Thursday 28 February 2013

Women and the Council

Next week Cneifiwr will be off to see Dyled Eileen in Crymych. The play tells the story of Eileen and Trefor Beasley who fought what was then Llanelli Rural District Council for eight years for the right to receive a rates bill in Welsh. As Eileen pointed out when she was interviewed by the BBC a few years ago, almost all of the council's staff and officers could speak Welsh at the time (something which is rather less true today), so why did they insist on sending out rates demands in English to Welsh speaking households such as the Beasleys?

The council sent bailiffs to the Beasleys' home on some ten occasions, and the house was gradually stripped bare. The council took a piano, a dining table, a carpet, a bookcase, a mirror and even the couple's wedding presents, even though the Beasleys had young children at the time.

Eileen, who died last year, took a stand against the intransigence and stupidity of the council and eventually won, although she and her family paid a great price for their defiance.

Roll the clock forward sixty years, and you have to wonder how much has changed.

A thought which struck Cneifiwr recently as he travelled up to London for the libel trial was how women are so often at the forefront of battles with Carmarthenshire County Council. Jacqui Thompson has taken an often lonely stand against a secretive and bullying authority, and she has also paid a heavy price. Being jeered at by councillors as she was led away in handcuffs by the police was just one episode. Shame on them.

Trisha Breckman also fought a long and hugely costly battle for justice in her planning dispute, and she was also arrested by the police and taken from her home in handcuffs at one point. At least there were no councillors around to jeer at the time.

We now know from Jacqui Thompson's trial that a senior officer of the council sent what was described as "prejudicial" material to the Chief Constable of Dyfed Powys Police before she was arrested for filming. Perhaps the same happened in the Breckman case.

At least the new Police Commissioner is taking the matter seriously and has promised to carry out an investigation.

Delyth Jenkins, whose full story has yet to come out, is another of the council's victims, and she too has been trying to get justice for years. Delyth was bullied and abused for blowing the whistle on council staff abusing the people in their care. She was shouted at by the Chief Executive for her pains, and almost all of those involved in the shameful episode are still working for the authority.

And there are others, men as well as women, who have been victimised or had their names smeared.

True, there are women on the governing Executive Board, but all have been there for years and are now fully paid-up members of the old boys' club.

When it comes to the council's senior officers, make a quick trip to a meeting of the full council, and you will see a whole raft of male officers looking down from their podium. The only exception here is the Head of Law, whose main job seems to be legal fixer for the chief executive.

Perhaps all of this is coincidence, but the culture which is on display says otherwise.

One final thought is that another ingredient in this toxic mix is evangelical Christianity. Not the mild kind of religion that most church and chapel goers subscribe to, but a creed based on the belief that the Bible is literally true, every last word, and that it is in the words of The Living Word Church in Carmarthen "infallible and inerrant" (a bit like the council).

Of course, people are free to believe whatever they like, and hallelujah for that. But if you believe that everything in the Bible is literally true, you are not far removed from people who believe that they have been abducted by aliens. Not only do you believe that Noah loaded a wooden ship with two living things of every kind and that he lived to be 950, but you will also believe that homosexuality is an abomination and that women are subservient to men.

As it happens, members of the Living Word Church were treated not so very long ago to a long sermon justifying a verse in the Bible which stipulates that wives should obey their husbands, just as slaves should obey their masters.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

What the papers say - James v Thompson

A week after the end of the James v Thompson, and the local press has a chance to catch up with events. The South Wales Guardian has come out with a strong opinion piece criticising the chief executive's use of public money to bring a counter-claim for defamation against blogger Jacqui Thompson.

Last week the Carmarthen Journal ran a piece which managed to be both confusing and biased towards Mr James. This week the baton is taken up by the Journal's sister paper, the Llanelli Star. The report of the concluding statements in the trial contains 18 lines detailing the arguments put forward by the chief executive's barrister, and half that to a brief and very half-hearted summary of Jacqui Thompson's position.

No mention is made of the fact that Mr James's defence and counter-claim were funded out of the public purse or any of the other evidence brought by Jacqui Thompson's legal team. To say that the paper's report is shameful is an understatement.

Whether the report is also carried in the Carmarthen Journal remains to be seen, but Cneifiwr for one will not be wasting 65p on council propaganda to find out.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

Loss of cheese plant devastating to Newcastle Emlyn

The BBC is reporting that the Saputo cheese factory in Newcastle Emlyn is to close with the loss of 70 jobs.

