West Wales News Review

Economy, environment, sustainability

Archive for the category “Carmarthenshire”

Austerity Bites Deeper in Carmarthenshire


Scarcer services and higher charges – that’s the message from Carmarthenshire County Council’s budget proposals for the next three years. People receiving care, travelling on county-maintained roads and needing to use public conveniences and household waste sites are likely to find services harder to obtain, and increased costs.

Home care cuts

Fewer people receiving domiciliary care would have visits from two carers at a time. At the end of September 2019 25.4% of the 1,085 care recipients had ‘double handed’ visits, and the proposal is to reduce this to 18% by the end of March 2022, saving the council £429,000 over the budget period, which runs from 2020-21 to 2022-23. There is also a plan to cut the number of care clients receiving four or more visits a day, by 1% a year, saving £34,000.

Clients having seven or fewer visits a week, so-called ‘small packages’ would not be exempt from the cuts, either. In 2019-20 268 clients, 24.7% of the total, were in this category. The proposal is to cut this number by half, for a saving to the council of £234,000. There would also be less direct support (but more advice) for incontinence sufferers, to cut £250,000 over the three years.

Clients for the re-enablement service, which helps some hospital leavers towards regaining their independence, would have to become more successful in this aim. In 2018-19 44%of the 650 people helped by the service did regain their independence, while the others moved onto a care plan. The plan is to raise the percentage achieving independence to 55%.

A new charge of £1,000 a year could be levied on people who pay for themselves in residential care, if the local authority commissions their place for them.

Domiciliary care and re-enablement together cost £13.924 million in 2018-19. The council feels it needs to remove £2.988 million over the three years, at a time when the county’s population is ageing and need for care services is growing.

Services for people with learning disabilities and mental health conditions would also suffer cuts. Three people would be moved from residential care to live with families, saving £468,000 over three years. There is also a proposal to move some clients from residential colleges to “supported living and community options”, a cut of £156,000 over three years.  There would be less funding for supported living, with the aim to “promote independence and enhance daily living skills”, and removing £315,000 from spending over the three years. There would be fewer places in residential homes, again to “promote independence”, to achieve a large saving of £1 million between 2020-21 and 2022-23.

Axe over public toilets and household waste sites

Council-run public toilets in Llanelli Town Hall, Llanelli bus station, Ammanford and St Clears could be closed, saving £100,000. Remaining public toilets would be twice as expensive to use, 40p compared with 20p. They currently cost £559,000 a year to clean and maintain, and the plan is to remove £200,000 over the three years, too big an amount for toilet users not to notice.

There is also the possibility of closing the household waste site at Whitland, to cut £80,000 from the budget. The other household waste sites, at Nantycaws, Trostre and Wernddu near Ammanford, would close for two days a week, and if Whitland did not close, that too would be open only five days a week. A move from seven-days-a week to five days opening could save £104,000 over three years.

Drivers would find parking dearer, each charge band increasing by 20p. Car parks would no longer be gritted, except at surgeries. There would be no more routine mechanical road sweeping, the council would stop paying for amenity grass cutting along highways, and would charge landowners for clearing trees that fall onto roads.

Small primary schools at risk

Cuts to primary school budget are expected, too. The £56.252 million delegated to primary schools would be reduced by £500,000 in 2021-22 “through carefully selected decommissioning and strategically driven school federations” to reduce the quantity of primary school buildings. The cuts could lead to the closure of the smallest primary schools, although the Welsh Government has a policy to keep small schools open wherever possible. Children’s services education and child psychology face a big reduction of £100,000 in 2020-21, from the current budget of £587,000, resulting in less support for children in need of help.

There are many other proposals for cuts, as the council struggles to survive on fewer resources and endures a continuing climate of financial austerity. The suggestions have not been approved yet, and the public can have their say via an online consultation at https://www.carmarthenshire.gov.wales/home/council-democracy/consultation-performance/current-consultations/budget-consultation-202023/ The consultation is open until January 28th.



News: School Bus Blow to Hundreds in Carmarthenshire

New coach regulations to be applied in Wales, England and Scotland from January 1st 2020 mean the end of paid-for seats on school transport, unless the vehicle is fully accessible to all passengers, including those with disabilities.

School transport is often in older vehicles which are unsuitable for passengers with limited mobility or in wheelchairs.

The new rules affect those pupils who do not qualify for free travel, whose parents up to now have been able to buy bus passes, which in Carmarthenshire have cost £50.

The parents or carers of about 500 pupils in Carmarthenshire are faced with having to find a different way of travelling to and from school. Walking or cycling may not be feasible along narrow and unlit lanes, or where roads full of fast traffic have to be negotiated.

Pupils aged 5 to 7 qualify for free school transport if they live more than two miles from their nearest or designated school, as do pupils aged 8 to 16 who live more than three miles away. These pupils are not affected by the Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations because it is a legal requirement for them to be transported to school. Children whose disabilities prevent them from getting on school buses are already carried by taxi or specialised vehicles.

Free school transport in the county is forecast to cost £11.195 million in 2019-2020, £214,000 more than expected, the high amount a reflection of the additional costs resulting from the closure, over the past five decades, of the majority of Carmarthenshire’s rural primary schools and consequent long journeys faced by pupils.

Cllr Rob James, leader of the Labour group on Carmarthenshire County Council, said on Facebook on December 18th: “We believe it is the council’s moral duty to ensure that there is public transport available for all pupils for safety reasons.”

At present, though, the council is so short of funds that just meeting legal obligations is a struggle.


See also

‘Paid-for school bus seats coming to an end’, Carmarthenshire County Council newsroom, September 2019, http://newsroom.carmarthenshire.gov.wales/2019/09/paid-for-school-bus-seats-coming-to-an-end/#.Xf0sE51zzIU

‘School buses: Pupils to miss out after law change’, BBC news Wales, August 30th 2019, www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-49516222


News: Council Urges Looser Controls on Development in Rural Carmarthenshire

Plans to regenerate rural areas, including the construction of new council houses, were approved by Carmarthenshire County Council on September 11th.

The rural north of the county would have 28 new council homes in the first three years of the scheme, split between land at Alltwalis School and land opposite Llangadog School. These would be followed by 74 more in the second phase of the 10-year plan, which would build 900 new council homes throughout the county, at a cost of £150 million.

Rural and market town locations in the second phase include 27 homes at Pencrug, Llandeilo, including 14 to let at social rents, 12 in Llandovery (6 for social rent), 6 in Llansawel (4 for social rent), and 20 at Llandysul (8 for social rent).  In addition, there would be nine new council houses in assisted living schemes.

In areas of high housing need, the council will continue to buy homes on the open market, councillors were informed. More than 200 new homes have been sourced in this way in the past three years.

The council has a subsidiary company, Cartrefi Croeso, to build homes for rent and for sale. Cartrefi Croeso can raise money from several sources including three from the Welsh Government – the Affordable Housing Grant, providing 58% of new-build costs; Innovative Housing Programme, for super energy-efficient, low carbon homes such as those from Pembrokeshire company Ty Solar destined for Burry Port; and Self-Build Wales, enabling local authorities to provide land for self-builders, who can apply to Welsh Government for two-year 75% interest-free loans.

The council housing plans reinforce new policies for rural regeneration, also approved by the county council on September 11th. The proposals are in the Report and Recommendations of the Carmarthenshire Rural Affairs Task Group, chaired by Cllr Cefin Campbell (Plaid Cymru, Llanfihangel Aberbythych). The report argues for more flexible planning regulations in rural areas and for small developments in villages to support the rural economy.

“There needs to be a move in local planning policy from larger housing developments in our main towns to an approach which enables a suitable mix and proportion of development in our rural towns and communities to address local housing demand and need,” the report advises. (p.15)

The Task Group urges the council to hold on to its 25 farms and land, including associated fishing rights, and to investigate the feasibility of backing the creation of new smallholdings, outside settlements, on the basis of local need and their potential positive contribution to the economic, social, cultural and environmental sustainability of the local community. (p.23)

There is already the Welsh Government policy for One Planet Development smallholdings, allowing new land-based enterprises in the countryside but subject to strict criteria for self-sufficiency and resource use. The Task Group’s recommendation for more smallholdings builds on this precedent.

Other plans include working with Coleg Sir Gâr on Prosiect Slyri, to dewater and purify slurry, a venture of national significance to cut slurry’s damaging impact on watercourse pollution, and to bring milk processing back to Carmarthenshire with a co-operatively owned factory which could “build on the already strong foundations for local cheese”. (p.35)

The Task Group also wants to change the rules determining whether a farming business can construct an additional dwelling on the land. This currently depends largely on whether the farm income will be large enough to support an additional household. The Task Group’s idea is to include income from off-farm as well as farming sources, on the grounds that farm incomes are likely to be under sustained pressure and members of farm households will increasingly have to work in other jobs. There is also a recommendation that an additional dwelling on a farm could be built “a reasonable distance outside of the working farmyard” for reasons of health and safety, biosecurity, and avoidance of zoonotic diseases.

