Wednesday 30 May 2012

Achos enllib a haid o wyddau tew

Yn ôl y sôn, mae costau cyfredol achos enllib Prif Weithredwr Sir Gaerfyrddin yn erbyn y blogwr Jacqui Thompson yn fwy na £60,000 hyd yn hyn, er nad oes fawr wedi digwydd. Wrth reswm, erbyn i'r achos ddod gerbron y Llys Uchel yn Llundain tua diwedd y flwyddyn, bydd y costau wedi cynyddu'n ddramatig.

Tra bod gwyddau Nadolig y cyfreithwyr yn tewychu, mae'r Cyngor wrthi'n torri ymhobman. Fe fydd y Mentrau Iaith, er enghraifft, yn colli £50,000 o'u cyllideb dros y tair blynedd nesaf ar ôl i'r Sir benderfynu haneru ei gymorth ariannol i'r iaith yn y gymuned.

Sunday 27 May 2012

Jwbili Ych-a-Fi! - Dathliad amgen yn Llanelli

Mae Llanelli yn erbyn y Toriadau'n trefnu parti "Jiwbili Ych-a-Fi!" ar Ddydd Sadwrn 2il Mehefin yn yr Halfway Hotel, Llanelli am 7 y.h.

Dywedodd trefnwyr y digwyddiad: "Mae'r rhan fwyaf o bobol Cymru wedi blino ar yr holl stwr o amgylch y jiwbili, fell dyma i chi gyfle i wneud rhywbeth gwahanol.

Hefyd mae pobol yn teimlo yn yr amseroedd tyn hyn, gyda toriadau i'n ysbytai lleol, fod gwario miliynau ar y jiwbili yn warthus.

Fe fyddwn yn cael noswaith o gerdd ac adloniant - er mwyn danfon y neges: "jiwbili ych-a-fi! - Dim Toriadau!"

Croeso i Bawb!

Am fwy o fanylion cysylltwch â John Willock, Ysgrifenyddwr Llanelli Trades Council, rhif ffôn 01554 820736 neu e-bost: 


Saturday 26 May 2012

Scarlets: let's speak Consultantese!

This week saw the (partial) publication of a report on the contribution the Scarlets make to the local economy.

The report was trailed recently when the club published its latest set of dire accounts which were accompanied by stark warnings from the auditors, Grant Thornton.

Both the Western Mail and the Llanelli Star carried lengthy and very similar accounts based largely on the club's press release, which can be found here. The release, available in English only, also carries a summary of the report produced by Focus Consulting, a firm based in Dublin, "in association with Carmarthenshire County Council".

The club describes the report as "independent", which it most certainly is not, and the publication of edited highlights only means that it is not possible to verify many of the claims made or to see how the figures were arrived at.

What is certainly true is that the club does make a contribution to the local economy - it would be a remarkable beast indeed if it did not, but some of the key figures appear to be based on conjecture, and some are just optimistic projections. Others seem to be pure nonsense.

For example, we are told that the club is making a direct contribution to the local economy of £16.1 million (that £100,000 is very precise, isn't it?), and that in just 4 years from now, this will double to £32m. This number is qualified by the statement that it is based on "current event projections". Elsewhere we are told that these are targets.

The £16.1m is "based on direct expenditure levels of £13.5 million for the local economy (this is based on expenditure in the local economy outside of money generated from Stadium commercial activities e.g. banqueting and ticketing)". Where this figure comes from is anyone's guess. Bundled into these numbers, it seems, are the club's wages and stadium operations spending of £5m and a further £3.2m spent on local goods and services purchased by the stadium.

According to the report, the stadium has generated 28,500 bednights for local hotels and B&Bs since November 2008 (just over 8,000 per year). How this figure is arrived at, we are not told. Did they really check with Mrs Evans at Glanymor B&B to see how many of her guests had stayed in connection with an event in the stadium since 2008?

Based on attendance targets of 200,000 per year, the report reckons that the number of bednights will shoot up to 15,000 (nearly double the current guestimate).

According to the report, the stadium has attracted 649,000 visitors since it was opened, which works out at an average of just under 190,000 per year since November 2008 (based on a generous 41 month period). The target of 200,000 looks very modest indeed set against this number, and makes you wonder how such a small increase in attendances will double bednights and the overall contribution to the local economy by 2016.

Perhaps the full report makes more sense, although the maths and English in the summary don't inspire much confidence.

Here's a sample of the hyperbolic consultantese we have been treated to (note the absence of an apostrophe, dodgy grammar and strange use of capital letters):

Beyond the local economic impact Scarlets has delivered to date, it is also contributing to the economic profiling of the area through its international involvement with delegations from countries such as Qatar and Romania. In addition, the media value generated internationally from Rugby activities has further enhanced the clubs position as an iconic brand on a global scale.

Bollocks, or what?

But let's give the last word to our new council leader, Kevin Madge:

It is wonderful news to have confirmed the club is providing exceptional value in terms of revenue and jobs in Carmarthenshire. This report makes that abundantly clear.

Thursday 24 May 2012

No room for Cinderella on Carmarthenshire Executive Board - Update with added propaganda

Caebrwyn has already noted that the adjourned AGM of the county council has now been adjourned again, without explanation, to 1st June. You would not know this from the official agenda for the AGM on the council's website, which is still showing 25th May for the resumption of the meeting at which the composition of the various committees, their chairs and vice chairs will be formally decided.

Strangely, neither would you know from the council's website that Kevin Madge is now leader. The official list of Executive Board members still shows a smiling Meryl Gravell in the top job.

But both the smile and the top job have now gone to Kevin Madge who has now appointed a 10-member Executive Board (one more than under Meryl). When Meryl cut the Board to 9 she did so to save money in difficult times. Now that times are even more difficult, it is good to note that money could be found for the extra special responsibility allowance.

The new board has 5 women and 5 men, and it is also balanced equally between Labour and the Independents, with 5 seats each. As the biggest losers in the elections with just 26% of the vote, the Independents have done very well for themselves. Previously they had 6 of the 9 seats, and so have only surrendered one.

As expected in our Putinesque version of democracy, no room could be found on the Board for the largest party.

