Sunday 18 May 2014

The May Council Meeting

The Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, Mark James, was at last back in his accustomed place on the podium for this month's meeting of the full council.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the meeting was that Mr James spoke only once to read out some apologies - apologies for absence rather than a statement of his own contrition, that is. This was a very different chief executive from the pre-Valentine's Day incarnation: councillors were allowed to speak freely, and officers other than Mr James got to dispense their wisdom. But will it last?

Absent friends

There was a rather long roll call of absent councillors this time, including one name which seems to be a permanent fixture on the list of those who haven't turned up. Labour's Councillor Keri Thomas (Tyisha) has not attended one of the council's monthly meetings since September 2013. That's 10 meetings in total, including the meeting held to approve the budget and the extraordinary meeting held to discuss the unlawful pension payments and libel indemnity.

Cllr Thomas was out of action on sick leave for a year from April 2011, but felt well enough to stand in the May 2012 local government elections. He is managing to turn up to meetings of the Planning Committee, and for anyone concerned about the environment and public protection in Carmarthenshire, you will be relieved to hear that Cllr Thomas also usually makes it to meetings of the scrutiny committee which deals with these matters.

The cockles of the Loughor Estuary are safe in his hands, and if you have a rat infestation or a problem with Polish drunks, Keri's your man.


First up was a presentation by Gwilym Dyfri Jones, Provost of the Carmarthen Campus of the University of Wales Trinity Saint Davids, on the decision by S4C to relocate its headquarters to Carmarthen.

The presentation showed how Carmarthen could become a hub for the creative industries, leading to the creation of hundreds of well-paid jobs in Carmarthenshire. It was about much more than relocating jobs from Cardiff.

Councillors were also given a glimpse of what the new headquarters would look like, and one of the most interesting things about it is that it will house a whole range of different activities, not just executive offices.

This is one of the most significant economic and cultural developments in the recent history of the county, and the project was led not by the County Council but the University, although some council officers were involved in the background.

Kevin Madge, who recently spoke movingly and in fluent, natural Welsh when he welcomed the report of the Census Working Group, responded with a brief and confused off-the-cuff waffle, referring in Welsh to "y Welsh language". A few minutes spent before the meeting preparing his response would have made all the difference.

Peter Hughes Griffiths proposed setting up a formal working group of councillors and council officers to work with Egin (the project set up by the University) in a formal partnership.

Strangely nobody in power seems to have thought about that, and Cllr Pam Palmer said this would have to be discussed with the University.

Cllr Glynog Davies (Plaid) welcomed the development, and referred to his part in setting up Tinopolis in Llanelli which had created hundreds of jobs for young people. He also called for the strengthening of ties between the Council and the University.

It was obvious from Glynog's remarks that he has no plans to develop a new political career in the Caernarfon area.

The presentation done with, councillors moved on to the controversy over the proposed relocation of Mid and West Wales Fire's control room from Llangunnor to Bridgend (see previous post).


One of the lessons to be learned from the fiasco at the fire authority meeting is the usefulness of a filmed record of meetings. If proceedings had been recorded it would have been much easier for those taking part to see how a report they thought they were merely noting came, at least in the eyes of the authority's officers, to be approved.

And so councillors turned their attention to a proposal to continue filming meetings of the full council for a further three years.

A number of councillors wanted to see filming extended to meetings of scrutiny committees and the planning committee, but no formal proposal was made and it remains to be seen whether these suggestions are taken up by the Executive Board. Pam Palmer, never a fan of filming from the word go, thought there could be problems.

Opinion was also divided as to whether or not the public should be allowed to film. Common sense suggests that nobody in the right minds would want to film a meeting on a mobile phone or other device if a professional and full recording is available, and the empty public gallery at Wednesday's meeting was testament to that.

Cllr Bill Thomas (Lab) hit the nail on the head when he stressed the importance of filming meetings of the planning committee because there had been instances where councillors had not reflected the views of the people they were elected to represent on controversial planning applications.

The fact that a meeting is held in camera does not mean that it needs to be off camera. Given the sensitive nature of most of these closed meetings (discussions on public lavatories aside), and the fact that decisions made at them are often controversial, it is as much in the interests of those taking part that a filmed record is made as it is in the interests of the wider public.

A filmed record of Carmarthenshire's Executive Board meetings would, for have example, have helped jog the chief executive's memory when he told the High Court in London that he could not remember whether he was present when the board awarded him an indemnity in the libel case.

The worst outcome would be a situation where meetings of planning and scrutiny committees are not filmed by the council, and a ban on filming by members of the public remains in place.

Solar farms

Cllr Linda Evans (Plaid, Llanfihangel ar Arth) raised concerns about plans announced by the Executive Board to develop solar farms on council-owned land. It turns out that some of the land involved is the council's own farms, and Cllr Philip Hughes (Ind) said that a number of tenants had been given notice by the council to quit in order, it seems, to make way for solar panels.

Cllr Evans said that council-owned farms were crucial to giving young people an opportunity to take a first step on the ladder in farming, and she pointed out that the UK Government is taking a dim view of large solar farm developments which are subsidised through the electricity bills paid by the rest of us. Cllr Alun Lenny quoted a report which suggested that the subsidy scheme could come to an end next year.