The loss of 70 jobs affecting nearly the same number of local families in a community with a population of around 1,500 will be a devastating blow to the town and the surrounding area, where many local dairy farms supply the factory with milk.

We have been here before, and the factory has changed owners several times in the last few years. Only a couple of years ago there were allegations that the previous owners had been syphoning off profits from the factory to subsidise other parts of the group of companies.

Saputo specialises in mozzarella, used mainly in the manufacture of pizza, although recently the company has started diversifying into other products, including marscapone made from cream.

The factory's Canadian owners now say that the plant is not profitable and are seeking to close it.

The scale of the job losses may not seem that serious set against what has happened in other parts of Wales, but the loss of what is overwhelmingly the town's largest employer and the largest customer of quite a number of local dairy farms will have disastrous consequences in an area where there is very little alternative employment.

The best hope is that the Welsh Government will step in and explore whether the factory could have a long term future as a cooperative venture. There are some great local cheese producers in the area, which lends itself to dairying. Surely we can build on that strength?

Monday 25 February 2013

More loose ends - limos and chauffeurs

During the recent James v Thompson libel trial, Mr James's counsel made a great deal of fuss about a suggestion in Jacqui Thompson's blog that limousines operated by the council might be costing the taxpayer £66,000 a year. The true cost of maintaining two part-time chauffeurs for council bigwigs is a snip at £33,000 a year, the court was told, and the higher figure was offered up as evidence that Caebrwyn had distorted the facts.

Before we take a closer look at these claims and counter-claims, it is worth recalling that Jacqui Thompson's counsel asked Mr James whether he agreed that £33,000 was a lot of money. "If you say so," said Mr James, who this week will preside over the council's annual budget meeting to endorse cuts to a wide range of services.

As readers have probably already guessed, no cutbacks to spending on luxury cars are on the cards.

It says something about the county council's view of the world that it regards reporting on extravagant and utterly wasterful spending on luxury cars as a example of the inherent wickedness of Caebrwyn's blog.

What we do know, however, is that the county council spends £33,000 a year on part-time chauffeurs; that it added to its fleet last year when it purchased another Mercedes for the use primarily of the council leader; and that the fleet of cars it owns or leases includes some extremely pricey Mercedes saloons and a Jaguar (see FOI response here).

It seems to me that if Caebrwyn is guilty of anything here, it is under-estimating the cost of luxury cars provided for the use of senior officers and councillors.

Sunday 24 February 2013

Loose Ends

A number of issues arose during the James v Thompson trial last week which deserve closer attention. Here are a few for starters.

In an otherwise difficult few days for the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, he was able to give the court at least one piece of good news which was that his appointment as a non-executive director of the Board of the Welsh Assembly Government has been extended for a further three years.

There is absolutely no reason to disbelieve this statement, although Mr James's name does not appear on the list published by the Welsh Government (here). Perhaps there is another board with non-executive directors.

A search on Mr James's name on the Welsh Government website returns only two references, both from 2011. In one of those Mr James was leading the "Asset Management Workstream" in the government's Efficiency and Innovation Programme. According to the announcement, this was a limited interim activity.

The other announcement, regarding the government's 21st century schools programme, says that Mr James is the representative of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers (SOLACE) on the "Board", although the press release contains no other reference to a board.

All very mysterious, so to clear things up a Freedom of Information request will be winging its way to Cardiff asking a number of questions, including how much time is devoted to board activities, how much non-executive members receive in allowances and expenses, if anything, and what the role of a non-executive member is.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas, Assembly Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, has tabled a question to First Minister Carwyn Jones for next week asking for a statement on the Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) (Wales) Order 2006.

Can we expect more than the hand wringing and hot air produced by Local Government Minister Carl Sargeant? Well, there's always hope.

Another mystery surrounds the presence in court of Debbie Williams, the manager of the county council's press office, for the final three days of the trial. Since she withdrew her witness statement, there appeared to be no reason for her to be in London. Who was paying for that, and how much?

On the final day of the trial there was a brief flurry of activity in the James camp following publication of a damning leader in The Times. Mr James's legal team hurriedly distributed copies of their closing statement to members of the press present, but the horse had already bolted.

Perhaps County Hall will now add The Times to its blacklist along with the South Wales Guardian.

Saturday 23 February 2013

Carmarthen - a masterclass in town planning

Readers of this week's Carmarthen Journal, at least those who live in the town or visit it regularly, will have been surprised to hear that the town is a roaring retail success, with big name stores queueing up to grab a slice of business.

The breathless style of the report and the careful slanting of the information will be familiar to regular readers of the guff churned out by the Press Office in County Hall.

