Tuesday 31 January 2012

Dysgu sut i hybu iaith yn ôl Cyngor Sir Gaerfyrddin

Mae Newyddion Sir Gâr, Prafda'r Cyngor Sir, yn mynd i bob cyfeiriad yn Sir Gaerfyrddin bob yn ail fis, doed a ddelo, ac dw i'n nabod sawl person anlwcus sy'n cael mwy nag un copi. Does dim modd dileu'r peth, ac felly mae'r rhan fwya'n ei daflu'n syth mewn i'r sach ailgylchu, tra bod rhai eraill yn gwneud gwelyau i'w bochdewion a gwasarn i'w cathod ohono fe.

Yn y rhifyn diweddara gall cathod a bochdewion y Sir ddarllen am ymweliad i'r hen garchar (sef Neuadd y Sir) yng Nghaerfyrddin gan y Rhwydwaith i Hyrwyddo Amrywiaeth Ieithyddol, grŵp sy'n ymwneud â chynllunio ieithyddol yn Ewrop:

"Mae Cyngor Sir Caerfyrddin (sic) wedi rhannu'r wers o sut mae'n hybu'r iaith Gymraeg gydag ymwelwyr o wledydd eraill."

Cafodd yr ymwelwyr o Norwy, Llydaw ac Iwerddon eu croesawu gan gadeirydd y cyngor, Ivor Jackson, a Clive Scourfield, aelod o'r bwrdd gweithredol sy'n gyfrifol am yr iaith Gymraeg. Dyw'r cadeirydd byth yn siarad Cymraeg yn gyhoeddus, ac mae'n gwisgo clustffonau pan mae'r cynghorwyr eraill yn defnyddio'r Gymraeg yn y siambr.

Y cwestiwn perthnasol yn y cyd-destun yma ydy, pa iaith mae Cyngor Sir Gaerfyrddin yn ei hybu? 

- Yn ystod y blynyddoedd diwetha, mae'r cyngor wedi cau rhyw 30 o ysgolion, gan gynnwys nifer sylweddol yn y pentrefi, ac maen nhw'n bwriadu cau mwy mewn ardaloedd Cymraeg eu hiaith yng ngogledd y Sir.

- Mabwysiadodd y cyngor Gynllun Iaith sydd yn hynod o wan, heb unrhyw ymrywmiadau a fyddai'n gwneud gwahaniaeth i'r iaith. Yn ôl y cynllun, dylai'r cyngor gyhoeddi adroddiad blynyddol am ei bolisi, ond er syndod i neb, mae'n debyg, 'dyn nhw ddim wedi boddran ers 2009-10. Cafodd dim ond 1.7% o staff y cyngor hyfforddiant Cymraeg yn ystod y flwyddyn honno.

- Maen nhw wedi lleihau darpariaeth Cymraeg i Oedolion ac yn mynd ati i dorri cyllidebau'r mentrau iaith.

- Mae'r Cynllun Datblygu Lleol yn annog mewnfudiad o bobl ddi-Gymraeg i mewn i'r Sir gyda stadau anferth o dai newydd ar gyrion Caerfyrddin, Llanelli a Rhydaman. Er mwyn lliniaru'r effaith ar yr iaith, mae'r Cyngor yn cynnig codi mwy o arwyddion dwyieithog, codi 'chydig o dai fforddiadwy, datblygu'r stadau newydd "yn raddol" a "chefnogi'r iaith yn y gymuned" (ymadrodd digon amwys). Yn ogystal....wel, dyna i gyd.

Yn hytrach na hybu'r Gymraeg, esgeulustod a spin gwag yw'r polisi.

Monday 30 January 2012

A tale of two chief constables

Councillors who heard Chief Constable Ian Arundale address them at the January meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council, and members of the public who read reports of what he said in the local papers, might be forgiven for wondering if there are two Ian Arundales wandering around Carmarthenshire when they turn to the latest edition of Carmarthenshire News, the council's propaganda sheet. Assuming that they didn't use it as cat litter before reading it.

The Ian Arundale who went to County Hall cut a lonely figure, a sort of cross between Up Pompeii's Cassandra and Corporal Jones from Dad's Army, who warned of desperate times ahead, with cuts across the board, reductions in policing, the closure of more police stations, the likely loss of the police helicopter and a Dyfed Powys in which priority would be given only to major incidents, such as arresting bloggers who film snatches of council meetings (OK, I made that last bit up, sort of).

The Ian Arundale who beams out of the pages of Carmarthenshire News has an altogether happier story to tell. We will be getting a further 27 Police Community Support officers, crime rates continue to fall, detection rates are running at over 50%, and Dyfed Powys has even taken on more police officers, "one of the few forces nationally" to do so.

To drive this point home, Carmarthenshire News carries a second piece in the same edition reporting  reductions in crime across the Dyfed Powys area. Not one single category of crime has shown an increase - at least not in the statistics selected for this story.

Dyfed Powys is the most rural of any of the police forces in Wales and England, so low crime rates should be expected, but it is genuinely good to know that crime seems to be decreasing in general. Buried in the statistics, however, it is likely that there are some negative trends which the public should be made aware of. It is very likely, for example, that thefts of livestock and machinery from farms is on the rise; stealing heating oil seems to be increasingly common, as does theft of metals.

But back to the cuts. Last week, Dyfed Powys told the BBC that the helicopter would be safe for another couple of years.

The BBC also reported very briefly on the Ammanford police station scandal last week. Blink, and you would have missed the story on the evening news, but we were told that the station, built under one of the daftest PFI schemes in the history of lunatic PFI schemes, was currently costing the police £700,000 a year, and that the chief constable would be seeking to renegotiate the deal.

Ignoring criticism of the millions of pounds spent on building a massive new major incident centre at police headquarters near Carmarthen, the optimistic Mr Arundale went on to tell readers (probably just me and Caebrwyn's cat) of Carmarthenshire News that, "of course, we do get the occasional serious incident and we have the specialist resources to deal with those, but they are very rare in the county."

Corporal Jones-Arundale, on the other hand, told councillors that the centre had been built with money from the Welsh Government (true), that it was now a hive of activity and that various threats, such as terrorism, meant that the centre was a vital part of policing. Plus, he said, we should also remember the challenges posed by the Olympics.

So busy had the new state-of-the-art centre become, he told councillors, that a new post had been created to employ someone to drum up more business for it. Why, it could even be used by the County Council, he offered.

Presumably it will be a rather more comfy venue for Mark James and Meryl Gravell than the underground  (and abandoned) nuclear bunker below Spilman Street, as they watch the results come in in May's council elections.

One last little oddity. Carmarthenshire News is a bilingual propaganda sheet, so you can read the same stories in Welsh in the pages of Newyddion Sir Gâr. The police force's rather bumbling press office is not exactly known for its proficiency in written Welsh. Corporal Jones-Arundale was sent into the council chamber with a Powerpoint which contained just 5 words in Welsh, and one of those was horribly misspelled.

Presumably the correctly spelled Welsh versions of the two articles, with mutations of which the Arch-Druid himself would be proud, were put together by the county council's translators. I wonder if Mr Arundale got a bill for that?

Sunday 29 January 2012

Putting two and two together

One of the exempted items at the most recent meeting of Carmarthenshire’s governing Executive Board was a decision to indemnify an unnamed officer of the council.

What could that be all about?

The item, which was not on the published agenda for the meeting, was agreed unanimously, and that’s all the council will tell us.

In layman’s terms, this almost certainly means that the council has agreed to fund litigation on behalf of one of the council’s officers, and it is unique among councils in Wales, and most likely the UK as a whole, in giving itself powers to use public money to pay for court cases involving individual officers.

What we do know, of course, is that fellow blogger, Jacqui Thompson, is bringing libel proceedings against chief executive Mark James for remarks he made on another blog.

Perhaps that would explain the emergency decision by the Executive Board. If that is the case, a strange aspect of this latest decision, rushed through as an "emergency", is that the writ against Mr James was served back in November last year, so that the Council has had plenty of time to consider its course of action.

We can only speculate, but given the chief executive’s dim view of criticism levelled at himself and “his” council, perhaps we may also be funding a counter-claim as well as the defence. Who knows.

Whether this is good use of public money by a council which is having to make deep cuts in public services, is another matter.

Friday 27 January 2012

Gardeners Question Time

Here is a selection of headlines from the local press on the subject of the National Botanic Garden of Wales:

Botanic garden in line for Government funding - January 2012
New funding for Botanic garden - February 2011
Assembly cash to rescue of National Botanic Garden - March 2010

Anyone spot a theme here? Notice also how the bailouts seem to be coming earlier every year. That annual mulch of fresh £20 notes just doesn't seem to be lasting as long these days, does it?

If the on-line press archive for the South Wales Evening Post went back further, we could have found strangely similar headlines from just about any year back to 2003

At a meeting of Carmarthenshire's Executive Board earlier this week, the issue of the National Botanic Garden popped up on the agenda but was exempted, so that the public were excluded from the meeting. All we are allowed to know is that something or other to do with the garden was discussed and that it was unanimously resolved to increase the county council's contribution to its finances by another £15,000 a year.

