plain terms is that the people of Carmarthenshire have made a huge contribution towards the cost of what will be a new church with a bowling alley attached. 

Nobody raised the sensitive subjects of the church's links to Mercy Ministries or other controversial organisations. Councillor Pam Palmer touched very briefly on this when she referred to rumours, by which she presumably meant facts she would rather not have aired.

To their credit, quite a few councillors did question the council's priorities at a time when services are being cut everywhere, including the scrapping of the schools' music budget of £20,000.

But it was clear that the chief executive and other top brass had decided a long time ago that they were going to have their bowling alley, come hell or high water. When their initial attempts to get a bowling alley incorporated into the St Catherine's Walk shopping centre development in Carmarthen failed, they entered into talks with a company to open a bowling alley in Johnstown. Before the agreement was signed and implemented, the council showed just how eager it was by buying up the empty St Ivel creamery. Unfortunately the company concerned thought better of the idea, and the deal collapsed.

This left the Council with an empty factory on its hands, which it is now paying Towy Community Church to take over. Quite some investment!


Monday 5 December 2011

Declarations of Interest

Once again Caebrwyn has gone where probably no member of the public has gone before; this time to inspect the register of members' interests deep in the bowels of County Hall in Carmarthen (see The Sacred Parchments). What the registers contain is a very dull litany of school governorships, free cups of tea and quite a lot of freebie tickets to see the Scarlets.

But declarations of interest and allegations of conflict of interest are the stuff of most councillors' nightmares. The rules are arcane, and we have seen them being used on several recent occasions in Ceredigion as weapons to silence individual councillors and destroy their reputations. On at least one of those occasions, a councillor who was elected on a platform opposed to a supermarket planning application found himself before a tribunal for what in reality was a purely technical breach of the rules. The case sent shockwaves through Ceredigion and neighbouring authorities and increased paranoia among councillors.

Contrary to popular belief, most councillors are not on the make and busy lining their own pockets or those of their friends. In what passes for local democracy, the sad truth is that the vast majority of councillors in councils like Carmarthenshire have very little say in what goes on.

It is therefore very much in the interest of councillors that their registers of interests should be open and easily available for inspection by the public. By law, of course, the registers have to be made available to anyone wishing to inspect them, and increasingly local authorities are publishing them online. In Carmarthenshire, which says in the preamble to its constitution that its aims include increasing transparency, the documents are kept under lock and key, and as Caebrwyn discovered, anyone wishing to look at them has first to make an appointment and then submit themselves to close surveillance while they examine the documents.

Attempts to persuade the county council to move with the times, or even just provide extracts from the registers for people who do not want to undertake long journeys and spend half a day looking at a couple of A4 pages of data, have so far all failed, with council officers trotting out their usual mantra that the council is under no obligation to publish the data. So much for transparency.

The problem is that in its intransigence the council is simply fuelling popular mistrust of elected councillors. But then, if you are an officer in an officer-led council, that may not be such a bad thing.

Sunday 4 December 2011

Exotic visitors

Recently Carmarthenshire County Council was visited by a deputation from the Standing Committee of Yichang People's Congress from Hubei Province in China. The committee, which is in reality a branch of the Chinese Communist Party, met senior councillors and presumably also some senior officers, and brought gifts of scarves and boxes of tea.

What links Carmarthenshire and Yichang in Hubei Province, we may well be wondering. Could this be the start of a new far-flung twinning scheme, perhaps?

The only obvious recent link between the county and China was the announcement a couple of weeks ago that a planning application has gone in from a Chinese-owned company called Maxhard Ltd to build a luxury holiday village at Pantglas Hall near Llandeilo. Perhaps there is some connection.

The oddest aspect of this visit is the council's unaccustomed silence on the whole subject. No press releases or photo shoots of smiling members of the county's Executive Board exchanging gifts, cake cutting or tours around the National White Elephant Collection. Strange for a PR-obsessed council not to seize on something like this.

The only other link between Carmarthenshire County Council and the People's Republic of China in recent times was the interest the Chinese media showed in the arrest of Jacqui Thompson, democracy activist from Llanwrda who tried to film a council meeting.

Anyone familiar with China will know that stories such as that are only reported if the political leadership feels that they somehow in line with current party thinking. Perhaps they were just admiring the council's robust attitude towards free speech and political liberty, or perhaps the message was that Western liberal democracies are hypocrites who preach one thing to countries like China, while locking up their own democracy activists. Who knows?

Whatever the reason for the visit, Carmarthenshire County Council is every bit as inscrutable as its visitors.