A more flexible approach to development should be “based on local need and opportunities in rural areas so that people working within the agricultural sector and wider community are able to diversify and adjust as appropriate”, the report says. (p.21) The countryside is crucial to Welsh as a living language, and so protection for the language should be strengthened in planning law, the Task Group urges.

The county council will now be pressing for more flexibility in national policies and guidance, for multi-agency and multi-sector working, and for the definition of ‘deprivation’ to be amended to better reflect issues of rurality.

Almost 113,000 people live in Carmarthenshire’s rural areas, 61% of the county total, and half are Welsh speakers. Nearly one person in every four in the county, 23.3% in 2017, was aged 65+, and only 9.4% were aged 16 to 24.

The Task Group had 10 members drawn from across the council’s political groupings.


Opinion: Tracking a Tragedy

Whistleblower hell

by Pat Dodd Racher

Why do whistleblowers suffer so much indignity and financial damage?

There is one case I have been following for seven years, but its origins go back 16 years to 2003. Authorities said it was a dispute between neighbours, and so it was, but also so much more.

Maybe there is an assumption by some that newcomers from over the Severn Bridge are more likely to be at fault than local people already living next door. Maybe the police don’t ask enough questions when an aggrieved resident accuses a neighbour of harassment. Maybe organisations are more concerned about damage to their reputations than about harm resulting from their inaction. In the case of retired couple Trisha Breckman and Eddie Roberts of Pantycastell Fach, Maesybont, Carmarthenshire, failings under all these headings, and more, have led to them experiencing years and years of victimisation.

Evidence has been studiously ignored to the point of asking why amass proof, why not just put Trisha and Eddie into Medieval ducking stools, and tell them if they drown they are innocent and if they survive, they are guilty? Damnation either way!

The ‘fake news’ phenomenon is hugely damaging. Take the crowds, or absence of them, at President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. Photographic evidence showed that Trump’s crowd was smaller than the crowd of his predecessor, Barack Obama. “Fake News,” trumpeted Trump, who in this way dismisses facts he doesn’t like, aided by legitimate fears that photographs can so easily be altered. Suspicions grow that all evidence, including evidence obtained by Trisha and Eddie, may be suspect, and that is a big step towards ignoring it.

The adversarial legal system in England and Wales does not help, either. The winners are the lawyers who present their arguments to greatest effect, so the central skill is persuasion, not investigation to illuminate the salient facts.


Dream cottage blues

Back in 2003, Trisha Breckman and Eddie Roberts from Sussex bought Pantycastell Fach, a 6.5-acre smallholding at Maesybont, from Mrs Ann Gifford, who was selling up after only six months. She had purchased from Mr John Lawday, who had alerted Carmarthenshire County Council’s planning department to unauthorised industrial operations at Blaenpant Farm, the next-door property. Arthur Bleasdale, who lived nearby at Ffynnon Goch, had also complained to the council that Blaenpant was the scene of industrial operations, and his concerns were logged. But pre-sale searches did not discover these complaints.

Trisha made a Freedom of Information request for data on complaints relating to Blaenpant which had reached the council’s planning department, and was given a file documenting complaint after complaint. But according to the council, Blaenpant Farm was merely a contact address for a haulage business operated elsewhere.

The pretty setting of Pantycastell Fach.

Trisha had been looking forward to a quiet life on the smallholding with its pretty cottage, and enough land for her elderly Connemara mare Minnie and for the cattery she hoped to establish – and for which she obtained planning permission. The couple paid mostly in cash but also took out a mortgage to fund construction of the cattery.

The cattery was never built, because of problems which emerged about a year after the couple moved in, and which left Trisha feeling too nervous to remain in the cottage on her own. This meant that Eddie, who had been intending to live in Sussex for part of the week and repay the mortgage with earnings from his taxi business there, decided he had to live in the cottage full-time, so that Trisha would not be alone.

Why had Trisha become anxious? She was embroiled in a dispute with their neighbours, a dispute which took over her life, and which diminished the pair’s financial resources so much that the only way they could repay the mortgage is to sell the property — but their long-running history of dispute with the next-door landowner, which would have to be declared to an intending purchaser, depressed the market value. Estate agent Ewan Davies of BJP said on TV in 2006 that the property had lost at least 30% of its market value, and Dewi Price of Roderick Price estimated a value drop of a similar amount.

Blaenpant next door was, since 2001, home to Andrew Thomas and the late Karen Bowen Thomas. Karen ran a heavy haulage business, KBHS Ltd, operating without planning permission on what was supposed to be a farm. Andrew Thomas, a scrap metal wholesaler, is the main owner of A J T Recycling Ltd, a company with almost £1.5 million in shareholders’ funds at the end of November 2018.

KBHS Ltd, which was dissolved in 2014, had a website stating the company’s base as Blaenpant Farm, and describing a large contract undertaken in 2002 for the removal of 120,000 cubic metres of material over a 13-week period. The products and services listed included demolition, excavation, groundworks, scrap metal and tipper hire. This was an industrial operation, open seven days a week, Monday to Sunday, and not light industrial either.


Lots of planning applications, but none for industrial operations

Seventeen planning applications relating to Blaenpant, between 1998 and 2011, are recorded in Carmarthenshire’s planning department. Not one of them applies for any industrial activity. All but one are ‘agricultural’ or ‘agricultural/equestrian’ in nature. The first application (E/01257), dated August 21st 1998 and from Mr R Jones, was to convert a farm building into a dwelling. This was refused. The next application (TG/01947), on July 26th 2002 and by Karen Bowen Thomas, was a prior notification of permitted agricultural or forestry development, and the planning department decided that the work, to level the land on top of an old quarry, could go ahead without any planning permission.

A few days later, on July 31st 2002, another quite small application (TG/02011) was received, for a new access from the public road, and was approved. After a gap of 18 months, on January 23rd 2004, Karen Bowen Thomas submitted a further notification of permitted development for agriculture or forestry (E/05992), this time to import about 500 tons of subsoil and topsoil. Planning officers agreed that this was indeed permitted development.

In April 2004 came another notification (E/06708) for intended permitted development, for an agricultural implement store and hay shed, 99 feet by 50 feet. This did not get the go-ahead, and Karen Bowen Thomas was told to submit a formal planning application. She did so in July, asking (E/07519) for a store for farm machinery and hay, but the planning committee said no. Refusal was recommended to the committee by planning officer Ceri Davies, who explained that there was “insufficient justification for the proposed development at this location due to the lack of agricultural activity at the farm unit” and also because the applicant had failed to demonstrate that the shed was reasonably necessary for agriculture.

So back in 2004 the council was well aware of a lack of agricultural activity at Blaenpant.

Karen Bowen Thomas appealed, and probably to the annoyance of the county council, the appeal was upheld. The shed was built, with the help of another permitted development (E/09576) from the council, for the excavation of quarry overburden and rock and the use of the material for levelling the ground on which the building would be constructed.

Next, in October 2005, Mr and Mrs Thomas applied (E/11544) to convert a former cowshed to a farm office and tack room, and received permission. In August 2006, they applied (E/14109) for a detached garage, which was allowed. They were not so fortunate with a much larger application (E/14145) the same month, for a cow shed 97 feet by 30 feet, which was refused for lack of agricultural activity and no demonstrable need for a large cow shed.

After a minor application (E/14648) for roof alterations on another building, which was approved, the cow shed application was resubmitted in all but name, this time (E/17981) as a notification of permitted development and in the guise of a hay and implement shed, a little smaller at 78 feet by 30 feet but on the same site as the proposed building in application E/14145. This would be the second large implement and hay store, on a farm where there was a “lack of agricultural activity”.  The planning department agreed that this was indeed permitted agricultural development not requiring any planning permission, and the building was constructed.

The first and second hay and implement storage buildings had a total length of 177 feet, and sufficient indoor space to store a substantial number of tractors or other vehicles. The complex would be far less noticeable if it were screened with trees, and if attractively landscaped could look smart on an industrial estate, but it is not located on a business park. The home of Trisha Breckman and Eddie Roberts is immediately to the south, accessed by a track which crosses Blaenpant land.

The applications continued. In January 2008 Mr and Mrs Thomas requested permitted development rights (E/18176) for a new road, opening into the access track to Trisha Breckman’s and Eddie Roberts’ home. Planners told them that formal permission would be necessary, and the road was not constructed.

