west*wales*news*review

West Wales News Review — analysis with a sustainability slant

Archive for the category “Local government”

Know Your Place! Don’t Annoy Big Shots!

The dangers inherent in upsetting people who are richer and more powerful than you have not been removed from our particular political system.

This week Jacqui Thompson, the Llanwrda blogger who in 2011 was arrested, handcuffed and detained for trying to film part of a public council meeting on her mobile phone, was in court to argue against the immediate forced sale of her family home, owned by her husband, forestry worker Kerry, and herself.

The court appearance was the latest episode in the long-running conflict between Carmarthenshire County Council’s chief executive Mark James, one of the highest paid government officials in Wales, and housewife and (unpaid) community councillor Jacqui.

Mr James secured a publicly funded indemnity to sue Jacqui for libel, specifically for calling him a Pinocchio and for referring to a slush fund.  His action was in response to Jacqui’s  high-risk decision to sue him for libel, after he had criticised her and her family on another blog, Madaxeman, run by Mr Martin Milan.

A key factor is the elected councillors’ decision to offer an indemnity for Mr James’ libel claim. The Wales Audit Office said this was unlawful, and it is forbidden in The Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) (Wales) (Order) 2006 — but apparently allowed under a catch-all clause of Section 111 of the much earlier Local Government Act 1972, which permits  authorities to do “anything (whether or not involving expenditure …… ) which is calculated to facilitate or is conducive or incidental to the discharge of any of its functions”. Even rob a bank, perhaps, the wording is so permissive. The council relied on the loophole contained in the 1972 Act, as described in People First’s article below:

http://www.peoplefirstwales.org.uk/2016_11_01_archive.html

The Executive Board meeting which agreed to the indemnity, as reported above, heard that any damages would be paid to the council (paragraph 12, sub-section i).

    “(i) The Head of Paid Service has confirmed that he is not motivated by a wish to benefit financially and that accordingly should his action be successful any damages awarded to him will be paid over to the Authority and will not be kept by him.”

Mr Justice Tugendhat, at that point soon to retire, awarded Mr James damages. In his opinion — and libel is often all about opinion, about balance of probabilities, not hard evidence — Mr James was all right and Jacqui was all wrong. The judge’s words prompted Jacqui’s insurers to cancel her conditional fee agreement, leaving her personally liable for every £. She cannot pay it all, even if the family’s bungalow (which has an agricultural tie) is sold.

Last week the judge in the County Court, Carmarthen, declined to allow Mr James permission to sell the house immediately. Instead, there is a ten-year stay of execution, and Jacqui has to pay £250 a month towards the damages bill of £25,000 plus interest and fees, a total around £36,000 before the County Court hearing. The total now exceeds that by over £14,000, because the judge added the latest fees to the damages. Even so, it’s not as much as the nearly £22,000 which Mr James’ team wanted.

Mr James was supposed to pay damages over to the council. That was the arrangement when the indemnity was agreed. Yet last week he appeared to have changed his mind. The court heard, through his counsel, that he could “stuff the money in the gutter” if he wanted.  That’s not what the Executive Board agreed to!

Elections are coming, on May 4th. The Executive Board will have some changes due to retirements, and perhaps after the vote there will be a completely fresh line-up. Hopefully the new board will remind themselves of paragraph 12, sub-section i.

Especially as residents all over the county are looking at their new Council Tax bills and wincing.

PDR

 

 

 

Spending per Head on Council Services — It’s Not Enough

Which local authority in Wales spends the most, per head, on running services?

The answer is Rhondda Cynon Taf, at £2,503 per head in 2016-17 — £620 more than Monmouthshire’s £1,883, at the foot of the table.

But in the context of rising need, neither of these figures seems sufficient.

The figures are for gross revenue spending, the amounts councils spend on their operations, in contrast to capital spending on new buildings and infrastructure.

The four authorities with per head spends over £2,400 are all former coal and steel heartlands which have suffered during the years of industrial decline in Wales, and in the UK overall. Neath Port Talbot still, tenaciously, retains its steelworks, but workers there have just traded future pension income for continuing jobs today.

West Wales authorities do not feature in the top ten. Carmarthenshire is 11th, with spending per head of £2,237. Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire, 15th and 18th with £2,207 and £2,194 respectively, are rural counties where service provision is relatively expensive, there are miles of highways to maintain, and ageing populations with rising needs for social care. Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion both have over 20% of their residents aged 65 plus, and in Pembrokeshire the over-65s are almost 22% of the total population. In Rhondda Cynon Taf, though, barely over 17% are over-65s, and in Merthyr Tydfil under 17%.

The three authorities with the lowest spend per head all border England, and Monmouthshire at the bottle of the table is relatively affluent, certainly compared with the old industrial valleys, but is not exactly Kensington and Chelsea.

Perhaps the main question should be whether any of the per head spending figures are remotely adequate — and if they are not, where on earth additional resources could be found.

Authority Population Gross revenue spending £ Revenue spending per head £
Rhondda Cynon Taf 237626 594740636 2503
Merthyr Tydfil 59139 147089203 2487
Blaenau Gwent 69549 172392888 2479
Neath Port Talbot 140879 342450123 2431
Denbighshire 95144 227048068 2386
Torfaen 91799 217125719 2365
Caerphilly 180481 423500568 2347
Newport 147749 344970686 2335
Gwynedd 122605 278949310 2275
Bridgend 142038 322011255 2267
Carmarthenshire 185485 414917359 2237
Conwy 116561 260430342 2234
Swansea 243046 541221865 2227
Anglesey 70170 155129718 2211
Ceredigion 75864 167432294 2207
Cardiff 360491 794863354 2205
Powys 132303 290899698 2199
Pembrokeshire 123858 271721880 2194
Vale of Glamorgan 127985 275225417 2150
Wrexham 137929 287429837 2084
Flintshire 154372 309230624 2003
Monmouthshire 92639 174477964 1883

Population figures are for the start of 2016-17. Gross revenue spends are from the Welsh Government. 

