Sunday 18 December 2016

Strictly Slurry (Updated)

It has been a very long time, but with Mrs Cneifiwr ensconced in front of the box for last night's marathon Strictly finale and a homework assignment on the county's Local Development Plan which couldn't be put off for much longer, Cneifiwr decided to seek alternative entertainment by tuning into the webcast of last week's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council.

There was no glitterball in sight, and some of the performances would definitely not have received a "Ten from Len". This being the last monthly meeting before Christmas, it was, unlike previous years, a remarkably sober occasion with not a whiff of jollity in the air.

Missing in Action

First up we had the role call of absentees, or at least those councillors who had got around to sending in an apology. The chief executive intoned a long list of names, most of whom should have been sitting on the Labour benches. Around a third of the Labour group had not bothered showing up for a meeting which covered a lot of topics which would be of concern to their voters, including social care, water, access to social housing, the environment and the Local Development Plan.

The list did not include Cllr Keri Thomas (Lab, Tyisha) whose attendance record over the last 10 years must rank as one of the worst for any councillor anywhere in Wales. If he was in the chamber, Cllr Thomas was keeping a very low profile.

Keri Thomas is due to stand down at next May's elections, but by nominating the much younger Rob James  to represent Lliedi ward, the Labour Party is clearly determined to continue the Thomas absentee tradition.

Young Rob is currently a councillor in Neath where his attendance record has almost been as poor as Keri's.

As we were to see a little later in the meeting, having virtual councillors on its books who draw a full salary and turn up to just enough meetings to avoid being struck off is quite a sensible tactic for Labour, because at least they won't embarrass the party leadership by singing from a different hymn sheet.

On the other hand, Mr James told us that Cllr Tegwen Devichand (Lab, Dafen) would not be gracing the meeting with her presence, so perhaps she had employed a body double because someone looking remarkably like Dafen Dolly sat scowling on the backbenches, furiously chewing gum. There like some latterday Lady Macbeth, she had squeezed in next to the corpse of poor old Kevin Madge, whose career as council leader she had so brutally terminated.

Not only did a lot of Labour councillors not bother showing up, but the Labour group had not bothered to exercise its right to table questions for the governing Executive Board. Just as in Westminster where we need an effective opposition more than ever, Labour in Carmarthenshire has given up trying.

For readers who think Cneifiwr is off on another rant against Labour, he later found himself shouting a Len Goodman "SE-VEN!!!"  after some not half-bad contributions from Kevin Madge and Calum Higgins. Well, it is Christmas, after all.

Dad's Army

Carmarthenshire County Council operates a Buggins' turn system of appointing a Chair who is supposed to fulfill the role of First Citizen and ensure that meetings of full council are, in the words of the constitution, "a forum for the debate of matters of concern to the local community and the place at which councillors are able to hold the executive board and committee chairs to account".

The constitution adds that it it the chair's duty to "uphold the dignity of the office at all times". That is the theory, but in practice for every good or half decent office holder, the system tends to deliver several complete duds such as Ivor Jackson (Ind) and Daff Elmer Fudd Davies (Ind).

According to rumour, Labour was supposed to have nominated the saintly maverick (and now sadly deselected) Bill Thomas, but Lady Macbeth and friends put forward Eryl Morgan instead. Eryl (Lab, Bigyn), may well be a very nice man, and he looks the part if your idea of local government has not moved on since the 1940s. He would make a very good understudy for the role of bumbling pin-striped town clerk in Warmington-on-Sea being bossed about by Captain Mainwaring.

At the end of each item on the agenda, the chair is supposed to read out the next heading, such as "6.3 Annual Report of HM Inspector of Sewers". Eryl just sits there staring blankly into space to the sound of coughing from the floor until a whisper from stage left (the Chief Executive, Mark James) gives him permission to speak.

Eryl is not waving but drowning, and his incompetence only serves to strengthen the hand of the over-mighty chief executive who last week popped up at every conceivable opportunity, and spoke more than any of the 74 councillors who nominally run the show.


Up before the council were two motions, Cllr Alun Lenny's proposals for a compromise in the Jacqui Thomas case having been vetoed on completely spurious grounds.

Cllr Siân Thomas wanted the council to consider adopting a new policy to ensure that in future all public signs on council-owned property should not only be bilingual but also be written in correct Welsh (or English, for that matter) and verified by the council's translation unit.

This followed the unveiling of a war memorial in Llanelli which included an inscription written in garbage. Cllr Thomas pointed out that this was disrespectful to those being commemorated as well as the Welsh language.

Not very controversial, you would think. The dire results of cutting corners by using Google Translate and non-Welsh speakers armed with dictionaries to come up with attempts at Welsh have caused embarrassment to more than one organisation, as Tesco in Aberystwyth could testify:

Is that a bank card in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?

But dog-whistle politics are in vogue in Llanelli where sections of the Labour Party have decided that attacking the Welsh language may be a vote winner, and so the lugubrious Labour leader, Cllr Jeff Edmunds, intoned that he was not against Jews, immigrants, the Irish, Gypsies the Welsh language, but the motion was disrespectful to the people who had raised money to pay for the new memorial.

