Saturday 18 November 2017

Gesture politics

It's been a very long time since Cneifiwr found time to watch a webcast of Carmarthenshire County Council's monthly meeting of full council. The Independent benches are a shadow of their former selves, and there are a lot of new faces on both the Plaid and Labour benches.

Labour had submitted a motion calling for the rainbow flag to be flown over County Hall on 1st December every year to mark World Aids Day.

World Aids Day is the initiative of an organisation set up in 1988, and according to its website, "it’s an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, to show support for people living with HIV, and to commemorate those who have died from an AIDS-related illness".

Plaid put up an amendment pointing out that the internationally recognised symbol for Worlds Aids Day is a red ribbon, and several of its councillors argued that flying the rainbow flag, a symbol celebrating LGBT rights, would serve only to reinforce old misconceptions that HIV and AIDS affect gay men only.

Cllr Carl Harris reminded councillors that most AIDS and HIV sufferers in the UK were heterosexual, and he might have added that worldwide gay men make up only a small minority of people with AIDS or HIV. Among those affected are thousands of people in the UK given contaminated blood imported by the NHS from the US, including haemophiliacs.

Flying the rainbow flag would send out the wrong message, but he offered the Labour group an olive branch and said he was happy to consider other options, including trying to do something practical to help AIDS and HIV sufferers in Carmarthenshire.

As the camera slowly panned the chamber we were treated to the sight of a lot of councillors wearing red or white ribbons, or both. One of the new intake of Labour councillors was so festooned with symbols that he could have been mistaken for a Christmas tree.

Cneifiwr mischievously found himself longing for the bad old days when Cllr Pam Palmer, Abergwili's answer to Alan Partridge, would have felt compelled to stand up and contribute, but we had to make do with poor old Jeff Edmunds instead.

Jeff, sounding even more lugubrious than ever, admitted that all this rainbow, ribbon and colour stuff was something that had passed him by until he had had it explained to him the night before. He agreed with both the motion and the amendment, and wished that somehow they could be brought together.

In practical terms that would have involved Labour withdrawing its motion and taking up Cllr Harris's offer of a meeting to come up with something a bit more sensible, but it was not to be.

Having said that he supported the Plaid amendment, he then voted against it.

The Plaid amendment was then passed after Labour insisted on calling a recorded vote which involved the chief executive calling out the names of all councillors and asking Mrs Rees Jones to do her sums. That was another ten minutes of our lives we will never get back, and Labour inevitably went down to a heavy defeat.

Readers with longer memories than those on the Labour benches will recall that the flying of flags over County Hall has been the subject of controversy on a number of occasions in recent years, including a refusal by the council, then run by Labour, to fly the rainbow flag to mark pride celebrations back in February 2015.

Mr James will not be moved, it seems, and we are instead treated to the sight of the Union Jack being hoisted on numerous feast days to celebrate various birthdays and anniversaries relating to the Windsor clan, including the birthday of somebody called the Countess of Wessex.

This bizarre chapter left a lot of people scratching their heads. Why would Labour insist on flying the wrong symbol from the rooftops of County Hall on World Aids Day and refuse Cllr Harris's offer of cross-party cooperation to discuss alternatives, including the possibility of practical measures which would probably be appreciated a great deal more by AIDS and HIV sufferers than all the flags and ribbons?

Was this just another example of what has become known as "virtue signalling"?

The first clue as to what lay behind this was Labour's insistence on calling a recorded vote, which they knew they would lose.

Although the council's constitution is too polite to say so, the real purpose of recorded votes is to provide political ammunition. "Look at this, voters. They voted in favour of removing apple from apple pies/killing of the first born/a nuclear waste dump in Tyisha/rounding up fluffy kittens (delete as appropriate)".

On this occasion, Labour saw an opportunity to claim that wicked, homophobic Plaid had vetoed proposals to fly the rainbow flag.

If there were any lingering doubts, Cllr Gary 'Poumista' Jones weighed in on Twitter shortly afterwards:

Those familiar with Labour in Llanelli would not have expected anything else. Accusing political opponents both within the party's own ranks and on the outside of racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism and any number of other -isms and phobias is deeply embedded in their culture. The only exceptions are Cymraegophobia and xenophobia, seen as vote winners.

Having dealt with red ribbons, the council then turned its attention to a second Labour motion in favour of white ribbons.....

Thursday 16 November 2017

Abuse, bullying and the Assembly (updated)

We have heard a great deal recently about cases of sexual harassment and bullying in politics, and it was announced yesterday that the party leaders in the Assembly had agreed to crack down on any sexual harassment or other inappropriate behaviour by Members.

As always, the devil is in the detail, and based on my own experiences I somehow doubt that this crackdown will be as effective as it sounds in changing the culture of secrecy and privilege which shields the bullies and abusers.

Earlier this year I was made aware of comments made by a member of staff of a serving UKIP AM on Facebook. I will not name the individual, but in the course of a conversation he made some clearly threatening remarks, not against me personally, but against Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, of which I am a member.

The fact that the complaint related to threats against Cymdeithas members is really incidental to this piece, which I hope shows that yesterday's declaration does not go anywhere near far enough in tackling a culture in which bullying and abuse can thrive.

Cymdeithas is a legitimate campaign group which occasionally uses civil disobedience, and it has always been clear that it eschews violence and intimidation against people. It relies entirely on its members and supporters for funding.

The individual concerned made remarks which showed that he knew very little about Cymdeithas yr Iaith, before going on to promise that he would "hunt down" its members.

I also had evidence that this person had been involved in discussions with the Labour Party in Llangennech and Llanelli, and that he had played a part in stirring up trouble there. I was also aware that someone from the same circle had fed malicious and untrue claims of vandalism and harassment by members of Cymdeithas to the Western Mail.

It therefore seemed to me to important to try to do something to hold this person to account.

I raised the matter with officers of Cymdeithas who decided that they did not wish to pursue the matter in the name of Cymdeithas yr Iaith, but they agreed that if I so wished, I could complain as an individual.

My aim in taking up the complaint was not to have the individual dismissed, but to have it made clear to the individual and the AM for whom he works that his conduct was unacceptable.

I therefore wrote to the office of the Llywydd (presiding officer), and a couple of weeks later received a reply saying that while the individual did indeed work for a Member, he was not employed by the Assembly Commission and I should therefore refer my complaint to the Member in person.

