Sunday 23 December 2012

Review of the Year - Part One: a CBE, rabble and an election

As 2012 draws to a close Cneifiwr has been trawling through the archives to see what, if anything, we have learned this year.


Church bells rang and people danced the conga in the streets as the news came through that the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council had been appointed Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in the New Year Honours List.

2012 kicked off with a meeting of the council's Executive Board which chucked out the public and press to discuss two top secret items. The first involved a decision to increase financial support to the National Botanic Garden of Wales, while the second concerned a mysterious council officer (actually the chief executive) who had become embroiled in a libel case.

At the first meeting of the full council in 2012 Cllr Siân Caiach rose to offer congratulations to the council on being named runner-up in Private Eye's Legal Bully of the Year award. She was told to sit down.

The meeting saw a row about what opposition councillors said was misuse of the council's press office for issuing a partisan party political press release about the budget settlement. The chief executive ruled that the press release was perfectly in order, but strangely it was pulled from the council's website.

The Chief Constable of Dyfed Powys Police (since retired) popped in to tell councillors that he would be asking for a 5% increase in the police authority precept. He complained about the cost of a PFI scheme for Ammanford police station (since mothballed). The station was built at a cost of around £2.5 million in 2001, and is expected to cost us at least £22 million (and possibly a lot more) by the time the 30 year deal ends. Annual payments were £644,000 in 2008-09, and have been rising every year.

Council leader Meryl Gravell got into hot water for saying that people protesting against plans to close the A&E department at Llanelli's hospital were "rabble". She went on to say that "Mark and I employ 9,000 people" and wished that they would all work as hard and show the same dedication as staff at the Chooselife charity she was visiting. Cllr Gravell later claimed she had been quoted out of context.


Rabblegate led to a motion of no confidence in Meryl's leadership at the February meeting of the full council. The motion was eventually defeated after a lot of procedural wrangling. Labour leader Kevin Madge leaped to Meryl's defence.

It emerged that the Executive Board had not only agreed to pay the chief executive's defence costs in the Jacqui Thompson libel case, but had also agreed to fund an action for defamation against the blogger. Carmarthenshire thus became the first Welsh council to attempt this, bypassing the long standing convention that branches of government do not sue for libel.

A brief and heated round of correspondence about the council's decision to pay Mr James's court costs appeared in the pages of the Carmarthen Journal. This came to an abrupt end following the intervention of the chief executive himself.

The council approved its annual budget, and the county's museums were saved from the chop for the time being. Independent leader Pam Palmer told councillors she was working on plans for a £3 million package of grant funding to secure the future of the museums. Nothing has been heard about this since.

Champagne corks popped at the announcement of a deal between an arms manufacturer and R&A Properties at Llangennech near Llanelli. The story brought together that special Carmarthenshire mix of council chiefs, rugby bosses and property developers and added an exciting new twist with a company involved in the manufacture of drones.

The Towy Community Church saga rumbled on, with the pastor telling an evangelical blog that the council had bought the Johnstown site at the church's suggestion, "and in a remarkable act of generosity transferred it to the church free of charge". Wasn't that nice? The council gives a very different version of events. Surely they can't both be true?


And they were off! The council election campaign fizzled into life, with one of the most interesting contributions coming from Shahid Hussein, Labour's candidate in Glanaman. Shahid let it all hang out on Twitter with a highly offensive stream of abuse masquerading as humour. After a smack on the wrist, Kevin Madge blamed the whole affair on Twitter and campaigned for his youthful neighbour.

Carl Sargeant, the Minister for Local Government, finally got round to criticising the county council's decision to use public money to sue blogger Jacqui Thompson for libel. "Local authorities should not allow indemnities to enable members or officers to sue for defamation, and the 2006 Order reflects that".

Carmarthenshire took no notice.

The BBC's investigative programme Taro 9 reported on the Delyth Jenkins whistleblower case. The county council refused to take part in the programme and called the police to keep an eye on the BBC production team. The programme attracted a great deal of media attention, but the story somehow escaped the notice of the Carmarthen Journal.


The local election campaign ground on. Peter Hain, the veteran Labour politician, attacked Independent councillors as closet Tories who had no manifesto and no clue. In Carmarthenshire Labour and the Independents discussed election strategies and continued their love-in. The Independents under Pam Palmer didn't bother with a manifesto. At least nobody could accuse them of breaking their promises.

The BBC was at it again with another documentary looking this time at the Council's bizarre relationship with the evangelical Towy Community Church, which promises non-believers that they face a future of eternal conscious punishment. Both the council and the church refused to take part in the programme.

The chief executive said that it would be wrong to comment on the Towy Community Church project in the run-up to an election. He did, however, find time to attack Llanelli residents opposed to the Stradey Park housing development and people who had objected to plans for the new Ffwrnes school.

The Carmarthen Journal was told by County Hall not to report on the grievances of council bin men following the imposition of new pay and working terms. It didn't.


The election saw Labour overtake the Independents as the second largest group on the council. Labour, which was recovering ground lost under Gordon Brown, did well in Llanelli but failed to make progress across the rest of the county.

In the ensuing carve-up, the Independents secured five of the ten seats on the new enlarged Executive Board despite having been pushed back into third place.

The Scarlets published a dire set of accounts, with the club's auditors warning that there was "material uncertainty" about the business's viability.


The new administration under Kevin Madge (Lab) brought forward proposals for yet more changes to the county's constitution, reducing the powers of the scrutiny committees, and delegating more powers from the full council to the Executive Board or unelected officers.

After that little burst of activity, the council went to sleep for three months.


Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM tried once again to get to grips with the true cost of the council's propaganda sheet, Carmarthenshire News. The council solemnly informed him that it was not possible to work out how much of the paper's revenue came from internal and external advertisers. Anyone wanting to try to work it out for themselves would struggle because the council said it did not keep back copies.

The Ombudsman for Public Services produced a report on the Breckman case. In the run-up to release of the report, he complained to the Welsh Government about how he had been frustrated by the council's delaying tactics. He generously gave the council three months to provide copies of the Breckman report to councillors. They are still waiting at the end of December.

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