Sunday 28 April 2013

Because he's worth it

Cneifiwr's lawn needed urgent attention on Friday, but thanks to feedback from several loyal readers (Sid and Eirlys Bonkers of Llanelli), this blog is pleased to provide a summary of the interview with the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council which went out on Radio Carmarthenshire on 26 April.

Six questions were fielded by the awestruck presenter during the course of the hour long, pre-recorded programme which was interspersed with endless ads and dire music. Alan Partridge is alive and well and broadcasting in Carmarthenshire, it seems.

We began with a recital of the immensity of the chief executive's role. The 9,500 staff, the 4,000 elderly people looked after by the council, and so on, before being given a brief glimpse of his private life, which features walking and swimming.

Up first was a question about the council's decision to introduce car parking charges on Sundays. The question went unanswered, and what we got instead was a song of praise to the St Catherine's Walk shopping precinct and its wonderful multi-story parking facilities. Carmarthen had ample parking (if you can pay for it), and the rates were competitive when compared with other, lesser councils.

The background to this is that the mainstream Christian denominations in Carmarthen and traders outside the council's favoured St Catherine's Walk development were upset by the introduction of Sunday parking charges. The council has argued that it is important to create a level playing field for St Catherine's Walk which has always charged for parking on Sundays.

The fringe evangelical churches so beloved by the council's top brass continue to benefit from free parking at venues such as Trinity College and Queen Elizabeth High School, and so they have remained strangely quiet about the council's support for Mammon.

Someone in Llanelli wondered about the boundless generosity of the county council to the Scarlets in a week when Llanelli AFC was wound up in the High Court. This gave Mr James a chance to wax lyrical about Parc y Scarlets.

The council's investment in Parc y Scarlets was fairly safe, Mr James began, before quickly correcting himself to say that it was very safe. The council had given the Reds £40,000 some years back for a new stand, but it was important to remember that it was Llanelli Town Council which owned the ground, not the county council.

The county council had not been approached about the team's problems, Mr James said, claiming that the first they had heard of it was news reports of the court hearing. Nevertheless, the doors at County Hall remained open.

 Listeners were left to ponder how little the council appears to know about what is going on in its own back yard during a rendition of Money's Too Tight To Mention by Simply Red.

The subject of filthy lucre came up again with the next question from someone who wanted to know if it is true that Mr James earns more than the Prime Minister.

It is, but Mr James was not about to admit it. Out came the violin as he told listeners how his pay had been frozen for four years. He claimed that the Prime Minister gets a lot more but chooses to take home only £140,000 or so. Unlike the Prime Minister, the chief executive doesn't get all the perks, we were told (first class rail travel and use of limos etc. are presumably not perks). And anyway, he could be earning four times as much in the private sector (merchant banking, perhaps).

So there we are. We are extremely lucky to have him. Whether his pay is justified was not for him to say, Mr James purred, having done his level best to justify it. It was all a matter for councillors.

As it happens, the BBC published a rich list of Welsh council chief executives last week showing that, just like Manchester United, Carmarthenshire can celebrate being top of the league. Third world councils such as Ceredigion have been left in the dust.

A question about filming came up next. The chief executive was pleased to confirm that webcasting would begin soon. As for filming by the public, there had been only one case of this by someone (not named) who had been doing it as part of a campaign because she could not get planning permission. Oh really?

Business rate relief was nothing to do with the council, but it did everything it could to help small businesses, we were told. Including, presumably, ramping up car parking charges and introducing parking charges on Sundays.

Finally we got round to the libel case. The interviewer, who appears to live on a different planet, claimed he knew nothing about it and wondered what it was all about. Paxman can sleep easy.

This enabled Mr James to give listeners a synopsis of the case and the judgement. It was a lesson to all, he opined (all being anyone in Carmarthenshire foolish enough to criticise the council). Jacqui Thompson was not referred to by name, but simply as "an individual" in what can only be described as snarled tones.

The kindly old judge, Mr Tugendhat, had ruled that Mr James was perfectly entitled to dip into council coffers to pay for his court action, and anyway, he was waiting for an Order for Costs and would get it all back. It wouldn't cost taxpayers a penny, he assured the people of Carmarthenshire.

"It won't cost us a penny" is one of Mr James's favourite phrases, and it has been used to describe all sorts of visionary schemes down the years. The first recorded instance was in Boston where, more than ten years on, the Princess Royal Arena is still a drain on council finances.

And on that ticking time bombshell, the programme had to make way for more urgent messages from B&Q and other sponsors.

Friday 26 April 2013

A Selfless Act

The recent libel case between Jacqui Thompson and the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council is continuing to make news as people digest the implications of Mr Justice Tugendhat's verdict.

MP Jonathan Edwards (Plaid) put down an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons (here) to draw attention to the use by Carmarthenshire County Council of public funds to help Mr James bring an action for defamation against Jacqui Thompson, as well as defending an action being brought against him.