Stagnant Rural Hinterland or Vibrant Interconnecting Centre? The Challenge for Mid Wales in the 21st Century

by STEVE PACKER

‘’Meanwhile an ongoing dilemma in rural Wales, in both Welsh and English speaking communities, is maintaining the balance between sufficient development to maintain a viable community whilst avoiding levels of development that would destroy its character and social cohesion. This key issue for rural Wales has yet to be satisfactorily addressed by a Welsh Government.’’

Roger Tanner – Brave New World-Planning under the Welsh Government 1997-2014

Mid Wales – Past, Present and Future

Defining ‘Mid Wales’ as encompassing the current Local Authorities of  Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, and Powys it is clear that a combination of topography, soil quality, climate, poor communications infrastructure and relative remoteness have resulted in a scattered population with few urban centres, and a rural economy typified by low incomes; characteristics shared with other rural parts of Wales but Mid Wales having its own particular problems.

Whilst it is always dangerous to idealise the past, if one looks around the area one can see evidence of a  previously larger and less fractured community . Everywhere there are signs of previous cultivation and enclosure high up on the hillsides, abandoned farmsteads and mines, ruined watermills on almost every sizeable stream, an abundance of small churches and chapels – remnants of a world before the industrial revolution.

Agriculture remains the most visible activity but employs a tiny fraction of the previous workforce and is becoming increasingly ‘industrialised’ with large intensive rearing units for chickens and egg production and, more recently, dairy cattle. One of the positive aspects of the industrial revolution investment, the railway network, has survived in part, but is not used by the majority of inhabitants and businesses who rely to a great extent on private road transport; not an indicator of affluence but of necessity. This makes the area’s economy particularly reliant on oil and its by-products and vulnerable to price fluctuations and forthcoming depletion. Public services are the major current source of employment but are themselves under threat from budgetary constraint and are becoming increasingly focussed on the few urban centres.

Whilst is easy to idealise the past and see nothing but problems in the present, it is possible to envisage a future where Mid Wales prospers as an essential element in the revitalisation of the country and acts as an exemplar of low impact, truly sustainable development nationally and internationally.

Much is already happening at the individual and community level but what is so far lacking is any coherent plan of action which is fit for purpose at local and national government levels.

A Plethora of Initiatives – Up to 2015

Since the 1950’s there have been a number of initiatives and bodies set up to consider/address the problems facing Mid Wales.

The most concrete achievement was the expansion of Newtown following the setting up the ‘Mid Wales Newtown Development Corporation’ in 1968 resulting in a doubling of that settlement’s population and some success in attracting employment. However, this proved to be a ‘one off’ with limited benefit to the area as a whole. Aberystwyth is now often referred to as the forthcoming ‘regional capital’ with the setting up Welsh Government Offices and an influx of private investment but, again it is questionable whether this will, in itself, provide benefit to the area overall.

The list of bodies set up over the years to look at the problems of Mid Wales includes:

  • The Development Board for Rural Wales (assimilated into the now defunct Welsh Development Agency)
  • Central Wales Economic Forum
  • Mid Wales Transport Collaboration Board
  • Powys Regeneration Partnership
  • Tourism Partnership Mid-Wales
  • Mid Wales Regional Committee
  • Growing Mid Wales

Strategies which have affected/ affect Mid Wales include:

  • One Wales-Connecting the Nation (2007)
  • The Wales Transportation Strategy (2008)
  • Regional Transport Plan.
  • Mid Wales Joint Local Transport Plan.
  • Winning Mid Wales (2015)
  • Strategic Search Areas (TAN8) (2005)
  • Planning for Sustainable Rural Communities (TAN6) (2010)
  • Wales Spatial Plan
  • (2004/2008)
  • Planning and Energy Act (2015)

The coming of devolution to Wales has delivered a degree of independence which promises the ability to revitalise the nation. However, over the years, there has been the perennial problem of ‘departmentalisation’, with initiatives being developed without full involvement of all the functions necessary for successful implementation (e.g. the lack of initial involvement of the transport section in the formulation of the wind farm strategy proposed in TAN8).

Planning Policy-Pre 2015

Whilst the Wales Spatial Plan came close to developing a set of regional entities and connections between them its contents were ‘vague and unoriginal – largely a summary of what different Welsh Departments were planning to do anyway’(Tanner).

Not being linked to land use or to a development plan, the Wales Spatial Plan has largely been ignored in the process of producing the Local Development Plans which began to replace Unitary development Plans in 2010.

The Local Development Plans themselves, based on existing Local Authority jurisdictions have, in spite of intentions to the contrary, been largely abbreviated versions of the former Unitary Development Plans with only token acknowledgement of wider, strategic relationships. Indeed dissatisfaction with the inability of the Local Authorities to work together and share resources has resulted in Welsh Government considering a radical re-organisation of Local Government and is also reflected in the emergence of the Planning Act of 2015.

Ceredigion’s Local Development Plan was adopted in 2013 and Carmathenshire’s in 2014 whilst it is anticipated that the Powys Plan will be finalised in 2016.Whilst all these documents acknowledge, and seek to address, the problems of provision of services, employment and housing in their areas, whilst factoring in sustainability, they follow the traditional approach of projecting future growth and accommodating it within a settlement hierarchy base on existing population sizes and services. Disappointingly none of them have included policies which fully and truly reflect the radical opportunities offered for rural development in TAN 6 and particularly they fail  to acknowledge and accommodate ‘One Planet’ Development.

Individually the Mid Wales Local Development Plans are reasonable approaches to their areas’ development in the short term but they are reactive and inward looking and, taken together, do not offer a template for successful future strategic development of the ‘region’.

Planning Policy from 2015

The passing of the Planning Act in 2015 with the setting up of a National Development Framework, within which will sit both Local Development Plans and new Strategic Development Plans, provides an important opportunity for a much needed coherent approach to the future development and prosperity of Mid Wales.

This is a very significant step as the setting up of a land use strategy will provide a focus and framework for all the forward planning activities of national and local government which has, so far, been conspicuously lacking.

Unfortunately, so far as can be ascertained at present, the current thinking of Welsh Ministers and officials is to focus Strategic Development in the most populated areas i.e. A South Wales City Region and North Wales Corridor along the A55. This is symptomatic of a long standing mind-set where the predominant emphasis is on urban Wales with the larger part of the country seen as not requiring strategic initiatives unless it be for large-scale renewable energy projects (which assist national targets but do not provide substantial long term benefits to the communities in which they are placed).

