Friday 27 July 2012

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?


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