Wednesday 30 January 2013

A £20,000 cash advance for the Chief Executive

News that Mark James, Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, was paid an advance of £20,000 in his capacity as Returning Officer 5 weeks before last year's council elections will have phones in the council's Ministry of Spin ringing red hot. Questions about the payment, which took place just before the end of the 2011-12 tax year, include who actually approved it.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM has likened this arrangement to what happened at AWEMA where the disgraced chief executive took a £9,000 advance on expected future expenses.

The revelation comes in the wake of the scandal in Labour-controlled Caerphilly Council where the chief executive authored a secret report recommending himself and other senior officers for a massive pay increase at a time when the council is cutting services, making staff redundant and imposing below inflation pay increases for the rest.

In Carmarthenshire, where we have the second most highly paid chief executive in Wales, the outlook is just as grim, as the Chief Executive himself recently warned us in a two page spread in the Carmarthen Journal. The council is also continuing to stall proposals to pay its lowest paid employees, such as school dinner ladies and cleaners, a living wage.

Plaid Cymru (see press release here) and Unison decided to query what appeared to be a £20,000 pay rise for the Chief Executive reported in the council's Statement of Accounts for 2011-12 which showed that Mr James's salary and expense allowances for the year had risen to £187,102, and that his total remuneration from the council (including our contributions to his pension pot) was £209,498.

Not included in that figure, it seems, were fees earned as returning officer in the May 2011 Welsh Assembly elections since that money comes from a central pot rather than the county council. In addition, fees earned as returning officer also count when it comes to calculating pensions. The gift which goes on giving.

What eventually emerged from the questioning was a curious agreement to pay Mr James an advance of £20,000 in respect of his fees as Returning Officer in the May 2012 local authority elections. What is more, this was just a part payment. What the full payment for running the council elections was is not yet clear.

Strangely, the payment was made immediately before the end of the 2011-12 tax year and before nominations for the council elections had closed and campaigning begun. The council told Plaid that the reason for this was that, erm, "funds were available".

With an annual salary which is roughly 9 times average earnings in Carmarthenshire, we can probably safely assume that Mr James did not need the money in a hurry to pay for an unexpectedly large gas bill, so we can only speculate why it was considered beneficial to pay the money upfront immediately before the start of a new tax year.

According to the council, the Executive Board (then headed by Meryl Gravell and her deputy Kevin Madge)  did not approve the payment as that would have involved them in election arrangements and therefore have been improper. There are certainly no references in any of the Executive Board meeting minutes for that period which would suggest that the deal was officially sanctioned.

So who approved the payment? Were senior councillors made aware of it at any point, and if not why not?

These are serious matters which go to the heart of the way this local authority is run, and they must be investigated thoroughly and independently. The Wales Audit Office, which has for so long turned a blind eye to goings-on in Carmarthenshire, must now carry out a full investigation.

For those interested in media matters, it will be interesting to see whether this story makes it into the pages of the Carmarthen Journal and Llanelli Star, especially when we recall that in the fairly recent past one reporter was "persuaded" to withdraw a Freedom of Information request on senior officer pay after the intervention of County Hall.

Sunday 27 January 2013

In whose interest?

Update 28 January

Mrs Breckman has been in touch to say the following:

My feelings are that of course it should be discussed openly in the chamber, and that all councillors are made aware of its contents.

My overwhelming anger over all of this, is not just the planning issues, they are bad enough, but that I was pilloried for telling the truth, lied about to all councillors and others, (another reason all councillors should be made aware of the seriousness of it), leaving the overriding issue one of misconduct in public office.  Of course the Ombudsman cannot and doesn't take that into consideration when making his investigations.  As we all know he can only look for and find maladministration.  
I am intending writing back to Carl Sargeant, asking that he reconsiders, and meets with me, as he needs a much clearer understanding from my perspective of the misconduct of certain officers and the damage they can cause to ones life.  Until he is fully acquainted with all the facts he cannot make a fair judgement on whether there needs to be a Public Inquiry.


On 31st January the Planning Committee of Carmarthenshire County Council will meet to decide various planning applications as usual, but what is highly unusual about this meeting is the final agenda item listed only as "Outcome of Ombudsman Investigation".

Officers of the council are recommending that a public interest exemption should be applied to exclude any members of the public and press present from the discussion.

The case they will be reviewing is in fact that of Mrs Trisha Breckman and her partner Eddie Roberts who suffered serious injustice at the hands of the County Council over a period of years.

The Ombudsman's report was published in July 2012, and it will have taken the council 7 months to get round to putting it in front of a group of councillors. It is quite clear that the Ombudsman and many councillors were expecting the report to go before the full council, but senior officers within the council appear to have been hell-bent on ensuring that the report receives as little oxygen as possible.

Every trick in the book, and several not in any book, have been used to prevent open scrutiny of the report, including last week's removal of  the standard "Any Other Business" item on a meeting agenda to foil an attempt by Mrs Breckman's councillor to raise the matter in a public meeting.

Normally, it is true, reports which deal with the affairs of individuals are rightly subject to a public interest exemption. But this is not a normal report. Details of the affair and the report have been the subject of newspaper reports and a television documentary. Everybody knows the identities of the people involved, and anybody who wants a copy of the report can write to the Ombudsman to obtain one.

The usual reasons for applying an exemption do not apply in this case, and the public has a very strong interest in hearing what the Council has to say about it and what steps it is taking to ensure that nothing of the kind ever happens again.

The council's failings are not limited to planning enforcement, but include much wider failings in the way in which the authority deals with the public. That is why it should be heard by the full council in public.

By insisting that the report and the outcome are discussed behind closed doors, it is clear that what is being served here is not the public interest but that of the council's officers.

An unstunned parent writes

The Carmarthen Journal followed up its recent report on proposals to turn Ysgol y Ddwylan in Newcastle Emlyn into a Category A Welsh medium school with a second article last week under the headline "Parents stunned by school's Welsh only classes".

In the piece which follows, most of the report is taken up by comments made by a handful of the town's councillors, one of whom happens to be a parent with children at the school. Two councillors suggested that the wisest thing would be to wait for the consultation to begin, while a third argued that,

I think they [the school] will fail a lot of children in the local area.

If we accept that argument, existing category A schools in the area - the overwhelming majority of schools here - must all be failing children. Clearly that is nonsense.

One parent who also happens to be a member of the Town Council does not add up to "stunned parents", does it?

It seems that any formal consultation could be some way off, so the Journal  may struggle to sustain this level of shrill scaremongering.

Meanwhile, it would not be too difficult for the Journal to find parents who welcome proposals which will give more children an opportunity to grow up with skills and advantages most of their parents do not possess.

Thought for the Day: It is the children who are being denied a bilingual education who are being failed.

Saturday 26 January 2013

What's On at the Odeon This Week

Why not come and try some of our tempting treats as you settle in for the feast of filmic fun we have lined up for you this week?

On special offer this week is the Shirgar Burger, washed down with a bladder-busting 10 litre bucket of Coke and a bin bag of diabolo diabetes-enducing popcorn. All for just £86.83.

Muppet Mayhem

Fozzy Bear has been given the lead in the latest production of the Muppet Show, and Miss Piggy is plotting her revenge. Little do they realise that Kermit is really running things......

