Sunday 30 November 2014

Stocking fillers

Cllr Meryl Gravell, who draws a senior salary of £28,780 in her capacity as member of the council's Executive Board, has been unable to attend meetings of the full council since July, but it is pleasing to report that she has been able to find time for other more important matters, including recent appearances with Welsh Government Minister Ken Skates at Newton House in Llandeilo where the pair was accompanied by someone dressed as a medieval knight, and a photo opportunity with Sir Terry Matthews, the billionaire chair of the Swansea Bay City Region Bay. Sir Terry had apparently popped in to gaze approvingly at all the grants Meryl has been dishing out to speculative ventures in Cross Hands.

Sir Terry Matthews with Carmarthenshire County Council executive board member for regeneration and leisure Cllr. Meryl Gravell. Pic Jeff Connell

The latest grant of £459,000 went to a newly formed company called Enzo's Lettings Limited, and the council is keen to let us know that the money was awarded after a due diligence check by the Welsh Government, whose track record in such matters (Awema) should put all our minds at rest.

While not attending to council PR work, Cllr Gravell has found time to write a book chronicling the history of Trimsaran WI.

The title, "50 Shades of Trimsaran WI", suggests that members do rather more than make jam and sing about England's green and pleasant land. Bearing that in mind, any bookshops and newsagents planning to sell it would probably be well advised to put it on the top shelf.

 Unfortunately, it is too late to nip along to Llanelli Library for the book launch where Meryl was signing copies in the company of veteran broadcaster Roy Noble, for whom this must have been a new career high.

Let's hope that no killjoy members of Cylch yr Iaith spoil the celebrations by complaining about the dodgy Welsh grammar used on the poster.

Meryl was less than flattering in her views about the standard of Welsh spoken by pupils of Ysgol y Strade at a council meeting earlier this year, but perhaps she should have consulted them about her mutations.

Saturday 29 November 2014

Keeping up with the Parry-Jones's

Twitter was buzzing last night after the BBC reported that the former chief executive of Pembrokeshire County Council, Bryn Parry-Jones, was given a £90,000 Porsche Panamera as his runabout.

It took 8 months for Aled Scourfield to get the council to disclose the information in response to his freedom of information requests, with the council blocking earlier attempts by arguing that the information was private and exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

The image the council would like to portray to the outside world is one of impartial council officers wanting to be open and transparent, carefully weighing up the legal pros and cons, but regretfully having to reject FOIs because they were hamstrung by the legislation.

A more likely explanation is that, just like neighbouring Carmarthenshire, freedom of information requests are handled by the chief executive's department in Haverfordwest, and it was Bryn Parry-Jones who got to decide what information could and could not be disclosed.

So congratulations to Aled for persisting with his investigation, although the existence of the Porsche has been known for quite a long time. The Pembrokeshire Herald reported earlier this year that the council was paying insurance on a Porsche Panamera which had been designated as a family car for the use of the Parry-Jones's.

There are as far as we know no Porsches on the books of Carmarthenshire County Council, but anyone going to County Hall in Carmarthen will have been struck by the row of gleaming Mercs, BMWs and other luxury cars parked in the VIP slots either side of the main entrance.

Any FOI requests asking impertinent questions about the chief executive's choice of vehicle are likely to suffer the same fate as the BBC's earlier attempts, but thanks to an FOI request from a member of the public a couple of years ago, we know that vehicles leased by the council at the time included several luxury cars - a Jaguar, a couple of Mercedes and some very nice (and expensive) Volkswagens among them.

The balance of probability is that these vehicles were not for the use of dinner ladies.

As Kevin Madge never fails to remind us, these are 'ard times, so perhaps it is time for another FOI on the council's car fleet to see if there has been any noticeable belt tightening.

A trip to County Hall would suggest that it is still very much business as usual.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Corporate vandalism

Times are a' changing on the high street. Household names which we all grew up with, such as Woolworths, are no more, and there is a growing likelihood that there will be a shakeout among the big four supermarkets which for so long have been accustomed to getting whatever they wanted, helped along by government and naive and fearful councils.

Sainsbury's recently announced in a roundabout sort of way that they would not be going ahead with plans for a new superstore in Cardigan, despite previous repeated assurances from their top men that everything was on track.

Now there are question marks over their plans for a new store in Cross Hands, as you can read in this week's sizzling South Wales Guardian.

