Sunday 30 September 2012

Storm surge on the Tywi

After a quiet spring and summer, County Hall in Carmarthen looks set to be battered by some very stormy weather in the months ahead.

Growing commitments away from the blogosphere mean that Cneifiwr will not be able to post as often as usual for a while, but this blog will try to chronicle at least some of the more interesting developments.

The autumn kicked off with a meeting of the full council that gave us our first real taste of things to come. It was good to note that there are now more councillors who are prepared to question things and kick up a fuss, although they are still a minority.

The council's heavily amended constitution, with its battery of clauses and procedural devices for silencing critics, preventing open debate and suffocating awkward questions, will have a lot of work to do. In the September meeting it had to brought out to prevent a question about councillors' allowances, to veto a motion calling for a living wage to be paid to the poorest paid council staff, to curb debate about the council's treatment of tenants with disabilities and to prevent discussion of the mounting problems Llanelli faces with waste water and an overloaded sewage system.

The new council leader, Kevin Madge, has got off to a spectacularly dreadful start with the row of the Sainsbury's planning applications in Llandeilo and Cross Hands. He now faces a motion demanding a formal apology at next week's meeting, and may soon be grappling with a motion of no confidence.

Plaid Cymru has issued a strongly worded statement, together with a copy of the motion (here), and Jonathan Edwards MP will be in the public gallery to witness the debate. No doubt he will be subjected to the same sinister and intrusive entry procedures as other members of the public before he is allowed in.

It is a pity that more of our elected politicians don't put themselves through this rigmarole. If they did, we might even hear some of the elected councillors calling the officers to order and telling them to treat the public with respect.

The motion, which has been tabled by Cllr Darren Price, takes Kevin Madge to task for his wildly misleading claims about the Sainsbury's applications, and Jonathan Edwards goes on to point out that the misuse of the council's press office has compromised the council's supposedly politically neutral staff.

Other issues likely to surface in the next few months include more from the Ombudsman for Public Services, who has several reports on the council pending.

Readers of the Carmarthen Journal two weeks were certainly shocked by an excellent report on the case of Mr M, whose complaint against the council was upheld by the Ombudsman.

It has been a long time since we had such honest and robust reporting from the Journal, which was sounding more and more like an extended version of the council's own propaganda sheet. The South Wales Guardian has also responded to threats from County Hall with defiance. Perhaps the worm is finally turning.

Among the many other issues bubbling away, one of the most interesting will be the libel case involving the Chief Executive and Jacqui Thompson.

The case is scheduled finally to reach court in December, and it has already cost the council taxpayer tens of thousands of pounds. Jacqui has made no secret of the fact that she always wanted a settlement that would have avoided going to court and astronomical costs, but it seems that she is faced with a determination to go all the way, backed by a blank cheque from you, me and every other resident of the county, and represented (of course) by some of the best and most expensive legal practitioners in the country.

Interesting times, indeed.

Saturday 29 September 2012

Independent travel

Updated 13 October 2012

As a result of this post, Caebrwyn complained to County Hall that the links provided on the section of the council's website dealing with councillors' expense claims were not working, and that in some cases there were no links at all to the claims made.

After a little to-ing and fro-ing, the links were re-instated, and the bloggers noticed that in many cases the sums claimed by councillors had been drastically reduced. Without explanation, of course.

A further enquiry received a response that there had been technical problems with the database and the claims, and that as a result the figures reported had been incorrectly multiplied by three. These problems, which had clearly been present for quite a few months, had gone unnoticed until the bloggers queried the figures.

It is unlikely that we will get any thanks from either the council or the councillors for this public service.

Meanwhile, even at a third of the previously published rates, some councillors continue to rack up very significant expense claims, and it seems unlikely that Tom Theophilus and Ivor Jackson, those two Independent soulmates, will reduce the cost to the taxpayer by doing the obvious and sharing a car from Llandovery to Carmarthen. Travelling by bus is clearly even more out of the question, although they might then experience what many of their constituents have to endure.


The previous post looked briefly at some of the travel expense claims submitted by Carmarthenshire's councillors, and it immediately drew a response from Anon pointing out that Cneifiwr had been a little partisan in his selection, and that some councillors have a lot further to travel than others.

Both are fair points, so to try to redress the balance let's undertake a trawl through the expenses vaults.

Claims for travel expenses are supposed to be submitted at the end of the month in which they were incurred, so that the expenses reported for May 2012 would have been incurred in April. According to the council's website, expenses are paid at 45p per mile for car journeys for the first 10,000 miles.

Whether or not a councillor claims travel expenses seems to have little to do with distance. As Anon pointed out, Peter Hughes Griffiths lives within walking distance of County Hall and unsurprisingly claims nothing. Hazel Evans (also Plaid), councillor for Cenarth ward, lives approximately 20 miles from County Hall and has never claimed a penny.

As we move up the scale, most claims are modest. Andrew James, whose ward is one of the furthest from Carmarthen, has so far clocked up only £232 in expenses since being elected in May. Bill Thomas (Llanelli), has so far asked for only £46.80. Derek Cundy (also Llanelli) has claimed £300. In addition to his ordinary duties, Cllr Cundy also chairs the Community Scrutiny Committee and is a member of two further committees.

Llanybydder is also quite a way from Carmarthen, but there is some confusion as to where Cllr Ieuan Wyn Davies (Independent) actually lives, and the Crown Prosecution Service is understood to be looking into the matter at the moment. We will therefore tactfully move on.

A minority of councillors are in a different league altogether, however. One of the most consistent performers in this group is Cllr Tom Theophilus, the veteran Independent from Cilycwm.

Tom recently caused a minor stir while performing his duties as a member of the Planning Committee when he told his fellow councillors that he remembered the applicant's grandfather who had set up the business in question before the war (assumed to be a reference to the late unpleasantness involving Herr Hitler). The chairman had to remind councillors that knowing someone was not a legitimate basis for approving a planning application.

At 30 miles, Tom has a bit of a trek to get to Carmarthen. Back in April of this year he was on the Planning Committee, which met twice that month. There was no meeting of the full council in April, but Cllr Theophilus did attend a meeting of one of the Licensing sub-committees as an observer.

To attend those three meetings in April, Cllr Theophilus would have travelled 180 miles. At 45p per mile he would be entitled to claim £81, but while most councillors were busy canvassing in the run-up to the election, Tom must have been very busy attending what the council calls other "approved duties" because he claimed £661.50 for the month, which works out at 1,470 miles or 24.5 round-trips.

The council's website informs us that approved duties do not include "the large number of unofficial duties and meetings arranged and attended by members with officers of the authority and those arranged and held by members with people and organisations within their local communities for which they do not claim allowances".

In the previous tax year, Cllr Theophilus's travel expense claims totalled £2,364, equivalent to 5,253 miles, or 87 round trips from Cilycwm. 

On a more positive note, there is a pleasing mathematical symmetry to Tom's expenses. In the six month period from October 2011 he submitted two monthly claims for £243, two for £216, and two for £162.