In the Development Plan Prospectus published by Welsh Government it is stated that:

SDPs will only be required in areas where there are matters of greater than local significance.’

and..

Strategic Development Plans will provide a consistent, cost effective and efficient approach, with key decisions taken once at the strategic level. This will allow larger than local issues such as housing numbers, strategic employment sites and supporting transport infrastructure which cut across a number of local planning authority areas and often frustrate the LDP  process, to be considered and planned for in an integrated and comprehensive way.’

Given these statements it is considered that there is, in fact, a compelling case for a Strategic Development Plan to assist with the challenges and future development of the rural heartland of Mid Wales which, along with its endemic problems of insufficient housing provision (particularly of an affordable nature), high unemployment and inadequate transport infrastructure, offers an environment wholly suited to new forms of sustainable rural development strategically planned, along with a coherent approach to sustainable recreation and tourism which would be of benefit to both urban Wales and the economy as a whole.

Conclusion-The Relevance of the Heart of Wales Line Forum and Calon Cymru Initiative

It is acknowledged that, whilst to many the case for the setting up of a Strategic Development Area for Mid Wales, is self- evident, there is a need to provide justifications for such an approach and further work  will be needed to persuade Welsh Government, as the ‘directing authority’ to set the process in motion.

There is, in fact, a very short time scale for the case to be considered before areas are designated and Strategic Planning Panels set up.

It is, therefore, of great relevance that a considerable amount of work has been undertaken already by the Heart of Wales Line Forum in association with the Transport Minister and others to improve the railway service through Mid Wales, and by Calon Cymru who have provided a vision of strategic development based on ‘one planet’ policies linked to the railway network.

It is suggested, therefore, that the work of these two bodies form the basis for further discussion and consideration by Welsh Government as it has the potential to act as a template for Strategic Planning for Rural Wales far beyond what is currently achievable through the implementation of individual Local Authority Local Development Plans.

 

Carms Planners Censor Field Shelter (Allowed Elsewhere in England and Wales)

Carmarthenshire’s planners have caused consternation all over England and Wales by insisting that a moveable field shelter, also called a mobile field shelter, must have planning permission.

This is contrary to custom, to the advertising of field shelter manufacturers, and to the view of the UK’s Department for Communities and Local Government.

Oaklands Equestrian Buildings of New Tredegar says “no you do not need planning permission for a mobile field shelter. They do not constitute any ground work and sit on their own base”. Prime Stables Ltd, of Rudgwick in West Sussex, says “No planning permission is required for the Prime Stables range mobile shelters”.

Manufacturers, though, are a little less emphatic than they used to be, because of Carmarthenshire’s out-on-a-limb decision. The Colt Stables firm of Bridgnorth, Shropshire, notes:

“In 2011, in a well publicised case, a horse owner from Wales was fined over£1,000 for failing to move his mobile shelter frequently enough. The case was thought to be the first conviction of its kind and shone a light on an ambiguous ruling that has many people confused and unsure of their responsibilities.”

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‘Council’s shock ruling’: Carmarthenshire County Council makes the cover of Horse & Hound

The horse owner was Mr Andrew Robinson-Redman, and the ‘moveable shelter’ was in his field, Cae Derwen, at Broad Oak near Llandeilo. Carmarthenshire County Council had not given him time to move his mobile kit ‘frequently enough’ because, Mr Robinson-Redman said, it arrived in the first week of October 2010 and the council issued an enforcement notice with alacrity, on November 7th.

Carmarthenshire’s crackdown on moveable shelters contrasts with a much more permissive attitude to far more intrusive developments in the county’s countryside, such as two industrial-style buildings near Laugharne, constructed as a cattery without permission, but allowed to remain; a new four-bedroomed house in countryside at Henfwlch Road; and damage to the Cernydd Carmel Special Area of Conservation which proceeded in full public view.

Andrew Robinson-Redman and his wife Meg-Anne moved to Carmarthenshire from Oxfordshire in 2010 and rented a field of 6.2 acres with access from a minor road, about five miles from their home in Milo.  They bought the field late in the year, and subsequently moved to Capel Isaac, within half a mile of the field — but, said Mr Robinson-Redman, the council told the Conservative AM Nick Bourne that they were not resident in the area.

The couple thought that normal practice elsewhere in England and Wales would be normal in their new county. Field shelters on metal or timber skids, and not on an artificial base, are generally regarded as ‘equipment’ and not as ‘buildings’ because, like a trailer or a water tank, they can be towed to another location. Moveable field shelters must be on skids or wheels, have towing hooks, be fully moveable, not be connected to mains water or electricity, have moveable flooring (if any), and not be on hard standing.

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The Cae Derwen field shelter was on metal skids and had towing hooks (one is clearly visible in the photo). It was not connected to mains water or electricity, and sat directly on the field.

The odd council here and there has tried to act against moveable field shelters. Purbeck District Council in Dorset issued an enforcement notice in 2001, telling a Mr Bennet to remove his newly acquired moveable field shelter because in their view he had changed the land use from grazing to the keeping of horses with the addition of a shelter. Mr Bennet appealed, and the planning inspector said the shelter did not amount to operational development as defined in section 55(1) of the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act, and the inspector also said that grazing horses was not a change of use but fell within the definition of agriculture in section 336(1) of the 1990 Act, and so by virtue of section 22(2)(e) of the Act, planning permission was not required.  This ruling gave livestock owners confidence that moveable shelters did not and would not require planning permission.

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Close up of metal skid.

In Carmarthenshire, Mr and Mrs Robinson-Redman grazed their horses, bought a moveable field shelter and two moveable stables, and placed them in the field. Later they acquired some pigs, sheep and poultry to raise, got an official agricultural holding number and applied for the necessary animal movement licences. But everything was already fast unravelling. An adjacent landowner complained. Mr Robinson-Redman thinks the complaint likely to be linked to the fact that a previous owner of the field wanted to build a house on it, but failed to get planning permission.

An enforcement officer from the county council told Mr Robinson-Redman to take the shelter and stables away. Why? Apparently because he had put some washed river stone on part of the field to try and reduce waterlogging and, because the equipment had only just arrived, he had not shifted it around the field.

