Friday 31 August 2012

Tally ho! The Tories of Carmarthenshire

Mitt Romney, the billionaire Mormon contender for the US Presidency, faces a bit of an uphill struggle convincing ordinary American voters that he is from the same planet, although with new laws in several key swing states that could potentially disenfranchise 5 million likely Democrat voters, he may not have to worry.

Over on this side of the Atlantic, the Tories have the same problem as Romney when it comes to connecting with real people, whether it's Cameron, Osborne and the other former Bullingdon Club boys or the rather less exalted membership of Welsh Conservative constituency party associations, such as the one here in Carmarthen East and Dinefwr.

Cameron's attempts at electoral reform are likely to be rather less successful than those of his Republican cousins in the US, especially now that Labour has joined forces with the Tory right to kill off  reform of the House of Lords.

One unexpected result of all this is that Newcastle Emlyn will most likely remain part of Carmarthen East and Dinefwr as part of the price for keeping all those superannuated former Tory council leaders and Blair cronies in ermine. Who'd have predicted that?

In the council elections in May we caught a brief glimpse of some of the exotic flora and fauna which make up the Tory party in Carmarthenshire, although most appeared only on the ballot paper and made no attempt to campaign. Perhaps it was the prospect of having to go out and meet all those ghastly people which put them off.

One of the peculiarities of our local Tories is that they come over all shy when telling us what they do for a living. A few Google searches established that the Master of the Emlyn Beagles who stood in Cilycwm is a London barrister, but for some others it was more difficult.

Chris Salmon, who wants to be elected as Police Commissioner for Dyfed Powys in November, will tell us only that "I have worked in business".

Equally shy is Andrew Morgan who stood for the Tories in the Assembly elections for Llanelli in 2007 and 2011, and for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr in the Westminster general election in 2010. He was challenged by Plaid Cymru to tell voters what he did for a living, but preferred not to.

He finally came out of the closet this week in an advertisement placed in the Carmarthen Journal by stockbrokers Brewin Dolphin. It turns out that he now works in the broker's Swansea office, although prior to that he tells clients on the firm's website (here) that he worked for 11 years in "the City". Champagne and bonuses all round!

Finally the demure and youthful Henrietta Hensher who would like to represent the people of Cenarth ward has just changed her profile picture on Facebook. Most people select a mugshot, but Hattie has chosen to represent herself with a snapshot of a typical Carmarthenshire home:

Is this on Kevin Madge's list of council houses to be upgraded?

Incidentally, anyone interested in the US election might like to see where they would be in the US political spectrum. Are you a Republican or a Democrat? Here's a quick survey to show where you stand. The chances are that if you are anything like most Welsh voters, you will find yourself way out on the far left lunatic fringe of the Democratic Party.

Thursday 30 August 2012

Back to the Beacon

Work has meant that the blog has been idle for a few days. News has been very thin on the ground, but suddenly there is a deluge which I will try to bash out in the next day or so. In the meantime, let's revisit the scene of an earlier crime strategic investment.


We have some colourful characters in this part of Wales, and one of the most colourful in this neck of the woods is a man who has been visiting the area every summer for several years now. Let's call him Charles.

Charles has long greying hair and is a little scruffy, but usually there is nothing about his appearance to make you think there is anything odd about him. He speaks with an educated English accent, and the first time you meet him he can be quite impressive as he explains his business ideas. Then you begin to notice things which don't quite add up.

He's off on a business trip to Australia tomorrow, he may tell you. When you see him the next day and say you thought he was going to Australia, he will tell you that he has been and come back.

Getting to Heathrow and back again from here would take up most of a day, so perhaps Charles chartered a private jet and flew from Pembrey Airport in Carmarthenshire.

Pembrey Airport is part of Carmarthenshire's Meryl Development Zone, a huge area of limitless commercial opportunities, as Pembrey Airport's website reminds us:

One of the few Airports in the United Kingdom that has 5000 acres of adjoining land available for joint venture with very little planning and environmental constraints. We are within Convergence funding Area (qualifies for European funding). Pembrey Airport is exempt planning and large tracts of freehold development land are immediately available from the Local Authority.

Fancy that! Exempt from all those troublesome planning and environmental rules and available from Carmarthenshire County Council immediately as a joint venture. Charles would feel very much at home there with his portfolio of hugely successful companies, including one that he is particularly proud of in Belgium.

A couple of years ago Charles checked into an expensive local hotel and ordered stacks of glossy magazines and other goods on room service. The hotel subsequently discovered that none of Charles's impressive collection of credit cards would work, and Charles found himself back on the street.