The motion also refers to the public interest in knowing how much the case cost the council. Needless to say, the council has no intention whatsoever of disclosing this information, and at least two requests under the Freedom of Information Act have so far been refused. One went to appeal within the council, and naturally the appeal was dismissed as well. Whether the request will now be referred to the Information Commissioner remains to be seen, but that is always a slow process.

In a separate move, Jonathan Edwards wrote what has to be one of the best comment pieces so far on the implications of this case (here), and this and the EDM were picked up by the Western Mail which ran a story here. You will see from that article that there is a clear divergence of opinion between the Welsh Government and the County Council on the use of public money to bring actions for defamation.

The spokesperson for the Government said, "An order was made in 2006 which prohibited local authorities from granting indemnities to members or officers who want to initiate defamation cases".

For its part, the council's view is that it has a "common law power to bring defamation proceedings". A two finger salute to the Government, in other words.

Meanwhile, back in Carmarthen the chief executive has set out his view of the matter in his latest triumphant missive to council staff in Y Gair, the monthly staff newsletter.

"This was a significant case, not only for the Council, but for local authorities generally. The result has been welcomed by Councils across the UK", he boasts, thereby demonstrating why Jonathan Edwards and so many other people are right to be worried.

The verbal victory parade continues, "The High Court dismissed Mrs Thompson's claims that she had been defamed by the Council, in their entirety".

The spin put by the chief executive on the case is that his counter-claim and defence were selfless acts taken to protect all 9,000 of the council's staff from an unprecedented assault by a middle-aged woman armed with a blog. This assault had been maintained against "numerous officers", he thunders.

Numerous? The court case featured three officers, one of whom had only a brief walk-on part. The other was the head of planning who was the subject of a handful of blogposts out of hundreds, while the third was the chief executive himself, the star of the show (and of Jacqui's blog).

The piece continues for several more paragraphs, outlining the bare bones of the case as it was heard in court along with a summary of the juicier parts of the judge's findings.

Mr James mentions that Jacqui Thompson was ordered to pay damages of £25,000, but does not say that the damages were awarded to him personally. Neither does he hint at what he intends to do with the money. A few weeks ago he told the Carmarthen Journal that any money raised would go to good causes, without specifying what those might be. Now there is just silence.

Somehow, then, the case was not anything to do with him; he was merely defending the council when he counter-sued Jacqui Thompson..

If we accept that, the counter-claim was in essence the council suing a private citizen. Mr James just happened to be the proxy.

That would perhaps explain why Mr James made such liberal use of council resources as he fought the case (the funds, the cars, the first class rail travel and the presence in court of the council's Head of Law, the head of the press office and other council staff).

It is also consistent with attacks Mr James and the press office have made on council critics over the years, who are described variously as "small, unrepresentative groups" with an agenda and people who "have a problem with local government".

Thus, criticism of the chief executive becomes an attack on local government.

At the very end of the piece Mr James pops up in first person for the first time, only to say once again (with an obvious dislike of commas) that it was all for the sake of others:

This is one of the worst cases I have ever come across in my career and I am very pleased for all of the staff who have been falsely accused by Mrs Thompson as they have been completely vindicated by this judgement.

A reform of the law of defamation is currently wending its way through Parliament, and there are growing calls for changes in the law to prevent local authorities from following in Carmarthenshire's footsteps. But there are plenty more legal ways of silencing critics open to councils and other government bodies.

One noticeable feature of the article is the importance Mr James attaches to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

This was a piece of legislation passed in the dying days of John Major's dire administration and was intended to deal with stalking. A victim of stalking, Mrs Evonne von Heussen, played a prominent part in getting the bill onto the statute books.

In the years since the introduction of the Act, however, it has morphed into something rather less admirable. If ordinary people can be stalked and harassed, so too can companies or even councils, the legal fraternity has decided, helped along by more illiberal amendments in the Blair years.

In the most infamous attempted use of the Act so far, the British Airports Authority applied in 1997 for an injunction under the Act to ban groups including members of the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Woodland Trust from Heathrow, the surrounding area and even routes to the airport such as the Piccadilly Line. Unsurprisingly, the injunction was not granted as it would have criminalised an estimated 5 million people.

The Act has been used more successfully on other occasions to deal with people protesting against militarism and climate change.

Companies and other bodies which claim that someone may feel "alarmed or distressed" by the actions of protesters or others (Mr James appears to think that bloggers may fit the bill as well), can apply for an injunction. If the injunction is then breached, a criminal act has been committed which can mean imprisonment for up to five years.

Harassment is defined merely as something which causes alarm or distress, and harassment may take the form of words only. Harassment is deemed to have taken place if something is done or said twice. Two blogposts mentioning the chief executive could be enough, in other words.