Carmarthenshire’s planners were adamant that no part of the field’s surface could be changed in any way, and that mobile shelters must be moved at least five or six times a year (although they had evidently decided not to allow time for this to happen).

 

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Andrew Robinson-Redman: argues that the field shelter conforms to requirements for moveable equipment which does not need planning permission. 

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The field shelter in October 2015, in its final position before removal, near the roadside hedge (right). 

A long battle ensued. The Robinson-Redmans sold the two moveable stables, leaving just the field shelter. This must go too, said the planners. The Robinson-Redmans applied for planning permission for the 24 feet by 12 feet open-fronted shelter (which elsewhere does not need permission), but were turned down. They appealed, but lost. The notice from the inspector, PJ Davies, dated October 1st 2015, did not refer at all to ‘moveable’ or ‘mobile’ structures but to ‘building’ and ‘shed’. The fact that the planners had insisted on a planning application for a moveable structure which normally does not require it probably further confused the already tangled issue. The inspector, to judge from the wording in the appeal rejection notice, may not have known that the ‘building’ was in fact a moveable shelter which is normally permitted without planning permission.

The rejection notice said: “I acknowledge the appellants’ case that enforcement issues have curtailed agricultural activity, but nevertheless, this should not prevent the submission of adequate evidence to demonstrate the need for the building  (my italics) in an otherwise unsustainable location where new development should be strictly controlled.”

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This tall hedge separated the shelter from the road.

The meaning of the word ‘unsustainable’ is not at all clear. The county council’s case appears to be that Cae Derwen is not, in their view, sustainable as a farm business because the activity of grazing a few livestock could not yield an income sufficient for the Robinson-Redmans to live on. The field is too small to allow an agricultural building to be constructed with permitted development rights, because the threshold for this is 5 hectares (12.36 acres), almost double the size of Cae Derwen.

But, then, moveable shelters are not, officially, buildings.

So what rights do people have in Carmarthenshire if they buy fewer than 5 hectares of farmland and want to keep livestock as a hobby, and maybe to supply a supplementary income stream? Most livestock need some shelter and some handling equipment. The UK’s Department for Communities and Local Government in London allows for this and told the magazine Horse & Hound* that “field shelters are considered temporary and do not need planning permission if they are fully mobile. But it depends how long they’ve remained static, the degree of portability and if they’ve changed the use of the land”. In the Robinson-Redman case, the shelter was recently moved within the field and the land use remains agricultural.

The impasse with Carmarthenshire’s planners has cost the Robinson-Redmans a shedload of money. They paid more than £4,350 an acre for the field. They have had to pay nearly £3,000 in fines for losing, so far, their battles with the county council. Their moveable stables and shelter have had to be sold at a loss. They still have the field but without a shelter or livestock handling equipment there is little they can do with it.

The implications of this saga are serious, both for the Robinson-Redmans and more widely.

  1. Public confidence in the impartiality of the planning system is further damaged.
  2. Planners’ opinion of what constitutes ‘agriculture’ is revealed, in this case, as a stereotypical view in which agriculture is a full-time business activity. In reality ‘agriculture’ includes crop and livestock production at every scale from the hobby field to the landed estate of hundreds of acres.
  3. Opportunity is denied to new arrivals in the county, through insistence on planning permission when it is not normally required elsewhere in England and Wales, and through refusal of planning permission for ventures which meet all the requirements of the relevant planning policies (as in the case of Rhiw Las near Llanboidy).

Underlying these contrary planning decisions there may be a genuine if inexpressed wish to protect the Welsh language, still widely spoken among the established farming community, from dilution by non-Welsh-speaking newcomers. The other side of the coin, though, looks like a dog-in-the-manger antipathy to the interests of incomers, which harms community relations and, by implication, the long-term prospects for Welsh language and culture.

PDR

* June 23rd 2011, ‘Councils target field shelters’ by Amy Mathieson

‘Barngate’ Saga Highlights Planning Confusion

What’s up with Carmarthenshire’s planning committee? This week members pushed through approvals against the professional advice of the planning officers.

Not all members, of course, but enough to come to confusing decisions which appear to privilege some members of the community.

Which members of the community? Prominent people, influential people, and people who have already flouted planning regulations but make a persuasive case for allowing their development to remain — or so it seems to me.

That is the story from yesterday’s meeting of the committee, as well as from other recent meetings.

Carmarthenshire County Council’s planning committee has seven members of Plaid Cymru, six Independents, and six representing Labour, a total of 19. In addition there are ten ‘reserves’ who replace absent members. The reserves are four from Plaid Cymru, three Independents and three from Labour.

Two controversial applications were approved yesterday, despite planning officers having recommended refusal. The approval of a third, which planning officers had also opposed, was confirmed.

 

The Barns That Were

The decision, by a margin of one vote,* to allow construction to continue on a hairdressing salon and a holiday let, at the home near Pontyberem of council leader Emlyn Dole (Plaid Cymru, Llannon), is a controversial rebuke for the planning officers who tried to stop the unauthorised work, which replaces a double barn sited next to the public roadway, at right angles to it (see photo).

The barns saga began with a 2012 application from Mr Dole’s wife, the singer Gwenda Owen, to convert them into two holiday flats and one business unit. This was approved. Then part of one barn was demolished and in 2014, after an investigation triggered by the demolition and thereby non-compliance with the original permission, the planning department received retrospectively a new application, to rebuild the demolished part. Planning officers advised the planning committee to reject this amended plan (S/30698), but committee members disagreed and passed it.

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The barns in 2011, taken from the public road. They have since been demolished. Photo from Google Earth

Since then, however, the whole double barn has been demolished. And in the view of planning officers they were no longer dealing with a building conversion but with a completely new build, slightly smaller than the original barn duo and comprising a hairdressing salon and one holiday flat.

Planning committee members all had the chance to read case officer Gary Glenister’s report on the second retrospective application, which included the following:

“Whilst the principle of rural enterprise is supported by local and national policy in order to create jobs and diversify the rural economy, the policies are predicated on the re-use and adaptation of rural buildings. As an exception, new development in rural areas is only allowed when a sequential approach is taken and it can be demonstrated that there are no premises available within settlements…and any new build is immediately adjacent or directly related to sustainable settlements. In this case a sequential approach has not been taken and the business and holiday accommodation is new development in the open countryside between the settlements of Pontyberem and Pontiets and is not therefore immediately adjacent or directly related.” The report advised refusal as contrary to policies for new employment locations and for visitor accommodation.