Just as in Cardigan the store group has been saying that everything was fine, and just as in Cardigan the development includes a new health centre and petrol station. Now it seems that the store group is reviewing the project.

Kevin Madge, whose reverse Midas touch is becoming legendary, reckons it's a done deal, and he must be praying that it will go ahead because he invested a lot of political capital in this scheme, including the notorious Sainsbury's press release fiasco (see here for a potted history).

Sainsbury's legacy in Cardigan is nothing short of a scandal. The controversial scheme divided the town and caused massive disruption while the site was being prepared. A gigantic earthwork was constructed for the supermarket, a lot of trees were felled and an extensive new road system put in. The entire site is now abandoned and desolate, a monument to corporate greed and local government stupidity.

Less than a mile away stands the town's existing Tesco store which responded to Sainsbury's plans with its own ambitious expansion scheme. Nothing to do with the threatened opening of Sainsbury's of course, just a vote of confidence in this small west Wales market town.

Purely by coincidence, Tesco's expansion plans also appear to have been quietly shelved, the unofficial word being that the site suffers from stability problems - just like the proposed Sainsbury's site, in fact. Cynics might think that Sainsbury's no-show has more to do with it.

Either way, the two supermarket groups have behaved like rival bands of gangsters, battling for control over the town, dividing the community, wasting millions of pounds of somebody's money and then heading off back east, leaving what has to be one of the biggest cases of corporate vandalism ever seen in this part of the world.

Tuesday 25 November 2014

Carmarthenshire in numbers

£28,000 - the amount spent by Carmarthenshire County Council on the services of Mr Tim Kerr QC defending the unlawful pensions and libel indemnity payments to chief executive Mark James.

On 8 October 2014 Kevin Madge said, "I am satisfied that the expenditure was both reasonable and necessary", although the council begrudgingly accepted the Wales Audit Office's findings.

£32,000 - the amount of grant to be cut to Women's Aid to help victims of domestic violence under budget proposals approved by Kevin Madge, Pam Palmer and other members of the council's Executive Board at a meeting on 17 November 2014.

24 November - Kevin Madge and Pam Palmer join a march through Carmarthen in support of the White Ribbon campaign to end violence to women.

Monday 24 November 2014

It's official - Swansea is crap

This coming Friday is the deadline for Welsh councils to agree voluntary mergers, and so far only four of the 22 have agreed in principle that they would like to get together (Conwy with Denbighshire and Bridgend with the Vale of Glamorgan).

Leighton Andrews, metaphorically wearing his leather jacket and tapping one hand with a baseball bat, has indicated that he might decide to go even further than the Williams Commission and cut the number down to just six.

Under the Williams proposals, Carmarthenshire could remain as a standalone authority, but it would then become one of the smallest Welsh councils. The other option would be for it to merge with Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion to create Dyfed Mark II, but as this blog noted recently, Swansea has been casting covetous eyes on the southern bit of Carmarthenshire, and would like to create a new, overwhelmingly urban authority taking in Swansea itself, Llanelli, Neath Port Talbot and the Swansea Valley.

Rump Carmarthenshire, i.e. the remaining bits, would then have no choice but to throw its lot in with Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire - no bad thing perhaps.

Not only would the expanded Swansea exist within what its councillors regard as the city's natural boundaries, but the new authority would to all intents and purposes put flesh and bones on the rather amorphous concept which is Swansea Bay City Region, that curious quango-like beast which is half planning committee and half chamber of commerce.

Swansea Bay City Region as it is currently set up also takes in the rest of Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, although what the benefits are for most of that large rural hinterland is not at all clear.

After conferences and municipal shindigs galore, Swansea Bay City Region board finally settled down to its first meeting - in Port Talbot - last week.

The event was presided over by Sir Terry Matthews, Wales's answer to Alan Sugar (sorry, Lord Sugar), and by all accounts it was a very big affair with all sorts of representatives invited along to watch the show.

If anyone went along with the belief that Swansea Bay City Region was about west Wales, the meeting put matters straight. The clue has always been in the name, and the invitees were told it had been decided that all those lovely EU grants and other spare public dosh would in future flow to Swansea.

Carmarthen was said to be doing well enough not to need any more help, but Swansea was "crap" (the actual word used, it is said), and needed all the money.

Saturday 22 November 2014

Ed Miliband's White Van

One thing guaranteed to annoy voters is when politicians engage in pointless point scoring.

