Wednesday 29 May 2013

It's four more years of Kev and Pam

Pam Palmer's motley collection of closet Tories came third in last year's council elections and are not what most people would consider to be natural bedfellows for Kevin Madge's Labour group, runners-up in the elections. Some of Kev's troops like to think of themselves as Socialists, but their voting record suggests otherwise. Much easier to follow the example set by the new council chair, Cllr Terry Davies, and wax eloquent about miners leaders in the 1920s than vote to pay the council's lowest paid staff a living wage.

But then Pam had something that Kev wanted: - enough votes to enable him to get his hands on the Leader's limo, and so this time last year a lot of intensive wooing was going on.

Pam played hard to get and sold herself for as much as she could, before putting on a show of reluctance and submitting to a one year trial cohabitation. Of course, they had been cohabiting for eight years before that, but then Pam and Meryl were on top, and the 2008 elections had left Kev in a state of shrivelled impotence.

The last year of cohabitation has had its moments of difficulty. In particular the defection in very peculiar circumstances of Labour's Cllr Theressa Bowen to Pam's Indies a few months after the election can't have gone down well at Labour HQ, especially as it levelled up the numbers and strengthened Pam's grip on the show.

But faced with loss of power and special responsibility allowances, neither Kev nor Pam was about to have a fling with anyone else, and so the two have now entered into a four-year deal, which judging from the announcement (BBC report in Welsh here) offers nothing new at all.

As PR professionals know, when you haven't got anything new to say, just announce again what you have already announced and make it sound like news.

The Planning Lottery

Caebrwyn has already covered criticism by AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas of the peculiarly inconsistent approach taken to planning by Carmarthenshire County Council (here), so just a brief update from Cneifiwr. The original press release can be found here.

At issue this time is a decision by the planners to restrict development at a site in Llandovery to 32 homes to ensure that the number of houses built stays in line with the current Unitary Development Plan. The developers had been seeking permission to build 61. Only a few weeks ago the same planners had no problem recommending approval for an application in Penybanc which will result in 289 houses being built on a site where the UDP limit is 150.

Planning is always going to have its controversies, no matter which council is involved, but it is safe to say that in recent years no council in Wales has hit the headlines as often as Carmarthenshire.

Over in Maesybont the extraordinary and appalling story of the battle between Trisha Breckman, Eddie Roberts and Andrew Thomas, a neighbouring "farmer", road haulier and sometime scrap dealer, has come to the end of another chapter with the suspension by Mr Thomas for the time being of quarrying.

Despite not growing any crops or keeping livestock other than a few horses, Carmarthenshire County Council regards Mr Thomas as a farmer, which means that he is permitted to carry out certain activities such as quarrying as a legitimate part of his agricultural operations.

When at one point Mrs Breckman pointed out that many of the large commercial vehicles cluttering up Mr Thomas's farm, such as an old fire engine, were not exactly consistent with farming, the planners explained that the fire engine was needed to hose down the yard - despite the absence of what most farmers would regard as livestock.

A catalogue of all the various bizarre planning decisions and scandals from the last few years would fill several large volumes. A couple of years ago readers may remember that the Carmarthen Journal gave the impression that the Wales Audit Office might be about to launch an investigation. It turned out that the WAO was merely considering whether it ought to think about taking a closer look.

Public confidence in the planning authority has been at a very low ebb for a long time, and the latest decisions at Penybanc and Llandovery will only serve to reinforce public perceptions that all is very far from well in Spilman Street.

The trouble is that the WAO's track record does not inspire confidence either. Time for an independent inquiry.

Saturday 25 May 2013

A Template for Success

Not a great deal seems to be happening at Carmarthenshire County Council, at least not if the published record is anything to go by. The annual pomp of the AGM is out of the way, and there has not been a meeting of the governing Executive Board for a month - perhaps it's not just Meryl who's gone on holiday.

Rummaging around in the Meetings and Agendas section of the website, there are not very many meetings of anything going on, and most of the agendas are filled with ritual formalities, such as "Declaration of Prohibited Whips".

Tucked away in a dusty corner are the records of the "Democratic Services Committee". The committee's function is mainly to consider the training and development needs of councillors and the allowances that they are entitled to.

Bearing in mind the advanced age and low calibre of some of the councillors who preside over matters such as planning and education, training and development is a tall order, but as people voted them in, someone has to go through the motions of teaching old dogs new tricks.

One of the new requirements under the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011 is for all councillors to write an annual report for their electors. Again, there will be those for whom this is a very tall order, and so helpfully the council is providing everyone with a template.

The template kicks off by stating, "The purpose of this report is to keep you informed of some of the issues I have dealt with on your behalf during 2012/13. Real progress has been made in respect of these and I hope that you will find this information of interest." 

Councillors are then asked to fill in the blanks. Clearly failure or lack of progress are not options.

The really taxing bits of the report, such as name, address and telephone number will be filled in by council officers for councillors (there may be some who cannot remember), but the councillors will have to tell residents how many meetings of the various committees and sessions of the full council they have attended, both in absolute terms and as a percentage.

The first of this year's batch of annual reports are supposed to be published by the end of June, and some will almost certainly be eligible for the Booker Prize for Fiction. The reports of some of Pam Palmer's troops in particular will make for entertaining reading over the summer, but it will also be interesting to see what councillors such as Labour's Keri Thomas have to say for themselves.

As individual councillors are supposedly responsible for filling in quite a few chunks of text, it will be interesting to see how many receive remedial help and how many avoid the temptations of cut 'n paste.

Well, that's this summer's reading sorted.

