Friday 31 January 2014

Council Crisis - Enter Kevin Madge (at last)

We are now nearly two days into the crisis which has engulfed Carmarthenshire County Council, and the council leader, Kevin Madge (Lab) has finally decided that he had better say something.

Most people in Carmarthenshire would have expected him to say something - anything -about the auditor's reports and the grave accusations of gross misconduct which have been levelled at the chief executive and some other officers. Er, no.

What we have got instead is a bitter personal attack on the leader of the opposition. Peter Hughes Griffiths is a "complete hypocrite" who merely wants to get his hands on power (i.e. Kevin's job).

This is because Peter Hughes Griffiths supported the action which the council took against Jacqui Thompson, based on the half truths and false information he was fed along with everybody else.

One very interesting aspect of this is Kevin Madge's own conduct in the last few months.

In common with other members of the Executive Board, Kevin Madge was privy to what was effectively an advance copy of the auditor's reports back in early November in the form of two "consideration documents" (see Caebrwyn for the details). He knew exactly what the auditor was going to say and when the reports would be published.

Despite that he went on the rampage at a meeting of the Executive Board on 6 January, using this privileged platform to demonise Jacqui Thompson and justify the council's actions. He even claimed that a full report on the case would reveal the truth about Cllr Siân Caiach's decision to stand as a witness in the libel trial.

The report has not yet appeared, and in view of what has come out in the last few days it would be amazing if anyone believed a word of it.

In other news one of the Independent councillors has also emerged from hiding. Cllr Giles Morgan, a member of the Audit Committee who has on at least two recent occasions sought to dismiss the auditor's findings, now thinks there is cause for concern. Here he is on Twitter:

CCC Audit Committee members may feel very uncomfortable with some of the things they are reading today. Council should meet ASAP to discuss.

If Peter Hughes Griffiths has his eyes on Kevin's job, Giles almost certainly has designs on Pam Palmer's seat at the top table.

Pobol y Cwm's plot lines are beginning to look very tame.

Council Crisis - Plaid Cymru to call for vote of no confidence in council leadership

 The Plaid Cymru group on Carmarthenshire County Council has issued the following statement:
"The leader of the Plaid Cymru Opposition Group on Carmarthenshire Council, Councillor Peter Hughes Griffiths, has announced his group will be meeting on Monday (3rd February) to discuss presenting motions of no confidence in three members of the Council’s Executive Board (Leader Kevin Madge, Former Leader Meryl Gravell and Deputy Leader Pam Palmer). 
The Plaid group will also be discussing no confidence motions in two of the Council’s most senior officials, namely the Chief Executive, Mark James, and the Head of Administration and Law, Linda Rees Jones.
Councillor Hughes-Griffiths strongly criticised the Labour Leader of the Council, Councillor Kevin Madge, for his complete lack of leadership in the matter, claiming that the Leader should have at the very least suspended the council officers pending further investigation.
Councillor Peter Hughes-Griffiths said:
“It is imperative that these two extremely damaging reports are discussed as a matter of urgency.  Carmarthenshire residents deserve answers and the council group I lead is not prepared to wait.
“We cannot go into a meeting to discuss the authority’s budget next month when we have no confidence in the political leadership and some of the council’s senior staff.
“Carmarthenshire Council has been bereft of political leadership which has sadly continued since the publication of these reports.   It appears that every member of the Executive Board has gone into hiding and has not taken an ounce of responsibility for their actions.
“If I was leading this authority I would have at the very least suspended senior officers pending further investigation.  It is the bare minimum which should be done given the seriousness of the Auditor’s findings.  Furthermore, if I was responsible for spending tens of thousands of pounds unlawfully, I would do the honourable thing and stand down.
“The opposition group will meet on Monday evening to discuss presenting motions of no confidence against three Executive Board members and two senior officers.  There is overwhelming evidence from the Wales Audit Office to say these people cannot continue in their posts.
“I emphasise that an extraordinary meeting must be held.  The people of Carmarthenshire will rightly expect their local councillor – irrespective of political party – to agree to this meeting without hesitation."

Council Crisis - Things take a turn for the worse

The appointed auditor, Anthony Barrett, has issued a new statement in response to the council's claims that the WAO had changed its mind over the legality of the libel indemnity. The latest twist shows that the council has at best been extremely economical with the truth, and is even now trying to spin its way out of trouble.

In its statement yesterday Carmarthenshire County Council claimed that the WAO had told a member of the public (almost certainly Jacqui Thompson) that the indemnity was lawful.

It now turns out that the WAO told the council when it was preparing to indemnify a counterclaim against Jacqui Thompson that it should take legal advice on that specific matter.

The council did not, but relied on general legal advice it had been given back in 2008.

The reason council officers did not provide the Executive Board with copies of legal advice received on the indemnity was that no such advice had been sought or received.

The story has now been picked up by the South Wales Guardian which quotes Mr Barrett as follows,

In August 2012, some four months after the council had already started paying legal costs, the Appointed Auditor provided a response to a member of the public, in which he referred to the general legal advice that the council had obtained. 

“The Appointed Auditor obtained his own legal advice in September 2013 and provided this in full to the Council.” 

That 2013 legal advice was of the view that the indemnity was “contrary to the law”.

The council however dismissed the advice as wrong, the Guardian says, and as we know, the matter ended up in court.

What happened to the WAO's legal advice from September 2013 and who got to see it remains a mystery.

Council Crisis - The Incredible Shrinking Press Release and a War of Words

In the run-up to publication of the auditor's public interest reports yesterday the press had received advance copies under embargo. In preparation for their stories they tried repeatedly to get a response from the council itself.

