Friday 30 November 2012

A world exclusive

The County Courier

This week our Chief Political Editor, gardening correspondent, Community Affairs editor (school sports days, fetes and jumble sales) and cookery columnist, Dylan Donc, was granted a world exclusive interview with Mr Merfyn Jones, KPMG, OMG and BA (Hons), chief executive of Cwmoffit Council. For security reasons it was not possible for Dylan to record or note down the interview, but we are indebted to the council's press office for providing us with this transcript.

Your Excellency, I wonder if you have a message for the people of Cwmoffit as we look forward to 2013?

Thank you for asking me that, Felicity. Before I tackle that very good question, I'd like to put your readers' minds at rest about the Leveson Inquiry. Once again we in Cwmoffit are leading the way, and have been regulating the press for several years now. There are still one or two minor newspapers and others who refuse to play by the rules, but they will shortly be hearing from our lawyers in London. Happily, I can report that we are well on our way to ridding Cwmoffit of the gutter sniping press with its carping criticism and prying that are sadly a feature of so many newspapers in this great country of ours.  

We have also made great strides in what we call "e-government", where "e" stands for efficient! Thanks to the recent introduction of new procedures in the council chamber, councillors may only speak using words printed on the chairperson's card. They must not deviate, although exceptionally repetition is permitted for the Council Leader who may repeat phrases such as "I would like to congratulate the officers" as many times as he wishes.

This innovation means that we will soon be able to publish both meeting agendas and minutes at the same time, thereby doing away with the need for expensive and tedious meetings. 

But we face many challenges, and money does not grow on trees. Last year we discovered that groups of  pensioners were dining and being kept warm in day centres at a cost to the council of £400,000 per year. That is 1% of our total costs, and almost as much as it would cost to employ two chief executives. Thankfully, our partners at the local branch of the Arkansas Redneck Church of No Forgiveness stepped up to the plate with a soup kitchen, and scores of old people can now feast on a bowl of soup on alternate Tuesdays.

Another partner church, the Hallelujah Ministry of Mercy, will shortly begin operating a foodbank in association with Kansas Fried Chicken and Krispi Kreem Kakes to offer a balanced diet of out of date food items for all those who cannot be bothered to take advantage of one of the many excellent eateries in our newly renovated town centres.

Benny and Jerry's, Megabucks Koffee and Pondos Ribshack all offer excellent value and a healthy alternative to locally grown rubbish, and it is vital that everyone in the county supports them to keep the new shopping malls buzzing.

But times are about to get very tough for many of your readers. Council tax and charges for facilities such as parking may have to rise significantly, while many of the services people take for granted, such as road maintenance, swimming pools, libraries and public transport are a luxury we can no longer carry on funding. In most cases, we are under no statutory obligation to provide these things anyway.

But every cloud has a silver lining. As a council we are determined to encourage a healthy lifestyle, and so making poor, fat  people walk rather than sit on a subsidised bus service will help. Sacking binmen will do wonders for recycling rates, and sharp rises in council tax may encourage more people to move into sustainable cardboard box accommodation or relocate to other authorities, such as Swansea.

It is with sincere regret that I have to contemplate making hundreds of low-paid workers redundant to ensure the future employment and pension prospects of senior management, without whom this council would not be able to function.

It is in recognition of the importance of the senior management of the authority that we shall in 2013 be seeking an upgrade of the various awards and honours that have been so graciously bestowed on us by Her Britannic Majesty. An authority of this size and importance surely merits a few knighthoods and a peerage or two.

Another necessary sacrifice is to stop wasting money on the Welsh language, and all the indications are that in a few years from now we will no longer need expensive translation equipment to keep the Welsh Taliban happy. And then the headsets will be consigned to the dustbin of history along with the likes of Mr Hussein al-Qynghanedd and Qeveen ul-Qambel.

But I cannot sit around answering your questions all day, Bob, so I will leave you and your readers with what I hope are words of comfort. This council has for many years worked hard to get rid of poverty, and that is why we have not insisted on any affordable homes in the large and exciting new executive housing developments which strategic partners, such as Tinker Winky, are just itching to deliver.

It will be painful for some of you, but for those who can afford the flood insurance and the price of a Megabucks skinny latte grande, I offer you the prospect of a brighter Cwmoffit, free of poverty and miserable old people.

