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.
The so-called Independents are the biggest problem to democracy in Carmarthenshire because many voters don’t realise that they are a party. (Worryingly I have spoken to people who have voted Independent because they think Meryl is Labour).
On the Planning Committee I can understand all Plaid members voting the same and all Labour members voting the same, but the Independents always voting with Labour is inexplicable, unless they are under party orders.
Of course Planning Committee membership (and the extra allowance that goes with it) is given for party loyalty not ability. Anyone that has seen Labour’s Planning Committee vice chair Keri Thomas proposing or seconding a planning motion will know that he has no idea what he is talking about, but that hasn’t held him back.
Probably more worrying are the actions of those few committee members who do have a clue and choose to follow party lines anyway. Former Independent Leader-in-Waiting Steve James (who lost his Burry Port seat at the last election) often asked good questions of planning officers at planning meetings, failing to get reasonable answers, but then voted with Labour (or abstained which helped achieved the Labour desired result) anyway.
I remember reading once that at a Full Council Meeting Steve James criticised Sian Caiach and Arthur Davies who had grouped together as “true independents” People First because they voted differently on an issue. I don’t think the Independents get it.
Anyway, perhaps Llanelli, Llandovery, Ammanford and any other areas that feel they would be better served outside of Carmarthenshire County Council should group together and look to rid themselves of the undemocratic practices of county hall.
Point 1]- Get your facts right only the Chairman of the Planning Committee gets an extra allowance - Clr A W Jones Labour . The Chairs of the various scrutiny committees get the same allowance and it is politically split with Plaid , Labour & independents each getting a number of chairmanship's etc Point 2 It may be that the various Independent members weigh up the facts presented to them , read the paperwork and then make a balanced decision & unlike Plaid who vote against everything for the sake of voting against everything. Point no3 Keri Thomas Labour is not vice chairman planning & if you knew him he is a loose canon Point 4
Sian Caiach is a quasi Plaid & not independent and regularly sits with Plaid and votes with Plaid and in fact used to be Plaid
I've sat through some planning meetings, and what was very noticeable was that for most of the time the Independents sat in silence, never asking a question, always voting as recommended by the officers. And you don't have to spend too long observing some of the councillors who make planning decisions to realise that they are simply incapable of understanding what they are being asked to decide. Which is probably why some of them were put there.
They tend to vote for anything, brain not required for planning committee position, just need to sit, keep eyes open, if they can, nod and baa, then vote. . I think you will find Ms.Caiach was also Labour and Tory at stages of her political career!!! She was also a shepherds woman!!! Sorry, no pun intended!!!
It seemed to me that the point being made by Anon#1 in the Sian Caiach comment was that a so-called Independent (Steve James) was criticising another group of independents for voting independently. I like the way the mere mention of Cllr Caiach's name provokes such reaction - she must be doing something right!
Having sat through several planning meetings I think the biggest improvement to democracy would be to have a permanent record on film of how the officers promote applications and how many councillors say nothing and just put their hands in the air when they are told.
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