Stripped back to its bones, this is an account of how Caffe Nero really wanted to find space in the flagship St Catherine's Walk shopping precinct, but will now have to settle for a spot in one of the less favoured parts of town (i.e. the rest of Carmarthen).

The managers of the St Catherine's Walk development and the older Merlin's Walk precinct are both quoted, and needless to say both give an upbeat account of what is happening in the town. True, the manager of Merlin's Walk admits that there are some empty shops in town, but avoids mentioning that there are quite a few vacancies on his own patch where fortunes have nosedived since St Catherine's Walk opened.

In fact, anyone who ventures beyond St Catherine's Walk will see how the new development has sucked the life out of older parts of the town. King Street is a shadow of its former self, as is Red Street (Millet's has just shut up shop, for example). Round the corner in Lammas Street and Merlin's Walk the story is the same. Shops are closing, local businesses are folding and people are losing jobs.

Away from the town centre, retail development on the fringes of Carmarthen continues unabated. We now have a shiny new KFC, and there are rumours that it will soon be joined by a vast new Asda, giving this town of around 16,000 inhabitants three very large supermarkets.

Clearly Carmarthen itself is not large enough to support a large Asda, Tesco and Morrisons, and the supermarket groups will be relying on attracting trade from surrounding villages and smaller towns. How many of those shoppers will make their way from the trading estate wasteland around the town into the ancient town centre itself is another matter.

And for those who don't want to trek over to Carmarthen to do their weekly grocery shop, Tesco and Asda both offer a keenly priced home delivery service. Asda home delivery vans have recently started appearing as far away as Cardigan and the surrounding villages, 30 miles away from the new Carmarthen HQ.

Meanwhile, an hour in a council car park in our struggling market towns will cost you 60p.

Thursday 21 February 2013

The Today Programme and Other Media Matters

Some readers of this blog will have heard an interview with Jacqui Thompson on this morning's Today Programme on Radio 4. If you missed it, the programme is available here for another seven days. The interview was broadcast at just after 8.30, two and a half hours into this morning's edition.

As someone has already commented on the previous post, Jacqui came across as a calm and thoughtful person, and having had the pleasure of meeting her on several occasions, that is exactly what she is like in real life. The same is true of her husband Kerry who is a local lad born and bred.

In other words, utterly different from the picture of a couple of menacing obsessives painted by the County Council.

Despite employing 20 people in its press and PR operations (this figure was one which the council gave the Chartered Institute of Public Relations towards the end of last year), the council declined to take part in the programme, just as it declined to cooperate with the BBC on documentaries about the Delyth Jenkins case, the Patricia Breckman case and the Towy Community Church bowling alley project.

After Evan Davies had finished saying that the council had been invited to give their side of the story but declined, John Humphreys let out a loud and disapproving groan.

Back in Carmarthenshire, the council obviously had to think long and hard about what to say about the events of the last few days. This is what it came up with:

Statement regarding court action 

WE respect Mr Justice Tugendhat’s decision to reserve judgement. It would not be appropriate to comment further until such time as that judgement has been reached.


Just before 5pm this afternoon, i.e. eight and a half hours after the broadcast on Radio 4, the ever-alert council press office woke up and felt a bit miffed about what Evan Davies had said. So it put out a calarification on Twitter as follows:

To clarify, requested a statement (not an interview) late last night. It was supplied, however it wasn't used.

Attached to the tweet was a link to the "Statement" above. Doh!


In other news the Editor of the Carmarthen Journal, Jonathan Roberts, is moving on to take over at the South Wales Evening Post, which is owned by the same group. Mr Roberts was appointed to the Journal only just over six months ago, and this move represents something of a rapid promotion.

During his very short stint in Carmarthen Mr Roberts presided over "structural changes" to the newsroom and a makeover of the paper itself, which is now 25% bigger than before.

Cneifiwr has to confess that he no longer buys the newspaper on a regular basis, but made an exception this week.What is good about the new-look paper is its sections dealing with news from the different geographical areas covered. Not so good is the pagination and navigability of the paper. It is very hard to find your way around it, in other words.

Not good at all is the paper's continuing policy of only reporting council stories approved by County Hall. In fact quite a few of the stories this week appear to have been produced on Jail Hill and reproduced wholesale. Gone are the days when readers could expect this local newspaper to scrutinise and question the county council.

The letters page contained the usual barrage of missives about wind turbines, with one letter praising the county council.

In return, the Journal can show a healthy crop of council adverts, including one full-page, colour announcement of a tyre and waste amnesty outside Morrisons in Carmarthen. With acres of empty space surrounding the few words on the page, the council's marketing department is clearly flush with cash at the moment.

