Wednesday 23 April 2014

Accountability and a round of bullshit bingo - Updated

The Executive Board of Carmarthenshire County Council will meet on Monday to consider a huge raft of proposals ranging from reviews of charges for sports grounds and plans for a council-owned solar farm, to a "pledge" to make the world a better place in collaboration with the University of Wales Trinity Saint Davids.

One man, one vote

Buried in the small mountain of reports before them is a recommendation made by the Wales Audit Office that the council should "consider how to improve elected members' contribution to the development and scrutiny of the Council's Key Improvement Objective Priorities and Improvement Plan".

In rather less diplomatic language what that means is that the WAO came to the conclusion that democracy in Carmarthenshire has lost out in the council's relentless march to establishing a miniature version of Putin's Russia on the banks of the Tywi.

Back in November a seminar of councillors made a number of suggestions for improving governance, transparency and openness, and as a result it is recommended that what might be termed a rediscovery of the virtues of democratic accountability should be written into the council's objectives for 2014-15.

What those suggestions were we are not told, but the seminar in November 2013 took place as the storm clouds were only just beginning to gather in the crisis which was to engulf the council earlier this year, and it is likely that any seminar held now would press for rather more urgent action.

The release last week of documents which show that the chief executive over-ruled the Director of Resources and Head of Commercial Property to give the Scarlets the lion's share of proceeds from the sale of land in Llanelli to Marstons illustrates vividly how governance in Carmarthenshire came to mean the whim of the chief executive, shrouded in secrecy and spin.

The Western Mail reports on the deal in a piece today (not yet available online), and says that the WAO has been asked to investigate. Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM wonders why elected members were not consulted, and how one officer could apparently insist that the deal proceed on terms which other senior officers had strongly objected to.



The Scarlets/Marstons story has now made it to the Western Mail website and is covered by the Carmarthen Journal.


This blog will shortly report on another deal which raises even more questions about governance and just who has benefited from some of the council's decisions.

But back to Monday's meeting of the Executive Board.


The Board will decide to freeze the introduction of dramatic increases for the use of sports facilities in the south of the county while entering into "wide ranging and meaningful" discussion with those affected.

At the time (November 2013) the charges were introduced without consultation, and the acting Head of Administration and Law (Mrs Linda Rees Jones) dismissed calls by Peter Hughes Griffiths to allow councillors to review the plan as an attempt to "micro-manage" Executive Board decisions.

Mrs Rees Jones has a dual role as Monitoring Officer, responsible for overseeing the democratic process, and the council's top legal officer. In a (leaked) e-mail to the chief executive a couple of years ago the manager of the council's press office opined that councillors who had questioned this arrangement and the independence of the Monitoring Officer and Council Chair might be guilty of slander, and that any newspapers which printed their outrageous views might be guilty of libel.

More accountability

Also on the agenda is another piece of back-tracking in the form of a review of the decision taken in February to abolish trade union facilitation time.

The policy will now be put on hold for six months while a review is carried out. Part of the review will consist of a bureaucratic time and motion study in which union officials will be required to complete "request for time off proformas". This is apparently in response to intervention by unnamed members (of the Board) who were worried that there was a lack of accountability in current arrangements enabling union representatives to support staff.

No prizes for guessing who raised those concerns, and note the ironic use of the term "accountability".


The one year pilot to broadcast council meetings has come to an end, and the Executive Board will have to decide whether to continue for a further period or scrap broadcasts. There is £32,000 of Welsh Government money left in the kitty to pay for a continuation, and a further £28,000 would pay for the service for the next five years.

Making the world a better place

The county council and the University of Wales Trinity Saint Davids (UWTSD) have worked together for years as members of the Local Service Board, and so you would think that they have a rough idea of what their respective responsibilities are.

Not so, it seems, because the council's chief executive has had discussions with the Vice Chancellor to identify their various objectives with a view to signing a "pledge" to work together in a number of areas.

It must have been a fairly lengthy meeting because the outcome is a report loaded with very vague but highly aspirational outcomes, such as:

Sustainable Development: The partners will commit to providing strong community leadership for sustainable development in Carmarthenshire.