Since correspondence to Assembly Members is dealt with not by the members themselves but by their staff, I concluded that if I did make a complaint, it would almost certainly be seen first by the person I was complaining about, and that there was a risk that I would expose myself to harassment.

Not unreasonably, I also felt that even if the UKIP Assembly Member did get to see the complaint, it was unlikely that it would be acted on.

It may well have been the case that the individual's remarks were just careless mouthing off with no serious intent, but I suspected that he was using Assembly resources to pursue a political vendetta and spread malicious and untrue smears, and I wondered what options would be open to a member of the public with much more serious complaints of inappropriate behaviour against a member of staff of an Assembly Member.

With the honourable exception of Plaid Cymru, it is common for Assembly Members from all of the other parties to employ family members on their staff. Imagine for a moment that a member of the public was subjected to bullying or harassment by the husband or wife of an AM. Presumably they too would have to make a complaint to the AM concerned in the near certain knowledge that their correspondence would be seen first by the person they were complaining about.

I decided to try a different tack and wrote back to the office of the Llywydd, pointing out that AM staff are paid for out of the public purse, i.e. the Assembly itself, and that I was aware that the Assembly's HR department was directly involved in the recruitment process.

To argue that AM staffers are nothing to do with the Assembly was, I felt, a little disingenuous.

The Llywydd's office stuck to its guns.

As a final throw of the dice I felt sure that AM staff would be subject to a code of conduct. I therefore asked to see that document. In due course, I received the following reply:

Mae holl staff Aelodau’r Cynulliad yn destun Côd Ymddygiad Staff y maent yn llofnodi pan fyddant yn dechrau eu cyflogaeth.  Fodd bynnag, nid yw'r ddogfen hon yn un gyhoeddus.

(All AM staff are subject to a Code of Conduct that they sign when they begin their employment. However, this document is not public.)

It took nearly a month to reach this dead end.

In a nutshell any complaints that you or I might have about the behaviour of someone recruited using Assembly resources and paid for out of Assembly funds has to be sent to the Assembly Member concerned, even though the complaint will almost certainly be intercepted by the person you are complaining about. There is also quite a strong likelihood that the person you are complaining about will be a member of the Member's immediate family.

The fact that the Assembly still allows its members to employ family is another scandal.

To cap it all, you cannot claim that the individual has breached the Assembly's Code of Conduct because the code of conduct is secret.

Kafka would feel at home in 21st century Cardiff Bay.


In common with the rest of the motley crew who were originally elected under the UKIP banner, the AM referred to in this piece was returned on a regional list. Oddly for an elected member of a democratic institution, our subject seems to be a rather shy and elusive beast.

Constituents wishing to get in touch can write to the Assembly itself, but there is no telephone number listed on the Assembly profile which refers instead to the AM's own external website (which would of course have been funded by you and me).

The call the website poor is to be generous. Again, there are no telephone numbers, and there is no office address, although we can be pretty sure that office rent and expenses are being claimed for. You might want to pop along to a surgery, but the web page giving details of surgeries is completely blank; and anyway, the location appears to be secret.

Presumably this is acceptable to the Assembly under the doctrine that whatever AMs and their staff get up to is pretty much a matter for them, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the Assembly. If the Assembly does have minimum standards governing how its members and their staff engage with the public, the bar is set so low as to be laughable.

Although I corresponded with the office of the Llywydd, I doubt very much that the matter was brought to the attention of Elin Jones.

It could be argued that this particular case reflects badly on UKIP, but that's not saying very much.

In reality nepotism, corrupt practices, lack of accountability and secrecy reflect badly on the institution itself. It's time for more than just pious declarations.

Wednesday 15 November 2017

Carmarthenshire on the Taff

In the previous post we saw how difficult it was for Mrs Trisha Breckman to negotiate an audience with Mark James CBE. When the meeting finally did take place, it began with frosty glares but ended with smiles and warm handshakes, and what Mrs Breckman understood to be a promise to help her.

Apart from a very hostile letter from the council's solicitors some months later, that was the last Mrs Breckman heard from Mr James until he wrote to her last week threatening to take her to court.

In Mr James's defence, he is of course a very busy man. Aside from the small matter of running Carmarthenshire County Council and trying to get the Swansea Bay City Deal off the ground, he has responsibilities elsewhere. At Century Wharf in Cardiff, for example.

Let's hope residents of Century Wharf in Cardiff have better luck than Mrs B.

The gated apartment complex close to the city centre is at the heart of Mr James's burgeoning business empire, which appears to consist of two strands: property investment and developing a "right to manage" business model that would be sold to other residential developments, with Mr James and his white knights riding in to save householders from the clutches of unscrupulous operators.

Unlike their rapacious, money obsessed competitors, Mr James and his business partners are, of course, motivated purely by a wish to help ordinary people, even though they live nowhere near Century Wharf.

At Century Wharf Mr James is a director of no fewer than three Right To Manage (RTM) companies which are in partnership with Warwick Estates Property Management Ltd, a company based in Harlow Essex. Managing Director of Warwick Estates is Mr Craig Stevens, who describes his occupation on Companies House as "entrepreneur". Funnily enough, the three RTM companies are all registered at the same address as Warwick.

Mr James's RTMs and Warwick Estates clearly enjoy an extremely close working relationship, and residents of Century Wharf may wonder why "their" right-to-manage companies share lodgings with Warwick in distant Essex and what would happen, God forbid, if they ever wanted to dispense with the services of Warwick Estates Property Management. But let's cast such dark thoughts aside.

In the meantime residents have just received a newsletter dated 2 November 2017, which features Warwick Estates' logo alongside the three RTM companies. It is not clear who penned this update from "your RTM directors Steven Corner, Elize Ferner, Mark James CBE, Stephen Kass and Pamela Voisey", but there is much in it which will sound uncannily familiar to residents of Carmarthenshire.

First up we are told that Century Wharf residents are flocking to sign up for the services of the RTMs and Warwick Estates; unlike Mrs Breckman and other disgruntled Carmarthenshire taxpayers, they are promised "direct access to the directors". No matter whether it's blocked drains, repairs or grounds maintenance, they can apparently pop in to see Mr James or any of the other directors for a chat.

