Tuesday 31 July 2012

Creative accountancy for Council's propaganda newspaper

Following on from yesterday's post, it is good to see that more voices are being raised questioning the dubious accounting practices in County Hall.

The following is a press release issued on 13 July by Rhodri Glyn Thomas, our Plaid Assembly Member. He is spot on.

Local Assembly Member Rhodri Glyn Thomas has accused Carmarthenshire County Council of ‘creative accountancy’ having received information that the local authority does not keep separate records of internal and external advertising income for the publication of the county’s propaganda paper, Carmarthenshire News.
The Plaid Cymru AM stated that as the publication is loaded with advertisements for services the local authority provides, his office submitted the Freedom of Information request to see how much was being taken from one council budget to pay for another.
In response to Plaid Cymru’s FoI request, the local authority confirmed it does not distinguish between internal and external sums received for advertisements in the publication.  Mr. Thomas said the council’s suggestion of only paying £5,000 per edition is disingenuous and says the Council could be paying anything up to £23,000 per edition.
Rhodri Glyn Thomas said:
“Carmarthenshire News is now a joint publication on behalf of public service providers in the county such as the Police, Fire Service, Health Board, Trinity St. David and Coleg Sir Gar, to name but a few.  The newspaper is an extended version of the Council’s previous ‘Community News’ publication.
“My concern is extremely simple – The County Council says it receives £18,000 in advertising and sponsorship revenue per edition but it has since told me it cannot distinguish between adverts that are paid for internally and externally.  The county newspaper is loaded with adverts which the local authority itself provides.  So how much of that £18,000 is from coming within the council’s taxpayer-funded budgets?
“The Council has also told me it would be impossible to look back to previous years and assess the costs of internal adverts as it would involve going through every edition.  Sadly the Council has not kept a copy of them.  Either the Council doesn’t want to admit how much of taxpayers’ money is actually being put into these publications or it has serious problems with its financial management.
“The County Council could be paying anything up to £23,000 for each edition - that's upto £138,000 a year.  For it to suggest the net cost to the taxpayer is just £5,000 per edition is disingenuous and smacks of creative accountancy. 
“It’s about time the local authority scrapped its propaganda publication and got behind our existing very important local newspapers which have their own editorial control and have served our communities well for many years”.

Monday 30 July 2012

Fog on the Towy and some Democratic Discharge

The recently published agreement between Carmarthenshire's ruling Labour and Independent groups claims that they will be "open and transparent in everything we do", a claim which seasoned observers of goings on in the County Gaol on the Towy would regard as a dramatic change of policy if true. Indeed, if anything, the powers-that-be are now rowing determinedly in the opposite direction.

One of the council's main shop windows for the public is its website, and this blog has moaned before about the tangled mess of dead-ends, broken links and vanishing data. Within the last few weeks, for example, information on the expense claims submitted by individual councillors has been taken down. Councillors' registers of interests have never been published on the website, but are kept under lock and key with inspection only by prior appointment. There was, however, once a link which at least told you of the existence of this sacred register. Not any more.

A determined citizen who has failed to locate any of this information may be feeling a little frustrated at this point. Surely, councils are obliged by law to make some or all of this information available, aren't they?

Oh, look, here's a promising link entitled "Code of Practice on Public Access to Information". Click, and oh dear, access denied.

Cneifiwr and several other public spirited citizens were therefore not brimming with optimism when they arrived at County Hall today to exercise their right to inspect the council's accounts.

We were ushered in by two very friendly and sympathetic members of staff who, it emerged, had been given strict instructions from on high not to let us leave with any meaningful information on any of the areas of interest we had been asked to list prior to our visit. Certainly no information was to be provided electronically, and some reports could not be made available full stop. The cost for others would be 15p per page.

On the table in front of us were two ring binders of service codes, cost centre codes and account numbers.

The service codes are the highest level category in this hierarchy, and some actually correspond to services you or I may recognise, such as "mobile libraries" or "commercial property". Others are so opaque that it is anybody's guess what lies behind them: "Director's Services", "Corporate Management", that sort of thing.

The numbers range from just a few thousands to hundreds of millions, and the same applies to the cost centre codes, where armchair auditors can expect to find a lot more opaque terms. One of these is "democratic recharge".

Our friendly officer explained that this was a recharge to reflect the time spent by senior officers and others in meetings and, ho-hum, stuff like that. Some of these meetings must be extremely long, because the recharges can run to many tens of thousands of pounds.

But that's not all.

Take that mysterious entry "Director's Services" again. At a guess, this had something to do with education, but there was nothing to indicate what this activity was all about. Costs were duly entered, and totted up, from memory, to about £260,000, only to be reversed down to the last penny by two items headed "Director's Recharge" and "Democratic Recharge". So the project, whatever it was, miraculously cost nothing at all.

On other areas of spending, the documents were commendably clear. If you want to know what services such as Day Care Centres for the Elderly, museums or libraries (mobile or otherwise) are costing, it's there in black and white. These are, of course, all areas that are up for the chop.

When it comes to activities which are closer to the hearts of the council's top brass, such as the propaganda sheet dished out under the title Carmarthenshire News or any of the pet "regeneration" projects, down comes the fog.

Carmarthenshire News is, claims the council, very nearly self-financing. How they arrive at that conclusion is another mystery. Costs for the rag are lumped in with various other items of expenditure under headings such as "Press" and "Direct Communications", but it was, we were told, impossible to break down the costs.

And surprise, surprise, the hefty entries for expenditure from the departments concerned are zeroed out by an elaborate web of recharges, democratic or otherwise. On one reading at one point in the accounts, Pravda even appears to be making a profit.

All I can tell you is that spending on direct communications and press amounted to £637,661 and 4 pence. This is not one of the areas earmarked for cuts.

The Welsh Government is on the warpath against council newspapers, we are told in the Western Mail. Let's just hope that when the boys from Cardiff come to County Hall in Carmarthen to ask about Carmarthenshire News, they are armed with a search warrant.

One old chestnut, the money guzzling golf club at Garnant (home of our beloved leader Kev), makes a surprise appearance, with net expenditure totalling £152,000 against a budgeted £89,600. Buried somewhere deep in another part of the accounts was also a lumpy sum for meals and refreshments at the same golf course.

The council is of course now paying a company to take this particular white elephant off our hands for a few years.

Loans to the National Botanic Gardens and the Scarlets in Llanelli also show up, and the figures match the sums reported in the press. No trace could be found, however, of the £20,000 grant recently given to Scarlets to help it to employ a top notch retired rugby player  management specialist to drum up more business for Parc y Scarlets as a venue for bar mitzvahs, gay weddings and sheepdog trials.

Another mysterious entry for "commercial loans" recorded interest income of just 1 pence. Possibly one of those loans to persons "known to the officers" a la Llangennech business park. Who knows?

Also completely absent was any reference to our latest upcoming attraction, the evangelical bowling alley. We know that this has received very nearly £1.5 million from County Hall in loans, grants, peppercorn leases, etc., but not a whisper appears in the accounts.