Later the same year, in September, Mr and Mrs Thomas asked (E/19928) for a replacement agricultural building, which was allowed as the footprint was only slightly larger than the existing structure. In July 2009 Mr Thomas, who by then was a widower, applied retrospectively (E/21494) for a hardstanding area adjoining the Carmel Transmitter Mast, for the “parking and storage of agricultural vehicles and implements”, but this was turned down and the subsequent appeal was dismissed.

In rejecting the application, the planning team revealed  some knowledge about the nature of activities at Blaenpant, stating “It is acknowledged that the farm complex is occasionally utilised to park some of the applicant’s haulage vehicles”, but justified this as “permitted under the provisions of the General Permitted Development Order”. This is a long document but Part 4, Class B, states that “the use of any land for any purpose for not more than 28 days in total in any calendar year” is permitted. The applicant’s undoing was the fact that the storage area by the mast had already been hard-surfaced, and was being used for parking  vehicles, storage containers and a “considerable amount of deposited materials”, and so planners concluded the development was “excessive in scale particularly due to the lack of existing agricultural activity currently taking place on the land”.

Finally, in November 2011, Mr Thomas received permission (E/25234) for changing the use of one building from agriculture to mixed equine stabling and agriculture, and for the parking of equestrian vehicles, and (E/25246) also for resurfacing an access to fields with clean stone.

Trisha Breckman: sixteen stressful years.

Trisha Breckman and Eddie Roberts are victims of the council’s initial belief that Blaenpant was an ordinary farm, and of the determination to cling on to that belief in public when officers’ responses to the applications for big new buildings show their awareness that Blaenpant was definitely not an ordinary farm.  They are also victims of the very common shoot-the-messenger syndrome. When you don’t want to deal with bad news, you might yell at the messenger, even land a right hook and floor him, because doing that seems a whole lot easier, and more immediately satisfying, than resolving the underlying issue.


Threats and bullying

There are videos about the Breckman/Roberts case on You Tube. They include five broadcasts of the TV news programme Wales This Week, between February 2006 and March 2008, which show in horrible detail the harassment suffered by Trisha and Eddie. That harassment, emanating from the ‘farm’ next door, included using motorway crash barriers to narrow the access track from 14 feet to nine, so narrow that the Fire Brigade complained that it was too narrow for a fire engine. Trisha and Eddie had a legal right of way over the track, which was part of the property of Blaenpant Farm. Two solid gates with locks were erected across the track, making it difficult for Trisha and Eddie to leave their cottage. An old, dilapidated removal-van type lorry was parked on the boundary close to the cottage and not removed until 2017; a large board on stilts blocked the view from a bedroom; two pigs called Eddie and Trisha were put in a pen directly under human Trisha and Eddie’s bedroom window. The TV programme in February 2006 showed Karen Bowen Thomas telling Trisha pig not to poke her nose in where it wasn’t wanted.

An old heavy goods vehicle loomed above Trisha’s and Eddie’s home. It has been removed.

“I didn’t have any cross words with neighbours in the first year,” said Trisha. “The arguments with them only began once they had altered our right of way. That happened after Adam Price, then our MP, wrote to the county council in November 2004 about the complaints over unlawful, noisy industrial operations such as quarrying and heavy haulage at Blaenpant, when there was no planning permission for such activities. The Thomases appear to have been told that Adam had written and took offence. They began the harassment immediately, and narrowed our right of way in January 2005.

“The quarrying was within the Cernydd Carmel Special Area of Conservation, and should not have been done without permission from both the county council and the then-Countryside Council for Wales, which since 2013 has been part of Natural Resources Wales.”

Special Areas of Conservation are approved by the European Union and are supposed to be protected and preserved. Cernydd Carmel is a limestone ridge with important topographical and biological features, “but at Blaenpant the limestone was quarried unlawfully and stone was removed,” said Trisha.


Authorities turned on the victims

What to do? “The council advised us to collect evidence of the unauthorised activities,” said Trisha. “So we started to film the haulage lorries, including lorries carrying quarried stone, and sent this evidence to planning enforcement.” The film evidence convinced ITV Wales’ current affairs programme Wales This Week, which reported on the dispute multiple times between June 2005 and March 2008, and also persuaded BBC1 Wales, which broadcast The Good Life Gone Bad in October 2012. The programmes are on You Tube for anyone to watch.

But the council did nothing.

Andrew and Karen, stepping up their campaign, complained that Trisha’s and Eddie’s filming was harassment against them. They took their accusation to the police, and soon two officers were knocking on the door at Pantycastell Fach, asking for the films, arresting Trisha and removing her to a police cell. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decided that the filming showed Trisha and Eddie harassing Andrew and Karen, which suggests that either they did not view the films or did not understand them, because the opposite was clear to the Wales This Week team. In the end, the CPS realised their mistake, but not before heaping more pressure on beleaguered Eddie and Trisha.

Was it sloppy assessment? Deliberate bias? Reluctance to confront the aggressors? Andrew Thomas was convicted in 2007 of assaulting two women the previous year, two women who were trying to stop him from insulting Eddie Roberts as Eddie sat in his taxi in Carmarthen. Andrew Thomas pushed over witness Katy Griffiths, and Carey Worthy, a passer-by, said it was “hideous behaviour”.

Accusations from Andrew and Karen resulted in Trisha being arrested six times. Almost ten years on in 2016, the-then Police and Crime Commissioner for Dyfed Powys Police, Christopher Salmon, made a full, unreserved apology – an apology which Trisha and Eddie said went far beyond any statement made by Carmarthenshire County Council, the local planning authority in the case.

The police apology, signed by Simon Prince, the Chief Constable, and Christopher Salmon, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Dyfed Powys, includes these words:

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

 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.”

Despite this apology, the repercussions of officialdom’s hostility remain, and include financial problems which the couple cannot easily resolve because Trisha and Eddie have advanced in age, Trisha to 75 and Eddie to 82.

Although Carmarthenshire County Council refused to accept officially that planning regulations were being flouted at Blaenpant, Rhodri Glyn Thomas (Plaid Cymru), the former Welsh Assembly member for Carmarthen East & Dinefwr, and current county councillor Cefin Campbell (Plaid Cymru), both accepted that Trisha and Eddie have suffered because of intransigence by the county council, and supported them through difficult times.


What lorries?

The haulage business at Blaenpant, operating when Trisha and Eddie moved in to Pantycastell Fach in 2003, did not exist in the eyes of the county council. The then-Planning Enforcement Manager, Brian Canning, and the then-Head of Planning Services, Eifion Bowen, said there was no breach of planning regulations. Therefore there was no industrial business operating without the need to pay business rates (because farms are exempt). Instead, officers in the planning department accused Trisha and Eddie of making baseless complaints. Eventually the pensioner couple were put on a list of persistent complainants and for a time were stopped from contacting council staff and councillors, with the exception of one designated person, the then-Director of Regeneration and Leisure, Dave Gilbert.

The council’s verdict that the scale of industrial activity on the yard at Blaenpant was acceptable for a farm meant that the council, and for a time the police, took the side of Andrew Thomas and the late Karen Bowen Thomas when they, enraged that Trisha and Eddie had complained about industrial operations on Blaenpant, embarked upon their well-documented campaign of harassment.


“Unlawful” – verdict of Planning Inspector

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. Mr Cochrane said the land must be returned to agriculture. Later Mr Cochrane, after retirement, 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, near Pantycastell Fach, 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.

“It demonstrates to me that there is very little genuine farming activity at Blaenpant and that other, possibly unauthorised, commercial activities are occupying the land and the buildings reserved by planning conditions for agricultural use.”


“Maladministration” – Public Services Ombudsman

This contradiction of the ‘Blaenpant is a farm’ position, which Carmarthenshire’s planning department maintained in public, was reinforced in 2012 when a verdict of maladministration from the then-Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, Peter Tyndall, had to be accepted by the county council, but to Eddie and Trisha it seemed that acceptance was grudging, and they did not notice any change in the council’s attitude to them.

The 188-page anonymised report from the Ombudsman contains, as Appendix 3, comments from the former Planning Enforcement Manager for Carmarthenshire County Council. The officer in the role in the early 2000s was Brian Canning. ITV’s Wales This Week, in June 2005, got hold of an internal email from Brian Canning, who had written: “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 Planning Enforcement Manager told the Ombudsman, in his reply to the draft report, that

“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.”

His reply maintained that “we acted with integrity in not being intimidated by this woman, who would seek to move heaven and earth to get her way”.

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 earlier complaints 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.

Andrew 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, but the Planning Enforcement Manager did not think that any weight should be attached to this statement. In his view, the late Karen Bowen Thomas, who died at the end of 2008, 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.

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. 


In what seems a revealing statement, 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.

He also claimed, falsely, that Trisha had been convicted of assaulting Karen Bowen Thomas.