The newsletter goes on to describe how the RTMs and Warwick are currently locked in battle with the insurers, Zurich, before taking a swipe at a dissident former director who, it says, has been taking his gripes to the media.

High jinks

That would be a reference to the sort of thing recently reported by the Western Mail, which tells a distressing tale of condoms left in gardens, poo in lifts and clearly tired and emotional Airbnb visitors sleeping in hallways.

It was perhaps a little unfair of the Western Mail to pin the blame solely on Airbnb clients because there are plenty of other ways visitors to Cardiff can book themselves into Century Wharf while they enjoy a short stay in the capital, as a quick Google search which yields any number of advertisements for short-stay serviced apartments in the complex will testify.

Century Wharf even has its own website, which boasts that the complex is just a short walk from the city centre and the "Principality" Stadium. It even has its own leisure centre for residents and their visitors.

The idea that apartments might be used by lads up for the rugby, hen parties or stag weekends is preposterous, and the raucous behaviour could equally be down to marauding members of Merched y Wawr, gangs of lay preachers or the Rachub Temperance Society attracted by the bright city lights. Indeed, the newsletter darkly suggests, it may be the work of people "not necessarily renting for short periods", although why long-term residents of this upmarket development would want to defecate in lifts, perform sex acts in the gardens or sleep in hallways it is hard to imagine.

These lurid tales "do not appear to bear scrutiny" and paint a negative picture of life in Mr James's property management empire, we are told. If any of this happened, it was probably a long time ago.

It's all sadly reminiscent of the sort of carping Mr James has to put up with in his day job.

The dissident former director, Mr Gareth Griffiths, has therefore received a written communication, presumably of a legal nature, asking him to desist.

One small problem with all of this short-stay activity is that it is a flagrant breach of leasehold agreements and planning regulations, dissident residents say.

Again, the notion that Mr James CBE or any of his associates would ride roughshod over planning regulations is entirely risible, and it is unfortunate that East Hertfordshire District Council should recently have acted in a high-handed manner and served an enforcement notice on Mr Craig Stevens, MD of Warwick Estates, for building an unauthorised extension to his home in Ware. A decision which was regrettably upheld on appeal.


Moving swiftly on from these scurrilous stories, the newsletter turns its attention to what form the annual general meeting of the three RTM companies might take. There will be no elections this year, it informs us, and rather than stage a boring event which might be hijacked by obsessives with axes to grind, the directors are considering holding an open day at which residents would be treated to presentations.

A bit like the sort of thing Mr James has strived to bring about at meetings of Carmarthenshire County Council, in fact, where colourful Powerpoint presentations from BT and Dŵr Cymru make such a welcome change from tedious and impertinent questions from the floor.

Bearing in mind that the newsletter begins by telling us that Century Wharf residents are flocking to Mr James's banner, it may appear a little odd when we read a few paragraphs further down that "many members have stressed the importance of being able to speak with Directors about concerns they have about their own apartments or to be able to make comments about the landscape around the site, parking, maintenance, and other maters that affect them personally".

Perhaps all is not quite as lovely in the landscaped gardens after all, condoms or no condoms.

At any rate, the newsletter promises that members will shortly be informed about how they may go about addressing their concerns to directors personally.

If Mrs Breckman's experiences are anything to go by, they may want to think very carefully before complaining.

Sunday 12 November 2017

Natural Injustice (updated)

Caebrwyn has written an excellent update and summary of the Breckman case (here) which has featured on this blog so many times in the past, and an article based on that blogpost appeared in this week's Carmarthenshire Herald.

The latest twist in this saga is that the chief executive has written to Mrs Breckman to inform her that he has instructed his officers, including the Monitoring Officer and Head of Legal, Mrs Linda Rees Jones, not to reply to her questions in future, and to warn her that, "I now place you on notice that continuation may well invite legal action".

The trigger for this warning was a request to Mrs Rees Jones asking her to perform her statutory duty and write a report on the case which, in the opinion of just about everyone who has any knowledge of it, contains abundant evidence of malpractice, negligence and misconduct in public office by a small number of senior council staff.

Here is the text of Mr James's letter in full:

Dear Mrs Breckman,

I shall not be responding to any further correspondence of this sort.

I shall also be instructing Ms Rees Jones and other officers not to respond to your false allegations and abuse.

You (sic) unpleasant and defamatory remarks about me and my staff have reached the point where I now place you on notice that continuation may well invite legal action.

Whilst I appreciate the difficult time you have had with your neighbour, your numerous complaints about the Council have been investigated and where the Ombudsman did uphold some of those complaints, we have complied with his requirements in that respect, which was some considerable time ago.

Yours sincerely
Mark James CBE

Rather than cover the same ground as Caebryn's article, let's take a look at one particularly shocking episode from last year when, after almost a year of requests and negotiation, Mr James finally granted an audience to Mrs Breckman.

The first thing to note is that Mr James has been very well acquainted with the case for most of its 15 year history; indeed there is abundant evidence to show that he has personally intervened on a number of occasions to try to silence Mrs Breckman and prevent scrutiny of the case by councillors.

These include placing Mrs Breckman on a blacklist of "persistent complainers" without her knowledge, a truly byzantine operation to prevent a highly critical ombudsman's report from reaching full council and an intervention to persuade the Petitions Committee of the National Assembly not to take up the case.

Much less clear is who was involved in collusion between elements within Dyfed Powys Police and senior council staff to intimidate and smear Mrs Breckman,

On the one hand we have Mrs Breckman, a slightly built woman now in her seventies, and on the other her troublesome neighbour who is a large and physically imposing man with a criminal record for violent assault, but on no fewer than five occasions it was Mrs Breckman rather than Mr Thomas who ended up being arrested and taken from her home in handcuffs when the police were called, only to be released without charge.

On another occasion when Mrs Breckman was involved in a road traffic accident and witnesses gave statements absolving her from responsibility, someone in Dyfed Powys Police had other ideas and decided to press charges for dangerous driving. The case was dropped after Mrs Breckman's solicitor reminded the police of the witness statements.

An officer who was asked to write a report on the case as part of a complaints procedure is said unaccountably to have radically altered a draft which confirmed Mrs Breckman's side of the story, to a version which cast doubt on her honesty by suggesting that she could have fabricated CCTV footage of an intruder looking very much like her neighbour prowling around her home in the middle of the night.