Calum Higgins, Labour's great hope for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, was wheeled out by Labour's spin doctors to front one such attack on Plaid this week.

Leanne Wood had said that Plaid Cymru would not prop up a minority Tory government after the next election.

Perhaps they might, said Calum. They haven't ruled it out, huffed Calum (or whoever was writing the script). They are totally discredited, puffed Calum. And much more of the same as he ranted for several paragraphs about nationalists.

In the middle of this, Calum did what Labour has been careful to avoid doing - he mentioned Ukip. Specifically, he suggested that Plaid Cymru needed to worry about Ukip.

A few days after Calum had conveyed the thoughts of Labour HQ to the Western Mail, Labour slumped to third place in the Rochester by election and saw its vote halved. Until the 2010 general election the seat had been held for Labour by Bob Marshall Andrews (on slightly different boundaries).

In his victory speech, Mark Reckless made it clear that he and Ukip would now be going after the Labour vote.

Back home, Calum will remember that in May of this year Labour came third in the poll for the European elections in Carmarthenshire, with Plaid in first place and Ukip in second.

Labour has been incredibly slow to wake up to Ukip, probably because it believed that this was just a turf war between two parties on the right and that Labour would benefit as a result. So Labour's response has been to keep quiet while joining in the arms war of proposals to crack down on foreigners.

Let's employ loads more border guards. Let's charge foreigners who want to come to Britain. Let's find ever dafter ways of targeting one-legged Bulgarians and Polish plumbers, even though all the evidence shows that European migrants contribute more in taxes and take out less in benefits than holders of UK passports.

There is a long history of this in Britain. A hundred years ago popular newspapers were reporting that Russians had been seen in central London with snow on their boots. There were anti-German pogroms in the First World War, with attacks on people who were suspected, often wrongly, of being German.

In one of the poshest parts of London German Street was renamed Jermyn Street. A change of spelling made everything all right.

In the 1950s and 1960s landlords would advertise rooms for rent, but "No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs". Last night a woman wearing a Ukip rosette in Rochester was interviewed for the main BBC evening news bulletin. "I am a Dutch Canadian", she proudly told viewers, before going on to warn of the dangers of immigration.

Two weeks ago I met a couple who had moved to Wales from a prosperous cathedral city in England. Mr J was originally from the Valleys, but decades of living in England had left him with only a faint trace of an accent. Judging from her accent, Mrs J was originally from London. They had moved to west Wales because they no longer felt comfortable in the city they had lived in for many years and had been subjected to abuse.

The area they had lived in had many Asian Muslim residents, Mrs J said, but they were friendly and had not been a problem.

Nasty, anonymous notes had been posted through their letter box, and Mr J had been openly abused by a white woman on the street who had yelled into his face, "You f***ing Welsh, coming here and taking our jobs".

"He's 83, he's not taking anybody's job", Mrs J said.

All of which brings us to Emily Thornberry, the now disgraced Labour MP who tweeted a "disrespectful" picture of a house festooned with England flags and the words "Image from #Rochester".

Ed Miliband was incandescent with rage, and Labour bigwigs queued up to apologise for the outrage. The owner of the flags was just being patriotic, they said, and he appeared, shaven headed, before the cameras with lots of Sun stickers plastered on his white van.

For all we know, this patriotic Rochester resident is into contemporary dance and going to Polish evening classes, but the flags, the shaven head and the Sun stickers would suggest otherwise.

We don't actually know what Emily Thornberry thought about all of this either because she posted the picture without comment, although we can probably assume that she was pointing out the rise of nasty, xenophobic right-wing nationalism in England.

But the official Labour line is that this is no such thing. It is just patriotism, and anyone who says otherwise is "disrespecting" the voters. So wrap yourselves in the Union Jack or Cross of St George and bellow Land of Hope and Glory. That's fine.
Celebrating a 'No' victory in Glasgow

But for Calum and the Labour establishment, the sort of people who vote for the progressive, left of centre Plaid Cymru and the SNP are rabid nationalists of the worst kind, to which anything, even Ukip, would be preferable.

Don't try this at home

Friday 21 November 2014

The sums don't add up

Carmarthenshire County Council has launched its latest budget consultation, and you can fill in an online survey here.

Many of the proposals will be familiar to anyone who has followed the annual budget setting process in recent years, with the same old plans for cutbacks being reheated and served up, wrapped in public relations speak as "remodelling" and "re-alignment".

