west*wales*news*review

West Wales News Review — analysis with a sustainability slant

Llandeilo volunteers aim to keep sports facilities open on closed Tregib campus

See the Carmarthenshire Herald, August 26 2016, p.8. New comment after the text.

A group of community-minded sports enthusiasts in Llandeilo hope they are just days away from acquiring the sports field, all-weather playing surface, sports hall, gym and changing rooms on the closed Tregib school campus, on a four-year lease from owners Carmarthenshire County Council.

The replacement Bro Dinefwr campus at Love Lodge Farm currently has fewer sports amenities – no hard running track or floodlights at the artificial-surfaced pitch — and the field and sports hall will not at present be available to sports clubs or the public.

When the lease is agreed, a new not-for-profit company, Tregib Sports Facilities Ltd, will take over responsibility for running the sports venues at the old school.

“Discussions are being finalised on a four year lease of the playing facilities, gymnasium and changing rooms to Tregib Sports Facilities Ltd. The council will be undertaking works to isolate the utilities and services from the remainder of the former school site to allow the community to continue to use the facilities via the new arrangements,” said a county council statement.

The changes have been complicated to make, because utilities for the leased lights and buildings, like electricity and water, have to be separated from the services supplied to the empty school.

Nick Weed, a director of the new company alongside Roderick Davies and Llandeilo’s county councillor Edward Thomas, and chair of Clwb Peldroed Teigrod Teilo Football Club, said that the town’s football, hockey, rugby, cricket and gymnastics clubs, among other groups, faced the sudden loss of the pitches and hall they used for training or matches or both.

“Many key people in local sports organisations are working very hard to achieve a seamless transfer of the facilities from the school to the community,” said Mr Weed.

“We hope that the lease will be agreed in time for clubs to start training in September, and we aim to keep hire fees the same” said Mr Weed. “A four-year lease will give us a breathing space. The county council still has to decide what to do with the Tregib site, and so a longer lease is not possible at present.”

The county council says that there are currently no plans to install a hard running track at Bro Dinefwr. There is a 3G synthetic pitch, not floodlit, and a multi-use games area, which is floodlit.

“It is for the school’s governing body to decide what sports facilities will be made available for community use and as far as we are aware nothing has been decided as yet,” said the council’s statement.

The decision to select a 3G pitch, which has a pile to resemble grass, instead of traditional AstroTurf is potentially problematic because 3G is much better suited to rugby and football than to hockey, which requires a smoother surface.

Comment

As Matthew Paul wrote in The Herald last week (August 26, p.16), musing that Sir Steve Redgrave’s old school at Great Marlow has its own boat club, “Ysgol Bro Dinefwr would be well placed to copy this innovation, as it is frequently possible, if you move the sandbags, to row straight out of the classroom”. Just a hint of exaggeration, maybe, but aquatic sports would compensate a little for the way in which pupils have been sold down the river in other sporting respects. The old Tregib School had a swimming pool! All right, it has been removed, but why not include one at the still-shiny new school? Maybe pumping out the water would have been a repetitive and costly task on the low-lying flood plain. 

Now the hockey players. GB won the women’s hockey at the Olympics, and Bro Dinefwr reached the final of the Wales under-16 tournament this year, to lose narrowly in a penalty shoot-out. I understand that the new synthetic 3G pitch at Bro Dinefwr is fine for rugby and football, but useless for hockey because the pile is too long. I looked it up, and there does not appear to be a 3G pitch which serves for all three sports. 

Practice after school? Not in winter, because there are no floodlights at the pitch. 

The athletes are badly served, too. Tregib has a proper running track, but there isn’t one at Bro Dinefwr. I think there is a plan to mark out lanes on grass. Wellington boots are likely to become part of the PE kit. 

OK, Bro Dinefwr is not five-star when it comes to sporting facilities, but surely community clubs will have access to them? No, apparently not. 

So a big round of applause for the volunteers who have formed the not-for-profit Tregib Sports Facilities Ltd. If they had not stepped forward to take over, on a four-year lease, the all-weather pitch, gym, sports hall and field, and the changing rooms, on the now-empty Tregib site, sport in Llandeilo would have taken a giant step backwards.  

Once the lease is signed, there will be four years to sort out what happens next. 

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Volunteers in a not-for-profit company aim to unlock the sports facilities on the Tregib site, Llandeilo, so that clubs can continue to train and compete. 

PDR

 

Scrap dealer who harassed neighbours scoops up their home

See the Carmarthenshire Herald, August 26 2016, pages 10-11

Thirteen traumatic years are drawing to a close for Trisha Breckman (72) and Eddie Roberts (79) of Maesybont, but there is no happy ending. Their neighbour Andrew Thomas of Blaenpant Farm, a scrap metal wholesaler and owner of AJT Recycling Ltd, is buying their Pantycastell Fach smallholding in a sale forced by Trisha and Eddie’s legal team at a mediation which they thought was to be about their civil claim for damages.

At the mediation session to discuss their civil claim against Andrew Thomas, it was made clear to Trisha and Eddie that if they did not agree to sell their home to him, and thereby avoid going to court, their legal insurers would very probably withdraw cover. “I did not want to sign,” said Trisha, “but felt pressurised to do so.”

She hopes for a six-month delay before moving out to allow Eddie, who will be 80 in November, to recuperate from an imminent operation.

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Trisha Breckman felt pressurised to sell to the neighbour who harassed her and Eddie Roberts.

Meanwhile, she is focusing on a claim for compensation against Carmarthenshire County Council, for failures in the planning department which, she says, worsened their plight over the course of 13 years.

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The setting of Pantycastell Fach looks idyllic, but looks are deceptive.

Trisha and Eddie, who bought the pretty 6½ acre holding in 2003, cannot repay their mortgage because all their plans were smashed to smithereens when conflict with their neighbour, whose land encircles Pantycastell Fach, absorbed their energies and money, and prevented them from building the cattery they had intended to run, and for which they had taken out the mortgage.

Tipper lorries

Andrew Thomas’s late wife Karen Bowen, who died in 2008, bought Blaenpant in 2001. She was a director of Karen Bowen Haulage Ltd, operating tipper lorries which Trisha and Eddie noticed travelling to and from Blaenpant, and stored there too. Karen Bowen did not have planning permission to site lorries at Blaenpant, which was and is supposed to be a farm, and therefore exempt from business rates.  “Neither of the commercial firms, Karen Bowen’s haulage business or Andrew Thomas’s recycling operations, paid business rates at Blaenpant for the years 2001 to 2011,” said Trisha. “This was stated in a letter I received from our solicitors.”

Andrew Thomas quarried and destroyed part of the Cernydd Carmel Special Area of Conservation, which is supposed to receive maximum protection, and in 2006 was convicted of assaulting two young women who were trying to stop him from confronting Eddie Roberts in Carmarthen. He and Karen had learnt that Trisha and Eddie were asking the county council questions about the haulage and other industrial operations at Blaenpant.

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This gigantic lorry was permanently parked outside the cottage windows. It has been removed now.

This led to a campaign of harassment, in which Andrew and Karen

  • Installed motorway-style barriers to narrow the access track to Pantycastell Fach, making it inaccessible to large vehicles such as a fire engine, and erected two additional gates across the track, which his wife Karen Bowen owned but over which the occupants of Pantycastell Fach cottage have a right of way. “The gates were locked at times, trapping us,” said Trisha.
  • Drove a loose horse down the track towards Trisha. Karen Bowen called the police, who arrested Trisha and took her away in handcuffs. Trisha was arrested on four other occasions at the behest of Karen Bowen and Andrew Thomas.
  • Sited a large removals lorry on the boundary between Blaenpant and Pantycastell Fach, right outside the cottage windows.
  • Kept pigs called Trisha and Eddie outside a bedroom window and loudly insulted them by name.