Despite this setback, Charles likes to tell anyone who will listen that he has millions of pounds in the bank, and is looking for investment opportunities in the area. Pembrey surely beckons.

Early one morning not long after the hotel episode Cneifiwr spotted Charles wearing a multi-coloured top hat and riding a large tricycle down the main street. About this time, Charles borrowed £10 from Cneifiwr. He was temporarily without funds, he explained, but would pay the money back.

Cneifiwr waved a sad farewell to the £10, but was surprised a few days later when Charles pulled out a very large wad of £20 notes to repay his debt.

If this tale has a moral, it is that sometimes it is quite difficult to know what to believe.

The name Technium has cropped up a few times in the last week or so, as names from the past sometimes do, and so Cneifiwr went off to check his modest archive. Ah yes, here it is.

Technium was the name of a business centre for high-tech start ups at Dafen in Llanelli, originally set up by the Welsh Government.  The venture turned out to be a bit of a white elephant, and so it was not too difficult for Cardiff to persuade Carmarthenshire County Council that Technium would fit in well with the council's growing herd of white jumbos.

Terms were agreed. In secret with a public interest exemption, as you would expect with the transfer of an asset from one public body to another.

Seven months after taking on Technium, which was now rebranded The Beacon, Carmarthenshire decided to launch a PR offensive to brag to the world that it had applied the Midas touch to the centre and transformed its fortunes "just like that", as Tommy Cooper used to say.

The centre was now full to capacity, it boasted, and the local press duly churned out a story which bore an uncanny resemblance to the council's press release. The journalist concerned got very upset with Cneifiwr about this reference to his article which, he insisted, was all his own work.

However, Cneifiwr's main point was not about recycling council press releases, but rather not believing everything the press office in County Hall tells you.

The problem was that the council had decided, possibly in a Charles moment, to claim that the rebranded centre was "full to capacity". It wasn't, as a quick and easy check established.

That was in March 2012, and a quick look at the Beacon website shows that there are still empty units today. Of those that are occupied, two are taken up by the centre's administrative staff; one is occupied by a joint venture between the council and the Welsh Government ("a flagship partnership delivering an ambitious Regeneration strategy for Llanelli Waterside"); and another is occupied by Coleg Sir Gâr.

The capital R in Regeneration is not Cneifiwr's, by the way. Regeneration in Carmarthenshire always has a capital R.

The colour coding scheme for units in the centre is perhaps not totally reliable (green for available, maroon for let), but two or possibly three units appear to be empty.

This marks quite an improvement on May, when the centre tells us that it acquired three new tenants, including Antur Teifi, another publicly funded agency.

Outside the main building is a suite of industrial units, all with high speed broadband access, gas, free parking, etc. Only one of those is currently occupied.

This is a pity because the aims of the Beacon venture are to nurture and train young people, and to help young IT and engineering businesses develop.

The question remains why the council pretended that the centre was full to capacity. It's a bit like a restaurant or hotel putting up a sign saying "fully booked for the next 18 months".

Perhaps the illusion of success is more important than the reality.

Saturday 25 August 2012

GCSE Results - Updated

Update 25 August: All of the local authorities in the region have now published summaries of their schools' performance in the GCSEs, and I have now added in a table showing how they did in the A*-A and A*-C bands. The results show that in the crucial A*-C category, Carmarthenshire was outperformed by every single neighbouring authority. In the A*-A band, the county came fourth out of six.

This tends to confirm suspicions that education in Carmarthenshire is being run more like a project as the "Modernising Education Programme" is rammed through, and rather less like an education service.


Put two Welshmen together and you are likely to get three opinions, but one of the things we can all agree on is that we are very good at running ourselves down in comparison with the neighbours (except in rugby, of course).

So it was with a sense of inevitable doom that we would be told once again on the evening news bulletins that Welsh children were lagging behind their English counterparts and the rest of the UK in the GCSE tables. Followed by a forecast of torrential rain with possible local flooding over the coming bank holiday weekend.

And so it was, although apparently the gap in GCSE attainment narrowed slightly. Or not, depending on who is reporting:

BBC News - GCSEs: Wales' pupils results fall but gap closes with UK

Western MailGCSE results show widening gulf between Wales and rest of UK

The problem with statistics of course is that they can be made to show anything, especially when the dataset is as huge as it is for GCSE results.