Return of the Mummy

A fumbling tourist accidentally stumbles into an ancient tomb and the Curse of Cwmoffit is brought horrifically back to life. The Mummy takes dominion over the starving peasants and enslaves them in a massive state-of-the-art Pyramid Regeneration Programme.


The Queen Vic meets Y Deri. Kat, the buxom tattoed landlady has run off with bad-boy businessman Garry Monk, and all hell breaks loose. Pat (the one with the big earrings) rises from the grave and joins forces with Peggy Mitchell to move in on Cwmderi where, incredibly, Dai Sgaffalde has been running the pub and alienating the customers. Watch Peggy utter that immortal line, "Get aht of my pub".

Arsenic and Old Lace

A farcical black comedy in which a man has to deal with his mad, murderous family, which includes two spinster aunts who have taken to bumping people off with a glass of home-made elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine and "just a pinch" of cyanide.

I, Claudius

The Empire totters as the populace groans under the weight of taxation and the slaves are growing restless. Thanks to an unbelievable twist of fate, the hapless Kevius Claudius has ended up as Emperor, but his bloodthirsty mother Flavia and her sister have the knives out. Featuring a brief cameo role by Robbie Savage as Flavia's favourite gladiator and Siân Caiach (Vanessa Redgrave) as Cassandra, Prophetess of Doom.

Carry On Matron!

A junior doctor has enticed one of the nurses (Barbara Windsor) into his rooms, as Bernard Bresslaw finds himself running St Hopeless. Michael Howard plays the late Kenneth Williams as Sir Bernard Cutting, the Senior Registrar, and Matron and her battle-axe sidekick (played by Joan Sims) decide to take control of the situation.

Meuryn Newydd Talwrn y Beirdd

Y Prifardd Peter Hughes Griffiths yw Meuryn newydd Talwrn Y Beirdd.

Mae BBC Cymru wedi cyhoeddi mai fe fydd yn olynu Meryl oedd yn Feuryn am 82 flynedd.

This last feature has been cancelled by Order of the Chief Executive.

Friday 25 January 2013

Big names, empty shops

A frequent criticism of Carmarthenshire County Council, and not just in this blog, is its infatuation with brand names, chain stores and supermarkets when it comes to retail development. St Catherine's Walk in Carmarthen is full of them, and you could be in any shopping precinct in England if it weren't for the Welsh accents. The same is true of the new East Gate complex in Llanelli, and the council explained recently that there was a preference for big retail names because they offer landlords the prospect of long-term stability and security. Helped along, of course,  by all sorts of special deals and free advertising by the Council, which continuously promotes names such as Nandos, Harvester, Costa Coffee and the rest through its PR machine.

You have to wonder how true this argument is following the collapse of Woolworths, Jessop's, Clinton Cards, HMV and other big names. In this part of the world Trade Secret and Seconds Ahead, chains which both sold discounted clothing, have also gone bust leaving gaping holes in the High Street.

And it's not just the ones which are going to the wall. Recently H Samuel and Dorothy Perkins announced that they were pulling out of Llanelli after many years of trading in the town. It seems that endless contractor work and disruption in the town have played their part in the decisions.

Of course small businesses shut up shop too, but they tend not to leave massive gaping holes in the High Street when they go, and when you look around our towns, it is often precisely the small, local retailers who seem to be hanging on in there when the multiples give up.

As often as not, they survive despite rather than because of the Council and its visionary regeneration schemes.

But it's not all doom and gloom as far as the big names are concerned. Some are still expanding, as we can see here:

Deal exchanged at Unit 7b, Eastgate, Llanelli to Ladbrokes. Only a few units remain! Contact Owen Cahill for further information. 

That little announcement followed hard on the heels of news that the developer was seeking change of use for the empty Unit 7 from A1 (shops) to A2 (Finance and Professional Services) due to lack of demand.
Cllr Pam Palmer, Deputy Leader of the Council and Independent supremo, was recently in one of her letter-writing moods as she railed against advertising by betting companies on the telly.
It will be interesting to see what she has to say about Ladbrokes opening up in the shiny new family-oriented East Gate shoppertainment complex.

What next? A pawnbroker, a massage parlour and a slot machine arcade perhaps?

Thursday 24 January 2013

U-turns, U-bends, Blacklists, Buses and an amazing Omission: January's Council Meeting

Cneifiwr and Caebrwyn were unable to attend this month's twice delayed meeting of the full council, but thanks to the miracle of digital technology and a secret squirrel (no, not the cute fluffy one belonging to the Council Chair), here is a quick run-down on what we all missed.  

Cllr Glynog Davies (Plaid) complained that his question last month to Chief Executive Mark James about the council's blacklisting of the South Wales Guardian was not in the minutes. A proposed amendment to the minutes to make them reflect what actually happened in the meeting was rejected in a vote.

Linda Evans (Plaid) once again raised the issue of bus services which are set to be cut drastically from April this year as a result of a 25% cut in the grant, and local authorities will lose control over bus subsidies to a new regional consortium. Colin Evans (Lab) responding as a member of the Executive Board agreed that the situation was bad.

And with that, we were back to the council's plans to hive off public toilets to community councils. Thanks to an overwhelming response from the victims community councils to the County Council's generous offer, any community councils which take up the offer will now receive 75% of the cost of running the toilets in Year One, 50% in the second year and 25% in the third year. Any community councils which were daft enough to accept the County Council's original offer will not receive the additional funding. Peter Hughes Griffiths described this as a shambles. He could have called it a U-turn in a U-bend.

Cllr Alun Lenny raised the decay of the old town centre of Carmarthen around King Street. Were there any plans to regenerate the old heart of the town? Deputy Chief Executive Chris Burns gave a non-committal response.
Cllr Lenny went on to ask about the Living Wage. Swansea, a Labour council, had agreed to pay a living wage, what about Carmarthenshire? Kev replied, "At the end of the day, as I've said before..(turn to page 94)..." In other words, "No".

Cefin Campbell raised the decline in the number of Welsh speakers shown in the census. He praised the Rally outside County Hall last Saturday (the one which the council's officers did not want). Mark James replied that the Language Commissioner would be setting up a committee to see what could be done. The ball was safely in the long grass.

Cllr Campbell went on to welcome the Welsh Government's u-turn on council tax benefits. 19,000 people in Carmarthenshire would benefit from this decision, and he asked Kev to offer congratulations to Rhodri Glyn Thomas (Plaid) for his hard work in persuading Carwyn & Co in Cardiff to change course. Kev agreed that Rhodri Glyn deserved congratulations.
Darren Price mischievously asked if there would be any changes in the council's leadership following the defection of Labour's Theressa Bowen to the Independents. His question went unanswered.

Cllr Price also raised the development of a new business park at Cross Hands West, which he supported, but he wanted to know what was being done about council officers who had been found to be acting politically. What was happening to the Ombudsman's investigation into the matter? The Chief Executive replied that he did not know, and it was up to the Ombudsman.
Deian Harries pointed out that car park charges had gone up again, and that people from Tycroes were now shopping in Pontarddulais instead of Ammanford. Cllr Colin Evans blamed the decision on the old council (the Independent-Labour coalition). He agreed that the new Labour-Independent coalition should take another look at it.

Just before the meeting closed, Cefin Campbell rose to say that he had not seen the Ombudsman's report on the Breckman case. Six months had passed, and as the local member he wanted to know what was happening.
Mark James replied that there was no Any Other Business on the agenda this month, and he was right!