The thinly populated Labour benches behind him disagreed, and Cllrs Calum Higgins and Terry Davies (Lab, Ammanford faction) intervened in support of the motion. "SE-VEN!!"

Given the apparent strength of his feelings against the motion, you would have thought that Jeff Edmunds would have voted against it, but when the vote came all of the Labour councillors present voted in favour of it and against their "leadership", with Jeff Edmunds and Lady Macbeth lamely abstaining.

Donald Trump

Later in the meeting, councillors turned their attention to Carmarthenshire's Local Development Plan, adopted two years ago but out of date even before it received the rubber stamp, as Cllr Alun Lenny (Plaid) helpfully pointed out.

This was the first annual monitoring report, and one question which went unasked might have been why it took the planning department a year to come up with its first report on a plan which had been in place for two whole years.

The plan provides for a massive splurge of house building across the county on the back of population and household forecasts which everyone except the Welsh Government and planning departments across Wales knew were wildly wrong, long before the LDPs which are based on them completed their tortuous journeys.

What the report shows is that the numbers of houses being built fall far short of the official targets. In practice, this means that the LDP is little more than a charter for big developers to cherry pick sites, with the interests of existing communities disregarded in the scramble for quick profits.

Cllr Lenny pointed out that the plan was due to be reviewed a couple of years from now, and he hoped the review would reconsider the need for badly needed smaller developments in rural areas, before adding, rather gloomily, "if we are all still here".

Rising from his uncomfortable perch next to his assassin, Kevin Madge (Lab) pointed out that a great deal had changed since the LDP was adopted. There was Brexit for starters, and then Trump. The council should meet to come up with a plan to deal with the new world order. "SE-VEN!!"

Thin-skinned as ever, the chief executive appeared to take this as criticism. The council had plans, lots of plans, very good plans, plans for anything you could care to think of, and these plans involved billions of pounds to be spent in the long-term. They were, in fact, long-term plans, he declared.

Warming to his theme, Mr James was off. He had recently been up to London, not to see the Queen, but to present some of his plans in Whitehall. He had also been to Cardiff presenting plans for the Swansea Bay City Region, which of course include Meryl's Wonderful World of Wellness. Who knows, perhaps he will shortly be on a plane to New York to bid for a Trump Tower in Llanelli.

Nobody was rude enough to point out that the track record of Mark James's "won't cost you a penny" plans did not exactly inspire confidence, even if we overlook the minor problem that all of his current stock of plans pre-date both Brexit and Trump.

At that point, something must have caught Mr James's eye from the floor because he generously invited the council leader, Cllr Emlyn Dole (Plaid) to say a few words. If he hadn't, no doubt the carping critics would have said that this council was as officer-led as ever.


Of the two motions before the council, the first dealt with the EU Nitrates Directive under which one of the options is something called the Whole Designation Territory Option. This would limit the times at which farmers could pump slurry onto their fields in an attempt to reduce run-off and pollution of our rivers.

Before the motion could be introduced, Mark James invited his legal eagle, Mrs Linda Rees Jones, to say a few words. Her long statement boiled down to saying that it was all very complicated, and that any farmers in the chamber might like to withdraw because under another daft interpretation of the rules on declaration of interests, they might run the risk of being in breach of the code of conduct.

A fairly large contingent withdrew, removing just about everyone who might know what they were talking about from the debate.

Cllr Gareth Thomas (Plaid) introduced his motion and would have outlined his proposals for an alternative to the Whole Designation Territory Option, but someone must have prodded the chair, Eryl Morgan, into cutting him short.

Several councillors declared that they did not know enough to be able to make a decision, and the way was open for a spectacular contribution from Carmarthenshire County Council's Executive Member for Ignorance, Cllr Pam Palmer (Ind).

No matter what the topic, you can always rely on Pam to stand up and make a rambling, unprepared, completely uninformed and usually bad tempered contribution, while calling for a return to good old-fashioned common sense.

Pam is one of the council's two deputy leaders, and she is paid very handsomely for whatever she does. The council's own records showed that in 2014 and 2015 she raked in a whisker under £75,000 on top of her pensions. She has sat around the top table in the council for pretty much the entire period since Carmarthenshire re-emerged from Dyfed, and must have been paid hundreds of thousands of pounds during that time. Her rag bag of mostly meaningless job titles includes "Community Planning" and "Rural Affairs".

Fair enough that she does not know a great deal about slurry management or the Nitrates Directive, although a more diligent councillor might have taken time to read up before taking the floor in County Hall.

Pam's ignorance went much, much deeper than that.

"I thought we'd had Brexit", she declared, wondering why anyone was still fussing about EU Directives, which she appears to think can now just be ignored.

We can only assume that our Executive Member for Rural Affairs and Deputy Council Leader does not read a newspaper (although perhaps she takes the Daily Express) or follow the news. If she did, she would know that while Brexit may mean Brexit, and while it may be red, white and blue, purple with yellow dots, hard, soft or medium boiled, we are still a long way off from Brexit, and all of the Directives she would like to ignore are likely to be the law of the land for a long time to come. That would include various directives which underpin areas of council policy for which she is responsible, including (laughably) Bio-diversity and Sustainability.