On another occasion two burly types appeared at Mrs Breckman's door offering to "do in" her neighbour for her. She politely declined their offer and was left wondering whether this was perhaps another attempt to compromise her.

The CCTV smear was then used by the council repeatedly to deter anyone in authority from asking questions about what on earth was going on in this otherwise quiet corner of Carmarthenshire.

When the previous Police and Crime Commissioner Christopher Salmon finally issued Mrs Breckman and her partner with a full apology for its handling of the case, including the CCTV claim, Mrs Breckman not unsurprisingly decided to take the matter up with Mr James.

Mrs Breckman's aim was to secure an apology from the council for its actions over so many years and to secure compensation for the stress and huge financial losses she and her partner had incurred.

For her part Mrs Breckman has always insisted that her quarrel is not with her neighbour, but with the council in particular for its negligence and perverse planning decisions, which have included allowing her neighbour to trash part of a Special Area of Conservation and SSSI with impunity.

At first, Mr James refused to entertain the idea of a meeting with Mrs Breckman. There was nothing to discuss, he declared.

Eventually, after some behind the scenes political intervention, he at last agreed to a meeting, although his busy timetable meant that it could not take place for many months, with further delays being caused by his cancellation of one appointment. When Mrs Breckman informed Mr James that she intended to bring along her then Assembly Member, Rhodri Glyn Thomas, Mr James exploded. The meeting was cancelled, and he announced that he was no longer prepared to see her.

As Mr James knew, Rhodri Glyn Thomas had been closely involved with the case for years and had also been threatened by Mrs Breckman's neighbour.

More behind the scenes shuttle diplomacy eventually persuaded Mr James to relent, and along went Mrs Breckman with her county councillor.

The meeting was very much one of two halves, with Mr James performing a one man double act. First up was "nasty" Mr James, staring coldly and asking hostile questions. Mrs Breckman stood her ground and laid out precisely her grounds for an apology and compensation.

For no apparent reason, half way through Mr James appeared to flick a virtual switch to turn on his "nice" side. He was sorry for what had happened; the council was unable to control her neighbour. He would now take charge of this personally, and all Mrs Breckman needed to do was to drop him a line outlining her case, and he would forward it to the council's insurers. Everything would be resolved "in weeks rather than months".

Cneifiwr spoke to Mrs Breckman shortly afterwards, and she was elated. The meeting has lifted a huge weight from her, and she sang Mr James's praises. Justice was at last going to be served.

Soon afterwards, she sent a letter outlining her case to Mr James, and it was indeed forwarded to the council's insurers. Rather unsettlingly in view of what she thought she had been promised, the insurers then entered into correspondence with Mrs Breckman. Time dragged on, and she was informed that the claims were now out of time. More correspondence followed until Mrs Breckman was informed by the insurance company that, at the council's instruction, the matter had now been handed to the council's solicitors who then wrote an extremely curt letter informing her that she had no claim and that any attempt by her to pursue the matter through the courts would result in their seeking to have her case struck out before it got anywhere near a courtroom.

The upshot was no apology and no compensation.

It is unlikely that Mr James will ever be asked to account for his actions. Did he "mis-speak" and give Mrs Breckman an expectation that he would ensure she received an apology and compensation without first having done his homework? Or was it a particularly cynical and cruel manoeuvre to get Mrs Breckman off his back while killing off attempts by councillors and political representatives to help her?

Having endured 15 years of torment and now facing the loss of her home, Mrs Breckman is determined not to let the matter rest. Mr James may yet have to resort to the lawyers to silence her.

Burns Case

Jacqui Thompson's blog has also drawn attention to another very long-running case of injustice which Mr James seems equally determined not to resolve. This time it concerns the Burns family whose daughter was taken away from them after false and malicious accusations of abuse were made by two care staff.

It will be remembered that despite a police recommendation that the Burns's daughter should be returned to her parents after they had concluded that there was no evidence of abuse, the council decided to prolong the agony.

After a very long battle, the council did eventually agree to pay a limited amount of compensation, but money was not what this was all about, and the family is still, seven years on, fighting to get the council and the police to conduct a statutory Safeguarding Investigation into their handling of the case.


For a much fuller account of the Burns' story, read this truly harrowing account by Siân Caiach, who was closely involved with the family.

Part One of the story can be found here, and part two here.


What these two cases tell us is not that Carmarthenshire County Council is uniquely bad. As with large organisations everywhere it can sometimes get things badly wrong, and the results can be catastrophic for ordinary people caught up in them.

A few years ago a panel of experts was brought in to carry out a review of governance of the council in the wake of the pensions and libel indemnity scandals. That particular exercise had almost no lasting effect, but at the time the chair of the review panel told councillors (and officers) that while the council was not as bad as some of its critics claimed, it was not as good as it thought it was either.

Other external agencies have remarked time and again on the council's defensiveness and unwillingness to accept criticism; Mr James was famously told on one occasion to grow a thicker skin.

What the Breckman and Burns cases do tell us is that the corporate culture Mark James has developed within the council during his overly long tenure persists to this day. It is a culture based on a refusal ever to apologise or accept responsibility for mistakes.

Both cases could have been settled years ago, but Mr James's intransigence and arrogance serve only to ensure that the misery and injustice continue, and the stain on the council's reputation endures.

Wednesday 8 November 2017

A Regional Revolution

After treading water for a couple of years, the Welsh Government is planning to unveil its latest ideas for reforming local government next year, but for those of you who cannot wait that long, the Swansea "City Deal" signed in March this year by Theresa May, Carwyn Jones, Alun Cairns, Mark Drakeford and the four council leaders involved contains some pretty big clues as to what we can expect.

Quaint concepts such as accountability, devolution, democracy and local decision making will give way to corporatist, technocratic, big is beautiful constructs in which government ministers and civil servants in London and Cardiff will have rather more say in who really runs local government than voters do.

In what looks set to be a beautifully crafted exercise in smoke and mirrors, voters will be left with directly elected councils and the municipal trimmings that go with them while power over just about everything except rubbish collections will be handed to new quangos.

Welcome to 'Central and South West Wales', which is not a railway station, but the provisional name for this new local government mammoth.