In his view, Trisha was a “complete nutcase”, and the Ombudsman’s investigation was “a worthless process”.

The Head of Planning Services was the immediate superior of the Planning Enforcement Manager, and he did not consider that the council had failed to do something it should have done. He did, though, suggest to the Ombudsman that planning enforcement was not the best process for mediation, and therefore it could be helpful to have a more formal mediation service.

But there was no mediation.

In 2015, on Friday October 9th, I contacted the county council’s press office with these three questions:

  1. Will Carmarthenshire County Council issue a complete apology to acquit Mrs Breckman from blame for the breakdown in relations with Mrs and Mrs Thomas which resulted in Mrs Breckman’s arrests? (The Ombudsman required the county council to issue an apology, but in Mrs Breckman’s view it was very restricted and failed to absolve her from all blame.)
  2. Will all councillors be given access to the Ombudsman’s full report? (The Ombudsman required this to happen, but I have been informed that only an edited version was offered, and then only to members of the planning committee.)
  3. Has the county council amended the procedures around planning enforcement, so that when there is a profound disagreement between a complainant and an enforcement officer, an independent arbitrator is brought in at an early stage? (This was a suggestion made by Mr Eifion Bowen, former Head of Planning Services, and reported by the Ombudsman.)

A reply came at 1pm on Monday October 12th 2015, in the form of a statement by Mark James, who was the county council’s Chief Executive between March 2002 and June 2019, when he retired. The statement did not, in my view, respond to any of the questions I had asked. Mr James said:

“The most recent outcome of an investigation (August 2015) by the Ombudsman on a complaint by Mrs Breckman concluded: ‘I believe that the Council has taken the appropriate steps in investigating the breaches of planning control reported and identified and issuing proceedings to either restore the land to its former condition or, in the case of the unauthorised track, consider its planning merits through the submission of an application. Again, I cannot identify any evidence of maladministration in the way in which the Council has acted.”

I had not asked about an unauthorised track. On the matters of events leading to Mrs Breckman’s arrests (for which the police have now apologised); of the 2012 Ombudsman’s report being withheld from the full council; and of any plans to bring in independent arbitration — silence.

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. The council were also fully informed of the Thomases’ unlawful industrial activities by John Lawday, 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.


Council has power but not duty to investigate breaches of planning law – so no compensation

Trisha and Eddie applied to the county council for compensation, but not a penny has been offered.

“We are sorry to inform you that liability is denied,” said the letter to them from Weightmans, specialist lawyers engaged by the county council, in 2016 – 13 years down the line.

Denial of liability, in a letter received by Trisha Breckman on Wednesday October 26 2016, was because “the law of England and Wales does not allow an individual to recover compensation from a public body where the statutory duty or power involved did not itself confer a private law cause of action for a failure to exercise it”.

In Weightman’s stated view, the county council has the power to act to stop breaches of planning regulations, but does not have a legal duty to do so, and as there is no legal duty to act, no compensation is payable.

Weightmans also said that “the law states that damages in negligence for economic loss are not recoverable when unaccompanied by physical property damage or personal injury”, and also “we believe that your claims are statute barred. The law says that any claims for loss (other than personal injuries) must be brought within six years of the actions causing any loss. The actions which you complain about took place more than six years ago.”

The letter warns against any further action, with the words “Should you commence proceedings, we will ask the court to strike them out immediately.”

So the only avenue which Mrs Breckman and Mr Roberts thought was open to them, to seek compensation for being unable to launch and run their proposed cattery business because of harassment and intimidation from the people next door, now has locked gates across it – just like the lane to their cottage when Mr and Mrs Thomas put gates across that.

One implication of this ‘power not duty’ is lack of fairness. It’s easy to imagine a situation in which a planning authority forces a stop to unpermitted quarrying, for example, next door to a Mr X, but allows similar activity next door to Mrs Y.


Gap in legal obligations

The ‘power’ but not the obligation to stop unlawful activities is a ‘get-out-of-jail’ card for public bodies which want to avoid paying any compensation, but it also means that the victims of the unlawful activities can suffer severe financial loss with no opportunity of any recompense.

In this case, Trisha Breckman and Eddie Roberts spent more than £20,000 on legal fees and their health deteriorated. Trisha and Eddie are now threatened with eviction because they do not have the money to repay the mortgage they took out in 2003 to build the cattery that they did not construct because Andrew Thomas made it so difficult for them, and therefore for future clients, to enter and exit the smallholding. It does not matter that the active harassment stopped a decade ago, the damage was done. The county council and its Chief Executive, the recently retired Mark James CBE, labelled Trisha a persistent complainant and prevented her from contacting councillors, thus closing another door to redress. Both Trisha and Eddie are well over state pension age and can no longer earn as much as was possible in the past.

On Christmas Eve 2018, what might have been a Christmas card was in fact a letter from a firm called Mortgage Agency Services, asking for more than £80,000 before the end of January, to clear the mortgage. Trisha and Eddie did not have that money.

Blaenpant next door came up for sale in September 2019, marketed as an equestrian unit.

Advert for Blaenpant, September 2019. The large limestone quarry in the background, from which stone was removed without authorisation, according to Trisha Breckman’s evidence, is in a Special Area of Conservation of European significance which is supposed to be fully protected.

The harassment stopped, and the track to Pantycastell Fach is back to its former width, but that cannot wipe out the years of aggravation. Surely the fact that the Ombudsman found Carmarthenshire County Council guilty of maladministration means that the council has a moral, even if not a legal, obligation to compensate Trisha and Eddie, who were victimised for whistleblowing.

A voluntary settlement by Carmarthenshire County Council would polish the council’s reputation as well as compensating Trisha and Eddie for years of suffering from the council’s indifference to the evidence with which they were provided.

The two pensioners can never have the lost years back.

I would have liked to speak to county council personnel about possible resolutions to the difficult situation in which Trisha and Eddie find themselves, but was informed by the Press Office earlier in 2019 that no member of staff will communicate with me professionally unless and until Econews West Wales belongs to an official media regulation scheme.


Opinion: Republishing Y Cneifiwr’s ‘Mark Leads Us to the Promised Land’

Excellent article by Y Cneifiwr, first published in October 2017, on the financial risks threatening the planned ‘Wellness Centre’ in a marshy area of Llanelli. Since 2017 even more black, thundrous clouds have clustered over the site at Delta Lakes.

Meanwhile, the people of West Wales face a continuous barrage of cuts to public services.


Y Cneifiwr’s article

Mark leads us to the Promised Land

Despite all the regeneration schemes, the Valleys and the west of Wales remain some of the poorest, most disadvantaged parts of Western Europe with creaking infrastructure and heavy dependence on low-paid employment. Every year droves of talented young people leave for Cardiff and the big English cities to earn a living, while heading west is a steady flow made up disproportionately of pensioners, unskilled and poorly educated inner city families and younger people who bring their own problems with them.

At first glance initiatives such as the Swansea Bay City Region, or “the City Deal” as it now seems to be known, and the ARCH wellness village at Delta Lakes on the outskirts of Llanelli offer the prospect of many thousands of highly paid jobs. A welcome departure from Carmarthenshire County Council’s love affair with shopping centres, supermarkets and handouts to owners of holiday cottages, punctuated by grandiose development schemes built on wildly optimistic forecasts which somehow always seem to end up making pots of money for a very few, while being a drain on local government finances for decades to come.As always, however, the devil lies in the detail, and seasoned observers of the Carmarthenshire scheme could be forgiven for being more than a little sceptical when they see that we are being led into the new promised land by some old familiar faces whose track records stretch all the way back to prestige developments such as the Princess Royal Arena in Boston, the Technium fiasco(s) and other “won’t cost you a penny” white elephants.

In Carmarthenshire, all roads lead to the door of our teflon-coated chief executive, Mark James CBE, who when he is not doing his day job running the county council, is busy building up his own property empire, setting the lawyers, the courts and police on Jacqui Thompson and now also at the epicentre of both the City Deal and the ARCH wellness village – two originally separate schemes which are coalescing into Mr James’s biggest ever bid for glory.

Politicians and councillors who question these schemes, currently with a price tag of around £1.5 billion and rising fast, know that they will be accused of undermining opportunities to create jobs and transform the local economy, and the likelihood is that Mr James will ensure that they sign off a huge borrowing spree in a blitz of spin and corporate PR which will leave taxpayers in Carmarthenshire and neighbouring counties exposed to huge risks, with any upside being scooped up by private sector fat cats, many of them resident in sunny tax havens.

But there are signs of growing concern among some of the participants, with accusations of secrecy, lack of transparency and byzantine legalistic draft agreements, of “partners” not being kept informed, of chaotic planning, over-optimistic forecasts, spin and what amounts to a plan by Mr James’s authority to fleece his friends and neighbours. Add to that a lack of accountability, an onslaught against what is left of democratic oversight and cronyism.