Dylan Donc: On behalf of our readers, may I thank your Omnipotence for sparing us so much of your valuable time.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Oompa Loompas in Johnstown

Work has finally begun, it seems, on Towy Community Church's ten-pin bowling alley and umpteen other facilities (furniture recycling centre, food bank, etc., etc.) courtesy of Carmarthenshire's council tax payers, the Lottery and various other grant funds raided by the council.

Like many ambitious projects, the timescales have slipped significantly, and the bowling alley is now more than a year behind schedule.

The project has been in the pipeline for several years now, and when it finally looked as though it was about to take off, the church, acting on the advice of its lawyers and accountants, undertook a nifty move at the end of 2010 when it transformed itself into a new legal entity and changed its accounting period. This had the effect of wiping all of the church's previous financial history and starting afresh with a blank sheet which made it impossible for anyone outside the organisation to see what was happening to all the public money that was being pumped in.

The change of accounting period meant that the church was able to submit an initial set of accounts to the Charity Commission which fell below the threshold for publication. That in turn meant that the church was able to delay the publication of its first publicly available accounts until now. Whether that was intentional or not, the effect was to shroud what the church hoped would be the key construction phase in an impenetrable blanket of fog with no legal requirement to publish figures of any kind.

But time has finally run out, and the Charity Commission has now published the church's accounts for the period from 1 January 2011 to 31 December 2011, which of course means that the "new" figures are already effectively a year out of date. The accounts can be viewed here.

A few things stand out. The church reported total unrestricted income (i.e. income other than grants and donations which were earmarked for particular projects, such as the bowling alley) of £93,786. Expenditure for the year totalled £88,090, with Management and Administration swallowing £79,817. Since costs associated with the bowling alley are shown separately, that appears to be the normal operating expenditure incurred by the church, and includes £42,402 in wages and salaries (principally the pastor and his wife plus half of a third person).

Rent, rates, electricity, etc. took a further £15,847, while unspecified other administration totalled £20,691.

By contrast, the church spent just £6,221 on grants and gifts in furtherance of its charitable objectives.

Bearing in mind that the church rents a small office in Carmarthen and uses the Queen Elizabeth High School for its services on Sundays, you have to wonder why the cost of running the church is this high. The accounts confirm that membership is around 150, and that number includes children.

Of more direct concern to tax payers is the bowling alley project itself, however.

Both this blog and Caebrwyn have consistently pointed out various glaring inconsistencies between the council's version of events and the church's own. You would think that these two organisations, which have been getting closer and closer in recent years, would find it relatively easy to sing from the same hymn sheet.

You might also think that the Wales Audit Office would be twitchy, but it seems that as they only go by what the council says, there are no inconsistencies.

One of the things which struck the bloggers when councillors were first asked to approve the funding package for the church was the church's own very meagre contribution to this estimated £2.5 million phase of the overall project. In May 2011 the report presented to councillors showed that this stood at just £17,000, less than 1% of the total.

Thanks to its success in reducing its requirements for bank loans, we were told, the church was back in front of councillors in December of the same year asking for a loan of £270,000. By then the church's contribution had shot up to £388,450. Needless to say, the increase was not explained, but it seems very likely that this figure was arrived at by including work on the St Ivel creamery carried out by church volunteers, even though it is unlikely that the premises had actually been leased to the church at that stage.

How do you put a value on voluntary work carried out by church members? Bearing in mind that there are only 150 of them, and that those figures include children, the elderly and people holding down full-time jobs, the figure is remarkable. Perhaps, as Cneifiwr speculated at the time, the church had taken a leaf out of Willy Wonka's book and was using unpaid and unseen Oompa Loompas in Johnstown, because until very recently there were no visible signs at the site that anything had happened there at all.

This set Cneifiwr wondering what value he could put on his gardening over the last year. All that lawn mowing, hedge cutting and weeding must be worth a small fortune. At a paltry £200 per hour plus Mrs Cneifiwr's exorbitant consultancy fees, you wouldn't get much change out of £50,000.

But it is unlikely that Cneifiwr's accountants would accept this as legitimate business expenses, and it seems that the church's accountants have had similar qualms about including the cost of all this voluntary work in the accounts.