Of course these calculations assume that Tom travelled by car, or perhaps we should say horseless carriage. He may, however, have cycled. Councillors who travel by bicycle can claim 20p per mile, in which case he did 3,307 miles in May and could show Bradley Wiggins a thing or two.

Leaving Cllr Theophilus in the dust, however, is Cllr Jane Tremlett (Independent) from Laugharne, which is 13 miles to Carmarthen.

Before the May elections, Cllr Tremlett chaired the Health and Social Care Scrutiny Committee. The committee had its final meeting in April, and that would have necessitated a round trip of 26 miles at a cost to the taxpayer of £11.70.

Mrs T somehow found time between canvassing to clock up £1,170.60 in travel expenses for the month, equivalent to 2,600 miles, or 100 round trips, which works out at close to 5 trips from Laugharne to Carmarthen and back every working day.

It could be that there was an extended trip on official business in her capacity as chair of the scrutiny committee - an inspection of social service arrangements in Monte Carlo, perhaps. But that would have been a little unusual so close to an election.

Prior to April 2012, Cllr Tremlett was trailing old Tom rather badly, with just £1,226 claimed for the previous year. However, that still represented 2,724 miles, equivalent to 104 round trips.

In the spirit of openness and transparency for which Carmarthenshire County Council is justly famed, the council's website invites us to inspect individual monthly claims submitted by councillors with a link: Claim Form

Unfortunately transparency stops right there, because anyone clicking on the link will be told, 

 404 The file you wanted really doesn't exist.

But it's good to see our elected representatives working so hard for us, isn't it?

Perhaps Tom will heed Government advice and opt for car sharing as a way of cutting costs and reducing his carbon footprint.

Carmarthen, here we come!

If he did and cadged a lift with fellow Independent Ivor Jackson from Llandovery, he could claim £4.05 for the trip down to Llandovery and back and a further £2.70 for the onward trip to Carmarthen because, for reasons only councillors could understand, they are entitled to claim 5p per mile as a passenger. This would reduce the cost of every outing from £27 to £6.75, reduce road congestion and help the environment.

In the tax year 2011/12, this could have saved £1,761.75.

How about it Tom?

Thursday 27 September 2012

Eating peeled grapes on the sofa

Updated 28 September

It has been confirmed that one of the Plaid councillors has submitted a motion calling on council leader Kevin Madge to withdraw his remarks criticising MP Jonathan Edwards and AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas over the call-in of the two Sainsbury's planning applications.


This blog recently noted that seven of the twenty council meetings planned by Carmarthenshire County Council for September were cancelled, although that still made September the busiest month since April.

In August 12 meetings were scheduled, of which 6 were cancelled. July saw 4 out of 15 meetings cancelled. In June five of the 13 scheduled meetings were scrapped, while the only meeting held in May was the fancy dress ball known as the Annual General Meeting. Strangely, travel expenses claimed in May would suggest that the month was a very busy one for some councillors.

Cllr Tom Theophilus, for example, claimed £661.50. Cllr Pat Jones clocked up £294.30 in travel, while Cllr Jane Tremlett must have been constantly on the go, with a staggering £1,170.60 in travel expenses for the month (source, the Council's own database). Kevin Madge, who had presumably wrestled the keys to the leader's Merc from Meryl, made no claims for travel.

Other councillors are habitually frugal. The Plaid leader, Peter Hughes Griffiths, and Siân Caiach, two councillors you are very unlikely to see sharing the back of a cab, claimed nothing at all.

Whenever the lack of activity is contrasted with Kevin Madge's decision to increase the size of the Executive Board and award more senior salaries to some of the lucky inhabitants of the Labour and Independent benches, someone invariably pops up in the comments box to say that "we do lots more things than sit in meetings".

That is certainly true for those councillors who take their constituents' business seriously, but in the case of those councillors in receipt of senior salaries, the only thing the world has to go on is the official record, and in some cases the official record is a complete blank.

The only conclusions that can be drawn from this are either that some senior councillors are taking generous salaries and doing nothing much in return, or that there has been a general shift towards what Blair's critics called "sofa government" away from the gaze of the public. 

The truth is probably a bit of both.

With the possibility that he may soon be facing a vote of confidence, and rumours of mutterings from the Labour camp in Llanelli, Kev's sofa may not be the most comfortable of places right now.

Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me!

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Silencing a small voice

In a footnote to a post the other day is a link to the Cymdeithas y Cymod advert banned from S4C by Clearcast on the grounds that its message was a "matter of public controversy".

You can see the advert for yourselves here, but for those who do not understand Welsh, here is a translation:

War is costly

War kills

How many lives?

Too many to count

For the sake of our friends

For the sake of each other 

For the sake of our families

Join us now

Cymdeithas y Cymod

Working for peace

And that's it. No pictures, and no sound. Just simple white text on a black background, and words which even the Ministry of Defence would struggle to argue with.

Nestling between Army recruiting adverts ("We see your potential"), and all of the adverts for Betfred, Ladbrokes and the other online betting companies (ironically another Blair legacy), this small voice was clearly much too controversial to be heard.

Monday 24 September 2012

Re-opening the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth Railway

A message from Mark Worrall who is asking the Welsh Government to consider re-opening the line, which runs through Pencader, Lampeter and Tregaron. Small sections of the line are currently run by enthusiasts (the Gwili and Henllan railways):
"Will you sign my petition to ask the Welsh Assembly to consider reopening the Carmarthen – Aberystwyth train line?
As a former student of the University of Wales /Trinity St David Lampeter, I believe passionately that more should be done to improve public transport in West Wales.
Reinstating the railway would reconnect three University campuses (Aberystwyth, Lampeter, Carmarthen), allowing people, goods and services to flow more freely between Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion. Commuters, students, business people, shoppers, tourists and families all deserve a faster and more reliable public transport service than what is currently available.
Only if we get enough signatories for this petition will I be invited to put the case to the National Assembly, for debate by our elected representatives. No matter the potential difficulties or costs involved, I believe this project is vital to our future prosperity and sustainability.
Restoring the line would give us a more fluid transition between north and south Wales, reconnect local communities, and boost the Welsh economy as a whole.
Recent experience in Ebbw Vale and the Vale of Glamorgan shows that rail reopenings are successful and cost effective in the long term.
Please join me in this project by signing the petition:
Please also forward this link to your friends, colleagues, family and anyone else who would be interested.
Thank you for your support!"

Deiseb - ailagor y rheilffordd rhwng Caerfyrddin ac Aberystwyth

Dyma neges gan Mark Worrall sy'n gofyn i Gynulliad Cymru ystyried ailagor y rheilffordd rhwng Caerfyrddin ac Aberystwyth:
"Fel cynfyfyriwr Prifysgol Cymru/ Coleg y Drindod, Prifysgol Dewi Sant Llanbedr Pont Steffan , dw i'n credu'n angerddol y dylid gwneud mwy i wella trafnidiaeth gyhoeddus yng Ngorllewin Cymru.
Bydd adfer y rheilffordd yn ailgysylltu tri champws y Brifysgol ( Aberystwyth, Llanbedr Pont Steffan, Caerfyrddin) yn galluogi pobl, nwyddau a gwasanaethau i symud yn rhwydd rhwng Sir Gaerfyrddin a Cheredigion. Mae cymudwyr, myfyrwyr, pobl fusnes, siopwyr, twristiaid a theuluoedd i gyd yn haeddu gwasanaeth trafnidiaeth gyhoeddus cyflymach a mwy dibynadwy na'r hyn sy ar gael ar hyn o bryd.
Onibai ein bod yn sicrhau digon o lofnodion i'r ddeiseb hon, ni fyddaf yn cael gwahoddiad i roi'r achos hwn gerbron y Cynulliad Cenedlaethol, i'n cynrychiolwyr etholedig ei drafod.
Er gwaethaf yr anhawsterau a'r costiau potensial sydd ynghlwm â hwn, credaf fod y prosiect hwn yn hanfodol i'n ffyniant ariannol a'n cynaliadrwydd yn y dyfodol.
Byddai adfer y rheilffordd yn creu system drawsfudol well rhwng Gogledd a De Cymru, yn ailgysylltu cymunedau lleol ac yn rhoi hwb i'r economi Cymreig yn ei gyfanrwydd.
Mae profiad diweddar yng Nglyn Ebbw a Bro Morgannwg yn dangos bod ail-agor rheilffyrdd yn llwyddiannus ac yn gost effeithiol yn y tymor hir.
A wnewch chi, os gwelwch yn dda, ymuno â mi drwy arwyddo'r ddeiseb hon?
A wnewch chi hefyd, os gwelwch yn dda, anfon y ddolen hon at eich cyfeillion, cyd-weithwyr, teulu ac unrhywun arall sydd a diddordeb?
Diolch am eich cefnogaeth!"

Sunday 23 September 2012

Somalia, here we come

Friday was World Peace Day, and to mark the occasion Cymdeithas y Cymod (Fellowship of Reconciliation), a Welsh society dedicated to promoting peace and reconciliation in the world, had hoped to have a 30 second film broadcast in one of the advertising slots on S4C. Clearcast, the organisation which monitors advertising on the channel, ruled that the film could not be shown because its subject, the human cost of war and conflict, was a "matter of public controversy".

The BBC's report on the story can be found here.

Cymdeithas y Cymod was founded in 1914, and in its long history it has had many distinguished supporters, including Waldo Williams, one of the best loved of all Welsh poets. Following in Waldo's footsteps today is Mererid Hopwood, academic and poet.

Cymod has pointed out that army recruitment ads are a staple of S4C's advertising slots, and that it is hard to understand how encouraging young people to sign up for armed conflict in places like Afghanistan is acceptable, while 30 seconds to remind people of the human cost of war are not.

Wales is fertile ground for the armed forces' recruiting officers who can offer a way out of unemployment and low-paid jobs with training, a chance to "see the world" and a bit of excitement. Rather less emphasis is placed on post traumatic stress or the chances of ending up maimed or dead.

A young woman who grew up in this area joined the Army earlier this year. She will turn 20 soon, and is going through training. Her boyfriend is also in the Army and has been learning to drive tanks. He's about the same age.

Both of them have been told that they can expect at least one tour of duty in Afghanistan before British troops are withdrawn, and recently they have heard that they may be sent out to Somalia.

Somalia? Who knew that British troops were going to Somalia? Most people had probably assumed that budget cuts and perhaps, just perhaps, lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan would mean that the British Government would not rush into any new foreign adventures for a while.

Somalia has been without a government for almost 25 years, and for much of that time it has been probably the most dangerous place on earth. There are some tentative signs that the situation is improving there, with the government now in control of the capital and parts of the countryside. The  militias are said to be on the decline.

What better, then, than to send Western troops there to help with reconstruction and training? Or rather, what would be more likely to put new wind in the sails of the extremists and breathe new life into the dying embers of the civil war?

We have not heard much about British involvement in Somalia, but the BBC reported a couple of months back that some 10 advisers had established a presence there.

The Americans began their involvement in Vietnam by sending out advisers. Are young men and women in their early 20s also advisers?

So let's carry on applauding as some royal or other unveils the latest military memorial. Bomber Command was the most recent. And we can stand to attention while they raise the flags on Armed Forces Day (that ancient tradition stretching all the way back to Gordon Brown's time in Downing Street), and toss another fiver into the Help for Heroes collecting box.

But whatever we do, let's not count the cost in lives lost or wrecked on all sides as we send the boys in.

Back in 1941 Waldo Williams reflected in his poem Y Tangnefeddwyr (The Peacemakers) on watching the sky glow red as Swansea was bombed. He remembered what he had learned from his parents, and wrote:

Cenedl dda a chenedl ddrwg -
Dysgent hwy mai rhith yw hyn
Ond goleuni Crist a ddwg
Ryddid i bob dyn a'i myn.
Gwyn eu byd, daw dydd a'u clyw,
Dangnefeddwyr, plant i Dduw.

(Good nation or bad nation - so they taught, is mere fantasy. Only in Christ's light is freedom had for any man that would be free. Blest, a day dawns that will hear them, Peacemakers, children of God).


The banned advert can be seen here. It is very simple and direct, stating that war costs too many lives to count, and goes on to ask viewers to join Cymdeithas y Cymod.

Having watched it, Clearcast's decision becomes even harder to understand.

Mr Buckley rides into town

The row over Sainsbury's plans for a supermarket in Llandeilo has taken another turn with Simon Buckley, the chief executive of Evan Evans brewers, making a formal complaint to the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council over the now notorious and highly misleading press release issued by the council in collaboration with J Sainsbury plc.

Caebrwyn has a copy of the letter here, and it pulls no punches. The decision to publish the release through the council's press office was an abuse of power, Mr Buckley says, and he calls for the suspension of the the council leader and a formal apology to those denigrated in the official document.

Mr Buckley ends by saying that if any legal action results from this complaint, he will be paying his own legal costs, rather than relying on the tax payer. Unlike some people, he may well have added.

Clearly, this row still has some way to go.

Mr Buckley is a shrewd and experienced man, and although his letter does not say so, he is almost certainly aware that complaining to the Chief Executive about the council's press office is unlikely to trigger any soul searching, investigation or, indeed, any action at all, because as nerdy council watchers know, the press office is a part of the Chief Executive's own department, and it is highly improbable that the offending press release would have been issued without the knowledge of Mr James himself.

As we know, the press office has more form than the most hardcore of old recidivists languishing at Her Majesty's Pleasure when it comes to political attacks and smears.

Back in January of this year, opposition councillors were amazed to read a statement put out by the ruling Labour and Independent groups over the Christmas period which announced a whole string of changes to proposed budgetary cuts while putting the boot into political opponents. The same release (let's remember that this was in the run-up to the council elections) also announced that increases in council tax would be kept to 2% rather than 4% as previously proposed.

Opposition councillors pointed out that these announcements, which included quotes from a backbench Labour councillor, coincided with what was supposed to be a formal consultation on the budget proposals.

The press office had clearly been used once again for overtly party political purposes, said Peter Hughes Griffiths.

Mr James responded with a performance worthy of Michael Howard on Newsnight, as he patiently explained that what lesser mortals saw as black was in fact most clearly a gleaming shade of white. Although the press office could not be used by political groups, it was entirely legitimate for members of the administration to make their views known.

