Thursday 11 July 2013

A Victorian Council Meeting

Perhaps it was that rarest of Welsh weather phenomena - a heat wave - or perhaps it was the imminent prospect of getting two months off, but the atmosphere at this month's meeting was rather more subdued, and the chair managed to get the whole thing over within under three hours.


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.
Social Services

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.

Section 106

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.


Anonymous said...

I can't quite make up my mind whether Bruce McLernon, is either out of touch with service users of the pet projects he named, he is being fed bull or he is delusional. Ironically, the words he used in another context i.e. bleak, dark, gloomy, grim, dismal and desolate is one way of describing them.

Anonymous said...

I reckon he was describing himself!!!

If no cuts to be made from social care, get the staff in Bruce and sort out the waiting list..... .. When was the last time he spent time with clients discussing the service???
Delusional....definitely, fed bull.... Guaranteed!!!

Delyth Jenkins said...

Think Bruce McLernon has got a lot on his plate at the moment He has yet to investigate the hit on the head I received from a member of staff and 13 months later the same member of staff went on to hit a service user over the head so hard it basically lifted her from her chair, as evidenced in the Ombudsman's report. The member of staff admitted the assault on the service user and was cautioned by Police. For some time now the Council are trying to say that the hit I received, was according to officer F's signed statement prior to the Tribunal, just a ruffle of the hair. How do they know this because they have never investigated it? I have proof to contradict what they are saying but they don't want to open a can of worms so they would rather deny it all. It's not going to go away is it?

Anonymous said...

I'm sure cardigan is bottom Up... That's why they closed our schools

Anna Mosity said...

Ah, Section 106 Agreements…

In 2004, The Chief Exec met with the Scarlets Chairman and they agreed that the Scarlets S106 contribution at the Stradey Park site would be given to… the Scarlets to build themselves a new stadium.

In January 2006 the planning application was actually submitted and although the application was called-in the Planning Committee still met and were “minded to approve” the C2 flood plain development. The only shock was that they agreed that the Section 106 contribution should go to the Stradey area and not to build a new stadium on the other side of town.

At the Planning Committee meeting of 21st December 2006, a couple of weeks before the Stradey Planning Inquiry, a last minute addition to the agenda on the day was Stradey Park. This item was held “in camera” but it didn’t matter because no knew about it, not even the local county councillors who at the time were Eryl Morgan and Keith Davies (now AM). At that meeting it was pointed out to the committee that they couldn’t allow the Section 106 community benefit money to go to the community that would have these 450 houses dumped on them because the Chief Exec and Scarlets Chairman had already agreed (2 years before the planning application was submitted) that it would be used to help fund the new stadium build. So the committee agreed to drop that condition. Who exactly makes planning decisions?

So the community benefit of the Stradey Park development, a site in what is now Carmarthenshire’s latest Communities First area, went to build the company selling the land a new stadium on the other side of town. All £5.6million of it. (The money was actually taken in advance of development starting out of the Council Reserves and the developer still owes the council around £4.8m).

Despite Planning Committee stalwart Cllr Keri Thomas justifying the development “because Llanelli needs affordable housing”, there is not one affordable house on this site, presumably because that would have affected the value of the land sale.

Apparently the Section 106 regulations allow a council to decide what the “community” is and what the “benefit” is, no doubt trusting them to be reasonable about it. In this case CCC decided the “community” was the whole of Llanelli and the “community benefit” was to provide a private company a new stadium so that the community could to pay them money to access it and its facilities.

That was enough of a “community benefit” so the developer wouldn’t be required to make any additional contribution such as affordable housing on the 450 home site or provide money for the local schools to cope with more pupils, provide play areas to replace the lost land etc.

The facilities at “Parc y Shambles” as it is often referred to are excellent, particularly the training barn. However is it really a community benefit when the community has to pay £92 per hour plus VAT (more if you want showers) to use the facility?

I’ve heard it said that in Carmarthenshire Section 106 money is the private pot of backdoor funding for pet projects. It is hard to disagree.

Anonymous said...

Delyth, is the member of staff still working in CCC?

Anonymous said...

Thank you Anna Mosity. Planning is something I know very little about although with people like your good self, Cneifiwr, Caebrwyn etc, I am learning fast.

Anonymous said...

"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)."

It has to be the best ever sentence out of all of your posts, Cneifiwr!

Anonymous said...

yes I am still laughing --canary and pit pony.Priceless.

Anonymous said...

R u sure Cllr K Thomas wasn't just a roaming rodent...... surely he wouldn't have worked as hard as a pit pony???

As for the member of staff that hit the service user, track record of CCC .... Reckon they are still there! Maybe they have had a promotion, that would be true Carmarthen Style!

Delyth Jenkins said...

Anon 18.58

No Anon 18.58 I am NOT still working in C.C.C. and haven't done so since I resigned in Oct. 2010due to the appalling way I was treated by Officers of the Council as evidenced in the Ombudsman's report. The Wales Report ran a part of my story lately but there is a lot more untold. I won my case, but it's not about winning or losing it's about holding Officers to account. I was told by the Ombudsman's investigator that lying within an Ombudsman's investigation would be like lying in a court of law and could be perjury. That goes for Officers of the Council too, but he hasn't held them to account, even though he knew some of them didn't say the truth, as evidenced in his report. I have always spoken the truth and I will continue to do so until Officers are held to account.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Delyth, I don't think I made myself clear. Is the person who hit you on the head still working in CCC?

Delyth Jenkins said...

Anon 18.20

Sorry Anon, it must be the heat!
As I said, she admitted the assault on the service user and was cautioned by Police in 2006.
She resigned before she could be suspended, but what I am saying is that had the Council investigated the assault on me the time, they would have found that she was guilty of doing so, and she would not have been in a position to assault the service user 13 months later. Officers who failed to investigate this are still directly responsible for the care of vulnerable adults.

Anonymous said...

@ Delyth - Absolutely shocking! I admire you for standing your ground and I hope justice will prevail.

Delyth Jenkins said...

Anon 22.33

Thanks. The only way to clean this up is to deal with the failed Managers and show that this kind of behaviour won't be tolerated.
Should have been done 4 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Too right!!!