Anti Poverty, Tourism and Economic and Community Development: The partners will support co-operation between companies and institutions to develop initiatives designed to benefit economic development within Carmarthenshire and the broader city region. 

Aficionados of "bullshit bingo" will recognise that two masters of the game were at work here, with maximum point scores for the inclusion of the words "sustainable, community, commit, development, leadership and strong" in a single short sentence.

Two senior staff will be appointed to liaise and cooperate in "pledge development", reporting back to their bosses once every six months.

Solar Power

Continuing the theme of sustainability, the Board will consider a report recommending that the council goes into business as a solar farm operator. No specific scheme has been identified yet, but officers reckon that it could all be financed by borrowing, and would be cash positive in three to four years.

One of the council's preferred contractors (unnamed) has provided a break down of costs likely to be incurred, and the next step will be to identify a site and draw up detailed proposals.

To date Cornwall County Council is the only local authority in the UK to have taken the plunge, but Wrexham and Telford and Wrekin councils are looking into similar schemes.

The council has also looked at setting up wind turbines on council-owned land, but has been unable to identify any potential sites which are at least 1.5 kilometres from the nearest house. 

Accountability in Education 

One of the proposals with the most far-reaching consequences concerns setting up a new body to manage education across the counties of Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Powys, Pembrokeshire, Swansea and Neath Port Talbot.

The arrangements are highly complex, and involve creating a joint committee of senior councillors (either the council leaders or the cabinet member responsible for education). The committee will then delegate responsibility to a large new Executive Board made up of a Managing Director, the directors of education of the participating authorities (or their representatives), one member of the Joint Committee, a Welsh Government observer and up to five appointees taken from a list put together by the Welsh Local Government Association and the Welsh Government.

The six participating councils will then come together to form three "educational hubs", with Carmarthenshire joining forces with Pembrokeshire. 

When it comes to education, Pembrokeshire would not be high up on most people's lists of preferred partners. But then Carmarthenshire's record in recent years is not exactly the envy of Wales either.

So where we started with signs that councillors in Carmarthenshire want to reassert their authority and have more of a say in the running of the council, we end with a new bureaucratic body which will take responsibility for education away from locally elected representatives and place it in a thicket of hubs, committees and executive boards.


Anonymous said...

Solar power predictions:
1. The cost estimates will involve variables which can only be guessed at with varying degrees of confidence, and the Council's officers will adopt the lowest cost predictions.
2. The income generation will be based on variables which can only be guessed at with varying degrees of confidence, and the Council's officers will adopt the rosiest of possible outcomes.
3. The costs will be higher and the income will be lower.
4. The scheme will flop.
5. The preferred contractor will get richer.
6. The Council's PR department will try to bathe the Council in a "green" halo (for a while at least).
7. The Council will wonder what to do with an expensive white elephant - sorry, redundant brownfield site in the middle of nowhere.
8. It will grant itself (or a preferred bidder) planning permission for housing development.

What could be more sustainable that that?

Blodwen said...

The two newspaper articles relating to the division of proceeds between the Scarlets and the Council printed in the Western Mail and the Carmarthen Journal would make an excellent "compare and contrast" exam question. Amazing, but not unexpected, to read the council's press office version in the Journal compared with the factual account in the Western Mail.

Anonymous said...

Would the council's unnamed "preferred contractor" for solar power be Dragon Fuels by any chance?

Anonymous said...

Education reform - the key drivers are costs and standards. You can drive down costs if you don't have to worry about local issues like the closure of rural schools. And they won't have to worry about them, because any local representation on the Board (if there is any) will easily be out-voted by others who don't care a fig about things like the Welsh language, freedom of choice, long journey times and community in places they have never heard of, never mind where they might have to face the wrath of a seething electorate.
As education is such a big chunk of the County's budget, and as the power is being devolved to others, will we see a reduction in the salaries paid to the Chief Exec and the Director of Education to reflect this massive reduction in responsibility?