Finally, and a topic Cneifiwr hopes to return to before long, Delyth Jenkins gave an interview to the South Wales Evening Post about the Public Interest Disclosure Act. There are growing calls for this act to be overhauled to give real protection to whistleblowers, such as Delyth.

As readers will recall, the Delyth Jenkins story was set in Johnstown, a stone's throw from Carmarthen, but the good people of Carmarthen will have to buy either the Swansea-based Evening Post or The Guardian if they want to read about something which shows Mr James's regime in a less than flattering light.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Arrogant, excessive and defensive - The Thunderer (updated)

Update 3.50 p.m. 20 February

Well, that's it. Ms Christina Michalos, Jacqui Thompson's counsel, concluded her closing remarks earlier this afternoon. Judging from the Twitter feed, neither barrister set the case alight today, but then it is worth remembering that the case was being heard by a judge alone with no jury.

Mrs Angry, the Barnet blogger, has done a fantastic job reporting from the courtroom, and I suspect there will have been quite a few Carmarthenshire council staff glued to her tweets.

The last few days have been particularly harrowing for Jacqui Thompson for several reasons, and she now faces a long wait for the verdict.

It would be nice to think that Mark James and the rest of the small group which has been running the council for so long have learned some valuable lessons, but the track record says otherwise. One of the key lessons is that if you don't want people to suspect you of corruption, the solution is openness and transparency.

As Talleyrand observed of the Bourbons, the likelihood is that they have forgotten nothing and learned nothing.

Update 1.44 p.m. 20 February

Proceedings began this morning with summing up by the barristers. First up was counsel for Mr James. The main point he made seems to be that some of Jacqui Thompson's blogposts were defamatory and based on no evidence. The offending articles were still online, and this was a personalised campaign which no one should have to endure.

Observers in court commented that the delivery of this closing speech was rather dull and lacking in passion.

Next up was counsel for Jacqui Thompson, who pointed out the imbalance between a lone housewife and a large local authority. Most of the criticism had been of the council rather than individuals.The judge intervened a couple of times to ask why parts of the blog alleged corruption when there was no evidence of it. While others had complained about the council's planning department and felt that they had been unfairly treated, the judge wondered whether that amounted to corruption.

The court is due to resume at 2 p.m.

Update 11.50am 20 February

Sure enough the Tories are having a field day with this story. While the court has been in session this morning, Eric Pickles has been on Twitter using the #daftarrest hashtag with the following message:

Unlike Labour-run Welsh Govt, DCLG has allowed people to report, tweet & film council meetings in England

Pickles' lead has been followed by various other Tory groups revelling in the fact that this is "Labour run Wales".


The James v Thompson trial draws to a close today, although the judge is not expected to deliver his verdict for several weeks. He will certainly have a lot to think about.

The last two days saw the council and its senior officers under the spotlight, and the result has been an unmitigated PR disaster for Carmarthenshire County Council. Things could have been even worse. Four council officers were cross examined on Tuesday morning, and at times the council's case descended into farce. At the last minute Mr James's legal team appeared to realise that putting the head of law, Linda Rees Jones, the former chair of council, Ivor Jackson, and the manager of the council's dire press office,  Debbie Williams, into the witness box would have been catastrophic, albeit highly entertaining, and their statements were suddenly withdrawn.

Observers noted that Mr James looked like thunder as his troops floundered.

Mr James told the court on Monday that his letter to the Madaxeman blog which led to the action for defamation had been written under pressure - particularly from elected councillors who had turned to him because they were concerned that the reputation of the council was at stake.

In subsequent questioning, James admitted that he had copied the letter to these concerned councillors only after it had been published.

In view of the press and media coverage the case has received during the last few days, Mr James and those councillors who turned to him may well be wondering what their actions have done for the reputation of the council.

Turning to the press, The Times today carries a leader about the case and a report on proceedings. The leader notes that last year Mr Justice Beaston told a court in Cardiff that public authorities needed to "possess a thicker skin and greater tolerance than ordinary members of the public" in respect of what was said and written about them.

The Times concludes, "Carmarthenshire council was clearly not listening. Indeed, whatever the outcome of the case in the High Court, it should be clear that the council has in both instances [the filming episode and the counter-claim brought by Mr James with tax payers' funds, Ed.] acted arrogantly and defensively. It has wielded excessive official and financial power against a lone citizen and has thereby become a case study in how not to behave in an era of transparency and accountability."