No wonder Mr James was so pleased with Mr Tugendhat's verdict and the potential it provides to protect councils from the alarm and distress they may feel whenever they are criticised.

More background on the Protection from Harassment Act is available from The Guardian here and Liberty here.

Thursday 25 April 2013

The Chief Executive speaks to the Nation

Update 26 April

Thanks to Anon again (see comments below). It turns out that the programme was pre-recorded. Anyone who tuned in to listen to what was no doubt a carefully edited programme can get in touch in the usual way. Mowing the lawn seemed more important.

Update 25 April

Thanks to Anon below. It seems that the programme will go out at between 6pm amd 7pm on Friday, 26 April.  It also appears that Mr James will not be taking questions directly from the great unwashed after all.


Radio signals in this part of the world can be quite fickle, and Radio Cymru seems to come and go every couple of miles, necessitating frequent re-tuning of the car radio to retrieve the dusky tones of Iola Wyn or the excellent Garry Owen, the world's greatest living broadcaster. So many readers will have found themselves accidentally listening to Radio Carmarthenshire for a few minutes.

Today the station will join the Carmarthen Journal in spreading Mr James's vision of the future that faces our county as he takes to the airwaves, and apparently Radio Carmarthenshire's listener will be given an opportunity to phone in with questions.

Cneifiwr can think of quite a few questions that could be asked, although it is unlikely that many answers would be forthcoming.

But if you can find Radio Carmarthenshire on your wireless, you may catch Mr James at some point today.

Unfortunately the station's website has no details, presumably for security reasons, but it is likely that  invitations to phone in will have gone out to a small number of reliable callers, such as "Debbie" from Carmarthen who will probably ask:

"Would the Chief Executive like to share with listeners his thoughts on why Carmarthenshire is the best run county council in all Wales?"

Or possibly "Kev" from Ammanford:

"I would like to congratulate the officers of the council...blah blah [confused waffle continues until the end of the programme].

Monday 22 April 2013

A Development Opportunity in Newcastle Emlyn

According to reports coming in from local sources, Carmarthenshire County Council is hoping to sell a couple of small fields located on a bend in the river in Newcastle Emlyn behind the Maes Llywelyn residential care home and the Day Centre.

At a rough guess, the site extends to about 5 acres and is currently a favourite haunt for walkers and other fauna and fauna, such as otters and recently a naked young man who jogged through the fields, past Maes Llywelyn and on to the playing fields of Ysgol y Ddwylan.

The identity of the naturist remains unknown, and since it was such a cold day, the police don't have much to go on.

A couple of years ago part of the fields was offered up for use as allotments, but the scheme fell through because of council red tape.

The site is not earmarked for housing development under the Local Development Plan, and it forms part of the Teifi Valley Special Site of Scientific Interest and a European Special Area of Conservation. Being right next to the river, it is also on a flood plain.

The fields therefore tick all the boxes required for housing development in Carmarthenshire, and it is to be hoped that the council can find the right kind of investor. Perhaps Meryl will let Robbie Savage know.

Sunday 21 April 2013

Penybanc and Carmarthenshire's house of planning horrors

A protest was held yesterday in the village of Penybanc to highlight concerns of local residents and Cymdeithas yr Iaith about the planned housing development at Tirychen Farm which would double the population of the village.

The event was well attended, and members of the local action group spoke in detail about the plans and the effect that they would have on this community.

A request has gone to the Welsh Government to have the application called in, and it will be interesting to see how the minister responsible, Carl Sargeant, responds to a plan which borrows a proposed housing allocation from the unadopted Local Development Plan plus a whole chunk more and tries to shoe horn that into the council's existing Unitary Development Plan.

The speakers made it clear that they were not opposed to the development of 141 houses on the site, as envisaged by the UDP, just the additional 148 which the developers and the council's planners want to cram in.

It was also striking that a lot of other development is taking place in the village. A stone's throw from the village hall where the protest took place was another new housing development. All of that would certainly cater for any local need for new housing with quite a lot to spare for incomers.

Joy Davies, one of the members of the Penybanc action group, pointed out that the Local Development Plan proposes 1,200 new houses in the village and surrounding area, with no evidence of local need. The schools in the area are full, and the effect would be to create the basis for a massive inflow of people from outside the area, undermining the Welsh language and the existing communities.

The Penybanc development joins Carmarthenshire County Council's extensive gallery of rogue planning deals, and it is interesting to note that people outside the county are beginning to sit up and take note. Last week the Commissioner for the Welsh Language, Meri Huws, complained bitterly about foot dragging by the Welsh Government in coming up with new guidelines for the consideration to be given to the language in planning.

Last week also the council's head of planning, Eifion Bowen, joined the debate and called for an independent body to be set up along the lines of the Environment Agency to assess the impact of developments in Welsh-speaking areas.

