Wednesday 7 November 2012

The Carmarthen Bubble - November's council meeting

Kevin Madge, who somehow or other climbed the greasy pole to become leader of Carmarthenshire County Council, is very keen to cultivate an image. He is Kev, man of the people, defender of the poor and weak, champion of open and transparent government and yet, somehow, non-political.

His stint as council leader got off to a very slow start when his Labour group overtook the closet Tory Independents to become the second largest group on the council, and Kev hit the ground dazed rather than running. The pre-election deal stitched up with Meryl and Pam meant that when the music stopped, everything was pretty much the same as before except that Kev got what really mattered: a bigger salary and the keys to the limos, as opposed to a chance to implement the sort of policies which his party is supposed to stand for.

The sad reality was there for all to see at today's meeting of the full council.

The agenda was one of the thinnest in recent years, consisting of nothing more than a list of reports and minutes from other meetings requiring the rubber stamp.

The Sainsbury's press release which councillors tried to raise at the last meeting was not mentioned once, apparently because it is now the subject of a formal investigation by the Ombudsman for Public Services. The Ombudsman's report on the Breckman case is being given a quiet burial by the Executive Board and will not be allowed anywhere near the elected councillors. No mention was made of the Ombudsman's latest report on a highly disturbing case involving a severely autistic young woman.

In fact, the list of taboo subjects is now much longer than the list of topics which councillors are allowed to talk about.

As usual, no sooner had the parish announcements finished and the hare started its journey round the track than Cllr Siân Caiach was out of the traps and in hot pursuit. Why couldn't councillors make recordings of council meetings for their own use? Where were the rules which said that this was not allowed? What evidence was there for the claim made by the council that other, lesser councils had been hauled up in front of judges when councillors had been allowed to raise issues not on the approved agenda?

As usual, her questions went unanswered.

Kev rose to say that a report and recommendations on recording would be going to the Executive Board shortly, and that the recommendations would be supported.

A Plaid councillor reminded Kev that the recommendations included an amendment to allow members of the public to record meetings as well.

Meryl Gravell rose menacingly and warned her successor that she was not going to stand for this. Other councils had started this new-fangled filming nonsense, but withdrawn because of the costs. Moreover, the recommendation was for a pilot only, and allowing a free for all would run the risk that eminent councillors might be quoted out of context, misrepresented or otherwise made to look foolish.

The rather bigger risk, of course, is that some senior councillors and officers would no longer be able to claim that they never said what everybody else heard them say.

Pam chimed in with a short, sharp reminder that the report would first have to go to the Executive Board before being returned for consideration by the council. And that's that, she snarled. It's not up for discussion.

The earliest the mangled remains of the recommendations could come back to the full council is December, but a date in the New Year (2096 if Pam gets her way) would seem more likely.

Kev clearly felt that it was better to stay quiet rather than risk annoying the old girls any further.

Peter Hughes Griffiths, the Plaid leader, pointed out that the Labour Party had voted with Tory Eurosceptics in Westminster to cut the EU budget, although Wales was heavily reliant on EU funding in regeneration and economic development schemes as well as agriculture.

Kev said he would not want to see any reduction in EU funding, although he failed to explain how he could square that with his party's support for spending cuts. It was all just the "Westminster bubble", he concluded.

Pam Palmer was still cross because someone had criticised her and a coachload of other Carmarthenshire worthies for meeting the Housing Minister in Llanelli (she forgot to mention her encounter with Lady Dena), before putting on her Girl Guides uniform to shrug off all this defeatist nonsense. "If we all work together, we'll succeed to the best of our ability".

So that's all right then.

Cllr Bill Thomas (Labour) who clearly had not grasped what his party had done, claimed that Labour was merely asking for a reduction in the proposed budget increase, as opposed to cutting the budget.

Cllr Caiach pointed out that under the EU's Habitats Directive the council could face losing funds anyway if it did not get its act together and clean up the Burry inlet.

The chair intervened to point out that the Burry inlet was not mentioned on the agenda. Neither is it ever likely to be.

Cllr Cefin Campbell (Plaid) rose to ask what Kev intended to do about the living wage for council employees. After all, Ed Milliband was in favour of it, and so was Boris Johnson for crying out loud. Arguments that paying people more would mean that they lost benefits were wrong. Surely, the aim should be to take people out of benefits by paying them a proper wage.

