Saturday 15 April 2017

Election Tour 2017: Llangennech and Parc Howard

This week's Llanelli Herald contains an interesting update on the aborted fundraiser for a judicial review of the council's decision to establish a Welsh-medium school in the village.

Watkins and Gunn, the law firm which the CrowdJustice website said was running with the case, told the newspaper that it had not been instructed and had only answered some questions from unnamed parties as to how a judicial review might be funded.

The newspaper initially took this response at face value and concluded that the fundraising appeal may have been a scam - until its attention was drawn to a formal press release issued the week before by Mr Michael Imperato, a partner in the law firm.

The press release quotes Mr Imperato as follows:

There are 2 or 3 really good legal points – not least that there has been no provision made by the Council for English-speaking pupils who might otherwise have started at the school......I can’t emphasise enough that this case raises a fundamental issue about the balance between Welsh and English medium education. We want to see both languages thriving. Here, though, English medium education is basically being closed down.

As the newspaper points out, Mr Imperato's press release runs a coach and horses through his subsequent claim not to have been involved in anything more than answering questions about funding.

The newspaper notes that the person responsible for handling the firm's PR is Gemma Robertson, previously a reporter working for the Western Mail and Llanelli Star.

Curiously, both newspapers parroted the Imperato press release almost verbatim, no questions asked, as did the Carmarthenshire Families Online website run by Karen Deacon, one of the anti-Welsh medium campaigners, although she forgot to tell readers about her involvement when she posted up press releases asking for money and deleted comments which were critical of the attempt to raise funds for court action.

The crowd-funding appeal was suddenly pulled without explanation on 8 April, but neither newspaper got round to reporting this development until 11 April.

Both the Western Mail and the Llanelli Star have considerable form when reporting the Llangennech story from the point of view of the anti-Welsh medium campaigners, most spectacularly when they ran a completely untrue story claiming that the campaigners had been targeted, having their tyres slashed and being subjected to verbal abuse in public. They even went so far as to implicate Cymdeithas yr Iaith, before publishing an apology.

While it is now pretty clear who was behind the crowd-funding appeal, the mystery remains as to why it was aborted. There would seem to be two possible explanations: either Watkins and Gunn got cold feet and realised that the case could damage the firm's reputation, or there was political intervention, most likely from Cardiff Bay, with 'Welsh' Labour needing the renewed controversy in the middle of an election campaign like a hole in the head.

Judging by Llanelli Labour's sudden and total silence on the schools issue, the second explanation is looking increasingly plausible.

Having campaigned vociferously against establishing a Welsh-medium school in the village and stoked division and bigotry, Gary "Poumista" Jones and Jacqueline Seward, Labour's two candidates, appear to have taken a vow of silence, and Lee Waters also seems to have been told to put a sock in it.

After posing as a poilu ("hairy one"), Gary Jones has now taken to posting pictures of his friends, a collection of logs with crudely painted faces on them which he refers to as "Gary's Gang":

The logs are at least a captive and uncritical audience for claims being made by Gary and the rest of Llanelli Labour that Plaid is planning to sell off Parc Howard.

The film, which you can view here, includes interviews from most of the major players in the Parc Howard saga, and while it is not entirely free of bias, nobody watching it could conclude that Plaid is about to close the park to the public.

The Parc Howard story has taken many twists and turns, but it was Carmarthenshire County Council under the previous Labour-Independent administration which put the park on the so-called asset transfer list.

Things then became very murky, with Ken Rees (UKIP), former chair of the Friends of Parc Howard and one of Meryl's old friends, entering into secret discussions with some, cough, interesting private investors. Lurking in the shadows was Cllr Meryl Gravell who certainly knows rather more about that episode than she lets on in the film.

If the Labour group, which was after all running the council together with Meryl at the time, did not know all about this, they should be asking some serious questions of the chief executive and Meryl Gravell, but for some strange reason, they have never got around to doing that.

One of Emlyn Dole's first actions as council leader was to take Parc Howard off the asset transfer list, but the council has at least been consistent in its message that the park needs to become financially self-supporting.

Meryl pops up several times in the course of the film, repeating allegations that opposition from unnamed local sources torpedoed a bid to gain millions of pounds in funding to overhaul the house and grounds from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The HLF has denied that this was so, saying instead that there were weaknesses in the case brought before it by the council.

As Meryl was responsible as portfolio holder for the substandard HLF application, readers can probably understand why she is so determined to pin the blame on unidentified local troublemakers.

Meryl will be stepping down as both councillor and Executive Board member for Regeneration and Leisure in three weeks from now, but technically she is still in post. Why anyone in County Hall thought it was a good idea to wheel her out for the cameras is anyone's guess, but predictably all we got was the sound of old axes being ground and no new revelations about her role in the Locaventures scandal.

The long and the short of it is that Parc Howard will remain open to the public and in public ownership, although the council's big new idea is to lease part of the house for use as a wedding venue.

Whether or not that is a good idea is open to debate, but Parc Howard is not going to be "lost" to Llanelli as the trolls lurking behind the CUSC SOPAP account* and Gary Jones are suggesting.

If Llanelli Labour were serious about the future of Parc Howard they would come clean about their involvement in what really did almost amount to a sell-off to Locaventures and engage constructively with other parties.

But it's so much easier to lob hysterical accusations about.

* CUSC SOPAP (Carmarthenshire United Sports Committee and Save Our Parks and Playgrounds) began life as an action group campaigning against Labour's plans to transfer responsibility for running sports facilities in the south of the county to local community councils and sports clubs, bringing the Llanelli area into line with the rest of the county which does not benefit from council subsidised bowling greens, etc.

The policy went spectacularly wrong under the leadership of Kevin Madge, with some clubs complaining of massive hikes in costs. CUSC SOPAP has now morphed into a branch of the Llanelli Labour Party.


Anonymous said...

I've been following the Llangennech CrowdJustice saga with great interest over the last week or so.

Those familiar with the behaviour of the Llangennech protesters over recent months should not be surprised by this latest attempt to keep their troubled campaign alive. The media have certainly been more than ready to print their lies and accusations as being the truth.

It was however, extremely surprising to see a reputable firm of solicitors getting involved with this group of protesters who are happy to ignore the due process followed with regards the changes at Llangennech.

You suggest one possible explanation to the crowd-funding being pulled is that 'Watkins and Gunn got cold feet and realised that the case could damage the firm's reputation'.

If that is true then Watkins and Gunn have now joined the many others who have been duped during this toxic saga.

m1books said...

It is deplorable that the importance of an issue such as young people’s education has become embroiled in viscous personal attacks and political dirty tricks clearly linked to the forthcoming elections. However one wonders just how much time such ‘campaigners’ on either side have actually spent reading and digesting the information that is out there, clear as a bell. Have the would be politicos actually read the Welsh Government documents on the welsh language, have parents troubled to wrestle with the County Council website to find the Carmarthenshire Welsh in Education Strategic Plan – I suspect very few. The discussions, that have now turned nasty, should have started much, much earlier because it is all there in black and white - 3 transitional primary schools to go Welsh medium and 11 dual stream schools to move along the “language continuum” at a monitored pace. Of course in CCC’s usual less than open and transparent style the documents do not actually spell out clearly which schools by name – they are more informative about the secondary school programme. 30 odd years ago parents were faced with the same primary categorisation dilemmas – it is no use wingeing after the event. Whichever side of any debate you are sitting on, this miserable county council needs constant challenge. You have to become informed, write letters, write more letters when you get stupid replies, ask questions at meetings until the final decisions are irrevocably made. Sorry Llangennech – too little too late and too much interference from those who don’t really care.