Friday 12 September 2014

September Council Meeting - Cor Blimey, Guv'nor

After two months off, we were back with a bang and a reminder why Carmarthenshire has become such a watchword for dire local government in Wales.

An embarrassment

If you thought that Ivor Jackson (Ind) had set an unbeatable record for the worst Chair of Council ever, you reckoned without Daff Davies whose performance was one of toe curling embarrassment.

His first major challenge was to read a short piece about what he had been up to as chair over the summer months. He stumbled, stopped, started again, paused, garbled and bungled. He repeatedly forgot to switch on his microphone, so that the meeting was punctuated by periods of silence for viewers of the webcast. When questions of procedure arose, nobody for a second even thought to consult the chair even though he is supposed to be the expert. He made jokes which amused nobody but himself, groaned and moaned when councillors asked to speak on different subjects, and several times thought it was hilarious that two councillors (Sian Caiach and Bill Thomas) felt so strongly about pollution of the Burry Inlet that they declared an interest and left the chamber when planning issues came up.

The sad thing is that nobody on the Independent or Labour benches seems to think that putting Cllr Davies in the chair is in any way a poor reflection on the Council as a whole. It was Buggins' turn, and that's that, and now he is officially the public face of Carmarthenshire.

His own local community council in Llansteffan showed what it thought recently when it passed a vote of no confidence in him as chair.

Not that the Chief Executive acquitted himself much better. When Cllr Caiach was told to write to the Council Leader, Kevin Madge, about the pollution and she said she would, Mr James could clearly be heard off-mike saying "that's something to look forward to".

A breathing space

The first piece of business was about changes to the rules governing senior appointments. In future, the Welsh Government has decided, senior officers may only be appointed on an interim basis for a period not exceeding one year. Second, the Head of Paid Service (the Chief Executive) will no longer have the power to dismiss the Monitoring Officer or Head of Democratic Services. Any attempt to dismiss the person in that role will have to go to a committee, which it turns out does not actually exist.

Ironically, it fell to Mrs Linda Rees Jones to answer questions on these changes. She confirmed that interim appointments, such as her own, could only be made once off for a period of up to 12 months. This was needed, she explained, to give local authorities a breathing space while they made up their minds. In her own case, the breathing space has been three years.

Any Questions?

We were next faced with the novelty of questions to members of the Executive Board. But first Emlyn Dole (Plaid) wanted to know if supplementary questions would be allowed.

No, came the answer.

Fortunately Cllr Dole came well prepared. Turning to the constitution he pointed out that members of the public are allowed to ask both questions and supplementaries. So why are councillors not allowed supplementaries? The constitution did not say they were not allowed; in fact, it had nothing to say on the subject.

A fundamental principle of the law in Wales (and England) is that if something is not forbidden, it is allowed.  A characteristic of dictatorships, it is said, is when everything which is not expressly allowed is forbidden.

Guess what. In Carmarthenshire supplementary questions are forbidden because they are not expressly allowed. Just as filming by the public was forbidden because nobody had ever said it was allowed.

Appeals to common sense (why would the public be allowed supplementary questions, but councillors not?) and old-fashioned fair play fell on deaf ears. Mr James was not budging.

Cllr Alun Lenny asked why the Labour/Independent administration led by Kevin Madge (Lab) had reneged on a promise not to introduce car parking charges for blue badge holders.

There are 16,500 blue badge holders in Carmarthenshire, and one of the key pledges in Labour's manifesto just two short years ago was that there would be no charges.

Cue four and a half minutes of waffle from Kevin Madge. The short version was "everybody else is doing it, and so we thought we would too".

Next was an interest free loan to Llanelly House. It turned out that although the council had been prepared to loan the money on certain conditions, the conditions had not been met, and so there had been no loan.

The last time this came up in 2013, the Chief Executive refused point blank to allow the question because it was not on the agenda. Whether he refused out of sheer bloody-mindedness, we will never know, but there seems to be no reason why he should have been so secretive about it.

Cllr Mansel Charles (Plaid) wanted to know why the council was insisting that people may only put out rubbish bags for collection after 6pm the night before. In the winter this could be dangerous for elderly people having to go out in the dark in sometimes slippery conditions.

Replying, Cllr Colin Evans (Lab) had no sympathy whatsoever. He began with a barbed comment about some Executive Board members being more used to answering questions than others, before going on to refer to Wales as a "principality" (which it is not).

His answer was no more use than the contents of those black bags.

It was not clear who Cllr Evans was referring to when he spoke about some board members being less experienced at answering questions, but unless he was criticising Kevin Madge (unlikely), it would seem that the jibe was aimed at Cllr Jeff Edmunds (Lab), who had given a very clear and exemplary answer about Llanelly House that was free of political tribalism.

In answer to the next question, Kevin Madge revealed that the council had paid £26,800 for the services of Tim Kerr QC (that was to defend the unlawful pension and libel indemnity payments).

A 16 second answer, with no further questions allowed.

A Stock Market Collapse

A few minutes later Kev was back on his feet whipping himself into a manufactured frenzy about the implications of Scottish independence for the financial markets.

Anyone seeking financial advice would be well advised not to ask Cllr Madge who reckoned that investors were pulling their money out of Scotland, and that there could be a stock market collapse in the event of a yes vote.