Our new deputy leaders are the gruesome pairing of Pam Palmer and Tegwen Devichand, while Meryl takes over the portfolio of Regeneration and Leisure. Keith Davies (Labour) takes on education.

There will also be a new portfolio of rural affairs to keep the Indies happy in a Llanelli-Labour dominated administration.

Anyone looking for details of these appointments on the council's website will draw a blank. The award-winning Press Office has been busy churning out stories headlined:


Woman fined for throwing litter

Bank Holiday refuse/recycling collections

Increase in use of CCTV produces good results

Tackling violent and alcohol-related crime in town centres

Business as usual on the Towy.


And it really is business as usual with the publication of the latest edition of the council's Carmarthenshire News, now running to a bumper 20 pages (40 altogether in Welsh and English), and including a children's page and sports.

The front page is dominated by a lengthy piece introducing the people of the county to the new council leader, Kevin Madge, and his priorities for the county. Strangely, the priorities here are rather different to the ones he gave to the recent inaugural meeting of the new council.

There he said that his two main objectives would be education and upgrading the council's stock of housing.

Now we are told his priorities are education, building new care homes in Carmarthen and Ammanford and "focus" on the county's rural areas. The focus on rural areas is fuzzy to say the least, with only littering and dog fouling mentioned as specific priorities. No mention at all is made of upgrading all of the council houses.

The article does state that the new Labour-Independent coalition will run for an initial 12 months, and it tells us that they have 23 and 21 seats respectively (21 presumably includes the unaffiliated Cllr Edward Thomas). No mention is made of Plaid Cymru which occupies 28 of the remaining 30 seats.

This maintains the long-standing tradition of the "newspaper" never to mention opposition parties.

Once again, the paper makes a great deal of the fact that Dai Greene, the hurdles champion from Llanelli, will be competing in the London Olympics, and it urges the people of the county to get behind him. A bizarre council "fun-day" is to be held at the Elli shopping centre in Llanelli to celebrate Dai's part in the Olympics, although unfortunately the great man will not be there. Instead he will be represented by a cardboard cut-out (I'm not making this up).

Monday 21 May 2012

Councillors and pensions

The South Wales Evening Post reports that Carmarthenshire county councillors have received pension contributions totalling £426,000 over the last three years, including over £8,000 for former council leader Meryl Gravell.

The scheme was introduced in 2004, and in Carmarthenshire councillors join the Local Government Pension Scheme administered by the Dyfed Pension Fund. The fund's website makes no bones about the fact that this is a very generous scheme, certainly compared with schemes available to the rest of us:

As a County Councillor, you are eligible to join the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS).
The LGPS will provide you with a valuable package of benefits which will help take care of you and your family – all for less than you think.

Councillors can join the scheme up to the age of 75, and make contributions of  6% of their pay. In common with other schemes, this is tax deductible. They may, with the permission of their council, decide to retire from the age of 50. At any rate, they may choose to retire at age 60 (men and women).

The Dyfed Pension Fund website continues,

As well, the LGPS is contracted-out of the State Second Pension (S2P), therefore you will pay less National Insurance contributions up until your State Retirement Age.

After the state retirement age, members of the scheme will find themselves in the unusual position of being able to pay into a pension scheme and not having to make any National Insurance contributions at all.

Unsurprisingly, this benefit will stick in the craws of many, and the Evening Post had no problem finding people willing to condemn it. One argued that in the good old days, being a county councillor was seen as a civic duty and not something you were paid for.

The problem with that was that in the good old days many county councils and other local government bodies were stuffed with people who were independently rich, and to this day the over-60s make up the bulk of our councillors because most people of working age simply cannot afford to become councillors.

If we want to change this, decent pay and pension rights have to be the best way to attract more ordinary people of working age into local politics, but as things stand, the system is heavily skewed in favour of older people.

If Carmarthenshire County Council had more councillors of working age and with school-age children, some of its policies might look rather different.  Until the elections, for example, the executive member for education and children's services (and "Younger Persons' Champion") was a gentleman in his late 60s or early 70s who believed that the Bible was the the only truly important book.

One further aspect of this story is very strange indeed.

Back in in 2009 the Evening Post ran a story about councillors and the LGPS. It reported then that Carmarthenshire had far more councillors in the scheme (50) than the neighbouring authorities of Swansea (27) and just 9 in Neath Port Talbot. Amazingly, Carmarthenshire also had the fifth highest number of councillors participating in the scheme of any local authority in Wales and England.

When you consider how Carmarthenshire is one of the smaller local authorities, and one of the poorest when compared with England, this is extraordinary. It is also extraordinary that, given the age profile of Carmarthenshire County Council, so many of those who have joined the scheme will be beyond state retirement age, with Meryl Gravell being only the most obvious example.

So while it is right that people should be able to pay into a pension scheme as county councillors, the suspicion that many of the beneficiaries are already in receipt of occupational pensions, the state pension and councillors' allowances will leave a nasty taste.

Friday 18 May 2012

Council Meeting (Part 2): In which the council is cursed

The lords and ladies and other special guests departed from the chamber for light refreshments, and the Good Fairy had been installed as chair for the year. Now it was time to elect a new council leader, and Cllr Colin Evans rose to propose his old friend Kevin Madge.

As is customary at these events, the proposal was followed by a long speech extolling the virtues of the candidate. Kevin was first elected as a councillor in May 1979, and Cllr Evans mischievously noted that within 5 minutes he had made his maiden speech and had not stopped talking since.

Kevin had stuck with the Labour Party through good times and bad, and he was now so popular in his ward in Garnant, just down the road from Ammanford, that local people believed he could walk on water, we were told.

A few years ago, S4C ran an excellent and popular drama series called Tair Chwaer (Three Sisters), and in one episode one of the sisters takes up the subject of GM foods and the strange effects they were having on people. "Just look at Ammanford", she exclaimed, to prove her point.

Having received the proposal, the chair now cast around the chamber for a seconder, and the custom is for the seconder on such occasions to make a little speech praising the candidate.

Pam Palmer rose and snarled "Seconded", and then promptly sat down again. There were a few audible gasps from the chamber.

Even those who doubt Kevin Madge's ability to walk on water could probably find a few nice things to say about him. Cneifiwr, for example, suspects that he would be quite a decent bloke after a few pints, but then Pam would not know that because she does not drink.