Once again County Hall would like to close one of two respite and residential centres for profoundly disabled children. This would save £200,000 over three years - roughly the same amount that the chief executive would like to be paid to leave us so that he can head off for exciting new challenges elsewhere.

Noticeably absent from the proposals are any cutbacks to the council's holiest of cows - the Press Office and "Carmarthenshire News", the latest edition of which features a bumper crop of pictures of smiling Labour and Independent bigwigs.

What is striking about this year's package of proposed cuts is how many of them are aimed at children and young people.

There is a whole raft of proposals which would make relatively small savings by cutting support for children with special needs, looked after children and youth services. There will be reduced support for the humanities in schools, speech therapy, home tuition, increases in charges for school meals, cutbacks in behaviour support, and, tucked away under technical services, removal of free school transport for children aged 16+ and a new £50 charge for "spare seat" bus passes.

£50,000 can be shave off here, £100,000 there, but right at the end of the section dealing with education comes this:

The odd thing about this is that while the council is saying that there will be a big drop in the number of children going to school in Carmarthenshire, it is also telling us through its Local Development Plan that we can expect a big rise in population and a sharp increase in demand for housing.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Another super white elephant

The Tivyside Adverstiser is reporting what many people have long suspected: that Sainsbury's is scrapping plans to open a large new store in Cardigan.

Despite local opposition, planning permission for the site was granted in 2008 and several million pounds were ploughed into getting it ready for the development. A huge raised platform was built to accommodate the store on the Bathhouse site a short distance from the town centre, and a new road system was built, complete with roundabouts and signs.

This was a greenfield site, and mature trees were felled to make way for the supermarket. For months on end HGVs laden with rock and soil trundled through the High Street. A councillor who opposed the development found himself having to answer charges of breaching the code of conduct.

And then nothing.

Sainsbury's blamed the delays on problems with land stability, something which the Tivyside notes came as no surprise to people who knew the lie of the land.

The supermarket group nevertheless remained adamant that this was all just a temporary glitch and that the store would open. Deadlines came and went.

The new road system became a handy car park for people wishing to avoid exorbitant charges for council car parks, until recently when it was classed as an urban freeway and traffic wardens started ticketing vehicles on the otherwise empty roads.

Bizarrely, the freeway ends just a few metres from a busy junction, and you may park on the junction for free without risk of a fine.

The development is supposed to include a new hospital, something which has also been delayed. It is not clear what impact the supermarket group's decision will have on the plans for a new hospital, but to quote a local farmer who farmed the land, "I'll be amazed if they manage to build a hospital on the bog".

A thousand years from now archeologists will probably scratch their heads over what the gigantic Bathhouse platform and road system were for. An obscure religious cult, perhaps.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Trelech - the runners and riders

Nominations for the by-election in Trelech have now closed, and there are three candidates:

Jean Lewis (Plaid Cymru)

Hugh Phillips (Independent)

Selwyn Runnett (Liberal Democrat)

It had been rumoured that Ukip would be throwing its hat into the ring, but it would seem that they couldn't find a candidate. Labour would have faced the same minor difficulty.

Trelech is one of the largest and most rural wards in Carmarthenshire, comprising the village of Trelech itself, a handful of other settlements and numerous farms.

Jean Lewis is a well-known and respected figure locally. She has a long track record of voluntary work in the community and is described as honest and hard working.

Selwyn Runnett is one of those veteran LibDems who can't see an election without wanting to stand. He has something of a mountain to climb, and his prospects won't be helped by memories of Ken Rees who was the last LibDem to be elected to the county council in 2008. No sooner had he been elected under the LibDem banner than Ken got into bed with Meryl Gravell's "Independents". He is understood to have been flirting with Ukip more recently.

The Independents are at least in theory not a political party, and the charade that is usually played out is that someone will sign up to join Pam Palmer's gang only when they have been elected. This means that voters can never be sure whether a candidate is really independent.

In the case of Trelech the Indies made strenuous efforts to find a candidate before alighting on Hugh Phillips, also known as Hugh Gilfach.

Mr Phillips comes with a very colourful history for what is a very quiet and deeply rural area, and the timing of the election is very fortunate because a 10-year undertaking by him not to serve as a director of any company came to an end earlier this year.

The background is a long and highly complex series of court battles over an innovative scheme designed to bypass some of the more onerous aspects of the old milk quota regime. Mr Phillips saw himself as a victim of a campaign by the Intervention Board for Agricultural Produce and subsequently by the Welsh Government to "stop Hugh Phillips".