The council had been aware of the reports' findings for several months and knew exactly when they would be published. Despite that, and despite having one of the largest press and PR operations in Wales, the release of two documents saw the council caught like a rabbit in the headlights.

For several hours journalists were told that a statement would be forthcoming. In the end all they got was a terse statement, as follows:

"The Wales Audit Office reports have been received and will be carefully considered by the council in due course. It would not be appropriate to comment further until such time." 

It seems that the chief executive himself was off sick yesterday, and the silence continued for much of the day until shortly after 5 pm when a lengthy statement was released and immediately published by the Carmarthen Journal. 

Who the statement is attributed to is not clear, but the Llanelli Star, which also picked it up, put it down to a "spokeswoman" (no prizes for guessing who that is). So far, then, there has not been a peep out of Kevin Madge or any of the other senior councillors who are supposed to be running the show.

For reasons which are not immediately apparent, the text of the council's statement as published on the Journal's website underwent drastic pruning overnight, and the current version can be found here. Thanks to the miracles of digital technology, Cneifiwr is able to reproduce the original version below.

From the statement it seems that Mr James is digging in and preparing to fight. A couple of things stand out from the response.

Firstly, we are told that a member of the public who had queried the libel indemnity decision had been assured by the Wales Audit Office that everything was in order. The council's statement then continues in true Jail Hill fashion:

Clearly they have now changed their minds, some considerable time after the decision was taken, and too late for us to turn back the clock.

Who that member of the public was, we are not told, but Cneifiwr is aware of four separate representations made to the WAO last year. Three of them were given no such assurances, and bizarrely that would seem to leave just the fourth member of the public who was none other than Jacqui Thompson herself.

Jacqui had raised her concerns with the WAO and eventually went along to meet a couple of representatives. They had spoken to Mrs Linda Rees Jones, the council's acting Head of Law, and possibly others in the council, and had been assured that everything was legally in order.

This was disappointing, but did not come as a surprise to a number of people who had had dealings with the WAO on matters relating to Carmarthenshire County Council. The general perception at the time was that the WAO was too close to the council and too ready to accept explanations for apparent lapses from senior officers.

What changed was the arrival on the scene of Mr Anthony Barrett and a much more rigorous approach to investigations.

But back to the shrinking press release. One of the chunks which has vanished reads as follows:

"We remain firmly of the belief that we acted legally and properly as a caring employer should. Our Chief Executive was subject to a campaign of defamation and harassment. He was being victimised not because of anything in his personal life, but because of the job he does for us. This was borne out by the findings of the court judgement. It is only right and proper that we defend and support one of our employees who may find themselves in such an exceptional situation purely because they were doing their job.

Any good employer would do the same.

One of the reasons why Mr James finds himself at the centre of another storm is his autocratic style and his interpretation of his role.

An interesting test is to Google the names of different Welsh chief executives. Google Bronwen Morgan (Ceredigion) or Steve Phillips (Neath Port Talbot), and you will find references mostly to council documents.

Google "Mark James Carmarthenshire", and you will find a huge array of information, including countless press articles and interviews.

No other Welsh council chief executive maintains such a high public profile. No other Welsh chief executive has built for himself a media platform which includes both the council's own paper and also two leading local weeklies. No other Welsh chief executive has so frequently crossed the line which separates neutral public servants from the politicians.

If anyone is in any doubt what the council's view is of the auditor's reports, a single line in the statement spells it out:

Although the Wales Audit Office has expressed an ‘opinion’, that opinion does not in itself determine that the council’s actions were unlawful.

It looks as though we are in for a long ride and are now heading for the courts.

The Wales Audit Office is clearly not impressed, and has responded to the council's statement as follows:

"The Appointed Auditor stands by the conclusions in his reports issued today.

Regarding the issue of the pay supplement in lieu of employer's pension contributions, the process was significantly flawed, thereby rendering the policy unlawful. In particular, the council have not demonstrated proper exercise of discretion in setting ‘reasonable remuneration’.

In relation to the granting of an indemnity to the Chief Executive, the Appointed Auditor firmly remains of the view that the decision was unlawful.

If the Council does not accept this view, the Appointed Auditor may apply to the courts for a declaration that the item of account is contrary to law."


Text of Council Statement released yesterday

Regarding the issue of the pay supplement in lieu of employer's pension contributions, we are pleased to note that the Auditor does not form the view that the policy itself was unlawful, but that it was the procedural process that was flawed.

This is in accordance with the legal advice that we ourselves have received. We fully accept his findings on the matters of procedure,  particularly that the matter should have been included as a separate item on the agenda for the meeting, and have already taken steps to ensure that such errors are not repeated in future.

Although the report author was present at the meeting, he has not benefitted personally in any way from the decision, nor would he ever be likely to do so, and there is no question of anyone seeking to influence the decision in order to gain any material advantage. The procedural errors were an honest mistake and there has been no impropriety of any sort. We would also like to reiterate that the proposed alternative pension arrangements did not involve any additional cost to the authority.

Regarding the indemnity, we sought legal advice from day one and remain convinced that the advice we have received, that the council has the power to grant such an indemnity in these circumstances, is correct. Although the Wales Audit Office has expressed an 'opinion',  that opinion does not in itself determine that the council's actions were unlawful.

We have been completely open and consulted the Wales Audit Office at the outset, prior to granting the indemnity, and they did not advise against the action we took. Some months after the indemnity had been granted, the Wales Audit Office further confirmed to a member of the public who queried the decision that they felt the council's action was lawful. Clearly they have now changed their minds, some considerable time after the decision was taken, and too late for us to turn back the clock.