Before we peer into the crystal ball, let's consider how we got here.


Hardly had the dust settled on Carwyn Jones's latest reshuffle than up popped Leighton Andrews on Twitter plugging one of his courses at Cardiff University. For a modest fee, new members of Carwyn's cabinet can pop along to learn how to be a minister between 2 and 4 every Thursday.

Or perhaps that should be how not to be a minister, because in his relatively brief cabinet career, Leighton managed to get himself sacked from education in 2013 before returning a year later to reform local government, only to see his proposals shot down by a coalition of outraged local government fat cats. Voters in the Rhondda, that safest of safe Labour bets, then decided to give him the boot.

For roughly 400 years Wales managed to get by with 13 counties until Edward Heath reduced the number to 8 with a tier of district councils beneath them. 20 years later John Major's unhappy government decided to shuffle the pack again giving us the 22 unitary authorities we have today. At the time the Tories claimed the new structure would remove overlap, save huge amounts of money and be much more efficient. Labour argued that the change would see a devastating loss of local government jobs.

Needless to say, they were both wrong, and the Tories ended up creating a whole string of Labour fiefdoms destined to enjoy eternal one-party rule with all the opportunities for patronage and access to the gravy train that goes with it.

Leighton's plan was set out in a white paper, the key points of which were:
  • Merging smaller councils to reduce the total from 22 to 10 or 12.
  • A reduction in full time Cabinet roles.
  • A consulation on whether there should be term limits on chief executives.
  • A legal duty on Council leaders to ensure diversity amongst elected members and senior council staff.
  • Term limits on councillors and leaders, with no-one allowed to hold posts as a councillor and AM at the same time.
  • A review of the remuneration of councillors, Leaders and Cabinet members, to bring costs down.

Tact and diplomacy were never Leighton's strongest points, and the pale and the stale choked on their Prosecco. Labour local government types, previously so strongly opposed to the John Major reforms, prepared to defend their fiefdoms, and they were joined in the trenches by the likes of Pam Palmer in Carmarthenshire, horrified by the idea that anyone should try to end her divine right to rule by limiting the amount of time that people like her and Meryl Gravell could take home a senior salary while letting Mark James get on with actually leading the show.

Leighton's spectacular defeat in the Rhondda meant that the showdown never happened, and his proposals were given a quiet burial.

So it was back to the drawing board for the government, which decided that regional working was the way forward.

Education and planning

The government is expected to bring forward new proposals for regional local government next year, but the process has already started, quietly and through the back door, with the establishment of regional education consortia. In Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Neath Port Talbot, Swansea, Pembrokeshire and Powys ERW (Education Through Regional Working) has taken on functions and responsibilities which previously lay with elected county councils, complete with its own chief executive and cadre of officers.

It is unlikely that more than a generous one voter in every 100 will have heard of ERW, which is just as well because it is completely unaccountable to them, and ERW has its counterparts in other parts of the country, all charged with delivering an "agreed regional strategy and business plan to support school improvement."

Any body which serves six masters, such as ERW, is in reality accountable to none of them, and concerns have been expressed at how a homogenizing body which covers such a hugely diverse area in which English predominates can meet the needs of Welsh medium education.

In planning the legislative and legal framework is already in place which will see powers transferred away from elected councils to two new bodies over which voters have next to no control.

The Swansea Bay City Region, or "City Deal" as it is now usually referred to, will be run by an Economic Strategy Board and a Joint Committee.

The ESB, which will be responsible for strategy, will be made up of business and public sector types (a very wide term which extends all the way from councils to the health boards and the fat cats of academe). Only a minority of its members is likely ever to have been elected by you or me.

The chair of the ESB will be "a private sector business person" appointed by the UK Government, the Welsh Government and members of the Joint Committee, which will be made up of representatives of the four participating local authorities.

The UK Government, currently in the shape of Alun Cairns working alongside London-based civil servants, will have a veto and effective control over who runs the show. So much for devolution, democracy and local accountability.

In planning matters, these new authorities will be responsible for drawing up a new "Strategic Development Plan" (SDP) which will somehow, nobody is entirely sure how, exist alongside the "Local Development Plans" drawn up by existing councils. And both of these elements will be subordinated to something called the "National Development Framework".

In essence, then, the City Deal ESB with its unelected head will decide what is "strategic", and anything which is strategic will be removed from the LDPs. In practice, LDPs will be left with little more than dealing with Mrs Williams' new conservatory and a couple of new bungalows in Cwmsgwt.

Planning approval for "strategic" matters will still have to go through a sort of quasi judicial process, but this will be carried out by an appointed panel. Appointed by whom is not yet clear, but at a rough guess we are talking about proteges of the council leaders on the Joint Committee, and it is more likely that pigs will sprout wings than that these appointees would ever be so unwise as to vote down something deemed to be strategic.

What we are about to get therefore is a whole new planning ecosystem of frameworks and development plans drawn up and overseen by different bodies in different places, with control over the most important bits lying somewhere between Cardiff Bay and Whitehall.

'Central and South West Wales'

If the City Deal sounds like a labyrinth, it is, and it is a labyrinth which will be subsumed into an ever bigger labyrinth of regional quango-ization under the government's plans for regional "local" government.

The City Deal agreement, signed by the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Wales, the First Minister, Mark Drakeford and the four council leaders (Swansea, Camarthenshire, Neath Port Talbot and Pembrokeshire) goes rather further than just dealing with matters relating to the Swansea Bay City Region project, and outlines what will be the fate of local democracy in Wales, where we will get three super-regions: the North, Cardiff and the South-East and The Rest.

The Rest, or Central and South West Wales, will take in everything from Margam to Machynlleth and Manorbier to Meifod, including both Ceredigion and Powys, and it will be run by a "Joint Governance Committee" that will take over many of the functions currently carried out by elected councils, including, the agreement helpfully suggests, "economic development, transport, land
use planning, education improvement and social services".

Councillors and Assembly Members may be scratching their heads at this point, trying to recollect when they debated and agreed to any of this, but their turn will come next year when they will be asked to give their seal of approval to a fait accompli signed off by Mrs May, Carwyn and the four council leaders, who, as we have seen, have also handed a large degree control over what happens in this part of the world back to London.