Replying, Kevin Madge said that the council saw this as an opportunity to create a new revenue stream. Cllr Jeff Edmunds (Lab) subsequently tried to soften his master's message by saying that the council was looking hard at the matter, and it would only affect possibly 6 of the council's 27 farms.

So there we are, families being turned out of their homes, farmland being turned over to acres of solar panels, opportunities for young people to get into farming being lost and higher electricity bills for the rest of us. It's a win-win situation.

Rosa Klebb

Cllr Darren Price (Plaid) raised concerns about the continuing practice of making anonymous and often highly contentious statements to the press by a "council spokesperson/spokeswoman". Being a gentleman, Cllr Price did not hazard a guess at the identity of the spokeswoman, but she was probably seated not far away and looking daggers.

As Cllr Price pointed out, the council's own press protocol says that all statements will be attributed to a named spokesperson from the Press Office, an officer or councillor.

The most recent example of the behaviour Cllr Price was complaining about came a couple of weeks ago when there was a call from Jonathan Edwards MP for the chief executive to pay back the money he had received, in what the Wales Audit Office deemed were unlawful payments.

Now was not the time to ask Mr James to cough up, Ms Anon told the press, claiming to speak on behalf of the whole council.

If this continued, Cllr Price warned, he would ask for disciplinary measures to be taken.

Dumbing down

The final controversy of the day concerned the imminent closure of the adult education centre in Llandeilo. Cllr Edward Thomas (Ind) may have spoken before in a council meeting since he was elected two years ago, but if so nobody can remember it.

He complained about the lack of consultation (a complaint which had come up in several other contexts during the morning), and seemed slightly despairing that he would get an answer.

He need not have worried because Robert Sully, the Director of Education, was on hand to explain. Unfortunately the answer, boiled down, was that the closure will go ahead anyway and there is no need for consultation.

In essence the County Council has decided to hand responsibility for adult education courses, except for Welsh for Adults, over to Coleg Sir Gâr, although Mr Sully hinted that this may result in a much reduced offering of classes in art, computer skills, needlework, etc.

Welsh for Adults was different, and was currently undergoing a review by the Welsh Government.

Actually, that is not strictly correct. Leighton Andrews set up a group to look into reform of Welsh for Adults when he was still running education in Wales, and the group reported back last year. The Welsh Government accepted nearly all of the findings, and things are now moving slowly forward with the expectation that the new set-up should be in place by mid 2015.

What is not yet clear is who will be providing courses in Welsh for Adults. The likelihood is that the number of providers will be at least halved to around 10 across the whole of Wales, and any bodies interested will be expected to make a pitch for business. In the meantime the Welsh Government has helpfully cut the budget by 8%.

It is not clear whether the County Council intends to tender to become a provider in the future, although Chris Burns, the assistant chief executive (or rather one of them) recently told another meeting of councillors that he was working on plans to attract many more learners to classes.

Currently Welsh for Adults in Carmarthenshire is provided by a combination of the County Council and Swansea University, operating together as a centre which also provides Welsh classes in other areas, including Pembrokeshire, Swansea and Neath Port Talbot.

It is fair to say that the current arrangement has not been an unqualified success across Wales for various reasons, with heavy-handed government bureaucracy playing a part. In Carmarthenshire the lop-sided nature of the set-up has meant that rural areas have lost out to the big urban centres, and the last few years have seen a big reduction in the number of classes available in the most linguistically sensitive areas.

So there we are, not the most thrilling of meetings, but one which aired a lot of concerns about a whole range of matters affecting ordinary residents with some fairly good debate. Just the sort of meeting which the chief executive wanted to scrap in favour of Powerpoint presentations by tame guest speakers before all that unpleasant business earlier this year.


passerby said...

if a councillor fails to attend any meeting of the Council or one of its committees or other bodies upon which the councillor represents the Council without the Council having given its authorisation for a longer absence before the end of the six months, then the seat becomes vacant.

end of the day, a councillor is not really obligated to attend meetings as such on a regular basis, but 'should' as a matter of respect for the public, but there is not rule stating that a councillor has to attend every meeting.. but should attend when a member of a committee especially when there is a vote.

acceptance of apologies is taken aboard so it's up to that council how they decide what is acceptable or not

Cneifiwr said...

I think you are right Passerby, but to clarify...They must attend at least one meeting in 6 months (Cllr Thomas has been attending committee meetings). Even if they don't, the Chief Executive can give dispensation for absence, and that is how Cllr Thomas previously managed to take a year off.

All within the rules, although whether this is really representing the people who elected you is quite another matter.

Nobody can help being ill, but it's also the case that most of us would stand down if we were unable to do the job we were elected to carry out for such a long period.

As Cllr Thomas was nominated by the Labour Party to stand, and also nominated to sit on important committees, you have to wonder how much thought they gave to the interests of the voters in all this.

Redhead said...

Check what they mean by "meetings" in the constitution - it could mean only full council meetings to which councillors are "summonsed" rather than committee meetings to which they are "invited to attend". If it is summonsed and the minutes do not record a reason for absence (or the authorisation does not cover it) he may be in breach.