Normally, in fact invariably, the meeting agenda ends with the following wording:


For reasons which we can only speculate about, the wording had unaccountably been left off the published agenda this time, and so, the Chief Executive purred, no questions could be taken.

Cllr Campbell had apparently taken the trouble following the last show-down about emergency items to speak to the Chair before the meeting to indicate that he wanted to ask a question. 

As usual, however, the Chief Executive had the final word, and the meeting was closed.

Dyled Eileen, Nandos a Ladbrokes

Yn ôl y Cyngor Sir, mae Llanelli wedi troi'n brifddinas diwylliant de-orllewin Cymru diolch i'r Odeon a'r theatr newydd yng nghanolfan 'shoppertainment' newydd East Gate. Os nad ydych yn siŵr sut i gyrraedd y theatr, mae'r Cyngor Sir yn esbonio:

It is nestled alongside the £25million East Gate development which houses Odeon and a range of family restaurants, including Nando’s.

Ac dyma newyddion cyffrous chwilboeth i chi - bydd Ladbrokes yn agor yn East Gate cyn hir!

Cewch wledd o ddigwyddiadau diwylliannol os ewch chi draw ym mis Chwefror, gan gynnwys Live Superstars of Wrestling a Jim Davidson - The Legend (mor beryglus ag erioed yn ôl y blyrb). Ond a bod yn deg, mae'r theatr newydd yn taflu rhai gemau o flaen y moch. Y ddrama Dyled Eileen am safiad Eileen a Trevor Beasley a'u brwydr hir dros yr iaith, er enghraifft.

Ffoniodd ffrind i archebu tocynnau'n ddiweddar. Canodd y ffôn am oes cyn i lais benywaidd ateb. "Siarad Cymraeg?" gofynnodd fy ffrind. "No, I do NOT speak Welsh", atebodd honno'n ffyrnig.

Os nad ydych am fynd i Dre'r Sosban i weld Dyled Eileen, ceir perfformiadau ym Mhontardawe, Crymych a Felin-fach. Am fwy o fanylion, cliciwch yma.

Qunitisset press releasus hoc eam crapus sum

All across a great swathe of Carmarthenshire comes the sound of junk mail thudding on doormats as the latest edition of the council's propaganda sheet Carmarthenshire News arrives with the post. This time the eco-friendly plastic wrapping also contains a glossy publication heralding the relaunch of the Carmarthen Journal. Cneifiwr's copy arrived yesterday.

It is hard to think of a parallel for this collaboration. Imagine the Inland Revenue distributing free copies of the Sun or Daily Mail perhaps.

The relationship between press and government is always difficult and always in flux. In a healthy democracy the press keeps government at arm's length; it is always suspicious and always questioning. If we did not know already, Leveson helped to blow the lid on what can happen when press barons, journalists, the police and government become too pally, so the decision by the Carmarthen Journal to pay to have its glossy advertising distributed by the council tells us a great deal about the relationship between the council, the Journal and the Llanelli Star.

It does not look good, and it does not smell good.

The latest edition of the council rag is the usual stodgy fare. Two articles promoting the new theatre in Llanelli, with one giving the impression that Meryl Gravell has taken to Twitter. She hasn't. There's the usual picture of Kevin Madge and assorted others wearing hard hats and fluorescent jackets giving a thumbs up, and a snap of Pam Palmer peering at us from behind a police speed camera.

Dai Green is roped in once again (this time the press office calls him Dai rather than David). Dai is very excited about the council's new East Gate development and tweeted, "Heard today that Llanelli is getting a Nandos. This is the BIG".

The Carmarthen Journal glossy is altogether more disturbing.

The publication consists for the most part of reproductions or representations of different parts of the newspaper. The front page leads with a re-hash of a council press release on the planned new business park at Cross Hands, and also finds room for news of an exciting council regeneration project at Ammanford. There is a prominent council advert at the bottom of the page.

No mention is made of one of the biggest events in Carmarthen, which was the demonstration by hundreds of people outside County Hall in support of the Welsh language. But then the council got a bit of a bashing there.

You might as well save yourselves 65p and go straight to the council's website to read the press releases.

Inside there are lots more council stories. "Council plans foodbank talks to aid families", "New care home to go ahead", and promos for the council's new theatre in Llanelli.

Quite a lot of the examples of new, improved coverage are simply headlines and pictures, with the text made up of that peculiar fake Latin mumbo jumbo that developers of publishing software programs seem to love.

Under a large picture of some saluting soldiers in dress uniform is a headline "Meeting for Welsh language group". The story explains, "Agnatquunto temos et eossimolest, cusae. Bitatinvel...." That is the only mention of the Welsh language.

Of course a local newspaper should report on council regeneration projects, but the tone and content appears here to have been dictated by County Hall.

Overall the relaunched Journal is oddly reminiscent of a Soviet era newspaper from Eastern Europe reporting on bountiful harvests, over-fulfilment of the latest 5-year plan and beaming workers. The main difference is that the Journal is in colour.

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Boundary Changes in Carmarthenshire

The Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales has published draft proposals for a re-jig of wards in Carmarthenshire to reflect changes in population levels in different parts of the county. The overall recommendation is for 75 councillors (currently we have 74), which would produce an average of 1,881 voters per councillor. It is also proposing a significant increase in the number of multi-member wards from 16 currently to 24. Only 23 wards (currently 42) would continue to be represented by a single councillor.

At present some areas are significantly under-represented, while other councillors need far fewer votes to book a seat in County Hall. The range is from 37% below the average (i.e. voters are over-represented) to 55% above (voters are under-represented).

At one extreme are Bynea and Dafen in Llanelli, currently represented by 2 councillors. Bynea is 55% above the county average, while Dafen is 37% above. The proposal is turn them into a single ward with 3 councillors.

At the other end of the scale is Cilycwm where 1,197 electors return a single councillor (currently octogenarian Tom Theophilus).

Roughly speaking, one vote in Cilycwm is equivalent to three votes in Bynea.

The net effect of all the proposed changes is that the range would be reduced slightly to 22% below and 24% above the average for the county. To a certain extent the proposals take into account that some of the rural wards cover very large areas, and so there is a degree of compensation for that.

Overall the result would probably be to give Labour, and to a lesser extent Plaid Cymru, a boost at the expense of the Independents. The proposals would also most likely mark the end of the road for some of Pam's old boys..

Whether multi-member wards are a good thing is another matter. Certainly there are already quite a few examples of good councillors sharing a patch with lazy and incompetent party hacks.

One final oddity was the response of Abergwili Community Council, the stomping ground of that champion of democracy, transparency and press freedom Cllr Pam Palmer, who also glories in the title of Deputy Leader of the Council with special responsibility for rural affairs (have you noticed?). Abergwili is just outside Carmarthen, but unlike all of the other community councils which responded to the Commission by discussing the proposals for their own localities, Aber-Palmer came up with a set of proposals for how it felt electors in neighbouring Carmarthen should be organised.

Fortunately the Commissioner decided not to accept this unasked-for advice.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Council delivers a bumper supply of cat litter

 Update 23 January

The South Wales Guardian is reporting that the County Council has lifted its advertising blockade and has placed its first adverts with the paper for months. Strange then that only last month the Council issued a long press statement saying that the advertising moratorium was purely a commercial decision. Perhaps they think we all have the memory span of a goldfish.