Strangely for an entirely legitimate use of the press office, the offending statement was mysteriously removed from the council's website, never to be seen again.

Mr Buckley will not need a crystal ball to predict what sort of response his letter will get.

Friday 21 September 2012

Bargain tickets! A staff announcement

One of the highlights of the coming weekend will be tonight's game between Scarlets and the Ospreys at Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli, built and largely run courtesy of Carmarthenshire's council tax payers.

If you are fortunate enough to be on the Council's payroll, you can take advantage of a generous corporate discount. Hurry, hurry! For the rest of us, it's full whack, I'm afraid.

Here's the e-mail reminding council officers and staff:

"Big staff discount for this weeks Scarlets V osprerys rugby game

Our staff are being offered a large discount for this friday’s Scarlets rugby game at Parc Y Scarlets v the Ospreys. Usual adult ticket discounted from £22.00 to £13.00, with children between 12 – 18 at £5.00 with under 11’s free. To get this corporate discount, you must pay for tickets before Friday and be in a group of at least four paying people. If interested, let me know and I will email over a corporate booking form.  

Both main stands are sold out already. Kick off is 7.05pm with entertainment beforehand".

Unbusy bees

As this blog has reported ad nauseam, Carmarthenshire County Council has not exactly seen much activity this year. The wind-down ahead of the elections began in March, and there was precious little activity all through the wet and rainy summer months.

The first meeting of the full council took place on 12 September after a break of three months, although that clearly was not long enough for several councillors, including one Independent who had booked himself onto a cruise rather than make the arduous trip over to County Hall.

For anyone who thought that the autumn would see our local authority spring back to life as the Labour-Independent regime rolled up its sleeves and set about implementing the council's slogan ("Improving the way we live", in case you had forgotten), the results have been distinctly underwhelming.

According to the Council's diary, 20 meetings of the various committees and bodies which make up the democratically elected arm of the council were due to be held in September. Seven of those were cancelled, and we still have more than a week to go.

There are ten members of the governing Executive Board, including leader Kevin Madge. Readers will recall that Kev got himself into some rather hot water this week in the Sainsbury's planning row. He was too busy to spare 20 minutes to take part in a debate on Radio Cymru's Taro'r Post programme, but did find rather more time to be filmed giving his thoughts to viewers of BBC Wales' main news programme the day before.

Unless you are one of the handful of people who go to Carmarthen to observe council meetings or live in Garnant, the chances are that you will not have seen Kev in action before. Feedback from viewers who saw the performance suggests that the council would be unwise to begin filming council meetings any time soon.

Of the other nine members of the Executive Board, now on salaries ranging from £28,780 to £31,120, Pam Palmer (deputy leader on £31,120) has managed to hold zero decision meetings since May. Her brief includes rural communities and business management.

Tegwen Devichand, the other deputy leader (also on £31,120), did manage to hold a decision meeting in July. Her portfolio covers housing. Observers of this month's full council meeting where an Ombudsman's report criticising the council for its treatment of a man in a wheelchair was discussed, noted that Cllr Devichand's main contribution to the discussion was to remind councillors that it was nothing to do with her because she was not in charge at the time.

The remaining 7 members of the Board have between them clocked up just 9 decision meetings in five months.

We have two months to go before the wind-down to Christmas begins.


Wales Blog Awards

Congratulations on a deserved win in the "political" section of the blog awards last night go to Oggy Bloggy Ogwr from Bridgend. Caebrwyn and Y Cneifiwr took comfort from being the other two shortlisted blogs in that category, and the thought that our nominations must have been about as welcome in the Kremlin on the Tywi as a bucket of cold sick. In his acceptance speech Oggy Bloggy generously referred to the shenanigans in Carmarthenshire and the local authority's "growing rap sheet". The audience gasped and guffawed as he mentioned the evangelical bowling alley.

Some crumbs of comfort, then.

Cneifiwr cynically suspects that one handicap was that he once blogged about the Master of Ceremonies, ITV's Adrian Masters, in mildly disrespectful tones for revealing that a Plaid Cymru source had informed him that Labour and the "Independents" were in coalition in Carmarthen. Damn.

The judges' comments also gave Caebrwyn and Y Cneifiwr pause for thought. One of the strengths of Oggy Bloggy is that he paints on a very broad canvas, analyses problems and comes up with solutions. As Caebrwyn and Y Cneifiwr pondered what positive actions they might take, they concluded that all of them, including dragging barrels of gunpowder into the cellars of County Hall, would be highly illegal and therefore out of the question.

As the evening wore on and we skipped through categories such as Community, Multi-Media and Food and Drink, it dawned on the grizzled political bloggers that we are at the arse end of the business. Since we spend much of our time ferreting around in the sewage of our democratically elected institutions, that is probably quite appropriate.

Two things which the generous organisers of these annual awards need to think about are how to make the awards a truly national event, and how to reflect the linguistic realities of Wales.

If you were to put pins in the map of Wales showing where the nominated blogs are written, you would see a very heavy concentration in and around Cardiff. Apparently the howling wastes which make up the remaining 95% of our country don't produce much.

Only one Welsh language blog, Hacio'r Iaith, made it onto the shortlist (and won in its category). Llongyfarchiadau bois. There is some really good writing on the Welsh blogs, although some are not updated that frequently. Perhaps the more prickly examples sit a little uncomfortably in the suave, sophisticated environs of the capital city.

Sour grapes aside, the Awards are a shop window for the amazing range of talent that exists out there in the Welsh blogosphere, and for that they deserve praise.

Thursday 20 September 2012

The next President of Wales is......

One of the stories in the news this week was a rather ham-fisted attempt by her political opponents to remind us all that Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru, is a republican because some time ago she attended a gathering of people from all sorts of different political backgrounds who believe that we would be better off as a republic. Shock horror. Leanne has never exactly made a secret of her views.

As John Dixon has pointed out here, there are a lot more republicans about than you would ever guess from watching the BBC or reading the Daily Mail. There are certainly quite a few in the Welsh Labour Party, which is probably where the Leanne story was briefly brought back to life.

The difference is that Leanne is open about it and encourages debate, whereas the ranks of closet republicans in other parties are worried about possible electoral damage if they were outed. By keeping quiet, they are ensuring that there can be no honest debate, let alone change. There are, of course, some honourable exceptions with Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, being one of the most notable.

Although no angry mobs are about to storm Llwynywermod (Charles's place near Llandovery), there is certainly evidence of widespread indifference to the monarchy, and it may just be that attempts by Labour, the Tories and others to raise the spectre of the rabid republican bogey men may not be as effective as they once were.

Anyone who watched the BBC this year would have got the impression that we were all awash in a sea of red, white and blue crowds singing God Save the Queen. Not round here we weren't, at any rate. A couple of villages organised a few rain-soaked events, and Tesco had a lot of red, white and blue tat on sale (reduced to clear and then suddenly gone), but apart from that and a few oafish tourists with Union Jacks on their cars over on the coast, 2012 was no different to 2011 or any other year. The Jubilee came and went, and nobody noticed apart from the wall-to-wall coverage of parades in London on the telly.

