Thursday 30 April 2015

Free for all

The Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee of Carmarthenshire County Council has been looking into the council's spend on "third sector" organisations, or in plainer language charities and various voluntary groups. The figures are stunning, and the conclusions even more worrying.

In 2013/14 the total spent was £19.2 million. This figure fell to £16.85 million the following year, and further reductions have been identified as a result of the investigation. What triggered the review was "anecdotal information" that there was a "lack of co-ordination of spend and strategic focus". In other words, huge amounts of money have been being splashed around by different departments with duplication and nobody in overall charge.

The result was that in 2013/14 over 1,000 organisations and individuals received funding ranging from just £100 to over £1 million. The way the council awards contracts varies across departments, and in some cases contracts have just been rolled over without anything much in the way of scrutiny.

The report, which is unusually frank for Carmarthenshire County Council, also notes that there are discrepancies between what departmental managers say they are spending and what the actual financial data shows, as well as what council managers say they are spending and what the recipients themselves "believe" they are receiving.

There is no doubt that this has been going on for years in a body which likes to claim that it is one of the best run councils in Wales.

Tuesday 28 April 2015

Shades of Tower Hamlets

The Llanelli Star reported last week on the public brawl involving Cllr Tegwen Devichand and Cllr Theressa Bowen (Ind) at a meeting of Llanelli Rural Council. Both councillors are also members of Carmarthenshire County Council, and Cllr Devichand is deputy leader of that august body, no less.

It is understood that both councillors have complained to the Ombudsman for Public Services about breaches of the members' code of conduct, and an investigation has begun. It is likely to be months before the matter is resolved, and there is a swirl of claims and counter-claims about who did what and who started it.

Although their complaints are not in the public domain, the accusation will be that they have brought their office into disrepute. In the case of Cllr Devichand, who is one of the most senior members of the County Council, an additional question to be considered is whether she brought the authority she represents into disrepute.

Cllr Devichand should stand down from the Executive Board while the investigation is carried out, but the chances of this happening voluntarily and with dignity are slim to vanishing. Kevin Madge has the power to make her go, but that would risk civil war in the Labour Party.

The instinct of many readers will be to dismiss the incident as a spat between two people who were once friends, but there are reasons to believe that the dispute goes much deeper than that.

There is growing evidence that Cllr Bowen is now the victim of a vicious campaign of intimidation and bullying, with several Labour councillors joining in. One allegedly claims to have seen Cllr Bowen's medical records.

All the more remarkable when you consider that some of those throwing stones live in particularly large glass houses.

What began with a confrontation in a doorway could end up lifting the lid on the nest of vipers that is Labour in Llanelli, controlled by a tiny clique which ruthlessly uses patronage, smears and bullying to maintain its grip.

Saturday 25 April 2015

Toxic legacy - Updated

Update 25 April

The archived webcast of the planning meeting is now available here. A decision on the 6 planning applications in and around the former Grillo site was deferred, with councillors agreeing that perhaps it would be a good idea actually to go and look at it, what with most of the current members of the planning committee never having been to see the place for themselves.

Several councillors were clearly annoyed that the Welsh Government had intervened, and that whoever made the request to have the applications called in had done so at the last minute. Rather creepily, several were also keen to know the identity of who had shoved a spanner in the works.

Meryl Gravell will now be asked to write one of her "Disgusted of Trimsaran" letters, although some councillors were keen for the committee also to write a letter to the minister expressing their feelings about what had happened.

Wisely the council's solicitor advised that this might give the impression that the committee had already made its mind up before the meeting. Heaven forbid that anyone should think such evil thoughts.

In reality, the council does not publish planning officers' reports and recommendations until a few days before meetings, and interested parties usually have just a few days to read through huge amounts of documentation.

The head of planning also acknowledged that the proposed housing development on the Grillo site would have had to go to Cardiff anyway because it is not part of the council's recently approved Local Development Plan. He also reminded councillors that Carmarthenshire County Council had been instructed by the Welsh Government not to allow development of the site, although changes to the flood maps had encouraged the council to have another go.

For more detailed analysis of some of the issues, see two recent posts on West Wales News Review where the author raises important questions about the economics underlying the scheme.

The cost of tackling the contamination on the Grillo site, the roads and other infrastructure needed, requirements to build affordable homes (the percentage is not specified in the application or report) and contributions to new community facilities, such as the school, will be a huge drag on profitability.

Are we about to see another raid on the council's reserves, this time to help out Lord Magan?

Update 23 April

As can be seen from Caebrwyn's comment below, the Welsh Government has put a temporary stop to the applications while it considers requests to have them called in. Meryl is apparently not best pleased.


We recently saw how in Carmarthenshire you can fell trees, strip a site of vegetation, remove the topsoil and quarry a Special Area of Conservation without this being deemed to have "a significant effect" on the site.

This blog will return to Cernydd Carmel soon to take a look at what other work has been done to improve on nature, including construction of an exciting new tarmac road.

Meanwhile, it's off to Burry Port and the site of the former Grillo zinc oxide works. We have been there before, most recently in November 2013 when the county council and a firm of developers sheltering in the tax haven of the Isle of Man took the Welsh Government to court for blocking development of the heavily contaminated site.

Castletown Estates Ltd and Carmarthenshire County Council lost that fight, and no doubt quite a bit of our money went on helping the shareholders of Castletown (Lord Magan of Castletown and another family member) with their court battles.

Lord Magan is a merchant banker and prominent Tory member of the House of Lords - all the right credentials to secure the backing of the Labour Party in Carmarthenshire, in other words.

The developer would like to build houses there, and the council appears to be very keen to help, and so a flurry of new planning applications are waiting for approval in and around the Grillo site when the Planning Committee meets this Thursday.

In what looks like an uncanny replay of the Stradey Park saga, a large part of the site was considered to be prone to tidal flooding back in 2013, but now it is not.

Quite why the flood risk maps in Carmarthenshire change so frequently when controversial planning applications are involved is a question for another day, but at Stradey Park it will be remembered that the area was in a floodplain, then it wasn't, and then it was again.

Anyone thinking of putting their name down for a new-build on the Grillo site would be advised to bear in mind that the maps could well change again, bringing all sorts of problems to residents.

But if you don't get flooded or find that re-designation of the area causes you all sorts of problems with your insurers, you might want to think about what lies under your home. If you are not planning to move there, you may still be worried about how the contamination is going to be dealt with and what the impact could be on the surrounding area, including yet another Special Area of Conservation.

The relevant planning application numbers are s/30597, s/30598,  s/30599, s/30600, s/30601 [free road access to the Grillo site], and s/30678 - the Grillo site itself.

The developer would like to build up to 230 homes and a mix of retail and leisure facilities. The nature of the leisure facilities is not known, but if the scheme goes ahead Burry Port will get its own out-of-town shopping centre and a pub/restaurant. Naturally, the council is recommending acceptance even though the site was not earmarked for housing development under the recently approved Local Development Plan.

The biggest single obstacle facing the scheme is contamination from the former works. Here is what the planning officer's report has to say:

Metals in soils at concentrations high enough to pose a risk to human health are widespread. Asbestos has been identified in a few locations.
It is concluded that the most appropriate method for soil treatment is to import the top 1m of clean cover in areas of gardens and soft landscaping on all of the sites to be developed. Due to the presence of asbestos, and its possible presence in locations that have not been subject to intrusive investigation, earth moving should be kept to a minimum during construction, and appropriate health and safety procedures used. Dust blow, in particular, should be prevented. Soils should only be removed for treatment to a waste facility if ground levels cannot be raised, and excavation is needed before placing the clean cover.

It doesn't sound very inviting, does it?

Commenting on the draft planning report in March, the council's officer responsible for planning ecology noted a discrepancy:

The report conclusion section 4.3 states that a mitigation strategy must be produced which details proposed translocation of scarce species recorded on the site to a suitable area within the MCP [Millennium Coastal Park, Ed.] and that a new brownfield area will be created at Morfa Berwick – This is no longer a requirement, is not correct and in parts is not feasible due to the contamination at the site.

The council's preferred solution to the contamination problem is to cover the site with a layer of topsoil.

It seems that this is fine for humans but not for the other flora and fauna. 

Thursday 23 April 2015

The feathers fly - Updated

This blog has almost obsessively followed the political career of Norma Woodward, Ukip's candidate for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr ever since the party announced that she was their candidate a few months back.

Initially the party's website spelled her name wrong, and nobody knew what she looked like until comparatively recently.

Amazingly for a candidate in a general election, almost nothing else is known about her except that she lives in the constituency of Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire.

In March Ukip Wales announced that she had been deselected, and allegations were made of misconduct and irregularities involving a bank account. The party's leadership in London said that the Welsh branch had no powers to deselect her, and that she was still the candidate.