According to both the council and the church, the site at Johnstown is a hive of activity, with hundreds of thousands of pounds of work being carried out by volunteers. Nearby residents and passersby believe the volunteers may be oompa loompas, because from the outside nothing whatsoever appears to have happened.

There is more exciting news on this project too, with a contract having been awarded (here) to Pembrokeshire Design Ltd in Milford Haven. Phase II of the project will include counselling/therapy rooms and a "multi-purpose conference centre", an innovative new dictionary definition of "church".

So why not enjoy a spot of bowling before your exorcism therapy?

But that's enough projects for one day.

Interestingly, the School Meals Service broke even, with sales of £4.12 million running well ahead of the budget forecast. Only as recently as January the council was proposing to increase school dinner charges yet again to make them probably the most expensive in Wales. Fortunately someone remembered that an election was looming, so the plan was quietly dropped.

On our way out, our friendly officer said that very few people came to inspect the accounts nowadays, and that freedom of information requests had largely superseded this ancient democratic ritual. I think we can all understand why now.

Emerging blinking into the daylight, it was good to see that the VIP car park, empty when we arrived, was now filled once more with top of the range black BMWs and Mercedes. Kev, Pam, the rest of the Executive Board and assorted senior officers were back from their big day out in Ammanford.

With the cats once more in residence, it was time for the mice to leave.

If I can face it, more accounting news to come.

Saturday 28 July 2012

A shocking question

When the new (or not so new) Labour-Independent coalition was returned in May's council elections, Kevin Madge justified increasing the size of the Executive Board to 10 members on the basis that they have such a big workload. Much was also made of the appointment of Pam Palmer, leader of the Independent faction, as board member with responsibility for rural affairs as well as Deputy Leader (in Kev's slimline, budget conscious new council we now need two deputies as well).

Since that little burst of activity, the Council has taken on the appearance of the castle in Sleeping Beauty, with almost no signs of life apart from the relentless flow of press releases from one of the turrets about dog mess and litter.

Pam's rural affairs brief consists of three objectives:
  • Keep Bwcabus running
  • Phone BT to ask them to increase the availability of broadband
  • Something about keeping young people in the farming industry by finding them alternative employment elsewhere (I know, I don't get that either)
Now, amid all the doom and gloom and Olympimania, we have what seems (must check the small print though) to be some genuinely good news. The Welsh Government has announced a £425 million deal with BT to roll out the next generation of superfast broadband across Wales by the end of 2015.

That leaves Pam with just the buses and the young farmers.

In the Partnership Agreement between Labour and Pam's depleted Independent group, we read "we are anxious not to waste local taxpayer’s (sic) money with frivolous or perceived populist ideas", words almost certainly penned by Pam herself.

As always, Cneifiwr would like to be helpful and constructive, so he wonders whether Pam will agree to forgo part of her £31,120 p.a. special responsibility allowance to fund the filming of council meetings now that her workload has been so dramatically lightened?

Indeed, perhaps she would like to demonstrate that she really means business about not wasting taxpayers' money by giving up her SRA and seat on the Board. A move which would definitely be popular as opposed to populist.

Pam Pam?

Dyma newyddion da:
Mae’r Prif Weinidog Carwyn Jones wedi cyhoeddi manylion bargen newydd â BT gyda’r amcan fydd 96 y cant o gartrefi a busnesau Cymru yn gallu manteisio ar Band Eang y Genhedlaeth Nesaf erbyn diwedd 2015.
Maen nhw am fuddsoddi £425 miliwn i fewn i band eang trwy Gymru, yn ôl y datganiad. Wow.

Bydd sawl pentref a chartref diarffordd yn Sir Gaerfyrddin wrth eu boddau'n clywed y newyddion. Rhyfedd dweud felly, mai un o blaenoriaethau newydd ein Cyngor Sir dros y pum mlynedd nesaf yw gwella mynediad i'r band eang mewn ardaloedd gwledig.

Pam Palmer, arweinydd yr Annibynwyr swyddogol, fydd yn gyfrifol am hynny yn ôl y cytundeb rhwng Llafur a'r Annibynwyr, ond mae'r datganiad gan y Llywodraeth yng Nghaerdydd yn golygu nad oes fawr o ddim i'w wneud ar lefel y Cyngor Sir bellach.

Yn ogystal â cheibio'r ffyrdd a gosod ceblau ym Mhentrecagal a Chilycwm, mae cyfrifoldebau Pam fel Dirpwy Arweinydd (Materion Cymunedol a Gwledig) yn cynnwys Bwcabus (gwasanaeth bws) a "chadw pobl ifainc yn y diwydiant amaethyddol trwy eu helpu i ddatblygu...cyfleoedd gwaith amgen."

Wedi colli un o'i phrif raisons d'être, mi fydd gan Pam dipyn o amser sbâr nawr, mae'n debyg. Tybed, a fyddai hi'n fodlon rhoi rhan o'i lwfans (£31,120 y flwyddyn) i ariannu ffilmio cyfarfodydd y cyngor? Neu, sibrydwch y peth yn dawel, mae yna le i ofyn a oes wir angen Pam o gwbl. Dyna gwestiwn brawychus.

Friday 27 July 2012

Blaenoriaethau Cyngor Sir Gâr

Mae'r Cyngor Sir wedi cyhoeddi dogfen o dan y teitl "Cytundeb Partneriaeth rhwng y Blaid Lafur a'r Grŵp Annibynnol Gweithio gyda'n gilydd i greu gwell Sir Gaerfyrddin" (dogfen uniaith Saesneg, wrth gwrs). Wel, rhan ohoni a bod yn fanwl gywir, gan fod y cymalau sy'n disgrifio sut yn union y bydd y ddwy blaid yn cydweithio yn gyfrinachol.

"Trafodir" y cytundeb cyn cael ei dderbyn yn unfrydol gan y Bwrdd Gweithreddol mewn cyfarfod ddydd Llun nesaf.

Heb roi unrhyw ffigyrau na thargedau pendant, mae'r cytundeb yn mynd ati i ddisgrifio gweithgareddau a blaenoriaethau'r cyngor, gan gynnwys hamdden a moderneiddio addysg (h.y. cau mwy o ysgolion bach), Bwcabus a band llydan. Mae yna sôn am adfywio a'r amgylchedd, diogelu plant ac hybu twristiaeth, sbwriel a gofal cymdeithasol.

Ond nid oes yr un gair am y Gymraeg. Yn nunlle. Dim byd. Nada. Rien o gwbl.

Dim ond dweud.

Pam, Partnership and Participation

Apart from approving free parking for a limited period in Ammanford (a proposal which has been criticised by the town's traders for its lack of common sense), the meeting of the County Council's Executive Board next week will also "consider" a partnership agreement between the Labour Party and the Independent bloc which together run the council in coalition.

The agenda for the meeting tells us that it was Labour leader Kevin Madge who wanted the agreement with the Independents to be approved by the Executive Board, although in reality it was hammered out and agreed after the elections in May. There is no legal requirement for it to be approved by the governing Executive Board (the people who hammered out the agreement in the first place), and nobody is going to stand up and say it should be scrapped at next week's meeting.