We remain firmly of the belief that we acted legally and properly as a caring employer should. Our Chief Executive was subject to a campaign of defamation and harassment. He was being victimised not because of anything in his personal life, but because of the job he does for us. This was borne out by the findings of the court judgement. It is only right and proper that we defend and support one of our employees who may find themselves in such an exceptional situation purely because they were doing their job.

Any good employer would do the same.

The indemnity was just that, an indemnity against costs should the Chief Executive not be successful in his counter claim. In the event of course, he was successful and the judge awarded costs and damages against the other party. As a result, the costs should ultimately be met by the person who originated the legal action and not the council.
Finally we want to assure everyone there will be a full and open debate on these reports at full council in due course. The press and public are of course always welcome to attend, and the proceedings will be filmed via webcam for everyone to watch on our website. We look forward to being able to bring all the facts to this public forum to demonstrate that our actions and intentions were honourable and lawful at all times.

Thursday 30 January 2014

Council Crisis - A Statement from Cllr Siân Caiach

It has been a busy and fast moving day. More on that and some of the history in due course, but Cllr Caiach left a comment earlier this evening which merits a posting of its own.


I believe these two issues are only the tip of an iceberg as far as what I would regard as a pattern of dubious fiscal behaviour in this council. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a serious issue about whether we councillors are in any position to set a budget when we now have so little confidence in the quality of our financial advice .

As in any similar professional position the chief executive should stand down and take no further part in proceedings until a decision is made about his future.

I also would wish an extensive external audit of our finances. I have no confidence in the way we are handling our money, not only because of the WAO report but also due to other matters brought to my attention.

I have similarly no confidence in the ability of my executive colleagues to guide my council through the annual budget. They have allowed others to pull wool over their eyes and goodness knows what other things may have got past them.

We need an extraordinary general meeting as soon as possible. If we are not absolutely sure of the financial propriety or true motivation of the serious funding decisions about to be made, we should ask WG to make a full financial investigation and delay the budget.

Many individual councillors have been concerned by a variety of funding and financial topics which
have not seemed appropriate uses of public money ,but have been supported by the executive

Now,we have been informed in detail of clear misuse of public funds which indicates repeated systemic failure in financial management.

We should not ignore this expert opinion. Delay with dealing with our mistakes and weaknesses will make things worse, not better. If we need outside help to sort it out, why not? Its been going on too long already.

Unlawful, arrogant beyond belief and out of control


According to the bush telegraph, the full council may be given gracious permission to meet to discuss the reports on 7 March, which is of course rather more than a month after publication of the auditor's reports. Not only will this delay matters rather nicely, but it also puts two fingers up to the auditor. The date is not within the one month time frame he stipulated, but annoyingly close so that he may look unreasonably pedantic if he makes a fuss.

Business as usual, it seems.


Anthony Barrett, the auditor appointed by the Wales Audit Office to audit Carmarthenshire County Council, has finally published two Public Interest Reports on the pensions and libel indemnity scandals. His findings could not be clearer or more damning, and it seems that the police have now been made aware of what has happened and are expected to begin an investigation.

He describes these as two fundamental issues (councillors including Cllr Pam Palmer who have tried to dismiss them as irrelevant should take note), and the reports contain information which raise questions about the integrity and competence of some senior officers and councillors.

There have already been calls for the immediate dismissal of the chief executive and the resignation of senior councillors, including Kevin Madge.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas said, "The gross misconduct of the council officers involved in drawing up the report [on the libel indemnity, Ed.] has brought the council into disrepute and should be countered by instant dismissal". More on his statement below.

The full reports can be found here and here.

Readers of this blog, Carmarthenshire Planning Problems and the South Wales Guardian will be aware of the background and much of the detail, and of greater interest now is the response of the council to the reports and next steps.

The Libel Indemnity

In summary the auditor has found that:
  • The award of an indemnity to the chief executive, Mark James, to fund his libel counterclaim was unlawful, and the resulting expenditure was contrary to law.
  • The council does not have legal powers to indemnify officers and members to bring actions for defamation.
  • There were failings in governance arrangements and processes, including the chief executive's presence at the meeting which approved the indemnity and his failure to declare an interest.
  • There is a strong suggestion in the report that members of the Executive Board who approved the indemnity were misled and that key information was withheld from them before they took their decision.
  • Litigation is continuing, and it is not clear what the final cost of external legal representation will be to the council.
  • The Council did not consider all of the options open to it, such as a conditional fee agreement.
  • The way in which the meeting was arranged and conducted was not transparent.

One of the most damning sections of the report deals with legal opinion sought by the council in 2008. The opinion received concluded that the council may on balance have powers to indemnify actions for defamation, but was couched in very cautious terms. The auditor notes:

The cautious and reserved terms in which Counsel expressed his opinion to the Council are not reflected in the report to the Executive Board. Instead, the report represents his advice in unequivocal terms – that the indemnity can be granted but only in exceptional circumstances, although these were not defined.


The report [the report recommending the indemnity, Ed.] also states that the views of the Wales Audit Office were being sought as to whether they had any concerns about the granting of an indemnity. From the minutes of the meeting there is no evidence that the Executive Board was informed of the views of the Wales Audit Office when taking their decision.

The council sought to justify the decision to treat the indemnity report as an emergency item by claiming that it had been waiting for its counsel's view on the prospects of success. In the event the advice arrived before the meeting but was not included in the report.

In other words, the Executive Board took a decision without having seen all of the information available. The senior officers involved had seen it and for whatever reason withheld it.

The council's response is to say that it sticks by its decisions and considers that it acted within its powers.

The Pensions Scandal

The auditor's findings on this affair are if anything even more shocking. Once again the matter was handled in such a way as to ensure that there was a complete lack of transparency.