Cllr Terry Davies (Labour, Gorslas) was adamant that passing this second retrospective application, for a building which is almost ready for its roof to be put on, would send the wrong message to the public, and former council leader Kevin Madge (Labour, Garnant) agreed, fearing that the floodgates would open as people got the message that if you build what you want without waiting for permission, you have a good chance of getting the committee to back you. Of course, it probably depends who you are, and this largesse would, perhaps, be unlikely to extend to applications from known felons or even from brand-new arrivals into this proud nation.

Councillors who voted to allow the building to be completed did not agree that it is a new build. Cllr Mansel Charles (Plaid Cymru, Llanegwad) said it is not really a new building because original stone would be used for cladding. Cllr Eirwyn Williams (Plaid Cymru, Cynwyl Gaeo), found it difficult to think of it as a new building, and  thought it would have much better foundations than the old barns. Cllr Tom Theophilus (Independent, Cilycwm) said he had heard that the builders were of good repute and the new building would be sounder than the old one. Cllr Jeff Owen (Plaid Cymru, Tyisha) argued that the new building would be sustainable, and an amenity for the community. For Cllr Ken Howell (Plaid Cymru, Llangeler) the building would support the rural economy and benefit small-scale tourism, and Cllr Hugh Richards (Independent, Felinfoel) said jobs would be created.

By nine votes to eight, Emlyn Dole and Gwenda Owen have approval to keep their completely rebuilt building.

Whether full public approval will be forthcoming is another matter.

 

The Cattery That Is

Two new buildings totalling 277 square metres, covered in grey profile steel cladding, went up at Broadway Farm, Llangain, near Llansteffan, without permission. The buildings, for G and D Williams, replaced old Dutch barns and are in use as a cattery. A retrospective application was refused in June 2015. This week, the planning committee had a resubmission before it (W/32479). Case officer Stuart Willis had prepared a long report detailing reasons for refusal. His conclusion was that “having regard to prevailing planning policies and material considerations, it is not considered the development complies with the relevant policies of the Carmarthenshire Local Development Plan or national guidance”.

The retrospective application form for the cattery states that it is not an agricultural holding. It might have been possible to grant approval on the grounds of farm diversification, but if there is no farming it cannot be diversified. Mr Willis’ report says that the “application has not demonstrated that the proposal would be subordinate to or support the continued operation of an agricultural activity. The information provided suggests a limited level of agricultural activity at present and has not demonstrated that the proposal is a farm diversification scheme in compliance with the policy.”

Broadway Farm is 18 acres in open countryside and carries two goats, six ewes, eight horses and some poultry, according to Mr Willis’s report. The cattery has capacity for over 30 felines and would therefore be the dominant activity.

In all, the report gives ten separate reasons why the application should be refused. In the planners’ eyes, the cattery is composed of two industrial buildings inappropriately sited in the countryside, but not on a working farm which needs to diversify to remain viable.

Cllr Daff Davies (Independent, Llansteffan) led the charge in favour of the cattery. The new constructions are more visually appealing than the previous sheds, he said. The owners live on the premises and so are on hand to look after the cats. Cllr Mansel Charles (Plaid Cymru, Llanegwad) regretted that the development was completed before the owners put in a planning application, but considered the cattery to be an asset to the local community and of value to the rural economy. Cllr Hugh Richards (Independent, Felinfoel) referred to the benefits of farm diversification ventures such as this.

Labour members Terry Davies (Gorslas) and Kevin Madge (Garnant) were both strongly opposed to approving the application, Cllr Davies going so far as to say the committee would be subject to public ridicule, and Cllr Madge predicting a big increase in the numbers of buildings going up without any permission.

They were in the minority, though. The planning officer’s advice was overturned, and the committee voted for the grey-clad buildings to remain, by a margin of two to one.

 

The House That Will Be

Permission for a four-bedroom house in the countryside, 40 or so metres from the farmyard of Esgairhir Uchaf, Henfwlch Road, was confirmed. An existing smaller, unoccupied house in the farmyard has to be demolished. Planning officers had originally recommended refusal for the plan (W/32578), submitted by Mr Brian Walters, vice-president of the Farmers Union of Wales.

 

Influence Helps?

Is the applicant a well-known individual of good repute? Has he or she already put up a substantial building without permission? Or have they got permission for a development and then decided to go and build something completely different?

If so, they would seem to have quite good odds of success in Carmarthenshire.

I have no quarrel with catteries, no hatred of new houses, no desire to dismiss farm diversification, and am positively enthusiastic about small-scale agriculture and re-use of old buildings, but a reputation for, let’s call it inconsistency, is bad for the council and bad for public attitudes to local democracy, no matter if planning officers and councillors may be trying hard to achieve a correct outcome.

The tangled complexity of the myriad of planning policies and regulations means that it is often possible to find part of a policy which supports the case in question even if other relevant policies oppose it — and if the applicant is an influential person, they are more likely than a shy, retiring, little-known individual to attract the support they need to achieve their goal.

Even if that goal involves some highly selective interpretations of the rules.

* Two Plaid Cymru councillors voted against the barn replacement and the chair, Plaid’s Alun Lenny, abstained.

PDR

Trisha’s Torment: When Turning a Blind Eye Lets Abuse Escalate

Police Apology Leaves County Council Isolated

When two powerful institutions both decided to back one party to a dispute without properly evaluating the evidence, the result was denial of justice.

In the case of Trisha Breckman and Eddie Roberts, a couple in their 70s living in Maesybont, Carmarthenshire, that denial of justice is a little eased by a recent full unreserved apology from Dyfed Powys Police – an apology which Trisha and Eddie say goes far beyond any statement so far made by Carmarthenshire County Council, the other authority in the case.

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Trisha Breckman has now received a full apology from Dyfed Powys Police — but she notes that Carmarthenshire County Council has not yet followed suit.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas, the Welsh Government member for Carmarthen East & Dinefwr, and county councillor Cefin Campbell both believe that Trisha and Eddie have suffered because of intransigence by the county council, and have supported them through difficult times.

