Sunday 29 December 2013

A Public Menace

The Executive Board of Carmarthenshire County Council will hold its first meeting of 2014 on 6 January, and prominent among the items to be rubber-stamped on the agenda is an update on the libel case between the chief executive, Mark James, and Jacqui Thompson. Mr James is, of course, responsible for putting together the agenda.

The normal staple of Executive Board meeting agendas is reports to be noted and recommendations to be given the seal of approval. No action is required in the case of the update, but the board members and assembled officers will be treated to a recital of the crimes and misdemeanours of Mrs T, arch-villain and demon blogger, in celebration of the Appeal Court's rejection of her attempt to broaden the scope of her appeal against the verdict.

Harassment, intimidation, perversion of the course of justice, defamation and dishonesty. Mrs T is guilty of the lot, the report thunders. What a pity that transportation to the colonies, burning at the stake and public hanging are no longer options for this persistent critic of the chief executive.

Perhaps publication of this report shows that the council is turning over a new leaf and dispensing with its secretive old ways of doing business.

When the chief executive was awarded the indemnity which funded his counter-claim, the report was exempted from publication and approved in private. The minutes of the meeting back in January 2012 did not even say who was being awarded an indemnity.

As even the most dim-witted members of the Executive Board will be aware, the Wales Audit Office decided that the indemnity was unlawful, and it is likely that they will be presented with a report detailing their shortcomings a week or so after the 6 January meeting.

Perhaps they would be wise to keep the champagne on ice.

In the meantime and in the spirit of the council's new-found commitment to transparency and open government, perhaps the Executive Board would like to tell us whether the indemnity awarded in January 2012 was an open-ended blank cheque, and what the true extent of costs to the council has been so far. The presence last month of a four-man legal team representing Mr James at the Appeal Court hearing (it is apparently unusual for non-appellants to show up at all) shows that no expense is being spared in the battle against the Beast of Llanwrda.

Friday 27 December 2013

2013 - Not on the Agenda

It has been a long and grim year in the annals of Carmarthenshire County Council, as this trawl through the back catalogue of stories from the last 12 months shows.

The assault on local democracy continued with, if anything, renewed vigour. The Labour-led council rejected proposals to pay its lowest earners a living wage, and refused to adopt a policy of not evicting tenants who fall foul of the 'bedroom tax'. A proposal to give real teeth to planning regulations so that account has to be taken of the impact of developments on Welsh-speaking communities was kicked out, and the council eventually managed to push through highly controversial plans for a large new housing development at Penybanc.

The chief executive was rarely out of the headlines, with questions raised about expenses paid in advance in his capacity as returning officer, and the lawfulness of his libel indemnity and pension arrangements.

One of the recurring themes at the monthly council meetings was that just about anything that the executive did not like was declared to be "not on the agenda".


The year got off to a strange start with the defection under very mysterious circumstances of Cllr Theressa Bowen from Labour to Labour's Independent allies. Rumours of what caused the departure so soon after the election abounded, but sadly none of them has so far been verified. Perhaps she just fell for the hitherto undetected political charms of Cllr Giles Morgan.

A Plaid motion calling for a debate on press freedom after the blacklisting by the council of the South Wales Guardian at the end of 2012 was effectively vetoed by the chief executive, who sent it instead for consideration by Cllr Pam Palmer, that well-known champion of democracy and transparency in local government. It was given a rapid and silent funeral at a private meeting with Ms Debbie Williams, head of the council's press office. A leaked e-mail from Ms Williams showed that she had called for the paper to be blacklisted at the end of 2012.

Cymdeithas yr Iaith staged a rally outside County Hall to draw attention to the decline in the number of Welsh speakers in the county. Senior council officers tried without success to have the rally shifted away from Jail Hill. Not one of the 10 members of the council's Executive Board showed up at the event, not even the council's official "Welsh Language Champion".

The Carmarthen Journal went through a re-launch, with the council distributing a glossy brochure advertising the new-look paper along with copies of its own Carmarthenshire News. The two publications have become increasingly difficult to tell apart, but if you find pages of adverts for used cars, it is likely that you are holding a copy of the Journal.

At the monthly council meeting Cllr Cefin Campbell tried to raise the subject of the Ombudsman's damning report on the Breckman case as an urgent item. Although he had advised the Chair of his intention to bring the matter up, as stipulated by the Acting Head of Law, he was surprised to discover that the Chief Executive had taken the precaution of omitting the urgent items from the printed agenda, and so was forbidden to speak.

Over in Llanelli Ladbrokes snapped up one of the empty units in the new Eastgate development which the council has been trying to brand as the cultural capital of West Wales.

At the end of the month it emerged that the Chief Executive had paid himself £20,000 as an advance in respect of his expenses as returning officer, 5 weeks before the 2012 council elections and days before the end of the tax year.

February and March

The month got off to a bad start, with the council issuing a very half-hearted apology to the Breckmans who had suffered years of appalling treatment at the hands of their local authority. The Ombudsman wrote a letter setting out seven helpful tips on how to apologise.

One of the two pensioners who were branded liars by the council live on BBC radio in a discussion about the council's heavy-handed arrangements for visitors to the public gallery also complained. The Ombudsman asked the chief executive to reply to the letter of complaint, and the victim duly received a three line reply noting the contents of her letter, before adding that he had no further comment to make.

The libel trial involving Jacqui Thompson and the chief executive ended in victory for Mr James, with Jacqui Thompson being ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds in costs and damages. In a prolonged victory parade in the months that followed, the chief executive hailed this as a victory for local government everywhere.

Back in Carmarthen, the council responded to a freedom of information request relating to the chief executive's decision to pay himself expenses in advance of his work as returning officer. It transpired that the council could not say when the payment was made, and it did not seem sure about exactly how much he had been paid.