In October 2003, the Welsh Government and Carmarthenshire County Council each agreed to pump in a further £150,000 each on top of their previous funding to support "essential running costs". Six months later in March 2004 (remember the gardens opened in 2000), a 5-year recovery plan was announced, with the Welsh Government, the Millennium Commission and the County Council each agreeing to pump in another £300,000 as an initial injection to stabilise the garden's finances. By December 2004, the gardens had received funding commitments totalling £43.6 million, with the county council chipping in £2.4 million.

At the time of the 2004 rescue, the Welsh Government announced that in addition to the initial injection of £300,000, it would be providing a further £150,000 per year in each of the following four years. That would be the garden's lot, it said.

In 2008 things had again reached crisis point, and the Welsh Government coughed up a further £1.9m as a bailout, with annual revenue support being raised to £500,000.

In 2010, the Welsh Government came up with an additional £250,000 as "a short-term package designed to help the garden with cash-flow difficulties."

The next major crisis was not long in coming, with another bailout announced in February 2011. This time, the Welsh Government stumped up £800,000, and Carmarthenshire agreed to annual payments of £60,000 for 2011-12 and 2012-13. The county's contribution this year has now just risen to £75,000. In addition, the County Council has an outstanding loan of £1.35 million to the garden. In 2010-11, the council agreed to extend the term of the loan to March, 2014. Whether the garden is actually paying any interest on this loan is unclear. The accounts for the previous year show that no interest was payable, while for 2010-11, just £13,000 was paid in interest by the garden on its various debts.

To date, then, the garden has swallowed more than £50 million in public money. Quite how much the county council has contributed is unclear, but it would seem to have passed the £4 million mark, including the loan of £1.35m, which on current form is unlikely ever to be repaid.

Just as the daffodils come out each spring and the garden asks for more money, so too at about the same time we can hear the first cuckoos from Cardiff and Carmarthen expressing confidence that a corner has been turned and things are looking up.

This year, the Welsh Government appears to have learned a lesson, and is staying quiet, saying only rather vaguely that it will make a statement in the spring.

Meryl Gravell, leader of the county council, was rather less reticent, saying that she had had a long chat with the minister (Huw Lewis) and that he was a lot happier with what was happening at the gardens. At least we can be grateful that she did not tell the garden's employees to dig harder.

As in all the previous years, it is hard to see where this confidence comes from. A look at the garden's  accounts available from the Charity Commission tells a rather gloomier story.

The garden's income hit a high-point of £4.4m in 2007-08, before falling back to £3m in 2008-09, rising to £3.9m in 2009-10 and plummeting to £2.4m in 2010-11.

Losses for the most recent year available totalled £769,000. The number of paying visitors was 122,000, down from 134,000 the previous year. The garden's business plan originally reckoned that 200,000 visitors a year would be needed.

No figures have been published for visitor numbers in the last year, but with a fairly poor summer and the prevailing economic climate, a dramatic increase in numbers would seem unlikely.

The question is, then, whether the taxpayer should continue to throw more and more money into this venture. Supporters point to the scientific and research work carried out there, and Meryl Gravell has argued that it makes an important contribution to the county's tourism. Supporters also argue that not even Kew Gardens can run without subsidies. Fair enough, but the garden at Llanarthne was sold to the public as a venture which would become self-sustaining. Would it ever have got off the ground if a more realistic assessment had been made at the start?

As an attraction, it is fair to say that for most people it is only a moderate success. Having been a couple of times, the experience has on each occasion left this author at least with a feeling of being slightly underwhelmed. True, the glasshouse is impressive, but the rest of the site somehow seems a bit bare and windswept. Whether it really makes such a big contribution to tourism in the county is open to question, given the struggling visitor numbers and the fact that most of those visiting come in from other areas for just a day.

If Huw Lewis is now "happier about what is happening at the gardens", it looks as though we are about to get another rescue headline to add to the collection, and Mr Lewis will join the growing line of former ministers who were all confident once that the garden had been turned around.

The truth is that nobody dares to pull the plug. Mr Lewis won't, it seems, and Carmarthenshire's chief executive and leading white elephant breeder will certainly never put one out of its misery. If the garden is thrown another lifeline, it should be tied to a radical rethink. Otherwise, it will continue to limp along from year to year, always on the brink of collapse.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Towy Community Church back in the news

Golwg, the Welsh weekly current affairs magazine, recently ran an article looking at the controversy over the church's plans for a bowling alley, auditorium (a new word for church), etc. in one of Carmarthen's industrial estates.

The article, which is not available online, gives a balanced account of the saga so far, with a couple of interesting new nuggets of information.

The pastor, Mr Mark Bennett, told the magazine that the project would create 17 new jobs, of which 10 would be in the bowling alley. Phase One of the project, he said, would involve the construction of the bowling alley, a furniture recycling centre and a food bank.

One of those interviewed for the article, Cllr Siân Caiach, pointed out that £2 million of public funds seemed a rather high price to pay for something which would create an estimated 17 jobs in total.

Another oddity is that, according to the church and some councillors, both the food bank and the furniture recycling centre have been in operation for some time. Why are we providing funding to house services which, we are told, are already running successfully?

The council also confirmed to Golwg that the disused creamery which would house the bowling alley, etc. had been purchased in the spring of 2007 for £850,000. It is now valued at £750,000 and is, according to the council, costing us around £60,000 a year. So far, then, this strategic investment has cost us around £350,000 with no benefit whatsoever, and the building itself is to be leased to the church on a peppercorn rent for 99 years, which means that the taxpayers of Carmarthenshire are actually taking a loss of £1.1 million, not including the grants and subsidised loans we are giving the church. Grants given by the county council currently stand, if the council's reports are to be believed, at £384,000, with a further £270,000 or £300,000 (take your pick) lent at 3% over 15 years.

The £384,000 in grants includes contributions from all sorts of piggy banks administered by the council, including its waste management company CWM Environmental, and EU funds earmarked for rural development. Quite how the concrete wasteland of Johnstown's industrial estates can be regarded as rural is another matter.

As always with the Towy Community Church project, the figures quoted are all over the place. Wendy Walters, the council's head of Economic Development, told Golwg that the church was being loaned £300,000 by the council. Councillors were told back in December that the "commercial" loan was £270,000.

Either way, the council's contribution to the project so far totals £1.75 million (the building, plus the cost of ownership of the building so far, plus the grants and loan).

The history of how the council came to own the building is also interesting. Chief Executive Mark James told councillors in December that the council had originally hoped to have a bowling alley as part of the St. Catherine's Walk development in the town centre. That had fallen through. Discussions had then begun with another party for a bowling alley on the Johnstown creamery site. On the strength of those discussions, the council had (recklessly - not the chief exec's word, Ed.) bought the factory, only to see the project break down for a second time.

In other words, the council always had the creamery earmarked for development as a bowling alley and it was always determined, by hook or by crook, that the project would go ahead in some shape or form. This exposes claims made by some senior councillors, including Pam Palmer, that the deal with Towy Community Church was a good one because it would save the taxpayer money as complete claptrap.

At least on the question of what security the church's bank is getting for a further loan of £300,000, Mr Bennett is now singing from the same hymn sheet as the council. Previously he had said the inventory of the bowling alley would be the security, whereas now he has told Golwg that it is the 99 year lease on the building itself.

In line with the Christian principle that the first shall be last, Carmarthenshire County Council has generously agreed to rank itself last in the order of creditors in the event that the bowling alley goes bust, despite being by far the largest contributor to the scheme. The bank, of course, will have first bite of the cherry, despite having the smallest stake, while the Lottery, etc. will all stand ahead of the council to pick up anything that is left over.

Anyone who naively believed that the officers and senior councillors of the county council had a duty of care to protect taxpayers' money was therefore sadly deluded.

The Golwg article goes onto give us a couple more interesting insights. The pastor told the magazine that the church has 150 members. In other words, this multi-million pound project (Phases One and Two will cost over £5 million we have previously been told) is being run by a church founded and run by a husband and wife team with just 150 members. That may explain why the banks, once said to be willing to loan £750,000, started to get nervous.

Another mystery concerns the church's own contribution to the project. Here you can pick from almost any number you like. In May the council's chief executive presented councillors with a report stating that the church had raised £17,000 towards the project. In December they were told that the contribution had shot up to £388,540. And now Mr Bennett has told the magazine that the church's members have raised £270,000 towards the project.

Finally, for anyone who thinks that the council will not have to fork out again, Golwg has some worrying news.

Phase Two of the project will mean applying for more grants, Mr Bennett said, but the church would not be asking for anything like as much as for Phase One.

