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.


Anonymous said...

just watched the meeting on computer.

the exchange between Clr Caiach and Clr Jones was absolutely dire - this should not be allowed to happen. He is clearly out of his depth, up to his nose in the shitty water that he denies is there - or doesn't know about cos he doesn't test !

Most people don't give a hoot about local politics but if the clip showing the exchange was widely seen I think the councils days would be numbered

m1books said...

I watched Weds. webcast and it was indeed at times embarrassingly inept. The nice men from the WLGA (Oh sorry I forgot the lady, Hah, Hah…) must have felt vindication over their report and I hope also some continuing despair. The same old faces making obvious superficial comments choosing to ignore the main message (with the other same councillors bravely striving to keep it all on track and actually get somewhere – cllrs Dole, Higgins, Thomas, Caiach etc) When are all the others going to wake up? Now is the time! As with many public bodies, the fact that people have been around for 20 years or so is often more of a hindrance than help, as outmoded ideas and entrenched views get in the way of progress. Cllr Palmer was classic – when is she going to say something constructive and useful – at least in the Chamber. The chosen Working Group looking at the WLGA review needs to consist of those able cllrs who accept how bad the situation is and who are capable of constructing a new and innovative approach to local democracy in Carmarthenshire, with none of the old crew trying to paper over the cracks. This could be a real opportunity to start to get things right, but I’m not holding my breath.

Anonymous said...

It brought to mind a bunch of school bullies and their ringleaders trying to be on their best behaviour because the teachers (the WLGA members) were there. The height of hypocrisy was the unanimous vote to suspend standing orders to allow supplementary questions (sorry - panic, panic – “to allow a supplementary question” - can’t be having more than one in this new era of democracy and openness can we Mr James).
So different to last month when the teachers were away preparing their report. It will be interesting to see what happens at the next school assembly - will the bullies be back to their usual ways?

Blodwen said...

I have just worked up enough courage to watch the webcast of the meeting - and I wish I hadn't.
So, so, depressing to listen to, and watch, those inarticulate public representatives ducking and diving to avoid facing up to the realities of their incompetence. And even after everything that the WLGA reps have written and said, the chairman, the leader and the leader of the independents are still trying to silence those good councillors who try to make salient, relevant points. And as for Cllr Jones's response to Cllr Caiach, words fail me. How on earth does such a man get given a post of responsibility? He probably has difficulty tying his own shoelaces. Heaven help us.

Redhead said...

A new constitution incorporating all the WGAs requirements could go to council in a month (or less with an expert drafter) and be ratified in two months (or even 2 weeks).

Will it hapoen? Not a chance.

As I have said before, it isn't just the will that is missing, it is the intellect. Councillors want high salaries and power without responsibility, James wants his high salary and absolute power - no impetus for change.

Anonymous said...

D'oh Cneifwr Mr Gravell is still very ill and I think you agreed to leave off as she has duties at home !!

I agree that Jim Jones was diabolical in his response to MRs C surely someone helped prepare his response as witnessed by other exec members reading prepared responses from the officers strenuously saying nothing The questioners don't expect the whole truth but at least some attempt

Anonymous said...

The only winner following the ruling councillors being allowed to show themselves up for what they are is of course the head of the paid service. The ones on show clearly cannot speak for themselves yet alone think so to get anything meaningful done they are not capable of anything other than rely on the CE and his senior officers. Very clever.
Based on Tuesday's cringeworthy performance there is absolutely no chance of anything other than an officer led council until the political leadership is of the required standard.

Anonymous said...

As one of the voting public of Burry Port/Pembrey area, I tuned in to watch the webcast last Wed to view the responses in the Chamber to the very critical report from the WLGA. The performance of the Ind spokeswoman, and from the Labour group gave no hope of any transformation of outlook nor recognition of how poorly they perform in their roles as our reps.They are handsomely rewarded as county councillors, but those representing us rarely speak in Chamber nor make any contribution to a decent debate.There ought to be a big shake up at the next election and we can only hope that voters have a choice of a better standard of candidate at the polls.