The national statistics for Wales mask huge variations, just as they do for England, to the point where you have to wonder whether anything meaningful can be read into them. Unfortunately, though, these are the headline figures which are picked over by the BBC and the London media.

Results at a local authority level are much more useful, although they will obviously also mask significant variations from one school to another.

So as we brace ourselves for high winds and heavy rain, here are a few rays of sunshine plucked from the tables.


Ceredigion and Gwynedd deserve particular praise.

Carmarthenshire's performance at just a whisker over the national average is disappointing when compared with its neighbours in Ceredigion and Neath Port Talbot, where 79% of passes were in the A*-C range. Needless to say, Carmarthenshire's department of spin didn't see it like that:

Pupils across Carmarthenshire have scored top marks in GCSEs. The  percentages for grades A*-C, and overall passes, have surpassed the Welsh averages, and maintained the achievements of previous years. 

With A*-C passes running nearly 5 percentage points behind Ceredigion and a staggering 12.7 percentage points behind Neath Port Talbot, serious questions need to be asked. 

In fact, Carmarthenshire performed worse in the key A*-C grade band than any of the surrounding local authorities. Even Pembrokeshire managed to do slightly better in this category, which is saying something.


Neath Port Talbot

I will leave the heavy duty number crunching to Syniadau. Given the emphasis placed on Welsh medium education by Gwynedd in particular, but also by Ceredigion, it would be interesting to see how Welsh medium schools stacked up. On the face of it, they have performed well.

Meanwhile in Carmarthenshire it was great to see some very good results from the doomed Ysgol Pantycelyn in Llandovery, despite the county council rather than because of it.

Belt tightening

Cneifiwr will be away for most of the coming week trying to earn a crust, but these being the dog days of August, and with Carmarthenshire County Council continuing its very extended break, it is unlikely that there will be much to report on that front.

Like fellow blogger Caebrwyn, Cneifiwr does an occasional sweep of the council's website to see what is going on, starting with the Agendas and Minutes section which deals with meetings of the various committees, the full council and the various members of the executive board.

For those who remember the famous Carlsberg advert which showed a complaints office covered in a thick layer of dust and cobwebs, it's like that only more so. Carlsberg had one empty department; Carmarthenshire has a whole suite of them.

The big sleep began back at the beginning of March when the previous administration held its final meeting of the full council ahead of the elections two months later. Since the May elections the full council has had an Annual General Meeting and one ordinary meeting. In effect this means just two meetings in 6 months (the fancy dress jamboree of the AGM was spread over two sessions) .

The planning and licensing committees have met on a regular basis because, of course, they have to deal with applications which would otherwise pile up. None of the other committees has managed a single meeting since the elections, including the various Scrutiny Committees. The chairs of those committees are paid a salary of £21,910 per year.

In the case of the scrutiny committees the reason for the inactivity is understandable:  there is nothing to scrutinise.

Up at the top of the tree is the Executive Board, which Kevin Madge expanded from 9 to 10 members. He also felt that he needed two deputies, whereas previously the council had struggled along with just one.

The two deputies are Tegwen Devichand (Housing) and Pam Palmer (Business Management and Rural Affairs). They each draw a salary of £31,120.

Among the minutes and agendas is a section dealing with decision meetings held by the various members of the Executive Board. The two deputies have between them clocked up precisely zero decision meetings since May. Pam Palmer's only known outing in her new role as champion of the county's rural communities was a press release about milk prices. She has no more control or influence over milk prices than you or I, but it's important to sound as though you care.

The other 7 members of the Executive Board with a portfolio have collectively managed to hold 8 decision meetings, although Cllr Jane Tremlett (Social Services and Literary Quotations) also scored a duck.

Together Cllrs Madge, Devichand and Palmer are drawing salaries (excluding expenses, pensions, etc.) of £109,740 a year. Together the remaining 7 members of the Executive Board take home £201,250.

Collectively, then, they have cost us £103,663 since the elections in May, and they have participated in 4 Board meetings and 8 decision meetings. That works out at a cost of £8,386 per meeting (excluding expenses, pension contributions, etc.). Cllrs Madge, Devichand and Palmer are slightly less good value, having cost us £9,145 per meeting.

With all this frenzied activity, it is understandable that not all of the Executive Board members manage to get to every meeting. Cllrs Meryl Gravell and Mair Stephens both missed one of the four meetings.

The chairs of the scrutiny committees (£21,190 p.a.) have taken home £35,316 since the election without chairing a single meeting.

At that thought I will leave you choking on your cornflakes as I head off for work.