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 11 years 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 71 and Eddie to 78.

The couple bought Pant y Castell Fach – a cottage, outbuilding and over six acres — in 2003. Trisha was 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.

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The pretty but not-so-tranquil setting of Pant y Castell Fach. 

The cattery was never built, because of problems which emerged as soon as 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 can 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, has depressed the market value.

 

Injustice is Blind

Above Pant y Castell Fach, across a field, lie the yards of Blaenpant Farm, which when I visited in September 2015 was quiet and peaceful, with just one heavy goods vehicle parked in the yard. What could possibly be amiss?

The twilight zones of planning law are amiss. Twilight can hide, in its long shadows, changes of land use from agricultural to industrial.

Blaenpant Farm completely surrounds Pant y Castell Fach. The farm even includes the top of the access track from the B4297 road  to Pant y Castell Fach, over which Trisha and Eddie have a right of way.

For Trisha and Eddie, Pant y Castell Fach was to be their country retreat, and they expected a degree of peace and quiet, but instead found themselves living next to a heavy haulage business operating without planning permission – a business which the county council’s planning department omitted to notice. In the opinion of the then-Planning Enforcement Manager, Brian Canning, and the Head of Planning Services, Eifion Bowen, there was no breach of planning regulations, and 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 both council and police took the side of the then-occupants of Blaenpant, Andrew Thomas and the late Karen Bowen Thomas when they, enraged that Trisha and Eddie had complained about industrial operations on Blaenpant, embarked upon a campaign of harassment.

Film evidence of the harassment was presented in television documentaries, but failed to persuade the authorities to reconsider their positions.  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, 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.

“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.”

This contradiction of the ‘Blaenpant is a farm’ position maintained by Carmarthenshire’s planning department 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 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 Pant y Castell 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, 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 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.

In the absence of any mediation, this is what happened.

 

Evidence Disregarded

When Trisha and Eddie first became concerned about the scale of haulage and other industrial operations on Blaenpant, the council’s planning department advised them to get some evidence. So Eddie and Trisha started filming the lorry movements. The film evidence convinced ITV Wales’ current affairs programme Wales This Week, which reported on the dispute six 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.

The Thomases had arrived at Blaenpant in 2001, and the lorry operations, branded KBHS Ltd, got under way on the site.  A former owner of Pant y Castell Fach, John Lawday, logged the movements and informed the council, and so did John Bleasdale, who lived nearby at Ffynnon Goch. Mr Lawday sold up soon after the Thomases arrived next door, after 26 years in the cottage. The next occupant was Anne Gifford, who quickly put the property back on the market and was gone in the space of a year. She sold to Trisha and Eddie.

Coming from the south of England, Trisha and Eddie had no idea that complaints about their neighbour’s haulage activities were accumulating in the county council’s planning department, and they say nothing was uncovered during legal searches. The fact that the vendor wanted to move away so quickly might have rung alarm bells, but did not. The fact that the top section of the access track was on Blaenpant land should have prompted questions but did not. In the year after they moved in, Trisha and Eddie became aware that all was not well. “It was actually within a few months of moving here, planning officer Ceri Davies informed me there had been problems here,” said Trisha. “He was here to discuss our plans for the cattery. Nigel Stringer of the Countryside Council for Wales also visited the first year and told us the same thing. In addition, an officer of the Country Land and Business Association informed us that ‘there have been lots of problems here’.”

Alarm bells now sounding loudly, 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.

When Andrew Thomas and Karen Bowen Thomas found out, somehow, that Trisha and Eddie were asking questions about the haulage business – and about quarrying and lorry maintenance work at Blaenpant — retaliation started. Karen unfortunately died prematurely in 2008 and so is unable to comment, but incidents are on film.

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An old heavy goods vehicle looms above Trisha’s and Eddie’s home.

A huge removals lorry appeared on Blaenpant land by the boundary with Pant y Castell Fach, becoming a major element of the view from the cottage. A couple of pigs called Eddie and Trisha were penned outside a bedroom window, and Karen would sit with them making personal comments which, when heard on film, sounded threatening. A large board on stilts was erected blocking the view from a bedroom. But worst of all, the Thomases narrowed the access track from 15 feet to nine, erected motorway-style crash barriers on either side of it, and put in two gates which they threatened to lock. Trisha and Eddie felt like prisoners.

Incidents on the access track, including Andrew Thomas letting a horse loose down the track into Trisha and Eddie’s garden, led to police action but, bizarrely, against Trisha, who was arrested on five occasions, and on the horse incident day she was taken away in handcuffs because police believed Karen Thomas’s accusation that Trisha had assaulted her. The film evidence reveals Trisha to be frightened and panicked, but not the aggressor. Police later did drop the charge.

Trisha never has been convicted of assault, but Andrew Thomas has. In 2006 he assaulted two young women in Carmarthen, who were trying to stop him from haranguing Eddie Roberts. Eddie, working as a taxi driver, was in his cab at a taxi rank, and Andrew was outside the car. The two young women gave evidence and Andrew Thomas emerged from the court a convicted man.

First haulage lorries, then buildings and other development — for which there were planning applications, no less than 16 between 2002 and 2011, all but one for  agricultural or equestrian activities, and none for industrial uses. Planning officers did in fact worry about a lack of agricultural activity on the farm (although not to the extent of taking Eddie’s and Trisha’s complaints seriously) and rejected an application for an implement store and hay shed 99 feet long and 50 feet wide, but permission was granted on appeal. In 2009, Andrew Thomas applied for permission for an area of hardstanding adjacent to the Carmel transmitter mast, on the south-western side, to be used for storing agricultural vehicles and implements. Carmarthenshire County Council refused, one reason being insufficient farming activity at Blaenpant to warrant it. So Mr Thomas made an appeal, but as we have seen, an inquiry heard by planning inspector Clive Cochrane turned it down.

When in 2012 the Ombudsman found in Trisha and Eddie’s favour on those issues where clear evidence existed, and against Carmarthenshire County Council, the council delayed putting the report before any councillors for several months. The full council never was shown the report. Instead, an edited version was presented to the planning committee.