The harassment is documented on video and in TV documentaries — six on ITV’s Wales This Week between June 2005 and March 2008, and BBC1 Wales in October 2012. Trisha and Eddie’s county councillor , Plaid Cymru’s Cefin Campbell, and their Assembly Member at the time, Rhodri Glyn Thomas, tried hard to intercede with the planning department, but made slow progress.

Police apologised unreservedly

Dyfed-Powys Police eventually, in 2015, apologised to Trisha for treating her as a wrongdoer when, all the time, she was a victim.  The police apology, signed by Simon Prince, the Chief Constable, and Christopher Salmon, then the Police and Crime Commissioner for Dyfed-Powys, included these words:

“It is quite clear that you have been severely let down by the authorities and for the part played by Dyfed Powys Police in this we apologise whole heartedly.”

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Letter of apology from Dyfed-Powys Police. 

In addition to the apology from Dyfed-Powys Police, Trisha Breckman received a further apology from Christopher Salmon, as follows:

“We are apologising for all the hurt and pain caused throughout your experience, including any implied attack on your integrity.

“I do not want to lose the force of an unbounded apology. However it absolutely applies to any unsubstantiated comment or accusation, implied or otherwise, against your integrity. We acknowledge they are hurtful, embarrassing and deeply personal. For that we are sorry.

“Officers will continue to do all they can to help you with any ongoing issues. You are not accused of anything and your integrity is not in doubt.”

Christopher Salmon was no fan of Carmarthenshire County Council, which treated Trisha and Eddie as vexatious complainants. His parting comments, when he left the police commissioner post he held from November 2012 to May 2016, included:

“Carmarthenshire County Council.  Wales’ answer to a Sicilian cartel. It’s everywhere you look (thankfully only in Carmarthenshire – so far as I can tell). It extracts vast amounts of money from residents which it showers on favourites, hordes property, bullies opponents, co-opts friends and answers to no one, least of all local councillors.”

Council knew more than it admitted

Carmarthenshire’s planning department, then headed by now-retired Eifion Bowen, refused to take seriously Trisha and Eddie’s concerns about unlicensed haulage operations, illegal quarrying, and a long series of ‘agricultural’ planning applications for industrial uses. At least, they made no admissions of concern in public. ITV’s Wales This Week, in June 2005, got hold of an internal email from Brian Canning, Planning Enforcement Manager at the time, who wrote: “Someone is going to get injured or worse if this carries on…. I am not sure if at present they are operating from the site wholly to the letter of the law…”

The council were also fully informed of the Thomases’ unlawful industrial activities by a former owner of Pantycastell Fach, who moved out in 2002 after 26 years, and whose complaints about noisy unauthorised operations in 2001 and 2002 were on file in the planning department.

In 2010 a planning inquiry by inspector Clive Cochrane determined that an area of land on Blaenpant Farm, away from the yard and adjacent to the Carmel telecommunications mast, was being used unlawfully to store a long list of non-agricultural equipment – industrial skips, lorries, lorry engines and parts, container body shells, excavator and bulldozer plant, a fire engine, tarmacadam planings and more –and must be returned to agriculture. Later Mr Cochrane, by then retired, told the BBC that he could confirm everything that Trisha and Eddie had said about operations at Blaenpant lacking planning permission

Commenting on the main farmyard of Blaenpant, Mr Cochrane said in his inquiry report:

“During the inquiry, copies of two VOSA (Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, since replaced by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency) licences were produced to show that Blaenpant Farm is an operational base for six lorries and five trailers owned by two different haulage companies. I understand that the appellant also operates haulage and scrap metal businesses at other licensed vehicle operating centres in the Swansea area.

“The licensed operations and the use of the yard and buildings as a haulage depot, storage of related items and HGV maintenance area, combined with the keeping of horses, is not an agricultural use of the existing buildings and open yard. This appears to be in contravention of the conditional planning permissions for the buildings and may be unlawful without further planning permission for an apparent change of use.”

Planning Enforcement Manager claimed Ombudsman was biased and insulting

Two years later, in 2012, the then Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, Peter Tyndall, wrote a blistering report on the Blaenpant affair, concluding that that the county council was guilty of maladministration. The 188-page report from the Ombudsman contains, as Appendix 3, comments from the former Planning Enforcement Manager for Carmarthenshire County Council. His name is not given but the officer in the role in the early 2000s was Brian Canning.

The former Planning Enforcement Manager did not mince his words. Commenting on the Ombudsman’s draft report, he wrote:

“I consider the contents of your report in relation to my involvement in this very long-running and difficult case to be biased and lacking in any evidential basis. You insult my professionalism [and that of the Head of Planning] in stating that our ‘dislike’ of this woman (Trisha Breckman) would influence the manner with which we dealt with her many and varied complaints over the years.”

He went on to challenge the  validity of the Ombudsman’s findings, and said “It is my fervent hope that Carmarthenshire County Council seeks counsel’s advice in order to vigorously challenge your recommendations in this matter”, concluding “I did not want to get involved in this matter from the outset. I have absolutely no interest in your final conclusions so would be grateful if you would refrain from contacting me again.”

The Planning Enforcement Manager had told the Ombudsman’s enquiry that he could not recall complaints about industrial activity at Blaenpant, made by the previous occupiers of Pantycastell Fach. He could not recall seeing a log of HGV-related activity completed at the end of 2001, he could not recall if he had been aware that former occupiers had said they were threatened by Mr Thomas after complaining about the extent of haulage activities at Blaenpant. He did not recall if Blaenpant was licensed as an operating base for one HGV, but he did recall that the operating centre for the lorries was elsewhere. He never saw anything to suggest that a change of use from farming to industry had occurred. He did not recall being shown photographs of lorries, he could not recall if he was offered video footage of HGV activity during a meeting with Eddie Roberts and his surveyor. He could not recall a planning report of September 2006 which referred to the primary uses of the site as being equine and a lorry base, and he believed that statement to be incorrect, based on a snapshot assessment of the planning officer and going beyond what the officer was in a position to say.

Mr Thomas had said under oath during the 2010 planning inquiry that for ten years he had been using the farm as a base for five or six lorries, plus trailers, but the Planning Enforcement Manager did not think that any weight should be attached to this statement, because in his view, the late Karen Bowen would have had a clearer idea of what had been going on. In fact, Karen had already admitted in court, in 2006, that she ran a haulage business at Blaenpant without planning permission.

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Solicitor’s note reveals that the late Karen Bowen had admitted, in a court case in which she accused Trisha Breckman of assault, that she ran a haulage business at Blaenpant without permission. 

The Planning Enforcement Manager told the Ombudsman that he was extremely principled and would never desist from taking action on the basis of some other ulterior motive, for example, because an officer was being intimidated.

Exonerated – but about to lose their home

The county council placed Trisha and Eddie on a list of persistent complainants and for a time they were prevented from contacting council staff and councillors, with the exception of one designated person, the then-Director of Regeneration and Leisure, Dave Gilbert.

Despite Dyfed-Powys Police, the former Police and Crime Commissioner, a planning inspector and the Public Services Ombudsman all accepting that Trisha and Eddie’s complaints were justified, they are losing their home to the neighbour who intimidated them – and who continues to break planning rules.

Habitat destruction and land reprofiling at Blaenpant has altered part of the Cernydd Carmel Special Area of Conservation beyond recognition. Special Areas of Conservation are a European Union designation for areas of the highest ecological value. Natural Resources Wales is insisting on a land restoration plan over the next ten years, with progress to be monitored three times a year in April, July and September. The scheme has been agreed in principle with the planning authority — Carmarthenshire County Council — and with Mr Thomas, and aims to restore both wet and dry heaths, and natural grassland species.

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Andrew Thomas’s retrospective application for a new roadway across a Special Area of Conservation ignores its protected status. 

Yet in summer 2016 the land has been closely mown, inhibiting protected species from regenerating.

Mr Thomas has not responded to an invitation to comment.