The most that we in the west can hope for is that Adam Price's idea for Arfor, a new integrated local authority covering the west of this country, finally starts to gain a bit more traction.

Thursday 2 November 2017

Faecal News

After yesterday's mammoth piece, here's a mercifully shorter one.

Since this blog last looked at the controversy about plans to relocate Ysgol Dewi Sant to Llanerch Fields, Alan Evans' LabourLlanelliOnline hyperlocal news service has been busy churning out stories in support of the campaign group opposed to the plan, including this classic.

Under a picture of a stately pile (that would be Chatsworth House, Ed.) sitting in exquisitely manicured landscaped grounds with a water feature that anyone could mistake for Llanerch Fields, LlanelliOnline warns of the risk of an apocalyptic explosion of raw sewage which could engulf the school, and presumably much of the surrounding area, with a fountain of untreated waste shooting 350 feet into the air.

The normally sensible former county councillor, Bill Thomas, explains that attenuation tanks under part of the site are gravity fed by a pipe coming down from Swiss Valley, that well-to-do leafy enclave which sits 350 feet above Llanerch Fields, and Mr Huw Woodford-Rock, described as an expert by LlanelliOnline, is brought in to agree with Bill's hypothesis that the result could be a gigantic fountain rising to an equidistant height.

You don't need a degree in physics to realise that this is just plain daft, but look at it another way. Hands up if you have heard of, let alone seen at first hand, 350 foot high fountains of sewage rising from a gravity-fed pipe?


Search Google for "fountain of sewage" and similar terms, and the most you will come up with are stories from places such as Cloonshanbally in County Sligo where a horrified Mrs O'Connor describes a "mini fountain" of sewage rising to a height of a few inches gurgling out of a manhole cover. Not to mention the Australian primary school where a plumber managed to link up a drinking fountain to the school's sewage system.

And why is Llanerch Fields so peculiarly at risk? What about all of the other properties which lie along the route taken by the Swiss Valley pipe, not to mention everywhere else in Llanelli or any other town or city criss-crossed by sewers?

And what about the risk to campaigners, Labour councillors and politicians who frequent Llanerch Fields giving interviews? The thought of Lee Waters and Rob James being shot 350 feet into the air atop a chocolate-coloured fountain does not bear thinking about.

Spoiler Alert

Here is a sneak preview of some other upcoming news stories we can look forward to on LlanelliOnline:

Mystic Meg Warns of Likely Asteroid Strike on Llanerch Fields

Emlyn Assad Dole Planning Chemical Attack on Llanerch Fields warns Councillor

 CUSC launches bid to stage 2026 World Cup on Llanerch Fields

Halloween Horror as Jeff Edmunds appears in Wickerman Re-enactment

CUSC stages new community event

Wednesday 1 November 2017

Toxic Tales - it's Llanelli Labour again

One unexpected outcome of the previous post was that it prompted Lee Waters AM to announce that he is planning to move to his constituency after two years of merely pretending to live there. Rather more inevitably, the post produced a flurry of tweets from those twin Llanelli Labour foghorns, Rosemary Emery and Gary 'Poumista' Jones.

Lee Waters was once again mightily pissed off after his latest appearance on this blog, with Rosemary and Gary Poumista Jones rushing to console their boy.

"Don't worry Lee, everyone he attacks gets elected", bragged Poumista on Twitter.

Cneifiwr would never be foolish enough to imagine that this blog has the power to make or break political careers. All it can hope to do is draw the attention of its readers to the activities of some of our elected representatives and their supporters.

Politics has always attracted crooks, creeps, and hypocrites, as Martin Shipton's new biography of George Thomas reminds us, but the last few years have produced a bumper crop of rotten apples, extending from Trump all the way down to Boris Johnson ("you're a nasty piece of work", said Eddie Mair memorably), Nathan Gill, Neil Hamilton and, right at the bottom of the electoral muck heap, the likes of Gary 'Poumista' Jones in Llangennech.

Like his more successful peers in that list, Gary Jones is a clown, or what Jungians would call a trickster whose mask conceals a divisive and manipulative personality which plays on our basest instincts in the pursuit of power.

Small wonder that Jones should thrive in the Labour Party in Llanelli, which while it has many decent members, has developed a peculiarly toxic culture characterised by bullying, intimidation, lying and dog whistle tactic which set it apart from the other mainstream political parties and the independents.


Gary Jones spends a huge amount of his time on Twitter, and his phenomenal output includes gems such as this:

Jones has never denied helping to plaster the village with hate-filled posters ("Don't let Plaid dictate and kick out the English speaking children"), and he campaigned alongside the likes of Michaela Beddows, Jacques Protic and Neil Hamilton against transitioning the school in Llangennech.

That campaign eventually failed, despite repeated attempts to rekindle the row, and Gary Jones went on to get himself elected to Carmarthenshire County Council.

It is in his capacity as county councillor that Jones has secured a seat on the board of governors of Ysgol Llangennech despite being fundamentally opposed to the school's ethos. In a recent exchange on Twitter he announced that he would like to reverse the decision on the school's status taken earlier this year, adding for good measure that he would like to make all schools dual stream:

It's worth pausing for a minute to consider what that would entail. Quite apart from the implications for the Welsh language in Carmarthenshire and the fact that Jones's pipe dream runs directly counter to the policies of Carwyn Jones's government, it would lead to years of upheaval and turmoil and waste scarce resources on an almost unimaginable scale.

It would be tempting to dismiss this as the ravings of a fringe lunatic, but the Labour Party has made Gary Jones a member of the county council's powerful Education and Children's Services Scrutiny Committee.

Those who hoped that Llangennech would finally be allowed to put the school row behind it reckoned without their new county councillor who is clearly determined to use his new position to fight on. 

His latest idea is to call for Welsh place names in Llangennech to be made bilingual, no doubt to cheers from Michaela.

Cneifiwr put it to him that a better option might be a bilingual Gary Jones, to which he replied that he was happy as he is. Ignorance and bigotry are bliss.

Describing himself as an unconventional county councillor, he recently informed his Twitter followers that he had begun learning Greek which he clearly thinks is more useful than the language  of so many of the people he now represents. Not to mention the school where he is now a governor.

Jones followed this brief exchange with an invitation for this blog to comment on a planning application to store dangerous chemicals at the former RN site in Llangennech, now known as Stradey Business Park.