The Ombudsman issued Council Leader Kevin Madge with a reprimand for misusing council resources when he put out a misleading and highly politicised statement on the Sainsbury's planning fiasco at Cross Hands.


After initially rejecting a plan to build 336 homes on a site at Penybanc near Ammanford, a majority of councillors on the planning committee was at last persuaded to change their minds and give the go-ahead for 289 new houses. The plan triggered protests and made the headlines across Wales.

The council was kept busy with freedom of information requests. A request for disclosure of exactly how much the chief executive's libel litigation had cost was firmly rejected, while in response to another the council claimed that advertising revenue for Carmarthenshire News was running at an average of £18,000 per issue. For some reason, however, the council could only provide receipts totalling £1,680.

Although the libel trial finished at the end of February, the chief executive's victory tour continued, and in April included an "interview" on Radio Carmarthenshire and an extensive piece in the council's internal newsletter where Mr James again suggested he had done it all for his staff.


The Scarlets' latest set of accounts showed that the club was continuing to make heavy losses and was technically insolvent.

After the council was ordered by the Information Commissioner to respond to a freedom of information request from Jacqui Thompson on the council's relationship with Towy Community Church, it refused again, this time declaring the request to be vexatious. She is still awaiting the outcome of her second appeal to the Commissioner.

Meanwhile the council's favourite evangelical group finally opened its new ten pin bowling alley, largely financed by the council taxpayer. Back in September 2010 Meryl Gravell was looking forward to the imminent opening of the new centre, saying "it's self-financing". A year later the church was back again asking for lots more dosh.

A one year pilot to film council meetings began with a marathon broadcast of the Annual General Meeting, the dullest event in the council calendar by a long way. Lots of people tuned in expecting lively debate, only to be put off for life.

To cheer everyone up after what had been a very depressing start to the year, Kevin Madge and Pam Palmer announced that they had tied the knot (again), and would be ruling us for another four years with their Labour-"Independent" coalition.


It emerged that the county council had been carrying out surveillance of the e-mail account of Cllr Siân Caiach.

Labour's student councillor, Calum Higgins, put up a wrecking amendment to a motion calling on the Welsh Government to take specific steps to ensure that planning policy takes the interest of Welsh-speaking communities into account. The effect of Cllr Higgins' intervention was to kick the issue into the long grass, where it still languishes. Mair Stephens, the council's official "Welsh Language Champion", remained silent during the debate, but voted for Calum's amendment.

No sooner had Towy Community Church opened its new ten pin bowling alley, than it applied for and received a licence to sell alcohol from 10 o'clock in the morning, despite having previously given assurances that it would not be selling booze.


A question from Cllr Alun Lenny asking whether Llanelly House had repaid a £250,000 loan to the council was rejected by the chief executive who declared it was "not on the agenda". It was.

A government survey showed that Carmarthenshire came bottom of the list of the 22 Welsh councils when people were asked if they thought the council listened to ordinary people.

Having cashed in all of its grants and received its licence to sell alcohol, Towy Community Church announced that it was resurrecting controversial plans to set up a hostel for young women in partnership with Mercy Ministries, the controversial US-based sect. Mysteriously the article disappeared from the church's website shortly afterwards, and the church went on to put up an announcement that its website was being redeveloped. Coincidentally the website belonging to the Living Word Church in Carmarthen (also with close ties to the council hierarchy) went through a drastic pruning exercise at the same time.

Unison raised concerns about the council's plans to privatise the Pembrey Country Park and Llanelli's Millennium Coastal Park. A council press release branded the union's concerns as "utter tosh" and a "cheap-shot lie", although the council had announced that it was seeking commercial partners to "take on and improve" services in the parks, as well as "adding holiday accommodation". Not the same thing at all as privatisation, then.

The Wales Audit Office issued a report highlighting what it described as serious weaknesses in the council's management of grant applications. The criticism was dismissed by senior officers as nit-picking. Later in the year this blog reported on allegations that the council had misused EU grants to fund the creation of statutory roles.

The row over plans to build hundreds of houses (affordable homes not on the agenda here) on the former Stradey Park site in Llanelli rumbled on, with the Welsh Government considering a call-in request. Work on the site finally got underway thanks to a loop hole in planning law. Local residents fear that the development will increase flood risk.


Traditionally a quiet time for council business, so what better time to launch the latest round of "consultations" on the council's Local Development Plan, what with everyone away. The summer edition of the council's newspaper forgot to inform readers of their right to have a say in the process which could see huge areas of the county being buried permanently under ugly new housing estates. After opposition protests, the deadline for responses was extended.


The Wales Audit Office declared that arrangements to pay the chief executive employer pension contributions direct, as well as the apparently open-ended indemnity awarded to him to fund the libel case against Jacqui Thompson were unlawful. All attempts by councillors to discuss the auditor's findings were blocked, and we entered what one councillor described as a Mexican legal stand-off.

The first council meeting after the long summer break was a bad tempered affair, with council leader Kevin Madge saying "we are here, and they are over there" in a reference to the voting public. For once he got something right.

As Kev warned of hard times to come, the council's press office was busy writing stories about a blind parrot called Oliver and a sled dog called Norman. Somehow they also managed to work Meryl Gravell into stories about Dylan Thomas's boathouse and two Fokker stunt aircraft having to make an unscheduled landing at Pembrey airport.

Cneifiwr entered a council competition asking Twitter users to say what they think of Carmarthenshire News. Strangely his entry was not picked out of the hat.

It emerged that Pembrokeshire County Council was also in trouble with the Wales Audit Office for implementing the pensions tax dodge, and the two councils announced that they would together seek legal advice as they prepared to fight off the interfering auditor, Mr Anthony Barrett. The QC chosen to represent the two councils says on his official profile that some of his clients consider him to be a genius.

In Carmarthenshire the council's audit committee met to discuss matters including the unlawful items of expenditure. Cllr Giles Morgan (Independent) thought it was all a fuss about nothing. During the meeting councillors also digested a warning from the auditor that the council may not have sufficient security to protect it from a potential financial collapse of the Scarlets. Mysteriously the meeting minutes recorded no such discussion.


The council announced plans for massive increases in charges for users of playing fields, bowling greens and other sports facilities at the same time as agreeing a new bailout for the Scarlets. Interest on a £2.6 million loan was cut from 7% to 4%, with the press office declaring this to be "better than any other commercial investment".

The monthly council meeting saw Cllr Darren Price attempt to get the pension and libel indemnity scandals discussed. The chief executive and the acting head of law were having none of it, and in chaotic scenes Mr James declared the meeting closed, leaving a red-faced council chair, Terry Davies, shouting that it was not over until he declared it was over. He promptly declared the meeting closed.

To prepare the way for what council leader, Kevin Madge, has called "cuts of biblical proportions", the council staged a PR event at the new Ffwrnes Theatre, in which councillors were invited to sit down alongside selected companies and media representatives to discuss a long list of proposed cuts. The seminar was boycotted by Plaid Cymru and some media organisations, and Mark Evans, branch secretary of Unison, was asked to leave.

It emerged that the council's top brass was pursuing proposals to scrap the traditional monthly meetings of the council and replace them with "strategic" seminars, with presentations given by corporate partners and other organisations.

Kevin Madge announced that councillors would be given an opportunity to debate the pensions and libel indemnity scandals at their November meeting


The ink had barely dried on this promise before Kevin Madge announced that because of ongoing discussions with the Wales Audit Office, it would not be possible to debate the pensions and libel indemnity scandals.

The monthly council meeting saw the acting Head of Law, Mrs Linda Rees Jones, go into bat while Kevin Madge and the chief executive remained uncharacteristically silent. Cllr Cefin Campbell wanted to know what all the legal advice on the disputed pensions and libel indemnity payments was costing. Mrs Rees Jones could not say, but said she resented criticism of council decisions to pay to get the best advice available. Dismissing the auditor's concerns over unlawful payments, Cllr Pam Palmer urged councillors to go home and tell their electors what a wonderful job the council was doing.

Cllr Calum Higgins, 24, was selected to contest Carmarthen East and Dinefwr for Labour. He attacked Plaid MPs for not voting for a Labour proposal to freeze some energy prices for a limited period. It emerged that Calum's attendance record in his many and varied responsibilities as councillor left quite a lot to be desired. Calum later told the South Wales Guardian that he resented the criticism, but acknowledged that he would have to adjust his workload.

Having previously rejected proposals to pay its lowest earners a living wage, the Labour-led council rejected a motion calling on it not to evict tenants who had fallen foul of the bedroom tax. Deputy leader Tegwen Devichand said that the council entered into discussions with those affected by the rules and that nobody had been evicted, although at a previous council meeting she had appealed to councillors to inform the council of any council properties which had suddenly become vacant because tenants were moving out to avoid being hit.

Cllr Jeff Edmunds revealed that the Scarlets had received around £600,000 of the £850,000 sale price of a piece of council-owned land.


The council announced that it was backing down in its dispute with the Wales Audit Office over the chief executive's pension payments, although it maintained that it was right to do what it had done and was in no way admitting that the payments were unlawful.

The Welsh Government published its annual school ratings tables. Not one of Carmarthenshire's secondary schools was rated '1', and several of those which have benefited most from the flagship Modernising Education Programme found themselves languishing at the bottom of the tables with ratings of '4' and '5'. The Carmarthen Journal ignored the announcement and ran with a two year old press release praising the council's Modernising Education Programme instead.

In a "clarification", the council said that it had been made aware of a petition calling on it not to cut respite care services for disabled children. Clearly rattled by the response, the council explained that the proposal was just a proposal, and it urged people to fill in the council's own rigged consultation questionnaire instead.

The December council meeting featured a presentation from the Scarlets, but because of a technical hitch the online broadcast of proceedings was unavailable. Later a series of questions was asked about that controversial deal involving the Scarlets and Marstons, with senior officers claiming that the split of proceeds had been recommended by the District Valuer.

The BBC published a detailed report highlighting the extent of the council's aid to the Scarlets, and revealed that a formal complaint had been made to the EU Commission that the authority may have broken rules on state aid to the club.

A Crystal Ball

The first half of 2014 promises to be if anything even more stormy for the council, with a number of chickens waiting impatiently to come home to roost.

First up in January it is expected that the Wales Audit Office will publish one or more public interest reports detailing its findings on the libel indemnity and pension arrangements. The reports should come before councillors in February. Whether the WAO will choose to pursue the matter through the courts remains to be seen.

At the same time the council will be finalising its budget proposals for 2014-15. Expect severe cutbacks to many public services, big increases in council tax and charges for council services, plus hundreds of job losses - although not at the top.

Fighting for air time against this in early 2014 will be the report produced by the Working Group on the Welsh Language set up in the wake of the 2011 census. Note the sense of urgency.

Several interesting Freedom of Information requests and complaints are hanging over Jail Hill. These include Jacqui Thompson's appeal to the ICO for disclosure of correspondence between the council and Towy Community Church; a request for disclosure of the District Valuer's report on the Marstons deal; complaints to the Wales Audit Office about the payment of £20,000 in advance expenses to Mr James in his capacity as returning officer; and complaints about the Marstons deal itself. Some way further down the road will be the outcome of an investigation by the EU Commission into the council's funding of the Scarlets.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Nadolig Llawen - Merry Christmas

Nadolig llawen a Blwyddyn newydd dda

Pob dymuniad da a diolch i chi gyd am eich cyfraniadau yn ystod 2013.

Best wishes to all readers, and thanks to everyone who has contributed during the course of the year.

Friday 20 December 2013

Carmarthenshire Councillor of the Year

Barely a week goes by these days it seems without some tedious, back-slapping awards ceremony, and things inevitably get worse towards the end of the year as the media indulges in a frenzy of reviews, but we may as well join in and go in search of Carmarthenshire County Councillor of the Year to end on a light note after what has been a pretty dire 12 months.

In theory there are 74 to choose from, but even the most obsessive of council watchers would be challenged to find anything at all to say about many of them. Then there is quite a body of councillors about whom it would be hard to find anything positive to say. So let's concentrate on the rest.

If readers would like to nominate one or more councillors for any of the categories listed below and provide a brief explanation, send in a comment.

The good news is that since the elections in 2012 there has been an increase in the number of councillors prepared to challenge the executive, and it will be interesting to see whether some of the hitherto silent majority on the Labour and Independent benches find their voices as the cuts bite, and mismanagement at the top becomes more and more evident.

There have been some outstanding performances this year from Alun Lenny, Emlyn Dole, Darren Price and others on the Plaid benches. For Labour, sort of, Bill Thomas stands out for his integrity and refusal to do as he's told. No list of members of the awkward squad would be complete without Siân Caiach, of course.

Jeff Edmunds is in a category of his own as being the only member of the governing Executive Board to put warm words about openness and transparency into action.

There is another group of councillors who are in the limelight less often, but who nevertheless have put in some quietly impressive performances fighting their particular corners. They include Linda Evans, Gwyneth Thomas and Cefin Campbell tackling issues such as social care, public transport and the Welsh language.

Another category is the usually unsung case work carried out by councillors on behalf of constituents. By its  nature this is nearly always sensitive and confidential, but Cneifiwr is aware of several cases where individual councillors have given a great deal of help and support to local people fighting injustices.

There are, of course, councillors who fit into more than one category.

This is not a scientific exercise, and there is nothing to prevent individual councillors from nominating themselves, except honesty and a sense of shame. Since some of them are shameless, and as a preventative measure, Calum Higgins is disqualified.

Prizes are still being negotiated, but may be as follows:
  • 1st Prize - a candlelit supper for two at the new Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Carmarthen with the deputy council leader of your choice
  • 2nd Prize - an weekend in Burry Port with Cllr Tegwen Devichand
  • 3rd Prize - a week's caravan holiday in Kidwelly with Cllr Pam Palmer

Thursday 19 December 2013

A Public Interest Report

The Wales Audit Office has now been suggesting for some time that it may publish public interest reports dealing with what it sees as the unlawful arrangements concerning the libel indemnity and pension contributions paid to the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council. The council recently backed down on the payment of employer pension contributions, saying that it did so without admitting that it had done anything wrong.

While we wait to find out why the Audit Office found these arrangements so objectionable, here is a public interest report dealing with yet another aspect of breach of the rules over in Caerphilly. Readers will note that officers failed to declare an interest, and that one or more of them took part in the decision making process, even though they stood to benefit personally from the arrangements.

The auditor notes that in respect of the council's Chief Executive the only body which had the authority to agree the changes was the full council, which was of course not consulted.

For readers in Carmarthenshire wondering what the council meant when it said "there may have been shortcomings in the procedures by which it [the pensions tax dodge, ed.] had been adopted", there may be a few clues in the statement dealing with Caerphilly.

Perhaps the Carmarthenshire reports have got stuck in the Christmas post.

Meanwhile Caebrwyn is firing on all cylinders over on Carmarthenshire Planning Problems with a report showing that there a signs of a long overdue peasants revolt, with the council coming under fire from the public for proposals to cut respite care and plans to ramp up charges for sports facilities.



Caerphilly County Borough Council acted unlawfully when it paid its Chief Officers to ‘buy out’ their entitlements to an Essential Car User Allowance (ECUA) and Annual Leave Allowance (ALA). The Appointed Auditor, Anthony Barrett, has published a report today to draw the public’s attention to a failure in governance arrangements at the Council and inadequacies in the processes it adopted in making these payments.
There are three matters which led the Appointed Auditor to reach this conclusion. Firstly, the decision to buy out the allowances was done without proper authority or clear recording of how the decision was made. It was not taken by a formally constituted members’ body, even though, in respect of the Chief Executive, only the Council had the power to take such decisions.
Secondly, the Chief Officer group all had a conflict of interest, as they held a pecuniary or personal interest in the decision. These interests were not declared and one or more of these individuals took part in the decision-making process.
Finally, there is no evidence that the decision to buy out these allowances for Chief Officers was published, contrary to the Council’s Constitution in respect of delegated decisions.
Appointed Auditor and Assistant Auditor General, Anthony Barrett, said today:
‘There are clear lessons to be learned by the Council around the processes that were followed when deciding to buy out the Chief Officers from their entitlement to car and annual leave allowances. The informality of meetings and decisions, the conflicts of interest, the lack of record keeping, the failure to follow advice and publish decisions – these are all of significant concern and the public needs to be aware of what has happened. The Council now have one month to respond to my report and to highlight the steps it is taking to ensure this never happens again.’

Wednesday 18 December 2013

A toxic marriage

Welsh regional rugby is in crisis, and the four regions have now called for an independent inquiry into the way in which broadcasting and competition revenues are distributed. On top of that, the Scarlets have their own separate headaches, with the BBC reporting in some detail on the club's relationship with Carmarthenshire County Council.

The BBC report is important because its findings, carefully researched and fact-checked, bear out what critics of the council's deals with the club have been saying for years, only to be dismissed by senior figures in the council as the imaginings of a hardcore of malcontents.

The first part of the BBC story deals with the likelihood that the council has broken EU rules on state aid with the millions its has poured into the Parc y Scarlets venture. A formal complaint has now been made to the EU Commission which has said it will investigate.

The Commission has also confirmed that the council has never provided it with information on the various transactions.

For its part, the council is adamant that the legal advice it took back in 2007 concluded that the rules on state aid did not apply to the Parc y Scarlets scheme, although it has consistently refused to disclose what that legal advice was, and it has also refused to comment on whether it has sought legal advice on the matter since 2007.

In the worst case scenario, the Commission could force the council to demand repayment of the millions its has provided to the club. The problem with that is the club is nowhere near able to repay, and it is currently only able to stay afloat thanks to annual cash injections and debt write-offs.

The Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, Mark James, arrived in Carmarthenshire in 2001 fresh from the Princess Royal Sports Arena in Boston. "It won't cost the taxpayer a penny", councillors were told there. The project was subsequently the subject of a damning report by the English Audit Commission, but by then Mr James was long gone and had started the ball rolling on Parc y Scarlets.

It seems that Boston Borough Council has so far had to pay out £6.2 million, and the bills are still coming in. Compared with Carmarthenshire, however, Boston has got off lightly.

Of course, it takes more than one to tango, and it would be wrong to apportion all the blame to Mr James. Senior councillors in Carmarthenshire, several of whom still run the council, as well as senior figures in the Scarlets boardroom all played their part.

Back in 2004 the Parc y Scarlets deal was being finalised. "It won't cost the club a penny", they were told. Months later when more detailed costings had been worked out, the bill to the club was £6.2 million. Eventually the club contributed over £7 million, with the council funding the balance of £18.3 million.

Prior to that the club had owned its old home in Stradey Park. The club's nightmare was only just beginning.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but there was no shortage of warnings back in the period between 2004 and 2007. The council commissioned a report from Deloittes which listed all of the risks involved. The siren voices were all ignored.

What has happened since then is a spiral of increasingly bizarre deals and implausible claims, some of which have bordered on being pure fiction. Here is just a small sample:

  • The land on which the stadium was built had no value.
  • The land recently sold to Marstons was of no use.
  • The recent debt restructuring was "a better return than any other commercial investment" (Council press release)
  • The debt restructuring meant that the council was better off (after interest on a loan to the club was cut from 7% to 4%). The BBC report reckons that this has cost the council around £800,000.
  • "We have not given the club any money" (Western Mail article today), referring to the Marstons deal in which the club received around £600,000 of the £850,000 of the council-owned land.
  • Henry Davidson, the developers of the Eastgate complex in Llanelli, had concerns over the plans to build a pub next to Parc y Scarlets, we have been told, and so persuaded the club to open a bar in Eastgate, even though the club had no money to pay for it.
  • It was the Scarlets who "found" Marstons and so reaped a £30,000 finder's fee.
  • The Scarlets are contributing around £16 million to the local economy each year, according to a report commissioned by the council and the club. To put that into perspective, the Welsh Government recently estimated that the new national coastal path had attracted around 1.6 million visitors and contributed £16 million to the national economy in its first year.
What is not in doubt is that the Scarlets are important to Carmarthenshire and Welsh rugby, and nobody wants to see the club go down. It is also much too late to turn the clock back and undo the catastrophic damage the Parc y Scarlets venture has done to the club.

Whatever happens, and long after some of the current movers and shakers have moved on, the council and the sport will be left picking up the pieces for years and probably decades to come.

There is still a cross party consensus in favour of the Scarlets, but the shabby deals and ludicrous claims made by the council mean that the public's patience is starting to wear thin.

The best thing that could happen to the club would be for the people who backed the Parc y Scarlets scheme to accept responsibility and step down, with an open and honest cross party initiative to work out a bold new solution to safeguard the club's future, while removing the council from further involvement, even if that means further write-offs and losses.

Cllr Jeff Edmunds' recent decision to break ranks and disclose details of the Marstons deal is certainly a step in the right direction.

Jacqui Thompson Libel Appeal

A brief update on the hearing held on Monday this week in which Jacqui Thompson sought to extend the scope of her appeal against the judgment handed down against her earlier this year.

Barnet blogger Mrs Angry attended the hearing, and you can read her report here.

The only thing to add was that Mr James's legal team turned out in force, with his barrister being accompanied by three others. It is apparently very unusual for the other side to turn up to a hearing of this kind, and it is further proof if proof were needed that whatever other cutbacks the council is making, no expense is being spared when it comes to legal representation for the chief executive.

To the person who wrote a vicious comment rejoicing in Mrs Thompson's plight and expressing thanks that Jacqui and her family face losing their home rather than Mr James, you have obviously not understood the fundamentals of the case. Mr James's home was never at risk for the simple reason that the taxpayer is funding his case. Your comment will not be published.

Tuesday 17 December 2013

School Bandings and Spin

First the good news - congratulations to both Ysgol Dyffryn Teifi in Llandysul and Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn in Newcastle Emlyn which have both jumped up the bandings tables from a 4 to a 2.

The bandings system is highly complex and can produce some strange results, but both schools have put in an enormous amount of effort to turn themselves round in the last couple of years, and so the improvement is not a statistical quirk. Slightly further afield congratulations also to Ysgol Gyfun Aberaeron which has gone from Band 4 to Band 1.

You can see the bandings tables for yourselves here.

Overall, however, the results for Carmarthenshire are very disappointing. Not one of the county's secondary schools has made it to Band 1, and the results are especially poor for the schools which are or have been the focus of the council's flagship Modernising Education Programme. Queen Elizabeth High has at least gone from Band 5 to Band 4. Ysgol Gwendraeth is in Band 5; Ysgol Tre-gib in Llandeilo which is being merged with Ysgol Pantycelyn in Llandovery to create a controversial new super-school is in Band 4, while Ysgol Pantycelyn itself has slipped from Band 2 to Band 4, something which almost certainly reflects the unsettling effects of the impending closure of the school. Ysgol Dyffryn Aman, another beneficiary of the council's MEP, has slipped from Band 3 to Band 5.

This very lacklustre performance perhaps explains why the Carmarthen Journal and Llanelli Star chose (or more likely were instructed) to rehash and reheat some very old news about the council's Modernising Education Programme the week before last. "County's schools to get £120 million windfall", the headlines screamed, although you could have read the same story on the council's own website back in December 2011: "Carmarthenshire is celebrating today".

There is not much to celebrate now, however, and serious questions need to be asked about why our county's schools are in general performing so poorly compared with largely urban areas such as Neath Port Talbot, or largely rural ones such as Gwynedd. More to the point, why is it that the Modernising Education Programme seems to have such a negative effect on performance?

Not long before the latest bandings tables were published there was a great deal of soul searching about the relatively poor performance of Welsh children in the Pisa study, and the BBC dispatched a correspondent to Finland to try to find out why Finnish children were doing so much better. The conclusion was that there were many reasons, but a significant factor was that Finnish schools tend to be smaller.

Unfortunately for the children of Carmarthenshire, the main thrust of the council's policy is to shut down smaller schools and create large new campuses.

Here in Newcastle Emlyn we should perhaps be grateful that we are still light years away from deriving any benefit from the MEP.


There do not appear to be any reports in the Carmarthen Journal or Llanelli Star on this year's banding results, which you may think is an odd thing for local papers to overlook. The third Local World title, the South Wales Evening Post, does carry a very bare list of the bandings for Carmarthenshire, Neath Port Talbot and Swansea, but it is riddled with errors. Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn, for example, is shown as having dropped from Band 2 to Band 4.

Monday 16 December 2013

Jacqui Thompson's Appeal - UPDATED

Sad news from London today that Jacqui Thompson's attempt to broaden her appeal against the verdict handed down in the libel case between her and the chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council earlier this year has been refused.

Jacqui's team had previously been granted leave to appeal on one very narrow legal point relating to a blog post from March 2011 in which she referred to a slush fund, and was hoping to persuade the Appeal Court to re-examine other aspects of the case.

No date has yet been set for the appeal hearing. A fuller report in the South Wales Guardian with some explanatory background can be found here.

A great deal of water has flowed under the bridge since the case was heard in February of this year, including serious questioning of the lawfulness of the council's decision to fund Mr James's counter-claim by the Wales Audit Office. Unfortunately that fell outside the scope of today's review.

The consequences of today's decision are very disappointing for Jacqui and her family, and a number of important matters remain to be resolved, including how the costs of the litigation will be met.

The Wales Audit Office is still also expected to publish its own findings on the libel indemnity, and it may also be about to publish a second report detailing its findings in the row over the chief executive's pension arrangements, although the council's recent decision to back down in that dispute may mean that the report will be quietly shelved.

The Primary Times

Times are 'ard, or so Kevin Madge keeps warning us all as the council sharpens its axe to slash away at services. For some parts of the council, however, it seems to be very much business as usual.

If you have a child in a Carmarthenshire primary school, it is likely that you will have received a copy of a something called "Primary Times" in the last few days.

This glossy publication is a cross between a listings magazine and an advertising circular aimed at parents with young children in an area extending from Swansea to Pembrokeshire. It is published by a company called Broad Oak Publications from an address near Llandeilo, and according to the smallprint operates under a franchise licence. 

Unlike the council's own propaganda rag, this would seem to be a private venture, but it is being distributed free through the council's schools and contains several articles/advertising features which would not be out of place in the Carmarthenshire News.

On page 4 up pops Councillor Pam Palmer to promote her Toybox Appeal. Unfortunately she may as well have saved her breath and the cost of the advert because the magazine did not come out until 25 November, and the closing date for the Toybox Appeal was 2 December. The magazine arrived at Tŷ Cneifiwr on 13 December.

Immediately below Pam's appeal is a colour picture of an avuncular looking Cllr Colin Evans, Executive Board Member for Technical Services. Carmarthenshire is the best in Wales for eco schools, we are told, and Colin is delighted.

A couple of weeks ago the council placed a much larger advertising feature praising the eco schools project in the Carmarthen Journal. Why is money being wasted which could be spent on schools and other services instead of pointless promotional activity?

Bearing in mind that a high proportion of children in Carmarthenshire are educated through the medium of Welsh in the county's primary schools, around 90% of the new magazine is in English only. To its credit, Swansea Council has placed a bilingual ad to promote ice skating, but Carmarthenshire's contributions are all in English only.

Incredibly, in the listings section two Welsh language pantomimes at the new Ffwrnes Theatre in Llanelli and the Lyric in Carmarthen are advertised in English only.

Several of the council's pet projects also cough up some money for colour adverts. There's a half page ad from Parc y Scarlets advertising Sunday Lunch with Santa. Not a single word in Welsh. Mae'n ddrwg gen i, blantos.

In fact the bad news for many children in Carmarthenshire is that Santa only speaks English these days. Two pages of listings headed "Where's Santa?" have not a single word in Welsh.

The National Botanic Garden of Wales has a bilingual ad, but you will need a magnifying glass to read the Welsh text. A second Scarlets' ad promotes a competition to win a family ticket (terms and conditions apply). All in English only.

Meanwhile, the entire back page is given over to promoting Parc y Scarlets as a venue for Christmas parties (English only) and a New Year's Eve Masquerade Ball (a few words in Welsh on that one).

Stripped of the pretty pictures and warm introductory words from "Emma", all this is really about is relieving parents of their money, with a large helping of Carmarthenshire County Council propaganda thrown in.

Dim diolch.

Sunday 15 December 2013

Marstons land deal - Cllr Caiach's response

Cllr Siân Caiach has responded to the attack on her by council leader Kevin Madge with a statement of her own about the Marstons land deal.

Her statement casts some interesting new light on aspects of this latest scandal, and sadly it is unlikely that any of the titles owned by Local World will give it the time of day. So to try to redress the balance just a little, here is her statement in full.

"I would like to first make it clear that I am asking Kevin Madge to resign as Leader of Carmarthenshire County Council because of his responsibility in the decision to sell an overflow car park leased to the Scarlets rent free, providing considerable funds for the club. The Leader is expected, like all councillors, to always display openness and accountability. Although informed of the deal, he kept the details secret. The sale of public assets to benefit a private company should surely be discussed openly.

"I understand the council, under EU regulations, is only allowed to give private companies active in the EU the equivalent of 200,000 Euros or £169,000 over every 3 years, and one off grants of 50% costs to build, for example a stadium like Parc Y Scarlets. 

"We appear to have financed the Scarlets beyond the limits of this law. In this desperate economic situation we are reducing services and asking hundreds our own council staff to leave their jobs and, I believe, giving away too much money to the rugby club. 

"It is a matter of record that in July 2012 the council executive board, headed by Mr Madge, instructed an officer, Jonathan Fearn to take sole charge of the sale and consult Cllr Jeff Edmunds, executive board member for finance.  Prior to that time it was planned that the car park would be an out of town shopping area, not a pub, but that deal fell through and the land lease was later sold on to Marstons. 

"The area was sold for £850,000 according to the land registry. The Council’s accounts showed they got £200,000 and the fate of the rest of the money was not disclosed to ordinary councillors like myself, and then refused under the Freedom Of Information Act.

"Jonathan Fearn told me by email that following “normal negotiation and the agreement of allowable costs, the remaining proceeds were shared equally between the club and the council”. 

"Now Cllr Madge tells us that an independent District Valuer assessed the value of the land and advised as to how the remaining proceeds of the sale could be divided.  The proceeds seemed to be, on that basis, around £400,000, so the costs of the sale were over half the sale price.

"Cllr Edmunds asked to see me when I had asked him for information, and told me that he wished to be open and transparent and give me the full facts about the sale. Indeed the costs of the sale were very high. The original deal involving a retail use, he told me, had been suggested by HDD, the owners of the Llanelli Eastgate Centre who asked the Scarlets to take up some units there to set up their shop and café bar. They loaned them , I was told, £280,000 to fit up the shop units and start this new  business venture.  As the Scarlets needed to pay this back, Cllr Edmunds and Mr Fearn were persuaded to call this £280,000 an “allowable expense” of the car park sale. 

"Other payments deducted from the £850,000 were around £50,000 for architects and agents fees, £70,000 for compensation to the club for the car park lease, a £30,000 finder’s fee to the Scarlets for finding a buyer and in the end, I was told, more than half the “official “proceeds of £420,000. The Scarlets got £220,000, the council £200,000.

"Now I have no objection to the sale of unused council land to provide money for the people  of Carmarthenshire’s council services.  However, as the Scarlets had not ever paid a penny of rent for this lease the split seems very generous. They have had around £600,000 pounds.

"They may be entitled to compensation for the lease and a finder’s fee and a profit share, but do they really qualify for over half the profit plus the cost of setting up their private shop and café bar?

"The law says that 200,000 Euros  (equivalent to about £169,000) is the maximum allowed for councils to give bodies like the Scarlets every 3 years. So as I understand it, any informal grants, as the “allowable expense” may well be, or other financial help has to be less than this amount in a three year period.

"Councillor Edmunds told me that he had informed the Leader of the result of the decision delegated by the executive, but was not aware that the information had been passed on. This means that the other executive board Councillors, who recently granted the club more financial support by reducing the interest on the Scarlet’s loan from the council, may not have known that a grant already given from the sale may have exceeded the whole 3 year quota.

"I find it disturbing that the legal explanation of how we can give all this money to the Scarlets is kept secret.
I suspect all may not be in order. 

"I thank Councillor Jeff Edmunds profoundly for being open and honest about where this particular sale money went and why. I think he has acted bravely and with integrity.  He was under considerable pressure not to talk about this sale. 

"It is Councillor Madge as Council Leader who has ultimate responsibility for the County Council. If he or the Executive Board he leads instructs an officer to take over the Councillors’ responsibility for a major financial matter, he is still responsible for that decision.  Cllr Madge has not denied that he did not inform other councillors about the money from the sale, and he has not made it clear why State Aid Law does not apply to the Scarlets. 

Cllr Madge says he is “extremely proud” to be associated with what has happened, and there is no need to consider resigning. I disagree."

Saturday 14 December 2013

An independent valuation

In the 1970s world of Old Welsh Labour inhabited by Carmarthenshire County Council leader Kevin Madge, questionable land deals are punctuated by reminiscences of bopping the night away at Top Rank, and any woman who raises her voice in anger is, by definition, hysterical.

So when Cllr Siân Caiach accused him of being responsible for the bizarre deal cooked up by the council with the Scarlets, Henry Davidson and Marstons, Kev's response is that she was being hysterical.

The poor old readers of what is left of the Carmarthen Journal must be scratching their heads again as they read that Kevin Madge has set the record straight about a row which has been rumbling on for months, but which never got a mention in the paper until it was told to print a press release hot off the printer from County Hall. You can read the press release for yourselves here, but be warned that visitors to the Journal's new-look website are likely to find that their screens are invaded by all sorts of unwanted and unwelcome advertising.

Boiled down to its essentials, Kevin Madge's message is:

  • A deal to slash interest payments on a council loan to the Scarlets and the land deal, which saw the Scarlets walk off with £600,000 of the £850,000 proceeds, were in no way related. Cllr Caiach's question was whether the senior councillors who approved the deal on interest rates had been made aware of the Marstons deal. Kev has not answered the question.
  • The piece of land involved in the deal was of no use to the council or the Scarlets. Fair enough, but the council taxpayer surely has a right to expect that public assets will not be given away.
  • The decision to sell the land was delegated to the council's head of property in consultation with Cllr Jeff Edmunds, with the District Valuer being asked to advise on how the proceeds were split. That is the official line, but there is good reason to believe that someone else was calling the shots.
  • The reason why the Scarlets took out a lease on the Red Room in the Eastgate development was apparently to ease the concerns of Henry Davidson, which felt that the Marstons pub could undermine the Eastgate Centre. Oh really?
  • The new Marstons pub and the Red Room have created 193 full and part-time (and overwhelmingly low-paid) jobs. Great, but if the council gives away public assets to anyone who says they are going to open a pub or bar, there soon won't be any assets left to give away. And perhaps the two new ventures really do employ 193 people, but there must be a lot more more staff than customers at times.
  • Finally, Kevin Madge says that Cllr Caiach has said that he personally agreed the terms of the sale. The truth is that Cllr Edmunds told her that his boss was kept informed of what was being discussed.
What Cllr Madge's "clarification" amounts to is a smoke screen of evasiveness.

At last week's council meeting the Head of Resources, Roger Jones, told councillors that Jonathan Fearn, the head of property, had disagreed with the District Valuer's split of the proceeds.

Would the District Valuer really have awarded the Scarlets, who had not paid a penny for the lease, £600,000 of the £850,000 sales price, and awarded the club £280,000 in allowable expenses to set up the Red Room? If so, there is something deeply wrong with the District Valuer. If the claims are true, it surely undermines public trust in the valuation office.

If Mr Fearn was in the chamber, he was not given an opportunity to speak for himself, and he must be feeling very uncomfortable at having this albatross of a deal hung around his neck. By all accounts, Mr Fearn is a decent and scrupulously honest man, and it was his misfortune to be given the job of fronting the negotiations along with Cllr Jeff Edmunds, who would also seem to have deep reservations about what happened here.

The Wales Audit Office has been asked to investigate this very peculiar arrangement, and in the meantime a the council can expect a Freedom of Information request asking for disclosure of the report produced by the District Valuer.

Friday 13 December 2013

Party Politics (Part Two)

Following the mysterious defection of Cllr Theressa Bowen from Labour to the clutches of Pam Palmer's Independents just a few months after the last council elections, the two parties have been level pegging in terms of the number of seats held.

The history of politics is littered with defections, but this must be the first time anyone has ever changed sides while staying on the same side of the fence, and ever since the coalition has been like that bus at the end of The Italian Job - perched on the edge of a cliff with one sudden move likely to lead to disaster.

For reasons which are not yet clear, the Labour group is growing increasingly worried that the balance is about to be disturbed. Perhaps one of their councillors may be struggling to maintain their grip on their allotted perch, or perhaps there is a whiff of a looming resignation from the ranks.

Who knows, but Cllr Siân Caiach, the non-aligned councillor for Hengoed, has been approached twice in the last couple of weeks by Labour councillors wondering if she would like to come to the party.

The fact that she has called for Kev's resignation, and is normally regarded by the other parties as someone who is both radioactive and a carrier of the Black Death, tells us a lot about the state of morale among the Labour troops who know that Pam Palmer's battered old tank is primed to move onto Kev's lawn at a moment's notice.

Party Politics (Part One)

This month's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council had very few highlights, but one of them was a very polished and funny demolition job by Cllr Emlyn Dole on the Labour and Independent groups which together run the show.

He gently mocked the gulf which separates Labour from its stated goals and what it has actually done, but his most devastating fire was reserved for Pam Palmer's raggle taggle "Independent" group, which likes to pretend that it is not a political party, but nevertheless habitually votes unanimously on everything and clings on to power, dishing out generous special responsibility allowances to its mainly geriatric boys and girls, with the middle-aged Giles Morgan being the party's youth wing.

Pam was not in a mood to be mocked, and she rose to dismiss the attack as "puerile tripe", before going to on claim on behalf of her troops that the Independents did indeed publish a manifesto, and that they did not always vote as a bloc.

Some of the Labour councillors will be too young to remember the last time any Independents voted against their party whip (which of course does not officially exist), and nobody has ever seen a manifesto explaining what the group's aims and policies are for the council.

What we get instead is personal "manifestos" issued by individual Independents for the wards where they stand for election, and those postcard sized bits of paper won't tell you much more than that they don't like dog poo, and will stand up for their communities.

Fortunately, nobody from those communities seems to have noticed that the vast majority of Independent councillors never, ever have anything to say for themselves, and the people of Llandovery may wonder what Cllr Ivor Jackson meant by standing up for his community as the bulldozers move in to Ysgol Pantycelyn.

As Pam is apparently a regular reader, Cneifiwr still hopes to be proved wrong about the manifesto, so if you'd care to send in the 2012 manifesto, Pam, it will be reproduced here.