In the absence of anything else she could have said that, to the best of her knowledge, Kevin is not a serial killer, but she could not bring herself to say even that.

Tyssul Evans then rose to propose Peter Hughes Griffiths, and Emlyn Dole seconded, each making an effort to explain why their man would be a better leader.

Someone then called for a recorded vote, and the chief executive began the roll-call of councillors. Each councillor had to reply by calling out the name of their preferred candidate, and it is a mark of the miracle of human speech how much meaning can be conveyed by simply stating someone's name.

The Labour councillors called out "Kevin Madge" or "Councillor Kevin Madge", many with some conviction in their voices. The Plaid councillors rang out an enthusiastic "Cynghorydd Peter Hughes Griffiths", while the Independents were decidedly more shifty. A good many of them appeared to have swallowed a wasp, with a strangled and pained  "Madge" being all they could manage.

John Jenkins, the independent Independent, followed up Pam's Wicked Stepmother routine with a performance as Bad Fairy, as he called out "A curse on all your houses!"

The chief executive and chair were so surprised that he had to be asked a second time.

"A curse on all your houses!" he replied.

On we went, with Labour and Plaid enthusiasm being tempered by Independent snarls of "Madge".

At length we reached T for Thomas, and the newly elected member for Llandeilo, Cllr Edward Thomas, called out "Abstain". So we really do have two true independents after all.

This, combined with the unexplained absence of two "official" Independent councillors (Shephardson and Morgan) meant that the new coalition clocked up only 41 votes (38 being the number needed for a majority of one).

The new chair showed her years of teaching experience in dealing with truculent hoody thugs when she gently asked Cllr John Jenkins if he had cursed her as well. "No, not you," he replied, sweetly.

Kevin then rose to make his acceptance speech, and he launched into an ecstatic eulogy for his dear old friend, Meryl Gravell. She had been a tremendous leader, he said, and she had left a legacy for all for future generations (i.e. bills for expensive white elephants which our grandchildren will still be picking up).

Kevin's two priorities would be education and modernising council houses, and he lavished more praise on his wife, the chief executive, council staff, the officers and the Independent Group. His door would always be open, he added.

Peter Hughes Griffiths responded by wishing the new leader well, but he pointed out that the result was a negation of democracy in the county once again.

Pam Palmer could only be moved to say that she did not having anything to say, as she resumed her seat next to the gloomy Meryl who had remained silent throughout.

Thoughts were beginning to turn to the buffet, although Pam had probably curdled the lemon tart by now.

But then, in a moment of confusion, the Independents' Wyn Evans rose to make a little speech, ostensibly to congratulate Kevin (for about 5 nanoseconds) before launching into a paean of praise for Meryl.

At that, the meeting was adjourned for a week, when the Executive Board appointments will be announced and the chairs and deputy chairs of the various committees will be elected.

Whatever else we learned yesterday, it is clear that the Labour-Independent marriage will not be a happy one.

Thursday 17 May 2012

Council Meeting (Part 1): Pomp and circumstance

Off to Carmarthen Gaol for the grand ceremonial beginning of the new term at what was previously St Meryl's Academy.

The chamber had a decidedly lopsided feel to it, with acres of empty space on the Independent benches, and a new, enlarged Labour group.

The defeat of Stephen James down in Burry Port certainly reduced overcrowding on the Independent benches, but there were also a few interesting absentees, including Giles Morgan who probably could not face having to vote Kevin Madge in as new leader.

The public gallery was sparsely attended this time, with the same sinister entry procedures (declarations to read and sign with name and address plus standard visitor form) and the same peculiar smell pervading the corridor leading to the gallery. It's a combination of mildew, boiled cabbage and B.O.

Joining us today in the gods was one former councillor who was defeated at the recent elections. He seemed oddly agitated, and banged and crashed around for much of the next hour and a half with a rather wild look in his eyes.

A brief, mumbled announcement was made, and suddenly the chamber was full of bling. Chains of office, medals, insignia, a sword, some spurs, military uniforms and a woman who appeared to have strayed out of a pantomime in a blue velvet ensemble, with a large lacy bib and a very strange hat.

Mingling with the lounge suits and military uniforms were lots of very floral summery frocks. "Do our bums look big in these?" they were no doubt wondering. Clearly their husbands had all been lying through their teeth.

Yes, it was the Lord Lieutenant and spouse, the High Sheriff and spouse, the outgoing chair of council and deputy plus assorted spouses, a very heavily and no doubt expensively tanned chief executive (no spouse) and a very pink and shiny Councillor Terry Davies.

If anyone wonders what the Lord Lieutenant and High Sheriff actually do, the meeting provided no clues, as they sat silent throughout. Perhaps that's what the council's civic ceremonial budget is for (there really is such a thing).

Ranged along the side of the chamber were all of the council's senior officers (not much change out of £1 million a year in salaries, pension contributions, etc.). They too sat silent throughout the whole meeting.

Staying with fashion for a moment, the Independent front bench was occupied as ever by Meryl wearing one of the late Queen Mother's cast-offs and Pam wearing a crumpled turquoise trouser suit.

Cneifiwr had hoped the people of Abergwili would give Pam the heave-ho in the election, but now has to admit that he is secretly glad she got back in. As we shall see, she was on spectacularly awful form, and five years without such an obvious pantomime villain would be very dull indeed.

The speeches got underway with the chair, Cllr Ivor Jackson, stumbling in a monotone through a long speech about meeting Charles and Camilla, the Queen opening the Senedd, the Jubilee and a service to bless Her Majesty at Llandaff Cathedral.

Next, his deputy Siân Thomas was elected as the new chair for 2012-13, and Peter Hughes Griffiths rose to give the eulogy.

Call me biased, but the council now has a chair who can actually put together a meaningful sentence, who speaks a beautiful, pure Welsh and who actually has an attractive personality and bags of charm. She beamed at her audience and made expansive, inclusive gestures with her hands. Even the naughty boys at the back of class will soon be eating out of her hand.

Pam Palmer (Independent) gave a brief speech of thanks to Ivor Jackson for handling what she said had been a very difficult year with lots of undeserved (Palmerese for deserved) flak.