Friday 24 May 2013

News from the Law Courts

Readers of John Mortimer's Rumpole stories will remember that this fictional old barrister was not always entirely respectful of the judiciary, and one of his favourite occupations was to rattle his old adversary Judge "Mad Bull" Bullingham.

At one time some of Cneifiwr's social acquaintances were barristers, and they liked nothing better when knocking back their claret than to swap stories about occupants of the bench past and present. Some judges had less than flattering nicknames (Bullying Manner, if I remember rightly, was Reginald Bullingham Manor), and the late Lord Denning was another favourite for his often eccentric rulings. One began, "It happened on April 19, 1964. It was bluebell time in Kent."

Another was the notoriously pro-establishment Mr Justice Cantley, the judge in the Jeremy Thorpe case, who famously described one of the defendants, George Deakin, as "probably the sort of man whose taste ran to a cocktail-bar in his living-room", whilst Thorpe was "a Privy Counsellor, a former leader of the Liberal Party and a national figure with a very distinguished public record".

Thank goodness that all of those pro-establishment, red-faced and irascible public school judges are a thing of the past.

And it is with that thought in mind that we should all welcome today's ruling by Mr Justice Tugendhat that Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, was guilty of defamation by sending a tweet which meant, "in its natural and ordinary defamatory meaning, that the Claimant was a paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care".

Which is obvious to anyone reading Ms Bercow's actual words:

"Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face* "

You can read Sally Bercow's statement on the outcome of the case here, and the text of the Mr Justice Tugendhat's verdict here.

Mr Justice Tugendhat, who is now the senior media judge in England, has been in the news several times this year. In January he hit the headlines when he was presiding over a case involving the sexual activities of undercover police officers.

Part of that case revolved around an interpretation of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, and the judge decided that, on balance, Parliament would have envisaged "some possible sexual relationships" between undercover police officers and those they were investigating. In his judgement he cited James Bond as "a member of the intelligence services who used relationships with women to obtain information, or access to persons or property", and went on to argue that Bond and other fictional characters gave credence to the view that for many years spies had formed intimate sexual relationships for intelligence purposes.

All of which leads one to wonder whether Rumpole was actually a work of fiction.

Cracking down on benefits claimants

Earlier this week listeners to the PM programme on Radio 4 would have heard an interview with a man talking about his experiences as a benefits claimant. He had received a letter summoning him to a meeting. The problem was that the letter was written and sent out five days after the date of the meeting he was supposed to attend.

As a result, he was sanctioned and lost two weeks of benefits.

A junior government minister was on hand to say this must have been an unfortunate administrative mistake, and he was sure the man would get his benefits back. The interviewee replied that he had appealed and was hoping to get the lost benefits restored eventually.

The world moved on, and if any of the listeners gave it a second thought, they probably put the matter down to administrative bungling.

A couple of days later a friend who works in social care mentioned that his office receives a lot of circulars and updates from social services. One recent document told benefits staff that issuing sanctions to claimants was recognised as an "achievement". The more achievements staff clock up, the better their chances of promotion.

Sanctions are a three stage process, he explained. Depending on how serious a failure by a claimant is deemed to be, you can lose benefits for anything from a couple of weeks to several months or an entire year.

An increasingly common way of recording an achievement is, guess what, to send out letters calling someone in for an interview after the date set for the interview.

Recently benefits claimants turning up to sign on in Cardigan found that the offices were closed because of a one-day strike. They were told not to worry, their attendance would be recorded nevertheless. All subsequently received sanctions.

Almost all of the claimants sanctioned in this way will be people living very close to the edge. Withdrawal of benefits even for a short period means real hardship or destitution.

Watch the crime figures climb, my friend predicted, as people with nothing to live on turn to theft.

Thursday 23 May 2013

The Royal We

A month ago the MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, Jonathan Edwards, put down an Early Day Motion in Parliament to air concerns about the public funding of libel cases by local authorities, and the Western Mail carried a report on it here. The newspaper also published an editorial saying that the use of public funds by councils to bring libel actions was a step too far. The editorial was not published online, but the text of it can be found on Jonathan Edwards' website here.

What triggered this of course was the use of taxpayers' money by the chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, Mark James, to counter-sue blogger Jacqui Thompson.

Nearly four weeks later, Mr James has put pen to paper to set out his side of the story once again in the latest stage of his victory parade which has featured articles on the council's website, the council's staff newsletter and the Carmarthen Journal as well as what can only loosely be described as an interview on Radio Carmarthenshire. Who knows, perhaps we can also look forward to yet more on this subject in a future edition of the council's newspaper, Carmarthenshire News.

The Western Mail piece takes up most of a page (it is not yet available online) and repeats most of what we have heard so many times before. This was a "six year unlawful campaign of harassment, defamation and intimidation", Mr James tells readers.

Well, no it wasn't, but there is no point in going through the detail of the case now. Suffice it to say that if justice is to be served, the case will go to appeal and the verdict will be overturned.

Mr James goes on to say that all three political groups on the council, and "all three group leaders in particular were of the view that this individual had gone too far, [and] that the council should defend itself vigorously".

The three group leaders are Kevin Madge (Labour), Pam Palmer (Independent) and Peter Hughes Griffiths (Plaid Cymru). As far as we know none of them has made any sort of public statement about the case or said whether they supported the use of public money to bring libel actions.

There is something distinctly disturbing about an unelected official telling the public what the views of elected representatives are. Perhaps readers may like to write to the three leaders to get an opinion at first-hand.