The key findings are:
  • The decision taken by the Executive Board is ‘ultra vires’ and cannot lawfully be implemented as the Council’s powers to set reasonable remuneration cannot be used for the avoidance or mitigation of the effects of pensions legislation.
  • In making the decision, relevant considerations were not taken into account, in breach of Wednesbury reasonableness principles.
  • The Council failed to have due regard to the public sector equality duty.
  • The decision constituted indirect discrimination.
  • The agenda item was considered by the Executive Board without appearing on the agenda and without being open to inspection by members of the public.
  • The report was drafted and presented by a senior officer who had a disqualifying personal and pecuniary interest in the decision as he was eligible to benefit from the proposed ‘pay supplement’.

As with the libel indemnity, it emerges that key information was not presented to members of the Executive Board, and that they may have been misled or wrongly advised.

The Assistant Chief Executive’s report recommended the Executive Board approve the recommendations in the TRP report*. As a senior officer, the Assistant Chief Executivehad a personal and pecuniary interest in the recommendation to pay a ‘pay supplement’ to senior officers who opt out of the LGPS. The report of the Assistant Chief Executive stated that there were no equalities, legal or staffing implications. Neither report identified the impact on any individual senior officers of the restrictions on pensions tax relief enacted in the Finance Act 2011.

* The TRP report was produced by a firm of specialist financial consultants for the council at public expense.

If that is not clear enough, how about this:

Members of the Executive Board were wrongly informed and proceeded on the basis that, in consequence of the changes introduced in the Finance Act 2011, officers would be ‘forced to leave the Local Government Pension Scheme’.

The council's response to this is even more stunning than it is to the report on the libel indemnity. Although it has since rescinded the scheme, it continues to argue that it acted within its powers.

Not content with that, it emerges from the auditor's report that council officers told the auditor that these were not matters for him to investigate, and they also refused to disclose to him the legal advice sought jointly with Pembrokeshire County Council.

Next Steps

The council will now have to publish these reports and arrange a meeting of the full council to discuss the findings within a month.

The timing is very bad indeed as it will coincide with setting a budget for the next financial year, a package which contains enough explosive material of its own.

The auditor's findings raise extremely serious questions about the conduct of some senior officers, but also about the competence of senior councillors, including Kevin Madge, Meryl Gravell and Pam Palmer.

The Plaid leader on the council, Peter Hughes Griffiths, has called on the three to resign immediately (text of press release below).

In a separate, strongly worded statement, Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM and Jonathan Edwards MP voice their concerns. Jonathan makes the very good point that this should not come as a surprise to the Welsh Government which has sat on its hands for the last couple of years, refusing to intervene as Carmarthenshire sank ever deeper. The full text of the statement is below.

The likely first step will be a call for an extraordinary meeting of the full council and a motion of no confidence in the chief executive, if the Executive Board does not suspend him first.

It is also likely that there will be calls for the suspension or dismissal of several other senior officers, including the acting Head of Law, Linda Rees Jones, and Paul Thomas, one of the two assistant chief executives.

Whether the Executive Board will try to tough it out remains to be seen. The auditor's reports provide them with some scope for blaming the senior officers, but it is obvious that questions should have been asked at several stages and were not.

Kevin Madge's "dream team" of a few senior officers and a handful of Labour and Independent councillors now looks like the stuff of nightmares.

Statement by Peter Hughes Griffiths

Three senior Carmarthenshire councillors who unlawfully approved the Chief Executive’s pension and libel payments should resign immediately, say Plaid Cymru. “We hold the present Leader Cllr Kevin Madge, former Leader Cllr Meryl Gravell and Independent group Leader Cllr Pam Palmer responsible for this disgraceful situation,” said Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths, who leads the 28-strong Plaid Cymru opposition group on the council. “They were, and still are, members of the Labour-Independent Executive Board which in 2012 made decisions about spending tens of thousands of taxpayers’ money in unminuted meetings behind closed doors; expenditure which has now been deemed unlawful.
“In displaying disregard for proper procedure and statutes, the three members named have shown themselves to be unfit to be part of the administration of this county council and should resign. The fact that the present Executive Board recently backed their stance also calls the Board’s competence as a whole into question.
Even after initially being pulled up by the WAO last year they chose to commit even more public money by mounting a legal challenge, before backing down on the pension issue.
This is what happens when a weak Labour-Independent Executive Board abdicates its responsibilities by allowing a senior officer to lead.
At a time when council services across the board are facing unprecedented cutbacks, how can the public have any confidence in such an incompetent administration? The council, as a whole, urgently needs to take control of the situation. That can only happen if the Labour and Independent groups invite Plaid Cymru to be part of the administration."
Statement by Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM and Jonathan Edwards MP

Assembly Member Rhodri Glyn Thomas said:

“There is no way in which the council can gloss over what are two significantly damaging reports.  This is a very dark day for Carmarthenshire, a dark day for democracy in Carmarthenshire, and is an example of what happens when you have a very weak executive and a council controlled by powerful unelected officers.

“The decision taken by the political leadership of the council to approve an indemnity for the Chief Executive was based on a sexed-up dossier that did not reflect the legal advice provided.  The gross misconduct of the council officers involved in drawing up the report has brought the council into disrepute and should be countered by instant dismissal.

“Councillors were misled into spending taxpayers’ money doing something the Council was to all intents and purposes cautioned against.  Members of the Executive Board have been exposed as incompetent in safeguarding public money and inept in holding highly-paid officers to account.  They further approved unlawful expenditure to suit the tax arrangements of the Chief Executive. 

“The reports reaffirm our grave concerns that Carmarthenshire council has been gutted of all democracy as pre-meetings of the ruling Labour-Independent Executive Board take place behind the scenes before tokenistic rubbing stamping exercises follow in public, if at all.