Kevin Madge (Labour) followed with what must have been one of his briefest speeches ever. He also felt that the chair had had a very difficult year. He then broke into Welsh for a few seconds, the first time he has used the language in the chamber for a very long time. His Welsh was clearly a little rusty and halting, but then so too is his English.

After a few more words from PHG, it was at length the turn of the chief executive to give us the benefit of his wisdom.

It had been a very difficult year; there had been some lively meetings; keeping control had sometimes been hard, but "given what you had to put up with" Mr James felt that old Ivor had done very well. Turning to the new chair, the chief executive had a stab at reading a bit of Welsh from a piece of paper.

"Dw i'n edrych ymlaen i gweithio gyda chi", he intoned. Perhaps the chair should take him aside and give him a few basic grammar lessons because, as we know, Mr James is an expert in all things and gets very, very cross with anyone who makes a mistake.

By now you may be wondering what this was all about. Why was last year so difficult for the chair, aside from his complete lack of understanding of council procedures or ability to chair a teddy bears' picnic? Well, it was all about a few councillors who dared to criticise the council and the dastardly behaviour of a member of the public who had tried to film a bit of a meeting on her mobile phone.

Next up was the "election" of Labour's Terry Davies as deputy chair. Cllr Anthony Jones read out a very long extract from Terry's autobiography, and Terry replied very briefly that it was a great honour.

The chief executive politely informed the upper class visitors that the ceremonial bit was now over. This was clearly a relief to one of the military suits who appeared to be struggling to stay awake.

They all trooped out before the dirty political stuff could get underway.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Pantycelyn - eyes closed and missed opportunities

On my way into work last night I caught part of Radio Cymru's current affairs discussion programme called Hawl i Holi (Right to Ask) which came from Myddfai near Llandovery.

The format of Hawl i Holi is similar to the BBC's Question Time, only the chairman, Dewi Llwyd, is not  pompous and domineering, and many of the questions are of immediate concern to the area from which the programme is broadcast.

On the panel last night were the broadcaster Elinor Jones, who lives in the area, Stephen James, vice-president of NFU Wales, Dr Felix Aubell, a Tory and minister of religion, and Ffred Ffransis, who lives in the county and is Cymdeithas yr Iaith's spokesperson on education.

The first question up was about the Westminster coalition, while the second dealt with the county council's plans to close Ysgol Pantycelyn in Llandovery. Responses from the panel and members of the audience were almost universally critical of the council, although Felix Aubell said that local parents had to shoulder part of the blame for sending their children to schools further afield in Llandeilo and Carmarthen.

Elinor Jones drew loud applause when she questioned the decision to site the proposed new school on land prone to flooding just outside Llandeilo, and several contributors pointed out the vast distances and long travelling times children from the rural hinterland of Llandovery will face.

Ffred Ffransis pointed out that the county council had once again closed its eyes and missed a wider opportunity to rethink education provision in the area. His solution was a federation of primary and secondary schools to offer Welsh medium education across a wide area, including neighbouring areas of Powys, although of course cross-border cooperation with that authority is not on the cards, despite Carmarthenshire's commitment to the Welsh Government's compact to increase collaboration in education, social care and waste management.

Ffred also pointed out that the council's whole Modernising Education Programme was based on a rigid plan to close existing schools and build vast new area schools at huge cost. The tens of millions of pounds being pumped into school building plans in selected areas would be far better spent on improving education provision within existing schools.

A couple of speakers said that there was nothing wrong at all with Pantycelyn's buildings, and a pupil from the school (I think, from memory) added that the council could easily have turned Pantycelyn into one of the best schools in the county if only it had invested in giving it things like a decent science lab and all-weather sports facilities.

The final decision now lies with Leighton Andrews, and parents and students can only hope that he forces the council to rethink. The money is there, and the solutions outlined by Ffred Ffransis and the young questioner would cost a great deal less than a gigantic new school over in Llandeilo. What is missing is imagination and genuine care for the interests of the north-eastern corner of the county.

Also missing, unsurprisingly, were any representatives from county council itself or the area's newly re-elected Independent councillors, who clearly have better things to do with their time than attend forums like this and listen to the people they represent.

Perhaps the fact that they cannot claim travel expenses to Myddfai put them off.

If anyone from County Hall or the councillors had been listening, one phrase was repeated again and again - losing faith. People were losing faith in the process was the message.

The cumbersome, bureaucratic and confusing consultancy process is not the council's fault, it has to be said, but poor management of the process, lack of publicity locally and the council's habit of ignoring consultations certainly are accusations that can be thrown at council officers.

As for the councillors, a strong local county councillor would have mobilised local people and ensured that a strong and effective campaign was run. What the people of the area got instead were councillors who stayed silent and invisible.

No wonder there is so much apathy and rejection among voters, and sadly that plays straight into the hands of the powers-that-be.

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Pam Palmer's rural focus

A couple of things stand out from yesterday's announcement that the Independents and Labour would once again form a coalition to run Carmarthenshire County Council.

First, the agreement will run for just one year initially, at which point it will be reviewed. We can only speculate why they have chosen to do this, but the most likely answer would seem to be the unhappiness of several Independent councillors about being junior partners in a Llanelli-Labour dominated administration.

Two of the Independents, Giles Morgan (Swiss Valley) and Huw Richards (Felinfoel) are understood to have broken ranks briefly, and it would seem likely that a promise to review the workings of the arrangement with Labour after just a year was the price for getting them to sign on the dotted line.

It is probably no coincidence that both represent adjoining, mainly rural wards on the periphery of Llanelli, so their wariness of their new Labour chums from down the road is telling. Could it be that they fear that a council administration which draws so much of its support from urban areas will ensure that all of the dosh is channelled into pet projects in Llanelli and the Amman Valley?

Which brings us to our second point.

Pam Palmer, who leads the official Independent group on the council, said in her statement yesterday that, "the coalition has delivered record investment in schools, housing and regeneration, and we want to build on that success, with a particular focus on rural areas".

Those rural areas again, although for many of us hearing Pam Palmer utter these words, the promise sounds more like a threat.