Stradey Business Park

Caebrwyn recently covered the application to store hazardous chemicals on her blog here, and Cneifiwr has written at length about the business park before (here, for example).

Before we turn our attention to planning matters, it may help Gary Jones to understand a little of the history of this site.

This is a strange and disturbing tale, which began back in 2007 when Labour was running the county council in coalition with Meryl's Independents. As Cneifiwr's blogpost from 2014 noted, the deal was sufficiently odd for it to attract the attention of the Western Mail at the time. Then as now important questions remain unanswered.

What is clear is that the chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, Mark James, helped two private individuals "known to some of the officers" acquire a valuable piece of public real estate for a remarkably low price. After he had persuaded councillors to approve this pig in a poke arrangement, it was revealed that the investors were David Pickering, then chairman of the WRU, and a Mr Nigel Lovering.

Among the mysteries are why the county council acted as a broker between the MoD and the two men, and why Mr James decided to get councillors to give it a legal seal of approval when delegated powers could have been used.

Part of the deal included an undertaking to let the local football club use a small part of the very large site, a promise which was later broken.

At any rate, the re-named Stradey Business Park went on to win some hefty grants from the county council, and a retrospective planning application for a massive array of solar panels was waved through.

While all this was going on, the park received a steady stream of visitors from County Hall, and many of them were happy to pose for the cameras in their eagerness to be associated with a deal that would deliver "jobs, jobs, jobs".

The Labour Party was especially keen to emphasise its association with Mr Pickering's park, as we can see from this family outing where just about the entire Labour group on the council, as it was at the time, turned out with Nia Griffith. For whatever reason, Keith Price Davies was not there. Perhaps he had more sense than to associate himself with a chemical compound made up of Mark, Meryl, Pickering and secretive business dealings.

A family outing

That brings us to planning application S/36316 to store arsine and phosphine on the site owned by Messrs Pickering and Lovering through R and A Properties, which is the name of the entity making the application.

Arsine and phosphine are both highly toxic, and phosphine is spontaneously flammable if exposed to air. A quick Google search using the words "arsine accident", for example, yields 120,000 results, including many reports of fatalities. A similar search on phosphine yields even more horror stories.

The application form is rather thin on information, but in response to a question how many people could be affected by a major accident, the applicants coolly state "approx. 100". The real figure may be somewhat higher because there are both residential properties and a care home close by.

The form does not ask for details relating to security, the conditions under which the chemicals would be stored, how long they would remain on site, transport arrangements, whether or not the applicants have been in discussion with the Fire Brigade, etc., etc.

The business park covers a huge area, and is easily accessible to the public. Security is minimal.

We will have to wait to see what the planning officer's recommendation is, but residents have good reason to worry because, as we have seen, R and A Properties has some influential friends and supporters, some of whom are well known to Poumista.

For his part, Jones appears to be peddling the notion that all this has something to do with Plaid Cymru.  Not only did he invite this blog to comment on the application, but he is hawking a letter round to residents asking them to contact their "Labour County Councillor" (Llangennech has both a Plaid and a Labour county councillor), and their Labour community councillors. Unsurprisingly, this same letter has appeared on Alan Evans' LlanelliOnline website under the heading "Public Notice".

What is clear is that for Gary Jones this issue has less to do with the risks posed to local people than an opportunity to play politics. Four legs good, two legs bad. Or in this case, good old Labour versus wicked everybody else.

A fo ben bid bont, runs the old Welsh proverb, but Gary Jones would not understand the words or the sentiment.

Burry Port

Next stop is Burry Port, or the "Saint Tropez of South Wales" according to Stephen James, a former Independent county councillor and serving town councillor.

Well, perhaps not, but we must tear our thoughts away from those cavorting topless sunbathers and head for the Town Council chamber where the feathers have been flying of late, with accusations of bullying and intimidation and complaints winging their way to the Ombudsman for Public Services. The sort of thing normally associated with Labour in Llangennech and the Labour group on Llanelli Rural Council, in fact.

The town council is currently comprised of 9 Independents, 8 Labour and one Plaid Cymru member. The lone Plaid councillor votes with the Independents, the alternative being a 9-9 deadlock.

Readers may recall a mention in the previous post of a strange article written in Alan Evans-ese on LlanelliOnline, the hyperlocal Llanelli website which is very much hoping to persuade Lee Waters to support a grant application so that it can continue to churn out Labour propaganda publish news stories.

That article, which attracted the attention of our old friend Michaela Beddows (see the comments section), said the Plaid councillor, Cllr Peter Freeman, had made allegations of "outrageous behaviour" on the part of the Labour leader, Cllr John James.

For reasons best known to itself, LlanelliOnline insists on referring repeatedly to Cllr Freeman as a "co-opted" councillor, even though he was returned in the same way as all other members.

Needless to say, Cllr James was unable to shed any light on anything that he might have done to merit those accusations, and LlanelliOnline said it was unable to clarify matters either, leaving readers to assume that this was all much ado about nothing, and that the Plaid councillor must have imagined it all. The piece then went on to rubbish a journalist who had come to report on these imaginary goings on:

Mr Freeman claimed to have invited an impartial journalist (note taker) from the Carmarthen Journal, Grace Powell (not working for Carmarthen Journal). Attendees told Llanelli Online that they saw Cllr Freeman and the note taker hugging prior to the meeting.

A couple of days later, LlanelliOnline published a second article (here) setting out the views of the Labour leader on the town council. John James is also one of the town's two (Labour) county councillors.

James rubbished suggestions that he had been involved in organising a rent-a-mob at a meeting held on 21st September. The 40 or so individuals who packed the meeting (an enormous turn-out for any community council) were just ordinary members of the public wanting to see their councillors at work, he claimed. Then in the next breath he said it showed how strongly local people felt attached to the council's former Technical Services Officer (TSO), Lee Fox, although it turns out that Mr Fox had been TSO for less than a year.

Rather than rely on LlanelliOnline, let's turn to a statement put out by the Mayor and Deputy Mayor in a press release. Not only is the statement a model of clarity, but it confirms an account of events received by Cneifiwr from a different source.

From   The Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Pembrey and Burry Port Town Council.

As Mayor and Deputy Mayor we have maintained a silence in the press and social media in the belief that the responsible thing to do was to deal with confidential staff issues within the Council. 