Another PR exercise, then, and any members of the public and hapless reporters present can look forward to another lengthy and incoherent speech from Kev as he tries to persuade us that his new administration is the best thing since sliced bread.

Probably the only flicker of interest in any of this will be the behaviour of Pam Palmer, leader of the Independent bloc. Will she manage to summon up even a tiny bit of enthusiasm for playing second fiddle to the lacklustre Kev, or will she repeat her performance from the June AGM, where she appeared to be munching on a wasp sandwich?

Whatever else you say about Pam, nobody has ever accused her of being a good actress.

The document which has been published on the council's website is a fairly lengthy list of tired and vague "promises" without a single measurable target or any numbers. Here are two taken at random,
We will continue to review all spending annually as part of an efficiency programme so as to prioritise resources where they are most needed and to minimise rises in Council Tax. 

We will continue to review our portfolio of land and buildings, as part of our Asset Management Strategy, to reduce unnecessary costs and generate capital receipts to contribute to our investment programmes in education, housing and elsewhere.

All councils have to do these things, so it's a bit like the postman telling you in excited terms that he will continue to deliver letters.

Of all of the priorities and activities listed, the Welsh language does not warrant a single mention anywhere.

The document is also only a part of the overall agreement between Kev and Pam. Not for public viewing are the interesting bits. We know, for example, that the agreement will run initially for one year, at which point it will be reviewed.

What is the review mechanism, and what will be the criteria used? Given that the new administration won't really get into its stride until the autumn, almost half of the first year will have gone before the coalition actually gets down to work. There won't be much to go on, will there?

And whose idea was it to restrict the agreement to one year initially? Was it at Labour's insistence, or was it put in by the Independents? And why?

The full agreement also sets out the nuts and bolts of who gets which portfolio, and the division of spoils between the two parties. Why can't we be allowed to see that?

We are left with Motherhood and Apple Pie, but Kev and Pam are not keen to tell us how many mothers or how many apple pies. Or when.

As Caebrwyn has pointed out, the document indicates that the council may get around to trialling filming and webcasting of council meetings. This is couched in such grudging and resentful terms, that you can almost hear Pam's voice on the dictaphone:

"we are anxious not to waste local taxpayer’s money with frivolous or perceived populist ideas."

(Not my use of the apostrophe, by the way. It's safe to assume that there is more than one taxpayer in the county). 

The section which deals with this begins with the claim, "We will ensure that the council is open and transparent in everything we do." This from the very same people who slapped a public interest exemption on a proposal to transfer responsibility for a few public toilets from the county council to community councils last year. Not to mention the constant tweaking of the council's constitution to increase the powers of the executive at the expense of the ordinary councillors, the opposition and the public.

The agreement expresses the hope that more people will come along to watch council meetings. That would be wonderful, so how might that goal be achieved? Here are some suggestions:
  • Get rid of the intimidating and intrusive entry procedures which the council placed on the public wishing to attend meetings last year. Re-open the side door to allow people to enter and leave the public gallery at their convenience.
  • Give the gallery a lick of paint and remove all of the laminated notices banning this, that and everything else.
  • Hold meetings of the full council in the evening for the convenience of the voters rather than the officers and those elderly councillors who are tucked up in bed by 9p.m.
  • Give ordinary councillors a slot to raise matters which concern them and their voters. This could be done by ballot, with say half an hour allotted once a month. Let's have at least one small part of the agenda which is not controlled and stage managed.
  • Encourage more members of the public to come in and raise their questions and concerns. The existing rules are far too restrictive and intimidating. And while you are at it, give the public a right of reply in these sessions.
  • But perhaps most important of all, just once in a while show that public concerns and consultations are listened to and can really change things. For all of the statutory consultations, panels and other paraphernalia, the overriding impression that the public has is that they are wasting their time because the relevant decisions have already been taken. And they are right to suspect that. 
Tacked on at the end of the document, probably at Pam's insistence to create a platform for her new-found role of saviour of the county's rural areas, is a short section dealing with the bits of Carmarthenshire which are not Llanelli, Carmarthen and Ammanford. 

This tells us that the council will seek to "protect and where possible improve rural bus services". It also wants to work with BT and others to help improve broadband provision. Presumably that is distinct from the major project recently announced by the Welsh Government and BT.

Finally, Pam wants to help farmers diversify with particular emphasis on "retaining young people in the farming industry by helping them to develop alternative sources of income and alternative employment opportunities".

Err, right. Isn't that what Margaret Thatcher did to the mining industry?


Wednesday 25 July 2012

Back to School

The PR exercise which is Carmarthenshire County Council's next Executive Board meeting in Ammanford will "consider" the closure of Ysgol Gynradd Brechfa. In case anyone in Brechfa is still hoping that the Board will actually debate the issue and come to a decision in Ammanford Town Hall, the reality is that the decision to close was taken long ago.

The brief report recommending closure would have been drawn up and checked by well paid officers in the council's Education Service, and it is a reasonable bet that many of the children in Brechfa could have done a better job.

Here are just a few examples taken from the document, which runs to about 25 lines of text:

".. of a statutory notice immediately following the end of the formal consultation phase to implement by the proposal by the end of the Summer Term 2013..."

"By the end of the Summer Term, 2012, pupil numbers at the school is projected to have declined to 14. With no evident prospect of improvement in the foreseeable future. The school therefore have 64% surplus places."

You get the picture. At least Spell Checker prevented any spelling mishaps.

The report is available in English only, as is usual in Carmarthenshire. Anyone who loves the Welsh language can at least take comfort in the thought that yr hen iaith was spared the indignity of what was inflicted on it in the Welsh version of the agenda for the Ammanford meeting:

8. ail gam cynllun rheoli’r traethlin.

9. meysydd parcio stryd y gwynt, stryd y neuadd a'r baltic, rhydaman - parc yn rhad ac am ddim.

10. penodi llywodraethwyr a.ll.

11. cytundeb partneriaeth rhwng y blaid lafur a'r grŴp annibynnol "gweithio gyda'n gilydd i greu gwell sir gaerfyrddin".

Jesus wept. The children of Brechfa could certainly teach the officers how to use capital letters, for a start.

And to think the authors of this crap are responsible for our education system.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Dyfed Powys Police Commissioner - the Tory story

Carmarthenshire's Tories are few in number, as we saw in the recent county council elections where they polled just 2%, but they would nevertheless make an interesting study for any sociologists.

They fall into two broad types. First we have a smattering of home-grown talent who would mostly describe themselves as businessmen. Then we have the rather more exotic imports who actually run the flea circus. These include a cast of characters, mainly in their 30s, who could have stepped straight out of the pages of old works of fiction. We have, for example, a huntin', shootin', fishin' would-be local squire and London lawyer; a Violet Elizabeth Bott ("I'll thcweam and thcweam until I'm thick"); and now, in the shape of Christopher Salmon, a man who bears a resemblance to characters from the pages of Boy's Own Paper.