The dispute had been long-running when companies owned by Mr Phillips went bust owing around £10.6 million at the end of the 1990s. Court cases continued until 2004 when Mr Phillips finally gave his undertaking not to hold any more company directorships or take part in the management of any companies.

For its part, the Government issued a lengthy statement in February 2004 summarising the case and the findings. Among the many findings was:

5. That he caused the production of a forged letter to Clydesdale, the company's bankers, giving an explanation purporting to come from Barclays Bank Plc for the fact that a cheque was not met on presentation which was misleading and untrue. Also, he caused a further letter to be sent to Clydesdale giving a misleading and untrue explanation as to the circumstances in which the forged letter had been provided to them.

In a world of so much change, it is comforting to see that the traditions and standards of the Independent group shine out like a beacon in the gloom.

Monday 17 November 2014

Carmarthenshire schools facing massive budget cuts

The council's Executive Board will meet today to consider proposals for budget cuts, and as usual the documents available for inspection online are very badly formatted.

The starting point is that Aggregate External Finance, or in plain language the money the council receives from the Welsh Government, will be cut by 3.3.% or £8.7 million next year. The council has been told to expect this level of settlement in future years, and so as usual the draft proposals extend a further two years out to April 2018.

In presenting cuts, the council distinguishes between "managerial efficiencies" and "policy efficiencies". Managerial efficiencies are internal cost savings which are not meant to impact on services, while policy efficiencies are direct cuts to public services.

For 2015/16 managerial and policy efficiencies will contribute roughly equally to the targeted savings of £11.3m, while from 2016/17 onwards, cuts to services will form the bulk of projected savings.

There is no good news in any of this, unless you are in the council's press office which is set to be spared any serious damage once again. Although the Welsh Government has asked councils to give serious consideration to the financial burden council tax rises will place on households, we are in for another inflation-busting increase of 5%, and will be paying more for considerably less.

As in previous years, the council is expecting growing demand for social care and housing.

Something has got to give, and it seems as though that something will be education, although Welsh councils have been told that schools spending will be protected.

The proposals which will go before the Board tomorrow nevertheless provide for a modest £157,000 cut in school spending, made possible by efficiencies and an overall fall in pupil numbers, according to the council. On top of that is a raft of cuts which will hit schools and parents, but which technically don't come out of school budgets. These include charges for school transport and a new "administrative charge" for users of school buses.

At the same time, school reserves will be raided and driven down to zero.

Each school is responsible for what is called delegated spending, and while some schools have built up modest reserves, others are running at a deficit. Overall, they are expected to be in surplus by just over £3 million at the end of March 2015, but that piggy bank will disappear by 2017.

The real hammer blows will fall in 2016/17 and 2017/18, however, when schools will be expected to shoulder cuts totalling £14 million - slightly more than half of all projected savings for those two years. Although the report does not spell this out, the council is clearly expecting the government to end protection for the schools budget, and the decision by Huw Lewis, Labour's Education Minister in Cardiff, to claw back part of the schools budget this year may mean they are on to something. 

The report also notes that the council's youth service will be expected to take another hit, although spending on this age group in Carmarthenshire is already the lowest in Wales.

Combine that with the news that Carmarthenshire, and parts of the Amman Valley in particular, has some of the highest levels of child poverty in Wales, and you have to wonder why children and young people are being singled out to take most of the pain.

The answer is simple. The over 60s vote and the under 35s don't.

Sunday 16 November 2014

Alphabet soup

Train spotters like to go out with little books and note down engine numbers; twitchers like to race around to catch sightings of rare and usually half dead birds blown onto our shores; others like to spend their time bog snorkelling.

It takes all sorts, but I have to admit that until last week I had never come across anyone who was interested in the strings of letters which sometimes appear after the names of people who would like us to know that they are Very Important. The technical term for this is apparently "postnominalology".

Anyway, a reader has written in to ask if anyone can shed light on the meaning of some of the acronyms used by the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council.

The CBE is straightfoward, and Mr James rightfully shares this distinction with a number of other people who have made a major contribution to public life, such as Stephen Hawking. Other famous recipients include Elton John and the artist Grayson Perry, who wore a blue mother of the bride frock when he collected his. Richard Burton and Eric Clapton are in the same league.