That does not sound anything like our widely loved and admired council chief executive, does it?


Before we take a closer look at the City Deal and the ARCH wellness village, let’s take a small detour to draw attention to a lecture given the other day by Martin Shipton, chief reporter of the Western Mail and a self-described old-fashioned journalist.The full text of his sobering address on the state of the Welsh media can be found here, and it is well worth reading.

“It is a fact universally acknowledged that a democratically elected administration must be in want of some scrutiny”, he begins before going on to examine how the Welsh Government and so many other of our public bodies like to claim that they are models of openness and transparency while being anything but. 

He details Jane Hutt’s shocking responses to the plight of NHS patients; the ways in which the Freedom of Information Act can be and is used to deny freedom of information; the Circuit of Wales fiasco with its strange parallels to what is now happening with the City Deal and ARCH schemes; legal bullying designed to silence the press, and the culture of fear and clientelism which prevents whistleblowers from coming forward.

He goes on to describe the ways in which serious news is being edged out by the revenue-driven click-bait culture of media companies, before ending with a passage from his recent book on George Thomas:

Our society continues to have too much ‘cap-doffing’ to our perceived ‘betters’ and a craving to ingratiate ourselves with them for social and career advancement. There remain, to this day, too many politicians like George Thomas, who combine a self-seeking ambition with the readiness to pretend that Britain persists in being a great power built on the remnants of an empire that makes it superior to all other European countries.

Martin Shipton’s lecture is a cri-de-coeur for journalists to hold the powerful to account and submit them to scrutiny, and is a world away from the media’s obsession with celebrity tittle-tattle, “click-bait” online articles (“10 things you never wanted to know about Katherine Jenkins”) and the unquestioning cutting ‘n’ pasting of press releases churned out by the PR merchants employed by public bodies.

The trouble is that newspaper companies, Martin Shipton’s employers included, find it difficult to understand why resources should be devoted to the sort of hard-nosed political reporting he specialises in, when the punters prefer reading about Katherine Jenkins and Weatherspoon’s menus.

Serious journalism is, in their eyes, expensive and time consuming, and they have a point when you consider the effort needed to try to find out what is going on with schemes such as the City Deal and the ARCH wellness village.


There are countless gushing press releases, slick videos, artists’ impressions and Twitter streams which verge on soft pornography as they record all of the conferences, lavish receptions, “envisioning days” and other junkets associated with these schemes. Everything is brilliant, inspired, fantastic, innovative and imbued with excellence. Take a look as the ARCH Programme’s Twitter feed, for example.

What you will not find are any meeting minutes, reports or sober assessments of the costs and risks involved. Even finding out who the movers and shakers are requires detective work.

Almost the only exception to this is a report published by Neath Port Talbot Council here, which was  the subject of a two-page spread in last week’s Carmarthenshire Herald and blogposts by Jacqui Thompson (here) and Siân Caiach (here). There is also an interesting piece on WalesOnline here.

The NPT report, dated 4 October 2017, shows that all is far from well with the City Deal which is relying on four county councils – Swansea, Carmarthenshire, Neath Port Talbot and Pembrokeshire – to stump up £396 million to fund an array of projects, at least some of which should be ringing alarm bells across the region. ARCH is now also touting a very large begging bowl around the region’s county halls, having discovered that the Welsh Government and the NHS are strapped for cash. Who would have thought it?

The City Deal 

In addition to the £396 million which is to come from “other public sector” bodies (that is the four participating councils), the UK and Welsh governments are expected to chip in £241 million, with a further £637 million predicted to come from the private sector for the 11 projects which make up the City Deal. The ARCH wellness village is not one of them.

The Swansea Bay City Region has been rumbling away for years, and as far as the public is concerned has so far produced nothing more than a torrent of press releases and snazzy videos. The PR orgy came to a climax in March of this year when Theresa May met Carwyn Jones to sign off an agreement.

This was just before Mrs May went for her famous walking holiday in Dolgellau and decided to call a general election. At the time the Tories had high hopes of winning seats in and around Swansea, including Carwyn’s own backyard.

We all know what happened next, and Mrs May’s love affair with Wales seems to have cooled dramatically, with the ditching of the scheme to electrify the Great Western Mainline all the way to Swansea and a distinctly chilly response to hopes that she would back the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project.

The NPT report notes,

The Welsh Government wants the process led by a Joint Committee of local authority leaders (consistent with their approach to local government reform) whereas the UK Government has insisted upon a private sector led Economic Strategy Board (ESB) as part of the arrangements.

The report then tells us that an ESB was “pretty much what we had prior to 31 March 2017 in the form of the Swansea Bay City Region Board; but the Welsh Government effectively abolished it”.

Hands up all those who remember Jamie Owen telling us that Carwyn had sent Sir Terry Matthews and the other board members packing, in the nicest possible way.

That report was published at the beginning of this month, and for all we know the UK Government is still insisting on a private sector led board, or possibly an even more byzantine arrangement where an ESB exists alongside a public sector led body. Meanwhile, the councils are ploughing on with what they term a “provisional governance structure established in shadow form”.

The trouble is that after six months of wrangling and a draft Joint Working Agreement (JWA) commissioned by Mark James, the councils cannot agree on  how the City Deal should be run. Mr James’s draft, produced at no doubt huge expense with the aid of external lawyers, ran to 70 pages, with NPT saying that, if asked, its officers could not explain to councillors how the agreement would work.

Who would have thought that a legal framework drawn up under the auspices of Mr James would be so opaque?

So they have agreed to start again, although the UK Government could yet veto their efforts, especially now that the Tories’ very brief love affair with Wales has ended in heartbreak.

As things stand, this £1.3 – £1.5 billion scheme (and rising) has no formal governance structure, and Mr James has effectively replaced Sir Terry Matthews as the ring master of a shadow body made up of representatives of bodies with very different agendas.

Top slice

Even less welcome news for Neath Port Talbot, Swansea and Pembrokeshire councillors are reports that Mr James not only plans to siphon off a chunk of the City Deal money for the wellness village in his own backyard, but that he is also proposing to “top-slice” (i.e. pocket) a hefty chunk of the funds for projects outside Carmarthenshire, as well as charging them a stiff  annual “administration fee”.

It’s the not the sort of stuff to inspire private sector investors to part with their cash or the sort of thing that will improve relations with the neighbours.

This is just the tip of an iceberg of a catalogue of concerns and problems facing the City Deal and ARCH mega-schemes.

Chicken, and chicken and egg

While the shadow governance team struggles with agreeing the rules of the game, the Welsh Government has told the councils that it will not release its share of the project funding until the business cases for all 11 projects have been approved. Which comes first? The chicken or the egg?

Unless the Welsh Government drops this insistence, all 11 projects will have to move at the pace of the slowest, with NPT adding that this “could also result in the local authorities taking all the risk by funding projects up front with no absolute guarantee that the Government funding will follow immediately or at all, if one considers how they have been trying to re-write the clauses in the JWA”.

In other words, councils are having to contemplate what could be a very risky and expensive game of chicken.

If that were not bad enough, NPT, in common with all other Welsh councils, faces huge budgetary pressure, and the report warns councillors that “the City Deal featured as a potentially significant financial pressure in that [budget, Ed.] presentation (albeit largely unquantified at this stage), so this begs the question of competing priorities for prudential borrowing and finance”.

The bottom line for NPT is that it has many other pressing local priorities, that it lacks the bandwidth and resources to work on this time-consuming project, that the risks are significant and that the extent of its financial commitment is unquantifiable.

And there is much, much more where that came from, including the likelihood that there will need to be significant changes to accounting rules which would have to be approved by the government and
new legislation.

Meanwhile progress on the 11 City Deal projects is mixed. By far the most important of these is  something called Internet Coast.

Internet Coast

The centre piece of the City Deal and by far the most ambitious project would have as its starting point a trans-atlantic fibre optic cable between New York and Oxwich Bay. This project alone would account for £500 million of the £1.3 billion City Deal package, and Sir Terry Matthews, former chair of the city region board, told the BBC back in February 2016 that the aim would be to create up to 33,000 hi-tech jobs in the region over the next 20 years.

Here is what the NPT report says:

The digital infrastructure agenda was very dependent upon the active engagement of the former City Region Board Chair and his wide senior level network; but the board was abolished and that opportunity put at risk. The simple truth is that the necessary expertise (or contacts) exists neither in the Welsh Government nor local government. As a consequence, little work has been done in recent months to progress the project, although a part-time external adviser has now been appointed.