The reality is probably that the council realised it was on dodgy legal ground, and calculates that a "stop-go" approach to advertising bans for bad behaviour may be a better option.


If reports reaching Cneifiwr are correct, householders in Carmarthenshire who recycle their copies of the council's propaganda rag, Carmarthenshire News, as cat litter or hamster bedding can this month expect a bonus in the form of an additional glossy supplement in the same plastic covers to mark the latest re-launch of the Carmarthen Journal, also affectionately known as the James Journal.

Some readers may recall that when the council first started producing its own newspaper, the Carmarthen Journal helped things along by distributing the council rag free along with copies of its own newspaper. As the council's ambitions and control-freakery grew, the Journal realised that it had been fostering a cuckoo in the nest, and collaboration ceased, but by then it was too late because the council realised that it could use the threat of withdrawal of advertising revenue to ensure a friendly editorial line in the local press.

Both the Journal and its sister paper, the Llanelli Star, have maintained a wall of silence about the council's interference in editorial policy, and anyone inquiring has been told that there is no truth in the claims, but former staff have confirmed that they were told that it had come down to a straight choice between independent and sometimes critical reporting of council news, and losing advertising revenue equivalent to the papers' monthly wage bills.

The truth of the matter is plain enough to anyone who reads the Journal and Star. No stories which show the council in a bad light are printed. There is no editorial criticism of any council decision, no matter how daft or wrong. No letters from members of the public which criticise the council are allowed to appear. There are a good many examples of stories which have been taken straight, without question and unchecked, from the council's press office, and others which appear to have been planted by County Hall. Not to mention the two page spreads and in-depth "interviews" with the Chief Executive and leading luminaries such as Meryl Gravell which have become a regular feature in the two papers.

The new proprietors of the the Journal and Star have decided that money is a great deal more important than editorial integrity, but they may have made a serious miscalculation. A good many newspaper readers know when they are being fed propaganda, and they don't like it. 

The next set of circulation figures will make for interesting reading.

Meanwhile things have gone full circle for the once proud Carmarthen Journal which is rumoured to be having to pay a hefty sum to the council to have its glossy supplement delivered along with the council newspaper it helped bring to life.

Ysgol y Ddwylan in Welsh shock!

The Carmarthen Journal billboard at the petrol station last night screamed "SCHOOL TO TEACH IN WELSH SHOCK". As headlines go in this part of Wales, that's a bit like "POPE IS A CATHOLIC!"

In the paper itself is a report that governors of Ysgol y Ddwylan in Newcastle Emlyn are proposing to change the category of the school and to phase out the English stream. The report is reasonably balanced, although the sensation-seeking headline "Primary governors reveal plans to ditch school English stream" was probably the first shot in what could turn out to be a bitter battle.

Ten miles down the road from us, Ysgol Gynradd Aberteifi took a similar decision last year, and a vocal minority kicked up a storm in the local press, with all of the usual prejudices and ill-informed arguments getting an airing. The campaign culminated in the appearance of the notorious BiLingo website, almost certainly the work of someone in the south of Ceredigion, and that row was duly picked up by the Daily Mail and other London newspapers.

The chair of governors of Ysgol y Ddwylan, Sioned Thomas, told the newspaper that the school should never have been split into English and Welsh streams in the first place. The County Council is said to be supportive of the change, and that is at least something. The town's senior school, Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn, is also taking steps to improve its Welsh language provision.

Bearing in mind that the 2001 census showed that 69% of the population of Newcastle Emlyn was Welsh-speaking in 2001, you have to ask what kind of thinking it was the led the local authority to maintain a large English stream in the town's only primary school and to run an overwhelmingly English secondary school. Details of what has happened to the language at a local level since 2001 are due at the end of this month, and we can be certain that the percentage for Newcastle Emlyn will not be 69%.

If anyone in the upper echelons of the council wonders why there is so much anger about the authority's attitude to the Welsh language, the example of what has been done to this small traditional market town may help to explain it to them.

Ysgol y Ddwylan has around 280 pupils aged between 4 and 11 and serves both the town and several of the surrounding villages. It has a deservedly good reputation and acts as a feeder school for both Ysgol Dyffryn Teifi in Llandysul and Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn in Newcastle Emlyn itself.

Currently all children from Year One onwards opt for either the Welsh or the English stream. Unlike the primary school in Cardigan where there were just two children in the last intake into the English stream, the English stream at Ysgol y Ddwylan is large.

There have been mutterings from some parents of children in the English stream in the past who feel that the Welsh stream is better resourced, although they would be hard put to come up with any evidence to back up that claim. It is also true that a minority of the parents are of the type that occasionally feature in Jac o' the North's blog.

The next step will be a formal consultation, and if the proposals are implemented, children currently in the English stream will continue through the school unaffected.

If the proposals are presented sensitively and the benefits explained, there is every reason to expect that a majority of parents will accept the change, but the County Council needs to pull out all the stops and ensure that it provides additional resources to help children from non-Welsh speaking homes with extra language tuition where needed.

In the last year or so, a number of children from homes where no Welsh is spoken have been moved from the Welsh stream to the English stream because of poor language skills. That will not be an option in the future, and for the sake of those children and the rest of their class mates, it is essential that additional support is provided.

As for the parents themselves, the Welsh Government has sponsored a scheme called Cymraeg i'r Teulu (Welsh for the Family) to provide heavily subsidised Welsh language classes specifically designed for parents with children being taught through the medium of Welsh. As with so much else in Carmarthenshire when it comes to the language, provision has been extremely patchy to put it mildly.

Although the scheme cannot hope to produce parents who become fluent in Welsh with just an hour and a half of teaching once a week over a year or so, it does at least help non-Welsh speakers get their bearings in the language, and kids love it when they see their parents taking an interest, even if that usually takes the form of mockery as mum and dad struggle to pronounce words correctly.

Contrary to the expectations of cynics, parents attending these course are not middle class "pushy parents", but overwhelmingly ordinary working class people who just happen to care about their children's education. Cymraeg i'r Teulu may not help them understand every word in their children's reading books, but they will at least know how to pronounce words, and will definitely get the gist of the story.

As for the wider picture the proposed change, even if long overdue, will put up a sign to anyone considering moving to this part of Wales that this is not a rainier version of Billericay or Birmingham. If you don't want to make an effort to integrate, don't come here.

Sunday 20 January 2013

Another Black Week for Carmarthenshire County Council

As Caebrwyn reported previously, a shabby little meeting took place somewhere in Carmarthenshire this week to "discuss" a motion in support of press freedom. The motion was supposed to have gone to the next meeting of the full council, but was instead effectively vetoed by the Chief Executive and sent to one of the two Deputy Leaders of the council, Pam Palmer, for "consideration" in private.

Mrs Palmer, who is a staunch opponent of allowing the public to record council meetings, sat down either in Llanelli (according to the agenda) or in Carmarthen (according to the meeting minutes) along with Debbie Williams (manager of the council's notorious press office and PR machine), Chris Burns (one of our two deputy chief executives) and Colin Davies who revels in the title of Head of Democratic Services. In 25 minutes they concluded that everything in the garden was lovely, and that the freedom of the press was safe in the hands of Carmarthenshire County Council.

Judging from the minutes, much of the short meeting must have been taken up by Ms Williams telling her colleagues what a wonderful job the press office does. It issues lots of press releases, and is the first port of call for any journalist with questions about council business. Who would have thought that?