In common with every other local authority in Wales, Carmarthenshire has been busy in recent years closing down village schools and building large new area schools, sometimes in the teeth of strong local opposition. As far as housing is concerned, the key characteristics of this county council have been a very weak commitment to affordable or new social housing, with most of the building taking the form of large new executive-type dwellings. And regeneration has been the preserve of the urban areas, with a whole string of controversial prestige developments, many of which will be a millstone around the necks of council tax payers for years if not decades to come.

The things which matter most to people in the rural areas of the county include the availability of affordable and social housing for local families; employment; education; public transport and the cultural and linguistic identity of our rural communities.

It is hard to think of anything that Pam Palmer, Meryl Gravell or Kevin Madge have done to make the lot of rural communities better in any of these fields. In fact, they have actively pursued policies which have done more harm than good. Just ask the people of Waungilwen and Drefach-Felindre who fought so hard to stop an executive housing development voted through by Labour and Independent councillors. Or the people of Llandovery who face a future without a secondary school. Or all those parents who from next year will have to fork out to pay for school buses for their children aged 16 and over. Or the people of Newcastle Emlyn whose secondary school is suffering from a dire lack of investment and where Labour and Independent councillors voted through plans for a supermarket which would kill off the town's independent traders.

What Pam is offering us is more heavy-handed planning decisions, a dictatorial schools policy, cuts to services many rural families and older people depend on, utter neglect of employment and housing requirements and policies which are actively undermining the character and identity of our countryside.

We can do without your focus, Mrs P.

Monday 14 May 2012

From Meryl and Madge to Madge and Meryl

Yes, Labour and the Independents have done a deal to run Carmarthenshire, excluding the largest political party once again.

Plaid's statement is as concise and clear as it is angry with this latest piece of manipulation of the democratic system, and there is not much to add to it.

The council's own official statement can be found here. As you can see, small details such as who exactly will be council leader and deputy, leave alone who will be on the governing Executive Board, have not been disclosed. We have to assume, though, that it will be Kevin Madge, the lack-lustre Labour leader from Ammanford, one of the very few places in Wales to see Labour actually lose ground in the recent elections.

The deal between the Labour and Independent groups has been struck for a year, presumably because too many people could not face the prospect of 5 years of listening to Kevin Madge waffling on as council leader.

Bearing in mind that Kev's campaign was all about "sending a message to Westminster", Cameron and Osborne must be puzzling over what that message was, as many of the Independent councillors would not be out of place at a Tory fund-raising do in the English shires.

Given the advanced age and poor health of quite a few of the councillors returned on 3 May, a year is probably also a wise precaution. In fact one or two may not be well enough to go the the first meeting on Thursday.

One small footnote: the council's statement says that there are 21 councillors in the official Independent group, meaning that one councillor who voters may have imagined to be unaffiliated, wasted very little time in throwing his lot in with Meryl and Pam.

Thursday 10 May 2012

Carmarthenshire - latest rumours

Golwg 360, the Welsh language news service, is reporting that we are about to get a new Labour-Independent coalition.

According to Golwg, Meryl's grip on the reins is slipping, but Kevin Madge, Labour leader, is not safe either.

The Labour group will be meeting next Monday evening to elect a leader, and whoever wins is likely to become council leader for the next 5 years.

Cllr Terry Davies, Labour's answer to Elmer Fudd, said that the Labour group would make its final decision tomorrow afternoon, before adding that "coalitions happen everywhere, just look at Westminster".


Scarlets - material uncertainty

Update To begin with an apology for the length of this post, but the Scarlets story is important and has already had a material impact on the county's finances. All the indications are that it is likely to be hitting the headlines again in the next 12 months.

Thanks go to various people who have helped piece this information together. There is already enough material on this sage to write a book, and it is impossible to even begin to do justice to it in a blog post, now matter how long.

As the result of some of the feedback received, some of the information below has been corrected or updated, and headings have been inserted to make it easier to read.


Readers of the Western Mail will have spotted a piece a few days ago (here) reporting on the Scarlets' latest sets of accounts, published at the end of April. The club's chief executive, Mark Davies, remains optimistic, and he goes on to make a passionate argument for the importance of the club to both the town and the wider region.

You would not expect anything less from the club's chief executive, and what he says is certainly in tune with the feelings of most people in this part of the world who want Scarlets to survive and prosper. Scarlets is a great club, and it has produced some great talent.

The Parc y Scarlets development and the club's dependency on financial support from the county council are quite another matter, especially at a time when the council is squeezing us all for more money, while cutting services and making staff redundant.

The person who bears a great deal of responsibility for taking both the county council and the club up this particular creek is the council's chief executive, Mark James, and he may well have lost the paddle.

Contrast Mr Davies's eloquent case for the club with the bad tempered rantings of Mr James in the same article. As usual, he blames everything on a small minority, and even goes so far as accusing critics of "wishing the club and the council harm".

So what have they done that has annoyed him so much this time? Quite simply, they have drawn attention to comments made by the club's auditors, Grant Thornton, in the latest accounts, and those comments should be ringing alarm bells in County Hall, where you would hope that the council and the taxpayer would be the chief executive's first priority.

Logically if Mr James has a bone to pick with anyone, it should surely be with the auditors for qualifying the accounts in the first place.

Consultants Report

Before we delve into the accounts and pick up on a few things overlooked by the Western Mail, we now know that the county council and the club have jointly commissioned what was no doubt an extremely expensive consultants report to highlight the contribution the club is making to the region. In other words, we are paying top dollar for a PR exercise to justify our forced journey up the creek. As the old saying goes, a consultant is someone who is paid to tell you what you have already decided for yourself. More on this below.

Corporate structure and name changes

The club runs its finances through two different companies, and both changed their names in September 2011.

The first company is effectively little more than a shell used to channel receipts from the WRU. Formerly
Llanelli RFC Limited, it changed its name to Llanelli Scarlets Regional Limited.

Llanelli Scarlets Regional Limited is a wholly owned subsidiary of Scarlets Regional Limited, known until September 2011 as Llanelli Rugby Football Club Limited.

Confusing, isn't it? Apparently the names were changed to bring the club in line with WRU policy.

Council's investment in the site

All of this would only be of interest to financial anoraks if it were not for the fact that Carmarthenshire County Council has pumped millions of pounds in grants, loans and assets into the venture over the last few years, and the club's future is, to put it mildly, uncertain.