Unelected Sir Terry Matthews may have been, but he does at least come with an impressive business pedigree. In effect responsibility now lies with the equally unelected and apparently unsackable Mark James, whose first major project was what is now known as the Princess Royal Arena.

In addition to his many and varied other duties and interests, Mr James is also heavily involved with the ARCH wellness village project, about which there are almost as many worrying questions and mysteries as there are with the City Deal.

Here is what the NPT report says:

A major issue is the uncertainty around the so called ARCH (regional Health Collaboration) programme which is linked to the City Deal. A bid was submitted to the Welsh Government by the two health boards in the region in January of this year and we are well aware of the competing priorities for revenue and capital funding within the NHS. The ARCH programme has been asked to look at “alternative sources of funding”; but assumes more than £100 million from the City Deal. Increasingly, we do not believe that the ARCH programme will secure significant medium to long term funding from the Welsh Government. If so, there can be no question of Councils being invited to plug any gap. This uncertainty could, in turn, undermine the ability of projects to attract the even larger required private sector match funding. These matters therefore remain unresolved.

Bearing in mind that this quotation is taken from a report published two weeks ago, it is interesting to contrast what NPT has to say with this message currently fronting Carmarthenshire County Council’s website:

The ambitious project – which will see an investment of more than £200million – is being led by Carmarthenshire County Council in partnership with Hywel Dda and Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Boards and Swansea University.

It is also a key project for the Swansea Bay City Region and is earmarked to receive £40million as part of the £1.3billion City Deal funding.

If, as NPT says, the Welsh Government is unlikely to help fund the wellness village and the councils will not plug the gap, who is providing that £40 million?


The wellness village is just one part of a much bigger collaboration between the health boards and universities, and its origins are shrouded in Delta Lake mist.

According to ARCH’s own website, the wellness village board is chaired by none other than Meryl Gravell, representing Carmarthenshire County Council. It may be that someone has not got around to updating the website because, as a former county councillor, Meryl no longer represents anyone and is even less accountable than she was when she sat in County Hall.

The fact is that the wellness village was Meryl’s baby right from the beginning, and as one half of the Mark and Meryl dream team, there is no need for a paternity test.

One of the first clues as to what was being planned for the Delta Lakes site came in Carmarthenshire’s vast Local Development Plan. Anyone who buried deep enough in the labyrinth of documentation would have been surprised to see that the site had been ear-marked for “private healthcare”.

That was unusually and almost uniquely specific. Normally you would expect to see the much less transparent “employment land”.

The convoluted way that LDPs are put together means that the designation for private healthcare was inserted at least 5 years ago, and it suggests that some very specific discussions had taken place with unknown third parties well before then.

The wellness village, predicated on being a private healthcare development, almost certainly dates back to when Meryl was council leader.

According to the minutes of a Carmarthenshire County Council executive board meeting held in 2016, however, the idea first saw the light of day when the council was approached by the health boards and the universities in mid-2015 – well after the council had adopted its LDP and the private healthcare provision.

Like so much else in this story, things just don’t add up.

The trouble is that potential private investors would have been unwilling to stump up the money to transform a desolate brown field site. Roads, drains and other basic infrastructure don’t come cheap, and so it was an immense stroke of luck that Carmarthenshire decided that the existing leisure centre in Llanelli was no longer fit for purpose, and that the ideal location for a new centre would be Delta Lakes, well away from where most Llanelli residents live.

Around the same time, the council signed an exclusivity deal with a company called Kent Neurosciences Ltd “with a view to ensuring the aspirations of the Wellness and Science Village within Carmarthenshire”. KNS, part of a group of companies based in the British Virgin Islands tax haven, was a remarkable choice of partner, as you can read here.

It then went on to ear-mark another £7m originally allocated for a council care home to fund an “assisted living village” as part of Meryl’s vision for Delta Lakes.

Slowly but surely Mark and Meryl were scraping together the funding to make Meryl’s vision a reality, and the raid on the City Region is a part of that.

Meanwhile, the cost and scope of the wellness village have soared. Early in 2016 it was put at £60 million. By the middle of that year it had risen to £100 million. Now the council puts the figure at £200 million.

Perhaps a little too confidently Mr James told the press a couple of years ago that he did not think he would have to put the project before councillors for their approval, presumably because he was not planning to have to get them to stump up the (borrowed) cash.

Now, to soften them up, they are to be treated to a special slide show. We can expect a report asking them to sign off on a hefty loan not long thereafter.

If Mr James gets his skates on, councillors can expect to be told that not only will the wellness village deliver untold thousands of new jobs, but that the cost of borrowing is at an all-time low – for now, although the Bank of England may have other plans.

Perhaps we should all suspend disbelief, but past experience and the typically Jamesian way in which the wellness village has taken shape, with all its contradictions, mysteries and evasions, do not inspire confidence.

Whistleblower Jacqui Thompson closer to homelessness

Whistleblowing in public threatens to make Llanwrda blogger Jacqui Thompson and her husband Kerry homeless.

Jacqui has received a court letter saying that Mark James, Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, has applied for an order to sell her home, so that the proceeds will provide libel damages awarded to him of £25,000 plus interest at 8% and fees, currently a total of £35,392. The damages were awarded in 2013 when Jacqui lost a libel claim against Mr James, and he won a counter-claim against her.

“There will be a court hearing to decide whether the order is granted,” said Jacqui, “but the odds are in his favour.”

Jacqui’s sole financial asset is the home where she lives with husband Kerry, a long-established forestry worker. They have a self-built bungalow in wooded countryside north of Llanwrda.


Jacqui Thompson: blogger about to have her home sold by court order

The threat to sell the Thompsons’ home is, seen from the outside, an example of a powerful institution turning on a critic. Jacqui became angry about inconsistencies in planning decisions made by the county council, and began writing a critical blog, ‘Carmarthenshire Planning Problems and More’.

There is no requirement to pass a legal exam before starting a blog, and Jacqui strayed into hazardous territory, although was unlucky to come up against a chief executive determined to protect his and his council’s reputation, come what may. He wrote about Jacqui on Martin Milan’s ‘Madaxeman’ blog, including these words quoted by Mr Justice Tugendhat in his judgement on Jacqui’s libel claim:


“Mrs Thompson and her family … have been running a campaign of harassment, intimidation and defamation of Council staff and members for some considerable time… [and that, in respect of the incident on 13 April 2011] … the Council would have made a formal complaint of a deliberate attempt to ‘pervert the course of justice’ to the Police by making false statements, but the [Council] officer concerned … did not want to make a fuss…”


Jacqui objected and said she would sue. Chief executive Mark James, protected by an indemnity funded with public money, opted to counter-sue. The grounds were that Jacqui had called him a ‘Pinocchio’ and said he had a slush fund for legal fees and indemnities.

The now-retired Mr Justice Tugendhat, heard the case in February 2013. The learned judge disallowed a jury trial, and chose to agree with evidence on behalf of Mr James and to disagree with evidence submitted by Jacqui’s legal team. She thought she was protected by insurance from the specialist provider Temple, but cover was unceremoniously removed when the judge said he thought, on a balance of probabilities, that she was not telling the truth.

There was no incontrovertible proof that Jacqui lied, but that did not matter in a libel trial.

Withdrawal of insurance cover makes her liable for court costs of £190,390 as well as for the damages awarded to Mr James, and a smaller amount of £7,500 in costs awarded against her after an earlier conflict over a planning decision, settled out of court, with the now-retired head of planning Eifion Bowen.

Jacqui pressed for filming of council meetings to be allowed, and that now happens – and filming of planning committee meetings and executive board meetings too. Filming of planning committee deliberations has shown inconsistent decisions of the sort to which Jacqui objected, but current chair Alun Lenny makes a point of requiring members to justify decisions which appear to conflict with planning policies, and the chances of irregular decisions being made are much reduced.

Is the county council grateful for Jacqui’s prompting?

Individual councillors may well recognise beneficial impacts of her actions – which led to her being arrested and handcuffed for filming part of an open, public meeting on a mobile phone — but the chief executive has chosen to pursue her to the point of forcing the sale of her home, and that would make her and Kerry homeless.

Jacqui has asked for support from her AM and MP, Adam Price and Jonathan Edwards, and from the Welsh Government’s First Minister Carwyn Jones, and the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government, Mark Drakeford.

“I’m hoping to bring some political pressure to bear,” she said, “although I’m not sure it will help our predicament.”


An earlier version appeared in the Carmarthenshire Herald, October 28 2016

Carmarthen meeting to discuss Cymdeithas yr Iaith’s important Planning Bill

Hot topic Consensus reigns in the county council over the urgency of reversing the decline in numbers of Welsh speakers.