Up stepped Kev, friend of the toiling masses.

"We will be totally debating a report on this in due course", said the hero of Garnant, before adding that the resources weren't there, and that giving a pay rise to some might mean having to sack 100 others.

The ghost of Czar Nicholas II was probably thinking that whatever other mistakes he had made, at least he had not appointed Kev to pop out of the Winter Palace to negotiate with the workers.

If Kev had gone out to brave the revolutionary masses, at least he could have counted on the support of Cllr Bill Thomas who said he would not be voting for a living wage because of the risk that people would lose benefit entitlements.

Cllr Eirwyn Williams (Plaid) rose next to make a passionate plea to halt the planned closure of the primary school at Llansawel. The school at Caio had already gone, and very young children would be facing trips of 15 miles to school. Worse, this was killing rural areas because no families or young people wanted to stay in areas with no schools.

Kev replied that he was now beginning to understand some of the problems faced by rural communities, and he promised to come and visit. Better still, the Executive Board roadshow would be coming to Llandeilo in December! But these were tough times, and he wanted to congratulate the officers. Things were not easy.

The children of Caio and Llansawel can sleep better for knowing that.

More discussion of schools and school closures followed, although the Director of Education was absent just when he was needed.

Cllr Caiach was off again with a question about a land transfer at Cross Hands which is linked to the Sainsbury's supermarket development and the planned expansion of Maes yr Yrfa school.

The chief executive said that it all depended on the outcome of the Welsh Government call-in of the planning applications. If the decision went against the council, it would have to go back to the drawing board on that one. Perhaps Maes yr Yrfa will need to be renamed the Sainsbury's Academy in due course.

After another question about schools the Chief Executive finally snapped. Carmarthenshire had the largest number of surplus school places of any county in Wales, and in part that was thanks to parents who drove past rural schools to drop their kids off at over-subscribed urban schools.

Blame the parents, that's what I say.

Peter Hughes Griffiths (Plaid) had another go at Labour for abstaining in a recent vote on public sector pensions in Westminster. The implications were dire for many council employees, he said, and the likelihood was that they would end up being dependent on benefits.

Kev blamed it all on the Westminster bubble again.

Much of the rest of the meeting was dominated by questions about another innovative development scheme, this time Eastgate in Llanelli. Clearly some councillors have finally smelt a rat.

In a nutshell, the council is planning to move quite a lot of its staff out of council-owned offices to the shiny new development in Eastgate (complete with Odeon cinema, confectionery lounge, Ben and Jerry ice cream parlour and Costa Coffee shop, as the council's PR department recently told us).There the council has committed to paying £250,000 a year in rent for 20 years.

Would this move be permanent, asked Cllr Tyssul Evans?

Probably, said Labour's Cllr Jeff Edmunds.

Tegwen Devichand, who had previously had trouble switching off her mobile phone to the annoyance of the Chair, argued that this was all about saving money.

The Chief Executive explained that the council had underwritten the project, and had been marketing the premises in the hope of finding private sector tenants. One had been found, possibly, although he would not say who it was or how much space they might take. Council staff would be moving into some or all of the remaining space.

The waters became steadily more muddy. The chief executive said that another private sector tenant had been interested, but had pulled out. Unusually, he did not blame that on Siân Caiach, parents or the bloggers.

Part of the building would be occupied by council staff, another bit might be occupied by somebody else, and if another private sector tenant could be found, the council would move out of some or all of the premises. Possibly. This was the gist of what we heard.

Moreover, bringing all these council employees in would increase footfall, and the presence of council staff would be likely to attract private tenants.

By now, the water had turned as clear as mud. What was it about council housing department staff that would make the building so attractive to private sector tenants? We may never know. They may be there permanently, or they may not. But the council will be emptying buildings it does own to move staff into rented office space. To save money.

With that the meeting came to a halt. The whole thing had lasted just 1 hour and 15 minutes, but somehow it felt like a complete waste of time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So council employees filling up empty office space which is supposed to attract the private sector to carmarthen in the dafen technium; llanelli eastgate,Parc y scarlets; botanical gardens; what about the empty north dock office block? Anywhere else?