Getting to the bottom of how much the Council has put into the venture is extremely difficult. Estimates range from £40m, to the chief executive's latest statement (in the Western Mail) article which puts the figure at £20.2m.

One of the disputed numbers here is the value of the land leased to the club for 150 years. As we shall see, the chief executive argues in the Western Mail that it is nothing, whereas he told councillors at a public meeting on 14 November 2007 that it was estimated to be worth £14 million.

At the same meeting the councillors reviewed a report commissioned by the council from Deloittes which flagged up no fewer than 17 risks, and concluded that this was a high risk proposal. Naturally, this advice was ignored.

The neighbouring 26 acre site which is now the Pemberton shopping centre was sold for £1 million per acre after a great deal of money had been spent on preparing the land by filling in mine shafts, etc.

We can be sure that the chief executive's number is too low as he claims, for example, that the land on which the stadium was built "had no value". Back in 2006 the council said that "based on current planning approval" the land had been independently valued at £210,000. "Current planning approval" almost certainly meant the value with planning consent for leisure use, which is much less than land with consent for retail or residential use, but even that seems extraordinarily low given that land and property prices were booming at the time. It is also worth noting that the land which is now Parc y Scarlets was originally zoned for housing in the council's UDP.

Another item quoted in the Western Mail story was the Section 106 monies, which are worthy of a chapter on their own. These total £5.6m and would normally be released by developers of the Stradey Park site in phases as the development progressed. Of course, to date none of the houses involved has actually been built, but the council decided to advance the money from its reserves to Parc y Scarlets anyway and has thereby lost around £0.5m in interest.

No wonder the chief executive is so angry about hold-ups to the Stradey Park development.

In addition to the loans, the Section 106 monies, the council's share in the development costs, the scheme has received significant grants from funds administered by the council, and a slew of hidden subsidies in the form of interest relief on debts and use by the council for all manner of conferences and corporate events.

Accounts for 2010-11

But it's time for a look at the accounts themselves.

The best way to think about the two Scarlets companies is "Good Bank" and "Bad Bank".

The Good Bank is Llanelli Scarlets Regional Limited (or Llanelli RFC Limited as it then was), and its accounts for the year to 31 July 2011 are remarkably simple. They show that after deducting operating costs, interest on loans etc. on a turnover of £4.5m, there was a surplus of £0.

£4.1m of the £4.5m reported turnover came in the form of receipts from the WRU. All of this was transferred to the parent company, Scarlets Regional Limited, which is where the real action lies.

The latest set of published accounts is for the year to 30 June 2011, and this is an altogether different beast. At first sight, things seem to have improved on the previous year, with losses falling from £2.9m to £1.8m, and the directors are moderately upbeat in their assessments for the future.

The club's auditors are less cheery.

Firstly, they point out that the club had an excess of liabilities over assets of £1.95m. They add, "these conditions along with other matters....indicate the existence of a material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt about the company's ability to continue as a going concern".

A similar qualification was made in the previous year's accounts when liabilities exceeded assets by £5.5m. That was solved by turning £5.4m of debt into equity to keep the ship afloat and wipe the slate clean. To end up a year later almost £2m in the red explains why the auditors are worried.

If that is not bad enough, the auditors then go on to qualify the accounts for a second time, pointing out that the carry value of the stadium itself was shown at £10.5m in the club's books, and they warn that if the club's upbeat assessments about its future are not realised, the value of the stadium would need to be written down.

Written down, or written off, because in the event of the club going out of business, the value of the stadium is probably closer to Mark James's valuation for the land on which it stands: nothing. What would you do with a 14,870 capacity stadium? Hand it over to the local bowls club or the ladies' hockey team?

The stadium cost over £23m to build, with the council stumping up £10.2m, according to the council's chief executive. In other words, if the club goes bust, it's not just the club's share in the stadium which will have gone up in smoke, but the council's investment as well.

But as Mr James points out in his Western Mail rant, "we still own the freehold, so if the club ever stops playing rugby we can develop it then, so we have lost not one penny of the value of the land."

And as he told us earlier, the value of the land was nothing. Get your heads around that one if you can.

At first sight, the rest of the accounts appear to paint a picture of overall improvement, but what you have to remember is that we are comparing apples with pears. The most recent financial year ran for 12 months, whereas the previous one ran over 17 months.

When the numbers are adjusted, what emerges is a slight improvement in revenues (the most recent year was helped by a £1m rise in WRU receipts). Adjusted for inflation, however, revenues were flat.

Administration expenses show a slight decline, when adjusted for the difference in accounting periods, and the directors put this down to continued focus on reducing costs (a salary cap was put in place on the players, for example), increased utilisation of the stadium and a modest rise in ticket sales.

However, staff costs rose from about £5.5m to £5.8m on a like-for-like basis. The average number of staff rose from 122 to 125.

Despite the conversion of the directors' loans into equity, debt falling due after more than 12 months rose quite sharply from £8.2m to £9.3m. This includes a loan of £2.4m from the county council which has since been re-scheduled, and should now be shown as £2.6m. In addition to converting loans to equity, several directors have also agreed to waive interest payments on their loans for 12 months until June 2012.

Other points which stand out include a note stating that the club will pay the council £500,000 over 5 years from 2013 towards the cost of up-keep for the stadium. A big question mark hangs over whether this will be paid, and it points also to another hidden subsidy (presumably the council has been picking up the full whack for up-keep so far).

Not shown in the accounts, but included in the club's forecasts is revenue from the sale of "a significant asset" in the coming year. We are not told what that asset is or what it is expected to realise. A note in the latest accounts refers us to the previous year's statement, which says exactly the same thing.

What the accounts make clear is the extent to which the club is dependent on the continuing good will of four of its directors, who have put millions into it. Whether they will be willing or able to stump up another couple of million this year if there has not been a dramatic change in the club's fortunes is another matter. Several chickens are due to come home to roost this year, including interest on the directors' loans and a renewal of the club's facilities with its bankers.

Apart from the sale of the unnamed asset, the club is also pinning a lot of hopes on its "Ambassador Programme", a scheme designed to widen its investor base. In the first 7 months of operation to the end of March 2012, the scheme had raised just £275,000.