Chris Salmon will be standing as Conservative and Unionist Party candidate in the elections for Police Commissioner of Dyfed Powys Police in November, elections that nobody really wants.

Every cloud has a silver lining, they say, so perhaps we should look on the bright side and be thankful that the Tories will not be fielding John Davies, the former leader of Pembrokeshire Council. Mr Davies wisely stepped down from his previous role just before the brown stuff really hit the fan in Haverfordwest, and his keen sense of self-preservation ensured that he withdrew quietly from the Tory selection process when it became clear that he was on to a loser.

So who is Chris Salmon, I hear you ask.

He tells us that he grew up in a farming family in the old county of Radnorshire. Unlike some of his Tory chums, he is not keen to tell us where he went to school, but it probably was not the local comprehensive.
From those humble beginnings, he went to Oxford (not mentioned on his campaign site) and from there to Sandhurst. He served as an army officer for 4 years until 2007 in the Rifles.

Since then, his career becomes a little more foggy. His website tells us, in the past tense, that he "has worked" in business, while the Daily Telegraph describes him as a consultant.

In his army days, Mr Salmon served in various places, including a spell in the inglorious British occupation of Basra in Iraq.

To be fair, Mr Salmon is not proud of the British record in Iraq, as he told Conservative Home. People who argued about the legality of the war were missing the point, he said. What mattered most was reform of the British armed forces. Risks needed to be taken, and reputations put on the line (and lots more in the same platitudinous vein). Something needs to change, he opines, but somehow can't quite put his finger on what that something is.

Basra taught the Brits no end of a lesson, he tells us historically, as indeed did the Boer War. Here the Oxford Modern History and Economics graduate gets himself in a bit of a tangle.

The Boer War "foreshadowed much that was to come - barbed wire, trenches, repeat fire rifles...", he tells us. He could have added that the British also came up with the innovative idea of concentration camps in which half of the Afrikaner child population died from malnutrition and disease, along with thousands of women, Africans and other non-whites. He also thinks that this happened in 1910.

If you are casting around for numbers to make up a pub quiz team, it might be better to leave young Chris on the bench.

In the 2010 general election he stood in Llanelli and polled 5,381 votes (14.4% of the votes cast), coming a rather distant third.

In the run-up to the election, Chris Salmon ran a reasonably active campaign. He popped up in Kidwelly, for example, to give his backing to the group fighting the Coedbach biomass plant. The Coedbach group, whose prominent supporters include Meryl Gravell, has an amazing record of objecting to anything that smacks of alternative energy. Back in Llanelli, he joined opposition to the council's plans to close two care homes. More about this below.

In an election statement to the Llanelli Star (here) he told readers,

Even lifetime supporters of other parties want to know where I stand on issues that matter to them — the economic mess, job opportunities, Government waste, the NHS, schools, immigration.

Those are all eminently good questions, so where does he stand?

Helpfully, the Guardian published the results of a questionnaire carried out by TheyWorkForYou in the run-up to the 2010 election. Chris responded as follows (my paraphrasing):
  • Should the rich bear the brunt of any tax increases needed to tackle the deficit? Young Chris is not really sure, so he sits on the fence on that one.
  • Should the Government aggressively tackle climate change? No, says Chris.
  • Should Britain increase public spending? Definitely not, he says.
  • Are immigration levels too high? Ermm, not really sure.
  • What if Iran develops a nuclear weapon? Chris would support sending the boys in, no doubt so that they can "learn no end of a lesson" once again.
  • British troops should stay in Afghanistan as long as they are needed. Absolutely, says our hero.
  • Should more money be spent on flood protection? Ermm, not really sure about that one.
  • Extra public money should be spent to ensure that the Llanelli care homes can stay open. "No", says Chris.
Interestingly for someone putting himself forward as a candidate for police commissioner, Chris Salmon has a very strong dislike of CCTV cameras.

So it is that we have a candidate who presumably supports the massive cuts to police budgets in the Dyfed Powys area, along with reductions in spending on other things which are of no interest to local people, such as social care and flood defences, just as long as we can still send "our boys" off to the Middle East for more stirring adventures.

How the police commissioner elections in Dyfed Powys will pan out is anybody's guess, but the Tories' prospects are not bad in a contest in which there may be just a couple of candidates and not many more voters.

As a footnote, it is worth adding that the only other candidate declared so far is Christine Gwyther for Labour. Christine was sacked as Agriculture Minister by the saintly Rhodri Morgan and has clocked up an impressive record of losing elections.

Monday 23 July 2012

Legal News (2)

Carmarthenshire County Council may be struggling in this age of austerity to find money for schools (at least in less favoured parts of the county), road repairs, libraries, museums and a whole host of other services, but there appears to be plenty left in the pot when it comes to keeping London's fat-cat lawyers in clotted cream and caviar.

We learned from Caebrwyn recently that the council is funding the chief executive's libel case out of its own resources, rather than resorting to its insurers.

In recent months the council also reacted very angrily to attempts by residents groups in Llanelli and Llandovery to seek judicial review of the council's decisions on the Stradey Park housing development and Ysgol Pantycelyn. Although the chief executive told the press that he was unable to comment on the Towy Community Church bowling alley project during an election, he nevertheless had no such inhibitions when it came to attacking the Stradey Park and Llandovery groups and warning that the council would seek to recover its costs.

This was because the Stradey Park and Llandovery disputes involved council policy, he helpfully explained. Presumably the council's £1.4m plus funding package to the church is not council policy. But I digress.

Another issue on which the chief executive found himself unable to comment was the BBC's Taro 9 programme documenting the appalling saga of abuse of an adult with learning disabilities at a council-run day centre in Johnstown, just outside Carmarthen.

Complaints about the council's management of the affair found their way to the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, who delivered a damning report (here) back in 2009. Although the case revolved around one particular victim, it was acknowledged that the abuse was widespread.

As is usual for such reports, the local authority found itself obliged, with gritted teeth, to publish the findings on its website, although you may have missed that if you blinked.

Carmarthenshire Council has been keeping the Ombudsman busy ever since, and he has now completed a 130-page report on a complex case involving planning enforcement (or lack of) and the council's Kafkaesque complaints procedures. This involved, among other things, putting the couple who initiated the original complaint on the Council's Persistent Complainers list without telling them, and they are now understood to be suing the council for defamation as a result.

Caebrwyn reported here on the flurry of correspondence leading up to, ahem, non-publication.

We learned that the Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall, had responded to a request for information from the Minister for Local Government, Carl Sargeant expressing his frustrations:

I can confirm that we have experienced difficulties with the Council in respect of complaints handled by my office. These include delays in responding to requests for information, delays in commenting on draft reports and lengthy delays in implementing my recommendations.

I drew my concerns to the attention of the Chief Executive some time ago and requested a meeting to which he has failed to agree. I now intend pursuing this matter with the Leader of the council.....

