Sunday 14 December 2014

December's Council Meeting (II) - Slippery Eels

After a full forty minutes of municipal announcements and lengthy tributes, this month's meeting of the full council settled down to watch the latest group of corporate visitors deliver a Powerpoint presentation.

Companies sometimes find themselves being hauled up before committees in the Welsh Assembly and House of Commons where they are subjected to intense questioning, and corporate spin and PR are given short shrift.

The object of the exercise from the companies' point of view is to avoid admitting liability or blame for any of their actions, while experienced inquisitors, such as Paul Flynn (Lab), will ask themselves, as Jeremy Paxman used to, "Why are these lying bastards lying to me?"

The county council's corporate guest slots are a world away from this. Companies are invited by the chief executive as partners, and their job is to tell councillors what a wonderful job they are doing.

For anyone interested in getting to the truth, a slot at the monthly meeting of full council with a set of Powerpoint slides, is never going to deliver.

The Chief Operating Officer of Dŵr Cymru/Welsh Water set the scene, by painting his company as a cuddly not-for-profit organisation which has not ramped up charges to customers. A day or two later we learned that Ofwat had ordered Dŵr Cymru and other water companies to cut their charges.

The "not-for-profit" claim went unchallenged, but an investigation by Rebecca TV (a highly respected investigative journalism site) from earlier this year concluded that Dŵr Cymru had cheated customers of more than £250 million, and that the big beneficiaries of this corporate daylight robbery were top executives and board members.

Rebecca TV noted the difference between Labour-run Wales and the board of Dŵr Cymru, stuffed with Labour protegés, and the situation in Scotland where Alex Salmond had ensured that the top brass at the much larger Scottish Water made do with much less generous pay.

But back to the presentation.

The over-riding theme of Wednesday's session was a scheme called Rainscape. This attempts to decouple the disposal of rainwater from the sewage system, and it is to be welcomed. As one or two councillors pointed out, however, the system is unlikely to work on flood plains, where Carmarthenshire County Council has a long history of approving housing developments.

The point went unanswered.

A second controversial point was the release of raw sewage into the river system and coastal waters. Dŵr Cymru acknowledged that this had happened too often, but it denied that the practice had taken place when it had not rained. It rains a lot in Llanelli.

There were plans to reduce the number of releases of raw sewage to more "acceptable" levels, although one of the company executives claimed that the releases themselves were pretty harmless, with the sewage being heavily diluted.

Nobody asked him when he last went for a swim along the Llanelli coast, or if he would be happy for his children to paddle in the waters there.

A couple of days later, on Friday to be precise, the subject of how safe the beach at Llanelli really is came up on Taro'r Post, Radio Cymru's daily phone-in. Nia Griffith, the town's Labour MP, had taken to walking along the beach at busy times in the summer to point out to people that the beach was not a designated bathing beach.

The interesting question, of course, is why it is not considered to be suitable for bathing, but all Carmarthenshire County Council will say is that it is not designated as a bathing beach.

A local man who swims off the beach every day was on hand to say that he has never had a problem, and he claimed several times that he had been told by someone from the council that it is OK to swim there.

Anyone expecting to see Cllr Jim "Dog Muck" Jones (frighteningly, the man responsible for environmental protection) or Mark James don their bathing trunks and go for a dip is in for a disappointment, however.

Councillors were also told by the man from Dŵr Cymru that the problem of cockle deaths was "definitely" nothing to do with sewage pollution, and that had been borne out by a report produced in 2012 (by Hull University).

What he neglected to mention was that a committee of the Welsh Assembly decided that the Hull report was inconclusive (see previous piece here for more background).

By coincidence, a recent report from St Andrews University concluded that seal pups were contracting food poisoning, and that the most likely source was sewage and farm waste. Although the study was conducted in the sea off Edinburgh, a professor from Swansea University quoted here reckons that we could see the same problem off Welsh coasts. This disturbing news also failed to make it into Dŵr Cymru's Powerpoint slides.