Mr James then says that the case re-affirms where the law has been for some time to allow public bodies such as councils to indemnify "one of its employees" to bring an action for defamation.

The Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) (Wales) Order 2006 specifically prohibits indemnities to bring libel actions, but that minor inconvenience is overlooked.

The most breathtaking claims are left to the end, where the chief executive turns to the subject of costs. Whatever the final bill is, he says, the likely cost to the council will run into "tens of thousands of pounds"(hundreds of thousands may be the real total) - "money which could and should have been spent on schools, elderly care, highways, leisure, libraries, etc."

No expense was spared by Mr James in fighting this case:
  •  The council engaged some of the most expensive legal expertise in Britain.
  •  Teams of very highly paid people shuttled backwards and forwards between London and Carmarthen for more than a year
  • Mr James and his entourage travelled first class to London and back
  • The entourage included the council's press manager and other "essential" personnel
  • The council's limos were pressed into service to convey Mr James and his entourage to Swansea in order to catch the London train when the trial was in progress
But, Mr James claims, the costs of the legal battle are only part of it. Somehow Jacqui Thompson, armed with just a blog, has incurred untold losses and costs to the council he concludes. Just how anyone could come to that conclusion will probably also remain untold and unexplained.

It's also worth remembering that what sparked the battle in the High Court was a letter which Mr James wrote to the Mad Axeman blog. Mr James manages to avoid mentioning that it was he who wrote and sent the letter, and goes into the third person to say merely that a letter was sent on behalf of the council, before using the royal we:

This was the first and only time we had set out the council's position.

Whether "we" consulted the council's elected members before sending the letter and landing the taxpayer with a huge bill is quite another question.

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Beach Broke

One of the things which Carmarthenshire County Council likes to make a great deal of noise about is its regeneration schemes to attract business and jobs to the county. The reality is rather less glossy than the reports and press releases, and when things go wrong the spin machine in County Hall tends to go very quiet.

One scheme which received the enthusiastic backing of the council was the Beach Break Live event in Pembrey, which was first staged in Carmarthenshire in 2010. In its first year, when the weather was relatively good, the festival attracted around 20,000 visitors. Attendance numbers last year failed to meet the organisers' target of 25,000 but the event still attracted around 17,000. Nevertheless, the company behind Beach Break, Student Seed Limited, went into administration with debts of over £600,000, blaming the poor weather for its problems.

The South Wales Evening Post reported on the collapse of the company behind the Beach Break Live event in Pembrey last year (here), and a couple of days ago Radio Cymru broadcast an edition of its investigative programme Manylu to follow the story up (available for a few more days here).

On the very same day that Student Seed Limited went into administration, the directors set up a new company called Seed Events Limited, and in an operation known in the world of beancounting as "phoenixing", it acquired the assets of Student Seed and left the debts behind.

Manylu obtained the list of Student Seed's creditors, and it turns out that the vast majority are still waiting for payment despite repeated promises of a settlement. Quite a few of the creditors are local companies and trades people. Also heavily out of pocket are the St John's Ambulance, the Red Cross and the RNLI, as well as the County Council itself and Dyfed Powys Police.

To his credit, one of the scheme's most enthusiastic supporters, Clive Scourfield, did agree to take part in the programme. Mr Scourfield was a senior Independent councillor at the time and member of the Executive Board responsible for regeneration.

Rather less to his credit, Mr Scourfield shrugged the whole thing off. It was all rather unfortunate, but the council had done its best to attract visitors to the county, and he did not see that any blame at all should rest with the council.

Meryl Gravell, who was council leader at the time and who now has Mr Scourfield's old job, was unavailable for comment because, as we saw at last week's council AGM, she was abroad on holiday despite being paid over £40,000 a year from the public purse for carrying out her duties as councillor and executive board member.

Bearing in mind that councillors get a 2 month break from official meetings in the summer (last year it was 3 months), you would think that it would be possible to plan holidays accordingly. Teachers who want to fly off to sunnier climes during term time should take note.

The list of creditors showed that the County Council itself was owed more than £73,000 by Student Seed, mainly for the use of the park which was closed to the public for the duration of the festival.

A council spokesperson told the programme that most of this amount had been retrieved from a bond deposited by the organisers.

Local traders and companies have not received a penny despite repeated promises, and Dyfed Powys Police seems likely to have to write off nearly £43,000 at a time when the force is having to make deep cuts.

Perhaps sensing that local people and businesses would give the event a less enthusiastic welcome than the council this year, the organisers announced in March that they would be relocating the festival to Cornwall.

MP Nia Griffith (Lab) who represents the area told the programme that there were serious questions to be asked about the way in which the county council and the police safeguard public money.

Let's hope Kev comes up with some answers.

Carl Sargeant rejects Penybanc Call-In Request

Dyfodol i'r Iaith, the campaign group founded last year, reported yesterday that it had been notified by the Welsh Government that its request to call in the controversial planing application for almost 300 houses in Penybanc near Ammanford had been rejected by the minister responsible, Carl Sargeant, who thereby continues what has become a tradition of sitting on his hands whenever anything to do with Carmarthenshire drops into his in-tray.

As has become clear to everybody in the last few months, there is nothing in Welsh government planning policy apart from a few warm words to protect Welsh-speaking communities from over-development. Slow worms and moths have much greater rights.

If not the language, there were other grounds under which the application could have been called in, including the trashing by the council of its own Unitary Development Plan.

Speaking for Dyfodol i'r Iaith, Heini Gruffudd, a respected academic, told Taro'r Post on Radio Cymru that he hoped Leighton Andrews would now intervene and work with Carmarthenshire County Council to put the application on hold while the Commission he set up continues to examine the reasons for the decline of the language in Carmarthenshire.

