Wednesday 12 September 2012

Autumn Term under the new Headmistress - September Meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council (I)

The new term started after a break of three months, although I have to report that quite a number of the pupils appeared to have decided to extend their holidays. The Independent benches were noticeably very bare, with absentees including Pam Palmer (one of our two deputy leaders, salary £31,000+) and Llandovery's Ivor Jackson (believed to be enjoying a cruise). Also absent from school was Labour's Keith Davies (no relation as far as we know to the elderly party going Assembly Member for Llanelli). Keith is Executive Board Member responsible for, um, schools.

The absentee role call was read out by Chief Executive Mark James in Welsh, one of his very rare forays in the language. Da iawn chi! What a pity that so many senior councillors who clearly have quite a good grasp of the language, including Kevin Madge, Tegwen Devichand and Meryl Gravell avoid using it when they could be setting an example.

The Headmistress, or Chair, was in particularly sunny mood, despite having attended over 100 events during the summer, and even the most hard-bitten cynics were putty in her hands. Except for Cllr Winston Lemon, who was clearly a very naughty boy at school.

The Chair is short of stature, and the massive chain of office seemed to have grown over the summer months. If that wasn't enough, she was wearing a pair of gigantic gold earrings. It's probably what Boudicca looked like as she prepared to slaughter the Romans. Perhaps she will have blades fitted to the wheels of the limo, now that Kev has got one of his own.

She has such a pleasant, homely voice that she could probably announce that the Council had issued an order for the massacre of the first born in every household in the county, and still have everybody cooing and aaah-ing. At least that was the effect she had on Cneifiwr until he realised that she had just announced that this month's crop of honours included Dave Gilbert, the Director of Regeneration and Leisure, who can now add OBE to his name.

Mr Gilbert is one of those people who always looks as though he is about to hit someone, although as the second highest earner in Carmarthenshire, he should have every reason to look very pleased with himself.

Uncharitably, Cneifiwr's thoughts turned to a recent report by a committee of the House of Commons which criticised the honours system for dishing out awards to people just for doing their jobs.

One of the first items of business was the latest humdinger of a report from the Ombudsman for Public Services. This was the report which took the council to task for its treatment of Mr M, a wheelchair user allocated a house that was not adapted for wheelchairs.

If you read the Council's summary of the saga, it is obvious that the Ombudsman will not be getting an invite to this year's Christmas party, but the line that had clearly been agreed for the public meeting was to say, between clenched teeth, that all this happened a very long time ago and that everything had been sorted out. Now can we move on please.

Unfortunately a few of the awkward squad insisted on dragging things out. All the usual suspects, such as Siân Caiach, Glynog Davies, Winston Lemon and Alan Speake bundled in with horror stories of their own. Glynog Davies did a bit of joy riding on a mobility scooter as he told us about an elderly man who was trapped in his home because of the council's inability to provide him with a ramp.

The carefully planned official response collapsed at this point, with Chief Executive Mark James CBE weighing in. He was clearly not in a very good mood, and ticked councillors off for bringing up individual ward matters. The Independents, who would never raise the concerns of their constituents (seriously, they wouldn't) all made approving noises.

But Mr James was off on one. Reading this report, he declared, officers should not have given Mr M and his family a house. They should have been left in their emergency B&B. But officers had nevertheless taken the right decision.

So the wrong decision was, in the same breath, also the right one. It's displays of verbal acrobatics like this that make you realise what separates council chief executives from the chaff. That and a couple of hundred thousand pounds a year.

There are several other reports from the ombudsman in the queue, and so the ombudsman may become a permanent fixture on the agenda. Thinking perhaps of one report where the council is taking court action, the Chief Executive ended discussion with the observation that "we do take exception to what the Ombudsman says on occasion".

We moved on to the closure of the Argel residential home in Carmarthen, which is being redeveloped. Cllr Jane Tremlett, Executive Board Member for Care and Social Services, rose regally. Think Queen's Christmas broadcast 1954. "We were pleased to note that the consultation went extremely well; it was very gratifying for one to know that some residents had been given their first choice of home as they were being rehoused", she told the Commonwealth.

A long and rather confused discussion ensued about the costs of the redevelopment. There is a budgetary shortfall of £1.5 million. Cllr Caiach wanted to know where the money was coming from and whether one of the council's holy cows might have to go for a ride in the butcher's van.

The Chief Executive intervened to give this most unruly pupil a lesson in basic maths. She was confusing the revenue and capital budgets, he sighed, dismissing her silly schoolgirl suggestions that this might cause a rise in council tax.

Rather awkwardly the Head of Maths piped up to point out that all council borrowing is financed by the taxpayer.

Another councillor wanted to know whether the council was planning the additional capacity it would need for care of the elderly based on the Local Development Plan's forecast of a population explosion in Carmarthenshire.

We will never know (although we can guess), because at this point Kevin Madge decided to pop up and thank everybody. He looked forward to building the new home, and this is ongoing, um, er, it's exciting.

To be fair, that was his most coherent speech of the day.

In Part II some interesting revelations will be made.

No comments: