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!


m1books said...

A wonderfully succinct analysis of this last year. Put together in such a way only highlights the appalling procedural twists and turns and questionable decision-making. It is shameful. Yours and other blogs are the only way we know half of what is going on. Please keep up your'exocets' of information and lets hope we can get some answers in the new year to what is going on in this
shambolic Council.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear m1books. Happy New Year to you and yours Cneifiwr!

Anonymous said...

May I add my heartfelt congratulations and thanks for the way you keep us informed about what is happening in the Carmarthenshire Kremlin.

Let us hope that the chickens - and indeed, turkeys and ostriches (pace Cllr Madge) - do in fact come home to roost with a vengeance in the coming year.

Happy New Year to you and all your faithful readers!

Anonymous said...

Ond beth am y newyddion da!???????? Cyng Jim Glanrhyd yn cael OBE am ei wasanaeth clodwiw i drigolion manordeilo a'r fro fel cynghorydd sir???????