Wednesday 13 August 2014

Fiddling the books

After the row about massive increases in sports charges for council-owned football, rugby and cricket pitches and bowling greens in the south of the county, Carmarthenshire County Council has very belatedly begun a public consultation on its plans, and the first of a series of roadshows took place in Newcastle Emlyn earlier this week.

The Council has a track record of holding consultations on controversial subjects in the summer when people are on holiday or occupied with entertaining their children, and the decision to begin in Newcastle Emlyn which is not effected by the proposals suggests officers were hoping for an easy ride.

They were in for a shock.

Fortunately the various sports clubs here own and maintain their own grounds, but people wanted to know why Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn, the secondary school, was now being asked to pay £100,000 a year to use the leisure centre next door.

Possibly to make the locals feel better, the officers present told them that it wasn't just Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn, but schools in Carmarthen were also being told to pay or stay away.

This was about as well received as a bag of cold sick, not least because the land on which the Newcastle Emlyn leisure centre stands was gifted by the school, the idea being that the school would benefit.

What the council is proposing, then, is to take money out of one pot and put it into another as part of its budget savings programme. If you are wondering how this will save money, it won't. But what it would do is take £100,000 out of the education budget, which the Welsh Government has ring-fenced, and put it into leisure services.

For a council which is obsessed with PR and news management, and a Labour Party which is worried about what massive increases in sports fees and the possible closure of leisure centres are doing to votes, the manipulation of budgets has a lot to recommend it: nobody will notice the loss of a couple of teaching posts, and the press won't report on it, whereas the closure of a leisure centre or massive increases in charges would create uproar.

The Labour Party finds itself in a sticky situation here. This is a Labour run council implementing cuts under a Labour Welsh Government. Normally they would blame the Tory-Lib Dem Government in Westminster, but a few weeks ago Labour's national policy forum met in England (report here) to approve plans to stick to George Osborne's austerity programme.

Calum Higgins, the 20-something barrister who would like to represent us in Westminster, has come up with a cunning plan to deal with this. In a leaflet offering to help people with voter registration, he blames the cuts on Plaid Cymru, which is in opposition, presumably on the assumption that many Labour voters won't know who is actually running the show.

Last week Calum had himself photographed on Shelter's stand at the Eisteddfod, praising their work. He must have forgotten to tell the homelessness charity that last year he voted against proposals to protect people hit by the bedroom tax from eviction.

And finally...

The row about sports charges has been rumbling on for many months now, so if you can't quite remember what it is all about, here is a potted history of the story so far.

Towards the end of last year, and not part of the annual budget setting exercise, Carmarthenshire County Council quietly tried to introduce massive increases in charges for the playing fields and other sports facilities it runs in the south of the county. Unfortunately for the Council, people did notice, and gradually there was a rising groundswell of protest.

Kevin Madge, the council's Labour leader, went to the press to defend his decision, saying that it was all about creating a level playing field.

The protests continued to grow, with local sports clubs saying they would be forced to close, and individuals facing astronomical increases in fees for using bowling greens, etc. In Tumble the village football and rugby clubs were told they would have to pay £1,000 a week to use the grounds. Adults who want to play cricket were told that the charges they have to pay would rise from £49 in 2013/14 to £690 in 2016/17.

Understandably, people wanted to know how these charges had been arrived at. The council stumbled. Kevin Madge continued to maintain that it was all about creating a level playing field.

There was a very heated phone-in on Radio Cymru, and then came news that while all this had been going on, Kevin Madge and colleagues had approved  the renegotiation of a loan to the Scarlets, and given them around £600,000 out of the £850,000 raised by the sale of a plot of council land. Together the two deals  are worth between £1.25 million and £1.5 million to Scarlets Regional Limited.

The Plaid Cymru group asked for the sports charges to be referred to the full council so that the matter could be discussed. Kevin Madge put on a show of fireworks. He was proud of what he had done, how dare they. The ever-reliable acting Head of Law, Mrs Linda Rees-Jones, said the matter could not be discussed as that would mean micro-managing Executive Board decisions.