Ms Williams forgot to mention that what sparked the row about press freedom was an e-mail she had sent demanding that the council should cease placing adverts with the South Wales Guardian because it had criticised the council. She might even have recalled some of the other escapades she has been involved in, including the Sainsbury's press release, reporting Cllr Siân Caiach to the chief executive for comments allegedly made to a BBC reporter, numerous other politically slanted press releases and an e-mail attack on Plaid Cymru AM Helen Mary Jones in 2006.

But clearly there was not time for any of that.

She might also have liked to ponder that a good proportion of the 1,500 press releases and news stories churned out by her department in the course of a year can only be described as crap. Just as a taster, here's something what they wrote about the hurdler Dai Green (known for some reason to the press office as David Green) last year:

David Green, who is the current hat-trick holder of the Carmarthenshire Sports Personality of the Year, will take come stopping clocking another victory in this respect having finished-outside the medals but a creditable fourth-in the worlds’s man-killer Olympic 400-meters hurdles event.

Unsurprisingly then, the gang that mugged the South Wales Guardian reconvened as a court and decided that the charges did not add up to a row of beans before declaring themselves innocent.

On Friday it snowed, and most of the county's schools closed for the day. In Ceredigion the council's much smaller press office put out a stream of informative messages in Welsh and English on Twitter with details of school closures and the situation on the roads. The best the bloated operation in Carmarthenshire could come up with was a couple of tweets (one in ungrammatical Welsh by the way) suggesting that anyone interested should refer to the council's website.

Deputy Chief Executive Chris Burns featured in the Helen Mary Jones row in which Ms Williams was let off scot-free, and he appears to be the man the council calls on whenever there is a bit of fixing to do.

He popped up again later in the week at the rally outside County Hall organised by Cymdeithas yr Iaith. Not in person, you understand, but in an e-mail to the organisers asking them to move the rally from County Hall to somewhere else because of "health and safety" issues.

Fortunately the organisers at Cymdeithas yr Iaith are made of much sterner stuff, and rejected his offer.

As readers of the Carmarthenshire blogs will know, Mr Burns was also heavily involved with the Big Brother entry procedures imposed on visitors to the public gallery in County Hall, and health and safety issues, security concerns and fire regulations were all wheeled out to justify the unjustifiable.

The event, which was superbly organised, passed off extremely well and was attended by a large crowd of young and old. A very high proportion of the speakers, who included actors, poets, teachers, politicians, a minister of religion, a farmer and a senior member of Merched y Wawr, attacked the council's appalling record on the language.

Unfortunately none of the council's 10 Executive Board members felt it necessary to attend, and neither did any of the Labour or Independent councillors. In the case of the Independents the fact that they could not claim expenses probably put a good many off.

The council's response to the recent Census results showed that as far as the 44% of the population who described themselves as Welsh speakers were concerned, they simply don't count.

Saturday 19 January 2013

Rali'r Cyfrif - Safiad Sir Gaerfyrddin

Peth da iawn oedd gweld cynifer o bobl yng Nghaerfyrddin heddiw er gwaetha'r oerfel, yn enwedig y teuluoedd gyda phlant bach a nifer sylweddol o bobl ifainc. Wedi gwrando ar yr areithiau angerddol, does dim dwywaith amdani ni fydd yr iaith Gymraeg yn marw yn Sir Gaerfyrddin heb frwydr ffyrnig.

Cawsom anerchiad gan Phil Grice (Llafur), Maer Caerfyrddin, sy wedi dysgu Cymraeg, a chwarae teg iddo fe. Hyd y gwelais, fe oedd yn cynrychioli Plaid Lafur ar ei ben ei hunan. Doedd yr un cynghorydd 'annibynnol' i'w weld chwaith. Doedd dim arwydd o ddiddordeb ar ran arweinydd y Cyngor, Kevin Madge, nac unrhyw aelod arall o'r Bwrdd Gweithredol.

Clywsom hefyd i un o ddau ddirprwy brif weithredwr y Cyngor anfon e-bost at drefnyddion y Rali i ddweud y dylen nhw symud y Rali o Neuadd y Sir i rywle arall yn y dref "am resymau iechyd a diogelwch". Iechyd a diogelwch y swyddogion uwch eu hunain, mae'n debyg.

Mae'n amlwg nad yw 44% o bobl Sir Gaerfyrddin yn cyfrif yn nhyb y Cyngor Sir, felly.

Thursday 17 January 2013

Rali'r Cyfrif - Not whinging but celebrating

It is fair to say that Cllr Siân Caiach does not have a huge fan base in County Hall, but she is always worth listening to, whether you agree with what she says or not.

Earlier today Cllr Caiach wrote the following comment in response to the piece in English about this Saturday's Rally in Carmarthen. It deserves to be reproduced in its own right.

For the record, the Rally on Saturday is intended to be a positive, affirming event. Although the County Council and the Welsh Government can expect to come in for criticism, don't expect to hear much whinging. Equally, in just one and a half hours and with some 20 speakers getting a minute each, don't expect it to be a debate about detailed proposals on the future of the language.

Anyone interested in ideas and details of some of the work already going on should take a look at Cymdeithas yr Iaith's Maniffesto Byw and the new Cynghrair Cymunedau Cymraeg, as well as Mudiad Dyfodol i'r Iaith.


The sad fact is that without a proper national economy the Welsh Language is likely to be in trouble in a recession. In County Hall Plaid and other nationalist leaning councillors have been effectively sidelined by being bought off by concessions in Welsh education, much needed, but undermined themselves by supporting for the past decade a policy of building homes for incomers, commuters, second home owners and retirees, while not putting in the infrstructure for jobs for young people.

This has led to an unfortunate rise in English speakers [many deliberately imported] and loss of Welsh speakers [discouraged from staying by no employment].

As long as we allow ourselves to be a marginal and unimportant area of the UK this will not change. Only real political change will save the language, and there is no point in politely asking the puppets of the British state to save it, whether in County Council, Assembly or Westminster. They are all in it together, and not on our side, however profuse the crocodile tears.

It's not just about the ease or otherwise of learning Welsh, irritating snooty Welsh speakers and poor funding. Its about real nation building. A Welsh speaker may or may not be committed to that and there have been many willing to take the easy life. Possibly, often the same irritating people who destroy the self confidence of learners efforts in Welsh by correcting, rather than replying.

The language has been more difficult to destroy than the economy and infrastructure of the geographical nation of Wales,but can't survive for ever living on fresh air.

On Saturday I want to hear some real proposals for how we, ourselves can forge the changes, not just whingeing about how awful it is and asking someone else, somewhere else to save us.

Cllr Sian Caiach

Monday 14 January 2013

A Question of Identity

Next Saturday, 19 January beginning at 11 o'clock, a rally will be held outside County Hall in Carmarthen to bring together people who care about the future of the Welsh language in Carmarthenshire.

Lots of "celebs" will be there, along with many other people from all walks of life who were shocked by the recent census results. Please come along and show your support even if you feel your Welsh is not brilliant or you are learning the language. You will not be made to sit a mutation test or dragged in front of the microphones.