Given that the church's own projections show that the cost of Phase 2 will be higher than Phase 1 and will bring the total project cost to around £5 million, you have to wonder where the money will be coming from.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Joined at the hip

Caebrwyn has reported on the recent presentation of a petition by a group from Ysgol Ffwrnes in Llanelli, noting that normally members of the public, such as the elderly men and women from Llandeilo worried about their day club, are given pretty short shrift when they bring their concerns to County Hall. On this occasion, probably the only one of its kind in recent history, the petitioners were asking for something the chief executive and Executive Board are in favour of.

The issue relates to plans for a new school at Ffwrnes in Llanelli, a decision now with the minister in Cardiff, and it is politically contentious. While it seems that everyone agrees that the school needs to be re-housed, the scheme has attracted objections relating to the size of the planned new school and its location.

The controversy probably also has something to do with aborted plans for a new school at nearby Seaside. There local people disagreed with the council's plans for the siting of the school, so the council threw a tantrum and decided to give the money to Ffwrnes instead.

But back to the petition. There are very strict rules governing petitions in Carmarthenshire. Councillors may not debate them. Only the relevant member of the Executive Board may comment on them, and only if they so wish. Since 99.9% of all petitions will be critical of some aspect or other of what the council is doing, the Executive Board member's comments invariably involve defending the council's position.

Things were different in the case of Ffwrnes, where objectors have made the chief executive, Mark James, very, very angry. So this time, in the full glare of the cameras, out went the executive member responsible for Education and Children's Services, Gwynne Wooldridge, and the shaven-headed Director of Education, Robert Sully, himself.

The gruesome pair then surrounded themselves with small children and had their pictures taken, probably while some lowly official was employed peeling onions off camera.

This is only the latest example of the increasingly blatant politicisation of the council's officers. Mr Sully has previously gone into print to attack parents, school governors and others who have submitted objections in statutory consultations, so this latest photo opportunity should not come as a surprise.

We should also recall that the chief executive used one of the many special loopholes he has built into the council's constitution to appoint Mr Sully on an interim basis rather than seek approval for this senior appointment from the elected councillors, some of whom were surprised to see the appointment of a man with no previous experience in education to the top job.

A few weeks ago we had the bizarre case of an electioneering press release issued by the ruling Independent/Labour group attacking the opposition Plaid Cymru over the issue of budget cuts. The press release, which the chief executive found to be a completely acceptable use of the council's press office, was withdrawn for unexplained reasons on the day of its publication. On previous occasions, the press office has been used to mount attacks on other political opponents, including a notorious case involving Helen Mary Jones, then Assembly Member for Llanelli.

Towards the end of last year, the chief executive informed councillors that he had used his powers once again to extend the sick leave of a councillor from the ruling coalition. The constitution states that councillors who do not attend a council meeting for six months forfeit their membership. At the chief executive's discretion, leave of absence may be granted for further periods of six months.

Apart from leaving electors unrepresented for periods of a year or more, this is quite a useful tactical device to prevent elections from being called. On the most recent occasion, the chief executive noted that his decision to grant a further leave of absence to a member of the ruling coalition meant that no election would be necessary until after the date of the council elections in May. The sub-text seemed to be that any opposition hopes of making further inroads into the coalition's fragile majority were, well, hopeless. As for the public left without a voice in the council for a year plus, well sod 'em.

Also within the last few days we have had the extraordinary spectacle of council leader Meryl Gravell's outburst against people protesting health service cutbacks ("rabble") and her moan about council employees for what she sees as their lack of hard work and dedication.

One of the really interesting bits came, however, when she said "We have 9,000 employees, Mark and I", showing anyone who doubted it just how unhealthily close the relationship between the ruling coalition and the senior officers has become.

Let's hope that at the next council meeting someone gives this dynamic duo a timely reminder that these 9,000 employees are not "Mark and Meryl's" staff, but people employed by the county council to serve the people of Carmarthenshire. And that Mark James himself is also an employee, while Meryl is a councillor from a minority political group.

In the event that the current ruling Independent/Labour coalition is turfed out in May, as it so richly deserves to be, the incoming administration will need the guts to cut the council's overmighty and partisan senior officers down to size.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Carmarthenshire cuts back on adult education - updated

See update below

At the end of 2011 and again at the beginning of this year, the council published a flurry of documents outlining proposed spending cuts and increases in charges. As people slowly became aware of what was being proposed, a storm started brewing, and the ruling Independent/Labour coalition suddenly remembered that this was an election year and promptly put several of the proposed cuts on hold - at least for the time being and until the election is out of the way.

Since then, things have gone pretty quiet as we wait for the council to come up with revised proposals that will somehow square the circle of cutting spending and keeping council tax increases down without high profile closures of respite care homes, etc.

This being a democracy, on paper at least, the proposals will then have to go to the Executive Board and on to the full council for approval.

Odd then, you might think, that the chief executive has started a programme of detailed cuts in some of the areas outlined in the proposals without waiting for the proposals to be signed off.

One of the areas targeted is adult education, with a "consultation" document being issued to the staff affected.

The document itself requires a strong stomach and an iron determination for anyone intending to read through the morass of jargon, bureaucratese, corporate bollocks and spin, because in true Carmarthenshire fashion, the document is shot through with dishonesty.

In essence, the council intends to restructure the management of its adult education and slim down the payroll, and the document gives us a whole host of reasons why this is a good idea (nine, in fact), with cost reduction being the very last on the list.

Here is one of the benefits of the restructure, which involves shuffling management jobs, the creation of one new post, and the introduction of more processes, forms, monitoring, measuring and evaluation:

The need for a dedicated service manager role to oversee the achievement of service targets and outcomes, franchise contract requirements, quality improvement and the day to day management of the Community Learning Officer roles.

Got that?

The document kicks off by citing a critical report on the county's adult education service produced by Estyn in March 2011. Now, Estyn is not everybody's favourite quango, and its language is often opaque and crippled by jargon. In the case of Carmarthenshire, however, the judgment was pretty clear and not full of the praise the council likes to lavish on itself.

What Estyn said was that the county needed to do much more to improve the quality of both teaching and learning; it needed to improve its safeguarding of vulnerable adults; and it needed to improve its provision of Welsh-medium and bilingual education. Pretty damning, in other words.

The document also notes that the numbers of people enrolling on the county's courses dropped sharply from 2,096 in 2010-11 to 1,710 in the current year. The number of courses offered has also been slashed, as has the number of part-time tutors.

Courses offered by the council cover a wide range of subjects, including adult literacy and numeracy, computing, arts and crafts, and Welsh for Adults, which accounts for a significant chunk of overall service provision.

Welsh for Adults is a good example of where the council has gone wrong. Welsh for Adults courses are run across Wales, which is divided for this purpose into regions. In the region to which Carmarthenshire belongs, some Welsh courses are run by Swansea University and others by the county councils - a daft arrangement in itself.

Much of the funding comes from the EU, and is channelled through the Welsh Government. Each of the regions decides on the content of its own courses, which means that across Wales learners are following widely different courses, and some are much better than others. In Carmarthenshire, learners follow a course with beautifully produced, all-colour text books which cost about 3.5 times as much as the course materials used in neighbouring counties.

This being Carmarthenshire, you will not be surprised to hear that our county is also streets ahead of its neighbours when it comes to the volume and complexity of the paperwork involved in these courses. The tutors have to spend more time on managing the bureaucratic processes imposed by the council than they do in actually preparing their teaching. Since the tutors are only paid for the time spent in class, have no job security, are actually not very well paid and have to spend so much of their time ensuring that reports have been filed on time, forms correctly filled out, etc., it is fair to say that they are not in it for the money, but teach because they have a passion for the Welsh language and want to see it survive and grow stronger.

Possibly because of the recession, the number of people enrolling on Welsh for Adults courses has fallen in many, but not all, parts of Wales. Carmarthenshire, with its expensive courses and the dead weight of its  process driven  top-down management has suffered more than most. Contrary to the recommendations made by Estyn, then, the response has been to cut courses and, as we have seen from the consultation document, plan for an increase in monitoring, measurement and paperwork.

To add insult to injury, the "consultation" document on the restructuring went out to the county's tutors charged with delivery courses in Welsh or teaching Welsh to adults in English only, neatly encapsulating the council's abysmal record on the Welsh language, which it claims it treats on an equal footing with English.

But it need not be like this. Say Something in Welsh, a largely web-based Welsh language teaching platform, is going from strength to strength. They now claim that they have over 15,000 members worldwide. In Ceredigion numbers have been holding up well, and the county is producing a steady stream of people who have become fluent, active speakers of Welsh in the community.

Part of the solution is not to create more office-bound jobs and monitoring processes while relying on a few sparse adverts, but to get people off their asses and out onto the streets to promote adult education, whether its Welsh for Adults, web design or cake decoration. Make it fun, make it relevant and sell the idea to all those parents with children in Welsh medium schools and people whose last experience of education was enough to put them off for life.

But sadly the chances of any of that happening in Carmarthenshire any time soon are remote as long as Meryl and Mark are in charge, with their top-down, process driven, cynical view of both the public (or "rabble" as Meryl likes to thinks of us) and "their" staff (lazy).