Norma began a campaign of sorts, and appeared at a hustings in Llandovery - probably her first and last public appearance. She was absent from the more recent Ammanford hustings, and the South Wales Guardian was unable to contact her when it ran a piece profiling the candidates earlier this week.

Yesterday came news that she is considering taking legal action against the party, claiming that she was "intimidated, harassed and libelled" by her colleagues in Wales.

The wheels seem to be coming off Ukip across Wales, but it is good to report that Carmarthenshire leads the way with what has to be a total collapse.


More bizarre news has come in from Llanelli where deputy leader of the County Council, Tegwen Devichand (Lab), and Cllr Theressa Bowen had a huge bust-up ahead of a meeting of Llanelli Rural Council, with the police being called to sort things out.

Cllr Bowen was elected as a Labour councillor but crossed to the Independents (in coalition with Labour) only a couple of months after becoming a councillor.

It is understood that the two women were once friends, but fell out in spectacular fashion just after the last council elections, with the police being called in once again to deal with lurid accusations. It seems that the boys in blue decided that no further action was necessary, presumably because the allegations were not supported by evidence.

According to someone present, things could have turned very nasty had it not been for an intervention by Cllr Sharen Davies to pull her mother, Tegwen Devichand, away.

Whatever the truth of the matter, public brawling which hits the headlines comes as close as anything to bringing public office into disrepute. Will Tegwen Devichand now step down from her £31,000 a year job?

To paraphrase Ed Miliband, hell no.


The members' code of conduct (6.1 (a)) states:

You must —
(a) not conduct yourself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringing your office or authority into disrepute.
The code makes it clear that this provision applies at all times, whether you are on council business or not.

Update 25 April

Anon, who would seem to be very close to Labour's top brass, left a fairly long comment which contains a number of possibly defamatory statements and wondering why this blog was not calling for the resignation of Cllr Bowen.

Well, for one thing Theressa Bowen is not a member of the Executive Board and deputy leader of the council.

According to Anon, this incident happened months ago, but the Llanelli Star says it was on 8 April. Anon also appears to believe that the Star resurrected this piece of ancient history to discredit the Labour Party.

This is surely the first time that the Star has ever been accused of being a Plaid mouthpiece. 


This is reported in the Llanelli Star, but this blog will no longer provide links to stories from that paper or its sister Carmarthen Journal because of the extremely aggressive use of online advertising on their websites. If you want your computer taken over by unwanted adverts, irritating videos and music, you know the place to go.

Monday 20 April 2015

Telling it like it isn't (Updated)

Time to catch up with the claims being made by some of our elected representatives in Cardiff Bay.

First up is Ken Skates, Labour AM for Clwyd South:

This tweet went out on 13 April before the postal ballot papers had been printed and dispatched, what with nominations only closing on 9 April.

The tweet was subsequently deleted, but packing that many porkies into a single short sentence deserves recognition.

Almost in the same league is Joyce Watson, Labour Assembly Member for Mid and West Wales, who put out this message on 16 April:

The reason Leanne didn't say it is because it's not exactly true.

According to the council itself, just 11 two-bed bungalows have been built in the county (all in the Labour-held Llanelli constituency) since Labour took over leadership of the council in May 2012, with one other specially adapted bungalow having been completed. This year the council is not expected to build any council houses at all.

Something else Joyce probably won't be telling voters is that the Welsh Government recently ranked Carmarthenshire 21st out of 22 local authorities for delivery of affordable homes.

If she has time, Joyce may also like to pick up a copy of this week's Carmarthenshire Herald and turn to page 5 where she can read all about the Brynmefys estate on the outskirts of Llanelli where there are a lot of derelict council homes, some even with trees growing through them.

One of the main reasons for this sorry state of affairs according to council sources is that Brynmefys is not on a bus route, which is probably understandable given the state it is in and the fact that hardly anyone lives there any more.

In his defence of Carmarthenshire County Council last week, Kevin Madge warned that abolishing the council would mean the end of the council's "10 year housing plan".

Update 22 April

Anon, who seems to reside in County Hall, objected strongly to the use of an image of a run-down council house taken from a council report. Not only was the house not at Brynmefys, but Cneifiwr was accused of breaching copyright.

So here is a picture of something which shows what Brynmefys actually looks like. Unfortunately for Anon, the truth is even more damning than the original picture.