The ability to speak a language is not black and white. There are people, certainly a small minority in Carmarthenshire, who have no Welsh at all. Not even "diolch". Then there are lots of shades of grey, ranging from people who have a few words; those with a smattering of Welsh; people who don't actively speak Welsh but can understand it; people whose Welsh has become rusty; and then quite a big group who can actually speak and understand the language but who feel, for a variety of reasons, that their Welsh is not "good enough".

We've probably all come across people who say that their Welsh isn't "good enough" or who say they speak "Wenglish", but who can actually carry on a decent conversation with a bit of English thrown in. Last year I got talking to an elderly lady in Tesco's who began by saying,

"Sai'n siarad Cymra'g, achan, ond w i'n gallu swearo yn Gymra'g". [I don't speak Welsh, lad, but I can swear in Welsh].

The good news, then, is that if you scratch the surface, there is a lot more Welsh in Carmarthenshire than the census figures would suggest. The bad news is that there is a decline in the numbers who feel confident in asserting that they can speak Welsh.

There are things that can be done about that, and none of them involves pain. See the bottom of this post for some useful telephone numbers and websites.

Before anyone says, "With the economy the way it is, this is not a priority", consider this. Firstly, speaking Welsh does not damage the economy. Secondly, people have been speaking Welsh or something very much like it in Carmarthenshire and the rest of Wales for the best part of 2,000 years. During that long history, the Welsh have endured plagues, famines, wars, invasions, natural disasters and any number of economic downturns which make what we are experiencing today look like a picnic in the park.

Future generations would curse us if they thought we gave up because of a few years of recession.

There are people, including some of those running our county council, who feel that Welsh is somehow a luxury, and they must share part of the blame for the decline in the numbers speaking Welsh over the last ten years.

Welsh is not a luxury, but part of our identity and our birthright. Come along to County Hall next Saturday and send a loud and clear message that we want to keep it that way.


Useful telephone numbers and contact details

If you already have some Welsh but you do not feel confident in speaking it, or it has become rusty, a good place to start is Menter Iaith. They are a friendly bunch who run various activities for people like you.

Menter Iaith Cwm Gwendraeth 01269 871600

Menter Iaith Gorllewin Sir Gâr 01239 712934

Menter Bro Dinefwr  01558 825336

If you want to learn the language or brush up your Welsh, try one of the following. In Ceredigion there are also weekly conversation groups to give people a chance to chat about all sorts of topics, ranging from cooking, gardening and health to topics in the news, local businesses, history, etc. There are also classes run for parents with children in Welsh-medium schools (Cymraeg i'r Teulu). If there isn't one at your child's school, ask the school head to organise one.

Welsh for Adults/Cymraeg i Oedolion 01792 60 20 70 (Swansea, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire)

Welsh for Adults/Cymraeg i Oedolion 0800 876 6975 (Ceredigion)

A great online way of learning Welsh: Say Something in Welsh

Saturday 12 January 2013

In the Courts

In a month's time a couple of groups from Carmarthenshire will head off down the M4 or board a train for London. They won't be going to see the sights, do a bit of shopping or take in a West End show, but will instead head for the Gothic surroundings of the Royal Courts of Justice to take part in the Caebrwyn libel case. As things stand it seems that the case will be heard by a jury, which is in itself very unusual these days, as most actions for defamation are heard by a judge alone.

The case rumbled on all through 2012, with teams of lawyers shuttling back and forth between their chambers in London and Carmarthenshire. The case paperwork runs to thousands of pages, and the costs are already eye watering. What the final bill will be is anyone's guess, but most cases of this kind don't leave much change out of a quarter of a million, and costs could be significantly higher.

The County Council is funding both the defence of an action brought by Jacqui Thompson against Chief Executive Mark James, and, uniquely, a counter-action Mr James is bringing against Mrs Thompson. If the council loses and costs are awarded against it, taxpayers in Carmarthenshire will be left with a very big bill. The sort of money which could save some of the council services which are currently being lined up for the chop, such as libraries, road maintenance, respite care, and so on.

Cases such as this are extremely rare for the good reason that it is a principle of the common law that a public authority cannot bring an action for defamation. Carmarthenshire believes it has found a way round that, and is relying on what are called powers of competence to justify funding the chief executive's counter-claim. In practice, then, the council is suing a member of the public by proxy.

Other councils may well have considered doing this, and some are undoubtedly waiting on the outcome of the Caebrwyn case. Until now, none has followed Carmarthenshire's lead.

As it happens, a case with interesting parallels in the English county of Rutland made news this week. Rutland, with a population of under 40,000, is a full-blown county and run by the Conservatives. Three independent councillors worried about the way in which the council is being run came together to form the Rutland Anti-Corruption Party, and the feathers have been flying ever since.

Last week the council agreed to set aside £90,000 to fund an action for defamation which could be brought by the chief executive against the three councillors. At the last minute the council and chief executive drew back from issuing proceedings for defamation and opted instead to take out an injunction against the three councillors to "prevent harassment" of the Chief Executive and other officers by the Anti-Corruption Party.

Like Carmarthenshire, Rutland appears to base its case on an argument that it has a general power of competence, claiming that the new Localism Act allows such actions because the act says,

A local authority has power to do anything that individuals generally may do.

This opens up all sorts of intriguing possibilities. Could a council get married in church or enter into a civil partnership? Could it apply to become a citizen of another country?

David Allen Greene writing in his legal blog in the New Statesman reckons that the Rutland case is based on a fallacy.

At this distance it is not possible to know precisely what has been going on in Rutland, but the three councillors say on their website:

"There is a concern that Full Council Meetings on major issues are brief, raising suspicions that decisions may be pre-determined. The Scrutiny process is minimal. Well qualified Councillors are side-lined, with little or no influence in debates that could be about spending £Millions of public money."

Sounds strangely familiar, doesn't it?

For its part, Rutland council says that the three councillors have been "bombarding" officers and other councillors with e-mails and questions, and that that bombardment constitutes harassment.

Whether or not there is a legal definition of "bombardment", I do not know, but in Carmarthenshire "several" appears to be defined as "more than one", while a "bombardment" is a number greater than two.

In 2011 the council acted to stop what it claimed was a flood of notices of motion from the People First Group, and the constitution was changed to require notices of motion to have 7 seconders - a hurdle which is set higher than in any other Welsh council. From memory, the group had submitted three notices of motion, and all were vetoed by the Chief Executive and not debated.

At the time the Labour group on the council was barely above the threshold of seven, and Cneifiwr warned that this illiberal measure could well come back to bite some of the larger parties in future, because what it effectively does is to silence minority voices.

Plaid Cymru is the largest political group on the council, but that has not prevented the Chief Executive from vetoing its motions recently, and there have been rumblings about the number of notices of motion being submitted by the Plaid group in the last few months (not quite one a month).

Cllr Siân Caiach and former councillor Arthur Davies were put into special measures for asking "too many questions", and for months on end they were prohibited from asking questions of any officer other than the chief executive. Perhaps he should have taken out a writ instead.

But it is not just councillors who could find themselves on the receiving end of a writ or action for defamation if either of these two cases establishes a precedent.

According to Carmarthenshire County Council, Jacqui Thompson was warned "several" times about not filming. Again, if I remember rightly, she was warned once and arrested the second time. Other members of the public and even local newspapers could find that they are in trouble if the council considers, in its opinion, that their actions amount to harassment because they complain too much, ask too many questions or just criticise the council too often.

You have been warned.