So while the value of voluntary work is not shown in the accounts, the council saw nothing wrong with including it in the mix when it presented a report to councillors in December 2011 asking them to approve the revised funding package.

The accounts show that accumulated revenue spending on the bowling alley project (lawyers, surveyors, accountants, etc.) had reached £127,127 by the end of 2011. Legal fees incurred in 2011 alone totalled £31,464. The accounts also put a value of £99,000 on building work associated with the bowling alley, and other associated assets (equipment) are valued at £127,000.

During 2011 the church received the first installments of grants from the County Council and the Lottery Fund totalling just under £50,000. Clearly that was not enough to cover spending, and so three of the church's trustees, including the pastor and his wife, provided the church with unsecured, interest-free loans totalling £196,674.

We will now have to wait another year to find out what happened in 2012, but this blog sincerely hopes that the pastor stands a better chance of getting his money back than the taxpayer does.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

A random drive-by character assassination

Carmarthenshire County Council's press office has quite a track record of black propaganda and attacks on anyone foolish enough to disagree with the council in public, but last week's random character assassination of two members of the public who took part in the Jason Mohammad programme on BBC Wales marks a new low.

In the light of new information on the sequence of events last Thursday, it is worth spending a little time looking at how the story was put together, the council's reaction to it and its treatment of Mrs Lesley Williams and Mr Wyn Thomas.

In the couple of weeks leading up to the programme, a BBC researcher contacted various people in Carmarthenshire to ask for their views on the council's treatment of members of the public who go to County Hall to observe meetings. How many people were contacted and how the BBC identified them as possible interviewees is something that would have to be answered by the BBC, but Cneifiwr was on the list and would have been happy to contribute if he had not been working.

The interview began, and Mrs Williams carefully and accurately described the rigmarole which members of the public have to go through in order to exercise a right enshrined in law. Both Mrs Williams and Mr Thomas went on to say how they felt about being treated like criminal suspects and their concerns for the safety of those locked into the public gallery.

Jason Mohammad then read out a statement which had apparently just arrived hot off the presses from County Hall. The statement, which is set out in full at the end of this piece, was carefully worded to try to give the impression that visitors were not locked in, but gave the game away by revealing that they have to use a phone to ask for someone to get them out.

The statement went on to say that the individuals appearing on the programme were part of a campaign being waged against the council which was spreading untruths (weasel speak for lies).

Naturally both Mrs Williams and Mr Thomas were completely taken aback to be confronted live on air with this accusation.

Both asked how the Council had known who would be appearing on the programme, and Jason Mohammad gave the impression that the BBC had earlier passed their names to the council when it was discussing a possible statement. Subsequently the BBC's researcher has categorically denied passing the two names on.
During the discussion immediately before the interview the council spokesperson went on to tell the researcher that the individuals taking part in the programme "had an agenda".

The strange thing about this is that unless the council had somehow illicitly obtained the names of those taking part, it issued what was to all intents and purposes a defamatory statement attacking the motives and credibility of Mrs Williams and Mr Thomas without actually knowing who they were. Their crime, in the eyes of the council, was to agree to talk to the BBC about something the Council would rather not have discussed.

Mrs Williams has crossed swords with the council before when she was a member of a group of Carmarthen residents who opposed certain aspects of the development that is now the St Catherine's Walk precinct in Carmarthen. That was several years ago. The group scored some important victories over the siting of the market hall and keeping St Catherine Street open to traffic. For exercising her right to object to a planning application, she has been subjected to attacks by the chief executive and other council leaders on more than one occasion.

Mr Thomas took part in the programme in a personal capacity, although he is also an elected Plaid Cymru councillor on Carmarthen Town Council. As far as Cneifiwr can ascertain, he has no "previous" with the County Council.

All of which brings us back to the accusation that Mrs Williams and Mr Thomas are part of a campaign to spread lies about the council.

If there is a campaign, the author of this blog is not aware of it. A campaign would suggest that there is a group of people who are organised and working away to achieve some defined objective. There isn't one, or Cneifiwr may well have joined it.

What the council in its paranoia sees as a conspiracy is what elsewhere would be labelled the normal functioning of civil society in a democracy in which people exercise their rights to complain, voice an opinion, sometimes disagree with their local authority, object to planning applications, school closures or other issues of legitimate concern to ordinary people.