Flies in the ointment

Increasing the numbers of Welsh speakers can’t be done on the cheap. We need more ‘total immersion’ centres, more teachers, and more interest from non-Welsh speaking incomers. A Bulgarian in North Wales told me she was not going to learn Welsh as she already spoke Bulgarian, Russian and English, and she thought that was enough.

There would be an imperative to learn Welsh only if a significant number of  Welsh speakers spoke no other language. One fairly straightforward way to retain some of the 6,000 young Welsh speakers who leave the county every decade (figure from Cllr Cefin Campbell, PC, Llanfihangel Aberbythych) is to encourage existing small and medium-sized businesses to expand. These businesses are often rooted in their communities, but planning policy favours large British and international companies which can be persuaded to take premises on industrial parks, rather than small businesses wanting to grow organically in the county’s small towns, villages and countryside.  There is currently no economic reason why Welsh should be of prime importance to any company headquartered outside Wales, or indeed to companies from English-speaking areas of Wales.

Action from Cymdeithas yr Iaith

Planning and the Welsh language is the topic of a campaign by Cymdaithas yr Iaith, which is holding a meeting on May 1st at The Glyndwr, 17 Queen Street, Carmarthen, to discuss its own Planning Bill, focused on housing: here are the details, from Bethan Williams, Dyfed field officer with Cymdeithas yr Iaith —

Creu Trefn Gynllunio er budd ein Cymunedau 7pm, Nos Iau, 1af Mai Tafarn y Glyndŵr, Caerfyrddin Bydd Toni Schiavone yn cyflwyno Bil Cynllunio Cymdeithas yr Iaith a chyfle i drafod y Bil a materion cynllunio lleol a chenedlaethol.

Mae Cymdeithas yr Iaith wedi cyhoeddi ei Fesur Cynllunio ei hun fel rhan o ymgyrch i newid y system cynllunio er mwyn cryfhau’r Gymraeg ar lefel gymunedol. Y rheswm dros wneud yw nad oes sôn am y Gymraeg ym Mesur Cynllunio drafft y Llywodraeth a gyhoeddwyd ym mis Rhagfyr y llynedd. Rydyn ni’n awyddus i gyflwyno’r Bil, i annog trafod datblygu a chynllunio a newidiadau polisi a fyddai’n cryfhau cymunedau Cymraeg eu hiaith a’r iaith yn ehangach.

Bydd Toni Schiavone yn cyflwyno Bil Cynllunio Cymdeithas yr Iaith a bydd cyfle i drafod y Bil a chynllunio lleol a chenedlaethol yn gyffredinol. Byddwn ni’n cwrdd nos Iau y 1af o Fai, yn nhafarn y Glyndwr am 7pm.

Mae Bil Cynllunio drafft y Gymdeithas ar ein gwefan: http://cymdeithas.org/dogfen/bil-eiddo-chynllunio-er-budd-ein-cymunedau-drafft-ymgynghorol

Am fwy o wybodaeth cysylltwch gyda Bethan – 01559 384378 neu bethan@cymdeithas.org

Cymdeithas yr Iaith has published a Planning Bill as part of a campaign to change the planning system to strengthen the Welsh language on a community level. One reason for putting the Bill together is because the draft Planning Bill published by the Welsh Governments in December last year does not give any consideration to the Welsh language. We are keen to introduce the bill, to encourage discussion on development and planning, policy changes that would strengthen Welsh-speaking communities and the Welsh language in the context of planning.

Toni Schiavone will introduce Cymdeithas yr Iaith’s Planning Bill and there will be an opportunity for all to discuss and raise any comments. We will be meeting on Thursday the 1st of May , at 7pm at The Glyndwr – we would be grateful if you could confirm that you will be there by the 28th of April

The draft Planning Bill  is on our website: http://cymdeithas.org/sites/default/files/bil%20cynllunio%202014%20Saesneg%20-%20CMYK.pdf

More information – 01559 384378 / bethan@cymdeithas.org


Now for some good news in brief

  • The Royal Oak, Rhandirmwyn, has opened a village shop at the pub — excellent news for residents and for the holidaymakers who flock to the scenic upper Tywi valley. The previous shop, Pannau Stores, closed earlier this month. The rise of home deliveries by supermarkets does not help the cause of village shops, but rapidly growing interest in the provenance of food is a big plus point for the Royal Oak shop, where fresh local produce is on sale. In the pub itself, the names of food suppliers are chalked up in the bar.
  • More trains will run on the Heart of Wales railway, from May 2015! Extra trains will be timed to aid commuters, Monday to Friday.
  • Easter egg hunt for children at Llansawel village hall, same time as the local foods and crafts market, Saturday April 19th, 10am-1pm.
  • The Welsh Government is introducing a law requiring local authorities to have a strategy for public toilets, said Cllr Colin Evans (Lab, Pontamman) at Tuesday’s meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council. Welcome news — parents with small children and elderly persons, especially, need to know where public toilets are, and when they are open.

Pat Dodd Racher

Frayed Tempers as Council Struggles to Ignore Elephant in Chamber

Carmarthenshire County Council’s Acting Head of Administration and Law, Linda Rees Jones, verbally blasted Councillor Sian Caiach during yesterday’s ‘routine’ council meeting. Instead of supporting his fellow councillor, chairman Terry Davies moved swiftly to stop Cllr Caiach asking Ms Rees Jones to justify her remarks.

Cllr Caiach (People First, Hengoed) has guts. She stands up to what I see, on the webcast screen, as attempts to intimidate her. She asks awkward questions, questions which, conveniently for the Executive Board and senior officers, are deemed ‘not on the agenda’ (and thus inadmissible).

In truth, not much seems admissible. Considering the elephant in the council chamber, the worrying reports from the Wales Audit Office citing unlawful payments to the chief executive, Mr Mark James, and the launching of a police investigation to be handled by Gloucestershire Constabulary, the refusal of council chair Cllr Terry Davies (Labour, Gorslas) to allow questions about the unlawful deals – direct salary payments instead of employers’ pension contributions, and an indemnity for a libel counter-claim against blogger Jacqui Thompson —  strikes me as copying not an elephant but an ostrich, head deep in the sand. Cllr Caiach wanted to ask about the legal position of councillors who approved the unlawful deals, which seems a sensible question.

She got a counter-blast from Linda Rees Jones, who said that Cllr Caiach was “obviously trying to introduce the issue of the indemnity by the back door”.  Ms Rees Jones added in a tone of exasperation that a report she had prepared for the Executive Board had nothing to do with the funding of the counter-claim but was about where the litigation currently stands. She had no intention of addressing the case law quoted by Cllr Caiach because it was “irrelevant to the item on the agenda”. Then came the counter-attack.

“What I would say is I am very surprised that having mentioned the code of conduct for members, Cllr Caiach has not turned her own mind to her own position in the matter considering she was a witness for Mrs Thompson in the litigation.”

At this, Cllr Caiach asked “Could you tell me how the code of conduct applies to me in this case?” But Cllr Davies – who complained “you keep on and on about the same thing” — had already moved to protect Ms Rees Jones from having to reply.

According to Cllr Davies, a special meeting planned for February 27th will be the time and place for the matter of the unlawful payments to be aired. Hopefully that meeting will not be a stage-managed presentation. In fact, yesterday a presentation by the Housing Department took up almost an hour of the three hours allocated. Especially at this critical point, are slides about the state of council housing the best use of that time? Fifteen minutes before 1pm, with a chunk of the agenda outstanding, and the majority content to finish at 1pm, the chairman sped through the remaining items like the hurricane that was beginning to blow outside.

There has to be order and courtesy in council meetings, but the impression from yesterday was of discourtesy to Cllr Caiach, who is persistent on behalf of electors, but always polite. As for order, at times this seemed the sort of ‘order’ of which David Copperfield’s step-father, the alarming, not-so-charming Mr Murdstone, would thoroughly approve.

Pat Dodd Racher

Auditor Forces Council Steamroller to Apply Brakes

‘Illegal’ Rulings Harm Reputation

by Pat Dodd Racher

Barnet’s enlightening blogger ‘Mrs Angry’ was assiduous in reporting fellow blogger Jacqui Thompson’s libel claim against Carmarthenshire County Council’s Chief Executive Mark James, and the counter-claim by Mr James against Mrs Thompson, at the High Court in February 2013. I seemed to remember the words “I don’t recall” emerging from the mouth of Mr James. At the time I thought how odd it was that a chief executive would not remember whether or not he was at the meeting which granted him an indemnity to sue for libel, but then I recalled how often Mr James Murdoch had used similar words when appearing before the Leveson Inquiry into the practices and ethics of the British press.