Thursday 10 January 2013

Rali'r Cyfrif yng Nghaerfyrddin - Amser Gweithredu.

Cynhelir Rali'r Cyfrif yng Nghaerfyrddin ddydd Sadwrn, 19 Ionawr am 11yb o flaen Neuadd y Sir, ac rwy'n gobeithio'n fawr y bydd cymaint o bobl y Sir ag y bo modd yn troi ma's i ddangos eu cefnogaeth. Ceir rhagor o fanylion ar dudalen Facebook Cymdeithas yr Iaith yma. Dewch yn llu!


Wedi llyncu canlyniadau torcalonnus y cyfrifiad, mae'n amser mynd i'r gad dros y Gymraeg yn Sir Gaerfyrddin. Fel mae pawb yn gwybod erbyn hyn, collodd y Sir dros 6,000 o siaradwyr Cymraeg yn ystod y degawd diwethaf, ac mae hynny'n cyfateb i ostyngiad o 6.4 y cant i 43.9% o'r boblogaeth. Am y tro cyntaf erioed, felly, mae'r iaith Gymraeg yn iaith y lleiafrif yn Sir Gaerfyrddin.

Mae yna sawl rheswm dros hynny: mewnfudiad, newidiadau demograffig, ffactorau unigryw megis presenoldeb poblogaeth ddinesig Llanelli yn y ffigyrau ac - nid yn lleiaf - agwedd y Cyngor Sir tuag at ei gyfrifoldebau am gefnogi a chryfhau lle'r iaith yn ein cymunedau ni.

Fe ddarlledwyd rhaglen arbennig o dda gan Adam Price flwyddyn yn ôl i gofio darlith Saunders Lewis yn 1962. Meddai Adam:

"Prif fyrdwn neges Saunders yw bod tynged yr iaith Gymraeg yn ein dwylo ni. Mae'r iaith Gymraeg yn fyw neu'n farw bob tro rydym ni'n dewis ei defnyddio hi neu beidio. Mae yna gyfrifoldeb ar unigolion ond mae yna gyfrifoldeb ar y genedl hefyd."

Cynigiodd Adam nifer o syniadau i sicrhau dyfodol yr iaith, gan gynnwys symud swyddi Cymraeg o Gaerdydd i'r gorllewin, creu awdurdod lleol newydd Cymraeg ei hiaith yn y gorllewin a newid polisiau tai a chynllunio. Mae "maniffesto byw" Cymdeithas yr Iaith yn debyg iawn i syniadau Adam ac yn rhoi sylfaen gadarn i'r ymgyrch dros ddyfodol yr iaith.

Ond dychwelwn at y Cyngor Sir. Nid yw arweinydd y Cyngor, Kevin Madge, byth yn siarad Cymraeg er bod cryn dipyn o Gymraeg ganddo. Mae dau ddirprwy arweinydd, sef Tegwen Devichand (Llafur) a Pam Palmer (Annibynnol), ac nid yw'r un ohonynt yn siarad Cymraeg. Dywedodd Pam Palmer yn ddiweddar y dylai'r Cyngor yrru llythyr i "the town whose name I shall not attempt to pronounce" (Machynlleth), a hithau yn aelod o arweinyddiaeth y Cyngor ers dros ddeng mlynedd.

Y nhw sy'n gyfrifol am bolisiau sy'n effeithio ar yr iaith yn uniongyrchol. Tybed, ydy hi'n afresymol i ddisgwyl iddynt osod esiampl dda i'n plant ni a gwella eu sgiliau Cymraeg?

I'r rheiny sy wedi mynychu cyfarfodydd y Cyngor llawn, mae presenoldeb rhes o swyddogion uwch o flaen y cynghorwyr yn olwg cyfarwydd, a phob un ohonynt yn ennill mwy na £100,000 y flwyddyn.Yn y cyfarfod diwethaf dim ond dau allan o'r pump swyddog uwch oedd yn eistedd yn ddistaw iawn o flaen y Cadeirydd sy'n medru'r Gymraeg, heb sôn am y Prif Weithredwr (£209,000 yn 2011-12).

Dylai medru cyfathrebu trwy gyfrwng y Gymraeg fod yn angenrheidiol i bob swyddog uwch yn Sir Gaerfyrddin. Os ydym am gadw pobl dalentog a phobl ifainc yn y gorllewin, pam fod y Cyngor yn mewnforio cymaint o swyddogion di-Gymraeg â chyflogau sy'n dod â dŵr i'r llygaid? Mae yna bobl Cymraeg eu hiaith sy'n gallu gwneud y swyddi hyn yn llawn cystal os nid gwell na'r criw yna.

A yw hi'n syndod, felly, bod y Cyngor Sir wedi cau cynifer o ysgolion gwledig, bod cyllideb y Mentrau Iaith yn cael ei haneru, bod y Cyngor yn wfftio dadlau Bwrdd yr Iaith a chymunedau yn erbyn datblygiadau tai anferth?

Y gair olaf i'r Cynghorydd Alun Lenny:
Mae diffyg ewyllys enbyd wedi bodoli tuag at yr iaith ar Gyngor Sir Gaerfyrddin. Ofnaf na fyddai nifer o'm cyd-gynghorwyr yn colli cwsg petai'r iaith yn marw'n gyfangwbl. Ond digon yw digon. Dim mwy o faldod...

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Letter to the Editor of the Carmarthen Journal

Dear Editor

Allow me to be the first to congratulate you for telling your readers at long last about the row about Carmarthenshire County Council and press freedom. I was skimming through your paper in the newsagents, and I very nearly missed the short report in which you mention that "another newspaper" (let's not be shy, it is the South Wales Guardian we're talking about, isn't it?) has run into a spot of bother with the council.

It is likely that many of your readers will have picked up this news weeks ago, as it has been reported in lots of other places, including that other, rather bigger Guardian. But better late than never, and you don't need to worry about getting into trouble with County Hall because Pam Palmer gave you a quote, and that would have been cleared by the Press Office. So it must be all right.

But you're not quite out of the woods yet because alert readers may have spotted the report and feel like writing to your newspaper. It is just about within the realms of possibility that genuine readers can be found out there who share Cllr Palmer's concerns for the welfare of the Chief Executive and agree with his innovative interpretations of the council's constitution, but it's rather more likely that you will attract letters which ask awkward questions and say things that they won't like very much down the road. Oh dear.

Now that the cat is out of the bag, it could be quite a struggle to force it back in.

But if any of your readers find that their letters on this topic don't get published, Cneifiwr will be happy to take them off your hands and give them an airing on this blog.

The address is:

Yours, etc.

Y Cneifiwr

Giles and Theressa sitting in a tree....

It's still not clear whether Cllr Theressa Bowen will go the whole hog and join Pam's motley collection in County Hall, but we have been given a clue by Cllr Giles Morgan (Ind) who tweeted the following welcome messages last night:

I welcome Cllr Fozia Akhtar, and Cllr Theressa Bowen to the Independent Group on Llanelli Council. A very warm welcome to you both.

First meeting of 2013 on Llanelli Rural Council. 2 labour councillors have crossed the floor to the independent group. Coalition have 11. 

You would be hard put to think of two less likely bedfellows than Cllr Morgan and Cllr Bowen. 

To lose two councillors just seven months after an election has put Carmarthenshire Labour on course for breaking a new political record. I wonder what Ed Milliband will say when he comes to inspect the troops, assuming that anyone dares tell him.