This is turning out to be another classic example of a Carmarthenshire "consultation". According to the Unison representative, staff were called to a meeting on 2 December to be told about the changes. As an afterthought, a consultation document (English only) was sent out on 16 January, and apart from a lot of constipated management jargon, it contained no information on job roles for the people affected. It also seems that the agreed internal procedures were not followed before the document was issued.

Staff morale is said, unsurprisingly, to be at "rock bottom", and several have commented that the previous restructure in 2008 was carried out in a similarly high-handed and rushed way.

As a result, the deadline for the consultation has now been put back by a month, and new documentation in both Welsh and English is being sent out.

Monday 23 January 2012

Cyngor Sir Gaerfyrddin a'r Gymraeg

Cafodd Cyngor Sir Gaerfyrddin ei feirniadu'n gryf mewn adroddiad gan Estyn am ei wasanaethau addysg i oedolion ym mis Mawrth 2011. Dylai'r cyngor wella safon dysgu ac addysgu, dylai'r cyngor wneud mwy i sicrhau ac amddiffyn oedolion bregus, a dylai'r cyngor wella darpariaeth addysg ddwyieithog a chyrsiau trwy gyfrwng y Gymraeg, yn ôl Estyn.

Beth yw ymateb y Cyngor, felly?

Wel, maen nhw'n mynd ati i ailstrwytho adran Dysgu Oedolion yn y Gymuned; bydd llai o gyrsiau ar gael a llai o diwtoriaid; hefyd, maent yn cael gwared ar staff llawn amser. Mae'n rhaid iddynt arbed arian, ac felly mae dogfen "ymgynghori" uniaith Saesneg wedi mynd at bob aeolod o staff, gan gynnwys yr holl diwtoriaid sy'n dysgu trwy gyfrwng y Gymraeg a Chymraeg i Oedolion.

Polisi'r cyngor yw "yn trin y Gymraeg a’r Saesneg ar y sail eu bod nhw’n gyfartal." Yn swyddogol, wrth gwrs.

Teifi Valley Railway

With so much bad news about, it is really good to report on a success story and a positive initiative for once.

Teifi Valley Railway is a trust run by volunteers which operates steam trains on a few miles of track on the Carmarthenshire-Ceredigion border, and now it is working on plans to extend the railway back to Newcastle Emlyn.

Over the years it has cleared miles of over-grown track on part of the network of railway lines which used to criss-cross this part of the country. A huge amount of unpaid effort has gone into restoring part of the line, which operates in the summer months from the station at Henllan, between Newcastle Emlyn and Llandysul.

Last summer I spent the best part of a day there with my family, travelling on the trains and exploring the footpaths and walks which run alongside the track. The countryside is stunningly beautiful and peaceful, and the railway itself is run in a charming, old-fashioned and super-friendly way.

This is not a slick operation run by marketing professionals, and the cost of a day out for a family was really good value.

Currently the line comes to a halt at a collapsed bridge about 2 miles outside Newcastle Emlyn, and repairing the bridge is the first of the major obstacles that needs to be overcome.

The biggest problem facing the extension, however, is at the Newcastle Emlyn end, where British Rail refused to sell its disused station to the trust. The old station, about half a mile outside the centre of town, was subsequently demolished and redeveloped as a small trading estate.

The trust would like instead to extend the line into the centre of town, but that will mean building a second bridge over the Teifi and acquiring more land in what is an environmentally sensitive area.

A few years ago a similar project failed because of costs, but there are some grounds for optimism that funding may be available, and the indications are that the project would find strong support in the community, and the bulk of the work would be carried out by local volunteers.

Newcastle Emlyn is slightly off the tourist trail, and the railway would undoubtedly bring more visitors to the town and give local shops and businesses a boost in the summer months. The project also has the potential to bring the community together and give us a common goal to work for.

To get an idea of what the line is like, check out this clip from Youtube. Be patient, though. The trains travel very slowly - these are not still photos!

Sunday 22 January 2012

How to undermine market towns

Recently there has been a lot of news coverage of the collapse of big-name brands in the high streets, but our market towns have been fighting for their lives for a lot longer.

In Carmarthenshire, the county council has been doing its bit to drive more nails in the coffins of our small towns and independent retailers with its car parking charges.

Not many years ago, car parks in most of the county's smaller towns were free, but seeing an opportunity to make money, charges were introduced, and these have been rising at well above inflation ever since. If anything, the council intends to escalate matters, and has published what it calls proposals to rack up charges year-on-year for the next three years, with the price of a ticket for an hour rising from 40p in 2011 to 70p in 2014.

Car parking at supermarkets is, of course, free. So what we have is an active disincentive for people to shop locally. Want to nip into town to buy a loaf of bread and some milk? Add 50p to your bill if you park in a council car park.

In Newcastle Emlyn, which has one fairly large car park and two smaller ones, it turns out that the county council last year made a profit of around £55,000 from parking, although in true Carmarthenshire style, the numbers have been subject to spin, with £27,000 of profit being eaten up by fictional improvement and maintenance work. The probable truth is that most of the £27,000 was in fact spent on a new bus shelter which has nothing whatever to do with the car parks.

The reason we know this is because the Town Council was forced into making a Freedom of Information request to the County Council to obtain information which, you would think, County Hall would provide its community councils with anyway.

In common with the public, local councillors have noticed that while charges have gone up and up, repair and maintenance of the car parks have gone in the opposite direction, although the county council has now patched up some of the largest potholes and repainted the parking bays, which had become also invisible to the naked eye.

Meanwhile, it seems that all is not well in Carmarthen's flagship Tesco Extra store, which is under-trading significantly. Not that things are much better at Morrison's where the county council's policy of encouraging out-of-town retail development has resulted in the mushrooming of a large and growing retail park off the A40. According to a consumer survey, elderly shoppers are deterred from going to Morrisons because of the large roundabouts and multi-lane approaches to them.

With thanks to the Tivyside Advertiser for a timely nudge.

Friday 20 January 2012

Ammanford: The Old Bill gets a very big bill

Recently the chief constable of Dyfed Powys Police, Ian Arundale, popped into Carmarthenshire County Council to ask for a 5% rise in the police precept. Since the precept is set by the Police Authority, he was politely telling councillors rather than asking them for an increase, but buried in his long tale of doom and gloom about budget pressures and spending cuts was one of the most extraordinary revelations of greed, incompetence and bungling ever heard in County Hall. And that's saying something.

Yes, we are talking about Ammanford Police Station, built at a cost believed to be £2.5m and opened in 2001.

I say "believed to be" because as usual there is a distinct lack of transparency.

The station was built out of town on a 30-year lease under a PFI scheme, which we are now told (here) may end up costing the police force £15 million. As "Anon2" has pointed out in my account of the chief constable's presentation (here), the numbers are all very vague, and the actual cost could even be significantly higher than £15 million. According to Mr Arundale, payments in the current year will be in the region of £700,000 and are rising.

Currently the station is open during the day, but not at night, and is closed at weekends. Some 60% of the building is empty and unused.

The contract to build the station went to local builders and entrepreneurs T Richard Jones, trading as TRJ Limited. TRJ Limited is one of a number of privately owned companies controlled by the Jones family, which include the bizarrely named "Dolef Cyfyngedig" (which translates as "Cry Limited"). Dolef is the company which leases the station to the police.

As usual, it seems that all of the people involved in awarding the contract have since departed from the scene, including Chief Constable Terry Grange, who retired suddenly in 2007 following an investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission into financial and other irregularities. By resigning, Mr Grange escaped disciplinary proceedings and kept his pension. Mr Grange, who had been assistant chief constable, took over from his predecessor, Ray White, in March 2000, when presumably negotiations with TRJ were well advanced.

The current chief constable told councillors that he was hoping to enter into discussions with the TRJ group to see if anything could be done about the PFI agreement. Well, there's always hope. In the meantime, he has begun discussions with the county council to see what scope there may be for sharing part of the council's vast holdings of office space.

Since the TRJ group also does a great deal of business with the county council, perhaps the chief executive could play an even more constructive role by making it clear to TRJ that the group will not get any more council business until it sorts out the Ammanford fiasco.

And who knows, the Wales Audit Office might even get off its backside and investigate this shocking and shabby deal. Who negotiated it, and why? Who authorised it? Was everything done according to the rule book and above board?

While the Jones's are laughing all the way to the bank, the police service is being cut back, stations are closing, people are losing their jobs, and ordinary families across the four counties covered by Dyfed Powys will have to dig deep to pay for a big rise in the precept.

Of course, the Police Authority itself is set to be swept away later this year and be replaced by elected police commissioners. One of the candidates will be John Davies, leader of Pembrokeshire County Council and a former copper himself. Mr Davies's many responsibilities include chair of the authority's finance committee. God help us.

Update 21 January

Thanks to everyone for their very interesting comments. Here is a brief round-up.