Elsewhere, there have been reports in other London papers, including the Daily Telegraph. Closer to home, the South Wales Guardian, another victim of the council's bullying, carries a report for the second week running, while the Western Mail concentrates on evidence given by Lyn Thomas, the council's retired former Head of Law.

The Carmarthen Journal did not find space for the case last week, but this week carries a fairly lengthy report on proceedings, together with some background. The article does not appear to be available online.

As usual, the James Journal gives the last word to Mr James himself, with a lengthy quote in which he accuses Jacqui Thompson of hypocrisy. And while the paper splashes the story on its front page with pictures of Mark James and Jacqui Thompson, the topic exercising the Editor in his comment piece this week is what is going to happen to our public toilets.

One final thought. Throughout the last week, a great deal of dirty Welsh linen has been on public display in London WC2. There are certainly plenty of rogue councils in England, and Eric Pickles is never slow to wade in and criticise some of the barmier goings-on. In Wales, on the other hand, the Welsh Government has adopted the policy of the Three Wise Monkeys despite repeated warnings over the years about the actions of the self-styled "best council in Wales". Indeed, it was probably consulted on the decision in to award Mr James a CBE for his services to local government in January 2012.

Carwyn and Co might like to wonder whether it is not just the reputation of Carmarthenshire County Council that is at stake here.

Monday 18 February 2013

The Chief Executive has a shot at answering a few questions

Update 4.30pm 19 February

After a brief cross-examination of the head of planning, Eifion Bowen, the court was adjourned until tomorrow, which is expected to be the final day.

Sadly Debbie Williams, manager of the council's notorious Press Office, was not called. Now that would have made for some interesting testimony.

Observers may have spotted that all of Mr James's witnesses today, bar one retired officer, report  indirectly to Mr James and are on "his" payroll. Rather oddly, he told the court yesterday that the council employs 9,500 people, whereas Meryl used to boast, "Mark and I employ 9,000 people".  Perhaps something has gone wrong with payroll.

Having heard the reporting from today's cross-examinations you have to feel sorry for some of them, as they were damned if they did, and damned if they didn't [give evidence for the boss, that is].

Update 12.40 am 19 February

Three more witnesses for Mr James have since been cross-examined, all involved in the events which resulted in Jacqui's arrest for filming. All three have said on oath that they could not be sure that she was filming.

One of the witnesses was former council solicitor, Mr Lyn Thomas. In 2008 the Western Mail wrote an opinion piece criticising the council's libel indemnity amendment. The article can be found here. This incensed the council's top brass who considered it to be unbalanced. A formal complaint was made to the paper, and Mr Thomas wrote a letter denying that the council had adopted a policy of indemnifying officers and members for libel claims.

How Mr Thomas squared his letter with the amendment which had been passed is destined to remain a mystery. 

Update 11.20 am 19 February

First up this morning is a council officer, Mr John Davies. Mr Davies was sent up to the public gallery when Mr James and others suspected that Jacqui Thompson was filming. It transpired under cross-examination that Mr Davies changed his statement several times after speaking to the council's solicitor and the police. It also became apparent that Mr Davies has poor eyesight, and he acknowledged that he needs to go for an eye test. In addition he admitted that he touched Jacqui Thompson, although in his (much amended) statement he claimed that there was no physical contact. Strangely no copy of his original draft statement (the one he wrote before submitting it to the council's solicitor) appears to have survived.

Despite this, the council accused Jacqui of attempting to pervert the course of justice.

Oh dear.

Update 19 February

Court 14 is a relatively small courtroom with pretty much everyone sitting cheek by jowl. As the case has gone on, it has become noticeable that the James team has been growing in size. Yesterday his legal team far outnumbered \Jacqui Thompson's, and they were joined by a number of council officers, including Eifion Bowen, head of planning, Debbie Williams, manager of the council's press office, Lyn Thomas, former head of law and administration, and the ever-present Linda Rees Jones, current head of law. Three more are expected to join the throng today, along with Cllr Ivor Jackson from Llandovery.

This may help to explain why we are expecting another sharp rise in council tax this year.


Day Four of the James v Thompson libel trial saw Mark James take the stand and face cross-examination. For everyone who was not in court today, the next best thing was following developments on Twitter using the hashtag #daftarrest.

After a pretty miserable three days for Jacqui Thompson last week, the court got its first real opportunity to see what she has been blogging about for the last few years.

Expect a detailed account from Mrs Angry in due course, but it is fair to say that for anyone who followed today's proceedings, the reputation of Carmarthenshire County Council is in shreds, and Mr James has for the first time had to submit himself to questions which should have been asked long, long ago in County Hall.