Mr James is a very busy man, of course, but it will not improve the Ombudsman's mood whenever he reads the Western Mail, Carmarthen Journal and other publications, including of course the Madaxeman blog, to find that the chief executive has time to express his views there but none for Mr Tyndall.

Now, in the latest development, the Council appears to have rejected the Ombudsman's new report, and is seeking judicial review (just like the Stradey Park and Llandovery groups). Fancy that!

It is unlikely that the chief executive will be packing a copy for relaxing pool-side reading this summer, but the Ombudsman is understood to be keen for the council's leadership to provide the elected councillors with copies to while away the dog days of August.

Perhaps the Council will agree to this request, but the track record suggests otherwise.

Cneifiwr would be interested to hear from anyone who knows whether any other Welsh councils have ever sought to challenge the Ombudsman's findings in the courts. As things stand, it appears that Carmarthenshire may once again be boldly going where more timid authorities have not ventured before.

Sunday 22 July 2012

Legal News (1)

While doing a bit of housekeeping, Cneifiwr accidentally deleted a post with this headline. Many thanks to Emlyn Uwch Cych for saving the day by fishing out the original:

Investigations into an alleged breach of electoral law by one of Carmarthenshire's recently elected Independent councillors have now been passed by the police to the Crown Prosecution Service, Cneifiwr understands.

Councillor Ieuan Wyn Davies was elected to represent Llanybydder, although the ballot paper gave a home address in Swansea.

For anyone not sure of their geography, Llanybydder is just about as far away as you can get from Swansea in Carmarthenshire, a distance according to the AA of 45 miles.

Of course, Cllr Davies may still qualify under one of the following provisions, but Inspector Knacker seems to have his doubts:

•You are a registered local government elector in the local authority area, both on the day you are nominated and on election day. You can check whether you are registered by contacting the Electoral Registration Officer at your local council.
•You have occupied, either as an owner or a tenant, any land or premises in the local authority area during the whole of the 12 months before the day you are nominated and election day.
•Your main or only place of work during the 12 months before the day you are nominated and election day has been in the local authority area.
•You have lived in the local authority area during the whole of the 12 months before the day you are nominated and election day.
Under the second of these, you could rent an acre or two of rough grazing somewhere in Carmarthenshire and plonk a couple of sheep on it in order to stand for election.

Let's hope for Cllr Davies's sake that evidence of these sheep or one of the other qualifications turns up in time to prevent a prosecution and by-election. Or perhaps Mr Davies was one of the thousands who commute daily from Swansea to the international business hub of Llanybydder, clogging up the lanes.

Llanybydder is famous for its horse fairs, which are held on the last Thursday of every month, but anyone wishing to buy a donkey could do worse than head up there. I remember hearing a farmer from Llandeilo telling Dai Jones Llanilar on the popular Cefn Gwlad* that you could never go wrong with a donkey as an investment.

* For English readers, Cefn Gwlad is a tiny bit like Countryfile, only without the Range Rovers and green wellies.

Friday 20 July 2012

Kev's Big Day Out (Part 2)

Excitement is mounting in Ammanford at the prospect of the Executive Board meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council, which will be held in the Town Hall on 30 July. Pensioners and school children alike are talking about little else.

The agenda for the meeting has not yet been published, but Cneifiwr can exclusively reveal that one of the key decisions to be hotly debated will be whether to waive parking charges for shoppers for a period of up to 8 weeks while building work is carried out in the town centre.

Oh, all right, it's not really exclusive because the Council's PR department has issued a press release saying that the proposal will be "considered".

Back in the real world, what this means is that the decision has already been taken, but any public and press who turn up on 30 July will be treated to a phoney "debate" in which Madge & Co will use the air time to impress on locals how grateful they should be for the wisdom and generosity of the administration before the rubber stamp is applied and the decision is taken UNANIMOUSLY (the council's caplocks, not mine).

Rumours are also circulating that the people of Ammanford may be treated to the ancient ceremony of the application of the public interest test pursuant to the Local Government Act 1972 in respect of an item which may contain exempt information as defined under Schedule 12A of said Act.

This involves fierce debate and soul-searching by the Board as it wrestles with its desire to be transparent in its dealings with the public on the one hand, and the feeling that there are in local government many things which it is better for the public not to be told.

At the end of this ceremony, the Board will decide UNANIMOUSLY that public and press should be bundled out of the hall so that an extra special rubber stamp can be applied to the item in question.

Cneifiwr understands that the item in question may be a ground-breaking new piece of litigation to silence an increasingly vexatious critic in one of the most innovative uses of the ancient writ of Scandalum Magnatum ever seen in the London courts.

Thursday 19 July 2012

Danish lessons

Anyone who has read the letters columns of our local newspapers would think twice before dipping a toe into the debate about wind energy, but having mentioned Denmark in a previous post, it is worth taking a slightly more detailed look at how another small country has gone about tackling its energy problems.

Most of the information here is taken from a recent article in Der Spiegel, a respected German current affairs magazine.

Back in the 1970s Denmark was hit hard by the dramatic rise in oil prices at the time. Denmark did not have coal, and it had not yet developed its small offshore oil and gas fields at the time. The country also had (and still has) a health and social welfare system the like of which we in Wales can only dream about.

By the beginning of the 1980s, high public spending and borrowing and an almost total reliance on energy imports had brought the country to the brink of disaster. One of my first jobs, as it happens, was covering financial and economic news in the Nordic countries, and I can well remember the dire headlines in the Danish press.

A farmer's son in Jutland developed the first prototype of a commercial wind turbine which was sold in 1979 to Vestas, a company which then manufactured tractors and cranes. Vestas is now the world's largest producer of wind energy technology.

24% of Denmark's electricity is now produced by wind energy, more than any other country worldwide, and it aims to raise the share to 50% by 2020. By 2050 Denmark aims to have eliminated its dependence on fossil fuels.

Opposition to wind turbines is not confined to Britain, so the question is how has a small country which is one of the most democratic, liberal and transparent nations in the world managed to pursue such a radical energy policy without getting bogged down in endless planning battles, court cases and parliamentary enquiries? How has it managed to persuade its people that there is something in this for everyone?

An example of this is a wind farm built just 3 kilometres offshore from central Copenhagen. There are 20 turbines, each around 100 metres tall and each capable of generating 2 Megawatts. The development attracted just 4 objections, and it went into production in 2001. At the time it was the largest of its kind in the world.

The company which operates the wind farm is a cooperative. 8,600 members own 50% of the shares, with the rest being held by a state energy company.

Individual, small private investors in Denmark played a key role in getting the industry started, and it developed into something of a popular movement. The huge projects being developed now need far larger sums of capital, however, but alongside the overseas investors, Danish local government and the country's pension funds are also key players.

A decisive factor in all this has been the country's emphasis on showing its people that they can benefit directly from this investment.

Unlike other countries, in Denmark it is the government which decides where it wants turbines, in cooperation with local government. It also carries out all of the technical and environmental analysis on the sites chosen before inviting tenders from investors.