One of the comments concerned a private newsletter called Police Market Review, which in January 2000 reported:

  12. DYFED-POWYS Finance Committee have agreed plans for a new PFI police
station at Ammanford. The force will pay an annual fixed amount of £360K plus an
annual index linked amount, presently worth £209K. The contract runs for 30 years.
IT and furniture will be provided by the contractor but there is no ongoing liability for
repair and replacement of these items. Minute, Finance Committee, 28.3.2000

Then we have an parliamentary answer in Hansard to a question from July 2010 in which the life-time cost of the station in Ammanford was put at £19.18m.

Unfortunately, some of the other page links quoted do not work, but what we are getting is a welter of conflicting numbers coming from the Government and the police themselves, with an FOI response from the police authority stating that the annual charge for 2007-08 was £632k, rising to £644k the following year.

At least that ties in with what the chief constable told the county council, although the same response put the total life-time cost at £21.23 million.

In other words, the numbers are all over the place, and whatever the true figure, one thing is clear: the public is being ripped off.

Barclays' involvement would seem to be that it loaned money to TRJ to fund the initial project rather than having a direct hand in the PFI arrangement itself.

Interesting to hear also that Mr Arundale wants to spend another £5 million on building a new custody unit, and that money is being wasted on renting parking in Cross Hands while the Ammanford facility stays empty.

Keep them coming!

Thursday 19 January 2012

Boundary Commission - back to the Middle Ages

The recently published recommendations of the Boundary Commission for Wales will probably not rob many people of their sleep, but buried in the detail there are some real oddities as the commissioners have struggled to try to find ways of getting more or less 74,000 electors into every constituency. A bit of squeezing here, a bit of pruning there, some rather desperate stuffing elsewhere seems to sum it up.

If you look at a map of county boundaries, you will see that Newcastle Emlyn sits in a wedge of territory shaped a bit like a parrot's beak jutting out into Ceredigion. Most, but not quite all, of this beak is now to be moved into a new-ish constituency comprising Ceredigion and a chunk of north Pembrokeshire.

In the neat world of political maps, it makes sense, but while the Westminster MP will change, residents of Newcastle Emlyn will still come under Carmarthenshire County Council and be represented in Cardiff by the Assembly Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr.

Our new MP, most likely Mark Williams, the sitting Lib-Dem MP for Ceredigion, will in future find that he has to deal with three separate local authorities, with Ceredigion generating the vast bulk of his workload, a smaller proportion will involve dealing with Pembrokeshire, and the remaining scraps will fall under Carmarthenshire. He should be warned now that his colleagues in Carmarthen East and Dinefwr have found that Carmarthenshire County Council generates a disproportionately large postbag, with complaints about the county's planning department featuring large.

The local authority boundaries of Wales are crying out for reform. There are far too many councils, and it would always have made more sense to put Newcastle Emlyn in with Ceredigion anyway. Geographically, culturally and economically the ties between our community and Ceredigion are much stronger than they are with Ammanford, Llanelli or even Carmarthen. But that will not be touched.

Local government reform along these lines would also have ended the totally daft arrangement whereby one half of our town comes under Carmarthenshire, and the other half, known as Adpar, comes under Ceredigion; a split which causes all sorts of ridiculous problems, ranging from waste management, planning and road maintenance to healthcare provision (it took a very long time to get a new NHS dentistry practice set up because of cross-border wrangling).

The net result for the electors of Newcastle Emlyn will be an almost medieval map of enclaves and exclaves, bizarre boundaries, and the real risk that we could end up as a sort of administrative afterthought stuck in a political no-man's land.

Apart from a bulging postbag, Mark Williams will also be less than pleased to hear that he is inheriting a Plaid Cymru stronghold.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Museum pieces - Part I of an occasional series: Cllr Jane Tremlett

With the County Council elections looming in May, the next few months may well be the last time we get to look at some of the inhabitants of County Hall before they are consigned to electoral oblivion.

One of the more vocal occupants of the Independent benches to the right of the council chamber is Cllr Jane Tremlett, a second-hand bookseller by trade who represents Laugharne Township.

Laugharne is a tranquil spot on the coast, whose best-known former resident was the poet Dylan Thomas. Dylan's rackety lifestyle would not have met with approval by Mrs Tremlett, who is however very fond of quoting Shakespeare and Dickens in her little speeches.

Observers of Carmarthenshire's County Council have often noted in the past that appointments to the various lucrative jobs on committees, the Executive Board, etc. show that someone in the council has a perverse sense of humour. How otherwise would you explain the appointment of Ivor Jackson as Chair of the Council, or of gnarled Old Testament Cllr Gwynne Wooldridge as Younger People's Champion and Executive Member for Education and Children's Services?

So it is that Mrs Tremlett presides as chair over the Council's Health and Social Care Scrutiny Committee.

Ironically for someone who likes to quote Dickens, Mrs Tremlett would probably regard the Victorian novelist as a dangerous lefty radical for his views on welfare and workhouse management. Little Oliver would not have dared ask for more if she had been running things.

One of Mrs Tremlett's favourite obsessions in council meetings is attacking Cllr Siân Caiach, who suitably sits in an almost identical place on the opposite side of the chamber. Mrs T does not like the radical, troublesome Cllr Caiach one little bit, and her cutglass accent (think Queen Elizabeth II addressing the Commonwealth in about 1953 and you will get an idea of what she sounds like) often rings out across the chamber to berate her fellow committee member for some alleged shortcoming or other.

Normally these days not much happens in Laugharne, but this week the council's planning committee approved controversial plans for a massive expansion of the Seasons Holiday park from 75 chalets to 212, a further 48 serviced apartments and a range of new recreational facilities.

Not surprisingly, the plans worried many local people and the local community council. Even some of the Independent members of the planning committee worried about the scale of the thing, which is almost equivalent to building a small town.

In 2010 the Community Council met to hear a presentation by consultants for the holiday company on the road and traffic implications of the enlarged site, something which has worried local people more than anything else. Mrs T was unable to attend, and the rather patchy minutes of the council show that she often has better things to do with her time.

One of the prerogatives of local members in planning matters is to request that the Planning Committee make a site visit before they reach a decision. This is meant to help them to understand layouts, potential problems, etc. in a way that paper plans do not, although some of the more elderly committee members seem completely bewildered by these little day release trips.

Mrs Tremlett, for reasons best known to herself, did not think this rigmarole was worthwhile, and so no request was made, despite representations by people she represents and the misgivings of some of the Planning Committee members.

No doubt, in common with every other candidate, Mrs Tremlett will claim in her election leaflets that she will "stand up for her local community".

At least the locals will know what to make of that empty slogan.


There seem to have been gremlins in the software on Blogger.com which have been affecting comments in the last couple of weeks. If you have submitted a comment and it has not appeared, please accept my apologies.

After a little tweaking of the settings, it should once again be possible to comment on what you read here. Comments, whatever they say, are always welcome provided they are not defamatory or indecent.

Diolch a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda i bawb

Thank you and a Happy New Year to you all

Monday 16 January 2012

Dictionary definitions: to propose

Residents of Carmarthenshire have long been used to the county council's use of euphemisms. When we hear that a service is to be "developed" as a part of a "modernisation programme designed to meet the needs of users", we know that the service is for the chop.

Now we have to get to grips with an innovative use of the word "propose" in the case of car parking charges. On the council's website (here) is a piece of spin news item dated 10 January setting out proposed charges for the next three years. But as anyone parking their car noticed the week before, charges actually went up on 1 January. And with inflation running at around 5%, charges were increased by 25% as Carmarthenshire did its bit to help struggling businesses and family finances.

With the experts predicting a fall in inflation this year, the council is "proposing" to put up charges for parking by 75% over the next three years.

But all is not doom and gloom for everyone. If you read planning officers' reports on supermarket developments, you will see that free car parking is considered to be a good thing.

Perhaps "propose" and "consult" mean the same thing.

A rather different use of "propose" was a document recommending closure of the county's two museums. Within a couple of weeks the council was able to announce to a grateful public that it had "saved" the museums. You had to get out a magnifying glass to read the smallprint, which added "for the time being".

At least culture vultures and anyone interested in local history will be able to go to Towy Community Church's 10 pin bowling alley, thanks to generous financial support from the council's Sustainable Communities Fund, set up, as Caebrwyn has reminded us, "to develop and safeguard local legends, history, culture, art and language to inform visitors of the county’s distinctiveness, and also to maintain the character of Carmarthenshire for its residents."

Sunday 15 January 2012

Carmarthenshire's responsibilities under the Equalities Act

Back in December this blog noted that Carmarthenshire County Council was still dithering over its responsibilities under the 2010 Equalities Act. As yet, it only has only considered a report on what compliance will mean, and it is not expected to get around to formulating a policy until later this year, almost two years after the Act came into force.

Surely local authorities would not deliberately set out to discriminate on the grounds of race, sexuality and religion, or disregard the rights of disabled people, women and others? Perhaps not, but then as most of us will have discovered at some point, government, whether local or national, is frequently pretty stupid and lacking in basic common sense and the ability to think very far ahead.