Indifference and hostility

The indifference to the fate of an important area of protected landscape matches the indifference and hostility which Trisha, Eddie and their supporters have met over many years.

“I have fought tirelessly for twelve years whilst suffering unprecedented abuse and intimidation from our neighbour, to prevent the loss of our home. I have tried desperately to communicate with the council in order to have our dire situation remedied.  It has been the consequences of the denial of the truth over so many years that has led to the loss of our home.  I have also made many attempts over these years to gain help and recognition from Ministers at the Assembly who similarly knew the details of our case and have shown utter indifference to our situation.  I would like one of the many  involved in our case who have been  fully aware of the seriousness of our situation to explain to me why they did not care enough to prevent this terrible injustice,  and why, when we did absolutely nothing wrong, have been made to pay such a huge price,” said Trisha.

PDR

Blogger faces financial oblivion  — part 2

The second part of an investigation into the interactions between planning decisions in Carmarthenshire, free speech, institutional power, and access to legal expertise. The first part, here, reported on the financial oblivion faced by Llanwrda blogger Jacqui Thompson, who lost a libel action against Mr Mark James and Carmarthenshire County Council. Jacqui had many questions about planning decisions, and in Carmarthenshire there have been several examples of decisions which appear inconsistent, odd, and hard to justify. 

 See the Carmarthenshire Herald, August 19, p.8

Tangled complexity

Inconsistencies in decisions made by Carmarthenshire County Council’s planning department highlight both the tangled complexity of planning regulations and a tendency in the council not to challenge – -at least, not to challenge early enough – planning contraventions which could consume large quantities of the department’s time and resources. Sometimes, too, councillors fail to follow planning policy when it conflicts with personal views of how the world should work.

Last week in Part 1, we saw that Jacqui’s application for a forestry worker’s bungalow received multiple rejections, but on a nearby parcel of bare land another applicant’s plan for a farm worker’s bungalow was approved.

There are more seemingly contrary cases. The following examples, originally from ‘Inconsistent planning decisions damage public confidence’, in West Wales News Review, October 18 2015, represent some of the planning contradictions which have perplexed applicants and the public.

Granted Refused Ignored
Stable block by roadside hedge at Crugybar (E/29504) Mobile field shelter by roadside hedge at Broad Oak (E/31647) Operation of haulage business without permission, Maesybont
Agricultural buildings on holding with minimal agriculture, Maesybont (numerous, E/01257, TG/01947, TG/02011, E/05992, E/06708, E/07519, E/09576, E/11544, E/14109, E/14145, E/14648, E/17981, E/18176, E/19928, E/21494, E/25234 and E/25246) Four smallholdings in accordance with the Wales Government’s ‘One Planet’ policy, near Llanboidy (W/31160). This was later granted on appeal, with the county council ordered to pay the applicant’s costs Destruction of part of Cernydd Carmel Special Area of Conservation
House 40 metres from a farmyard containing an unoccupied house, Esgairhir Uchaf, Henfwlch Road (W/32578) Solar panels on an unlisted barn adjacent to a listed house, Brechfa (E/31647)

 

Field shelter verdict made national news

At Broad Oak, Andrew and Meg-Anne Redman failed to get permission to retain a mobile field shelter, set behind a hedge, on the grounds that the land it was on totalled only 6.2 acres and so it would not be large enough for viable agriculture. The decision went against common practice of allowing mobile structures on farms and smallholdings, and was so out-of-the-ordinary that it made the front cover of Horse and Hound magazine.

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Council’s shock ruling’ made national news.

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Mr Andrew Redman’s field shelter was on skids and could be moved about the field — but the council said it had to go.

Planning inspector P J Davies called Mr and Mrs Redman’s shelter “low in height and not unduly prominent in public vantage points because it is situated just below the hedge line and screened by the hedge itself”, and she also said that there is no absolute prohibition against buildings on small acreages, but she decided that the shelter lacked agricultural justification and so could not remain.

The equestrian building at Caer Onnen, Crugybar, 94 feet long and over 24 feet wide on a holding of just under 12 acres, is also set behind a hedge. It is a condition of planning permission that this building is used only for domestic or recreational purposes. On this basis, if Mr and Mrs Redman had applied for a shelter for domestic use, they might have been successful.

At Maesybont, the issues of a haulage business and large new buildings at Blaenpant Farm seem to be issues of ‘too much aggravation’ to resolve. The extensive range of buildings have permission for agricultural use, but ‘agriculture’ appears to have a broad and permissive definition when large areas of land are involved, and can include horse grazing and storage of industrial equipment, for example. On the other hand, a narrow definition seems to be applied to smaller plots, as in the case of Mr and Mrs Redman’s field shelter on 6.2 acres.

Council must cough up costs

Applications for BIG buildings seem to have a larger chance of success than proposals for small structures which help the applicants to earn a living. Rejected plans for four smallholdings at Rhiw Las near Llanboidy are a good example of ‘small is suspect’.  Although the smallholdings met all the requirements of the Welsh Government’s innovative One Planet policy for low-impact living, and although the planning officer dealing with the application recommended its approval, a majority of councillors on the planning committee apparently could not think of ‘agriculture’ as anything other than large flocks of sheep, or substantial herds of beef or dairy cattle. Given this conception of ‘agriculture’, and the current difficulties of making a living from this type of large-scale ‘agriculture’, no surprise that councillors could not imagine how anyone could support themselves and their families from a mini acreage.

But they made the wrong decision. Applicant Erica Thompson (no relation to Jacqui) appealed, and in June 2016 planning inspector Alwyn Nixon gave permission for the venture to proceed – and ordered the county council to pay the costs of the appeal.

So, ‘No’ to new smallholdings, but ‘Yes’ to a four-bedroom house at Esgairhir Uchaf, Henfwlch Road, in the countryside and 40 metres from a farmyard containing a currently unoccupied farmhouse. The rationale from members of the planning committee, who approved the plan contrary to the advice of the planning officer, seemed to be that the applicant, Mr Brian Walters, is prominent in the Farmers Union of Wales and an upstanding member of the community.

A four-bedroomed house in the countryside is, arguably, a bigger intrusion into the landscape than Bobby Bazalgette’s solar panels on his single-storey barn at Brechfa. Renewable energy is sensible, surely, much better for the climate than burning coal, oil or gas? Not in the eyes of Carmarthenshire’s planning department – which told Mr Bazalgette to remove the panels because they detracted from the historical setting of his farmhouse, which is a listed building (although the barn is not listed). This seems a pernickety decision – an intervention against a small and many would say eminently appropriate change, which in no way damages the fabric of the listed farmhouse nearby.

While the planning department was heavy-handed over this small issue, it forgot it had hands when confronted with damage at Maesybont to part of Cernydd Carmel, a Special Area of Conservation which is supposed to receive the highest possible level of protection. Destruction of surface features and habitats, over more than a decade, seems to have struck the planners as less important than renewable energy panels on a barn – or so it appears to the general public.

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Part of Cernydd Carmel Special Area of Conservation before ‘improvement’.

Public scrutiny of inconsistent decisions is surely legitimate. With such seemingly odd determinations as these, how could the public have full confidence that their applications will be dealt with fairly and impartially, or that unauthorised developments or destruction will be halted?

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The same landscape after ‘improvement’, which reprofiled the land and removed the original vegetation. 

Transparency improving

Jacqui Thompson’s arrest in 2011 for filming at a Carmarthenshire County Council meeting generated copious publicity, and has helped to open up meetings to scrutiny. Members of the public can sit in the public gallery above the council chamber, but the view of proceedings is restricted. Additionally, people were locked in until the Fire Service was alerted to the practice of locking the emergency exit doors.