As reported in an earlier post, the chair of the planning committee, Cllr Anthony Jones (Lab), is the subject of a formal complaint to the Ombudsman for Public Services. Apparently Cllr Jones saw nothing wrong with insisting on chairing the meeting and voting despite, it is claimed, having spoken in favour of the development previously.

Bearing in mind the sanctions imposed on councillors in neighbouring Ceredigion for breaching the code of conduct in planning matters in recent years, this will be an interesting case to follow.

The return trip from Penybanc along the A483 northwards provides some graphic reminders of why Carmarthenshire County Council is so frequently in the news for the wrong reasons. First, you pass close to the now mothballed police station in Ammanford. This state of the art facility is costing Dyfed Powys Police, and therefore us, £700,000 a year in PFI payments.

As Caebrwyn reported last week, the council leader Kevin Madge (Lab) has been caught out yet again. Fourteen months ago he called for a public inquiry into the scandal, but forgot to put pen to paper to make a formal request for an inquiry to the Government or the Home Office.

Heading north you pass the site of the proposed new school in Ffairfach. Plans for the new school were approved at the same meeting as the Penybanc development. Unlike the rest of Wales where building on flood plains has become something of a no-no, Carmarthenshire sees nothing wrong with the practice.

A couple of miles further on, and you pass the site of the proposed Sainsbury's store just outside Llandeilo. That application was also enthusiastically recommended by the planning officers and rubber-stamped by the planning committee before Sainsbury's realised that operating two gigantic stores in Llandeilo and nearby Cross Hands wasn't perhaps such a good idea after all.

Meanwhile the Welsh Government is looking at ways to improve what it calls "delivery" of the planning system. As Plaid Wrexham reported, attention has been drawn to the size of the planning committee in Denbighshire where 30 of the council's 47 councillors decide planning applications. In Carmarthenshire just 19 of the 74 councillors are selected for membership of this committee, and in the case of the Labour and "Independent" contingent, the principal selection criteria would appear to boil down to two things:

(i) Do you have a pulse?

(ii) Can you raise your hand at the right time?

Ability to understand the complexities of the planning system and determination to make up your own mind on the basis of the merits of any planning application do not appear to be requirements. Indeed, they are probably handicaps. After all, why would you need to make up your own mind when the planning officers and the party whips are there to do it for you?

Monday 15 April 2013

Maggie and Me

Everybody else is at it, and that's my excuse for sharing memories of how Margaret Thatcher briefly intruded on my life on a couple of odd occasions.

Cneifiwr's family was a pretty unremarkable mix of farmers, miners, bakers and engineers, with a teetotal Baptist minister thrown in for good measure. The bakery hit the buffers in the 1950s, partly because Uncle Will drank himself to an early grave, and partly because factory produced steamed bread became immensely popular and people no longer wanted the old-fashioned stuff.

The teetotal Baptist minister and his wife ended up in a small village in Herefordshire, and I am lucky to have a copy of "Granny's Memories", a short book of about 30 pages which tells her life story, including an account of a battle with the local Anglican vicar. The vicar scandalised the Baptists with his heavy drinking, and he would fight dogs in the public house for money, with his fists wrapped in old towels. Eventually he was removed from his parish. Cue Baptist schadenfreude.

On my mother's side, the family was for the most part employed in the pits, and my great grandfather died in 1916 in a mining accident at the age of 30. He left four young children and a widow. Anne, my great grandmother, was by all accounts a very sweet old lady who spent her last few years in what was effectively a workhouse where the old, confused and mentally infirm were dumped. She died in one of the last smallpox outbreaks in South Wales not long before I was born because the local authorities dumped smallpox cases on the "hospital", and the disease spread to the other inmates.

As far as I know, I was the first in my family to go to university. When the time came, my UCCA form was a bizarre selection of different degree courses, and the final incongruous choice was either London or Lampeter. I chose London because it seemed more exciting.

A year after Thatcher came to power I graduated. It was not a good time to graduate because she had engineered a recession; the civil service had a freeze on recruitment, and jobs were like gold dust. After a couple of precarious years scraping a living as a part-time research assistant, I got my first job with a small news and information company which initially received a lot of funding from the EU.

The Chairman was an old-fashioned queen who liked young men and seemed to have an allergy to women. Every couple of months a small job ad would be placed in the Daily Telegraph, and we would receive sackfuls of mail in response. Several of the boys would be seconded for a day or two opening up all of the application letters and binning anything which appeared to come from a woman. Occasionally there were mishaps and someone called Lesley would turn up for an interview wearing a frock.

The Chairman would have a fit of the vapours.

It was about this time that I found digs in Finchley, which happened to be Maggie's constituency. Finchley, which for those of you not familiar with it is in the north of London, was a strange mix of leafy suburbs and tough working class areas. My two local pubs would not have been out of place in the tougher parts of Glasgow, but the Old King of Prussia was generally reckoned to be a safe place to drink because it was the favourite haunt of some old lags, including Big Tony, who didn't want any trouble on their patch.