A good example of this came just last week, when Carmarthenshire County Council which has recently been boasting about some quango awards for its social care, was criticised in a damning report (here) by the Public Services Ombudsman and ordered to pay £3,000 in compensation for its treatment of a disabled man.

As the council's own report on the Equalities Act states, the law requires local authorities to consider what the effects of their policies and activities will mean to all sorts of different people, and to ensure that policies and the delivery of services do not discriminate on the grounds of sex, religion, race, etc. Here is a key passage:

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.

Recently the council received a Freedom of Information request for the assessments carried out ahead of the council's decision to launch its Christmas toy box appeal (toys collected by the council, police and other agencies were handed over to 4 selected independent evangelical groups for distribution to the public) and its decision to give a £1.4m package of financial aid to Towy Community Church for a bowling alley.

The response came back that no such information was held, meaning in plain English that no assessments were carried out - contrary to the requirements of the law.

This matters because religious groups of all shades and colours have a long history of discrimination, abuse and even outright persecution of those they don't like or who simply have the misfortune to be entrusted into their care.

Did the four evangelical groups give the council any undertakings on how the toys would be distributed? How did they know who to give the toys to? Were deserving families from backgrounds the evangelicals might disapprove of put off from asking for help? We do not know.

The grants, loans and other aid given to Towy Community Church were defended by quite a few councillors on the grounds that the church would also be operating a furniture recycling centre, a debt counselling service and a food bank. Phase II of the project will involve building an auditorium which will double up as a church.

Cllr Gwynne Wooldridge, executive member responsible for education and the official "Younger Person's Champion", even went so far as to say in the debate on the bowling alley that "there is only one important book - the Bible". Good to know that our schools are in such sensible hands.

No assessment of equalities issues has been made despite very large sums of public money being poured into the venture. The debt counselling service, for example, will be run on "Christian principles". Caebrwyn has pointed out that this means that people seeking help are likely to be "invited" to join church volunteers in prayer as a part of the service. 

There are a number of good and very experienced debt counselling services available that are run by volunteers with support from taxpayers. Citizens Advice, for example. Why does the council feel the need to encourage a specifically Christian service to be set up when church volunteers could and should be encouraged to join existing charities in the field?

What guarantees are there that church volunteers coming into contact with vulnerable adults and children have had CRB checks? Will their services be open to inspection by statutory bodies to ensure that  they are being run professionally and ethically, and that people seeking help are not regarded first and foremost as potential recruits? Will the services be available to all and sundry, regardless of their religious backgrounds, sexuality, lifestyles, etc.?

Again, we do not know, and neither it seems does the County Council. 

In recent years countless cases of abuse of children and vulnerable adults in the care of churches and other religious groups have come to light. It has happened in children's homes, homes dedicated to looking after young women, schools, madrasas, youth clubs, etc. The victims run into the tens of thousands across Europe, and we know that repeatedly abusers have been shielded and protected.

In a case still before the courts, a paedophile Catholic priest from Portsmouth abused children in his care. The Catholic Church is contesting the claim for compensation by saying that the priest was not an employee of the church because he depended, as most priests do, on donations from his congregation. A good account of the case can be found here.

This is a new twist on an argument used by other religious groups to defend themselves against charges of discrimination by claiming that under the Equalities Act, volunteers do not enjoy the same legal rights as employees. A man who was carrying out voluntary work for an evangelical group was receiving board and lodging; when the group heard that he was in a gay relationship, it turfed him out. And that was OK, the Evangelical Alliance is pleased to tell us.

In the current issue of the respected German weekly current affairs magazine Der Spiegel there is a lengthy report on the rise of extremism among Israel's ultra-orthodox community. An English version of the article can be found here. There some women are beginning to encase themselves in multiple layers of clothing and even wear heavy veils without eye holes to protect their modesty. In one case, a woman ended up wearing 10 coats and multiple pairs of trousers, long skirts and gloves in the searing heat. Eventually she would not show her face even to her family, and communicated by gestures. She constructed a tent in the bathroom so that not even the walls of the house could see her naked. At the same time, she was known to be administering savage beatings to her children for what she regarded to be breaches of the moral code and to force them to pray. Two of the children developed an incestuous relationship, and were having sex in the same house.

The woman, Bruria Keren, is now serving a prison sentence for child abuse. Interestingly, her son told reporters that if it had not been for the religious aspects of the case, she would have been committed to psychiatric care. Instead, the religious community of which she was a part, closed ranks.  

If that all sounds a bit exotic and not like the sort of thing which could happen here, think again. Check out what the Daily Mail (yes, I know, I'm sorry) told us about Carmarthenshire's very own Stephen Green, leader of Christian Voice. 

While it has been taking its time to ensure conformity with the Act, the Council has been rather more energetic in embracing David Cameron's "Big Society" by outsourcing parts of its social care responsibilities to Christian evangelical groups which are not part of the traditional mainstream churches and religious denominations in Wales.

What these groups have in common is that they are for the most part small, independent organisations, often founded and led by the same individuals, with highly conservative views on social matters, a belief that the Bible is a true in all respects and that those who do not share the same beliefs are destined for everlasting punishment in hell. The groups the council has chosen to work with (and in one case support with large sums of public money) also all belong to various national and international organisations, often controlled ultimately from the American Bible Belt, which have overtly right-wing political aims.

A core part of the strategy of these groups is to infiltrate government at all levels to gain influence over education, welfare and social policies, and moving into the provision of social care to "help" cash-strapped councils is part and parcel of that strategy. They are quite open about this, as you can see from the websites of CARE, Gweini, the Evangelical Alliance, etc.

A defining characteristic of evangelicals is that a core part of their mission is to spread the word and win new converts. For most of them, in fact, it is a key requirement of their faith that they do just that; not to try to save unbelievers is actually sinful. Strange then, that some of the organisations, such as CARE (Christian Action, Research Education) and the Evangelical Alliance advise their members to play down their beliefs when carrying out social work.

Perhaps noisy, bible-bashing volunteers might upset people and complicate the real aims of these umbrella groups, which is to build their influence and power within government by stealth.

Budget cutbacks and the withdrawal of councils from areas of social care is certain to result in more outsourcing to religious groups in the next few years. Extreme care will be needed if the mistakes of the past are not to be repeated, and that is why it is so important that Carmarthenshire and other councils use all of the tools at their disposal to make sure that money and responsibility are not put into the wrong hands.

Friday 13 January 2012

Planning news - an unstable planning system

A few short weeks ago I reported on plans by Carmarthenshire County Council to build a waste recycling centre in the middle of the countryside near Newcastle Emlyn at a hamlet known locally as Five Roads (here). The planning application has now suddenly been withdrawn, apparently because the council's strapped finances mean that there is no budget for it. Residents have been warned that this may change in 2015 if the budgetary position has improved.

Understandably, local people were strongly opposed to having a site surrounded by high security fencing and floodlit at night so close to their homes - in a couple of cases just yards away.

According to the application, the site would have employed 4 full-time and 4 part-time staff, but given the remoteness of the site and the small population it would have served - a catchment area of no more than 10,000 people - it is improbable that all of those jobs would have materialised.

As objectors also pointed out, it would have made far more sense and been far more cost-effective for the county council to break a habit of a lifetime and negotiate with neighbouring Ceredigion to allow residents to use the existing waste recycling centre near Cardigan.

A public meeting with council officials finally took place on 11 January, the day after the application had been withdrawn. Once again this highlights the council's very strange understanding of what constitutes consultation. One of the officers present appeared to give local people the impression that the council had not fully appreciated all of the potential problems with the site, and that alternatives closer to Newcastle Emlyn might be sought.

If this is a true reflection of what was said at the meeting, the officer deserves praise for being so honest, and it would certainly mark a departure from Carmarthenshire's usual policy of always being right and never needing to apologise for anything. Time will tell.

In Cardigan itself the twists and turns over two major supermarket developments are becoming increasingly surreal. Just before Christmas the Tivyside Advertiser reported that the proposed Sainsbury's development at the Bath House site was again uncertain because of land stability problems. The store is supposed to be opening in July this year, but not a single brick has yet been laid.

Just up the road, Tesco eventually succeeded in getting planning permission to expand its existing store, despite concerns in the town about the impact on the High Street.

The plan would involve extending the store to sell a wider range of non-food goods and the construction of an underground car park. Now there are rumours from credible sources that the expansion has hit the buffers because of....land stability problems.

Known land stability problems do not appear to worry planners in neighbouring Carmarthenshire, however. In Newcastle Emlyn, an area of the town notorious for subsidence problems is earmarked for several new developments, including a supermarket and more housing.

A few years ago the county council had to spend a huge amount of money shoring up the main road and anchoring it to the bedrock to prevent it from sliding towards the river. A couple of years later, it found no problem in giving planning permission for a development of allegedly affordable homes along the northern edge of the same road. Four of the houses were sold or rented out just before subsidence started. The subsidence was so bad that an access road built on the site, in preparation for more houses, looked as though it had been hit by an earthquake, and was closed.

