First up was a motion tabled by Peter Hughes Griffiths (Plaid) calling for proposed overhead cables on pylons through the Brechfa Forest to be laid underground (see Western Mail report here).
|Brechfa before Barker|
There was unanimous agreement that large wooden pylons cutting a swathe through this outstandingly beautiful area should not be allowed, but since under devolution the decision rests with a government minister in London, Carmarthenshire County Council will have no say in the matter.
The minister concerned, Tory MP Greg Barker, reportedly said that he had no need to visit the site to see Brechfa for himself. He could just as easily make a decision in Whitehall or Kathmandu.
Barker is no stranger to controversy, both for his close links to various Russian oil oligarchs and revelations during the MPs' expenses scandal.
The next major set piece was a presentation by the Director of Social Services, Bruce McLernon, of his annual report.
Mr McLernon will never win a prize for public speaking, and thanks to the weather and his monotonous delivery, his audience appeared to have no appetite for saying anything much when he finished. What was refreshing was that almost uniquely in recent council history, the director freely acknowledged that not everything in the garden is rosy. One area in which the council has a frankly appalling record (not Mr M's words) is the huge amount of time it takes the council to carry out assessments of people seeking help, and it was good to hear the director say that this needed to be tackled.
Staring into the Abyss
Decidedly less honest was the next report to thump down in front of councillors. This was the council's glossy annual report and improvement plan.
Kevin Madge, still inexplicably council leader, got up to commend the report. The council's translator must have offered up a small prayer of thanks that he did not have to translate from English to Welsh at this point. The kindest thing we can do is move on.
Peter Hughes Griffiths (Plaid) gave us a flavour of the report by picking out the word improvement. A pity that nobody from the Guinness Book of Records was on hand because the page he was reading from was clearly going for a world record. Everything in Carmarthenshire is improving and set to improve still further, if the report is to be believed, except that the council is facing very severe cuts. This would be the last year, Peter Hughes Griffiths predicted, where it would be possible to talk about improvement.
The chief executive took up this theme a little later. Bad times - very bad times - were just around the corner, he predicted. He and his staff were beginning to look at what options they had. Nothing could be cut from social services or schools, and other services would have to bear the brunt, but it could be possible to continue providing some of those services "in a different way", he added mysteriously.
We will have to wait to find out what that means. Evangelical road repairs? The Scarlets to run our leisure centres? Who knows.
Cllr Pam Palmer, the council's latter day Mrs Jellyby, gave us a glimpse a little later when she told councillors how she had been very busy of late running round the county setting up foodbanks and preparing for the next Christmas Toybox appeal with her charismatic missionary friends.
She also reminded everyone listening how she had been instrumental in setting up the Ammanford Foodbank (readers may recall how recently she refused to take part in a photo shoot because she thought MP Jonathan Edwards was muscling in on her patch).
Mr James referred to his recent "interview" (monologue would be more accurate) with the Carmarthen Journal. In that he had said that his best guess for next year would be cuts in central government funding of £12 million, with £18m as a worst case. Things must have got dramatically worse in the last few days, because now the only figure he quoted for next year was £18m. And that was just next year. There would be more cuts the year after, and the year after that, he predicted. Probably £30 million.
It was not realistic to expect the council to go on improving year after year when £46 million was being taken off the table.
Fortunately he ran out of steam at that point, because given a couple more minutes cuts could have been in billions
The Best and Worst of Times
Earlier this week a council press release boasted how a survey (here) showed that Carmarthenshire came top among Welsh councils when people were asked how well the council kept them informed about how it was performing. The PR release didn't mention that the figure was a less than impressive 52%. Neither did it mention that in two further categories (whether people felt they were being listened to and whether they wanted to become active in their communities), Carmarthenshire came bottom of the pile.
Cllr David Jenkins (Plaid) wondered whether a score of 52% really showed that we are getting value for money from the £1 million in the council's communications budget.
Chris Burns, one of the assistant chief executives, admitted that he was flummoxed by this.
It comes as a surprise to nobody that people don't feel listened to. Go to Llanelli, Penybanc, Llandovery or any number of other communities, and you will hear the same.
Perhaps the explanation for people's reluctance to get involved is the top-down, Big Brother culture which has been fostered in Carmarthenshire for so long. More often than not, "community" projects are run by organisations which are anything but representative of the communities they operate in.
For a taste of how a local authority can work with local people, Mr Burns could do worse than travel to Cardigan where the restoration of the castle has engaged large numbers of local volunteers, and another group called 4CG has raised significant amounts of money by selling shares to local people to buy the Pwllhai site, the old courthouse and the former police station as community assets. Another group in the town is about to launch a new papur bro.
The difference is that in Cardigan initiatives are bottom up, with local people coming together and working towards an agreed aim. In Carmarthenshire the council sets the priorities, and then selects a preferred partner organisation to bring it about. 4CG would have been strangled at birth.
In a discussion on the extent to which the council's regeneration schemes actually benefit local people and local businesses, the Director of Regeneration, Dave Gilbert, cited Section 106 agreements as a way in which local communities were benefiting from regeneration and development projects.
Cllr Sian Thomas was having none of this. She had been waiting for a year to see money tied up in a section 106 agreement in her ward put to use, and had requested that some of it should be put towards a local park. Nothing at all had happened, and on one of the hottest weekends of the year last week, the park gates had remained firmly locked shut.
The point Cllr Thomas was making is one which could have been made by many councillors because it is not uncommon for section 106 money to be kept locked up for years.
From what happened next it was also clear that she had raised this issue with both Dave Gilbert and the chief executive on a number of occasions, and Mr James said somewhat sniffily that he was sure Dave Gilbert would be happy to speak to her about this "local issue".
Anyone who has followed council meetings for a while will have noticed that declarations of interest have become extremely fashionable. They are now peppered throughout council meetings, and are increasingly made for no good reason at all.
Towards the end of the meeting there was a sudden avalanche of declarations from the Labour benches, led by Kevin Madge who wanted it to be known that his grandparents were miners. This was in connection with some meeting minutes which mentioned a contribution the council is making to a national miners memorial.
Was Mam-gu Madge really packed off down the pit?
Colin Evans' grandparents were also miners, but Cllr Jeff Edmunds managed to trump the lot by declaring that he had actually been a miner and had been injured at work.
Cllr Keri Thomas was unfortunately absent from the meeting, or he would have had to resort to telling the council that he had been born in a mine and spent his first 5 years working as a canary before being promoted to pit pony (3rd class).
As someone pointed out, a lot of councillors could claim some mining heritage, and the same applies to a good chunk of the population of Carmarthenshire (including Cneifiwr by the way).
If this is allowed to continue, some of the Labour councillors may live to see their grandchildren declare that their forefathers never had a proper job in their lives.