Meetings of the full council and the executive board, as well as the planning committee, are now webcast, and can be watched online both at the time and later, a real advance in transparency. The webcasts are a rich resource for journalists and bloggers alike. Webcasts of planning committee meetings have shown favouritism to some applicants, and on occasion hostility to others, for reasons which have nothing to do with planning regulations. The councillors concerned just seemed insufficiently aware of current planning policies.

Transparency would expand further if planners told us how they

  • Regularly scrutinised, for inconsistencies and possible errors, the decisions they make under the extensive powers which have been delegated to them;
  • Put matters right if there have been mistakes; and
  • Published the reasons for apparently contradictory decisions.

The retreat of the regional press in the face of cheap digital competition meant that scrutiny of planning and other local government decisions became less systematic. Bloggers fill gaps, by reporting local news and seeking to hold institutions like councils to account. For Jacqui Thompson, who was not a professional journalist and learned, painfully and expensively through writing, her blog began as a way to highlight planning issues, but expanded to cover a broad spectrum of local government activities. In 2011 her ‘Carmarthenshire Planning Problems and More’ won the ‘best politics blog’ category in the occasional Wales Blog Awards, and in 2014 she was a finalist.

The accolades, though, failed to convince the county council that her blog is political comment and not an expression of revenge.

PDR

Councillors back flats plan for disused Llanelli church

See the Carmarthenshire Herald, August 19 2016, p.15. The yawning gap between conservation regulations and resources for conservation means that historic buildings can be left to fall down because the owners cannot afford to renovate them according to conservation rules. This conflict was aired by Carmarthenshire’s planning committee last week.

The issue has featured in this blog before — see https://westwalesnewsreview.wordpress.com/2015/08/18/poisoned-chalice-of-owning-a-historic-building/

Councillors rejected planning officers’ advice on Thursday (August 18) and approved a plan to construct nine flats in the disused All Saints Church, Goring Road, Llanelli.

The church, built in 1872 for £4,800, around three times more than the typical Victorian church of the time, is a listed building with stained glass windows, much interior ornamentation and a protected monument in the churchyard. The building closed in 2011.

Planning officer John Thomas told members of Carmarthenshire County Council’s planning committee that the church had been marketed for a number of years, with very little interest shown by potential buyers. The application would not alter the external appearance of the church, but he recommended refusal for several reasons including advice from the council’s Conservation Officer, and objections from the Victorian Society and the Ancient Monuments Society.

Councillors, though, feared that the alternative would be for the church to stand empty until it became so dilapidated that it would have to be demolished.

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All Saints Church, Llanelli: dilemma of listing without financial backing. Photo from Wikipedia

Cllr John Jenkins (Ind, Elli) pleaded “don’t leave us with another large derelict church in Llanelli town centre”. Cllrs Terry Davies (Lab, Gorslas) and Peter Cooper (Lab, Saron) thought there was a high risk of the building being left to fall down. Conservation specialists are “so narrow-minded they don’t move at all”, said Cllr Davies, worried that conservation zeal without financial resources resulted in disused buildings remaining disused.

No committee member voted against giving permission to the applicant, P W Jones Contractors of Pear Tree House, 3 Harris Lane, Llanelli. Five abstained, and the majority voted for P W Jones’s proposal.

The application will now be referred to CADW, the Welsh Government’s historic environment service, because the committee rejected planning officers’ advice.

PDR

Blogger under police investigation faces financial obliteration 

See the Carmarthenshire Herald, August 12th, pages 1 and 3

No bungalow for forestry worker

Jacqueline (Jacqui) Thompson, married to forestry contractor Kerry Thompson and living in the countryside between Llanwrda and Caio, started to feel that the county’s planners discriminated against them.

In 1990, Jacqui and Kerry had received permission for a forestry contractor’s bungalow dwelling at Cae Brwyn, Llanwrda, and for an agricultural implement shed. Sixteen years later, in 2006, they applied for a workshop and barn on the site. This was refused by the planning department, under officers’ delegated powers, on the grounds that the applicants had not demonstrated sufficient need or justification for the building, which would be in front of the bungalow and “cause an adverse effect on the visual amenity of the area”.

On three occasions between 2004 and 2007  (applications E/06601, E/17614, E/09739) Jacqui applied, as a voluntary agent, for permission to construct a bungalow, with an agricultural tie restricting its value on the open market,  for Kerry Thompson’s brother Eddie, a forestry co-worker. All three applications were refused, and so was an application in 2006 (E/11853) for a temporary mobile home on the plot intended for the bungalow. The final rejection, signed by senior development control officer Graham Noakes and dated December 18 2007, said that “insufficient information has been provided to demonstrate that there is a proven local affordable housing need, the proposal would therefore create a form of unacceptable sporadic development in the open countryside”.

Yet in the following year, 2008, less than a quarter of a mile up the lane from Cae Brwyn, Carmarthenshire’s planning committee approved application E/20004 from CR and DM Griffiths of Betws, Ammanford, for a “single storey dwelling or a dormer bungalow” in open countryside, on land which had been fragmented more than a decade earlier, when the farmhouse, buildings and 34 acres at Hafod Tafolog were sold off “to enable further land to be bought and to make the business more viable”, according to the council’s planning appraisal. One of the reasons given for the approval was the policy permitting a dwelling required for people engaged mainly in agriculture, a category which includes forestry.  Despite the permission, to date this dwelling has not been built.

 

Defamation case brought by Eifion Bowen settled out of court

Jacqui Thompson, who is a community councillor in Llanwrda, and husband Kerry had begun to scrutinise decisions made by Carmarthenshire ’s planning department, then headed by Eifion Bowen, who retired in 2015. On February 28 2006, after one of Eddie Thompson’s applications for forestry worker’s accommodation was rejected, Kerry was annoyed, left the house, and Jacqui thought he might call unannounced on Mr Bowen at his home, so she alerted police to the possibility. Kerry, though, did not visit Mr Bowen’s home.

Kerry, Jacqui and Eddie emailed Eifion Bowen and several other people at the county council on March 1 2006, calling for Mr Bowen’s resignation on the grounds of professional misconduct and gross incompetence. The Thompsons’ antipathy to various planning decisions did not abate. On October 18 2006 Jacqui and Kerry wrote to multiple persons at the county council, to media organisations including the BBC, to their MP Adam Price, the Welsh Assembly’s planning division, and three assembly members. Their letter asked for the dismissal of Eifion Bowen and criticised Mark James and the council’s Head of Corporate Property, Jonathan Fearn, for acting improperly in regard to certain planning applications, although they lacked evidence which would have stood up in a court of law.

Mr Bowen decided to sue for defamation. The case was settled out of court, with Jacqui and Kerry apologising and agreeing to pay £7,500 towards Mr Bowen’s costs. The Thompsons lacked savings, and so in place of cash, Mr Bowen obtained a charge on their bungalow, the value of which is restricted by the agricultural tie on it.

The 2016 value of the property, once the mortgage is deducted, is around £140,000 – half belonging to Kerry and half to Jacqui.

In 2009 Jacqui started a blog called ‘Carmarthenshire Planning Problems and More’. Her comments eventually enraged Mark James, the council’s Chief Executive, who made it known that he had not read postings on the blog, except for extracts brought to his attention by individual officers or councillors, until litigation proceedings started late in 2011.

 

Jacqui pursued for over £220,000

Now in 2016, after Jacqui lost a libel claim against Mr James and the county council, after Mr James and the council won a counter-claim for defamation against Jacqui, and after Jacqui’s appeal failed, Mr James is pursuing her for payment of £190,390 for the council’s costs, plus a balance of £30,913 in damages to Mr James himself (the original award of £25,000 plus interest at 8% a year) Bailiffs’ fees of around £4,000 were also payable but, according to Jacqui, “seem to have been dropped following their unsuccessful attempt at recovery”. The bailiffs had not found goods worth seizing.