Two of the houses have remained empty and are deemed to be uninhabitable. It is understood that litigation is pending to try to sort out compensation for the unfortunate homeowners, and there are rumours that it may cost millions to stabilise the site, with one option being to demolish the whole lot.

Against that background, you might think that the County Council's planners might have though twice about putting in a neighbouring site into the proposed Local Development Plan for housing development, and the council was certainly warned about this during the consultation process.

Despite this, work has now begun on the site, with an access road having been built by Tai Cantref, the housing association, in the weeks running up to Christmas. It seems planning permission was granted for a special needs unit and three houses.

To allow housing developments on land known to be highly unstable would appear to be negligent, to say the least. Whether the local authority can be held legally responsible for damage caused by subsidence in such cases, I do not know. But it certainly has a moral responsibility towards ordinary people whose lives are likely to be blighted for years while insurers, developers and planners argue over something that should never have happened in the first place.

Thursday 12 January 2012

January Council Meeting Part 2 - In which Mark James reads Janet and John

The Chief Constable's pleas for more dosh took up rather more time than anyone had expected, and so the remainder of the business was conducted at a fairly brisk pace. Lunch was waiting down in the canteen.

Education was first up, and Robert Sully, Director of Education, went into action - the only one of the highly paid service heads present who actually got to speak.

Kevin Madge launched into another ramble, this time congratulating the chief executive and the Dear Leader on the Welsh Government's 21st Century Schools Programme. This would create a lot of new jobs, he said, including in construction. Whether Carwyn Jones or Leighton Andrews (Welsh Education Minister) would be quite so generous in giving the credit for their plan to the dynamic duo from Carmarthenshire is another matter.

One elderly Independent council stood to point out that most of the councillors were also school governors, before proceeding to demonstrate why the system of appointing county councillors to school governorships regardless of their abilities is so wrong.

Some of the worst schools he had visited, he said, were over-staffed. It was not clear what he meant by "worst schools", although it seemed to have something to do with upkeep and the state of the paintwork. He had been to schools where the head teachers did not actually teach children, and just look at the state of the buildings. We have to act as governors, he thundered.

Cllr Lemon (Plaid Cymru) asked about plans for a new school at Seaside in Llanelli. What had happened to all of the £16 million promised?

Mark James then showed us why the Private Eye award was so richly deserved.

"I came down there and explained to you all in words of one syllable what would happen if you (you being local councillors, parents and residents) refused to put the school where WE wanted it." Back in the late 1980s, this use of "we" was of course one of the most obvious signs that Margaret Thatcher was losing the plot.

What had happened was that the £16 million had been taken away as a punishment and given to another school.

"Now you will have to wait 5 years at least", he snarled, as Cllr Lemon was sent off to the naughty step.

On his way, Cllr Lemon tried to ask whether the decision had been made by the chief executive or the council. We were never going to find out, because the Chair ordered him to sit down and be quiet.

Next came a question from Cllr Caiach on the proposed Educational Village at Stradey Park. Was this ever going to happen?

Mark James and Robert Sully then played a little game, and you could see the punchline coming from a mile off.

Yes, said Sully, but there had been a few changes.

Would this mean that a new statutory consultation was needed, asked Mark James. The question was of course rhetorical.

Probably not, said Sully.

Good, said James, because then there might be a risk that somebody might object.

All of which just goes to show what Mark James thinks of public consultations and anyone who disagrees with him. Got that, Cllrs Lemon and Caiach?

Next came the bit that the scurrilous bloggers and journalists had been waiting for.

Peter Hughes Griffiths, leader of the Plaid Cymru group and leader of the opposition, stood to complain about the scandalous misuse of the Press Office in the middle of the council's budget consultations to issue an official press release in which the leader of the council and a Labour backbencher had attacked Plaid Cymru and announced a whole series of U-turns on spending cuts.

Back in November the council issued proposals saying it needed to cut £8.5m from the 2012-13 budget, with detailed proposals for how that would be met, along with a 4% increase in council tax.

Suddenly, on 9 January, it was announced that the ruling coalition had decided not to increase the price of school dinners, not to close two museums, not to close two respite homes and to limit cuts to Menter Iaith to 10%, rather than 50%. The announcement went on to say that the aim was to keep the rise in council tax to 2%.

How was all this going to be achieved, and what about a statement by another councillor earlier in the meeting that the council tax rise would be 2.5%? What was the point of consultation? Who was actually running things?

Mark James showed us why he had been awarded a CBE as he began a long lecture on the principles of local government, as you might explain them to a class of 9 year-olds. It was all terribly simple, and in a way it was all a bit like Westminster, with a government and an opposition, he explained.

The administration, or government, had met quite properly, he said, to make decisions (in private, not as a part of any of the officially constituted committees and without any published records).

As for the Press Office, it could not be used to make political statements by groups, but could legitimately be used by representatives of the administration to make its views known. Procedurally, the press release had therefore been in order, he said, neglecting to explain why a person or persons unknown had ordered its removal from the council's website.

This "how many angels can dance on a pin head" argument left everyone baffled, as no doubt was the intention.

The ruling Independent Labour coalition then went on the offensive. Meryl purred that the statement had been issued to stop the staff affected from worrying about job losses. Yeah, right.

Pam Palmer rose to say she was confused. She and others were working up a bid for £3m of grant funding for the County Museum. "Apparently it has historic gardens, whatever." The "whatever" was spat out in a Mockney accent. Pam is a chav, it seems.

Now she was no longer confused, but very, very cross. Peter Hughes Griffiths had been invited to come into the budget discussions, she hissed, but had refused on the basis that he had never been invited in any previous year (and presumably because he could see the trap that Pam, Meryl and the others had tried to set for him).
This made her VERY, VERY angry she shouted, before resuming her seat.

The shouting was now over, and there was a quick ticking off of the remaining agenda items before we were all released into the streets of Carmarthen where, thanks to Dyfed Powys Police, incidents involving gratuitous violence, dishonesty and knife attacks by crazed old women are fortunately much less common than they are in County Hall.

January Council Meeting Part 1 : Chief Constable Knacker calls

Off to Carmarthen for the first meeting of the full council this year.

The public was ushered into the gallery in the middle of a minute's silence being held in memory of Labour's Cllr Dewi Enoch, and had therefore missed the apologies for absence. Looking round the chamber, this month's apologies must have been a long list judging by the large number of empty seats on the Independent and Labour benches, but fortunately all of the usual suspects had turned up to perform for us, and it was obvious from some of the straining waistbands and bulges that quite a few of the councillors had eaten more mince pies than they should have.

Facing them were half a dozen or so of the senior officers, all but one of whom remained silent throughout the next two and a half hours, but then the chief executive was there with an answer for everything, so perhaps they needn't have bothered.

Seated on the grand high podium behind the officers and in front of the councillors and public sat the Great and the Good, including this time Chief Constable of Dyfed Powys Police, Ian Arundale. Any hopes that he had come to take the chief executive in for questioning over the latest Press Office scandal were quickly dashed.

The self-congratulatory announcements were rather muted this time, with Mark James getting only polite applause for his CBE rather than the usual thunderous ovation, and Cllr Siân Caiach mischievously stood to announce that Carmarthenshire had won Private Eye's Legal Bullies of the Year Award in the magazine's Rotten Boroughs column. She also hoped, forlornly, that the council would offer its apologies for the arrest and appalling treatment of Jacqui Thompson.

The Chair, Ivor Jackson, was not standing for any of this. "We don't want to get the new year off to a start like that", he glowered.

Undeterred, Cllr Caiach popped up a few seconds later to suggest that it would be easy and very cheap to record council meetings using the council's sound system, and thereby provide any interested party with an accurate and reliable record of who said what at council meetings. As it is, all we have are the unreliable and often less than accurate official minutes.

Cllr Pam Palmer, leader of the Independents and cabinet member for everything from food hygiene to "democracy" was in particularly bossy form. She was prepared to consider this suggestion, she snarled, before shouting "BUT it will depend on the COST".

Chief Executive Mark James sneered menacingly that a recording may prove to be a double-edged sword because it would also record councillors who got their facts wrong. As we know, Mark James CBE never gets anything wrong, and all his strategic "investments" of our money will one day turn out to be brilliant. But not in our lifetime.

Perhaps Mr James was dropping a hint about the next round of constitutional changes due to be announced soon. Will they include penalties for councillors who deviate from the Mark James Big Book of Facts (exempt from publication)?

The Chief Constable rose, and a Powerpoint presentation popped up on a large screen behind him. He got straight to the point. Could he have a 5% increase in the police precept, please?

What followed was an unmitigated tale of woe. Dyfed Powys was the best performing police force in the country, he claimed, but it was now facing 20% cuts to its budget and the worst crisis in policing in 150 years.