Andrew Thomas had, after a three-year civil court case ending in 2008, been obliged to widen the access track and to take away one gate and leave the others open, to give unimpeded access to Pant y Castell Fach and remove the sense of claustrophobia which the line of gates had created.

But nothing has been done to compensate Trisha and Eddie adequately for the emotional trauma they suffered after the council cast them as villains in the drama.

 

Flow of Planning Applications

Planning applications for buildings on Blaenpant streamed in to Carmarthenshire County Council and included the following.

In April 2004 came an application (E/06708) for intended permitted development on Blaenpant, construction of 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. The refusal letter, from Head of Planning Eifion Bowen, 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 the appeal was upheld, albeit with conditions, such as a stipulation that the building be used for storage only. 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. Far from being used for storage, the building housed horses, as subsequent photographic evidence showed.

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 the same reasons as the agricultural implement store two years earlier: 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. 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 planning permission, and so therefore there was no need for the councillors on the planning committee to consider the application.

The first and second buildings had a total length of 177 feet, and sufficient indoor space to store a substantial number of tractors or other vehicles.

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Storage buildings on Blaenpant Farm, Maesybont. Trisha Breckman’s home is below the end building, to the left. There is a quarry to the right of the buildings.

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 and continuing across a field up towards the Carmel telecommunications mast. Planners told them that formal permission would be necessary, and the application was withdrawn — but by summer 2015 the road was completed, without permission.

Also in 2008, 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 now was bereaved, 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. As noted above, the items stored by the Carmel mast had included skips, lorries, lorry engines and parts, excavating and bulldozing equipment, containers, a fire engine, and tarmacadam planings.

The reports, logs, investigations, photographs and films documenting the disputes between Trisha and Eddie and Andrew Thomas and the late Karen Bowen Thomas, and between Trisha and Eddie and officers of Carmarthenshire County Council, form an archive in themselves, containing more detail than can be summarised here. The Ombudsman, who had access to this library of information and to the principal participants, came to conclusions which Carmarthenshire County Council resisted.

In response the council officers, who include the Chief Executive, Mark James, opted to try and bury the Ombudsman’s findings — under the tarmacadam, so to speak.

 

No Answers

I contacted the county council’s press office at 9.13am on Friday October 9th, with these three questions:

  1. Will Carmarthenshire County Council also 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, in the form of a statement by Mark James. 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.

PDR

Impartiality in Carmarthenshire? Not for every Tom, Dick and Harry

Councillors in Carmarthenshire have pressed officials to trawl through a gamut of planning policies to find reasons/ excuses for them to reject recommendations made by those same officials.

Two examples from the county council’s planning committee this week:

The first relates to a plan for a roomy new farmhouse for Mr Brian Walters, vice-president of the Farmers Union of Wales (FUW), whose farms include Clunmelyn, Ffynnonddrain, and Esgairhir Uchaf, Henfwlch Road. The two are about two and a half miles apart by road. Mr Walters and Mrs Ann Walters farm some 500 acres with their sons Aled and Seimon. They are dairy farmers with a herd of 200 cows, 200 followers, and about 40 beef cattle, according to the biography released by the FUW. Mr Walters is a chapel deacon, and offers work experience to agricultural students.

The new farmhouse will be – for councillors have given permission – at Esgairhir Uchaf. The building will be over 40% larger than and about 40 metres away from the existing one, which is currently unoccupied and would be demolished. There will be a requirement to demolish, although the local county councillor, Irfon Jones (Independent, Cynwyl Elfed) saw no reason to impose this condition. Several councillors spoke in support of the application. Tom Theophilus (Independent, Cilycwm) said the location of the new house would be safer because it is 40 metres from the farmyard. Joseph Davies (Indpependent, Manordeilo and Salem) and Mansel Charles (Plaid Cymru, Llanegwad) both thoroughly supported the application. Ken Howell (Plaid Cymru, Llangeler) said he was disappointed with the attitude of the planning officer who recommended refusal. The new house would be easier to heat and less draughty, he said.

Councillors overruled the planning officer, who recommended refusal because the design of the new house would not be appropriate for the location, or to the character of the area. The scale, mass and design features of the house would have “suburban connotations” at odds with its location in open countryside.

Now that the committee has decided to allow the house, the planning department will have to find some small print in a planning policy somewhere which can be used to support a substantial new house, with 309 square metres of floor area, sited away from existing buildings.

Not one councillor asked if a pedestrian path linked the new house with the nearest village, or if it was served by public transport.

Yet these were the reasons found by planning officers to try and justify councillors’ refusal of an application they had been recommended to approve, because it met all the requirements of the policy under which it was submitted.

While an application from a man of considerable local renown, and a pillar of the farming establishment, met with councillors’ approval against the advice of the planning officer, an application from relative newcomers to the area, made under the One Wales One Planet sustainable development policy of the Welsh Government, was turned down flat although they were advised to approve it because it ticked all the boxes of the policy.

The reasons which councillors gave for rejecting Dr Erica Thompson’s application for a mini eco-hamlet at Rhiw Las, near Llanboidy, included personal opinions that occupants would fail to make a sufficient living, that they could live elsewhere and work on the land during the day, that it would encourage similar applications, and that it was too far from a village. In the end, planning officers extracted three policies from the 2014 Carmarthenshire Local Development Plan and applied them to the One Planet policy in such a way as to make it very unlikely that any One Planet application for a rural location could ever be approved in the county.

The proposed site for the venture is inadequately served by an integrated transport network catering for pedestrians, cyclists and public-transport users, and so conflicts with policy GP1 of the Local Development Plan, planning officers suggested. The site also conflicts with policy TR2, at least officers thought it might, again because it is deemed too remote from public transport, and is accessed from a road which lacks a pedestrian pathway. Policy TR3 was also cited, requiring public transport to be accessible.

None of these transport issues were raised by committee members during the discussion about the new farmhouse, which is in just as rural a location.

The decisions to allow a big new house for a well-known farmer, against professional advice, and to refuse an eco-hamlet of four dwellings and land-based businesses for “Toms, Dicks and Harrys”, as one councillor supposed, also against professional advice, suggests that decision making by the planning committee is not as consistently impartial and even-handed as it should be!