Update 19 December

Thanks to Anon for drawing attention to another example of the value Pam Palmer brings to public life. In the October meeting of the Executive Board members were asked to consider a report on the council's new programme of building affordable housing. Pam wanted to know what powers the council had to control letting rights. "Obviously, we provide the land...I just want to know what control we have over the letting of those houses".

Confused looks all round until it emerged that Pam thought the council was talking about housing associations, whereas this was the council's flagship housebuilding scheme, as she would have realised if she had read the report she was about to vote on.

Anywhere else there would be calls for the resignation or dismissal of a senior figure so obviously way out of her depth.


But all is not doom and gloom.

The Welsh Whisperer, whose brief run of bizarre shows on Radio Beca was much enjoyed by Cneifiwr, is apparently about to join Radio Cymru from Môn FM, where he presents the "Drive Time Show".  For anyone not familiar with the Whisperer, imagine Val Doonican after eating cupcakes containing an illegal herb.

Just in time for Christmas, the Whisperer has released a new album of songs containing all manner of delights. Titles include Clic, Clywch y Cneifiwr and Loris Mansel Davies as well as what is destined to become a classic track: Ceidwad y Beudy ('Keeper of the Cowshed'). It includes the following immortal lines which must surely have been composed with Pam in mind:

Dyma gân am ferch sy'n deall ei slyri
Troi'r caeau yn fôr o garthion
Gwrtaith yn cwympo o'r nen

(Here's a song about a girl who knows her slurry,
Turning the fields into a sea of excrement,
Manure falling from the heavens)

Unfortunately we don't have time to cover this month's corporate Powerpoint presentation from Dŵr Cymru - Welsh Water, that well-known not-for-profit utility whose chief executive, Chris Jones, was paid a pitiful £768,000 in 2015. If there should be a vacancy any time soon, perhaps Mark James can be persuaded to go for it.

And so Strictly has come to an end for another year, and with any luck it will be another year before Cneifiwr is inspired to write up another council meeting.


Anonymous said...

Given your keen interest and astute observations I would hope the idea of you offering yourself as a councillor in the forthcoming elections has not passed you by. From what I read you would be well suited to keep the 'Tim, nice but dim' characters in check along with keeping Laurel and Hardy (james & rhys-jones) on their toes too.

Anonymous said...

No wonder Pam didn't want the meetings to be filmed cos some of her contributions are dire. Check out her question about affordable housing during the October Exec Board meeting

Cneifiwr said...

Thank you for your, um, kind observations Anon @17.00. I have a very fine councillor in Hazel Evans, and I look forward to voting for her again in May.

Anonymous said...

Cneifiwr @ 18:31 – is that the same very fine councillor, who in February 2014 voted in favour of a motion to accept the WAO's report and remove the unlawful libel indemnity cover; then, as one of the ’famous five’ Plaid members of the Executive Board at it's secret meeting on the 21st March, voted to follow the very fine example of the Chief Executive and pursue Jacqui Thompson for recovery of full costs?

Cneifiwr said...

Anon @18.31 No one's perfect, but Hazel is a very good, very experienced councillor who works extremely hard. I also know that she listens to the views of her voters. The sad truth is that I don't think the Executive Board had any choice on 21st March - the blame lies fairly and squarely with the members of the board who approved the indemnity with no safeguards or restrictions back in 2012.

Tessa said...

ROFL! OMG Cneifiwr, you're hilarious! No please DON'T stand for council, you'd do a good job, spend too much time doing it, get sod-all achieved because of the bleating sheep majority in there - and you wouldn't have time to write your superb posts. I'm SO glad you resumed your blog!

Anonymous said...

Dafen "brass neck" dolly sits by Kevin poor kev . Oh well maybe shes realised jeff is worse ? After all they had a big fall out and hes not as placid as kev !! Karma is turning the wheel i hope !

Sian Caiach said...

In the spirit of the season can I point out that Teg Devichand was absent at the beginning of the Dec meeting due to attending a funeral and sneaked in at the back later. The fruit juice and mince pie reception following the meeting, hosted by the chair was pretty dire. Full of empty pleasantries, moans from a few of the old boys about the lack of alcohol and for those brave enough to try the mince pies -speculation as to which supermarket "value" range they had come from. There were a lot left over.
I didn't risk a taste!
Nadolig Llawen.

Anonymous said...

Such a pity it was only orange juice anything stronger might have given some courage to say what they have consistently failed to say in the chamber i.e Mark James On yer bike.
We still live in hope.

Anonymous said...

"speculation as to which supermarket "value" range they had come from. There were a lot left over. "

No doubt paid for out of mark scrooge james petty cash. I can just imagine him sending 'the boy' off to Lidls for their 'finest' mince pies, whilst contemplating his own Christmas hamper deliveries from Fortnum & Mason.

Mustn't let the plebs get in the way of things must we now...

Anonymous said...

Let us hope in 2017 a clean broom sweeps through the dirt that lies in every corner of this rotten council. It only takes a few good men and the will!