No, not an Independent councillor

As far as we know, however, Mr James is the only one of this distinguished group to put CBE after his name when writing to residents of Carmarthenshire to update them on problems with bin collections.

Next comes LL.M., or Master of Laws. Scurrilous sources claim that this degree was awarded by the Open University and have made unflattering comparisons with the Oxbridge degree held by Bryn Parry-Jones, until recently Mr James's neighbour in Pembrokeshire.

That is of course snobbery of the worst kind, and Mr Parry-Jones's untimely departure from office should put an end to this academic one upmanship.

Rather less obvious are DPA and DCA, and it seems that enquiries to Mr James's office have drawn a blank. At a guess, we are talking about diplomas in public administration and chartered accountancy.

Answers please to the comments section below.

Bear in mind that this is a family blog, and that four-letter words beginning with D, P, C and A will not be published.

Saturday 15 November 2014

A Wonderful Job - November's Council Meeting (Part 2)

The WLGA report and recommendations were eventually accepted unanimously by the council, and will now head off to a special working group where, in the words of Pam Palmer, they will be picked over "very, very carefully".

The failure of Kevin Madge and Pam Palmer to take on board key aspects of the report's findings does not bode well. Neither of them was prepared in the meeting to recognise the need for a change of culture. Kevin Madge told the Carmarthen Journal ahead of the council meeting that he could not accept the view that the council had been too officer led, and he became noticeably agitated when he touched on the subject of media reporting of the council. No matter what the council did, there would be those outside who damned it, he said.

Pam Palmer had begun her response to the report with an attack on the local press for failing, in her view, to report good news about the council.

The council's relationship with the press was dealt with by the WLGA report, and this aspect of it was picked up by Hold the Front Page, the house journal of the local and regional press: "Council told to show more respect to local press".

The omens are not good.

The meeting moved on to consider a couple of motions, including a call from Cllr Calum Higgins (Lab) for the council to support a feasibility study on the reopening of the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth railway.

Where are you going to live?

Next up was Cllr Alun Lenny (Plaid) with a motion calling on the Welsh Government to relax planning regulations on the conversion of redundant farm buildings for residential use.

The relevant policy was launched to a fanfare in 2010, with the government claiming it would "support sustainable rural communities" with the aim of making it possible for people, and especially young people, to develop businesses and live and work in the communities they were part of.

Very, very few planning applications under TAN6, the policy guidelines, have succeeded anywhere in Wales, and in Ceredigion there is a campaign called Ble ti'n mynd i fyw? ("Where are you going to live?") highlighting the obstacles faced by local young people who want to stay in the communities where they grew up to live and work.

Cllr Lenny pointed out the absurdity of a system which encourages owners of redundant farm buildings to convert them for use as holiday cottages. Not only do such applications stand a good chance of being accepted, but (he might have added), the owners are then showered with amazingly generous grants to fit them out with hot tubs, solar panels and, in the case of one set-up just up the road from Cneifiwr, £4,200 worth of plastic garden furniture.

While EU money is being splashed around on these "investments", local young people are being forced to live for years in caravans, or even sleep rough in cars in one cased mentioned by Cllr Lenny.

Cllr Lenny's motion was accepted after a very muted debate. Strangely not one of the Independents, all of whom represent rural areas, had anything to say about it.

We then moved on to questions to the Executive Board. Kevin Madge, who last month opposed allowing backbench councillors the right to ask supplementary questions, announced that he would now allow them.

A Wonderful Job

Cllr Emlyn Dole (Plaid) wanted to know what Kevin Madge thought about the decision of Huw Lewis, the Education Minister, to claw back some of the education grant previously awarded to Carmarthenshire. The loss is equivalent to a cut of £8 for every child in the county's schools, and comes on top of the council's own attempts to cut school budgets by siphoning off chunks of money to prop up leisure centres.

Kevin Madge thought that Huw Lewis was doing "a wonderful job", and threw up a smokescreen by saying that Plaid-run councils (Ceredigion and Gwynedd) were also making cuts, forgetting to mention that they were having to cut services because the Labour government in Cardiff had cut their block grants. Unsurprisingly, cuts handed down to councils not run by Labour are bigger than than budget cuts for Labour-run councils, with Ceredigion being singled out for the second year running for the biggest reductions.

The cuts were needed, Kevin Madge said, because the government wanted to invest more in the NHS.

He was not going to complain, therefore.