This central planning process also means that investors can be sure that they will not get bogged down in appeals or have to jump through more hoops, while the state can be reasonably sure of hitting its targets.

The transparency of the process is also a key ingredient in ensuring that the public has faith and trust in it, and it also makes corruption a near impossibility.

It would be wrong to claim that there is no opposition to wind farms in Denmark, particularly when it comes to onshore developments, but here the Danes go out of their way to make schemes attractive to local people. Part of the profits from the turbines is fed back to local government to pay for environmental improvement projects; home owners are compensated if their property values are affected, and the state provides local operators with financial guarantees.

The senior civil servant in overall charge of the country's wind energy policy told the German magazine that there certainly would be something rotten in the state of Denmark if the public responded to every new project with protests and court cases.

As usual, we can learn a lot from looking at our neighbours, and not just those across Offa's Dyke..

Ask Carwyn

One of the biggest and most frequently voiced criticisms of Carwyn Jones and his government in Cardiff since he came to power last year (it seems a lot longer ago somehow) is their lack of energy and vision for Wales. For anyone who takes an interest in what happens in Cardiff Bay, it is also becoming increasingly depressing to see the First Minister routinely refusing to answer questions and talking about the opposition parties instead.

Recently Delyth Jenkins raised the question of why day centres for people with learning difficulties are exempted from inspection by CSSIW, the government agency which inspects care homes and other social services in Wales. The response, which you can read on Caebrwyn's blog here, was the familiar mix of PR-management-speak which, boiled down, told us that nothing is going to happen any time soon. They intend to issue a consultative white paper next year, which means that this gaping hole will not be plugged, if at all, for several years to come.

Extending CSSIW's remit would not be difficult or expensive, and it would not need new primary legislation.

That is just one example of the drift and lethargy which characterises the Welsh government, and I am sure readers can think of many more.

Denmark, with a population not much larger than that of Wales, is an example of a small country which keeps popping up in the media and academic studies as a world leader in an impressive range of fields, including pension fund management, tackling obesity and public health, the environment and a very successful energy policy. In some respects, particularly in energy policy, Wales has significant natural advantages over Denmark, but unlike Denmark we have a slow and reactive government.

So why not call Carwyn Jones when he appears on the Jason Mohammad programme on Radio Wales today, and tell him what you think?

Details are as follows:

It's your chance to quiz Wales' First Minster today, as Jason Mohammad puts your questions to Carwyn Jones from 1.15 PM. Call 03700 100 110 when we're on-air, text 81012, tweet @jasonmbbc, or email jason@bbc.co.uk

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Kev's Big Day Out

Leafing through the electronic pages of the South Wales Guardian yesterday in the wake of the news that Carmarthenshire County Council is once again bullying the local press, my eye was caught by an exclusive (here) revealing that council leader Kevin Madge has decided to hold a meeting of the council's Executive Board in Ammanford Town Hall on 30 July.

This is the first time this august body will have met outside the confines of County Hall in Carmarthen, and Kev says he wants to show us all that he "means business".

The Guardian was quite taken with the idea, and ran an editorial praising the decision. This is not a rabid, council-bashing newspaper by any stretch of the imagination, so the council's decision to withdraw advertising when the paper stepped ever so slightly out of line and criticised the management of a regeneration project is even more remarkable and worrying.

In its editorial, the paper says that critics will complain that nothing much has changed on the council,

"But the fact a Garnant-based councillor is now at the helm really should make a difference as far as the Amman Valley is concerned. 

And it refers, in a slightly cheeky way, to the pork barrel politics of local government,

Just look at the amenities the home villages of past leaders now enjoy!"

But back to the meeting of the Executive Board.

In recent years, beginning I think with Gordon Brown, the British government has hit the road several times and held cabinet meetings in places such as Birmingham and Manchester as part of a PR exercise to try to convince voters that the government is aware that there may be life outside the M25.

Whatever else Kev is, nobody has ever accused him of being an original thinker, and it is pretty obvious where he got this idea. As for "meaning business", any Ammanford residents intending to go to the meeting will be bitterly disappointed if they are expecting lively discussion and debate of the issues that matter to them.

The fact is that there are two meetings of the Executive Board. The first is held in private, with the public and press excluded. This is where decisions are made.

The second, which is what the people of Ammanford will see, is purely a Soviet-style PR exercise. Little speeches will be made (or in the case of Kevin Madge, interminable, waffling and meaningless monologues) in praise of the administration and its supreme wisdom in all matters. And every item will be approved UNANIMOUSLY (the minutes of these meetings like capital letters).

If everyone turns up, the public will see 10 executive councillors, most of whom will be entitled to free bus passes, and up to 15 assorted officers, most of whom will remain silent throughout. For reasons Cneifiwr has never understood, quite a high proportion of the male officers favour shaved and polished heads. Perhaps it's a local government fashion.

Unless there is a dramatic departure from tradition, any locals hoping to ask impromptu questions of their leaders will also be disappointed, although under the constitution they may submit written questions at least seven working days beforehand to the Chief Executive, who will decide whether the questions are appropriate. Questions which are similar to any question asked in a council meeting in the previous six months will be rejected, and questioners must state which member of the Executive Board they wish to answer their query.

No questions, then.

If it is anything like County Hall, members of the public will also be asked to provide their names and addresses and sign declarations that they will not film or otherwise record any part of the meeting.

For the avoidance of doubt, as the lawyers like to say, and to avoid disappointment, the council's away-day is entirely separate from the Amman Valley Big Day Out, billed by the South Wales Guardian as a "feast of fun and frolics".

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Called in for a chat - Carmarthenshire and press freedom

A few weeks ago the Western Mail got itself into hot water again for a rather inflammatory comment piece on whether the proceedings of the Welsh Assembly should be available in both languages, and for a short while the hashtag #westernfail started trending on Twitter. For those readers not familiar with Twitter what that means is that, for a few hours, one of our Welsh domestic disputes managed to reach such a fever pitch that it could be heard all around the world.

Quite an achievement by all involved, but like any dispute between neighbours over a garden hedge, it was not a pretty sight. An ill-judged piece which led to a row in which the paper refused to back down, and some of those in the other camp were hoping to dance on the paper's grave.

The fragility of our local press is no state secret, and the latest attempt by Carmarthenshire County Council to muzzle one of the newspapers on its patch  - the South Wales Guardian this time -shows that County Hall's bullies have no reservation in exploiting that weakness in their obsessive quest for favourable press coverage. We learned today that the council's top brass took umbrage at a report in the newspaper, and its editor has now been invited over for a chat. For details see Caebrwyn's report here.

If it had not been for the Western Mail, it is unlikely that the story would have been told. And you would certainly not have read about it in the Carmarthen Journal which nowadays makes sure never to run any story which might upset Council bigwigs. Actually, the Journal has sunk even lower than that, as our next example shows.

Also back in the pages of the Western Mail is the story of Delyth Jenkins, the courageous woman who stood up to the bullies in the Council's day care centre in Johnstown. Delyth then ran into the pin-striped bullies of County Hall. At one point the Council even blamed the press for reporting crass and insensitive remarks made by its Chief Executive in a public meeting.