However you look at it, the club is really struggling financially, and there are more storm clouds than rays of sunshine hanging over it.

Collapse of the club would be disastrous not just for rugby in the region, but also for the taxpayers of Carmarthenshire, and yet there is nothing to suggest that the club has a long-term sustainable future which could justify the investment of yet more public money. But this is where the consultants report comes in which is apparently so positive about the contribution of the club to the regional economy.

If, as seems likely, another bailout is needed, the consultants report will be used as PR to persuade councillors and others of the wisdom of stumping up more money. It will also be a useful face-saving exercise for the backers of the scheme.

What is needed, however, is not a glossy consultants report, but a thorough investigation by the Wales Audit Office. How much public money has been put into the project, and what are the risks? Were councillors and others given a clear and accurate picture by proponents of the scheme? What were the relationships between the many companies and individuals who have played a role in it? Were all of the required procedures and statutory requirements met fully? Was the council right to put so much into such a high risk project?

And that's just for starters.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Rumour round-up and a resignation

Still no white smoke from County Hall, but there is a growing tide of rumours that Labour have done a deal with the Independents, or at least a large chunk of the Independent group, which is said to have split in two.

There are now 20 "official" Independents and 2 unaffiliated independents. If the rumours are correct, at least 15 would have to sign up to a power-sharing deal with Labour.

Also doing the rounds is a rumour that Labour and the Independents would expand the governing Executive Board, and take 5 seats each. A couple of years ago the Board was cut back to 9 members following the death of Haydn Jones in order to save money. It would seem that saving money, at least on special responsibility allowances, is now so last year. Far better to save it by picking on binmen, libraries, the elderly, the disabled, schoolchildren or anyone else who qualifies as meek and mild.

Just in case anyone has forgotten, the deal being stitched up will be what we get for the next 5 years, as opposed to the normal 4 year term for councils because, in what is laughingly called British democracy, a Labour minister in Cardiff decided to give them all an extra year in power. Were you consulted? No, neither was I.

Meanwhile Caebrwyn reports on the latest County Hall intervention to muzzle the local press. The Carmarthen Journal was told that reporting on the council's shoddy treatment of its binmen would not be appropriate in the run-up to an election, and so the story was dropped.

Of course, the chief executive did not feel obliged to apply this "rule" to himself during the campaign, when he issued several politically contentious statements, including attacks on objectors to the Stradey Park housing development and plans for a new school at Ffwrnes. He did apply it, however, when faced with awkward questions about the Towy Community Church bowling alley project.

The Journal is, of course, under no obligation whatsoever to avoid reporting politically contentious stories during election campaigns. Imagine any other newspaper deciding not to report politically contentious news during an election.

But what is even worse about this is that the binmen story was not actually politically contentious. It was critical of the council's senior management, though.

Whether any of this has anything to do with the sudden resignation and very hurried departure of Cathryn Ings as editor of the Journal is not clear, but it is hard to imagine any self-respecting editor putting up with the control which County Hall has come to exercise over the paper's editorial policy.

Tuesday 8 May 2012


What with the election results and the weather, we all need a bit of cheering up at the moment, so Cneifiwr's day has just been improved immeasurably by reading a letter to the editor of the Carmarthen Journal. As the author says, he is not sure whether it will get published, but you can read it for yourselves here.

One of the Journal's reporters suggested that leaving out the Bible's abhorrence of menstruating women and its injunctions to murder homosexuals might have improved the letter's chances of publication in the newspaper. We'll see.

As regular readers will know, this blog likes to keep an eye on the activities of the various evangelical groups operating in this part of the world, and boy are there lots of them. They range from the lunatic rantings of Christian Voice to the rather more up-market and "cerebral" Church of the Living World, which is known to have friends in quite high places (in Carmarthenshire, that is. Not up there).

You can visit the church's website, and if you have an hour or two to spare, you can listen to the sermons. 

Well, it was a cold, wet Sunday, and there seemed to be nothing better to do. It was either that or the usual, boring old satanic rituals, and as Mrs Cneifiwr has evangelical leanings, Cneifiwr tried to show her that he was not beyond all hope of redemption. So picking at random, he downloaded this one, which deals with a wife's duty of obedience and submission to her husband.

The pastor takes as his text Ephesians Chapters 5 and 6, and as he explains, these deal with three different relationships: husbands and wives, children and parents and slaves and masters. Quite a lot to cram into one sermon, so he decides to concentrate on the marital obedience theme. He acknowledges that some people find the concept of wives submitting to their husbands in all things "rather contentious", which is why he chose it, before rattling on for another half an hour to explain why this is perfectly OK.

What a pity we did not get a similar in-depth justification of slavery. This was because of lack of time rather than any problems the pastor might have with the practice, which is OK with the Good Book, and therefore OK with the Church of the Living Word.

Perhaps he does requests?

Monday 7 May 2012

Carmarthenshire County Council Elections - the numbers

It is easy enough to tot up the numbers of votes cast for Plaid Cymru, Labour and the other political parties, but calculating the Independent vote is altogether more tricky because of course there are different kinds of Independents.

For the purposes of this exercise, the Independent camp is divided between "official" Independents, i.e. those who either do support the closet Tory Meryl Gravell Independent group or who might be expected to, and "Independent Independents" who are truly unaffiliated. This is by no means an exact science, but the picture which emerges is almost certainly not far off the mark.

The breakdown of votes cast by political group, with numbers rounded up or down for the major parties, is as follows:

Votes cast
Seats won
Plaid Cymru
“Official” Independents
People First
“Independent Independents”
Liberal Democrat

As we can see, there was hardly anything in it between Labour and Meryl's Independents in terms of votes cast (less than 500 votes in fact).

The two "true" Independents are John Jenkins (Elli ward in Llanelli) and Edward Thomas (Llandeilo), who appears to be unaffiliated.

In terms of the number of women councillors, the election saw a decline in numbers from 18 to 16.

In terms of age, Cneifiwr reckons that a staggering 64 years separate veteran Dai Trelech from Labour student Calum Higgins.

Despite the lack of women councillors, two of the women returned deserve special mention.