Within my lifetime the royals have changed from being distant figures glimpsed waving a gloved hand from the back of a Rolls to characters from celebrity gossip magazines. The main evening news the other night was dominated not by the economy or the slaughter in Syria, but by the row over Kate Middleton's boobs and a piece supposedly about a Taliban attack on a Nato base in Afghanistan, but actually about 'Harry Wales'.

A couple of weeks before Harry flew out to rejoin the lads after a break of what must have been several months while he watched the Olympics and had various holidays, we had days of coverage of his partying in a $5,000 a night hotel in America. Before that, we discovered, he had been in the Caribbean to celebrate the birthday of one of Richard Branson's offspring. Roughly around the time that he was partying with the Bransons, ITV broadcast a very long "documentary" about Harry and the Army, presenting the more traditional image of dutiful royals.

Who would want to be a royal, people always ask. Actually quite a lot of people would quite like never to have to worry about money, have masses of holidays every year and get unlimited, free front row seats at the Olympic events of your choice.

It is hard to see how the rising generation of ex-public schoolboys, part-time army and air force officers and near full-time members of the Hello Magazine celebrity jetset in any way represents Wales. 

Strange to think that if the big wide world ever thinks of Wales, it is likely to picture jetset celebs who live out their lives in the company of rockstars, business tycoons and the offspring of News International executives. The friendship with the Bransons may well give the term Virgin Queen a whole new meaning before long.

One of the reasons often put forward for retaining the Windsors is the "do you really want a President Thatcher-Blair-Major?" argument, but our neighbours over the water in Ireland have shown that it does not need to be like that.

The President of Ireland, or Uachtarán na hÉireann, has very limited powers, but Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese and now Michael Higgins have all succeeded in making an impact in the world far beyond the limitations of their office or the size of their country. None of them was Taoiseach, and only Michael Higgins held a cabinet post before being elected President.

All three have used their office to campaign for human rights, peace and a fairer, more decent society. Whatever you think of our royals, that is something they will never be able or allowed to do. If you have not heard it, listen to Michael Higgins in action against the lunatics of the US Tea Party movement, and then try to imagine one of the Windsors doing that.

Now imagine that by some miracle, the people of Wales were about to elect their very own Arlywydd Cymru, or president. There would be no shortage of people who would make good candidates.....

In no particular order, how about Rhodri Morgan, Jim Parc Nest, Gerallt Lloyd Owen, Gwyneth Lewis, Garry Owen, John Davies, Christine James or even, slightly more exotic choices perhaps, Dai Jones Llanilar or Alwyn ap Huw, the Sage of Glan Conwy? And that's just for starters.

Who would be your choice?

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Rownd a rownd

Mae’n ofynnol ar y Cyngor Sir i gyhoeddi adroddiad bob blwyddyn i ddangos i ba raddau mae'r awdurdod yn cydymffurfio â'i Gynllun Iaith.

Er bod y Cynllun Iaith yn llawn datganiadau crand, mae'r targedau eu hun yn hynod o ddiymhongar.

Dyma rai o amceinion y Cynllun:
  • meithrin dwyieithrwydd ar draws y Cyngor ac ym mhob cwr o Sir Gaerfyrddin
  • galluogi pawb sy’n defnyddio gwasanaethau’r Cyngor, neu’n cyfrannu at y broses ddemocrataidd, i wneud hynny trwy gyfrwng y Gymraeg neu’r Saesneg yn ôl eu dewis personol
  • gwella safon y gwasanaethau drwy gyfrwng y Gymraeg ar draws yr adrannau
  • gofalu bod holl bolisïau, strategaethau, prosiectau a phartneriaethau’r Cyngor yn hyrwyddo defnyddio’r Gymraeg ac yn annog pobl i’w defnyddio’n amlach
  • datblygu gallu disgyblion ysgol a myfyrwyr o bob oedran i fod yn gadarn ddwyieithog ac yn llythrennog yn y ddwy iaith, er mwyn mynd yn aelodau cyflawn o’r gymuned ddwyieithog y maen nhw’n byw ynddi
  • codi hyder a gwella sgiliau dwyieithog staff, cynghorwyr a thrigolion y sir
Yn 2009/10 cafodd 1.7% o staff y Cyngor rywfaint o hyfforddiant Cymraeg, ac roedd hynny'n iawn yn ôl y Cyngor a'r diweddar Fwrdd Iaith. 

Bellach, mae'r adroddiadau i gyd wedi diflannu o wefan y Cyngor, ac felly dydyn ni ddim yn gwybod sut mae'n cydymffurfio â'r Cynllun.

Os ewch chi i dudalen sy'n ymdrin â'r iaith, fe welwch y frawddeg hon:

Ewch i frig y dudalen ar yr ochor dde i weld yr Adroddiad Blynyddol.

Does dim byd yna.

Ar waelod y dudalen mewn bocs sy'n cynnwys "Linciau Allanol" mae'r Cyngor yn cyfeirio at "adroddiadau blynyddol blaenorol i Fwrdd yr Iaith". Daw'r neges hon os cliciwch arnyn nhw:

Access denied.

You do not have permission to perform this action or access this resource.

Fel dinesydd da Sir Gaerfyrddin penderfynais i roi gwybod i'r Cyngor nad oedd yr adroddiadau ar gael.

Mae linc handi iawn ar dudalen flaen y wefan Gymraeg: Rhoi gwybod am rywbeth.

Clic. Daw tudalen a linc newydd: Gwneud cwyn, sylw neu ganmoliaeth. Clic.

Daw tudalen liwgar newydd: 

Complaints and Compliments Procedure 

Have Your Say logo 

Tudalen sy'n esbonio sut i gwyno yn Saesneg. Yna cliciwch ar y cyfeiriad e-bost yma:


Ychydig iawn o bobl sy'n defnyddio gwasanaethau Cymraeg y Cyngor, mae'n debyg. Y syndod yw bod yna unrhywun o gwbl sy'n mynd i'r drafferth.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Supermarket Sweep Latest - Updated

Update 19 September

The South Wales Guardian carries a forthright opinion piece here. Readers will recall that the newspaper recently got into a spot of bother with the County Council when it carried a report which contained some very mild criticism of the local authority for its management of a regeneration project in Ammanford.

The Carmarthen Journal meanwhile carries a report which gives readers a general outline of the story, but without expressing a view.


At the risk of being called a Plaid mouthpiece (I have been called a lot worse), Jonathan Edwards and Rhodri Glyn Thomas have issued a statement pointing out that, contrary to the accusations made by Kevin Madge, they did not ask for the Sainsbury's application at Cross Hands to be called in. The Cross Hands development, which includes the doctor's surgery, care home, health centre and improvements to Maes yr Yrfa school which Kevin Madge says are now under threat, was called in by Labour minister John Griffiths, and the two Plaid representatives did not raise the matter with the Welsh Government.

They did, however, raise concerns about aspects of the proposed development of a Sainsbury's store at Llandeilo in response to representations made by constituents.