Possibly the most embarrassing admission came towards the end of the session today when James admitted that he had not actually read Jacqui Thompson's blog until he set about deciding whether to counter-sue and embark on litigation which could cost the council taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds.

What Mr James has unwittingly done here is to let the cat out of the bag. This admission, and the fact that he appears to have dragged half of the council's officers along, is the clearest evidence we are likely to get that this is not Mark James CBE acting in a personal capacity but the council suing a resident for defamation. In other words, the council's case is politically motivated and an attempt to silence one of its few remaining critics in the media.

The court heard of secret meetings. One took place in January 2012 to approve the indemnity, and James claimed he could not remember whether he stayed or left the meeting in which he had a direct personal interest. Other secret meetings, undocumented, took place to form a plan to "deal with" Jacqui Thompson.

At times Mr James seemed to be suffering from a severe case of amnesia. He could not remember that there had been any controversy about the change in the council's constitution to allow publicly funded libel actions. He could not remember that an MP had called for a public inquiry into the planning department.

He admitted that he had not consulted council members before sending his allegedly libellous letter to the Madaxeman blog, and he acknowledged that in hindsight, perhaps he should not have sent it.

He admitted that he had sent "prejudicial" material about Jacqui Thompson to the Chief Constable of Dyfed Powys Police before she was arrested, and he acknowledged that he had asked for the police to be called when he believed she was filming a council meeting. But he maintained that the arrest had nothing to do with him.

James also admitted that the council's ban on filming was not actually documented anywhere, and that the council had never placed either Jacqui or her husband on its persistent complainants list.

He was also questioned about some of the council's visionary regeneration schemes and its use of public money, such as maintaining two part-time chauffeurs. This apparently costs £33,000 a year. Asked whether he thought that was a lot of money, James replied, "If you say so".

Several other observers in court have noticed the presence of Mrs Rees Jones, the council's Head of Law, in court throughout the proceedings so far, and questions are being asked about what that is costing the taxpayer and what her role is in this case.

If that were not enough to give Carmarthenshire residents a fit of the vapours, Cneifiwr has it from a reliable source that Mr James and Mrs Rees Jones have been shuttling back and forth between Paddington and Carmarthen in First Class.

Stay tuned for a fuller and more elegant account from Mrs Angry later this evening.

Synchronised tree planting and other expenses

Thanks to a Western Mail freedom of information request, we now know that the local government gravy train is still running as normal, despite spending cuts on just about everything else. Carmarthenshire County Council, needless to say, leaves quite a few lesser Welsh councils in the dust when it comes to expensive travel and hotel accommodation for its senior officers and councillors.

In the year to November 2012 it spent £37,000 on 200 hotel trips, which works out at £185 per stay.

Among the trips was a jaunt to Kenya. The council, famous for its vast press office and PR machine, refused to comment on what this was all about, but the Western Mail notes that the trip coincided with a synchronised tree planting exercise in Carmarthenshire and Kenya.

The council's own archive of press releases has nothing to report on this excursion, but the Daily Post and the council's Discover Carmarthenshire website are more forthcoming, explaining that the project was organised as a part of the royal Diamond Jubilee celebrations, and involved planting woods at the National Botanic Gardens and at a site on the slopes of Mount Kenya.

Where the county council fits in here is not clear, unless it was in the council's role in providing ongoing financial support to the National Botanic Gardens to help keep them afloat.

That trip cost the council taxpayer £240 in hotel accommodation. Not included in that cost would have been a rather bigger bill for eco-friendly air travel, something which would have wiped out a chunk of the carbon emission reductions to be produced, eventually, by the new woods.

The one remaining mystery in all of this is the identity of the lucky jet setter from Carmarthenshire. If any readers know, feel free to drop Cneifiwr a line in confidence.

Meanwhile, the Caebrwyn libel trial continues, and the chief executive and assorted other council officers will have headed back up to London. Unlike MPs and other riff-raff, Mr James and the council's Head of Law were comfortably ensconced in First Class.


Sunday 17 February 2013

James v Thompson: a conspiracy of malcontents

On Friday Cneifiwr and three others travelled to London having been advised that they might be called to give evidence in the James v Thompson libel case.

Counsel for the chief executive of Carmarthenshire had objected strongly to much of the statements provided by the four, and in the pre-trial review the week before last, large sections of the statements had been struck out as a result of the wrangling.