One day during the miners strike I must have had a half day, because I got back to Finchley Central tube station in the early afternoon to find a small group of miners outside waving placards.

We didn't see many miners in Finchley, and I was observing the scene when suddenly the doors of a nearby van burst open and about a dozen police emerged. They knocked the miners to the ground and beat the living daylights out of them.

This being London, most people walked on as though nothing was happening. It was all over in a couple of minutes, and the miners were carted off. As far as I could see, they had not been doing anything wrong, and had just been hoping to bring their cause to the attention of Thatcher's constituents.

The incident was not reported anywhere as far as I can remember, and this was in the days before mobile phone cameras. It was as though nothing had happened.

I moved from my first digs to a house in a road close by which happened to be where Maggie's constituency agent also lived.

We never saw anything of the Iron Lady, as she had become, but she would visit her agent after every election to thank him, and our road was sealed off by police and security heavies. 

Time went by, and I moved away from Finchley and Maggie left Downing Street. Some years later, I went for a drink with my Dad in a village pub.

Dad would talk to anyone, and when I returned from the bar with a couple of pints, he was deep in conversation with an old boy who was down visiting his son. It turned out that he came from Grantham and could remember the young Margaret Roberts. They were not fond memories.

The Roberts apparently thought they were a cut above everybody else, and he recalled how the young Margaret would sit at the window above the family grocery shop spitting on people down below.

And that was the last time that Margaret Hilda intruded on my life, until her death reminded us all how she had polarised the society she claimed never existed.

Saturday 13 April 2013

Penybanc row set to continue

The decision by the planning committee of Carmarthenshire County Council to give the go-ahead to a Guernsey-based developer to build 289 houses at Penybanc near Ammanford is controversial even by Carmarthenshire's standards.
A rally is being organised in Penybanc by local residents and Cymdeithas yr Iaith for Saturday, 20 April at 11.30 a.m.
The organisers point out that Penybanc is just one of a number of proposed massive housing developments in the county, and that this is something which should be of concern to people from across Carmarthenshire.
A request to have the plans called in has now gone to Carl Sargeant. The main issue is that the site had an allocation of just 150 houses under the current Unitary Development Plan, whereas the council's planning officers were happy to use an allocation of 250 houses from the as yet unadopted Local Development Plan, plus 39 more for good measure.
It wasn't just the officers who performed somersaults to get this plan pushed through, but also some of the local Labour councillors who switched sides after initially rejecting the plan in December.
To be fair, some of the local Labour members were in favour of the development from the word go, including it seems Cllr Anthony Jones, who also happens to be the chair of the planning committee. Questions are now being asked as to whether Cllr Jones was in breach of the code of conduct because he allegedly spoke in favour of the plan previously.
The South Wales Guardian reported during the week that the approval on 28 March took local residents and objectors completely by surprise because they had been assured by planning officers that no decision would be taken at the planning meeting.
If you can, please come along next Saturday to send a message back to County Hall that the people of Carmarthenshire have had enough of greedy developers and cynical manipulation of the planning system.

Dyw Penybanc ddim ar werth!

Bydd Cymdeithas yr Iaith yn ymuno â thrigolion Penybanc ddydd Sadwrn, 20 Ebrill am 11.30 i wrthwynebu datblygiad o 289 o dai yn y pentref.

Dewch yn llu i anfon neges gref i'r Cyngor Sir bod pobl Sir Gaerfyrddin wedi cael llond bol ar ddatblygiadau sy'n chwalu ein cymunedau.

Bydd cyfle i glywed y Banditos, band ifanc lleol, a chael manylion pellach am yr ymgyrch leol i rwystro datblygiad a sut bydd yn effeithio'r gymuned a'r Gymraeg ar draws y Sir. 

Meddai Alun Davies, y cynghorydd lleol:

Mae llawer o wrthwynebiad yn lleol ond mae'n rhywbeth sy'n berthnasol i bawb yn y Sir. Rydyn ni'n trafod yn lleol beth gallwn ni wneud i roi stop ar y datblygiad ac yn falch o allu cydweithio gyda Chymdeithas yr Iaith ar hynny. Gobeithio y bydd y brotest rydyn ni yn lleol yn ei chyd-drefnu gyda Chymdeithas yr Iaith ar gyfer dydd Sadwrn nesaf (20fed o Ebrill) yn ddechreuad ar ymgyrch gref i ddangos i'r Cyngor Sir fod angen iddyn nhw wrando ar lais y bobl.