Earlier this year the Delyth Jenkins story was back in the news, with the BBC covering it in an edition of Taro 9. The council not only refused to take part in the programme, but had the police watch the movements of the BBC production team. Not a word of this was breathed in the Journal, which instead ran a long précis of a 6-month old report by the CSSIW (Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales) praising the council's approach to social services.

Delyth is now calling for the CSSIW to be given powers to inspect day centres, although sad to say, recent reports from CSSIW, the Wales Audit Office and Estyn show that when it comes to standing up to our county council, these agencies don't have a single testicle between them.

Estyn recently produced a damning report on Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn, one of the county's secondary schools. On the same day it published another report which gave the county's education department an overall rating of "good".

Good is probably not the word which is in the minds of most of the parents, children, staff and governors of the school, but needless to say the Journal ran a re-hash of the Council's press release praising its education service and forgot to mention the plight of one of the largest schools in its area.

The Western Mail, whose chief reporter Martin Shipton was once decribed by Carmarthenshire's Chief Executive as being someone "not known for being friendly to or giving the benefit of the doubt to Councils", is a bit of a problem for the Kremlin on the Towy because the paper is not reliant on its advertising, and so cannot be easily threatened.

One way of sorting out the likes of the Western Mail would be to sue them for libel, but annoyingly for Carmarthenshire, councils are not allowed to bring actions for defamation.

The solution to that problem is to sue by proxy, claiming that one of the officers, for example, has been libelled and that these "extraordinary circumstances" are somehow preventing the council from discharging its functions, so that public money may be used to fund the case.

If that doesn't rid the Council of that turbulent Mr Shipton, what will?

Saturday 14 July 2012

Skittle bombs and lapses of memory

Early one morning a couple of winters ago, Cneifiwr awoke and went to the kitchen to make the missus her customary coffee when he noticed a trail of large footprints in the frost coming over the high bank which separates the garden from the lane and across the lawn towards the back door.

Had someone tried to burgle Cneifiwr Castle in the night? And why had the intruder climbed over the bank rather than use the garden gate a few yards further down?

Closer inspection of the crime scene revealed a scatter of coins around the back door which together yielded about 37p.

Burglars do not normally leave money at the houses they visit in the night, and certainly Cardi* burglars don't.

A few local enquiries revealed that one of the neighbours had enjoyed a bit of a sesh down at the Pelican on the night in question, and the likelihood was that his homing device had been impaired as a result. He had veered off course about 300 yards too soon.

Easily done, as Cneifiwr can testify, having downed several more pints of Bass than was good for him on the odd occasion. Once his auto-pilot took him back to a house he had moved out of a couple of months previously.

Perhaps a surfeit of Brains or Buckley's, or possibly in the case of the "youngsters" a night out on Skittle Bombs may be the explanation for the rumours that Inspector Dai Knacker has been called in to investigate several cases of alleged confusion over the residential status of some of our newly elected county councillors.

In order to qualify as a candidate in an election to a county council, the law says you must meet at least one of the following criteria:
  • You are a registered local government elector in the local authority area, both on the day you are nominated and on election day. You can check whether you are registered by contacting the Electoral Registration Officer at your local council.
  • You have occupied, either as an owner or a tenant, any land or premises in the local authority area during the whole of the 12 months before the day you are nominated and election day.
  • Your main or only place of work during the 12 months before the day you are nominated and election day has been in the local authority area.
  • You have lived in the local authority area during the whole of the 12 months before the day you are nominated and election day.
Candidates for the election who filed papers with incorrect information about where they live and work could reasonably expect to find themselves disqualified if elected, and even face a criminal prosecution.

Voters too might not be best pleased to find themselves having to turn out for by-elections, which can be expensive businesses.

Let's hope that the rumours are not true, and that none of our councillors had done a "Keith Davies" the night before handing their papers in at County Hall.

* For non-Welsh readers, a Cardi is a term of affection for people from this part of Wales, and they have a reputation for being very careful with their money.

A local man passed away, and his son called the Tivyside Advertiser to place a notice. He read out a few words noting the passing and details of the funeral service. The woman at the other end asked if he wanted to add anything, as he had not used up the full character allowance.

The man thought for a second and replied, "Also scaffolding at reasonable rates".

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Dog mess, buried treasure, fag ends and skeletons

The press office in County Hall have had a very thin time of things recently, with little else to do than run stories about dog fouling, people dropping cigarette ends, cardboard cutouts of Dai Greene and the like. As Caebrwyn has discovered, the office even does its bit for recycling by attributing word-for-word identical quotes to different people at different times.

There must have been real relief, therefore, when Estyn published its report on education in the county and gave the authority an overall rating of "good". If it had not been for a few minor trivial problems with school attendance, performance and financial planning, the county might have been awarded a top rating of "excellent".

Undeterred by such considerations, the council's spin machine trumpets,

"This report confirms that Carmarthenshire’s education service is one of the best in Wales."

Anyone searching the Estyn report to see where the inspectors actually delivered that verdict will search in vain.

Sadly for the press office, this one little ray of sunshine turned out to be a brief respite from the continuing downpour of stories about dog mess, cigarette ends and general litter (three new stories yesterday), but summer is upon us, even as we wait for the next flood alert, and thoughts turn to how to keep the kids entertained during the long school holidays.

The press office is inviting us to head for the County Museum in Abergwili (the one they want to close), to take part in a "dig" for "buried Roman treasure". Perhaps the kiddies may even unearth the Dai Greene cutout.

The county's bloggers, meanwhile, will be heading for the forbidding confines of County Hall, with a much more realistic prospect of unearthing pots of gold, skeletons and mouldering remains as they prepare to comb through the council's accounts.

Why not join us for a really fun day out?

Friday 6 July 2012

Education in Carmarthenshire: a tale of two reports

A snowstorm of school inspection reports has just been published by Estyn, and two are of particular interest to residents of Carmarthenshire. Copies can be found here.

The first is a general appraisal of education provision across the county, and the second is a report on Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn, one of the authority's 14 secondary schools.

The first thing to say is that it is very hard indeed to reconcile the positive picture painted by the first report with the damning verdict delivered in the second.

Estyn uses a 4-point grading system (excellent-good-adequate-unsatisfactory), and against nearly all of the criteria assessed, the County is rated "good", with an overall rating of "good".

The report finds that performance at all of the key stages has improved in recent years, and that the percentage of school leavers without a qualification is among the lowest in Wales. It claims that support for additional learning and social inclusion is good; the Modernising Education Programme is praised; and County Hall managed to persuade the inspectors that they understand that education is influenced by "the impact of wider regeneration and social care".

Whatever that last point means is not explained, but no doubt County Hall will be very pleased to hear this endorsement of their wider policies of outsourcing and prestige development projects.

Estyn is also a big fan of the council's Modernising Education Programme, which involves the closure of large numbers of village schools to eliminate spare places, and its controversial reorganisation of secondary education, which includes the planned closure of the secondary school in Llandovery.