Counsel for Jacqui Thompson was keen for the judge to hear independent evidence from three of the witnesses from Carmarthenshire so that he could understand the context of Jacqui's blog: that this was not the work of a lone, misguided obsessive, but an accurate record of the way in which local democracy has been subverted in the county.

This is a county which, if the council's annual report is to be believed, is more prosperous, healthier and happier than ever before, and anyone who disagrees is a troublemaker and guilty of running the council down, or worse.

The judge decided that, in his words, he did not intend to "take an opinion poll", and so three of the four witnesses had travelled to London in vain.

The remaining witness was Martin Milan, author of the Madaxeman blog to which Mr James wrote a letter attacking Jacqui Thompson and her family. Mr Milan gave Mr James an opportunity to withdraw the letter before publication, but the chief executive opted to  have it published.

Much of the cross-examination of Mr Milan by Mr James's counsel appeared to be based on a theory that Mr Milan and Jacqui Thompson were part of a conspiracy (although that word was not used) to entrap Mr James into making his statement, but that theory fell rather flat when Mr Milan said he had not consulted Jacqui Thompson about whether to publish Mr James's letter.

An excellent and detailed account of the court proceedings can be found on Mrs Angry's Broken Barnet blog. Mrs Angry will be in court next week to keep us informed as the case continues into its second week.

It is good to see that media interest in the case is growing, as the realisation dawns that a victory for Mr James could open the floodgates and encourage many more councils and government bodies to sue critics for libel by proxy.

One intriguing aspect of the case is the presence throughout the proceedings of Mrs Linda Rees Jones, the county council's Head of Law. Mrs Rees Jones is not a member of Mr James's legal team in court, but sits at his side making notes. Clearly the council feels that her services as Monitoring Officer and chief legal officer are of secondary importance while she supports the chief executive for a couple of weeks.

An interesting subject for a Freedom of Information request would be how many hundreds of hours Mrs Rees Jones has devoted to a case which in theory is being brought by Mr Mark James in a personal capacity rather than by the county council. Her presence rather gives the game away, and county councillors in particular might like to ask why Mr James needed her services in addition to the rest of his eye-wateringly expensive legal team in court.

Whether they will ever be allowed to ask such an impertinent question is quite another matter.

Thursday 14 February 2013

What the Papers Say - James v Thompson Trial

The Press Office in County Hall is probably having a collective nervous breakdown as it digests reports on the opening day of the trial yesterday.

Quote of the day has to go to Tim Minogue who writes Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs column. Tim retweeted a comment he made after Jacqui's arrest for filming a council meeting:

 Carmarthenshire council already in hole over #daftarrest. Yesterday threw away spade and hired JCB.

The Guardian's take can be found here, while the Western Mail has an excellent account of yesterday's proceedings here.

An honourable mention also goes to the South Wales Guardian which carried a pre-trial report on the questionable legality of the council's infamous libel indemnity clause here. Readers will recall that the council withdrew advertising from the paper after it a carried a mildly critical piece on the management of a regeneration project in Ammanford. The council subsequently claimed that the decision was taken on purely commercial grounds but then removed the blacklisting without explanation.

The Carmarthen Journal, which likes to think of itself as the local paper of record, had this to say: [sound of wind whistling as tumbleweed is blown down King Street].

Admittedly, reporting a case like this presents a challenge to a weekly newspaper, but perhaps they will do better next week. At least they will be able to quote their editor the chief executive who will by then have taken the stand.

For a detailed account of yesterday's court action, however, see Mrs Angry's report here. Mrs Angry is a woman of a certain age who usually blogs on the bizarre goings-on in the Tory-run London Borough of Barnet. When not blogging about local government, Mrs Angry is a passionate knitter and a calamitous cook. She also has a peculiar fixation with the Carmarthenshire cockle industry.

Cneifiwr really is now signing off for a few days.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

James v Thompson - the trial begins - Updated

For those of you who use Twitter, you can follow the trial with the hashtag #daftarrest. It is good to see that the case is attracting a good deal of media attention, and Jacqui Thompson will be pleased to see some of her supporters in the gallery.

Jacqui's barrister began his opening remarks by saying, "You can’t criticise the council’s ability to fund libel claims or you will be sued for libel."

Not long after proceedings got underway, the case was adjourned briefly to allow the judge time to read various papers relating to the scope of the case and to view footage of a council meeting filmed by Jacqui on Youtube. The judge later reported that he was unfortunately unable to access Youtube because of IT security settings at the Royal Courts of Justice. Proceedings were expected to resume this afternoon.