In Llanfihangel ar Arth, Plaid's Linda Evans polled more votes than any other individual candidate in the county as a whole, with 1,074 votes compared with a paltry 137 for Tory Douglas Spragg.

Not far away, Cneifiwr is proud to say that Hazel Evans in Cenarth ward notched up 7 votes for every vote cast for her Tory rival, the hyper-sensitive Henrietta Hensher, memorably described by a local resident as having "more ruffled feathers than a chicken in a wind tunnel".

Sunday 6 May 2012

Plaid asks for talks in Carmarthenshire - Updated

It's official: Plaid has invited councillors who can sign up to its manifesto to join it in forming a new unity administration for the county (see statement here).

The wording is interesting. It does not talk about a coalition with another party, and is instead asking individual councillors from across the political spectrum to join it in running the show. Of course, that does not preclude a coalition if all members of one or other group decide that they can sign up to the aims set out in Plaid's manifesto, and there can be little in the manifesto that either Labour or the Independents could object to, although some aspects of it would mark a departure from the policies pursued by the previous Independent-Labour coalition (for example, the implementation of the Modernising Education Plan).

In reality, policies will almost certainly not be the major factor in deciding the outcome here. Kevin Madge is  eyeing up Meryl's job as council leader, and all of the signals he has put out over the last few weeks would seem to indicate that he is in no rush to abandon his Independent friends. There will almost certainly also be external involvement in the Labour group's decision, with anti-Plaid figures such as Peter Hain to be consulted.

Plaid's best hope would therefore seem to lie with the Independents. It needs to secure 10 extra votes to take control, and perhaps offers of jobs might be enough to swing it.

Ironically, the Independents were the biggest losers in the election, and yet they may emerge the biggest winners as Plaid and Labour enter a bidding war for their favours.

For what it's worth, my money is on a new Labour-Independent coalition, cynical travesty of democracy though that would be. It never stopped them before though, did it?

I hope I am proved wrong.

Update Plaid's Carl Harris tweeted a short while ago that Labour and the Independents met at 9am yesterday to discuss matters. The meeting room was apparently booked over a week ago.

Saturday 5 May 2012

Madge and Meryl - no change

Five more years of Meryl and Madge it almost certainly is, then, although now that Labour has a one seat advantage over its Independent chums, it may be Madge and Meryl. Given the love affair that both of them have for the chief executive, it is highly unlikely that anything will change in the way Carmarthenshire is run.

Yesterday's results were deeply disappointing for anyone who wanted change in the way local government is run in this part of the world, although Yr Hen Rech Flin has some words of wisdom for us all.

Hen Rech has a bit of a love-hate relationship with Plaid, and for those of you who don't read Welsh, what he says is that with such a strong tide flowing for Labour after their disastrous performance in 2008, Plaid's results yesterday were disappointing in places, certainly, but hardly a disaster.

In Carmarthenshire, Jonathan Edwards calculates that Plaid received just a fraction under 30,000 votes, compared with 19,600 for Labour. That puts things into a rather different perspective.

Others will no doubt carry out detailed analyses of the election results, but a few things stand out.

Labour did particularly well in Llanelli, and in some places you could have pinned a red rosette on a dead sheep, and it would have won. Labour's haul of councillors includes one student studying in Cardiff and veteran councillor Keri Thomas who has not been to a council meeting since April 2011 because of illness. He was apparently not well enough to campaign, and as this blog reported recently, he appears to be too unwell even to sign a letter.

In common with Labour in other parts of Wales, Kevin Madge said that the election was all about sending a message to Cameron and Clegg, rather than local issues. Bearing in mind that the Tories had no seats to lose, and the LibDems lost their one and only council seat in Llanelli, it is a safe bet that neither of them will have given a second's thought to the results in Carmarthenshire. But the tactic worked for Labour.

One of the main issues in Llanelli was the future of the Prince Philip Hospital, which the Welsh Government (Labour, let us remember) intends to downgrade, meaning long journey times for many patients who will have to go to Glangwili, Withybush or Morriston for treatment. In the last week of campaigning Labour launched a PR offensive to claim that the hospital was safe in their hands and that it would not be closed. Of course, closing the hospital was never an issue - the concerns were all about downgrading its services.

The likelihood is, then, that people who voted Labour in Llanelli are in for a shock before long.

One result of the election was to double the size of the Labour group in County Hall, and it will be interesting to see if the new intake will be as willing to allow Kevin Madge to roll over and play second fiddle to the outsourcing, service-cutting agenda of Meryl and the chief executive.

In Carmarthen, Plaid achieved a clean sweep of all six seats. Issues there included the Local Development Plan and plans for huge new housing developments to the west of the town. Plaid will not be able to prevent these going through now, but at least the party has a very strong mandate to oppose the plans.

Results in the Aman Valley were in general good for Plaid, with the party capturing Ammanford and taking a seat from the Independents in Gorslas. Rupert Moon, the former rugby international and now commercial director of the Scarlets, was rejected by voters in one of the rare moments of sunshine yesterday.

As this blog, Caebrwyn and others have pointed out, the relationship between the council hierarchy and the top brass of the rugby world has long been a matter for concern. Scarlets is to all intents and purposes a subsidiary of the council, and to have the club's management represented on the council would have been a very unhealthy development. More on the Scarlets to come.

Across the rest of the county not a great deal changed. Most of the old Independent dinosaurs will be heading back to County Hall for another five years of claiming expenses. Dai Trelech will be 93 come the next election, by all accounts, and Tom Theophilus and Wyn Evans will not be all that far behind.

There will be one or two younger faces in the council chamber, at least if Calum Higgins takes time off from his studies, but the number of women councillors will remain pitifully low.

The last word goes to Carwyn Jones who yesterday said that his Labour councillors would be concentrating on the important things, which were health, social care and education. It will be interesting to see if the new Labour councillors in Carmarthenshire put this into practice and insist on a cull of the council's hugely expensive prestige white elephants as well as holy cows like the Carmarthenshire News.

Thursday 3 May 2012

Etholiadau Sir Gâr - ydy'r Myppets yn dod i ben?

Pwy sy eisiau pum mlynedd arall o'r rhain?

 Heb anghofio Kev bach, wrth gwrs!