There would be an impact on front-line policing, and 2012 would present a whole range of new challenges, including the Olympics and new drains on its budget, such as having to pay to access the Police National  Computer - previously funded centrally, but this year the force would have to pay out as much as the cost of running its single helicopter.

Dyfed Powys is the most rural police force in Wales and England and covers the largest geographical area, and yet the government had also cut its rural support grant.

In order to maintain the policing service at the levels we had 10-15 years ago, he claimed, the precept would have to rise by 80%, so the 5% being asked for, equivalent to £9.45 per year on a Band D property, was very modest.

Up popped a helpful slide showing Band D council tax rates for the four counties covered by Dyfed Powys, and Carmarthenshire - the best-run, the most efficient, the shining beacon to all lesser authorities was also briefly exposed as the most expensive to live in. The councillors and officers averted their eyes and pretended they had not seen it.

On and on he went with dire warnings. Because chief constables cannot make serving police officers redundant, support staff would have to be cut and police officers taken out of front-line service and put into clerical jobs. The helicopter was under threat, and if that goes, the nearest helicopter available would be one based in Shropshire. More police stations would have to close. Until now, the police had responded to every call, but in future only emergencies would be a priority.

After a good start, a great many eggs were now going into this pudding, and at one point the Chief Constable even said that all recent terrorist incidents had had links to Carmarthenshire. Really? The 7/7 bombers had sourced some of their chemicals from the county, and now the force would have to prepare for the possibility of a terrorist attack to coincide with the Olympics.

Finally we reached the last slide and the Chief Constable resumed his seat. There were just four words in Welsh in the Powerpoint presentation, and one of those was wrong. The word for "questions" is spelt cwestiynau and not cwestiwnnau. There were lots of cwestiwnnau from councillors who appeared to have become a little sceptical.

What about the force's lavish car policy which had provided a fleet of top of the range BMWs for senior officers and their spouses? Nothing to do with me, said Knacker. That was the Police Authority's decision, and it had been made to save money.

What about the police station at Ammanford, now threatened with closure? Ah, that had been built under a PFI scheme for reasons the Chief Constable could not understand. It was the wrong building in the wrong place, and payments to the company involved were now in excess of £0.5 million a year, and rising.

What about the new state of the art Major Incident Response centre near Carmarthen? Well, that had been paid for by the Welsh Assembly Government, and coincidentally a major exercise was going on there today. Contrary to criticism that the place was a gigantic white elephant standing empty most of the time, it was now a hive of activity. So much so that the police force had recruited someone to drum up more business for it.

Kevin Madge (Labour leader) cannot let any discussion go without offering his thoughts, even though he rarely has anything to say. Off he went on a ramble. He could remember the 1980s - a reference to the role of the police in the miners' strike - and that was why nobody in the Valleys was going to see the new film about Thatcher. But things had got better, and it was all about working together now.

Cneifiwr was not mad about Mrs T either, but he can reveal that the core message of the film is that megalomaniac leaders who ignore all criticism and bully everyone around them usually come to a sad end. Perhaps Mark James and Pam Palmer could go as a couple, or they may face a bleak future explaining to fellow residents of their respective homes about plans for draconian constitutional amendments.

How much of the force's budget came from the precept paid by ratepayers, a Plaid councillor politely asked. Ho hum, I'll get back to you on that, came the reply.

Hang on a minute, we had just listened to a long litany of dire warnings about financial Armageddon and cuts, with a request for a 5% rise in the precept (whereas 80% was really needed to maintain service levels), but Mr Arundale did not know what percentage of his budget was being contributed by local tax payers.

Cllr Stephen James, officially an Independent councillor but a man who also finds time to act as deputy chairman for Llanelli's Conservative Club, heaved his huge frame to a vertical position. He had been reading the Daily Mail. This was a disgrace, he said, when so much money was being handed out to foreigners in overseas aid. Not one penny was being cut from the aid budget, and here we were facing cuts in local policing. He wanted the council to write a strong letter to the Home Secretary.

Nobody thought to tackle the Chief Constable on the actual extent of the terrorist threat to Dyfed Powys, or to ask him why this rural area of Wales was having to fork out for the Olympics, when at most all we may see is the Tongan Women's Wrestling team stopping off at Pont Abraham service station (the only motorway service station in the whole Dyfed Powys area) for a cuppa and a digestive. Nobody queried why so much time and money was apparently being spent on training for major incidents while front-line policing was being axed. We may be well prepared for an Islamist attack on Llandeilo, but pub brawls, burglaries and drug dealing will present a bigger challenge.

One councillor pointed out that he would have a tough job explaining a 5% rise in the precept when the local police station was being shut.

Another was so enthusiastic that he appeared to call for a vote to approve the Chief Constable's demand straight away.

The Chair brought discussion to an end, and chaos ensued. It was clear to everyone in the chamber except for Chair Ivor Jackson that there were now two motions. One called on the council to write to the Home Secretary, and the second would have been in support of his request for a 5% increase. Names were mixed up, and the chair started floundering. Fortunately Mark James was on hand to intervene and explain that councillors could not vote to approve the increase in the precept at this meeting, and finally there was unanimous support for a letter to go to the Home Secretary.

Let's hope Stephen James is not given the job of writing it.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Award winning PR

The BBC and other mainstream, serious media in Britain do on the whole a very good job when it comes to reporting foreign affairs - having lived and worked in a number of countries and endured many hours of stiflingly dull news broadcasts on the minutiae of Swedish labour relations, Swiss tax developments, etc., I can vouch for that personally. Lately the spotlight has fallen on Putin's perverse idea of democracy and even, if a little belatedly, the subversion of democracy by the ruling right-wing regime in Hungary (Cameron's new buddies, incidentally).

Sadly rather less attention is paid to our own home-grown Putins in places like Carmarthenshire which is showing ever-increasing contempt for the niceties of reliable and fair reporting of facts, democracy and the difference between public resources and political propaganda.

A couple of years back the council, led in this instance by its chief executive Mark James, CBE, launched an assault on the local press with threats to withdraw lucrative advertising contracts unless they stopped "negative" reporting of council stories. To show that it meant business, the council beefed up its Pravda-like "newspaper", and the local papers, struggling for survival, were brought to heel.

To be fair, the local press has become a little braver of late, with some good coverage of, for example, the arrest of Caebrwyn for filming part of a council meeting, but other more controversial stories on the council's love affair with fundamentalist Christian groups have been spiked.

Seasoned Carmarthen watchers have known for a long time now how unreliable a guide the official minutes of its meetings are. Inconvenient and uncomfortable facts are simply wiped from the record, and just recently there has been some blatantly political manipulation of the record, with detailed reporting in the minutes of attacks made by councillors on Cllr Sian Caiach for opposing plans for a new school in Llanelli and no mention at all of what she said or why she opposed the plans.

During the last few months the council has published a series of reports outlining proposals for budget cuts and a 4% increase in council tax for the next financial year. The proposals aim to cut £8 million from spending in 2012-13, and would hit just about everyone in the county. Some of the proposed savings were little more than wishful thinking, being dependent on unlikely increases in revenue, while others involved the closure of care facilities, staffing cuts, slashing budgets for road and bridge maintenance, road safety, etc.

At the same time, the council published proposals for its capital budgets for the next three years, including generous provision for upgrades and maintenance of the council's vast stock of office buildings.

Not singled out for cuts were any of the council's own pet projects, its PR department, the appalling Carmarthenshire News or utterly wasteful spending on external consultants, agency staff and private detectives. That would be too close to home.

The finances of the Carmarthenshire News are, if anything, even less believable than much of its editorial content. The council would have us believe that the rag is almost self-funding, presumably because it now depends on the PR budgets of Dyfed Powys Police, the NHS, various colleges and other public bodies. There is next to no private sector advertising.

The "newspaper" is produced on glossy paper in full colour by the council's PR department, which won a couple of awards last year. The council loves to boast about its awards, almost all of which are dished out by quangos and incestuous, self-appointed bodies, and you have to wonder how stupendously awful the competition must have been for the Carmarthenshire's Ministry of Truth to come out on top.

The PR department has long been the source of an endless stream of self-congratulatory press releases and stories on the council's triumphs and successes. It has also been used to attack opponents of the ruling junta.

Its latest foray was an amazingly partisan attack on opposition councillors for daring to criticise the proposed budget cuts. In true Putin style, various members of the ruling junta lined up to attack their critics in the piece, which was put out to "stop idle speculation and unhelpful comments to the press." Of course, no space could be found to quote anyone who disagreed with them.

Cllr Terry Davies (if there were awards for smugness, he would be a runaway winner) even managed to claim that Carmarthenshire's school dinners were "regarded widely as the best in Wales for offering fresh, locally produced quality food." Bollocks, Cllr Davies. Go and have a look at what they offer in Ceredigion.

Bizarrely, the story was pulled from the council's website within hours of publication, but thanks to the ever-vigilant Caebrwyn you can read it in full here.

If there is a change in the council's administration in May, the PR department should be the first of the sacred cows for the chop. Not just to save money, but because you cannot believe a word they say.