Thursday 12 September 2013

Perceptions and Reality - The September Council Meeting

The long summer recess having come to an end, Carmarthenshire County Council yesterday held its September meeting, and once again it was broadcast live. You can see for yourselves here.

An unusual feature of the meeting was that the normally jovial Council Leader, Kevin Madge, appeared to have got out of bed on the wrong side. Something or someone had clearly rattled his cage, but despite this his ability to blurt out some striking Freudian slips was unimpaired. Remember his classic "we do not live in real world" line?

Today his attention was turned to the troublesome, ungrateful rabble which makes up the electorate in Carmarthenshire. "We are here, and they are over there", he exclaimed, showing with a gesture the gulf which separates Kev and his Labour/Independent chums from the rest of us. "We can see what's coming down the track", he thundered.

In a strange new twist of the predicament that Queen Marie Antoinette once found herself in, Kev's message was that the pampered peasantry are demanding cake, but we'll be lucky to get a stale Ryvita.

This contribution came in a discussion of The National Survey for Wales. The survey shows that people appear to be happy with the services provided by the council, and that the council keeps us well informed (Cneifiwr was not surveyed on this last point), but when asked whether they feel they "can influence decisions affecting local area", Carmarthenshire came bottom of the poll.

Most of the councillors who spoke felt that this showed that people did not think the council listened to them.

The Chief Executive begged to differ. Whereas the positive results in the survey were clear evidence that the council was doing a superb job, the areas in which Carmarthenshire did less well probably reflected people's views about public services in general, such as the police, the fire service and the NHS, he opined.

Unlike the peasantry, Mr James was having his cake and eating it, although he suggested in his best lawyerly tones that there were aspects of the survey which the council might perhaps look at. Possibly at some point in the future.

This was hardly a cast iron commitment to sit up and take notice, but then there is no real need for an inquest because, as a lot of people in Carmarthenshire could tell the chief executive, the knowledge that they are not listened to has everything to do with the way the council is run.

Communities which are almost unanimously opposed to controversial planning applications invariably find that no matter what they say and do, the schemes will be approved. No matter how strongly they oppose proposed school closures, such as Ysgol Pantycelyn in Llandovery, the plans are pushed through. When people in Llanelli voted to call the theatre and cinema complex the Stepney Centre, the council decided to call it Ffwrnes instead.

Having trampled over local wishes in Llandovery, the council is now inviting residents to take part in a "consultation" on Supplementary Planning Guidance to demolish the school and build an exciting new housing estate. We can all guess what the outcome of this latest consultation will be.

A little later in the meeting the ghost of another old planning battle rose from the grave when the subject of St Catherine's Walk shopping centre came up. This was one of the very few occasions when the council was forced to back down in the face of public opinion, and it is clear that this defeat still rankles.

The truth is that Carmarthenshire County Council stands no chance of changing public perceptions until the prevailing culture of arrogance and secrecy is swept away.

Car Parking Charges

The discussion of public perceptions of the council was followed by car parking charges.

Cllr Sian Caiach criticised the Executive Board's decision to reduce the number of days in the year with free parking to just five, with none of those days being in the run-up to Christmas.

In response, Cllr Colin Evans (Lab) claimed that this is what the chambers of commerce and retailers had wanted. He also claimed that the council's car parking revenue was declining.

As nobody will have failed to notice, council car parking charges have risen by far more than the rate of inflation at around 20% per year, and are set to go on doing so. 

Bearing that in mind, Kevin Madge then yanked the carpet from under Colin Evans' feet further by saying that when he had visited the St Catherine's Walk car park recently, it had been completely full.

If car parking revenue is declining, there is something very peculiar happening. 


This blog looked recently at a report which highlighted serious failings in the administration of grants by the council, and the matter was raised by Cllr Colin Campbell (Plaid).

The council's officers were prepared, and put up a long and carefully orchestrated show to calm everyone's nerves. There was nothing to worry about; it was really the fault of the Welsh Government for its complex and highly bureaucratic grants system and the Wales Audit Office for pedantry. Yes, there had been a few minor shortcomings, but these were trivial.

All or some of which may be true, but as we all know, huge amounts of money are being dished out in grants of all kinds, and the purposes to which these grants are put is often highly questionable. In instances where it is the council administering rather than claiming grants, questions remain about how much checking really goes on.

Edwina Hart's concerns about the untold millions which have been squandered across Wales on pet projects and pork barrel schemes remain as valid as ever.

Man of the Match

The meeting also touched on concerns about Burry Port Harbour and the County Museum at Abergwili. No meaningful responses were forthcoming in either case, and Pam Palmer who grabbed a few newspaper headlines over the museum in the run-up to the last election, remained completely silent, even though the museum is in her ward.

The wooden spoon is this month awarded to Cllr Callum Higgins (Lab), who sat directly behind his leader, Kevin Madge. His main contribution during the meeting was a lot of vigorous nodding every time Kev spoke, and when he did speak himself, it was only to say how much he agreed with everything that his boss and the chief executive had said.

Perhaps in another 25 years Callum will have formed an opinion of his own.

Man of the Match was Cllr Bill Thomas (Lab) who once again showed that his first loyalty was to his voters rather than the party whips.


Anonymous said...

Apropos of nothing, I have just enjoyed 2 slices of Ryvita with pumpkin seeds and oats. Quite delicious.

Anonymous said...

Oh come on Cneifiwr you are definitely slipping!!! The joint winners of the wooden spoon are:

Churchill the nodding dog for his behaviour and bizarre comment that the WAO were possibly doing it for the money as increased checks meant increased fees.

Cllr Gravell for the ridiculous statements she made about the staff in the grant department being meticulous. See WAO report which suggests the contrary.

Cllr Devichand who suggested without further clarification that the public should report properties that are empty for more than A WEEK or a FORTNIGHT.

The CEO for his absurd comment in respect of the LA survey, suggesting that the negative feedback probably reflected people's views about public services in general e.g. the NHS.

Anonymous said...

Credit where credit is due Cllr Bill Thomas has once again demonstrated his loyalty to his voters as did Cllr Caiach. Man and woman of the match!

Cneifiwr said...

Anon @14.59 There was certainly a lot of competition for the Wooden Spoon this month, and those you mention are all worthy contenders.

But I am sure that other viewers of the webcast will agree that Callum Higgins' performance was visually as well as verbally the most irritating by a long way.

The best joke has to go to Emlyn Dole for saying that he was relieved to hear that Meryl will not be building a swimming pool in Trimsaran.