For all you Welsh learners out there, today's phrase is "cawl potsh", as in "Mae Kev wedi gwneud cawl potsh o bopeth".


The council has now responded to the invitation to Kevin Madge to take part in a radio discussion today by issuing the stock reply that "no one is available", which suggests that perhaps the matter was not quite as important or urgent as the council has been claiming.


The row over the Welsh Government's decision to call in two planning applications for new Sainsbury's stores in Llandeilo and Cross Hands continues to rumble on, with BBC Wales reporting this morning that Kevin Madge, the Labour council leader, has now criticised the Welsh Government for jeopardising jobs, presumably after someone pointed out to him that its was a Labour minister who actually called the applications in, rather than Plaid Cymru.

Meanwhile, Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM has published a letter challenging Kev to a public debate, and to make matters worse for our leader, BBC Cymru has stuck its ore in and invited Jonathan Edwards MP to take part in a discussion on the phone-in programme Taro'r Post later today. Jonathan has agreed to take part if the council leader does.

There will be those who say that this is unfair to Kev because his Welsh is not that strong, but then neither is his English. Having listened to him in both languages, I can honestly say that there is nothing to choose between them.

Carmarthenshire County Council hates it when anyone questions any of its acts or decisions, and it normally brands those who do as belonging to a tiny and unrepresentative minority bent on undermining some visionary scheme or other. These attacks are often accompanied with legal threats to pursue the miscreants for costs through the courts, while the Press Office goes into action to accuse the perpetrators of putting jobs, children's welfare and the well-being of the sick and elderly at risk.

The only thing missing so far, then, is an accusation that our MP and Assembly Member are part of some unrepresentative minority of malcontents, although the claim in the council's press release that the two schemes had "overwhelming support" from the public came close.

The Welsh Government's letter explaining its decision contained the following observation:

"In our view there is insufficient information in these respects [cumulative impact on retail trade in the area] to show that all policy considerations have been fully addressed by Carmarthenshire County Council's Planning Committee in reaching its decision on these applications"

For students of the planning regime in Carmarthen, saying that the Planning Committee may not have considered the issues properly is akin to saying that bears have been known to relieve themselves in the woods.

Two Labour councillors in particular became well-known in recent years for routinely proposing and seconding any planning application recommended for approval by the officers at the drop of a hat. On one occasion they misinterpreted a pause in the officer's opening remarks to propose and second a vote, and had to be gently reminded that it was customary to allow (a) the officer to finish and (b) questions and discussion of the application by members of the committee.

If you exercise your right as a member of the public to speak in a planning meeting (only two people are allowed to speak either for or against for a maximum of 5 minutes), the experience can be nerve racking for anyone not used to public speaking. Add to that the glares you will get from representatives of the opposite side, and in controversial applications, the presence of the press, and you need nerves of steel.

To make matters worse, you can expect barracking from the chair or the professional officers on occasion. A friend of mine began his opening remarks by pointing out that this was a complex case, and that it would be difficult to do justice to it in just 5 minutes. Whereupon he was interrupted by the council's legal officer who told him he had better get on with it then.

A serving councillor recounted attending a training session for members of the Planning Committee where some of the old boys nominated by the Independents were manifestly mentally unfit to decide anything, leave alone grapple with the finer points of planning.

If you go to a planning meeting, you will also find, especially when a controversial application is up for decision, that the discussion which takes place usually bears no relation to the outcome of the vote. On one memorable occasion, quite a few members of the committee spoke, and all but one spoke against the application. When it came to a vote, however, councillors who had sat silently throughout, neither voicing an opinion nor asking for clarification, voted in favour, and the plan was passed by a small majority.

No wonder public cynicism about the planning system is so widespread.

To end on a more positive note, it is worth emphasising that there are councillors on the planning committee who take their role seriously and go to great pains to dig into the detail. We need more like that.

Monday 17 September 2012

Carmarthenshire and China

Today's Western Mail reports on the enthusiasm with which Carmarthenshire County Council and Phil Grice, Labour Mayor of Carmarthen, are pursuing closer links with China in order to promote the county as a place to do business.

Tempting though it is to draw satirical parallels between the authoritarian regime in China and our own county council, there are serious questions which need to be asked before we snuggle up to the Chinese government in the hope of attracting more tourists to West Wales.

As it happens, one of Cneifiwr's children decided to take a gap year before going to college. One morning, a couple of months before she was due to become a student, she announced that she had applied for a job as a teaching assistant in a kindergarten and been accepted. In China. The kindergarten was in a large industrial city and catered for the children of wealthy foreign workers.

Off she went, just a couple of weeks before her 18th birthday, and she ended up staying in China for the next seven years. After the kindergarten job, she studied Mandarin for a year, and then started teaching English as a foreign language. She also moved around the country a bit, living and working in large cities that most of us here in the West have never heard of, and while all that was going on, she married a young man from a city about 300 miles to the west of Beijing. For some reason, she forgot to mention this to her parents for about a year.

Although she was very well paid by Chinese standards, and was in a good and loving relationship, she became increasingly disenchanted with life in China, and a couple of years ago she returned, with her husband, to live in Europe.

Prior to that, she had come home once a year every summer for a few weeks. Her clothes smelled of coal tar and diesel fumes, and my wife reckoned it took several washes to get rid of that and the drab grey of her white tops. Her skin was also restored to a healthier colour by the time she headed back after each holiday.

Like a lot of people in her generation, my daughter (let's call her Jenny) has absolutely no interest in politics, although she is very keen on animal welfare. It took her quite a while before she realised that her movements were being watched, and she got to know the difference between the various kinds of police and non-uniformed observers. After a couple of years, she knew which ones you need to be afraid of, and her boyfriend, and then husband, would be called in for questioning every few weeks.

The Chinese are used to this, of course. They know that every time you visit a friend or acquaintance, your movements will be noted and written down by the man or woman who sits in the entrance to every residential block.

Being questioned was quite nerve racking for John, my son-in-law, because his parents had broken the one child policy. That meant that they had been unable to register him legally when he was born, and so he grew up with dodgy papers that made him a year younger than he really is. Things got really difficult when he married and applied for a visa. In China there are millions of people like John.

Jenny was, as we know, not the slightest bit interested in politics, but she did notice that there were crackdowns every so often. People would whisper that there were bad things happening in Tibet, for example, or it was just in preparation for the Beijing Olympics. Jenny knew that you had to be specially careful then, not so much for your own sake as a Westerner, but for the safety of those around you.

Jenny became a vegetarian while she was in China, and stopped consuming dairy products because of all of the food contamination scares, but she was still quite seriously ill with what looked like food poisoning several times.

In the socialist paradise that is China, there is no free medical care for most ordinary people, and rather worryingly for us, Jenny discovered that she could go to a pharmacy and buy anything she thought she needed without a prescription.

There is no free education for most people either, and if you want a decent secondary education for your child, you have to pay for it. Outside the cities, where many people live in extreme poverty, they simply cannot afford the school fees.

Jenny led what most Chinese would consider a very privileged life, and she found it distressing that people who had so little insisted on treating her, either in restaurants or in their homes. 