Jacqui cannot afford to pay, because her legal insurers, Temple Legal Insurance, revoked the after-the event policy which would have protected her financially in case she lost, following the libel trial verdict given by Mr Justice Tugendhat who had concluded that Jacqui had lied, thereby attempting to pervert the course of justice. This let the insurers escape from the contract.

In April 2016, Jacqui received a letter from solicitors acting for Mr James personally, saying that he intended to ask the High Court to start contempt of court proceedings against her, and also – quite a frightener, this – informing her that Mr James has asked police to investigate if she can be prosecuted for the crime of harassment. She learned later that an investigation for perverting the course of justice was also being considered.

If the case reaches court, and Jacqui is subsequently found guilty, she could be jailed.

Matthew Paul, barrister and Conservative candidate for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr in May’s elections for Welsh Assembly elections, went public with opposition to the council’s continuing pursuit of Jacqui. Commenting in The Herald on April 22 2016 (p.22), Matthew Paul wrote:

“The High Court’s judgment (and that of the Court of Appeal) in Thompson v. James was badly wrong. It would have been entirely possible to find that neither party had libelled the other, and that the case was an immense waste of Court time and public money. Mr Justice Tugendhat should have ruled that Thompson’s comments made on the blog were plainly political, and protected both by the common law and Art. 10 of the ECHR [Article 10, on freedom of expression, in the European Convention on Human Rights]. Quite independently of the EU, our own Courts failed lamentably in this case to protect free expression.”

 

Arrested for filming at a council meeting

The hashtag #daftarrest was popular on Twitter as a response to Jacqui’s arrest for filming a council meeting in June 2011.  In February that year in England, Bob Neill MP, a junior minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government, wrote to all council leaders in England urging them to be as open to ‘citizen journalists’ as they already were to professional journalists. He was concerned about “recent stories about people being ejected from Council meetings for blogging, tweeting or filming” and said he wanted all councils to “take a welcoming approach to those who want to bring local news stories to the wider audience”.  Welsh councils, though, were beyond the influence of Mr Neill, local government being a devolved matter.

Jacqui continued to attend council meetings and to blog.  On March 14 2011 she made an error onto which Mr Justice Tugendhat later pounced. She wrote on her blog that the council had amended its constitution so that libel claims against officers could be funded by the taxpayer, and she also said that a “statement is only libellous if it is untrue and I am certain that I have never said or written an untruth about Carmarthenshire County Council”.

This contributed to her undoing, because Mr Justice Tugendhat had noted that in their defence to Eifion Bowen’s earlier defamation claim, Jacqui and Kerry Thompson had not said that the words which defamed Mr Bowen were true. The Thompsons had apologised. Therefore, the learned justice concluded, Jacqui had not told the truth to the court when she said that she “really did mean every word of her apology”, because in his view she could not make a sincere apology while also believing that she was in the right.

On Thursday March 31 2011 Jacqui was in the public gallery filming a meeting of the council’s planning committee when an officer ordered her to stop. She filmed again on Friday April 13, using her mobile phone, but Democratic Services Officer Martin Davies arrived in the gallery to tell her to stop. Here evidence diverges. Jacqui’s husband Kerry was not in the gallery, but telephoned the police to report the alleged incident to police when Jacqui had returned home. He passed the phone to Jacqui, who told police that no members of the public, as opposed to council staff, had been in the gallery.  Jacqui said that Martin Davies tried to seize the phone from her hand, an act which she said was attempted theft and assault. Mr Davies, though, said to police that “at no point did I attempt to take the phone off her”.

There were no close witnesses. From the council chamber below, only heads can be seen in the gallery unless those seated there are particularly tall. When Mr Davies arrived, some officers of the planning department were at the back of the gallery, but they left during the exchanges between him and Jacqui.

This incident featured prominently in the 2013 libel trial. Mr Justice Tugendhat made several assumptions about how Jacqui Thompson and Martin Davies would have behaved. He suggested, in paragraphs 204 and 205 of his judgement, that as Jacqui had “repeatedly shown herself to be ready and willing to make allegations against Council officers when she claims to have a grievance, so if she had considered while in the Public Gallery that she had a legitimate ground to complain, I think it probable that she would have complained in the presence of all those in the Chamber.

“But even if I were wrong about that, I have no hesitation in preferring the evidence of Mr Davies. His evidence was convincingly given, and remained consistent.”

Mr Justice Tugendhat went on to say, in paragraph 207, that he found “Mrs Thompson’s complaints, assault and attempted theft, were false and false to her knowledge at the time. She was attempting to pervert the course of justice when she made her allegations to the police, and when she made her statement”.

This reference to an attempt to pervert the course of justice contributed to the post-trial decision of Jacqui’s insurers, Temple Legal Insurance, to revoke the after-the-event policy which had been taken out by Simons Muirhead & Burton, Jacqui’s solicitors, leaving her personally liable for all the costs and damages.

The filming incident which led to Jacqui’s arrest was on Wednesday June 8, 2011, when the council chair at the time, Ivor Jackson, refused permission for supporters of the Noddfa Teilo Day Centre for the elderly, Llandeilo, to present a 1,500-name petition against its impending closure. One may ask, if that is not a matter of genuine public interest, what is?

Council chief executive Mark James ordered the police to be called. Four officers arrived swiftly and arrested Jacqui in case she was about to breach the peace. She was handcuffed, hauled off to Llanelli Police Station, detained for several hours and allowed to leave only when she signed an undertaking not to try and film council meetings again.

 

Accusations on Madaxeman’s blog

Martin Milan writes a blog as the Madaxeman. After the #daftarrest, he defended Jacqui’s right to free expression, and asked Mark James if he would like to respond. Perhaps not all chief executives would rush into digital print on a site called Madaxeman, but Mr James responded with some harsh comments, to which Jacqui took exception, above all because of criticism levelled at her family, she said.

The comments are no longer in Madaxeman’s archive but included in Mr Justice Tugendhat’s judgement on the Jacqui’s libel action against Mark James, dated March 15 2013. One sentence of Mr James’ contribution reads: “Mrs Thompson and her family are well known to the Council and their actions have required Police involvement on more than one occasion. They have been running a campaign of harassment, intimidation and defamation of Council staff and members for some considerable time. This is since the Council’s Planning Committee repeatedly turned down their planning applications to develop their land at Cae Brwyn near Llanwrda for housing….”

The words ‘develop’ and ‘housing’ convey, to some readers at least, a picture of ‘a housing development’, a number of homes on a commercial development. This was not the case, because as noted above, the application was for a forestry worker’s bungalow.

 

Suit and counter-suit

Jacqui took exception to Mark James’ comments on the Madaxeman’s blog, asked for a retraction, but did not receive one.  She then opted to sue for libel – a decision with huge repercussions. Mr James was able to defend and counter-sue without any financial worries because in 2008 Carmarthenshire County Council amended its constitution to allow public money to buy indemnities for defamation cases.

Mr James’ counter suit included complaints that Jacqui had accused him of holding a slush fund and had also called him ‘Pinocchio’ after the wooden character in the classic children’s story, whose nose lengthens when he tells a lie.

Jacqui’s solicitors, Simons Muirhead & Burton, secured the services of a barrister who is better known for copyright, trademark and intellectual property law than for defamation: Christina Michalos (rated in band 4 for defamation proceedings, according to the 2016 Chambers & Partners’ ranking of lawyers and law offices). Mr James and Carmarthenshire County Council, with the indemnity funded by the public, chose Mr Adam Speker (rated in the top band, 1, for defamation). Both were attached to the same chambers, 5RB. Mr Justice Tugendhat, the libel trial judge, was also a 5RB barrister when practising as Michael Tugendhat QC.

Mr James/Carmarthenshire County Council engaged a highly esteemed barrister, in the knowledge that their publicly funded indemnity would pay, if they lost, or Jackie would pay, if they won. At least, they assumed she would be able to pay. She assumed she would be able to pay, because her solicitors had arranged after-the-event insurance cover.