As for lies or "untruths", Mrs Williams stated clearly and succinctly the facts about current arrangements for visitors to the public gallery. Doors were locked, including a fire door. Other members of the public have provided the West Wales Fire Authority with evidence that this is so, and the fire officer has asked the council to review the arrangements in the light of his own findings.

Below is a copy of the council's statement together with an additional verbal statement given by the Council to the BBC to be read out on the programme.

Notice how "security" is now suddenly such an important consideration, whereas it clearly wasn't until the filming incident 18+ months ago. Notice also how the Council is proud to boast that very few people actually attend council meetings. And finally notice the word-play in the second paragraph. Until the fire officer intervened, members of the public could indeed let themselves out into the stairwell, but without keys or swipe cards, they could not get any further.

The public gallery is not a lock down situation. But there is a telephone which gallery users, and they are traditionally very few, are asked to use when leaving because it is necessary to have a security check who is in the building at all times for fire regulation and security purposes. All staff using the council buildings are ID swiped in and all members are recorded entering too.
Members of the public have limited access, primarily to the foyer and restaurant to the foyer and have to be accompanied to the roof top gallery and around the building. There is free access to the stairs from the gallery which has a fire exit. The building is listed which means it is not possible to make any significant alterations to the fabric of the building to allow unfettered and secure public access to the gallery.
It is a legal requirement to have fire regulations for such a large building and security is necessary for the same reasons members of the public would not be allowed wander around the BBC unescorted.

The people who are contributing to the programme today are running a campaign against us (the county council) and are spreading untruths.

Sunday 25 November 2012

Something nasty in the bogs

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago (well, just over three weeks ago to be precise), the leader of Carmarthenshire County Council, Kevin Madge, wrote to the Western Mail to assure readers that,

It is a personal commitment of mine that the council should be as open and as transparent as we can possibly make it.

A week later on 5 November Cllr Madge presided over a meeting of the council's Executive Board which featured an agenda item that was deemed to be too sensitive for open discussion in front of the public and press, and a public interest exemption was slapped on it.

It is council officers who propose which items should be withheld from the public at such meetings, and in theory it is elected councillors who make the final decision after carefully weighing up the pros and cons of secrecy versus publication. Needless to say, that never happens in Carmarthenshire and the public interest exemption is unfailingly applied.

On 5 November the top secret agenda item was a proposal to transfer 33 public toilets from the county council to town and community councils. Local councils which take up the offer will receive a one-off payment of £1,000, and the county council will continue to pay the business rates.

This is the third time in recent years that these proposals have been discussed and agreed under a public exemption, and on the previous two occasions the county council's, ahem, generous offer was met with stony silence from the community councils. 

On this occasion the county council claims it has received "representations in relation to a number of facilities that could be regarded as being in tourist areas and has therefore decided to include all grade two facilities for transfer to town and community councils".

In plain English that probably means that County Hall has decided that it might as well get shot of the whole lot to try and save a bit more money, rather than a clamour from community councils wishing to commit financial suicide by taking on more commitments.

But why the secrecy? Is Kev just pee-shy, or is there something nasty lurking in the bogs that the council doesn't want to tell us about?
It is a personal commitment of mine that the council should be as open and transparent as we can possibly make it.

Read more: Wales Online
It is a personal commitment of mine that the council should be as open and transparent as we can possibly make it.

Read more: Wales Online

Thursday 22 November 2012

Paranoia in County Hall


It seems that the council has been ordered by the fire officer to re-open the fire exit. It has been locked  since July 2011, with the council claiming that it had made sure that it was not in breach of fire regulations. That was clearly not the case, and as a result the council has put the safety of the public at risk in order to defend what it calls an "operational decision" to clamp down on anyone who might record what is said in public meetings.

Meanwhile the council can expect to hear from Mrs Williams and Cllr Thomas who are understandably very upset and angry to be branded as liars live, on air by the council's press office.


Today's edition of the Jason Mohammad programme on Radio Wales featured a short piece on the extraordinary measures taken by Carmarthenshire County Council to make things as unpleasant as possible for members of the public wishing to exercise their democratic rights to observe council meetings.