At work she eventually also came to understand that corruption is rife. In the language schools where she worked, she had to sign two contracts. The first was the "official" one, which set out terms and conditions, such as holiday entitlement. The second document was the real contract, and needless to say it was a lot less generous.

One or twice Jenny glimpsed the more brutal side of Chinese life, when people were turned out of their homes and whole blocks were bulldozed. She had also heard about peasants from the countryside who could be dispossessed by officials acting on a whim or, more likely, because of corruption.

She came to realise that there was quite a difference between the official version and reality, and that even if you kept your head down, you could still be very unlucky.

Quite a few years before Jenny went to China, Cneifiwr worked with a young woman from Shanghai who was on a management training scheme. Her father was from a bourgeois family which had been quite wealthy before the Revolution, and her mother was a fervent Communist. In the Cultural Revolution, her father's mother was hauled up before a tribunal and denounced. She had been a gifted concert pianist, and part of her punishment for her "crimes" was to have her fingers broken. The old lady was then sent to live in a public toilet, which she had to keep clean, and she lived there for almost ten years.

When Mao died and the Cultural Revolution was over, the old lady went to live with her son, but by this time she had lost her sanity, and my colleague recounted how difficult it had been growing up with an old lady who screamed and ranted all through the night in a small apartment.

The Cultural Revolution is now history, but fear of arbitrary arrest and dispossession is still a feature of life in China, where the law is whatever the state or corrupt officials decide it is. The number of people executed in China is a state secret, but it is generally accepted that China carries out the death penalty on more people than all other countries in the world put together.

When you think about that and see footage of Tibetan monks burning themselves to death in the streets, reading passages like this is disturbing (and I'm not talking about the dodgy grammar):

Officers of Carmarthenshire County Council have met with three different areas of China in the last two years to establish tourism opportunities as we look to be in a decent position to maximise the UK and Wales’ increased promotion to the 1.3 billion Chinese residents. (Western Mail, 17 September 2012).

One final thought, not that it would bother our council in the slightest. As we rush to grab Chinese money, the Welsh have more reason than most to think about the plight of the Tibetan people.

Supermarkets - Kev in the headlights

Rhodri Glyn Thomas, Assembly Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, has now challenged the leader of Carmarthenshire County Council, Labour's Kevin Madge, to a public debate on the Welsh Government's decision to take responsibility for the Sainsbury's planning applications in Llandeilo and Cross Hands out of the hands of the County Council.

Labour Party spin doctors will be frantically trying to come up with reasons why their man should not take part. Their problem is that (a) Kev does not have a leg to stand on, and (b) his communication skills make George Dubya Bush look like William Shakespeare. Perhaps the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments in the Human Rights Act may come into play.

As we know now, the main reason for the Government's decision to intervene was that the council's own retail consultants concluded that the two Sainsbury's stores would grab £36 million of trade from other businesses in the area, and it was not convinced by a plan cobbled together by the supermarket group and the council to restrict the stores' trading activities in order to reduce the impact on other businesses and jobs.

It is not unusual for restrictions to be placed on supermarkets as conditions of planning permission, as for example happened with the Tesco superstore in Carmarthen. It is invariably the case that the supermarket groups apply to have those restrictions lifted once they are up and running, so that within a few years they end up with what they wanted in the first place.

Readers can decide for themselves how sincere Sainsbury's was when its spokesperson claimed in its joint press release with the council that its plans had received "overwhelming support" locally. The council might have liked to ask Simon Buckley, the chief executive of Evan-Evans brewery, about that.

The Sainsbury's spokesperson also claimed that both Llandeilo and Cross Hands were marginal locations, giving the impression that the supermarket group was only doing this out of the goodness of its heart. You have to wonder why, if the two locations were so marginal, Sainsbury's found itself able to promise to trade at 80% of capacity.

As Plaid has also noted, Lord Sainsbury is the largest single private donor to the Labour Party.

If, despite everything, Kev does agree to brave a public debate, it will be interesting to test the strength of his claims that the call-in is putting plans for a new school, doctor's surgery, etc. at risk. 

There are strange echoes here of the troubled Bath House development in Cardigan, where after years of controversy and twists and turns, local people are still wondering when they will get the new cottage hospital promised as part of a development involving, you guessed it, a Sainsbury's supermarket.

Anyone wanting to shop in Sainsbury's Cardigan, which was supposed to be up and running by now, will find only a large expanse of bare, and apparently unstable, earth. For reasons which we can only guess at, the expansion of the town's existing Tesco supermarket which was meant to have coincided with the new Sainsbury's, also now appears to be on hold.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Stormy Times

Even for the bloggers who follow the twists and turns of life at County Hall in Carmarthen, the last week has been bewildering. After a lull in activity lasting the best part of six months, the council got down to business this week, and what Kevin Madge, the newly elevated council leader likes to describe as the "Dream Team" woke up to a living nightmare.

So here is a summary of this week's events to help readers as we head towards what promises to be a stormy autumn.

  • Llandovery saw the formation of LATRA (Llandovery Area Tenants and Residents Association) to fight plans for a large new housing development, the closure of the town's secondary school, a wind turbine development and the imposition of a regeneration plan on the town. Citing a threat by chief executive Mark James to pursue campaigners against the school closure for legal costs, the group is in defiant mood.
  • New revelations emerged about the very peculiar arrangements between the bosses at Llanelli Scarlets and the council, as it was confirmed that the club was hoping to make a quick and rather large buck by selling off a peppercorn lease on public property.
  • Meryl Gravell revealed that the leaders of the so-called Independent and Labour groups had stitched up a deal before the council elections in May to ensure that power stayed in the same hands for the next 5 years, regardless of what voters decided.
  • The council reluctantly had to swallow a large helping of humble pie in the case of Mr M, whose complaints against the council were upheld by the Public Services Ombudsman. Council officers told councillors that this all happened a long time ago, and all issues had been resolved. The ombudsman noted that the case began in 2008, and that it took the council 3 years to get round to sorting things out.
  • Also in the pipeline, it has emerged, are two other very serious cases in which the Ombudsman has taken the council to task. One of these is understood to be heading for the courts as the council does not accept the Ombudsman's findings. There is also understood to be a pending libel action against the council over its treatment of the couple involved.
  • A huge row blew up over a decision by the Welsh Government last month to take responsibility for plans for two large new Sainsbury's supermarkets off the council, which had approved both of them. Kevin Madge and the council's Press Office went on the attack against MP Jonathan Edwards and AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas for supporting local people who opposed the supermarket group's plans. But why did the council wait for over a month to do this?
  • After 15 months of deliberation on whether or not to film public meetings of the council, the Task and Finish group has still not got around to finishing its task. An application to film this week's meeting of the full council was rejected.
  • Allegations of misappropriation of funds by one of the council's favourite charities were made in the council chamber. Expect more on this soon, and as the bloggers have pointed out, serious questions need to be asked about some other pet projects involving "third sector" organisations.
  • Despite this, council chief executive Mark James told councillors that the council did not routinely carry out due diligence of the governance and financial arrangements of the charities and other bodies it funds. 
  • Labour leader Kevin Madge gave what must be one of the most shambolic performances in the history of shambolic performances as he spluttered and waffled his way through the council meeting. Judging from the body language of his party colleagues, the likelihood of a Llanelli-based coup is growing.
  • Another fierce row broke out in the Council chamber after two councillors (People First's Siân Caiach and Labour's Bill Thomas) were told that they could not make a verbal declaration as they objected to the rubber stamping of minutes of a planning committee. At issue are plans for massive new housing developments, overloading of Llanelli's antiquated sewers and resulting pollution of the estuary and its cockle beds.
  • A Plaid councillor was also told that she had missed the boat when it came to asking a question about councillors' allowances.
  • A Plaid notice of motion calling on the council to pay staff a living wage was also ruled inadmissible. A council press release said that Kev did not want to rush into a decision, but was gathering facts. No mention was made of the opposition motion. Staff hoping for news any time soon should be reminded that after 15 months, we are still waiting to see proposals on broadcasting council meetings. 
While the car crash of a meeting was going on last Wednesday, Meryl Gravell quietly removed herself to the backbenches, despite having a frontbench job. Pam Palmer, one of the two deputy leaders of the council and leader of the Independent group, mysteriously absented herself from the whole affair, possibly on political health and safety grounds.