“To restore public confidence there must be political accountability.  The Leader of the Council and former leader of the council should accept responsibility and do the honourable thing to enable a political reboot.

“Plaid Cymru has worked hard over the last year to introduce greater accountability into the remuneration packages of local authority chief executives, and has been successful in seeing changes to salaries being scrutinised by the independent remuneration board.

“We’ve done what we can to bring greater transparency on payments to senior council officers.  The Welsh government must now get a grip of the situation.”

Member of Parliament Jonathan Edwards added:

“For almost four years we have raised concerns with both Welsh & UK governments about the legality of the council’s indemnity for the Chief Executive’s counterclaim.  The Welsh government’s refusal to intervene in a council run by its Labour colleagues has seen Carmarthenshire taxpayers’ subjected to these unlawful expenditures when this could have been stopped. 

“The unlawful indemnity and unlawful pension arrangements have seen over £55,000 of public money spent for the benefit of the Chief Executive who, on the basis of these reports, can no longer continue in his role.

“We agree with the Auditor that the indemnity should be withdrawn and we believe the almost £30,000 spent on this indemnity should be paid back in full.

“The Executive Board has acted wrongly in both instances – approving decisions worth tens of thousands of pounds without raising any formal questions or concerns.

“We pay tribute to the Appointed Auditor for his thorough report and his determination in bringing these issues into the public domain when Carmarthenshire Council had the audacity to tell him to keep his nose out.

“The Welsh government should immediately put the council into special measures to enable a new cross-party coalition to be set up to bring an end to this dark chapter in the history of local governance in Carmarthenshire.

“We call upon all Labour and Independent councillors whose parties run this council to look seriously at these reports and join us in restoring democracy to the county.  Carmarthenshire needs a complete reboot and new political leadership which it has so desperately lacked.

Tuesday 28 January 2014

Pork barrel politics

This blog reported recently on the council's plans to close the St Paul's residential care home in Llanelli, and Caebrwyn has discovered that part two of this plan will involve a scheme to open what the council calls an  "Extra Care" facility in the town.

There are several things about this scheme which should have the alarm bells ringing, beginning with the very sudden and unexpected appearance of a major capital project.

As Caebrwyn has pointed out, there was no mention of this scheme in the draft Capital Programme published last November, and it has not been presented to or discussed by any council committee. Indeed, it has not appeared on an published agenda to date.

The words "extra care" did make a brief appearance in the recent public consultation document on budget cuts, but it is extremely unlikely that members of the public would have understood what they meant or that the scheme would be extended to Llanelli following the closure of St Paul's.

This is what the consultation document actually said:

Better utilisation of staff and buildings by closure of St Paul’s as a residential care home but being developed to provide supported accomodation and bringing forward closure of either the Glanmarlais or Tegfan residential care homes. This is part of the new extra care development and providing alternative accommodation through use of spare capacity and as part of our investment programme in newer, more modern and up to date facilities- £1.7 million.

The way in which the new "Extra Care" units would be financed is reminiscent of other visionary council schemes such as Parc y Scarlets and Eastgate, with Peter being robbed to pay Paul, untransparent guesstimates and bags of wishful thinking. £600,000 in savings from the closure of St Paul's will be used, it seems, to finance a £4.5 million loan, with a further £2.5 million being taken from reserves.

This raises many questions.
  • How was the figure of £600,000 arrived at? Is it the net savings expected from the closure of St Paul's for a full year?
  • Does developing St Paul's to provide "supported accommodation" mean the Extra Care scheme, or is that different? What will be the cost of redeveloping the existing home? Surely not £7 million?
  • What will the cost of the £4.5 million loan be? The council's debt of £250 million is currently costing £16 million to service. On that basis the St Paul's loan would cost £288,000 to finance - enough for just over two years. What happens after that?
  • What is the projected income of the new facility, and how will the loan be paid off?
  • Where does the £2.5 million come from, and why did Kevin Madge and senior council officers recently dismiss Plaid proposals to take £1 million out of reserves, implying that this would not be prudent?
But back to the timing of this announcement.

What happened between November and mid-January for this major scheme suddenly to be conjured out of thin air without any scrutiny or discussion by anyone apart from senior officers and a handful of members of the Executive Board?

If it is now presented as a part of the budget proposals for 2014-15, there will be almost no time for councillors to give it anything more than a glancing look, as they grapple with a huge package of controversial cuts and other measures in a few short hours. All the better for that, the backers have probably calculated.

The clue lies in a statement made by Cllr Jane "Crapita" Tremlett to the Llanelli Star:

With developments already underway in Carmarthen and looking to begin in Ammanford, Councillor Tremlett said: "Looking carefully at the care provision in the Llanelli area – and more importantly at the standard of care we want to provide – it is only right that the people of Llanelli should benefit from the best there is as well.

Translated into plain English what that means is that the Labour-Independent coalition, an uneasy balancing act between groups based around Ammanford and Llanelli, ran into trouble with the Llanelli caucus, and the scheme has been rushed out to keep them happy.

The rest of us will be picking up the bills for years to come, and long after Kevin Madge, Tegwen Devichand, Mark James and the rest have started drawing their gold-plated pensions.

If and when councillors are given a chance to examine these proposals, assuming that the acting Head of Law is not wheeled out to rule that any involvement by the bulk of elected councillors is unacceptable micro-management, they should also ask what Extra Care actually involves.

All the signs are that it is PR-speak for an outsourced bare minimum of 15 minute drop ins by poor sods on the minimum wage and zero hour contracts.

Monday 27 January 2014

Below expectations - Carmarthenshire's secondary schools

The Welsh Government last week published a report on academic achievement at GCSE weighted for relative levels of economic disadvantage as measured by the take-up of free school meals. The report, which you can find here, was picked up by the Western Mail and the Daily Post in North Wales.