 

Judge refuses trial by jury

Jacqui expected a jury trial. It did not happen. It was listed as a jury trial. The International Forum for Responsible Media blog, dated January 16 2013, listed upcoming media law cases for January to March, and said:

“There is one jury trial, in the case of Thompson v James, listed for 7 days beginning on 11 February 2013.  This is a claim brought by the author of the Carmarthenshire Planning Problems blog, Jacqui Thompson, against the chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council in relation to a letter dated 28 July 2011.  Mr James has brought a counterclaim for libel, funded by the local authority.”

Yet just before the trial was due to start, Mr Justice Tugendhat decided that there would be no jury. He, as the presiding judge, would determine the outcome.

That is now normal, because the Defamation Act 2013 removed the previous presumption in favour of jury trial. Solicitors Brett Wilson LLP explained in an article on their website dated October 8 2014, titled ‘The end of jury trials in libel claims?’ that Mr Justice Walby, who had just rejected an application by The Times Newspapers for a case to be heard before a jury, took the view that

“it was in the public interest to have the trial by Judge alone, holding that the Defendant does not ‘identify any skills, knowledge, aptitudes or other attributes which are likely to be possessed by a jury which would make it better equipped than a judge to grapple with the issues that arise and may need to be tried’.”

“Mr Justice Walby went on to say that “there are real risks of a jury verdict being unclear or misunderstood or both.” He remarked that the greater the public interest, the greater the need for trial without a jury as this would provide for a reasoned judgment.”

Using this line of reasoning, it is hard to envisage any circumstances when a jury would definitely possess more skills, knowledge, aptitudes or other attributes than a learned judge!

The Defamation Act 2013 did not come into force until January 1 2014, almost a year after the Thompson-James case was heard in February 2013, so Mr Justice Tugendhat’s decision to refuse jury trial, late in the day, was an unwelcome surprise to Jacqui and her legal team.

 

Mr Justice Tugendhat’s judgment

The boundary between free speech and libel is somewhat of a moveable feast. A great deal depends on the judge’s assessment of motives. Mr Justice Tugendhat could not discern any motive other than a wish to harass Mr James and the county council – not genuine political comment, not a desire to inform the public.

In Mr Justice Tugendhat’s opinion, Jacqui had engaged in an unlawful campaign of harassment, defamation and intimidation targeted against Mr James and other council officers (paragraph 423 (i)), and her motive was revenge (paragraph 406).  The judge’s decision that the motive was revenge, following the county council’s refusal of applications for planning permission for a forestry worker’s bungalow, seems to stem from the fact that he could not see any other possible motive.

 

Appeal fails

Permission to appeal against the judgement was refused except for one small point relating to the interpretation of ‘slush fund’, and in May 2014 Lord Justice Longmore wholly agreed with Mr Justice Tugendhat that the term ‘slush fund’ implied money available to fund corrupt purposes, and that no such fund existed.

In Jacqui’s view, she used the term ‘slush fund’ to refer to the council’s alteration to its constitution in 2008, to allow public money to indemnify libel claims brought by staff or councillors – a state of affairs which the Wales Audit Office’s assistant auditor-general, Anthony Barrett, declared unlawful in January 2014.

The restricted grounds for appeal, and the fate of the appeal, highlight for me the lack of depth in the trial. It was all about semantics, debates over the meaning of words, and colossally expensive debates at that.

Was it wise to criticise Mark James, or before that Eifion Bowen and Jonathan Fearn, by name in the absence of hard evidence? No, it was not. But since then, evidence of inconsistencies in Carmarthenshire County Council’s planning decisions have come to light. The inconsistencies seemed to arise from an institutionalised acceptance that the status of the applicant is a valid consideration. That is changing, but then planning committee meetings are now webcast for all to see.

 

We have no option, says council

The Herald asked Carmarthenshire County Council three questions:

  • Is the chief executive considering whether to draw a line under the past litigation and stop pursuing Mrs Thompson for a bill which is larger than her total financial resources?
  • In what ways does pressing Mrs Thompson for payment benefit the council’s reputation in Wales and the wider UK?
  • Is the council not concerned that the current police investigation into Mrs Thompson for harassment and perverting the course of justice could make it appear excessively hostile to criticism, in the eyes of the general public?

 

In response, the council has issued the following statement:

“Mrs Thompson initiated the action after bringing defamation proceedings both against the Council and Mr James in his capacity as its Chief Executive. This action was defended and won overwhelmingly.

“Costs would usually have been recovered from Mrs Thompson’s insurers, however they withdrew from this citing a lack of good faith on her part.

“The council therefore had no option other than to pursue Mrs Thompson directly for the costs incurred after successfully defending itself in proceedings brought by her.

“It is standard procedure for the Council to pursue any debts against it, it has the responsibility to the council taxpayer to do so.

Whether Mrs Thompson has the means to pay will be something for the court to consider.”

PDR

Colossal bill for Llandovery Mart waste disposal

See the Carmarthenshire Herald, August 5th p.8

£32,003 for disposing of waste from Llandovery Mart in a single year, 2015-16?

This colossal figure has been confirmed by landlords Carmarthenshire County Council, and comprises £4,037 for tanker hire, £4,940 for using Jet-Vac waste disposal services, and £23,026 in waste disposal costs.

The council budgeted for waste disposal from the mart to cost £1,389, but the actual figure was 23 times greater.

“The waste disposal requirement on site has been higher than experienced in previous years and we have therefore increased the frequency of the cyclical maintenance within the mart, which has therefore increased running costs. A review is currently being undertaken of the current operation in conjunction with the mart operators and the budget will consequentially also be reviewed,” commented council spokesperson Debbie Williams.

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£32,003: the cost of waste disposal from Llandovery Mart in 2015-16 

Chris Moore, the council’s Director of Corporate Services, further explained:

“During 2014-15 and previous years we had responsibility for the hydrology service, which we operated on behalf of Dŵr Cymru/Welsh Water. The hydrology section would have undertaken this work and the costs would have been met from the hydrology cost centre, hence no significant budget within Llandovery Mart.

“With the transfer of the hydrology service to Dŵr Cymru/Welsh Water the responsibility for these works reverted back to the authority, hence the change in actual costs. Therefore the work has not increased significantly but the costs have moved cost centres. The budget will now have to be reviewed in the light of the current position.”

Hydrology is the study of water. Hydrologists concern themselves with matters such as water quality, flow and contamination; drains and sewers; flood mitigation and irrigation.

The council’s statement of accounts for 2014-15 show gross spending of £38,707 on hydrology, revenue of £40,037 and net income of £1,330. The budget for 2015-16, after the council stopped acting on behalf of Dŵr Cymru/Welsh Water, shows zero income or expenditure under the heading of hydrology.

The mart operators are auctioneers and estate agents Clee Tompkinson Francis. The Herald has been unable to contact Mickey Gough, the partner responsible for mart operations in the firm’s Llandovery office, who has been out on site visits or on holiday when telephoned, and has not yet been able to reply by email.

As a comparative figure, the cost of emptying an 18,000 litre cesspit is in the range £280 to £320, according to the website septic tanksandcesspits.com. This suggests that, at an average £300 a time, £32,000 would pay for 107 emptyings, removing more than 1.9 million litres of waste.  One housed dairy cow produces about 19,000 litres of waste a year, so 1.9 million litres would represent the annual waste output from 100 dairy cows, housed inside the whole year.

Llandovery Mart has a weekly sheep sale and a monthly cattle sale plus some special sales, and so for the majority of time is empty of livestock.

PDR

Salem Turbine Powers Protest

See the Carmarthenshire Herald, August 5th, pps 1 and 3

Protestors against wind power tried to blow Carmarthenshire Energy’s first open day off course last week (Jul 29). They were objecting to the community benefit society’s turbine on a hilltop north of Llandeilo between Salem and Taliaris, alleging health impacts, road damage, and lack of consultation with people living nearby. Some believed the turbine is a ‘big money’ intrusion into the countryside.