We will have to wait and see how much of this makes it into the Carmarthen Journal next week, but this week's edition did manage to devote a few lines to report negatively on the campaign in Llandovery, and it also ran a story on the cockle beds, but again from a rather different perspective. A temporary re-opening of the beds at Laugharne had run more smoothly than the chaotic scenes last year, when cocklers left a lot of litter behind, it reported. Apparently nothing else much happened in the county, apart from the usual diet of sports fixtures, a real ale festival at Ffos Las, and fines for littering and dog fouling.

Saturday 15 September 2012

In The Thick Of It - Updated

Carmarthenshire's Press Office, known affectionately to journalists as "the Department for Information Prevention", is no stranger to political smears and propaganda, so the release yesterday of an extraordinarily partisan attack on Jonathan Edwards MP and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM should come as no surprise, but it is worth taking a closer look.

The press release itself is wrong on several levels.

First, council taxpayers will be left wondering why, when so many services are being cut, that County Hall's department of spin remains unscathed, with 8 staff. This makes it one of the largest press and PR operations in Wales, and yet getting to the truth of what this luxury is costing is near-impossible thanks to a spider's web of cost allocations, outcharges, officer charges and other accountancy magic. Rhodri Glyn Thomas was recently told that it was not possible to work out where advertising revenue for the council's Pravda newspaper was coming from, and that bizarrely, the council did not keep back copies of the paper which might allow anyone to check.

Council taxpayers are also entitled to ask why a publicly funded operation like this should be used for party political purposes. If the Labour Party wants to attack Plaid, surely it should do so out of its own funds.

Yesterday's press release made no attempt at balance, and was frankly every bit as bad as the very worst of Murdoch or Daily Mail journalism. Almost half of it was given over to a spokesperson for Sainsbury's, would you believe.

Again this is nothing new. Last year the Press Office went to town with a press release and photograph of three senior councillors giving the thumbs up to a new Tesco store in Burry Port. Tesco had been given provisional planning consent, but despite the fact that the quasi judicial process was not complete, Clive Scourfield, who was then Executive Board Member responsible for planning matters, among other things, saw no problem with taking part in this media circus.

The press release went on to give details of Tesco's product ranges.

None of this does the reputation of the supposedly impartial planning process in Carmarthenshire any favours, especially when it is coupled, as so often, with what looks to all the world like party political voting on the Planning Committee.

No wonder that Jonathan Edwards and Rhodri Glyn Thomas commented yesterday that some of our Labour and Independent councillors are clearly in the pockets of big business.

The Welsh Government appears to share the concerns of the public, because when it examined the call-in request for the two Sainsbury's supermarkets, it clearly saw something it did not like. The Government is reluctant at the best of times to call in applications, even when they have a strong smell of fish about them.

As one reader of this blog has noted, 5 of the 14 call-in requests received by the Welsh Government for the whole of Wales are currently from Carmarthenshire.

One of the strangest aspects of this latest case is the timing of the Madge/Sainsbury's fatwa, because the Government decided to call the applications in six weeks ago.

The first thing to happen when an application is called in is that the council involved will be informed of the decision by Cardiff. The council is also informed when the Government receives a request.

Carmarthenshire County Council cannot claim that it only just found out about the call-ins, although the press release gives that impression.

By a stroke of pure coincidence the release, which claims that Plaid's MP and AM are putting jobs at risk, was issued on the first day of Plaid Cymru's annual conference in Brecon. This is a tactic known in PR circles as a "spoiler".

Whether or not you sympathise with Plaid, that is no way for a local authority to behave.


Plaid has responded with a statement which points out the facts of this case, including an observation that it was a Labour minister who actually called the two Sainsbury's applications in. Oh dear. You can read the statement here.

Friday 14 September 2012

Call-in of supermarket plans: the end of the world as we know it - Updated

Kevin Madge, leader of Carmarthenshire County Council, has blown his top at MP Jonathan Edwards and AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas for persuading the Welsh Government to call in plans for two large new Sainsbury's supermarkets in the market town of Llandeilo and at Cross Hands.

The story was reported on the Golwg360 Welsh news service (here), but for a less balanced view, the council's Press Office has given it the full North Korean treatment with an unbelievably biased and slanted account. The opening sentence is enough to give readers a flavour of the piece:

"Plaid Cymru’s AM and MP are trying to stop a £60million investment with the creation of around 1,200 jobs in the Tywi and Gwendraeth Valleys, it has been revealed".

A Sainsbury's spokesman claims further down in this Pravda special that local people and politicians had been "overwhelmingly supportive" of the plans.

That will certainly come as news to many people in Llandeilo.

Their action was "inconceivable and inexcusable", Kev fumed, claiming that by persuading the Welsh Government to take a closer look at the plans, they were undermining the two developments which would create hundreds of construction jobs and include new housing, a doctor's surgery, a care home and the new Maes yr Yrfa Welsh medium school. All this was now at risk, he said.

If you have never tried to get a planning application called in before, it may be helpful to know that the Government applies strict criteria before it takes any application out of the hands of a council. When it does so, it is usually because there is something seriously wrong with the way an application has been handled by a council and it runs counter to national planning rules. Other reasons include a threat to national security, but that can probably be ruled out here.

In other words, the Welsh Government has convinced itself that there is very good reason to take a closer look.

Perhaps Kev should be directing his fire at Cardiff instead.

It will be interesting to see just how he has reached the conclusion that calling in planning applications for two supermarkets would put plans for the new school, etc. in jeopardy.

A large chunk of the funding for the school is coming from the Welsh Government, with the County Council providing the rest under its Modernising Education Programme.


Jonathan Edwards MP and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM have responded, accusing the council of wasting taxpayers' money on carrying out political attacks.

This is by no means the first time that the Press Office, with its 8 staff, has been used to smear opponents.

They added that Kevin Madge's comments in a joint declaration with the developer clearly showed that some of the Labour and Independent councillors were in the pockets of big business.

See BBC Cymru story here.