Ychwanegodd Sioned Elin, Cadeirydd Cymdeithas yr Iaith yn yr ardal:

Mae'r datblygiad tai yma yn pwysleisio'r negeseuon cymysg sydd yn dod gan y Cyngor Sir - ar y naill law mae sefydlu grŵp fel ymateb i'r ganlyniadau'r Cyfrifiad ond eto yn caniatáu datblygiad mor fawr, datblygiad a fydd yn cael effaith ar gymunedau a'r Gymraeg ar draws Sir Gaerfyrddin - a hynny er gwaethaf gwrthwynebiad lleol. Rydyn ni'n pryderu mai dim ond un o nifer o ddatblygiadau fydd hwn, felly nid protest ar gyfer pobl Penybanc yn unig yw hon ond, protest ar gyfer Sir Gaerfyrddin gyfan i bwysleisio nad yw Sir Gar ar werth i ddatblygwyr tai.


Wednesday 10 April 2013

Beans on Toast - Or Just Toast?

Viewers of the main BBC Wales news programme last night will have seen a man with heavily gelled and cropped hair staring fiercely at a computer screen. This was Jonathan Roberts, the new editor of the South Wales Evening Post, the paper affectionately known locally in Swansea as The Beans on Toast. 

Jonno sat in a large leather swivel chair from where, according to the BBC, he had been interacting with locals about the newspaper's role in the measles epidemic which is now sweeping the city.

It would be unfair to blame the measles outbreak on Mr Roberts, although Cneifiwr notes that it seemed to begin at about the time he left his previous post in Carmarthen to begin his new job running the Toast.

Viewers in Swansea who were expecting a grovelling apology from the editor of the paper which ran a campaign against the MMR vaccine in the late 1990s would have been disappointed. Mr Roberts began by saying that he had been contacted by people who supported the paper's original campaign and went on to waffle something about the role of the local press in keeping people informed.

Prior to taking possession of the big swivel chair at the Toast, Jonathan Roberts was editor for a very brief but dramatic six months at the sister Carmarthen Journal. The Journal had been through a pretty torrid time when Mr Roberts arrived on the scene. Circulation had been plummeting, there had been redundancies and cutbacks, and as readers of this blog will know, the paper's woes had been compounded by bullying from Carmarthenshire County Council, which continues to protest that it values a free local press and freedom of expression as it tries to root out dissent and criticism.

The newspaper's troubles with the council go back several years, and a pattern emerged of periods of conformity with the line dictated by County Hall interspersed by brief flickers of editorial independence.

Jonno swept in to King Street and broke the pattern with a self-imposed ban on anything which the council might consider to be criticism. No letters from dissatisfied residents were allowed, and stories on council matters often appeared to have been written in County Hall. A two page "interview" with the the council's chief executive which took the form of a monologue without questions was just one of the delights served up to long-suffering readers.

The Journal reaped the benefits with a generous crop of council ads, while the independent-minded South Wales Guardian was put in the sin bin and punished with an advertising ban for daring to speak out of turn. A senior journalist from another paper contacted County Hall to investigate. A stormy conversation ensued, with the Press Office telling him to stay away from the story before slamming down the phone.

The love-in culminated in a re-launch of the Journal, with the council distributing a glossy brochure describing the new-look paper along with copies of the council propaganda sheet, the Carmarthenshire News.

How much the Journal paid for this privilege, we shall probably never know, but the distribution deal neatly demonstrated the dramatic reversal of fortunes of our local press. Only a few years ago the Journal had helped the fledgling Pyongyang News by distributing copies free inside the newspaper.

The Journal was re-launched at the end of January this year, bigger and fatter than ever before. The publicity featured lots of management jargon, including promises of much more "user generated content". The "user" appeared to be the Press Office in County Hall.

Readers struggled to find their way through the new-look Journal, which had dispensed with old-fashioned practices such as sequential numbering of pages, and the Teifi Valley was treated to a weekly opinion column written by probably the only person in Cardigan who thinks that a large new Sainsbury's is just what the town needs.

No sooner had the Journal completed its re-launch than Jonno was off with a big promotion at The Beans on Toast.

Whether it is coincidence or not, the departure of Jonathan Roberts saw the sudden appearance of some green shoots of editorial independence. People outside County Hall who had not been contacted for months suddenly found themselves being asked for a quote, and articles even appeared which, ever so subtly, hinted that not everyone agrees with the council's press office on everything.

Sales of the Journal continued to slide during the last 6 months of 2012, and it will be interesting to see what effect if any the re-launch will have.

In the meantime the management merry-go-round at Local World, the corporate entity which now brings together Northcliffe Media and Iliffe News and Media, appears to be gathering pace. After the quickfire changes at the Journal and the Beans on Toast, it is now the turn of the Llanelli Star.

All of this brings back uncomfortable memories for Cneifiwr who remembers working for a once proud and mighty institution which struck the corporate equivalent of an iceberg. Like all sensible rats, Cneifiwr didn't hang about, but from the safety of his new home it was noticeable how the deckchairs were rearranged with an increasingly manic desperation as the icy waters of oblivion beckoned.