Then in April Kevin Madge wobbled, presumably at the sight of all those Labour votes going up in smoke.
Whereas just a few short weeks earlier the very idea of letting councillors discuss the increased charges was outrageous, he now said the plan would go out to consultation.

And so, eventually, it came to pass that the Council began its consultation, and in time honoured fashion it was decided to run the exercise during the summer holidays when lots of the people who use the sports facilities will be on holiday or trying to keep their children entertained.

This one is set to run and run.

For anyone interested, a campaign group has been set up to fight the council's plans for pitch fees. Carmarthenshire Unified Sports Committee (CUSC) has its own website (here), and is also on Twitter: @cusctweets.


Anonymous said...

Plaid cymru are in coalition with the Tories on the fire authority, they hacked away at Llanelli fire station and it's all on a recorded vote, as a fire fighter I completely agree that when plaid are in power they hack away with the Tories. Not just hack away, but at the front line. Roy llywellyn (Plaid) thinks it's a great idea that the fire control room is moving to Bridgend (all on camera in the last meeting)... So in short Plaid cuts. The Fire authority has the ability to precept the county whatever it likes so in theory doesn't have to cuts it budget at all, but the plaid Tory coalition go ahead anyway. Utterly appalling.

Anonymous said...


the motion on the bedroom tax never made it to full Council and therefore no back-bencher would ever have had a vote. It was referred to the exec board by Mark James as an 'executive function'. You can try and find the minutes of a vote on the no evictions policy but you wont find it for that reason, Calum like any other Councillor never voted. FACTCHECK

Cneifiwr said...

Fair enough Anon@9.35, but the Executive Board which took the decision to reject the motion is led by Labour, and how many times has Calum voted against the party line?

Redhead said...

An accountant I knew once said "You must understand accountancy is an art and not a science. You tell me what you want to prove and I can prove it - a loss, a profit - all the same to me - I just need to choose the right information for the right job and it's all perfectly legal".

Legal - yes; moral or ethical, no.

Anonymous said...

Not only is this leaflet produced by the Labour candidate factually incorrect but it has also alarmed people who vote regularly into believing that they are not on the electoral register

Cllr Alun Lenny said...

PLEASE NOTE that Calum Higgins' leaflet talks about "Tory/Plaid cuts that are hurting families". So he must be talking about general spending cuts in an attempt to mislead the public by passing the blame on to Plaid. FACTS: The fiscal cuts are drawn up by the ConDem UK Government and passed down via the docile Welsh Labour Government to the Labour-led county council, which is currently implementing service cuts in Carmarthenshire. At all three levels of government, Plaid Cymru is in opposition. Voters would do well to note Labour’s National Policy Forum decision to continue with the ConDem's “tough fiscal policy” if the party is elected next year. In other words, vote Labour – and get more cuts! These are the hard facts, despite Labour’s shameless distortion of the truth in their desperate attempt to gain power.
By the way, my motion for a "no evictions" policy on the bedroom tax was rubbished at the Exec Board meeting by Labour's Tegwen Devichand. Few socialist in County Hall sit on Labour benches.

Anonymous said...

There is no point in pointing out anything on this blog that does not suit the Plaid agenda as Ycyneifwr will merely gloss over anything like that as he did at 0943.

m1books said...

These proposed county charges and cuts must be challenged at all levels. And the chutzpah of leisure services to be attempting to levy such astronomical charges on schools to siphon into their own pot is beyond belief. Young people particularly teenagers are precisely the group that should be encouraged to engage in sporting and leisure activities for their physical and mental health. Hopefully these habits will then continue into adult life reducing obesity and ill-health. Many older people also rely on the social contact that belonging to and supporting a club gives them. Or would Cllr Gravell (regeneration & leisure) rather we all sit in front of daytime TV and become too feeble in brain and body to participate in these wildly expensive pastimes?

Anonymous said...