Heini Gruffudd also called for all larger planning applications to be passed to the Language Commissioner for review until such time as the Government completes its revision of planning policies as they affect the language.

Both are utterly sensible and fair suggestions, but neither will be taken up in Cardiff Bay which responded to criticism yesterday with an obfuscatory statement claiming that a new TAN20 was in progress.

TAN20 is the wholly ineffective and now pretty much obsolete planning guidance which deals with the language. Consultation on a replacement for this four page document ended two years ago, and the dust has been settling on it ever since.

Monday 20 May 2013

No more Mr Nice Guy

Anyone interested can now view footage of last week's Annual General Meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council online. As predicted, the first part of this annual pageant was extremely dull, but things perked up somewhat after the two hour municipal buffet when Peter Hughes Griffiths, leader of the Plaid group on the council and leader of the opposition, got stuck into Kevin Madge's self-congratulatory leader's report.

The speech begins 1 hour 39 minutes into the archive here. The simultaneous translation does not do justice to the flow of his delivery, so if you can understand Welsh, click on Cymraeg at the top right hand corner of the screen.

Peter Hughes Griffiths has been consistent in wanting to run a responsible and constructive opposition, and that is one of the themes of his speech. He goes on to deplore the spin which has become such a dominant feature of this council; the neglect of the county's smaller towns and villages in favour of major developments in Llanelli; the gulf which separates the council's claims that it listens and consults with communities from the reality; the shabby way in which the county council has tried to shuffle the blame for local cuts onto community councils; and the concealment of criticism contained in reports from the Public Ombudsman. He highlights the way in which this Labour-led council has refused to back calls for a living wage to be paid to the lowest paid council employees; and the hypocrisy and dishonesty of Labour's propaganda about European regional funding (applauding it in the press while voting to cut it).

These are fair and legitimate criticisms, but the response by Pam Palmer (leader of the Independents) which follows shows that there is not a cat in hell's chance of any of this being taken on board.

Responsible and constructive opposition has meant giving the ruling coalition the benefit of the doubt and swallowing plans and proposals when there is often room for very considerable doubt. There have been many changes to the council's constitution and standing orders which have had the effect of undermining the rights of opposition councillors and the erosion of democratic accountability. Some of those changes have come back to bite the Plaid group, and they could well come back to haunt Labour when it finds itself out of power.

It has meant backing schemes which may well add further burdens on the tax payer when the usual "won't cost you a penny" promises turn out to have been wishful nonsense from the start.

The relationship between Plaid and the council has become one in which one side does a lot of giving, while the other does all the taking. Apparently conciliatory gestures and concessions such as the setting up of a committee to look at why the Welsh language has lost so much ground are nothing of the kind. Everybody else, including the Language Commissioner and the Welsh Government, was shocked by the census results in Carmarthenshire, and for the council to do absolutely nothing was not an option. The acid test will be what happens when the committee reports, and nobody who cares about the language should be under any illusions about what to expect from the council's leadership.

Peter Hughes Griffiths has also repeatedly called for a broad-based council administration which would make use of the pool of talent and experience which exists among the elected councillors. That is the very opposite of a tribal, partisan approach, and needless to say it has been ignored.

There are still four years to go before the next council elections, and the Plaid group on the council must wonder what it has achieved by being the nice guys. It certainly did not help any of the councillors who tried to raise questions of real public concern during the last year, only to find themselves caught up in a mesh of often spurious procedural rulings.

It is possible to be a responsible and constructive opposition without giving legitimacy to the cynical and second rate administration which currently rules the roost.

Time for the gloves to come off, beginning with withdrawal from the shadowy backroom fixing that goes on in the "Business Management Group".

Sunday 19 May 2013

News from Carmarthenshire

With apologies to regular readers for the lack of posts in recent weeks. Cneifiwr has his nose to the grindstone at the moment, but here is a brief selection of news and updates.

Trisha Breckman

The campaign of intimidation and bullying which got underway earlier this year when the county council finally managed to bury a highly critical report from the Public Services Ombudsman has stepped up. Last week Mrs Breckman's neighbour resumed quarrying on his land.

He can do this legally provided the rock is for use on his own land, but Public Protection has become involved and appears to agree that the noise levels are unacceptable for people living in the surrounding area. The likely outcome is that a stopper notice will be applied, obliging Mr Thomas to cease work after an initial notice period.

The Noise Abatement Notice would prevent Mr Thomas from carrying out further quarrying activity for a couple of months, and then the whole process would have to begin again.

The quarrying has been accompanied by repeated "escapes" of horses onto Mrs Breckman's land and a further very sinister incident which is now in the hands of the police.

Filming Council Meetings

The archive of the first council meeting to be filmed can be found here. If you can understand Welsh, it is well worth clicking on Cymraeg (top right hand corner of the screen) because the translator, although good, sounds like a robot.

The technical quality of the filming is excellent, and for anyone who has not sat through a session in County Hall before, this may well change your voting habits.

A separate post on Peter Hughes Griffiths' speech is in the offing, but he refers at one point to the waste of talent which the current political arrangements involve. Whatever your political leanings, there is no doubt that the current Plaid group contains a lot of experience and talent. Labour has some strong councillors as well, although some of their more able members languish on the backbenches while the pygmies rule the roost. As for Pam Palmer and her collection of Elmer Fudds and museum pieces, the least said the better.