But all is not gloom and doom. It is worth shelling out 65p for this week's Carmarthen Journal just to read the completely bonkers letter sent in by that stalwart of the letters page, Sir Eric Howells CBE. Alternatively you can get it for free here.

Monday 8 April 2013

Delyth Jenkins joins Compassion in Care

After all of the bad news recently it is really good to be able to report that Delyth Jenkins has been appointed whistle blowing coordinator for Wales by Compassion in Care.

Delyth has had a difficult time since she blew the whistle on abuse in a day centre run by Carmarthenshire County Council, and it is really good to see that good will now come of her experiences. She will bring passion, integrity and courage to her new role.

Da iawn chi, Delyth, a llongyfarchiadau mawr ar eich penodiad. Dych chi'n haeddu pob llwyddiant.

Sunday 7 April 2013

Standing up for the Community

The meeting of Carmarthenshire's Planning Committee on  28 March was notable not just for the decision to allow the development of a massive new housing estate in Penybanc near Ammanford, but also for giving the go-ahead to the building of a 1,200 pupil school at Ffairfach just outside Llandeilo.

The battle to save Ysgol Pantycelyn in Llandovery was lost some time ago, but the selection of the site in Ffairfach remained highly controversial. Not only is it on a flood plain, but for children from Llandovery and the surrounding area, the new school will entail very long daily journeys, and thanks to recent cuts to the transport budget, children aged 16 and over will have to pay to travel.

The way in which Ffairfach was chosen was strongly criticised by both Jonathan Edwards MP and AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas. There was overwhelming opposition in Llandovery and the surrounding area, and concerns were also raised in Llandeilo about the site, although locally there was relief that at least children from Llandeilo would not have to commute long distances.

Despite this, the plans were passed by councillors. Given the make-up of the planning committee, this did not come as a surprise. Some of the Labour and Independent members never ever question the recommendations of the planning officers. The Labour Terry and Keri duo (Terry Davies and Keri Thomas) are especially well known for their Judge Jeffreys interpretation of their quasi-judicial functions. At least they are consistent.

As Caebrwyn reports, there is particular outrage in Llandovery at the behaviour of the two local "Independent" councillors who have between them clocked up over 150 years on planet Earth, with quite a chunk of that time spent as county councillors. Both are also members of the Planning Committee.

Cllr Tom Theophilus (Cilycwm) and Ivor Jackson (Llandovery) remained silent while the fate of Ysgol Pantycelyn was being decided, although the council's then Executive Board member responsible for Education, Gwynne Wooldridge, thanked them publicly in the pages of the Carmarthen Journal for their support in the face of angry opposition from local people.

Then at the end of 2011 the two community heroes claimed in the Carmarthen Journal that they had been against the Ffairfach site from the word go. Cllr Tom Theophilus added,

The malicious rumour [that they had supported the council's plans, ed.] spreading in our area and my area is absolutely untrue.

How their fellow Independent Gwynne Wooldridge felt about being accused of spreading malicious rumours is not recorded. The reason for their silence, they said, was that they did not want to breach the code of conduct so that they could participate in the planning process.

On another occasion Cneifiwr well remembers hearing Cllr Jackson address his fellow councillors from the chair to complain bitterly that he had been unfairly attacked, and that he would make his views known at the planning stage.

In the event, Cllr Theophilus turned up to the fateful planning meeting, but abstained. Cllr Jackson apparently decided to go on holiday instead.

Come election time, and you will be hard put to find a single election address from any prospective county councillor which does not promise that they will stand up for their community. No doubt that's what the people of Llandovery and Cilycwm were told by Cllrs Jackson and Theophilus.

Fortunately for both, there is no mechanism to allow voters to recall their elected representatives, and both will continue to claim their allowances and generous travel expenses until 2017. Whether they will stand again, only time will tell, but advanced age has never been an issue for Pam Palmer's raggle taggle army.

For all those who wonder why Carmarthenshire's planning system is so constantly mired in controversy, part of the answer at least lies with the calibre of a significant part of the membership of the planning committee.

Friday 5 April 2013

Pobl o dan 70 oed yn Neuadd y Sir

Llongyfarchiadau mawr i'r aelodau a chefnogwyr ifanc Cymdeithas yr Iaith aeth i brotestio yn Neuadd y Sir heddiw. Mae'n hen bryd i'r lle gael ei ddihuno.

Pam na ddewch chi draw i Gyfarfod y Cyngor Sir ar 17 Ebrill? Byddai'n hyfryd cael clywed cân newydd yno!