What it shows is that there is a wide variation in performance at GCSE between the different Welsh local authorities. Some do very well, such as Neath Port Talbot, Conwy, Flintshire, Swansea and Ceredigion, all of which out-performed expectations.

There were one or two spectacular fails, most notably Merthyr Tydfil, while a larger group failed to meet targets by varying degrees. These included Carmarthenshire, which performed worse than most of the councils for which there were comparable targets.

The gap between the performance of children in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire is truly staggering. The percentage achieving the Level 2 Threshold (including an A*-C in English, Welsh and Maths) at GCSE was 63% in Ceredigion, compared with 54% in Carmarthenshire. The only local authority to score higher than Ceredigion was Flintshire at 65%.

Ceredigion is overwhelmingly rural, but the urban or largely urban Neath Port Talbot and Swansea both performed much better than expected at GCSE, and just like Carmarthenshire they all have areas of significant social deprivation.

The latest report follows hard on the heels of the Welsh Government's banding tables, which were published in December. The banding tables tell a similar story. Not one secondary school in Carmarthenshire achieved a Band 1 rating, whereas Neath Port Talbot, Swansea and Ceredigion all did well. Practically the only success story in Carmarthenshire was Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn which went from Band 4 to Band 2 after a major shake-up.

Strikingly some of the worst rated schools in Carmarthenshire are those which have attracted the most money from the council's Modernising Education Programme. The flagship Queen Elizabeth High went from Band 1 in 2011 to Band 5 in 2012, before climbing back to Band 4 in 2013.

The banding system has attracted a lot of criticism, but taken with the weighted GCSE performances set out in the latest report and also GCSE results in absolute terms, a picture is emerging of significantly worse performance than neighbouring local authorities apart from Pembrokeshire.

Carmarthenshire is not about to join the other Welsh local authorities which have been put into special measures, but people in Monmouthshire may be wondering why the chief executive of Carmarthenshire was parachuted in as a part of a special task force to turn round their county's schools when his time could perhaps have been better spent sorting out problems at home.

Perhaps the biggest challenge Carmarthenshire faces is recognising that it does have a problem, and that closing small schools and spending scores of millions on new school complexes do not guarantee a good education.

Judging from the picture the council likes to paint of itself, we are a very long way off the sort of honesty that will be needed if our children are to be given the same start as children in neighbouring Welsh authorities. Here is what the council's press office has had to say:

"Pupils in Carmarthenshire are top of the class" (Council press release on GCSE results in 2013)

"County's schools to get £120m windfall" (Carmarthen Journal publishing a re-hashed press release on the schools building programme in December 2013).

"Carmarthenshire is celebrating today" (same story in a press release from December 2011).

 "Pupils across Carmarthenshire have scored top marks in GCSEs" (Council press release on GCSE results in 2012).

Rather oddly, you may think, the Ministry of Spin has had nothing whatever to say about the bandings tables or the latest report.

Sunday 26 January 2014

Croesi'r bont i fyw yn Gymraeg

Hen Bont Aberteifi : 11am : 01/02/14 : Cen Llwyd, Dewi Pws a mwy

Dros flwyddyn ers cyhoeddi canlyniadau’r Cyfrifiad - canlyniadau a ddangosodd bod y Gymraeg yn wynebu argyfwng - beth mae Carwyn Jones wedi ei wneud i ymateb? Dim - er mai dyhead nifer helaeth o bobl Cymru yw gwlad lle gallwn ni i gyd fyw ein bywydau yn Gymraeg.

Er mwyn pwyso ar y Llywodraeth i weithredu ar frys ar chwech o bethau penodol, mae Cymdeithas yr Iaith yn dechrau ar gyfnod o weithredu uniongyrchol.

1. Addysg Gymraeg i Bawb
2. Tegwch Ariannol i'r Gymraeg
3. Llywodaeth Cymru ac Awdurodau Lleol i osod esiampl trwy weinyddu'n fewnol yn Gymraeg
4. Safonau Iaith i Greu Hawliau Clir
5. Trefn Cynllunio er budd ein Cymunedau
6. Y Gymraeg yn greiddiol i Ddatblygu Cynaliadwy

Mwy o fanylion am ymgyrch chwe pheth ar ein gwefan -

Gydag ymgyrchu cadarnhaol ac ewyllys gwleidyddol, gallai'r Gymraeg ffynnu eto dros y blynyddoedd i ddod. Ymunwch â ni ar Hen Bont Aberteifi am 11am ar Chwefror y 1af i roi neges glir i Carwyn Jones a Llywodraeth Cymru.

Dewch yn llu!

Friday 24 January 2014

Premature execution

Back in 2011 Carmarthenshire County Council suffered an extremely rare defeat at the hands of its councillors when plans to close two care homes in Llanelli (Caemaen and St Paul's) were voted down. Meryl and the officers were furious, and it has always been clear from remarks they have made since then that the escape would only be temporary.

There has long been a suspicion that the council would engineer a closure by ensuring that occupancy rates remained low, and lo and behold up popped St Paul's on the list of targets in the recent public consultation on budget cuts:

Better utilisation of staff and buildings by closure of St Paul’s as a residential care home but being developed to provide supported accomodation....

 (spelling and punctuation taken straight from the council's official budget consultation document).

As we saw the other day in the case of the Glanmarlais and Tegfan residential homes in Ammanford and Llandybie, the council is not going to let a consultation get in the way of its plans, and sure enough the Director of Social Care and Housing Bruce McLernon has now told staff at St Paul's that the home and their jobs are for the chop.

