Wednesday 21 May 2014

Prize giving day and an end of term report

Carmarthenshire County Council's annual parade of posh frocks, bouquets and silly uniforms, otherwise known as the Annual General Meeting, will be held today. Unless you are interested in seeing what Meryl will be wearing this year (think Cruella Deville meets the Queen Mother with a side-helping of Edna Everidge), you may have better things to do.

If that hasn't put off any potential viewers, Kev will be presenting his very long annual report, of which advance copies have already gone out.

This is of course Kev's side of the story. If he has any regrets, they are too few to mention. True enough, there have been some challenges, mainly of the budgetary kind, he says, but otherwise this is a tale of progress on all fronts.

The year Kevin Madge sees in his rear view mirror is very different to the one most people in Carmarthenshire will remember.

There are some worthwhile regeneration projects, although some of those pre-date Kevin Madge's role as leader by quite a long way. As usual a great deal of emphasis is placed on the council's Modernising Education Programme which is about closing down small schools and building large new ones, but apart from bricks and mortar the report has nothing much to say about what goes on inside them.

Spending tens of millions on a beautiful new campus does not guarantee a good education, and whether it's the Welsh Government's rankings, Estyn inspections or GCSE results, the evidence is that Carmarthenshire is lagging behind quite a few other Welsh local authorities. Ceredigion, Neath Port Talbot and Swansea are performing better on all sorts of measures, and yet Carmarthenshire has joined forces with Pembrokeshire and formalised "a new sub-regional collaborative hub for school improvement". Pembrokeshire's record in education is the envy of no-one.

The scandals and chaos which dominated the news for much of last year are referred to only indirectly. The Wales Audit Office highlighted some "procedural issues" which Kev feels need to be addressed. To that end he has asked the Welsh Local Government Association to conduct a "completely independent review" of the council's democratic structures and procedures.

If you watched the Extraordinary Meeting which discussed the WAO reports, you may remember that Meryl Gravell described the barrister representing Mark James as a "completely independent" source of legal advice. Words have a different meaning inside County Hall.

The problem is that nobody else sees the WLGA as completely independent. Its political arm is dominated by Labour, and its unelected apparatchiks have a long track record of defending the power and privileges of council chief executives and highly paid senior officers. The WLGA opposed moves to curb senior council officer pay, and it is opposed to Carwyn Jones's plans to try to reduce the number of Welsh councils.

There is a very strong hint in Kevin Madge's report that the solution to the problems which have beset the council is a brand new constitution to replace the current set of rules which govern how the council conducts its business.

The existing constitution has been repeatedly amended and patched up over the years, eroding the rights of ordinary elected councillors and handing power to the Executive Board and through them to the Chief Executive who now pretty much controls everything.

Tearing up the existing constitution and starting again sounds attractive, but the document the WLGA is certain to recommend is what is known as the New Model Constitution for local government in Wales. It was drawn up by a gaggle of local government lawyers, and for anyone who has seen some of them in action in council meetings, it will come as no surprise to learn that the results are anything but designed to strengthen democracy, transparency and accountability.

Old Grumpy, otherwise known as Mike Stoddart, the Pembrokeshire County Councillor who has been such a thorn in the side of the ruling Independent mafia on the Western Cleddau, concluded after reading the document that it was so illiberal, it might as well have been drafted by Vladimir Putin.

Carmarthenshire councillors who ask awkward questions have repeatedly been thwarted by a ruling that questions must relate to what is on the published agenda (drawn up and controlled by the chief executive). If the issue is not on the agenda, you may not ask the question, unless it is of the "Would Cllr Madge care to explain why the county has blossomed under his wonderful leadership/" kind.

Even if the subject you are asking about is on the agenda (e.g. the environment), you may find as Cllr Siân Caiach did last year that a question on pollution in the Burry Inlet is ruled inadmissible because it is, er, not on the agenda.

As Old Grumpy points out, under articles 4.19.2 and 4.19.3 of the model constitution

"Questions must, in the opinion of the chair:
(a) contain no expressions of opinion;

(b) relate to matters on which the council has or may determine a policy;
(c) not relate to questions of fact."

Once facts and opinions have been ruled out, there is not much left, and councillors might as well stay at home.

But it does not just stop at questions. Here's Old Grumpy again:

"There are several options in the NMC mainly concerning the issue of whether the councils adopt the strong or weak Leader model.

The present constitution is based on the strong Leader model which gives the leader almost identical powers to an elected mayor - without having to go to the trouble of seeking a county-wide mandate.
One option under the new arrangements is to have an even stronger leader who will be appointed after each election for the full term of the council.

To unseat the Leader will require a two thirds majority on a written Notice of Motion and only one such NoM will be allowed in any rolling twelve-month period.

If I read that correctly, once installed, the Leader could cling on to power even if he only had the support of 21 of the sixty members.

And as the Leader has the power to hire and fire Cabinet members at will, and as the cabinet has almost absolute powers, it is difficult to see how this bears any resemblance to what is traditionally regarded as democracy."

Putin would be proud.

Turning to the Welsh language, Kev welcomes the recent report by the Census Working Group which made over 70 recommendations for change. It would be unrealistic to expect him to list them, but from the 70 he has picked out increasing the provision of Welsh medium education as the most important. Whoever it was that wrote the report (we can be sure it was not Kev) makes no mention whatever of the report's proposals to make Welsh the working language of parts of the council administration, even though that stands out alongside the plans for schools as the most significant change which the council appeared to accept when it adopted the report.

What the report shows is not so much a strong leader, but a leader on a tightrope trying to balance the competing and conflicting demands of those who keep him in power. On the one hand there are the senior officers and "Independents" led in reality by Meryl Gravell, and on the other is the Labour group on the council which is divided between the Llanelli and Ammanford factions and those who cynically favour a strategy of sitting the recent scandals out in the belief that, come election time, people will have forgotten all about them, versus those who want change. If that was not bad enough, Kev also has to contend with the constituency parties and the wider Labour hierarchy which knows from canvassing that what has happened in Carmarthenshire is pure electoral poison.

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