Monday 4 February 2013

The Breckman Case - more procedural voodoo

For a council so obsessed with PR, Carmarthenshire County Council's handling of the Breckman case should enter the text books as an example of how not to manage bad news.

The Ombudsman for Public Services published a damning report at the beginning of July 2012 showing how the authority had failed to enforce planning regulations and victimised the complainants over a period of years.

The extraordinary twists and turns in the story were the subject of a BBC documentary, and the press reported that the nine year battle was over now that the Ombudsman had ordered the council to pay the couple compensation and implement a number of measures to ensure that similar failings would not be repeated.

They had not reckoned with Carmarthenshire County Council.

It was clear from the start that the council's top brass hated the report, but instead of taking a deep breath and getting the matter over with, it has deliberately dragged its feet for months and gone to great lengths to prevent any discussion of the report by councillors.

Mrs Breckman's county councillor, Cefin Campbell, has tried repeatedly to raise the matter in full council, but has fallen foul of procedures which have been rigorously enforced to prevent any questions relating to matters which do not appear on the published agenda.

Since the Chief Executive is responsible for drawing up meeting agendas, there was never any likelihood that the report would find its way in to the council chamber.

Cllr Campbell then tried to raise the matter under "Any Other Business". A recent attempt to raise a question about the misuse of the council's press office in the Sainsbury's press release scandal was ruled out of order because, the Chief Executive and Monitoring Officer declared, the Council Chair had not been informed of the question ahead of the meeting.

So Cllr Campbell duly informed the Chair of his intention to ask about the Ombudsman's report before meetings of the council began. But that was ruled out of order because, in the Chief Executive's view, the matter was not urgent, even though 7 months have now passed since publication of the report.

When Cllr Campbell made it clear before the last meeting of the full council in January that he would raise the matter under AOB anyway, the Chief Executive intervened and had AOB removed from the meeting agenda.

As we know, instead of presenting the report to full council, the Executive decided that the Ombudsman's recommendation that the report should be "presented to councillors" was sufficiently ambiguous to allow it to send the matter off to the Planning Committee instead, even though the report deals with matters which go far beyond planning enforcement issues.

Not content with that, officers recommended that discussion of the report by the Planning Committee should be subject to a public interest exemption and heard behind closed doors.

It also emerged rather late that the Planning Committee was not being asked to consider the Ombudsman's report, but a doctored and watered down version of it written by the council's officers.

After 9 years of dealing with the council, Mrs Breckman was probably not surprised by any of this, but she wrote to the Chair of the Planning Committee, Cllr Anthony Jones (Lab), making it clear that, as both the principal subject and victim in the case, she felt strongly that the report should be discussed in public.

Mrs Breckman took the precaution of copying her letter to Cllr Campbell, who responded promptly, but she did not receive even the courtesy of an acknowledgement from Cllr Jones.

Meanwhile, the Ombudsman is understood to be concerned about the handling of the report and the lack of progress by the council in implementing his recommendations. A meeting has been convened to discuss this.

The Ombudsman may also want to take a close look at what happened at the Planning Committee when it came to application of the public interest test. Usually such decisions are formalities, but in controversial matters such as this when opinion is divided, it is remarkable how often the divisions occur along party lines, even though party whips are strictly forbidden.

A block vote by the "independent minded" Independents and their Labour chums in favour of chucking press and public out of the meeting might take some explaining, especially now that the Ombudsman is probably not in the best of moods when it comes to the Best Council in Wales.

At least the top brass in County Hall can congratulate themselves on one thing. Their expertise in manipulating procedures seems to be finding admirers in other Welsh councils, as Cllr Arfon Jones found recently (here) when he proposed allowing "live broadcasts" (specifically the use of Twitter) at council meetings in Wrexham.

The result was a carbon copy of the tactics deployed in Carmarthen last year when Plaid Cymru proposed allowing the public to film council meetings.


towy71 said...

It beggars belief that WAG has not done something about this shocking state of affairs.
Come on Mr Sargeant, Minister for Social Justice & Local Government in the Welsh Assembly Government, extract digit and do something!

Anonymous said...

I agree. They are a laughing stock!

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know if the Ombudsman's report was presented to the Executive board last week?