Education, the traditional route out of poverty, and other services which the weak and vulnerable rely on, will have to take it on the chin for the sake of trying to get Ed Miliband into 10 Downing Street and pander to the Daily Mail.

Meanwhile End Child Poverty has released a study showing that more than a third of children in parts of Ammanford are living below the breadline. One of the hardest hit places is Garnant (represented for the last 37 years by Cllr Kevin Madge, Lab).

Public Protection

With the sole exception of Cllr Edward Thomas who asked a reasonable question about the council's plans for the Tregib school site, we had seen truly dire performances from three of the Independents' leading lights up to this point. Now it was the turn of Cllr Jim Jones to do a convincing impression of a rabbit in the headlights.

Kevin Madge might not think that the council is officer-led, but Cllr Jones proved him wrong in a slam-dunk performance of stunning ineptitude.

Cllr Siân Caiach had two questions for him, and he was unable to answer either, despite having had at least a week to come up with a reply.

Both questions concerned sewage pollution. The first was when he had been made aware of pollution in the estuary.

He began by saying he was not feeling 100%, and suggested she ask Dŵr Cymru/Welsh Water when they popped in to do a presentation.

If he could remember when he had been told, he was not going to say.

Jim's problem, apart from being well past his sell-by date, is that the department over which he has responsibility has been missing a departmental head, and he is therefore having to wait for orders from the new officer in charge. Meanwhile, he is being paid a salary of £29,000 a year when he should be at home enjoying his pension.

The second question related to sewage pollution of Llanelli Beach. The beach is owned by Carmarthenshire County Council which used to carry out testing of water quality. This stopped in 2009 when it was abundantly clear that raw sewage being pumped into the river Lliedi was turning the sea off the beach into a nasty bacterial soup.

Although the beach is not a designated swimming beach, it is a recreational beach, and as Cllr Caiach pointed out, children like to go paddling in the water.

By not testing the water, the council can claim it is not aware that there is a threat to public health. Moreover, it is not intending to find out, but it has acknowledged that there may be a problem by putting up a couple of signs advising the public to wash their hands after being on the beach.

As Cllr Caiach pointed out, these small signs are nowhere near the cafe or a shop which sells ice cream.

What Cllr Jones could have done as a minimum was to say that greater efforts will be made to inform the public of the risks by, for example, displaying more prominent warning signs and advising people to wash their hands before consuming food.

He could have said that the council would take steps to find out the extent of the pollution by recommencing testing.

Neither of those measures would be expensive, and neither of them involves a commitment to fix the underlying cause of the pollution.

But Cllr Jones, who is responsible for public health, was not about to do anything. Cllr Caiach would receive a written response in due course, just as soon as an officer could be found to tell him what to say.

No doubt, Kevin Madge would say that Dog Muck Jim is also doing a wonderful job.

Friday 14 November 2014

Carmarthenshire embraces change - possibly, and subject to terms and conditions

The November meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council kicked off with the usual round of apologies for absence, including once again Cllr Meryl Gravell who hasn't shown up since July despite holding one of the most important portfolios on the governing Executive Board. For all those worried about her welfare, a quick glance at the output of the council's press office will show that she is alive and well and busy with her PR work.

After various tributes to Cllr WD Thomas (Dai Trelech), council settled down to discuss the WLGA's peer review of governance. Presenting the debate, Daniel Hurford of the WLGA said that parts of the report would make uncomfortable reading for some people.

Perhaps that would explain Meryl's absence.

Even without her, the debate made for uncomfortable viewing, with some truly dire performances from the Independents. The chair, Daff Davies (Ind), bumbled his way through as usual, hopelessly lost in the procedural detail, and obviously interested only in getting the whole thing over and done with as quickly as possible and in time for lunch. Mair Stephens (Ind), the council's Welsh language champion and a member of the Executive Board, rarely speaks, but this time gave a confused speech entirely in English about the need to ensure that any changes conform with the law.

However the real star of the show was the Independent leader, Pam Palmer, who gave a spectacularly bad tempered and cringe inducing performance. More on that later.

In his capacity as leader, Kevin Madge (Lab) made one of his more interesting speeches.

Firstly, he concentrated exclusively on the aspects of the WLGA report concerning the constitution, making no mention of the need for a change of culture which was a key part of the panel's findings. Secondly he poured rather lukewarm water on the 39 recommendations. He could live with them - he could even accept the bulk of them - but there were question marks over whether some of the proposals would "fit in" with Carmarthenshire and the timing of changes.

