As meetings of Carmarthenshire County Council go, the January meeting of the full council was a dull affair with a very thin agenda. Rather than give an account of the meeting, let's examine some of the subjects which came up and a couple which did not.
The Chief Executive, Mark James, seemed to be in a fairly subdued mood and did not intervene as much as he usually does.
The remarkable thing is that we now have the highest paid council chief executive in Wales who would rather not be in the job, and if Labour's recent statements are anything to go by, a large majority of councillors who would be happy to see the back of him.
Not so much a local authority, more a hostage situation.
None of this was on the agenda, of course, and it probably never will be. As we now know, the council's HR managers drew up a list of ten options for councillors to consider, and the key question was whether there is a business case to support a payout which could cost the council nearly half a million pounds. It is understood that Mr James let it be known through the HR department that he would like the dosh to be paid after the start of the new tax year, even though the severance scheme comes to an end before then.
A large chunk of the cost of saying goodbye to Mr James is related to his pension, and this blog has it from a reliable source that there is an added complication because he has not rejoined the Dyfed Pension Fund since the WAO report found his original opt-out arrangements to be unlawful.
Plaid's position on Mr James is that he should not be paid a penny to go, and what with this being an election year, Labour has also undergone a very late conversion. Unknown is what Meryl Gravell's Independents think about all this, although as the chief executive's political representatives on earth, we can probably guess.
Unless Mr James has an extremely lucrative new job lined up, it seems likely that he will be with us for some time to come.
The saddest moment of the meeting came with a decision to close Llanfynydd School. The local councillor, Mansel Charles (Plaid), spoke movingly of the school's history and the part it has played in the lives of so many people for 285 years.
As so often, Cllr Charles noted, the end became inevitable when it was put about by the press (briefed by County Hall of course) that the school may not have a long-term future. This scares parents into moving their children to other schools, and so we have a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A huge swathe of north Carmarthenshire has now been left without a single primary school, with long bus and car journeys for very young children.
All of this has been done to save money, although how much ploughing millions into new schools and busing children around the countryside really saves is a question worth asking.
Just up the road from Cneifiwr is the village of Capel Iwan, set in beautiful countryside and with some very nice houses. It has no pub, no shop, no post office and now no school. The village is of a decent size, and with the surrounding farms and hamlets should be able to support a school, but all it has left is a village hall tucked away behind the slowly decaying village school. The site occupied by the former school and hall is large, but unless anyone wants to buy a fairly small, semi-derelict school building which sits on an otherwise empty plot a few feet from a village hall with shared access, it is unlikely that anything other than demolition awaits Ysgol Capel Iwan.
Capel Iwan is now not much more than a collection of houses; as a community it is dying. There are many good sized family homes, but prices have plummeted and few people with families would want to move somewhere with so little to offer.
Because the village has no facilities and is a long way from the shops and the doctors, there are quite a few elderly residents who would like to move as well, but find they are unable to sell.
The only way that schools in places like Capel Iwan and Llanfynydd can be saved is if parents make a stand, work together and keep their children in local schools, but an increasingly common sight in these parts is mothers with children commuting long distances to school and passing several small schools on their way.
Thematic reviews and strategic triangulation
The main event this month was the presentation of the annual report of the Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales (CSSIW). As in previous years, it was a long and fairly monotonous delivery of jargon and buzz words, with a lengthy and unnecessary preamble explaining the role of the CSSIW.
What emerged was that the CSSIW thinks the council is doing a very good job. That social and children's services are good in parts is undoubtedly true, but the very positive picture painted was somewhat at odds with the experiences of some people at least.
Cllr Bill Thomas (Lab) raised the case of a young man with autism who desperately needed an advocate to help him navigate the complexities of dealing with officialdom. He had been trying to help this young man for years, without success.
Cllr Thomas was immediately slapped down by the chief executive who told him to raise the matter with the Director of Social Services (present, but silent on this matter). We can safely assume that Bill Thomas as a very experienced councillor had already tried that and failed, but he was not going to be allowed to say so.
Emlyn Dole, the Plaid group leader, wondered why the report gave a glowing account of services for looked after children but noted that many foster carers were not getting the annual review which they are supposed to get by law.
The lady from the CSSIW said that because it was a legal requirement, the Inspectorate had been obliged to raise the matter, but hinted that this was really just a box ticking thing. Nothing to worry about, then, but the inspectors had covered their backs in case anything went wrong.
Purely by coincidence, two days after the meeting, the council published a notice on its website advising readers that the Ombudsman for Public Services had found against the council following a complaint about "opportunities that were missed to follow up
reports regarding the welfare of a child and to subsequently assess the
No mention of this in the CSSIW report which was more concerned with thematic reviews than real people, and we will have to wait a little longer to find out what the complaint was about because the council will be obliged to publish it.
This would appear to be the latest case of a public watchdog in Wales (see Old Grumpy for more) failing to pick up on what should be under its nose, but then if you examine the list of "visits and inspections undertaken during the year", you will find that most of these visits and inspections appear to have taken place in County Hall, including "engagement meetings with senior council officers".
Bearing in mind that there have been a number of very worrying cases of whistleblowing in the county's social services, it is surprising to say the least that no mention at all is made of this in the report.
Instead, the CSSIW learned in its engagement meetings that the council "benefits from strong leadership".
The subject of looked after children is one which is rarely debated openly, but it brings with it enormous social and financial costs. What seems to be clear is that Carmarthenshire and other authorities in this part of Wales are looking after large numbers of children who come from elsewhere. In one case almost half of the children in a primary school in a neighbouring county are in local authority care.
This is a something this blog would like to return to in due course. If any foster carers, social services professionals or others with knowledge of the system would like to get in touch, please do so through the e-mail address at the top of this blog. All contributions will be treated in confidence.