While rummaging around on Youtube for something else, I came across this lecture (in Welsh) given by Cllr Alun Lenny as a part of the Tir Sir Gâr production about politics in Carmarthenshire and the county's long and honourable tradition of agitation and riotous assembly. Aruthrol.

Freedom of Information

Caebrwyn's attempt to get the county council to release some of the background documents relating to its deal with Towy Community Church has, as expected, been rejected on appeal by the council, which is now trying to argue that the request is "vexatious". Following a recent tribunal ruling, the Information Commissioner now defines a vexatious request as one which "is likely to cause a disproportionate or unjustified level of disruption, irritation or distress".

Why a request for correspondence between the council and the recipient of so much public money should be disproportionately disruptive or cause distress is something to set the imagination racing. You would think if the two organisations had nothing to hide, then they would be glad to show the world.

Jacqui will now have to take her request to the Information Commissioner who has already ruled in her favour once on this request.

Value for Money

The Taxpayers' Alliance has published new figures showing that Carmarthenshire leads the pack when it comes to rewarding its senior council officers. Not only do we have the highest earning chief executive in Wales, but we also have a clutch of other officers who knock spots of the earnings of most of their peers in Wales.

In today's Wales on Sunday Mr James can be seen sporting a broad grin (as well he might) and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Bryn Parry-Jones from neighbouring Pembrokeshire. To see why Mr Parry-Jones is worth so much, try googling  the words Pembrokeshire scandal.

Needless to say, the WLGA's own chief executive, Steve Thomas, was quick to come out with a statement explaining why in his view high salaries are essential, somehow overlooking the fact that Wrexham manages to get by with no officers earning more than £100,000, while Ceredigion has just one.

Thursday 16 May 2013

Council Censors at Work

Hold The Front Page, an online site carrying news about the UK regional press, reports that 27% of local newspaper editors have been threatened with advertising blockades by councils and other public bodies because of editorial coverage they did not like, and that 40% of the editors surveyed who had been threatened said that the threats had been carried out.

This is nothing new in Carmarthenshire, where meddling by the county council with the editorial independence of our local newspapers has been going on for years. The most recent known example was the blacklisting by County Hall of the South Wales Guardian (see previous posts such as this) late last year.

The survey conducted by Hold The Front Page was anonymous, something which is if anything more disturbing than the fact that there are a lot of town hall bullies at work, because such is the climate of fear that very few of the victims are willing to speak out.

Just as with playground bullies, the only way the cycle can be broken is if the offending local authorities are named and held to account. Hoping that over-mighty council leaders and chief executives and their PR departments will eventually go away is as naive as it is forlorn.

The peculiar half-secret announcement by Carmarthenshire County Council earlier this week that it wants to set up focus groups next week to consider how the council should "further ensure people in Carmarthenshire have access to high quality, accurate information", tells us how the council's press and PR departments like to see themselves.

The view from County Hall is that it churns out top quality, accurate and reliable information which then gets distorted and misreported by irresponsible elements within the press. That was the original justification for launching the council's newspaper.

Examples of very poor quality council press releases are legion in Carmarthenshire. Sometimes they are just gibberish; sometimes they recycle quotes multiple times as they cobble together "new" stories; and sometimes the claims don't stand up to even cursory examination. Sometimes the "information" being conveyed is simply spin, political propaganda or plain untrue (e.g. the Sainsbury's press release).

A prime example of how little importance is attached to accurate and truthful reporting came shortly after news broke that the South Wales Guardian was being blacklisted.

The council's press office went to work to tell us, with a completely straight face, that the withdrawal of advertising had nothing to do with criticism by the paper of the council. It was purely a commercial decision based on the newspaper's circulation, suggesting for good measure that the paper should stop whining and try to sell more copies.

A couple of months later, advertising with the Guardian quietly resumed, giving the lie to the council's earlier statement. So much for truth, reliability and accuracy.

As the president of the Newspaper Society, Adrian Jeakings told Hold The Front Page:

Local newspapers’ ability to hold authority and the powerful to account on behalf of their readers underpins local democracy in Britain and we are in serious danger of seeing this become irreparably damaged.

Let's hope that someone sticks that quote up on the walls of the offices of the Carmarthen Journal and Llanelli Star.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Watching Paint Dry


After the utter tedium of the morning session, Cneifiwr resolved to go and get a life, but was dragged back by urgent messages suggesting he tune into yet another car crash speech by the Council Leader, Kevin Madge. On logging back in to the live broadcast, Peter Hughes Griffiths was ripping into the leader's report and its spin.

Pam Palmer, the leader of the Independents, was then invited to speak as deputy leader. She clearly had not anticipated that the job might involve having to say anything, and looked distinctly miffed to be asked to respond. So she fumbled and growled away for a couple of minutes, looking very cross.

This was followed by a serious of unanimous votes approving various reports, and the show came shuddering to an end. With the prospect of many more dire repeat performances from Kev and Pam, we can only hope that the final curtain comes down on their long political careers just as abruptly.

For all who missed today's broadcast, you should at some point be able to watch it at your leisure here. The first half will certainly be an aid to anyone suffering from insomnia.

Carmarthenshire County Council sputtered into the twentieth century today with its first ever webcast. The technical quality of the first broadcast was good, with clear sound and good camera work.

As expected, the content left a lot to be desired. The fancy dress uniforms were straight out of the nineteenth century, as were a good many of the speakers. After two hours of polite speeches, congratulations and expressions of thanks, the meeting was adjourned for a two-hour slap-up lunch off camera, leaving first time viewers with the not wholly inaccurate impression that they had intruded upon a rather chummy private club.