Mr Mark James is reported as saying he could not recall if he left the room when the major matter of an indemnity to pursue libel cases was being discussed, and he could not recall if the council’s legal team advised making a counter claim against Mrs Thompson.[1]

Mr Justice Tugendhat, who heard the claim and counter-claim, said that council officers would feel distressed and intimidated at being the subject of persistent allegations of misconduct, corruption, lying, perjury, and misuse of public funds made without evidence.[2]

Would Mr Justice Tugendhat have interpreted the facts laid before him any differently if he had benefited from the opportunity to read the Wales Audit Office’s report on illegal payments in Carmarthenshire, payments authorised by the Executive Board?

The report, issued today, January 30th 2014 as a ‘Report in the Public Interest’, states unequivocably:

“The decision taken by the Executive Board was unlawful as, in view of the specific publications in Articles 6(3) of the 2006 order, the Council is not authorised by statute to grant an indemnity in respect of bringing a claim or counterclaim for defamation. The Council may not rely on section 111 of the 1972 Act to avoid that limitation on its powers.

“There were failings in governance arrangements and processes adopted by the Council.”

These failings are clarified in paragraph 3 of the Summary:

“At a meeting of the Executive Board of the Council on 23 January 2012 it was agreed that the Council would grant an indemnity to the Chief Executive for the bringing of a libel counterclaim against an individual. The matter was considered as a matter of ‘exempt urgent business’ and did not appear on the published agenda. The Chief Executive was at the meeting but did not declare an interest or leave the room when the matter was discussed.”

The Wales Audit Office is clear that Mr James was present at the meeting when the Executive Board voted to grant the indemnity, although Mr James is reported to have told Mr Justice Tugendhat that he could not remember.

The costs of the indemnity in 2012-13 were £23,217 in external legal costs, with a further £3,209 in 2013-14, says Mr Anthony Barrett, the auditor who wrote the report, adding that the “libel counterclaim is still ongoing and it is unclear what the final external legal costs to the Council will be”.

Carmarthenshire Council has not, at the time of writing, accepted that the decision to grant the indemnity was unlawful. By admitting illegality,of course, members of the Executive Board at the time would be signalling their failure to hold the executive properly to account.

The council also disagrees that Mr James participated in the decision-making process. According to the council, the Executive Board would have an hour-long pre-meeting to prepare for the formal meeting. At this particular pre-meeting, the Director of Resources and the Head of Administration and Law, but not the Chief Executive, were present. Apparently the board members asked lots of questions and were in a position to take an informed decision in the formal meeting.

The auditor is unimpressed:

“There is no formal record of this pre-meeting which does raise concerns over the openness and transparency of the decision-making process. The minutes of the Executive Board meeting on 23 January identify that the actual formal meeting took only 15 minutes (to consider three items of business). This suggests limited discussion of the matter in the formal meeting but the minutes disclose that the decision was taken at the formal meeting.

“I have considered the views of the Council and based on the evidence provided, I am satisfied that the Chief Executive was present at the Executive Board meeting, did not declare an interest in the item on the agenda, and therefore in my view took part in the decision-making progress whilst having a disqualifying financial interest in the outcome of the decision.”

The auditor cites other reasons why the Executive Board failed to take into account other relevant material considerations, including the views of the Wales Audit Office, as from “the minutes of the meeting there is no evidence that the Executive Board was informed of the views of the Wales Audit Office when taking their decision”.

Carmarthenshire County Council has seemed to me an authority with its own vigorously pursued agenda, on which large and expensive prestige capital projects like Parc y  Scarlets, Llanelli’s East Gate, Ffairfach’s Ysgol Bro Dinefwr, and so on, feature too prominently. It is local government in the guise of steamroller rather than public-service bus.

With the Wales Audit Office’s almost simultaneous publication of a report into the pay and pensions of senior officers, Carmarthenshire County Council’s steamroller is up against a stout roadblock and has to apply the brakes.  The public interest report into pay and pensions, also by the auditor Anthony Barrett, lists deficiencies, including:

  • The Executive Board’s decision, to allow senior officers to opt out of the Local Government Pension Scheme and to receive a pay supplement equivalent to the employer’s pension contribution, is unlawful.
  • The decision was made by the Executive Board “without appearing on the agenda and without being open to inspection by members of the public”.
  • The report “was drafted and presented by a senior officer” [the Assistant Chief Executive (People Management and Performance)] “who had a disqualifying personal and pecuniary interest in the decision as he was eligible to benefit from the proposed ‘pay supplement’”.

The ‘pay supplement’ received by the Chief Executive in 2012-13 was £16,353, and in 2013-14 £12,397 up to December 31st 2013. Similar arrangements, also ruled unlawful by the Wales Audit Office, were made for Pembrokeshire’s Chief Executive, Bryn Parry-Jones.

The report on Carmarthenshire goes on to say that the auditor shared his legal advice with the council, which “obtained its own legal advice in response but has declined to provide that advice” on the grounds that the “ ‘written advice is not suitable for disclosure and privilege is not waived’ “.

The Executive Board has withdrawn the ‘pay supplement’ scheme but has refused to admit that it was unlawful.

The Wales Audit Office’s judgements are damning enough. In addition, the time, effort and money expended by the council to devise the ‘pay supplement plan’, and to construct a libel counter-claim against a blogger, have surely diverted attention from serious challenges such as the rapid slide in the use of the Welsh language, the flight of public services from rural communities, and the commitments for the future repayment of and intervening interest payments on £276.63 million in financial liabilities.

What happens now? Will the steamroller go into reverse gear, or attempt to charge down the roadblock? Either way, the drivers are not in an enviable position.

[1] Broken Barnet, ‘Double indemnity: day four in the Caebrwyn libel case’, February 19th 2013, www.brokenbarnet.blogspot.co.uk

[2] ‘Case law: Thompson v James – blogger loses libel claim against council’ by Gervase de Wilde, the International Forum for Responsible Media Blog, March 20th 2013

Letter to County Council Opposing Closure of Recycling Centre

UPDATE February 3rd 2014

Mr Richard Workman, Director of Technical Services with Carmarthenshire County Council, has replied speedily to the letter below. His response, no doubt written within the constraints of  council protocols, indicates that the protection of ‘excellent’ services, like the Llangadog recycling centre, has a low priority when meeting the government’s minimum recycling targets is all that is required.

The recycling rate at Llangadog is 80%-85%. Mr Workman writes: “We [Carmarthenshire County Council] recycle in excess of 55% of what we collect which is above the government target.”

Cutting services to accord with the legal minimum is a sad outcome for a council which has spent so heavily on ‘prestige’ projects of little benefit to residents across the county, projects like Parc y Scarlets and East Gate in Llanelli,and the golf course at Garnant. [ See the council’s statement of accounts for 2012-13 for detail on spending and borrowing.]

Mr Workman writes that the council’s recycling contract with AWS at Llangadog is coming to an end and also that “the current rates for the contract are simply unaffordable”.

He does not comment on the costs of dealing with waste and fly-tipping should the Llangadog centre close, nor on the service deprivation faced by residents in the north-east of the county.

It was good of Mr Workman to reply so quickly, but the letter indicates that from now on, merely meeting government recycling targets will be enough, and that the quest for excellence will be rejected as too costly.

The tone of his reply accords with the warning from Lord (Chris) Smith, chair of the Environment Agency, that it will not be possible, given the funds available, to protect both town and country from the damaging impacts of flooding.

The absence of money, across Britain, for fundamentals such as waste recycling and flood prevention makes Carmarthenshire’s commitments to unnecessary construction projects seem all the more bizarre.


To Mr Kevin Madge (Labour), Leader of Carmarthenshire County Council

Copy to Mr Richard Workman, Director of Technical Services

Dear Mr Madge

Llangadog Amenity Recycling Site

The intention to close the Llangadog Amenity Recycling Site, run by All Waste Services, alarms residents of North East Carmarthenshire, evidenced by more than 620 names on a petition, by January 23rd, and the attendance of some 140 people at two meetings called at short notice. The site achieves recycling rates of 80%-85% and thus performs a vital service, and is an example to other sites.

The argument that residents should transport their rubbish to Wernddu, Ammanford, or to Nantycaws near Carmarthen, is wasteful in terms of vehicle emissions, not to mention time and cost. Neither is it possible to place more rubbish out for collection, apart from paper, cardboard and tins in blue bags, because we are limited to two black bags a fortnight, and in addition materials like batteries, old light bulbs, metal, wood, and hard plastics should not be put in black bags but need to be recycled safely with minimal environmental damage.

If you close the Llangadog site, I think it inevitable that fly tipping will increase and that the overall rate of recycling in the county will decline, contrary to the requirements of regulations.

There is very strong feeling on this issue, especially since so many other services – notably primary schools and the comprehensive school in Llandovery – are being removed from this part of the county. This is a vicious spiral in which service closure accelerates the outward flight of young adults, on whom the future depends.

Yours sincerely

Pat Dodd Racher


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