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.


Mrs Angry said...

For the benefit of ignorant English bloggers who9 have no experience of Independent councillors, please explain the political alignment of these creatures. Or are they all different species?

I hope that there has been a full declaration of interests by members voting on the Towy Church proposals, and a proper equalities impact assessment on any social care provision to non Christian clients?

Cneifiwr said...

Well Mrs A., all of the political parties are represented on Carmarthenshire's County Council except for the Tories. The Independents claim they are not a political party, but when you look at them more closely you see a familiar mix of landowners, business people and publicans. One of their number states in his declaration of interests that he is vice president of a Conservative Club. Obviously, rank and file members and supporters do not need to declare their political sympathies, but it's pretty easy to guess in most cases!

Probably the main reason why they stand as Independents rather than Tories is that the Tory "brand" is not a vote winner in these parts, but the fiction of being somehow detached from grubby party politics has served the Indies well.

Mrs Angry said...

ha: I had guessed as much ... I think perhaps we may see the rise of 'independent' candidates here in Barnet, desperate to distance themselves from the local toxic brand ...