Yet Carmarthenshire Energy, chaired by Neil Lewis and with a voluntary board of six, is a home-grown society with 152 members, almost half of whom live in Carmarthenshire, and most of the remainder in Wales. Members each have one vote, regardless of their shareholding, and elect the board. The Salem turbine, on Rhydygwydd Farm, is the society’s first major project, and started supplying the National Grid this summer.

“The big news is that this is Carmarthenshire’s first community owned wind turbine,” emphasised Roxanne Treacy, Carmarthenshire Energy’s secretary and a board member.

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Wind turbine protestors demonstrate in Salem during Carmarthenshire Energy’s open day to mark the installation of a 500kW turbine between Salem and Taliaris

The turbine can generate enough electricity for about 450 households. Built by the German firm Enercon, it had an original capacity of 800kW but was down-engineered to 500kW, to accord with grid capacity and coincidentally to take advantage of higher feed-in tariffs at the lower rating. The shaft is 50 metres and the rotor blades add 24 metres to the maximum height, so the distance from the base to the top of a rotor blade is 74 metres. Underground cabling from an electricity sub-station on-site takes the power to the National Grid.

 

Profits to combat climate change

Chair Neil Lewis told The Herald: “Carmarthenshire Energy Ltd’s 152 members are passionate about combating climate change and keeping profits within Carmarthenshire to provide future generations with a more optimistic view of our energy future. Money made will be reinvested to create jobs in energy efficiency and eradicating fuel poverty in our county.

“The community-owned installation will be used to educate schoolchildren that they can help tackle what all world leaders and faith leaders agree is the greatest threat we face. As a community owned co-operative we are eager to work with others in dealing with the major challenges that our future generations are inheriting from the fossil fuel age.”

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The turbine, visited by people attending the open day 

The wind turbine would have been owned by a foreign investment fund, if Carmarthenshire Energy had not captured it, he said.

Two share offers have raised about half of the £1.488 million construction cost, with the balance from short-term loans, including more than £350,000 from Seren Energy, a renewable energy consultancy which initially intended to own the turbine itself and in conjunction with Transition Tywi Trawsnewid in November 2014 held a public meeting in Llandeilo, at which strong opposition was noisily apparent.

The plan now is for Carmarthenshire Energy to pay off the loans with the proceeds of a third share offer, which opened on July 29 and will last until the end of September.

 

Democratic credentials

The democratic credentials have not yet convinced protestors to back the scheme. Tim Shaw of Llansadwrn, one of the demonstration organisers, told The Herald: “Ideally we would like the turbine removed. It should not have been allowed in the first place. There is a hideous red light on top which disfigures our dark skies. The roadway has been smashed up and verges dug up. Green projects should not cause this degree of distress.”

Tim Shaw was also concerned that financial benefits would not be coming to the people of Salem. “The Rhydygwydd industrial turbine is not a ‘community’ turbine, it is not a Salem community initiative, and does not benefit the community of Salem,” he said.

Carmarthenshire Energy secretary Roxanne Treacy said that a grant scheme will be set up now that the first income from electricity is being received, and priority will be given to applicants living within 10 kilometres of the turbine. The grant fund is likely to total some £1.3 million, out of the total expected operating income of £7 million over the planned 25-year life of the turbine.

Roxanne pointed out that “any Salem or other nearby residents who feel the electricity is not yet benefiting them in any way will be able to apply to our fund for money to improve community life”.

In addition, they can buy in to the third share offer, investing anything between £100 and £100,000.

The damaged road verges will soon be reinstated, Carmarthenshire Energy promised. Turning off the red light on top of the turbine is not so straightforward. The light is a condition of the planning permission, and required by the Ministry of Defence and the Aviation Authority.

 

Residents’ health concerns

Beverley and Emyr Griffiths have been living at Cwmdu three kilometres from the turbine. Beverley says she is sensitive to infrasound from wind turbines, the very low frequency sound below the lower limit of human audibility, and reports suffering from dizziness and chest pains. She felt she had no option but to leave home and move away from the area. She returned for the demonstration but is living in Bath. Evidence about maladies caused by infrasound is currently scant, and Emyr believes the only legal recourse at present is a private prosecution for noise nuisance.

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Contrary visions: Carmarthenshire Energy’s purpose is to promote renewables, but campaigner Tim Shaw objects to large turbines 

To ordinary ears, the turbine is virtually noiseless, and so conventional noise measurement would not register a nuisance. Caroline Evans, at the demonstration from near Brechfa, said that machines to measure infrasound are available and there are plans to obtain one, to be shared among groups opposing wind turbines.

Back in 1987, a report titled ‘A Proposed Metric for Assessing the Potential of Community Annoyance from Wind Turbine Low-Frequency Noise Emissions’, by ND Kelley for the US Department of Energy, said that “Experience with wind turbines has shown that it is possible, under the right circumstances, for low-frequency (LF) acoustic noise radiated from the turbine rotor to interact with residential structures of nearby communities and annoy the occupants.”

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Beverley and Emyr Griffiths. Beverley has moved away to avoid the infrasound — very low frequency sound — from the turbine, which she feared was damaging her health 

In July 2016 more than 120 scientists, health professionals and worried individuals, including Emyr Griffiths, sent an open letter to the panel developing the World Health Organisation Environmental Noise Guidelines for the European region. Noise from wind turbines has not been covered in the guidelines before, but the issue is now being investigated by the panel. Signatories include Dr Mariana Alves-Pereira, researcher in Portugal on biological response to infrasound and low-frequency noise exposure; Dr Alun Evans, professor emeritus, Centre for Public Health at Queen’s University, Belfast; John Madigan, 2015 chair of the Senate Select Committee into Wind Turbine Regulation, Australian Federal Parliament; Dr Bruce Rapley, principal consultant in environmental health, acoustics and human cognition, Atkinson & Rapley  Consulting Ltd in New Zealand; Dr Alec N Salt, professor of otolaryngology, Washington University School of Medicine, St Louis, USA; and Dr John Yelland, consulting physicist and acoustician in the UK.

The writer is a member of Carmarthenshire Energy and an enthusiast for renewables, but recognises that many opponents of wind power have sincerely held concerns about the health impacts of infrasound, requiring research to continue.

Before publication in The Herald, I sent a copy of the article to Carmarthenshire Energy to check that the technical facts were correct. I received a long email in reply, including criticism that I was giving too much space to the protest. 

The reply email was also sent to the editor at The Herald, and included these words: “our organisation feels it is of utmost importance the Herald reports accurate information, not just the hearsay of a small group, both for the sake of our reputation and yours.”

I appreciate that Carmarthenshire Energy has worked very hard to obtain the money to put the turbine up, but believe that objectors have a right to be heard.

PDR

Self-sufficiency enthusiasts rush to buy cottage with zero mod cons

See also the Carmarthenshire Herald, July 29th, p.13

You won’t by troubled by incessant road noise. You won’t be hindered by doorstep canvassers. Few people will even find your doorstep, if you live at Llainfedw, Llanfynydd. Just in Llanfynydd, on the boundary with Talley’s community area.

Llainfedw is was for sale, a smallholding of almost six acres at the bargain price of £145,000. Still on the market? No, sold subject to contract almost immediately.

Yes, there’s a cottage. No, it doesn’t have main electricity or piped water. Drains? Er, no, but who needs drains with all that land surrounding you?

Estate agent inundated

Estate agent Martyn Buck of the Smallholding Centre, Brongest, near Newcastle Emlyn, said he has been inundated with calls and emails, and is glad it sold fast because responding to all the enquiries meant he had little time for anything else.  Even getting in touch with the owner to relay an offer was a major task. Well, “no mains services” means totally off-grid, no modern communications, and you can’t just drive up to the door. First you have to park and find the correct path. And then climb uphill for half a mile.