St Paul's is a modern, purpose-built residential care home, but is apparently surplus to requirements in a society with a rapidly ageing population. A press office spokeswoman told the Llanelli Star that there was sufficient capacity in other local authority and private care homes in the area.

An interesting question would be how many places in private care homes is the council currently paying for in the area, and why has take-up of spare places in St Paul's been so low.

Most care homes in what the council likes to call the "independent sector" are run as profit-making businesses. If it is cheaper for the council to fund places in private homes rather than care for people in local authority homes, and if the private homes still make a decent profit out of the transaction, what does that tell you about standards and the quality of life in the cheaper private sector homes?

But back to Mr McLernon and the small matter of the public consultation.

What is supposed to happen is that council officers analyse and report on all of the responses they received. Almost certainly those responses include objections to the proposed closure of St Paul's. That report is then supposed to go to the Executive Board for consideration before they sit down to discuss and approve a draft budget. The budget then has to go before the full council.

The Executive Board will not meet until 3 February, and the full council is due to meet to approve the budget on 19 February. The meeting on 3 February will be the first opportunity any elected councillors have had to discuss the outcome of the consultation in a scheduled meeting, even if discussion is restricted to just 10 of them.

I'll leave the last word to Jim Royle.

Consultation, my arse!

Thursday 23 January 2014

Community Asset Transfers

A report in this week's South Wales Guardian under the headline Parking charges just create a lot of hassle, say Llandovery councillors almost had Cneifiwr choking on his first coffee of the day. Had Cllr Ivor Jackson (Ind) actually woken up, said something mildly critical of the county council and stood up for the town he represents?

Er, no. The councillors raising their concerns were the town councillors, and what Ivor thinks about this or anything else is destined to remain a mystery.

What is upsetting people in Llandovery and every other market town in Carmarthenshire is the annual, inflation-busting increases in the cost of the car parking ticket you need to buy if you want to go to your local shops to buy a newspaper and a loaf of bread. The minimum charge is now 70p.

Llandovery's town councillors would like the county council to hand over the Castle car park, and they are going to write a strongly worded letter to the chief executive, Mark James. Good luck with that.

One of the town councillors mentioned the county council's Community Asset Transfer Programme.

Those warm-sounding words give the impression that those kind-hearted souls in County Hall want to shower us all with goodies, and the council's own official policy document kicks off on a promising note:

"Carmarthenshire County Council believes that community asset transfer is about giving local people greater control in the future of their area and their community."

The problem is that they only want to transfer liabilities, such as public toilets and playing fields, which will land community councils and other organisations with big bills.

In Newcastle Emlyn the Town Council has tried on more than one occasion to persuade the county council to hand over control of the town's car parks, but as councillors have discovered, the car parks are making a lot of money and they are not up for grabs.

A better solution for Llandovery, Newcastle Emlyn, Ammanford and other communities would be to have control of their car parks as well. They would then be free to set their own charges and use the revenue to fund local amenities such as toilets and recreation spaces.

While they are at it, the county's community and town councils might want to take a peak at the massive pot of gold which has been accumulating in the coffers of County Hall in the form of unspent Section 106 contributions. This money is meant to go to community schools and improve local amenities, but doesn't seem to want to leave Jail Hill, as you can see from this Freedom of Information request.

And finally...

The Carmarthen Journal has come in for quite a bit of stick on this blog, but this week it has redeemed itself somewhat with this.

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Underground coal gasification and the Loughor Estuary

Over 250 people attended a public meeting in Burry Port on underground coal gasification (UCG) last Saturday. The event was organised by the local MP, Nia Griffith (Lab) to hear from Cluff Natural Resources about the firm's plans to begin extracting gas from coal reserves offshore under the Loughor Estuary. Algy Cluff had been expected to attend, but did not show up.

By all accounts it was a pretty lively affair.

What is Underground Coal Gasification?

Coal gasification has been around for a long time, and was pioneered by the Soviet Union in the 1930s, but it has never been undertaken on a commercial scale offshore.

Reuters provides some useful background information on the process here:

"In this technology, the coal from deep seams is burned, and the resulting gases are processed. Carbon dioxide and toxic byproducts are separated from gas that is used to generate power and to manufacture industrial chemicals.

The CO2 could be pumped back into the subsea cavities and nearby depleted oil and gas wells, Cluff said.

Burning coal underground and using the gas for power generation produce twice the carbon per megawatt-hour of a conventional gas-fired power plant."

Cluff believes that UCG could be a second North Sea, producing large amounts of gas from commercially unviable coal reserves, while opponents are concerned about the risk to the environment of a process which releases very large quantities of highly toxic chemicals and gases.

According to the Reuters piece which quotes an EU study, the cost of electricity produced by UCG is significantly higher than conventional gas power generation, and that does not include the high cost of carbon capture and storage which the UK government says will be a precondition of any UCG production site.

The Plans for Burry Port and the Loughor Estuary 

In January 2013 the Coal Authority, an arm of the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, awarded an UCG license for the Loughor Estuary to Cluff Natural Resources plc.  Clockwise, the boundary of the area involved starts at Burry Port and goes via Llanelli, Bynea, Llangennech, Hendy, there crossing the Loughor river to Loughor and along the Gower Coast to Penclawdd and as far as Llanmadog (only 5 miles from Rhosili).  It extends over some 42 square kilometres of sea-bed but UCG operations are extremely likely to encroach into locations beneath the towns and villages mentioned.

Loughor Estuary

To proceed with the proposed UCG the company will have to apply for and be granted planning and environmental consents.  Planning consent application will be considered by Swansea City and County Council and Carmarthenshire County Council, and environmental consent by Natural Resources Wales (the Welsh Government’s principal advisor body on the environment since 1 April 2013).