Monday 7 January 2013

Motion in favour of press freedom gagged

An opposition motion calling for a debate on press freedom at the next meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council has been blocked by the Chief Executive under Rule Number 1 of the council's constitution: that the Chief Executive shall decide what the rules are as he sees fit.

Instead of going before the full council, the Plaid motion will instead be directed to a member of the Executive Board for consideration in private (see Plaid's press release on the subject here).

The background to this was the revelation in December that the council had withdrawn advertising from the South Wales Guardian because the paper had published articles and comment pieces critical of County Hall, although the council's control freakery and meddling with press freedom extends way beyond that. As reported extensively on this blog and elsewhere, both the Carmarthen Journal and the Llanelli Star ceased independent reporting of council matters a long time ago, and it recently came to light that blogs critical of the council, including this one, are blocked on PCs provided to councillors (although they are actively monitored by the council's officers).

As readers of the blogs will know, the council's top brass have been resorting to ever more draconian measures to prevent discussion of matters the Council Leader and Chief Executive would rather not have aired. The list since the end of the summer break in September includes reports by the Ombudsman for Public Services, the infamous Sainsbury's press release and pollution in the Burry Inlet. Last month a motion which would have allowed recording of council meetings by the public was negated by a rival motion, contrary to the council's standing orders.

The full council was due to meet for the first time this year on 9 January, but that meeting has been put back by two weeks. This seems to follow a pattern established last year of cancelling or delaying meetings with the result that opportunities for elected councillors to question the executive are also being curbed.

There is no sign either that the council is in any hurry to allow discussion of the Census results which showed that the number of Welsh speakers in Carmarthenshire had fallen by more than anywhere else in Wales, thanks in part at least to the council's policies and disregard for the language.

Crossing the Floor

News that Theressa Bowen has defected from Labour to join the ranks of Pam Palmer's "Independents" is not on the face of it much to get excited about, but there is something very odd about this particular move, and it tells us something about the peculiar nature of the Labour Party in Carmarthenshire as well as the official Independents who like to pretend that they are not actually a political party at all.

Defections by politicians from one party to another are nothing new, but they remain relatively rare events. Usually they come about after a long gestation of profound disagreements over policy or, rather less nobly, because the defector calculates that he or she has a better chance of being re-elected and appointed to a top job by joining a different party. Sometimes defections are triggered by personality clashes and tantrums.

Ms Bowen has quite a long and colourful history in the sometimes murky world of Llanelli politics. She ran a bitter and protracted vendetta against Meilyr Hughes who represented the two-member ward of Llwynhendy for Plaid Cymru, and finally unseated him in the local government elections in May last year as Labour in Llanelli surfed the national wave which brought the party back from the disastrous losses it suffered in 2008.

Ms Bowen has now been a county councillor for all of 7 months, an unusually short period of time for a defection. Even odder, although she has physically crossed the floor from the Labour to the Independent benches, the two parties are in coalition, so we can rule out long, simmering disagreements over policy issues as the reason for her move.

We can guess how Labour would react if the Independents put up Cllr Bowen for promotion to a job with a special responsibility allowance, so we can probably also rule that out as a motive.

Ms Bowen was known to be close to Labour's deputy leader, Tegwen Devichand, and various highly unsavoury accounts of what happened to cause the rift are circulating. What seems clear is that the Independents were quick to seize an opportunity to add to their ranks.

Whatever the truth, this is not a run of the mill defection, and it puts Labour and the Independents level pegging with 22 seats each. Pam Palmer, who was obviously less than ecstatic about the outcome of the election and having to play second fiddle to Kevin Madge, will now have her sights set on the role of council leader. We may even see the job of council leader turned into a revolving arrangement, with Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee taking it in turns to run the council every alternate year.

As for Labour, the party needs to have a serious look at its candidate selection process. Not only was it clearly unable to attract people willing to stand in most parts of the county, but the candidates it did attract were, to put it mildly, a mixed bunch. Some, such as Shahid Hussein, fortunately never made it to County Hall, despite Kevin Madge's best efforts. Theressa Bowen did, and Labour now rues the day. Some others are little short of a disgrace to public office.

Labour's decent rank and file members and councillors must be asking themselves what their party has come to.

And as for the rest of us, the grubby goings-on in County Hall leave us wondering what the hell we have done to deserve this.

Sunday 6 January 2013

Panto Time in Llanelli!

No doubt we can look forward to a gushing write-up from County Hall's Ministry of Truth later this week about the grand opening of Llanelli's new theatre, where the curtain rose on a production of Aladdin starring Denny Twp.

The front row was occupied by the council's top brass, and stomachs churned as the cast, led by the evergreen Mr Twp, broke off from the slapstick to heap praise on the Best Council in Wales.

Apparently some less respectful members of the audience were heard to mumble "Oh no it isn't!"

The choice of Aladdin was wise under the circumstances as it deprived the rabble of the opportunity to make coarse jokes about the Ugly Sisters (Cinderella) or the Chief Weasel (Wind in the Willows). Jack and the Beanstalk might have been suitable, but unfortunately after all that regrettable business with the Ombudsman and the cash cow earlier this year, it had to be ruled out.

Saturday 5 January 2013

Don't read this if you are a county councillor

Whatever your views about this blog or Caebrwyn's award-winning work on Carmarthenshire Planning Problems, it is unlikely that you would describe either as pornography, but that is how County Hall treats them, and the two sites are effectively blocked to all councillors who wish to read them on a council PC.

As other bloggers will know, it is possible to identify some sources of traffic on blogs, and despite the ban some of the most avid readers of the two blogs are, you guessed it, in County Hall. It seems that what we write is so dangerous that only officers may read it.

One of the criticisms most frequently levelled at Carmarthenshire County Council is that it is "officer led". Occasionally you will hear a few of the councillors make the same complaint in council meetings, and whenever they do a chorus of jeers and groans erupts from the "Independent" benches (and from some of the Labour contingent too). Paradoxically the jeers and groans are almost without exception the only contribution to debate, representing their electors' interests or holding the authority to account that visitors to the public gallery will ever hear from those quarters.

But at least it serves to prove that they are actually still alive.

The extent to which they question the council, stand up for their electors, read and understand the reports they are being asked to approve or make their own independent inquiries can be imagined.

But there are councillors who do try, and in Carmarthenshire they deserve special praise because the cards are stacked against them.

Peter Hughes Griffiths (Plaid), the leader of the opposition on the council, recently wrote to the South Wales Guardian to complain, among other things, that reports produced by the Ombudsman for Public Services about Carmarthenshire County Council have been withheld from councillors. So dangerous and subversive are these reports that, like the blogs, they are only suitable for the eyes of the officers and the ruling elite on the Executive Board.

How does that square with one of the primary functions of a county councillor, which is to hold the authority to account? Answer: it doesn't.

Late last year we learned that the South Wales Guardian, now the only local paper in the county which is free from County Hall's editorial control, has been singled out and put under special measures by the Kremlin on the Tywi which is effectively trying to force the newspaper out of business.

That leaves the blogs as the only other source of independent news about our local authority, and one of those is being sued in the Royal Courts of Justice in London at the expense of the county's taxpayers.

If you feel depraved or morally polluted after reading this, a quick rub-down with the council's  Carmarthenshire News should do the trick.