Cllr Sian Thomas gave a good speech as outgoing chair of the council, and was the only speaker to introduce any realism into the proceedings. She noted with some disappointment that the council had not always taken advantage of her hidden talents, and she hoped that it made full use of the talents of her successor, Labour's Terry Davies. She also felt sure that the new vice chair, Cllr Daff Davies (Independent) probably had some hidden talents somewhere.

And that was about it, although viewers may have spotted that, as usual, the Independent benches looked rather empty, and the meeting began with a roll-call of apologies for absence. Absentee Independents included Cllrs Meryl Gravell, Giles Morgan and Theressa Bowen, while Labour's Keri Thomas also stayed away. Frankly, who can blame them, although some of the absentees often have more pressing business elsewhere (such as Mediterranean and other cruises in some cases) when there is real business to be transacted.

Focussing on Hamster Bedding

Carmarthenshire County Council has announced that it intends to hold a "consultation" on its bi-monthly propaganda sheet, Carmarthenshire News, and is inviting anyone interested to register to join one of two focus groups which will be held next week, for some strange reason at the headquarters of Dyfed Powys Police near Carmarthen and at the new "shoppertainment" complex in Llanelli known to the council as Y Ffwrnes and to Llanelli residents as the Stepney Centre.

The invitation appeared briefly on the home page of the council's website before being consigned to a dark corner where nobody apart from bloggers and other obsessives are likely to venture.

This is bad news for Parc y Scarlets, which has until now been the council's venue of choice for events of this kind.

It is unlikely that many people in Carmarthenshire will be familiar with the contents of the council's newspaper, with instant recycling being the most common option, but for those who have read it, pictures of grinning senior council officers and a handful of senior councillors, usually wearing hard hats and fluorescent jackets, are probably the most abiding images. If you are looking for details of more hum-drum stuff such as refuse collections, consultation timetables, useful telephone numbers and contact details, Carmarthenshire News is not for you.

So if you are retired, unemployed or otherwise at a loose end next Monday or Tuesday, what can you expect?

A couple of years ago Cneifiwr attended a council "consultation" involving focus groups in a community hall. Running the show was a team of very smartly dressed external consultants, accompanied by a few council staff. The chief consultant buttered up his audience. He had never been to these parts before, he announced, but what a charming place it was. He could well imagine returning with his family for a holiday.

The senior consultant began by setting the scene in broad terms before inviting the public to form groups to brainstorm ideas for improving our surroundings. The result was a few score of ideas listed on flipcharts. Within less than 10 minutes this list was whittled down to nothing, while a couple of new ideas appeared as if from nowhere.

As if by magic, the senior consultant and his team then whipped out a lot of beautifully produced artists' impressions and slides explaining the projects in more detail, with the stunned public being given the impression that this is what they had come up with.

And so a scheme was "chosen" to go forward for an application for European funding, and that was the end of the matter. The consultants no doubt got a fat cheque, but the schemes never saw the light of day.

Cynical it may be, but if the consultation on Carmarthenshire News does go ahead, don't expect the outcome to be a popular vote to have the propaganda rag scrapped. Suggestions from the floor that the bloated carcass of the council's press and PR department should be humanely disposed of are also unlikely to get beyond the flipcharts.

Saturday 11 May 2013

Lights, Camera and ....Action!

Next week will mark the start of a pilot to film meetings of the full council in Carmarthenshire as the pageant of the Annual General Meeting gets underway. Prepare for a display of posh frocks and lots of glinting municipal bling.

Democracy is not one of the first words to spring to mind when we think of Carmarthenshire County Council, and in a neat piece of symbolism we can expect the abused and half-starved spirit of Welsh democracy to be temporarily kicked out of the chamber to make way for a sword carrying representative of the Queen of England and a couple of other Establishment worthies dolled up in lace and fancy dress. We may even be treated to glimpses of various absurd "British Empire" insignia that have been heaped on some of the senior officers and a few councillors for their services in keeping democracy at bay in our county.

Once that is over, the second act of the annual pantomime will get underway as various committee chairs and other recipients of generous special responsibility allowances are elected. There will be no surprises as favours are repaid for toeing the line, the only unknown being whether Cllr John Jenkins will repeat his performance from last year when he shouted out "A Curse on All Your Houses".

There is some logic in having the arrival of the cameras coincide with the beginning of the new term, although it is sadly likely to be the case that many curious viewers getting their first glimpse of local government Carmarthenshire-style will be put off for ever by this empty and predictable charade.

If you are tempted to tune in, much better to wait until normal business resumes, which with any luck will be before the long summer break. If last year is anything to go by, we will have several opportunities to marvel at the inventiveness and sheer energy which goes in to preventing open debate and awkward questions.

But let's end on a positive note.

If it had not been for the tireless campaigning at enormous personal cost of Jacqui Thompson to try to bring a little more transparency into council proceedings, there would be no cameras in the chamber. No amount of press office spin can disguise that fact.

The pilot is due to run for 12 meetings of the full council only. Committee meetings, including those of the planning committee, will continue to take place free from the glare of the lights.

It is nevertheless a small victory for all those who want to see better and more transparent local government.

Well done Jacqui.

Wednesday 8 May 2013

Different hymn sheets

"New alley opening will bowl you over" screams the headline in the Carmarthen Journal, announcing the forthcoming much delayed opening of the new evangelical bowling alley in Johnstown, financed in large part by the long-suffering council tax payers of Carmarthenshire.

The Journal reckons that the venture has cost £1.3 million, although it does not say how that figure was arrived at. Presumably that's what it said in the press release.