Above Llainfedw, at over 1,000 feet, is Crown Estate moorland. Below, there are neighbours:  the 70 to 80 downshifters, self-sufficiency enthusiasts and alternative lifestylers living on their own plots totalling about 200 acres in ‘Tipi Valley’, a collection of mainly temporary homes forming a community which has survived for 40 years despite all attempts of Dinefwr Borough Council and its successor, Carmarthenshire County Council, to force the occupants to move on. Tipi Valley is now ‘established’.

Potential for hydro power

The Smallholding Centre describes Llainfedw as “a self-sufficiency project in the making”, with potential for hydro power from a stream, a borehole (unused), lots of timber for firewood, gardens which were cultivated until recently, and a wooden building of 158 square feet used as a craft studio.

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Llainfedw: accessed through a maze of narrow lanes and then a long path — but the cottage’s remoteness is a big draw

The cottage, old and stone, has two wood-burning stoves, two living rooms — one with a mezzanine platform — and potentially two bedrooms on the first floor. One of the living rooms has a kitchen corner, but water has to come from outside. There is a butt to collect rainwater from the roof.

The huge interest in Llainfedw – so inaccessible that regular commuting would be a nightmare, and even a shopping trip would need careful planning – highlights the revival of the 1970s self-sufficiency phenomenon, expressed in the TV series The Good Life. This time though, self-sufficiency with remoteness as an added twist.

PDR

Japanese knotweed invasion defeats council finances

See also the Carmarthenshire Herald, July 29th, p.2

If you see menacing Japanese knotweed on private land near your property, don’t think about asking the council to issue a Community Protection Notice. Carmarthenshire’s Executive Board agreed this week (July 26) not to get involved in problems of Japanese knotweed, and other invasive non-native plants, like Himalayan balsam, on land it does not own. The council will continue to remove Japanese knotweed from its own properties.

Japanese knotweed can grow a metre a month, a new plant can appear from a single centimetre of chopped stem, and in 2015 the UK government estimated that national eradication would cost around £1.5 billion. The cost and work involved in removing the weed can stop property sales and blight whole areas. The plants can crack concrete and other construction materials, and crowd out other species, diminishing biodiversity.

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Japanese knotweed can grow as fast as one metre a month 

Carmarthenshire’s problem is lack of money to tackle both Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam, which have been spreading over the county, especially along the banks of rivers and streams. The Executive Board is asking the Welsh Local Government Association to urge the Welsh Government to find more cash for the control of invasive plants, which the Home Office now regards as an anti-social behaviour problem.

The Home Office does not go so far as to blame the plants, but places responsibility on owners of land which the weeds have invaded. The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 gives local councils and the police power to order landowners to control invasive species, by issuing a Community Protection Notice which, if ignored, could trigger a fine – as high as £20,000 for companies.

But the county council is very wary of using Community Protection Notices for weed control. Legal advice to the Executive Board pointed out that there are “few means available to landowners to physically tackle Japanese knotweed, and these are of limited effect”. It is quite possible, the Executive Board heard, that the requirements specified in a notice might not work. The available methods are also expensive, which would provide recipients of a notice with a valid ground of appeal.

Council experts concluded that investigation and enforcement to remediate invasive species would be very time consuming and “therefore very resource intensive on the officers of the section”.

Individuals and groups do have the possibility of pulling a ‘community trigger’ to require a local authority and the police to undertake a case review and consider what can be done to resolve the problem, so Carmarthenshire might yet be drawn into this knotty issue.

That is, if the insect attack fails. Plant lice called Aphalara itadori have been imported from Japan to feed on knotweed infestations. The idea is for the lice to weaken the plants so that their growth is stunted, the BBC reported last week.

This is a foray into the unknown, because no one knows exactly how the lice will react with plant and animal life in their surroundings, but other methods have failed to stop the inexorable spread of the weed pest.

PDR

Council homecare service set to shrink

See also the Carmarthenshire Herald, July 22nd, p.6

Long-term council-run homecare services for the elderly and disabled in Carmarthenshire face severe cuts.

Public services trades union Unison is so alarmed that the Carmarthenshire branch organised four meetings for members this week, and four more are scheduled for next week, in Llandeilo, Carmarthen, Llanelli and Ammanford.

The county council has considered three main options for homecare: to outsource; to create a local authority trading company (LATC), owned by the council but separately managed; or to form a social enterprise, a community interest company (CIC). The choices are listed in Carmarthenshire’s Vision for Sustainable Services for Older People for the Next Decade: Promoting Independence, Keeping Safe, Improving Health and Well-Being 2015-2025, a strategy paper prepared by the county council.

The preferred choice is a LATC, because it “offers the best potential in terms of improving the quality of services, allowing lower costs for the council, satisfying democratic accountability and satisfying stakeholder requirements”, in the words of the paper.

However, an arms-length trading company is considerably less transparent and accountable than the council itself.

The option of retaining the current council-run service, which provides about a quarter of homecare visits in the county, is rejected in the strategy paper as “not a cost-effective option”.

Worse service, fears Unison

Unison fears that further commercialisation of homecare would result in a worse service, higher fees for clients, or lower incomes and poorer conditions of work for staff. “Workers who transfer from local government employment to another organisation are protected by TUPE (the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006), but the protection does not apply to new recruits,” said Mark Evans, secretary of the Carmarthenshire branch of Unison. “For that we need TUPE+, which is voluntary and not a legal requirement, and even when given it is normally time-limited.”

“We are all for an efficient service,” said Mr Evans, “but if all homecare becomes a commercial operation, the emphasis will be on profits and not on supporting in the best way possible those who need care.”

The county council says that no decision has yet been made. “Whilst we are continually looking for ways to improve social care services and ensure their sustainability for the future, there have been no decisions on any different models of governance,” commented the council’s press office.

Resources reduce, need expands

The council’s strategy paper highlights the expanding gap between resources and need. Already 28% of all adults in Carmarthenshire are over 65, and by 2030 the proportion is forecast to rise to 34% — more than one adult resident in every three. The numbers living with activity-limiting long-term illnesses is expected to rise by a third, the numbers with dementia by 50%, and those requiring “community based services” also by 50%.

At the same time, the available cash to meet these needs is shrinking.

“We spent £37 million on social services for older people in 2015,” says the strategy paper. “This budget will reduce by at least £2.2 million, because the money that the council receives from central government is reducing over the next three years. When we take into account the growing demand over the next three years, we expect a funding shortfall of at least £3.5 million by 2018.

“This means that in three years’ time, we will have at least 10% less resources available to meet the needs of older people who are currently eligible for services.”

Therefore, says the council, the ways in which services are provided will have to change.

This means less care for many. The council cites the ‘National Eligibility Criteria’ for social care, which came into effect in April, and says in the strategy paper “Under the new criteria, people will be eligible for a care and support package if their needs can and can only be met by social services intervention.

Families and volunteers called on to fill gaps

Instead of council-supplied care being the default option, it will become a last resort if families, friends, and voluntary services can show they are unable to cope with an individual’s care requirements.

A “new contract with citizens and communities” is an important part of the effort to make fewer resources go further. The “contract” would encourage individuals to take more responsibility for their own care and promote healthier lifestyles, but this is the opposite of a quick fix as change would be measured over decades, not single years.

Fewer elderly people can expect home visits by two staff at a time. According to the council’s review, “Research shows that the quality of care is better when it is provided one-to-one.” Also, calls are likely to be less frequent than at present. The council suggests that frequent visits reduce elderly people’s independence and says that “other community services will need to tackle vulnerable users who are at risk of loneliness or isolation.”

Time credits are one way ahead, the council argues. For each hour of volunteering, individuals in the community would receive a time credit which could be exchanged for a form of help useful to them. Volunteers and families, the council hopes, would reduce the impact on elderly people of sparser homecare provision.

PDR

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