Whole-hearted enthusiastic acceptance it wasn't.

He argued that the constitution, which the WLGA panel found to be one of the more illiberal examples of its kind in Wales, had been in force since 1995, and that there had been ample opportunities to change it. If he was guilty, so was everybody else.

As he had reminded the council when it paid tribute to Dai Trelech, Kevin Madge has also been a permanent fixture on the council since 1995, and for much of that time he has sat at the top table alongside Meryl Gravell and Pam Palmer.

What he forgot was that the constitution has in fact been amended repeatedly since 1995, and every one of the changes which he voted for was designed to make the council even less transparent and democratic.

Fortunately, Cllr Bill Thomas (Lab) was on hand to remind him. The constitution was based on the old Dyfed constitution, he said, and it had been strangled. "We have made hundreds of changes in this chamber", he added, and now "we cannot speak or ask questions".

The WLGA recommendations would take the council back to a time when the council did things properly, with full and accurate meeting minutes and reports which contain the information councillors need to make decisions. "We are not here by right, but sent here by the people we represent", he concluded.

If that wasn't embarrassing enough, Cllr Thomas reminded Kevin Madge that he too had been a councillor since 1995, but Kevin had forgotten his fellow Labour councillor when he recited a list of those councillors (mainly Independents) who had been around since the year dot.

The list of changes Cllr Thomas referred to includes restrictions on questions which may be asked by members of the public, abolishing recorded votes on committees, the infamous libel clause (suspended but not repealed) and draconian restrictions on backbench and opposition councillors wishing to table motions for debate.

More often than not changes to the written rules have not even been needed - all that was required was the say-so of the chief executive and the (acting) head of law to remove emergency items from the agenda, prevent follow-up questions, require members of the public to give their names and addresses in writing before being allowed to attend meetings, or ban filming or the recording of council meetings by the public. All those things have happened, and you will not find a word about any of them in the constitution, although Kevin Madge supported all of them.

For Plaid Emlyn Dole reminded councillors that the WLGA's recommendations were about more than tinkering with the constitution. They called for a change of culture and attitude. It was disappointing to hear the Leader, Kevin Madge, saying he could live with the proposals (or some of them). What was needed was a collective commitment to change.

Replying for the Independents, Pam Palmer first of all took a swipe at the local press for not reporting all the good things she and her colleagues were doing.

She had clearly missed the bits of the WLGA report which criticised the council for its treatment of the press, its defensiveness and reluctance to accept criticism.

Some of the recommendations were not a problem at all, she opined, suggesting that other parts of the report clearly were. And it all needed to be looked at in very, very close detail. Just as with Kevin Madge, Pam had also missed all the references in the report about the need for a change of culture.

Turning up the cringe factor to max, she bobbed up and down repeatedly, and at one point shouted angrily at the opposition benches. "Be quiet!" she ordered, before delivering a lecture on trust. Trust was a two-way street, she said, although it was not clear whether she thought that the opposition did not trust her, or she did not trust the opposition.

Either way, she was demanding that everyone should suspend disbelief, forget her 20 year track record and place their trust in her.

She then ticked off the opposition, reminding them that distinguished visitors were present and witnessing the meeting. "Just wait until they have gone", she might have added.

Pam had of course forgotten about all those other visitors - the great unwashed electorate - watching the webcast. Perhaps she had been right to oppose allowing the cameras in after all.


Perhaps these old leopards will change their spots, and perhaps Pam, Meryl and Kev will usher in a new period of openness and democratic transparency. Perhaps the Romanovs and Bourbons really had wanted to give power to the people after all.

Confusion reigned at this point, with two motions before the council. The Chair had lost the plot some time before, and so Calum Higgins (Lab) rose to clarify matters.

"Wrong!" exclaimed the chief executive with glee. He did not wish to lead the council (ho ho) or wish to appear overbearing (hilarity), but it was all very simple.

He then cobbled together a compromise, composite motion to set up a working group with an action plan which was accepted unanimously.

Mr James grinned like the proverbial Cheshire cat and purred with self satisfaction.

He had also just given a convincing demonstration of why, when it puts councillors such as Daff Davies into positions of responsibility, the council needs a chief executive.

Perhaps it might not be such a good idea to accept his proposal to make the post redundant after all.

A second post will look at what happened in the rest of the meeting.