Judging from the synchronised head nodding on the Labour benches, this was a script from Labour HQ sent out to coincide with Mr Milliband's trip with his Tory chums up to Scotland. As we now know, the headlines Kev was referring to turned out to be a lot of manufactured hot air and recycled press releases, a subject Kev knows rather more about than the financial markets.

Budget Shock

We didn't have to wait long to see an example of Kev's idea of prudent finance - just a few minutes, in fact. One of the big promises in his manifesto - apart from not bringing in charges for blue badge holders - was that he was going to start building council houses again. To hear him talk, you would think that new estates were springing up everywhere, whereas all we have so far is a handful of old people's bungalows in Llanelli and Kidwelly.

Councillors were presented with a report which showed that there had been a budget overrun of £100,000 on this development. Cllr Tegwen Devichand blamed it on problems with land stability, whereas Robin Staines, Head of Housing Services (cor blimey, guv'nor), said it was all a budget technicality. Strangely, a report dated 16 September 2013 said that the bungalow project had incurred additional costs of £511,000.

After an intervention by Cllr Winston Lemon who asked about the tender process for the bungalows, Mr Staines said there had been a tender process within the council's contractor framework. In plain English, then, this was not a competitive tender process in the normal sense, but one limited to a small number of preferred "partners". Lessons had been learned, he said, and the council would be reviewing specifications, etc.

Perhaps the overrun was not a budget technicality after all, but either way these are without a doubt the most expensive small bungalows ever built in Carmarthenshire.

Someone has made a great deal of money out of it.

Speaking of which, Cllr Winston Lemon (Plaid) wanted to know why there were plans to build yet more office space on a brownfield site adjacent to North Dock in Llanelli when there was a desperate need for affordable housing. The office space in North Dock (see Management speak for a possible explanation) was still empty four years after completion.

Mr Staines said that there was a shortfall of 2,000 affordable homes in the county and appeared anxious to see more. Perhaps he should have explained why in that case the council in its latest version of the Local Development Plan had decided to cut the allocations for affordable housing.

A Barrier

This just left one final great mystery. In the minutes of a recent Executive Board meeting the subject of the council's Welsh in Education Strategic Plan 2014-17 had come up.

Bearing in mind the council's declared new-found respect for the Welsh language, the minutes contained the following sentence:

"Whilst recognising the importance of securing the future of the Welsh language, concern was expressed that it should not become a barrier to attracting overseas investors."

What evidence was there to suggest that the Welsh language was a barrier to overseas investors, councillors wanted to know. 


Who had made these remarks?


This continued for some while. Someone had expressed these "concerns", but in the newly open and transparent Carmarthenshire, nobody was prepared to own up.  

You don't need to be Miss Marple to work out that the prime suspect is Cllr Meryl Gravell, who unfortunately had better things to do than attend the meeting.

This was followed by one of those bizarre procedural wrangles that we are so used to in Carmarthenshire. Minutes are like holy writ. They cannot be altered. So could councillors express a view on them? No, said Mrs Rees Jones and the Chief Executive.

Councillors are there to receive what is put before them, and that's that. Express an opinion? Whatever next?

The next meeting of the full council is scheduled for 8 October when, it is expected, the WLGA Review Panel will present its findings and recommendations on governance. Let's hope that they were watching this latest masterclass.  


Anonymous said...

Has anyone explored the question of whether the constitution allows for the Chief Executive to take any part in meetings where has failed to arrange to be naked and painted blue like a smurf in advance?

I mean, if it's not in the constitution that he can take part in meetings when he's failed to do that, how can he possibly do so?

(Unless of course we have "rules" being thrown up at the drop of a hat for the convenience of officers, and a body of councillors too weak to do anything about it...)

Redhead said...

Councillors being treated worse than the public: surely a human rights issue!

It's amazing how many councillors and officers use the "you can't do that because there is nowhere in the Constitution that says you can". or, when it suits them better, the "you can do that because there's nowhere in the Constitution that says you can't".

It begs the question: what is the point of a Constitution.

Many small councils begin their meetings by suspending Standing Orders" (and thereby their Constitution) so that anyone can chip in any time. It is totally legal to do so.

But it takes a belief in the democratic process to let this happen.

Anonymous said...

Have any of you such dissatisfied council tax payers ever thought of moving? You could watch all the webcasts of Council meetings and when you find one you like, you could move there!

Anonymous said...

Anon 21.46 ... love it!

Cneifiwr, not like you to be complimentary about Labour councillors and yet you seem to like Cllr Jeff Edmunds? Is it because when poor bumbling Kev eventually goes (with more knives in his back than his front) Cllr Edmunds is the next Labour leader in waiting and that he is rumoured to favour a Labour Plaid coalition? Power at last ......

Cneifiwr said...

Anon@8.06 I think your conspiracy theories are running away with you. Jeff Edmunds disclosed the terms of the Marstons deal, for which he deserves praise, and he has risen in my estimation ever since.

His answer this week was clear and straight, with no game playing.

Colin Evans is a very capable man too, just a pity that he has to be so tribal. His speech this week did not do him credit.

You may also have spotted that I have a lot of time for Bill Thomas.

There! I have been quite nice to 3 Labour councillors. Time for a lie down.