Unfortunately Cllr. John James’ recent comments, and the recent Star headline, cannot go unchallenged.

At the heart of the problem is the decision of a member of staff to resign after eleven months in the post. When he informed the Mayor of his decision he was asked to take 24 hours to reconsider his decision and to also talk to his family. The following day he informed the Mayor that he had decided to go and asked that he be allowed to leave straight away.

It must be made perfectly clear that nobody asked him to resign, in fact the Mayor asked him to consider his actions carefully when he wanted to resign.

Since that time there has been repeated insistence by the Labour Group that discussions be held in public about his resignation despite the strong advice from the Town Clerk, the County Council Monitoring Officer and the Ombudsman that this should not happen. We must also point out that in the last five years when Labour were in control and Labour Mayors chaired the Council meetings they ended almost every meeting of the Council by excluding the public and the press so that we could deal with staff and ex-staff issues.

By insisting that we comply with the advice, and that we remain professional and responsible, the Independent Councillors have suffered harassment, personal attacks and verbal abuse. Some Independent Councillors have also reported to us that they have been intimidated and bullied by people who attended the Council meeting on 21st September. It was for that reason that Police presence was felt necessary at the following meeting on 13th October.

Following his resignation the Council took the opportunity to change the requirements and the status of the job to better fit the growing demands on the Council and advertised the job accordingly.

A month after he resigned and following some intense interventions on his behalf by some Labour Councillors, the former member of staff informed the Council that he had changed his mind and would like his job back. However, this was a job that no longer existed following the changes by the Council. He was informed that the job had been advertised, meaning that it was open to anyone to apply.

The former member of staff clearly did not like the Council’s answer and subsequent events suggest that he commenced a campaign with his supporters to intimidate and force the Council to give him what he wanted. It is sad that some Labour Councillors are putting pressure on the rest of us and disrupting the normal work of the Council.

Members of the public and the press are welcome to attend Council Meetings but as a result of the behaviour of some at the meeting held on 21st September the Town Clerk deemed it necessary to issue ‘’Guidance on the admission of the public and press to Council meetings’’ to those attending the next meeting.

There are however occasions when the public and press are excluded as Cllr John James, a former Mayor, is fully aware and has himself excluded them in almost every meeting during his tenure.

Finally during the meeting of the 21st September Cllr John James as the leader of the Labour group on the Town Council attempted to intimidate the Mayor into holding a public discussion on an ex- staff issue while the former member of staff was present in the audience. In his unwise and unprofessional attempt he carried out an attack on the Mayor and the Town Clerk which was unprecedented, disrespectful and insulting. His behaviour was unacceptable and does not represent the professional way in which the Council should conduct its business. It was for this reason that the meeting was suspended in order to ensure that the Council’s reputation was protected.


There is not much to add to this account apart from a few further details.

Mr Fox and his wife are, as they are perfectly entitled to be, Labour supporters, and along with Cllr John James, Mrs Amanda Fox is now both a sitting Labour county councillor and town councillor.

At the meeting on 21 September, Cllr James laid into the Mayor, cheered on by the gallery. When the Mayor proposed going into closed session to discuss what was after all a sensitive employment matter, it is claimed that Cllr James turned up his verbal assault on the Mayor, telling him to look him in the face.

When the Mayor tried to ask the town clerk for advice Cllr James said "Don't look at her".  He even said if the Mayor wanted advice he should call in the building caretaker.

After an adjournment the Labour group returned and agreed to proceed in closed session,  but then Cllr James named one of the Independent councillors and said that he had a complaint against Lee Fox, who it should be remembered was sitting in the public gallery. At that point the Mayor decided that he had had enough and suspended the meeting.

It is alleged that the bullying and intimidating behavour continued after the meeting, with one of the Labour supporters calling the Deputy Mayor a "F***ing Dictator" A female Independent councillor was surrounded by 4 or 5 men angrily shouting and verbally abusing her.

The lone Plaid councillor then called for an extraordinary meeting of the council because, clearly, the issue of the Technical Services Officer had not been properly discussed, and unsurprisingly this made him a target at subsequent meetings.

Just as with the meeting on 21st September, it is alleged that the Labour Party put out a call to its supporters, urging them to turn up in force again.

Matters turned nasty at a second subsequent meeting, when the Independent group voted Cllr Freeman on to the council's various committees, much to the evident displeasure of Cllr James, who is alleged to have said that Cllr Freeman was not fit to be a councillor.

In completely unrelated news, WalesOnline last week reported that Labour in Swansea has been caught inviting supporters along to council meetings to ask questions which would enable the council leader to give answers that show the Labour Party in a good light.

Well, fancy that.

Radio Rosemary

Rosemary need not detain us long; if receiving an unending stream of recycled tweets praising Lee Waters, Tonia Antoniazzi and Nia Griffith interspersed with stuff churned out by Labour's press office excites you, subscribe to her Twitter feed now.

Having said that, her latest offerings include some slightly less on-message re-tweets from Labour Against Anti-Semitism and another group called JVL Watch which has just been blocked by another account called Jewish Voice for Labour.

Prepare to enter a Pythonesque world where the Judean People's Front is engaged in a class struggle against the People's Front for the Liberation of Judea which is in turn fighting the Judean Popular People's Front. This is a world where nothing is as it seems, where unlike Ronseal's products the label and the contents have nothing to do with each other, a world where sinners are saints and abusers are victims - provided they are members of the Labour Party.

Labour Against Anti-Semitism has come up with a conspiracy theory according to which Jared O'Mara, the Labour MP for Sheffield Hallam who has been suspended by the party pending investigation into allegations that he made a string of homophobic and misogynist remarks, was in fact the victim of a Zionist plot.

Whatever your views about Nick Clegg, it is fair to say that the people of Sheffield Hallam, standards in public life and the quality of UK political discourse in general were the losers when O'Mara took the seat from the former LibDem leader.

We will almost certainly never know if Mossad was behind O'Mara's (temporary) fall from grace, but what is indisputably true is that O'Mara left an extremely unpleasant trail of comments on social media deriding women and gays, and resigned from the House of Commons' Women and Equalities Committee only after his hypocrisy was exposed.

But O'Mara is Labour, and therefore a victim.