Cynllunio a'r Iaith Gymraeg

Gan fod cynllunio a'r iaith Gymraeg yn bwnc llosg ar hyn o bryd, dyma ichi grynodeb o'r sefyllfa gyfredol:

O ran yr iaith Gymraeg a chynllunio, yr unig bolisïau llywodraethol cyfredol yw tri pharagraff yn Polisi Cynllunio Cymru a TAN (Technical Advice Note/Nodyn Cyngor Technegol) 20 o’r flwyddyn 2000 sy’n ymdrin â  Chynlluniau Datblygu Unedol (UDP) . Mae Polisi Cynllunio Cymru yn cydnabod bod yr iaith Gymraeg yn rhan o ffabrig cymdeithasol a diwylliannol Cymru ac y dylai’r gyfundrefn gynllunio ystyried anghenion a buddiannau’r iaith Gymraeg.  Nid yw TAN20 yn berthnasol bellach, a chaiff Cynllun Datblygu Unedol Sir Gaerfyrddin ei ddisodli gan Gynllun Datblygu Lleol (LDP) erbyn 2015.

Cynhaliwyd ymgynghoriad ar gyfer TAN20 newydd yn 2010-2011, ond bu rhaid aros tan fis Mawrth 2013 cyn i’r TAN drafft ymgynghorol weld golau dydd. Does dim newid sylfaenol yn TAN20 drafft diwygiedig i’r hyn oedd yn y fersiwn blaenorol. Barn Awdurdod Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri yw bod y TAN drafft yn siomedig ac yn arwynebol, a bod cyfle gwych wedi ei golli. Mae’r polisi drafft yn ddiffygiol o ran cyfarwyddyd pryd a sut fath o asesiad iaith y dylid ei wneud, ac mae’n methu â rhoi unrhyw gyfarwyddyd ar sut y dylid ymdrin â chais cynllunio, meddai. Barn Pennaeth Cynllunio Sir Gaerfyrddin yw bod y TAN drafft yn gwahardd asesiadau effaith ar yr iaith mewn ceisiadau unigol.

Cyhoeddwyd dogfen arall, sef ”Cynllunio a’r Iaith Gymraeg – Y Ffordd Ymlaen”, gan nifer o awdurdodau lleol, yr hen Fwrdd yr iaith a Ffederasiwn yr Adeiladwyr Tai yn 2005. Mae’r ddogfen yn cynnwys canllawiau ar gyfer asesiadau effaith ar yr iaith, ac mae’r rhan fwyaf o’r asesiadau ieithyddol yn seiliedig arnynt.

Ym marn un cynghorydd Cyngor Sir Caerfyrddin:

 ”Mae’r asesiadau’n seiliedig ar ddeunaw o gwestiynau sydd yn gofyn am ymateb un gair i’r gofynnion ymhob cwestiwn sef, Positive, Neutral neu Negative. Mae llawer o’r cwestiynau yn amwys ac yn gwbl amherthnasol i’r broses cynllunio yng nghyd destun iaith a diwylliant.

Mae hynny yn golygu fod cynllunwyr yn achos cais am dros 400 o dai yn Ffos Las a dros 300 yn ardal Saron wedi gallu cynhyrchu asesiad iaith oedd yn datgan yn glir fod y datblygiad yn y ddwy achos yn mynd i gael effaith cadarnhaol ar yr iaith Gymraeg.”

Ni chafodd argymhellion y ddogfen erioed eu mabwysiadu gan y Llywoedraeth, ac felly answyddogol yw statws y ddogfen hon. Serch hynny, mae Cynllun Datbygu Lleol Cyngor Sir Caerfyrddin yn cynnig (dogfen uniaith Saesneg):

“5.9.143 All developments will have regard to the needs and the interests of the
Welsh language. Applicants will be expected to submit a Linguistic Impact
Assessment or Statement as part of a planning application. Guidance for determining
the effect of proposals on the Welsh language is contained within “Planning and the
Welsh Language: The Way Ahead (2005)”. The document suggests that where 25%
or more of the Community Council area speak Welsh then the language is part of the
social fabric. These areas are known as “linguistic sensitive areas”. More detailed
guidance will be produced as SPG

5.9.144 Where a negative effect on the Welsh language is demonstrated by a
Linguistic Assessment or Statement, consideration may be given in appropriate
instances to reduce or remove the impact. Such mitigation measures may include
phasing the development, provision of affordable housing for local needs, provision
of bilingual signs and support for the development of the language within the
community. A number of these mitigation measures are likely to be sought as
Planning Obligations (see policy GP3) or conditions to the planning permission.”

Gellid dadlau bod hyn yn well na’r sefyllfa bresennol a nodweddir gan ddiffyg mesurau i ddiogelu’r iaith yng nghyd-destun cynllunio.


Cynllun Datblygu Lleol Sir Gaerfyrddin
Adroddiadau cynllunio Cyngor Sir Caerfyrddin
Araith gan Emyr Jones, Cwnsler i Banel Cyfraith Gyhoeddus Llywodraeth Cymru, i Gynhadledd ar yr Iaith Gymraeg yn Nhycroes, 2013.