Monday 15 December 2014

December's council meeting (III) - how high do you want us to jump?

The final leg of this month's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council dealt with the Local Development Plan, a framework for planning and development in the county which will take us through to 2021.

The debate lasted roughly an hour - as much time as had been devoted to personal tributes and award ceremonies earlier on - and it was without doubt one of the worst set-piece debates this council has held in recent years, especially when you consider the huge impact it could have on just about everyone who lives in Carmarthenshire.

Calum Higgins (Lab) raised a technical point about whether the LDP would replace the previous UDP (yes). Anthony Jones (Lab), whose solution to everything is to defer and/or kick the ball into the long grass, wanted to defer a proposal made by Emlyn Dole, while Terry Davies (Lab) played Ex Lax to Anthony Jones's Imodium with a proposal to put an end to debate and vote the thing through.

Apart from that, and brief speeches from Meryl Gravell and Kevin Madge, Labour and Independent councillors had absolutely nothing to say about what is the most important policy document to come before them this year.

The debate was kicked off by Meryl Gravell, who when she had finished praising the wonderful job done by council officers, told councillors that they had better vote to adopt the plan, or the Welsh Government would probably impose it on them.

Very disappointingly, councillors failed to rise to that challenge. If the Welsh Government would impose it on the county anyway, why not let Carl Sergeant do the dirty work himself? And why not work with other councils in Wales to persuade them to make a similar stand?

As it was, only 5 councillors abstained in the final vote, with what looked like the rest voting to accept.

[Update - the technical term for what happened on the Plaid benches is a cock-up, with councillors voting three ways because some were not sure what they were voting on.]

Heading up the debate for Plaid, Emlyn Dole noted that the plan was not really a local plan at all, and he wondered who had appointed the Planning Inspector who had presided over the whole thing.

The LDP is in reality a set of targets handed down by civil servants in Cardiff, and the council's job was to wrap them up in lots of documentation. Wherever the council made a mild attempt to deviate from the path (for example with same very diluted proposals to protect the Welsh language), the Inspector had stamped down on it.

The Planning Inspectorate, it should be recalled, is not a devolved body but is responsible for England as well as Wales. To add insult to injury, Carmarthenshire's council tax payers were obliged to pay for the Inspector, just as in some countries the families of those executed by the state are made to pay for the bullets.

Kevin Madge (Lab) gave one of his most incoherent off-the-cuff rambles for a long time. Despite being a councillor for 37 years, he has never learned to prepare himself before speaking.

What we got was that the county has to make affordable housing available to help young people. A good thing, but someone should have asked Cllr Madge why the targets for affordable housing had been cut during the LDP process.

Next he said that "if we are going to work with Sir Terry Matthews, we need the land". This was a reference to the Swansea Bay City Region, which it seems would like to build lots of houses in Carmarthenshire.

He then turned his attention to the Welsh language and told us that Carl Sergeant was "going to send some people down" to talk about putting something about the language into the Planning Bill now working its way through the Assembly.

He noted with approval that Meirion Prys Jones, the former head of the now defunct Welsh Language Board, reckoned that large scale housing development and protecting the language were not necessarily incompatible. Kev was probably unaware that a study carried out by the Welsh Language Board on housing development in Conwy had come to the opposite conclusion.

That makes Kevin Madge's speech sound much more coherent than it was, because most of it was devoted to meaningless waffle about moving on, working hard and doing our best.

For Plaid, Cllr Linda Evans was very disappointed to see that the Inspector had removed a requirement for wind turbines to be located at least 1,500 metres from the nearest house, cutting the distance to 500 metres.

Cllr Gwyneth Thomas (Plaid) and David Jenkins (Plaid) suspected that Hywel Dda Health Board had not been fully involved in the LDP process. Given the huge housing developments that were being proposed, it was vital that there were health services there to meet the demand.

The Head of Planning, Eifion Bowen, gave a fairly unconvincing reply saying that the health board had been consulted.

A great deal of the debate was taken up by a technicality. In essence the issue was that anyone wishing to convert farm buildings for residential use had to first "market them continuously" for a whole year before a planning application could be considered. If nobody else wanted to use a cowshed for, say, cows, it could then be considered for humans.

This provision had been removed from the LDP itself, but for reasons which remained completely unclear had been put back into supplementary planning guidance (SPG) by the council's own planning officers.

SPGs are in reality the only really local bit of the LDP, and the result was that the council was in danger of being even more restrictive and unreasonable than national policy, which as Alun Lenny (Plaid) pointed out in a separate contribution is both daft and unreasonable.

Back and forth went the exchanges. Let's remove the offending paragraphs if they don't need to be there, said Emlyn Dole. Let's defer a decision, said Anthony Jones.

Eifion Bowen did a very convincing impression of Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes Minister. His lips moved and he sounded as though he knew what he was talking about without making sense. Give that man an OBE.

Eventually Mark James intervened. He had had a quiet word with his boy and told him that the paragraphs could be deleted after all.

And so up popped Terry Davies (Lab), the Judge Jeffreys of planning, to call for the whole thing to be put to a vote.

Meryl got her developers charter in the end without a fight.


Emlyn said...

Cywiriad. Fe ddywedais i yn glir iawn fy mod yn bwriadu pleidleisio yn erbyn y Cynllun Datblygu Lleol a dyna a wnes i pan ddaeth e'n amser i bleidleisio. Roedd e'n amhosibl i mi weld beth oedd yn digwydd y tu ol i mi ond bwriad y Grwp oedd pleidleisio yn erbyn - ond fe aeth yn draed moch.