But everything was set to get better thanks to a Memorandum of Understanding between the council and Dŵr Cymru, under which new houses would have to be built in such a way that twice as much surface water would be disposed of as sewage.

The more houses that were built, the less of a problem flooding and sewage pollution would become, and everyone could rejoice, including those other partners, the big housing developers.

Several councillors tried to pin down the company executives.

Cllr Siân Thomas (Plaid) wanted to know what Dŵr Cymru was doing further upstream from Llanelli and why the presentation had been delivered without a single word of Welsh when the council was supposed to be bilingual.

There were a number of projects underway in Cross Hands and other areas, came the reply, while Heulyn Davies, who is responsible for the company's language policy, said that Dŵr Cymru was completely bilingual. It was just that using the two languages in presentations like this could detract from the message. So being bilingual meant that English only was the preferred option.

Cllr Thomas wanted to know why the council had not reminded Dŵr Cymru of its policy on the use of the two languages.

The background to this was the report and recommendations of the Working Group on the Welsh language back in April, adopted in full by the councillors during Mr James's absence, and ignored by him ever since.

Dŵr Cymru had previously given the same presentation to the council's Executive Board, and they had enjoyed it so much that they wanted councillors to hear it as well.

As chief executive and the person responsible for putting together the agendas, Mark James would have invited Dŵr Cymru to both meetings and been aware of the lack of Welsh in the presentation he had previously sat through.

Cllr Thomas had to prompt the chair that her question had not been answered. Why had the council flouted its own language policy?

There ought to be a sign on Mr James's desk saying, "The buck stops lower down", because he pinned the blame for this unfortunate oversight on more junior officers, and he would be speaking to them about it.

Another eel had just made it past the sewage treatment plant.

The men from Dŵr Cymru may not have been told about the council's language policy, but they had clearly been warned about Cllr Siân Caiach.

Readers may recall that in the November council meeting Cllr Caiach had asked Jim Jones, the Executive Board Member for Environmental Protection, when he had first been made aware of the sewage pollution problems in Llanelli.

Jim replied that he was not feeling 100% and had suggested she ask Dŵr Cymru. So here was the same question to Dŵr Cymru. When had the company made the council aware of the problem?

Waffle, waffle, came the reply.

When? asked Cllr Caiach.

Waffle, waffle, waffle, came the second reply. They were not saying, and neither was Jim Jones who had nothing whatsoever to say in the debate which followed the presentation.

Cllr Hazel Evans (Plaid) did not fare any better. She wanted to know what Dŵr Cymru was doing about drainage problems in Newcastle Emlyn where waste water regularly comes up through manholes and in people's gardens.

The Chief Operating Officer was not aware of any specific plans, but he would get back to her.

Smoked eel was definitely not on the menu at the councillors' Christmas buffet.

A third piece dealing with the Local Development Plan to follow.


Tessa said...

My (and my neighbour's) gardens (and their house once) have flooded with sewage 5 times since Jan 13. Dwr Cymru denied negligence & liability. They blamed heavy rainfall, and blockages caused by persons unknown. They did however refurbish the knackered wreck of the pumping station and hopefully there will be no more floods. Which is good news. Shame I have lost property, use of my garden for months, been caused huge amounts of stress and anxiety, and spent £4,000 in legal fees. Shame the Consumer Council for Water Wales were so willing to accept the "not liable" argument. Still, its a "not for profit" organisation. Which means no dividends payable to shareholders. No shareholders to control salaries of course. Or their legal costs defending my action, which amounted to 4 times the amount I spent on legal costs against them. Happily I didn't have to cover these, as they graciously agreed my "drop hands" proposal for discontinuation of my legal action. Which I'd bottled when it was allocated by the District Judge to the Multitrack court.

Anonymous said...

I think you will find that Llanelli Beach is in a tidal area and the only time that it is safe is at high tide. Could mean the difference between life and death?