As previously noted on this blog, the county council's contribution alone is more than £1.4 million (the price paid for the site, the grants and loans), while the Big Lottery Fund chipped in with £800,000, and there are bank loans in the region of £750,000. Towy Community Church's contribution to the project was originally stated to be £17,000, and mystery continues to surround how much actual money the church has put into the kitty.

As we know (see previous post), the council is very keen not to allow any daylight to shine on its dealings with Towy Community Church. Although the council is by far the largest financial backer and the church's bankers and the Lottery Fund have secured priority over the tax payer in the event that the venture goes belly up, requests for detailed information about the project are considered to be not just impudent, but vexatious.

Ever since the project first saw the light of day, the council and the church have been consistent in one thing only: they have sung from different hymn sheets. The numbers quoted have been all over the place. The church claimed at one point that the council had purchased the site in Johnstown for the church. The council said it had always wanted a bowling alley and had bought the site while it was in negotiations with someone else (identity still unknown). The Wales Audit Office said that it was the church which first approached the council with the idea of turning the former creamery into a bowling alley. Take your pick.

Here is an entirely imaginary conversation from 2009:

Mark: "Hallo Mark, it's Mark! I've had a wonderful vision. We could turn that crumbling old dump down in Johnstown into a ten-pin bowling alley. I wonder who owns it?"

Mark: "Well Mark, what an extraordinary coincidence! It just so happens that we own it, and Meryl and I have always wanted Carmarthen to have a bowling alley. So much more in keeping with our exciting corporate image than those mouldy old museums and all that Welsh language and culture stuff standing in the way of progress. Let's start a project together!"

Things moved very rapidly. Incredibly rapidly, in fact. In July 2010 the Big Lottery Fund announced that it was awarding £798,000 to the project.

And so it came to pass in the days of Meryl Augusta that the former creamery was leased to Towy Community Church at a peppercorn rent for 99 years. Interestingly, the Journal quotes the pastor as saying that the bowling alley will be leased to the church for 20 years.

This is the first time that a shorter lease has been mentioned, and if correct it would suggest that someone has got cold feet about the wisdom of committing to a century of evangelical bowling. Although that's still a much shorter stretch than the eternity of conscious punishment which, the church says, faces people like Carmarthenshire's bloggers.

The Journal notes that the bowling alley is just the first phase of a bigger project. Phase II will involve the development of a 612 seater auditorium (to be run by the church and used for its church services, but emphatically not to be regarded as a church). Both phases were passed by the council's planners at the same time, and a condition of the deal is that Phase II has to be completed within 5 years, or "a few years away", as Mr Bennett put it rather vaguely.

But let's give the last word to Meryl and the Journal:

"It is the way forward. It's working in partnership. They don't have to come back to us for more grants in future. It's self financing."

The project team hopes to start tendering for contractors to build phase one of the scheme by the end of the year. (Carmarthen Journal  September 2010)

Sadly, Meryl's crystal ball must have been malfunctioning that day, because in 2011 the church was back asking for more money (lots of it), and the opening is two and a half years late.

Monday 6 May 2013

An arbitrary exercise of power

It is no secret that there is no love lost between fellow blogger Jacqui Thompson and a handful of people at the top of Carmarthenshire County Council, and the council has fired the latest shot in its battle to silence her and her blog by branding a Freedom of Information request as "vexatious" as a justification for refusing it.

You can read the background to the request and its already lengthy history on Jacqui's blog here, but in summary the request for information on the council's dealings with Towy Community Church was first rejected by the council, then rejected again on appeal, before the Information Commissioner ruled that the council had been wrong to reject it on the grounds stated, and the process began again.

Ever resourceful, the council has combed through the Act and now hit upon Section 14 (1) which says simply that a request may be rejected if it is considered to be vexatious. The Information Commissioner has provided a handy set of guidelines as to what constitutes a vexatious request for those dealing with FOI requests here.

The first key point is that the council may not dismiss a request because it considers the person making the request to be vexatious. The council has to show that the request itself is vexatious.

Reading through the guidelines, it is hard to see how the council will be able to make its decision stand as it fails just about all of the Commissioner's tests, but the one straw it is likely to cling to is that "it may be reasonable for the authority to conclude that a particular request represents a continuation of behaviour which it has judged to be vexatious in another context and therefore to refuse the request as being vexatious".

In other words, we can expect County Hall to argue that the request for information about the council and the church is linked to the dispute which boiled over in the recent libel trial.

The problem with that is that the Commissioner says an authority should not declare a request to be vexatious if it would supply the information to someone else who was not known to it.

This raises the interesting question of whether the rejection is just part of the ongoing war between Jacqui Thompson and the Chief Executive, or whether the council is using that dispute as a pretext for refusing to disclose information it simply does not want the public to see because it may contain embarrassing revelations about how the church came to benefit from so much council money.

Freedom of Information requests to Carmarthenshire County Council are handled by Mr John Tillman, an officer in the Chief Executive's department who is unfailingly polite and, the evidence suggests, inclined to favour openness and transparency. The problem he has is not so much unreasonable, frivolous or vexatious requests from the press and public, but interference from within County Hall to prevent the release of information. In one case, for example, a senior officer put pressure on a newspaper editor to get a request for information about senior officer pay withdrawn.

My initial reaction when I read about the rejection of Jacqui Thompson's request was to hope that the press and other investigative journalists would take up the baton and submit requests for this information. After all, there has been a lot of interest in this story in the media, and there are many people in Carmarthenshire who feel very strongly about the generosity showered by the council on this particular evangelical group.