Two members of the public, Mrs Lesley Williams and Mr Wyn Thomas, took part in the programme, and they described the process which everyone has to go through to get through the doors and into the public gallery. Both had particular concerns about public safety, as visitors to the public gallery are locked in and have to phone for assistance to be let out again. Moreover, as another member of the public recently discovered, the fire exit at the bottom of the stairs leading to the gallery is locked and bolted.

The council, notorious for its love of PR, was "unable" to take part in the programme, but issued a bizarre statement, accusing Mrs Williams, a retired school teacher, and Mr Thomas, a town councillor in Carmarthen, of being part of a campaign which was spreading lies about the council.

The statement went on to claim, completely falsely, that there is no "lock down", although it rather gave the game away when it revealed that members of the public had to use a telephone to get out.

On previous occasions, the council has also claimed that in the event of a fire, the doors would open automatically. While that may or may not be true in the case of the doors operated by a swipe card, it is certainly not true of the old-fashioned doors at the fire exit, which are locked with old-fashioned keys and old-fashioned bolts.

The statement also used security as one of the justifications for its policy, although it did not bother to produce any evidence of a security risk.

The truth is that the policy was introduced in response to an attempt by Caebrwyn to film part of a council meeting nearly two years ago. Prior to that the gallery was accessible to anyone who wanted to climb the stairs, and the council clearly did not consider the public to be a security risk.

Neither Mrs Williams nor Mr Thomas are part of any campaign, as far as I am aware, and both almost certainly have a case in law for defamation in the light of the claim, broadcast live to a large audience, that they are spreading lies against the council.

Listeners to Jason Mohammad's programme were surely shocked to hear a local authority behaving in this way, and the court of public opinion will have decided who was really lying here.

The programme will be available online for a further 7 days, and can be found here. The interview begins after approximately 1 hour and 10 minutes.

Carmarthenshire and school bus charges

Following on from our look at Leighton Andrews' plans for education in Wales, Carmarthenshire County Council is providing the minister with another compelling reason as to why this county council at least should not be left in charge of education.

Just as the Welsh Government is busy trying to persuade more pupils to stay in full-time education until the age of 18, Carmarthenshire is planning to introduce new charges which will make staying at school a very expensive proposition for many families in the county.

Buried away in Carmarthenshire County Council's budget package approved at the beginning of 2012 were several time bombs, including a provision to end free school transport for children aged 16+. The council  estimated that this would yield an annual saving of £477,000.

Almost no detail has so far been provided, but parents need to brace themselves for what will certainly be a massive additional burden on household budgets.

The first question is how the council arrives at a figure of £477,000.

Carmarthenshire is geographically a largely rural county, and many children face long journeys to school. Thanks to the Modernising Education Programme and the closure of schools, more and more children will need school transport over long distances.

School buses will need to run regardless of whether they carry pupils who have turned 16, and the cost of running a bus carrying 25 12-16 year-olds is pretty much the same as a bus which carries 35 12-18 year-olds.

Unless there are cases where the authority needs to run additional buses because of the number of 16-18 year-olds, the buses will have to run regardless.

So the next question is what agreements does the council have in place with bus companies? We can be sure that any FOI request would be refused on the basis that this is, conveniently, commercially sensitive information. But councillors may like to ask whether services are paid as a flat fee per route or per head. Since many school buses do not run at anything like full capacity, the likelihood is that a flat charge per route is an important component in the charging structure.

Will this measure actually save real money, or is it in reality an exercise in revenue raising?

Crucially for parents, how will charges be introduced? Will money be collected by the bus companies, or will it be collected by the council?

Will provision be made for children whose parents are on low or modest incomes (a very high proportion of children in many cases)?

Will children have to start paying once they have reached their 16th birthday, as seems to be the case? If so, quite a few children will have to start paying before they take their GCSEs.

And how will charges be calculated? Per mile? If charges are on a par with normal commercial bus routes, it will cost parents hundreds of pounds a year for one child, and very likely a figure equivalent to what the average family spends on energy bills if you are unfortunate enough to have more than one 16 year-old at school.

Of course, it may not come to this because we are now fortunate to have a Deputy Leader and Executive Board member (Cllr Pam Palmer no less) responsible for looking after the interests of rural communities in the county, although it is not at all clear what she has done in the seven months she has occupied that post.

According to the official decision record, she has so far clocked up a single meeting which ran for 20 minutes at the beginning of October to approve the council's use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.