Just to confirm Uber Plaid Roy Llewellyn {nick name in County Hall - the puppet master - rarely spoke in Chamber but directed Peter Hughes Griffiths -witness who used to sit next to him} was happy to move control room, cut stations . most of plaid in Carmarthenshire are closet right wing language fanatics]

Cneifiwr said...

Anon@16.52 Thanks for that - you gave me the biggest laugh I've had all day. You couldn't be further from the mark. Brilliant!

Anonymous said...

Cllr Lenny:

do you condone the cut to fire fighters in Llanelli that may one day 'hurt my family'? YES or NO?

Plaid Cymru voted to slash the number 'of fire fighters and I wouldn't trust them not to do it elsewhere.

On the comments about Roy Llywelyn: I don't agree that he's a 'puppet master', but he clearly said in the last council meeting that he was more than happy to see the fire control room move to Bridgend. He was chair of the Fire Authority and in the 'coalition' group controlling the authority. In the fire service, Plaid are quite clearly hacking away until they got to Ammanford and someone had a word. These are cuts which will hurt families, so don't try and hide from them.

Anonymous said...

I think the biggest test is yet to come for Labour members of the fire authority.

The fire authority works with the budget it is given. Anon 09:18 is correct to say the authority can instruct councils to give it the budget it wants, but the reality is that the authority takes an average increase or decrease of all councils in mid and west Wales. When times were good the fire budget went up with the average, now times are bad budgets are going down.

It's rumoured that the fire authority will exercise (possibly for the first time ever) its right to tell councils it will not accept the average cut, but that it needs X amount instead.

The problem here for Labour is that they control Carmarthenshire, Swansea and NPT Councils - the three largest contributors to the fire authority budget. How will the Leaders of those councils take their own fire authority members saying they won't take the average cut and they have to find more money from their council budget which is already taking a battering?

The Leader of Swansea Council has form in removing Swansea councillors from the fire authority if they don't suit his agenda. Could we see the same happening in Carmarthenshire to save face for their candidate?

Irrespective of the fire authority matter, the leaflet the Labour candidate is distributing shows that he is willing to say anything to get people to take notice of him. Pitiful, really.

Being a member of the party of government I would have expected Mr Higgins's Agent to have advised him better.

Perhaps he's surrounding himself with the wrong people. Perhaps he is intentionally undermining the integrity of the electorate. Perhaps he's just useless. The voters will soon have their say.

Cneifiwr said...

Interesting and important though the Fire Authority is, this post was about the council's plans to raid school budgets and the farce of sports field charges. Funny that none of the Labour contributors want to talk about that.

From now on, please ensure that comments remain on topic - diversionary tactics will no longer be tolerated.

Anonymous said...

I'm not familiar with how the fire authority works, but I do have some knowledge of the sports fields issue.

I was genuinely surprised at the attitude of labour and independent councillors in trying to bulldoze the price rises through at the start of the year.

If it wasn't for the Plaid Cymru motion then it is likely the decision would have gone through unchallenged.

The Labour First Minister promised to protect spending on education, but now it looks as if schools are going to have to dig deep to pay for sports facilities which they have always had for free leaving a huge dent in the school budget. Whatever happened to education, education, education? Is robbing Peter to pay Paul 'One Nation' thinking?

Cllr Alun Lenny said...

Regarding Anon 20.57 - While not wishing to discount the effects on the Fire Brigade (it was me, after all, who proposed the motion - unanimously passed by full council - to oppose the call centre relocation to Bridgend) I think it's pathetic that Labour should try and fool the public into believing that the truly massive cuts to benefits, services etc affecting thousands of families have something to do with Plaid. But the electorate of Carmarthen East and Dinefwr are intelligent people who'll see through their underhanded tactics.

Anonymous said...

Cneifiwr 22:39

The technical term for this is 'whataboutery'.

The Labour candidtate has murdered his mother.

To which the Labour reply is

But what about the Plaid Canditate caught dropping litter in Upper Tumble in 1964?

Anonymous said...

Funny that I didn't get an answer about my fire station from our plaid councillor. Sports fees bare no comparison to emergency life saving services. I asked yes or no, and I got an answer on sports fees. Pathetic.