Back in Wales, the South Wales Guardian reports that the legality of the council's controversial constitutional amendment allowing it to fund libel cases has been questioned.

Needless to say, no expense is being spared by the council when it comes to Mr James's legal representation by one of the leading and, you can bet, most expensive libel specialists in Britain. Nice to see that our council tax is being put to good use.

Cneifiwr has been advised that he may be called as a witness, and will be going off air for a couple of days as a result.

The trial is expected to continue into next week. More to follow.


Jacqui has been giving evidence this afternoon, and there are four or five people tweeting live from the courtroom. Wrexham and Carmarthenshire councils may wish to note that the world has not yet come to an end as a result of this exercise in transparency.

Among those tweeting from the courtroom is Heather Brooke, the campaigner for transparency in public life, who was instrumental in bringing the scandal of MPs' expenses to light.

Here is a sample of one of her tweets from court:

As local newspapers diminish, councils are becoming private fiefdoms. Skins of public servants growing ever thinner.

The court was adjourned at 4pm and will resume again tomorrow.

Update 8pm

The trial is expected to run for 5-7 days. The council's Chief Executive and Head of Law, Mrs Linda Rees Jones as well as Mrs James were all in court today to watch proceedings, and will both presumably be there for the duration. Guess who's paying for that.

Jacqui spent most of the day giving evidence and will tomorrow undergo cross-examination. Mr James will take to the witness box next week.

If today's Twitter feed from the courtroom was anything to go by, this could turn into the council's biggest ever PR disaster. And that's saying something.

Monday 11 February 2013

Dw i eisiau byw yn Gymraeg yng Nghastell Newydd Emlyn

Yn sgîl canlyniadau trychinebus y Cyfrifiad mae Cymdeithas yr Iaith yn mynd ati i ddangos ein bod ni eisiau byw mewn cymuned Cymraeg ei hiaith trwy addunedu byw yn Gymraeg.

Y prif fwriad gyda'r addunedau yw eu cyflwyno i'r Cyngor Sir ar Fawrth y 1af ond byddwn ni'n defnyddio manylion pobl er mwyn cysylltu gyda nhw i'w diweddaru am yr ymgyrch yma'n benodol a weithiau am ddigwyddiadau eraill.

Mae'r ffurflenni ar gael yn Siop y Wiber, Iago (siop lyfrau) a Chwmni Iaith (Parc Busnes Antur Teifi, Aberarad) tan ddiwedd yr wythnos nesaf. Dim ond enw, rhif ffôn a chyfeiriad e-bost sy eisiau - mae'n hawdd!

Ewch amdani i ddangos bod yr iaith Gymraeg yn bwysig i chi!

Empty Properties

Crunching and interpreting data from the 2011 census will no doubt go on for some time to come, but one interesting set of statistics relates to properties returning "no usual resident". These were properties which were either vacant at the time of the census or second homes. Not included in the figures it seems are the many thousands of holiday lets which are a major feature in many coastal and rural areas of Wales.

The full data set for Wales can be found here. To view detailed figures for each authority at ward level, click on the name of the council.

[NB This link appears to be unstable. To find the data, go to the ONS website here. Select "Get data by topic", then choose "Housing". Scroll down to "Household Spaces, 2011 (QS417EW)". Select and click on "Next" at the bottom of the page. To view, click on "Next" and then select "2011 Administrative Hierarchy". Click on "Next", and you will see the data for Wales. To drill down, click on Wales, and then click on an individual county to see ward level data.]

The overall percentage for "no usual resident" for Wales as a whole was 5.97%, compared with 4.25% for England.

Within Wales there is a wide variation between the 22 local authorities. Leading the field with the highest percentages of vacant properties and/or second homes were the following:

At least one usual resident
No usual resident
% vacant
Merthyr Tydfil

Not suprisingly, there is a wide variation at ward level as well. Abersoch in Gwynedd is probably the most extreme case, with 54% of properties returned as "no usual resident".

The figures for the remaining local authorities were as follows:

At least one usual resident
No usual resident
% vacant
Neath Port Talbot
Rhondda Cynon Taf
Blaenau Gwent
Vale of Glamorgan

Only 7 of the 22 Welsh authorities were below the average for England.

In some cases the figures throw a question mark over proposed Local Development Plans which provide for a massive expansion of house building.

Carmarthenshire is one which comes to mind. Its LDP is based on a projection that the number of households would soar from 78,000 in 2006 to just over 93,000 in 2021. Five years into this period, and the number of households was static at 78,000. The number of empty properties, on the other hand, rose from 3,574 in 2001 to 5,326 in 2011.