For the time being, however, a wiser course may be to let this dispute play out in the wider interests of transparency and public accountability, because what we have here appears to be an arbitrary decision which goes against the letter and spirit of the Freedom of Information Act and the way it has been implemented. This must be challenged.

Jacqui will now need to request an internal appeal, which if past performance is anything to go by will almost certainly result in yet another rejection, before taking the matter back to the Information Commissioner who may begin to wonder what on earth is going on in Carmarthen.

Saturday 4 May 2013

A bleak outlook

As businesses go in this part of the world, Scarlets Regional Limited is quite a big one, and so the very late publication of its results for the year to 30 June 2012 is striking. The report should have been published by the end of March 2013 at the latest, but the auditors and the board did not finally sign off until 13 April, and the results were not submitted to Companies House until last week.

Delays like this are normally an indication that all is not well, and that a lot of arm twisting and convincing needed to take place before people were prepared to put pen to paper.

The first thing to emerge from the report is that the company is insolvent, with liabilities exceeding assets by £3.24 million. That would be bad enough, but the auditors remind us that a very large question mark hangs over the valuation of the company's assets, of which by far the largest is the stadium itself. The value put on the stadium at the year end was £10.3 million.

Bearing in mind that the company does not actually own the stadium, that figure represents the hypothetical value of the lease, a sum which the directors would like the world to believe is the sort of money which could be raised if the club ever decided (or was forced) to sell the lease to someone else. The problem with that is that it is hard to think of anyone who might want to buy it.

As an old boss of Cneifiwr's used to remark, the value of something you cannot sell is nothing.

Nevertheless the chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council told listeners to his recent radio broadcast that the council's investment in the venture was "very safe".

For the third year running, the auditors say that the losses and the excess of liabilities over assets "indicate material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt about the company's ability to continue as a going concern", as well as "significant doubt about the carrying value of the stadium".

The directors see things rather differently, and the report contains a lot of what can only be called spin. One of the few positives highlighted in the report was a reference to a very spurious consultants report commissioned by the club and Carmarthenshire County Council claiming that the Scarlets contribute £16 million to the local economy.

Match day attendance reached the third highest in the league, they point out. The turnover figures showed an increase of 5%, and by no means all of that can be attributed to higher ticket sales. In the absence of any figures, the truth is that ticket sales were probably flat, and that the match attendance figures were purely relative, and it would seem that season ticket holders are counted as attending regardless of whether they actually turn up.

"Administrative expenses" on the other hand rose by 11% to £3.82 million, and the bottom line was helped out by an unexplained entry for £175,000 in "other operating income" (previous year £nil). The notes unhelpfully explain that this was "sundry" income, and we have no way of knowing whether it will reappear next year.

What helped reduce overall operating losses was the unexplained "sundry items" and a reduction of roughly £360,000 in costs of sale, also unexplained.

A rather bleaker picture is presented by the balance sheet, where current liabilities (debts payable within one year) have risen sharply from £3.38 million to £4.6 million. Cash at hand shrank from £268,000 to £164,000.

In short, the club's indebtedness is rising rapidly, and any improvement in the performance of the underlying business has been slight. Meanwhile, despite the dire state of the club's finances, the directors paid themselves emoluments totalling £125,000 (up from £113,000).

Two things will come to the club's rescue in the current year. First, the report mentions (for the third year running) an anticipated sale of an asset. No information is provided as to what this might be, but the likelihood is that this is the sale of part of an area designated as a car park to Marston's, the pub group.

Like the rest of the site, this was leased to the club by the County Council. When the idea of flogging off the lease to Marston's leaked out, the council responded by saying that "there would normally be a division of any uplift from the sale".

It now seems that at some point in the last six months the freehold was actually sold to the club. What the sale price was is a very interesting question, and council taxpayers have a legitimate interest in knowing what profit the club has made from this transaction.

The other factor which will have helped the club was the loss of George North to Northampton. The storyline has enough skulduggery, crocodile tears and bluffs to fill the pages of a trashy airport novel. The WRU accused the Scarlets of touting the player for sale without his knowledge, while Scarlets claimed that they did everything to try to keep him before "reluctantly" allowing him to go a year before his contract ended.

Perhaps this will appear as a sundry item in next year's report, but the loss of George North is a serious loss to Welsh rugby, and the way in which the deal was handled further exacerbated the already strained relationship between the WRU and the regions at a time when both sides were trying to set aside their differences and work together more closely for the good of the game.

These rare rays of sunshine are balanced by more looming dark clouds. A debt of £2.5 million is owed to Carmarthenshire County Council, and payments of interest on the loan are due to resume this year.

The generosity of the club's other wealthy backers dropped sharply in 2011-12, with only two of the directors pumping in loans of £100,000 each.

On top of all that, the club needs to renegotiate its banking facilities by the end of May 2013. The bankers will hardly be jumping for joy at the prospect.

The likelihood is that Scarlets Regional Limited will limp on for another year or two. Unless there is a sudden and unexpected improvement in the company's fortunes, the county's taxpayers should brace themselves for more demands for help, including another moratorium on debt and interest payments.

The warning signs were always there, and the council, under the guidance of its chief executive, chose to ignore the advice they had commissioned which pointed out the high risks involved in the venture.

You would think that lessons would have been learned from this, but as austerity bites and more cuts are made to council jobs and services, the visionaries in County Hall are pressing on with their latest scheme in the shape of the Towy Community Church bowling alley (over £1.4 million in council funds committed so far).

That is loose change in comparison to the Scarlets venture, perhaps, but loose change we no longer have.