Anonymous said...

Emlyn- plaid voted several different ways. Some thought that as your amendment became the substantive motion that they would vote for it. Most abstained. It may have been the intention of the group to vote against, but they roughly split a third each way.

Cneifiwr said...

Diolch Emlyn. Wedi gweld y darllediad, mae'n amhosib dweud beth ddigwyddodd.

m1books said...

In certain areas of the County the impact of the LDP on health services, particularly already overstretched GP practices, will be significant. It is my understanding that there is no requirement for statutory consultation with local health boards within the planning process, although local town and community councils continue to be advised of development within their areas.

Cllr Alun Lenny said...

If you think the debate was horrendous to watch, imagine being part of it, Cneifiwr! It was shambolic, quite shocking. In fact, it appears clearer on the webcast than it was in reality, due to some events and observations off camera. You will notice, for instance, that the chair (who was struggling with a heavy cold) didn’t always remember to turn his microphone on. As you note, councillors were told that if we didn’t accept the LDP, it would be imposed on us by Welsh Government.
I spoke early on, insisting we should drop the draconiain conditions in the SPG (Supplementary Planning Guidance) relating to the reuse of redundant rural buildings – an issue which is of considerable interest to rural people. At that stage, despite being quite alert and trying to follow events, I wasn’t sure if we were discussing the LDP as a whole or if I could speak about this particular SPG. I asked the question of the chair but was met with silence, so I carried on. As we are only allowed to speak once under the present ridiculous rules, I had to include my critisism of the LDP with my comments on the need to change the SPG to make it easier for rural buildings to be converted into homes. Why build huge estates on valuable and rapidly-diminishing farming land when there are thousands of empty houses and other buildings in the county?
Councillors weren’t the only ones confused by events. During the debate Mark James, Eifion Bowen and, it appeared, Linda Rees Jones held an emergency sub-committee meeting around the ‘top table’ on this issue, as various members tried to make sense of things. By then, it was obvious that the ‘speak only once’ rule had gone out of the window. Possibly alarmed that Plaid members were in danger of taking control of the situation, Terry Davies moved progress. When the chair called a vote, I suspect that a number of members thought we were voting for the amended SPG – not the LDP itself. I abstained, along with several other Plaid members and one Independent.
One bright note - Council accepted the Plaid proposal to amend the SPG relating to the reuse of rural buildings. This should make it much easier for local people to turn rural building into homes or businesses. That, at least, should be a boost to the local economy and communities across Carmarthenshire. Other SPGs, such as the one relating to the Welsh Language, may also be open to amendment in future. The LDP itself was accepted, under threat of Welsh Government intervention, in an atmosphere of chaos and confusion. A dark day in many ways.

Anonymous said...

The meetings are always horrendous to watch because the majority of councillors are simply not up to the job. It is clear from the webcasts that they are attending meetings without having read up on the agenda items beforehand and therefore are not in a position to contribute to the debate in a meaningful way or ask a coherent question.
Also many members seem have a poor grasp of the procedure rules - this is amply and painfully demonstrated by the Chair. Surely, any self respecting councillor should know these inside out and use them to advantage when required, until they do Mr James will continue to rule the roost.

Many of these councillors who purport to represent their local communities give the impression that the LDP has appeared out of the blue – it has been under consideration since 2007 (see LDP key dates and meetings). Developers were definitely not as unenlightened and saw the LDP as a potential way to make a quick buck by trying to get their land included via Alternative Sites.

I definitely don’t want to tar all councillors with the same brush. However, at the moment, there seems to be far too many who treat the roll simply as a means to supplement their pension by doing little more than turning up and raising a hand when told to do so.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous @ 17:27 you have hit the nail on the head.Of course you are right.Some of the councillors are way out of their depth.As long as Mark James is there telling them what to think or do Carmarthenshire will never have any semblance of democracy or good practice.
If he does leave we will then see more of a shambles than we are seeing now.Until the people of carmarthen themselves realise the calibre of some of their councillors and vote in`people
of substance will there be any change.

Anonymous said...

Plaid get in the real world we need houses for young people be it if the speak English or Welsh etc the route you are going down is very close to be raciest jobs will follow and shop keepers will be happy so lets all work together we have people in my area 8 people in a 3 bedroom house , and it will stop our young people going away and over the years local builders will have more work etc

Redhead said...

He ain't going nowhere: new rules mean that if council chiefs are employed elsewhere within local government in the 12 months after severance they have to pay it back: one twelfth for each month up to 12 months. My guess: he will go part-time and then leave with less to pay back or just stick around. People like him have no shame so it the mud stuck to him won't worry him one little bit.

Anonymous said...


‘Recovery of public sector exit payments’ is part of the ‘Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill 2014-15’ and has just finished its consultation stage. It is still at the committee stage in the House of Lords so is not law yet, it is due to be implemented no later than April 2016.

m1books said...

Anon 17.27 you are absolutely right and as others have noted, it has been painful to watch both the non-participation and the bumbling and babbling of others. If you are a school governor, and particularly once voted into the Chair, you have to attend a range of mandatory training courses to ensure your ability to understand both policy and procedures. You are also accountable including finance (meaning millions) And guess what? we are all volunteers! And guess what again - we never claim expenses...

Anonymous said...

You know what i did it for 25 years and did not get paid and went to all the courses and at the end of it i had a thank you from the school secretary , not a word from the head master ( i could write a book it would be a best seller ) , i did it for the community i live in