As we know, huge sums are being pumped into new schools in parts of the county, but the report states enigmatically,

However, the authority has not analysed systematically enough the benefits arising from its investment in terms of improving the condition, suitability and efficiency of its schools.

Again, Estyn does not explain what it means.
In another note of criticism, the report states,

The authority and its schools have, in the past, spent too little on the routine repair and maintenance of school buildings. Current financial planning does not address adequately the need to ensure that new school buildings are well maintained into the future so that they remain in good condition.


Despite this significant investment, the authority’s data shows that just over half of pupils are taught in buildings in need of further investment.

In plain English, the council is spending a great deal of money on school buildings in some places, but then neglecting ongoing maintenance (e.g. in one new primary school Cneifiwr knows, parts of the roof leak in heavy rain and there is inadequate drainage around the school buildings). And anyone familiar with the shabby state of many older buildings will be surprised to hear Estyn's claim that lack of repair and maintenance is a thing of the past.

As for support for additional learning and special educational needs, parents battling to get support for children with literacy problems, dyslexia, speech therapy and language skills will be surprised to hear that provision is "good". They will be even more baffled to read,

The authority has the second highest number of appeals to the Special Educational Needs Tribunal for Wales. It is working to reduce the percentage of pupils with statements of special educational needs, which is currently the third highest in Wales. This work includes piloting innovative work for the Welsh Government in assessing pupils’ additional needs and providing for them without going through statutory assessment.

In the case of one family I know, the "innovative work" which avoids statutory assessment means almost exactly what it says on the can: the parents' efforts to get support for their 9 year-old with serious reading and writing difficulties (very likely dyslexia) have been ignored for two years, and no assessment has been carried out.

As they have already discovered, fighting the system is time-consuming and complicated. As "pushy" parents, they intend to fight on, but it is obvious that for many children from more disadvantaged backgrounds, the dice are loaded against them from the start.

And so the report chunters on. Boxes are ticked, and backs are slapped.

Now let's move on to the second report dealing with Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn.

The school was last inspected in 2006, and the new report makes for very depressing reading. So much so, that you have to wonder what Estyn and the County Council's strategic visionaries and "senior leaders who work in a sophisticated way" have been doing for the last 6 years.

Unlike the council itself, the school is classed as "unsatisfactory" in several categories, and it is given an overall rating of unsatisfactory.

The school has 639 pupils, and the school roll is rising. It has a broad intake of children from a wide range of social backgrounds, and most of the teaching is through the medium of English.

The school budget for the school is currently £4,224 per pupil, compared with an average of £4,938 for the county as a whole. That average masks a huge variation in spend in secondary education, which goes from £7,322 at the top end down to £4,096.

Overall, the school is 10th out of 14 in terms of spending per pupil.

Later in the report, Estyn tells us that the school has been running a deficit for the last two years, and is anticipating a significant deficit for 2012-13. In Estyn's view, "taking into account the unsatisfactory standards, the school provides unsatisfactory value for money". 

A more common sense finding would have been that the school is seriously under-funded. It has in fact been caught in an impossible dilemma of struggling to balance its books, partly by cutting provision and teacher numbers, while trying to meet demands to expand its curriculum. Estyn doesn't go into that sort of detail.

Anyone who knows the school will be aware that the main block is a shabby and depressing place. Estyn notes that the toilets and changing rooms are in a poor (i.e. truly terrible) state. The council will very belatedly get around to doing something about the toilets this summer, it says, after several years of delay and bumbling.

Alongside the main block is a new creative arts centre (partly funded by an external agency, I believe). No sooner had that been built than the council slashed its schools music programme, and pupils taking their Art A Levels last year were left without a teacher when a member of staff suffered an accident. Again, Estyn skims over this clear case of left hand, right hand.

Otherwise, you can search the council's Modernising Education Programme from top to bottom for spending on this school, and you will find that over a period of 20 years investment in the core of the school will be zero.

As for the school budget, the Governors have been arguing the case for some time that the school is under-funded, even according to the council's own funding criteria. They recently invited the council's Director of Education, Rob Sully, along to a meeting to set out their case, and claim that they were assured twice that he would attend.

Sadly it seems that he was far too busy, because after waiting in eager anticipation for the great man to arrive, it slowly dawned on the governors that their invitation had been wasted. No apology or explanation given.

In common with all other schools in the county, Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn has a Schools Improvement Officer, and it has been suggested that like Mr Sully, the trip out into the sticks is often just that bit too far. The author of this blog cannot verify that, although you can draw your own conclusions from the Estyn report.

The report also highlights the school's poor performance in literacy in English and Welsh, and it notes in particular the failure to build on the Welsh language abilities of children coming up from primary schools. 
Despite this, Estyn is pleased to see that all pupils are entered for the full GCSE course in Welsh as a second language.

Somehow, though, it escaped Estyn's attention that a good many of the children taking Welsh as a second language are unable to use the language in any meaningful way, with vocabulary which extends no further than "Diolch" and "Rydw i'n hoffi coffi". Some of the "Welsh" classes consisted, at least until very recently, of watching videos in English or Welsh with English subtitles.

Elsewhere, the inspectors note in passing that sometimes pupils of higher ability are not sufficiently challenged.

On a positive note, it remains true that a good proportion of pupils from the school continue to go on to higher education, including to some of the best universities, although quite a few find that they have a mountain to climb when they get there compared with their contemporaries.

The school can also be proud of the many talented and successful young people it has taught over the years, but what emerges from the report is a system which has let down children who could have emerged from school with better grades and skills.

One of the other casualties of the report is the head, who is a very decent and likable man. He has been made to shoulder much of the blame, and is now leaving the school.

But as the first of Estyn's reports shows, no blame will attach to anyone in County Hall for the years of under-funding and neglect. That's Teflon for you.

Monday 2 July 2012

Can we have a refund, Kev?

Caebrwyn reports that the July meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council has been cancelled because of a lack of business to transact, and she points out that there will probably not be another meeting until September.

This means that in the 6 months from March councillors will have met just twice - once for the rubber-stamping formality of the AGM, and a second time for an ordinary meeting in June.

Given the lack of activity, it is likely that none of the scrutiny committees will meet until the autumn, and very little is happening at the executive end of the council either.

The Tivyside Advertiser recently reported (here) that councillors' allowances and special responsibility allowances in Ceredigion would cost taxpayers more than £540,000 in the current financial year. Caebrwyn points out below that the equivalent figure for Carmarthenshire in 2011 was just under £1.4 million, and now that Kevin Madge has increased the size of the Executive Board because of erm...pressure of work, the figure for this year will be higher.

Will the Executive Board and chairs of the various comatose committees show the way by handing back half of their special responsibility allowances in recognition of the fact that they have taken 6 months off?

The savings could be used to reverse some of the planned cuts. For example, the council is cutting £50,000 off its support for the Mentrau Iaith (half its total grant) over the next three years, and that will mean that jobs and livelihoods will be lost. And that's just for starters.