The site at Burry Port is favoured as the gas will have to be refined and burnt onshore as quickly as possible, and the developers feel that the fact that Burry Port has had a power station before, means they have an ideal site to use with little local opposition likely.

A quick glance at any map of the area shows that none of this can be carried out without going through the Millennium Coastal Park, and the likelihood is that there would have to be a gas refinery and power station very close to or actually in the park itself.

It is understood that Cluff's project could produce around 300 mainly unskilled or semi-skilled jobs for local people, with specialist drilling and extraction teams being imported from elsewhere.

The Politics

As we have seen, Cluff Natural Resources was granted a licence by a UK government agency, something which highlights again the fact that under the devolution settlement Wales does not have control over its own natural resources, and that decisions which affect the environment and people of Wales are being taken far away in Whitehall.

Last week the UK Government announced that in future councils would be allowed to keep 100% of business rates derived from fracking operations, rather than 50% previously.

Although fracking is not the same as UCG, the announcement by David Cameron last week shows that in some areas at least government policy can change very quickly, particularly when large and powerful companies are involved.

The sudden change in the rules on fracking raises concerns about conflicts of interest for local authorities which stand to gain significant new revenue in return for favourable planning decisions.

Step forward Carmarthenshire County Council which has a long and inglorious record of pushing through planning applications in which its interests override those of local people. Stradey Park in Llanelli is the best known example, but there are plenty more where that came from.

The county council also has a long and disastrous record of turning a blind eye to pollution in the Burry Inlet, and a council officer who attended the Cluff meeting was reminded of this when he assured incredulous listeners that the council would police pollution and regulation if the scheme went ahead.

Watch out for Kevin Madge rounding on critics later this year as he talks about taking difficult decisions to create jobs, jobs, jobs. No matter what the cost to the environment or the existing communities of Carmarthenshire.

The Labour Party itself seems ambivalent about the scheme. To be fair to Nia Griffith, she did not have to call the meeting, and her aim was probably to highlight the issues involved. Unfortunately, her record is another matter.

In 2011 she voted against a proposal to devolve the Welsh assets of the Crown Estate to the Welsh Government. The Crown Estate owns the territorial seabed.

A couple of weeks ago she joined 26 other Welsh Labour MPs in abstaining on a vote to devolve water to the Assembly, even though Carwyn Jones's government said in its submission to the Silk Commission that it was in favour of these powers being devolved.

Plaid Cymru in Llanelli made its position clear in a press release in August last year. Press releases don't always make for good reading, but this is extremely well written, informative and clear. It is one of the sources used in this blogpost, and it is definitely worth a read.

The press release ends with a 10-point summary of concerns (reproduced below), and many of these were raised during the meeting. Those who attended left feeling that Cluff had not answered them.

The grave objections to permitting UGC in the Loughor Estuary.
  1. It would produce syngas which on burning (as a fuel) would yield very large amounts of the global-warming gas – carbon dioxide – thus contributing to the already alarming global climate change.
  2. As with all underground coal extraction, there is a high risk of subsidence that might well disastrously affect homes and other buildings in a number of the above-mentioned towns and villages.  There is well documented evidence that this has occurred in other parts of the world.
  3. Subsidence could well lead to a catastrophe in the Loughor Estuary due to its risk of rupturing the high-pressure natural gas (197 mile long, 4 feet diameter) pipeline lying beneath south Wales from Milford Haven to Tirley (Gloucestershire), which crosses the Loughor Estuary below water level between Llangennech and Hendy.  An explosion of this pipeline could well cost lives.
  4. The construction of this pipeline some 6 years ago showed how UK governments ride roughshod over the strong objections of local people – in this case almost all the people of south Wales. It also – once again – demonstrated that the UK government can always completely ignore the objections of the people of Wales. After all 82% of MPs represent English constituencies and they are not answerable to the people of Wales.  As such, it is likely that the current UK government will again intervene in the same manner in the case of UCG in the Loughor Estuary.
  5. We are firmly in favour of the responsibility for all the energy produced in Wales being transferred from Westminster to the Welsh Assembly.  Then, all energy decisions in Wales will be made by Assembly Members (AMs).  All AMs represent constituencies in Wales and are directly answerable to the people of Wales and only to them, so that they are far more likely to take heed of the views of our people than MPs in the Westminster Parliament.
  6. The Gower Peninsular was the first area in the UK to be designated “An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty” – in 1956.  There is no doubt that this industrial development – if it proceeds – will desecrate the northern part of the Gower coastline, as well as Llanelli’s Millennium Coastal Park.  As such, it is beyond belief that the Coal Authority has awarded Cluff plc with an UCG license for the Loughor Estuary which itself has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
  7. The development is almost certain to have an adverse effect on the price of houses near the estuary.
  8. It is highly likely to adversely affect the centuries-old cockle beds of the estuary and thereby deprive local cockle pickers of their living.
  9. Who would benefit from this UCG development other than Cluff plc shareholders?  The people of Burry Port, Llanelli, Llangennech or Penclawdd?  Almost certainly not.   What about the people of Wales in general?  Proponents of UCG claim that its development in the Loughor estuary will reduce gas bills in the area.  We are exceedingly sceptical of this claim. Moreover, the people of Wales don’t need this additional energy because well over half the energy currently produced in Wales (mainly electricity) is transported (donated?) to England.  Likewise, the imported natural gas pipeline from Milford Haven that heads for England – bypassing (or under-passing) Wales, which also brings to mind the enormous quantities of virtually free water flowing from Wales to England every day.
  10. There is compelling evidence from other parts of the world that UCG pollutes the underground water table – a totally unacceptable side effect.