The Esgairhir Uchaf planning application is W/32578. The Rhiw Las application is W/31160.

PDR

Blow, Blow, Blow, the Regime Wobbles but Doesn’t Fall Down

Looking ahead to 2015 and beyond

What if President John F Kennedy had not been assassinated? How different would our world be? This may seem an odd start for a blog about West Wales, but the malign repercussions of organised political assassinations last for generations. History is written by the winners, as they say, and when the winners have devious intent, the history they write is woven of fabrications.

This is not a plea for absolute truth, because we best we can hope for is an approximation. We are all likely to interpret the same ‘facts’ in different ways because of the unique resources we each bring to analysis, shaped by our different histories. When we cannot rely on the veracity of the ‘facts’ themselves, it is tempting to retreat into our own bubbles and hope that nothing nasty comes along to puncture them.

Staring out through the holes of punctured bubbles in West Wales this year, I saw:

  • The frailties of our confrontational legal system, in which technicalities seem more important than ethics, and in which the prospects of success appear proportional to the ability to pay. One consequence is that a blogger, who at the time was learning the skill, stands to be dispossessed of her share of the family home for — if I remember correctly — writing three words: ‘Pinocchio’, and ‘slush fund’, the latter two chiming in essence with criticism from no less than the Wales Audit Office.
  • A dearth of imagination, especially within Carmarthenshire County Council, where a fear of being sued by moneyed companies appears to prevent planners and councillors from challenging the ridiculous forecasts of demand for new estate-built homes, and where ‘supermarkets’ and ‘jobs’ are still linked like horses and carriages, although any ‘new’ jobs are balanced and often exceeded by job losses in shops that are forced out of business.
  • Acceptance, by the majority of the said council’s officers and members, that ‘rural’ is a dying concept and that the future will be CITIES.

Rural north Carmarthenshire is replete with more businesses for sale than buyers coming forward. Our village school was emptied of pupils in July, and stands silent while the children are bussed and taxied elsewhere. The nearest shop and filling station closed yesterday. Yet the planning authority shies away from allowing job creation in what they call ‘open countryside’. People would start land-based businesses, if they could afford the land, but land is a financial asset and its value is out of all proportion to its productive capacity. Ideas buzzing about in the political group Gwyrddion dros y Blaid, Greens for Plaid, include a national Land Bank for Wales, to acquire land and make it available at modest cost to new and small businesses, particularly those which will contribute to the Welsh Government’s stated aim of the nation using no more than its fair share of planetary resources within a generation.

What fate awaits Ysgol Gynradd Llansawel, an   under-occupied Welsh-medium primary where scarcely any children speak Welsh at home.

Closed: our village school shut its doors in July

As for local government, I have the impression that in Pembrokeshire it is waking after years of deep slumber, thanks to the unceasing efforts of a handful of truth-seeking councillors who weather the insults flung in their direction. Carmarthenshire is still trailing in the wake of its westerly neighbour, one reason being that the alertest, most questioning councillors – there are some — do not receive enough support from the others.

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Do we want our rural areas to look like this? Edwinsford, a grade II* listed building, has fallen down. Photo by Paul White, http://www.welshruins.co.uk

There is change, not enough yet to shake the foundations of local politics, but a wind blowing with greater force as our next local government reorganisation looms, and with it a great opportunity for local government to help create a Wales which uses no more than its fair share of global resources, a One Planet Wales. If the opportunity passes, it may not come again. Future generations won’t thank us for fudging, even contradicting the evidence – but that is a hard habit to break.

PDR

Asleep at the Wheel: Carmarthenshire’s Councillors Told to Wake Up and Take Control

Report by the Welsh Local Government Association is Missile in Velvet Cloak

The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) published its ‘Carmarthenshire Peer Review’ of the county council this week. I can already hear the barely stifled yawns at this less-than-dramatic title. The 61-page review slates a raft of council policies, albeit couched in polite language like a gun with a silencer.

Policies can be changed. Personnel are changing. But the context in which policies and people operate, and which influences both, is changing only very slowly, if at all. Too many of us find politics boring, and we don’t do enough to hold politicians, their advisers, or indeed all who are in powerful positions, to account. We let them set the context in which we all have to live.

Carmarthenshire County Council is a dominant employer locally, alongside the National Health Service. What happens to an employee who draws attention to maladministration, corruption or abuse within a large institution? They are likely to find themselves ostracised, accused of bringing the organisation into disrepute, even sacked. As if that was not enough, where are the alternative jobs in Carmarthenshire? You have to feel very strongly about an injustice to risk ostracism and future poverty. The fears of speaking out are inversely proportional to the chances of finding comparable employment.

A small number of employers who control the local jobs market are one aspect of the endemic global inequality which a few new brooms and policy tweaks are not going to reverse — but every revolution has to start somewhere, and why not in Carmarthenshire?

Courteously Devastating

The WLGA’s report on Carmarthenshire is so critical, if courteously so, that change is inevitable. That change will have to be planned and executed by councillors, which prompts the question that if they have let governance become so arbitrary and slipshod, can they really take charge of the spluttering bus in which they have been passengers, rebuild the engine, change the exhaust and drive off on the marathon journey to 2017, when the next elections are due? There is even a chance that elections could be delayed to 2018, depending on the decisions which the next Welsh Government makes, from 2016, about local government reorganisation.

By firing a rocket over the walls of County Hall, the report does provide the impetus for change – although highlighting obstacles to achieving that change:

“…there [are] a number of behavioural, cultural and procedural barriers to achieving the Council’s ambition and vision for openness and transparency. It was clear through interviews that there is a self-awareness and recognition of where issues need to be addressed or approaches redefined. Whilst this report proposes a number of constitutional and procedural changes, it is important that the Council seeks to embed its vision and underpinning principles of openness and transparency as part of a wider culture change programme.” (paragraph 3.17)

Councillors are elected to lead, to direct, the processes of local government, and the officers they employ are there to advise and manage. These roles have been reversed in Carmarthenshire. How and why this happened will take a lot of untangling, but factors include too many councillors opting for a quiet life, councillors assuming that officers are always correct, and councillors mistaking advice for orders. As officers gained power, councillors lost it.  The report explains:

“Member relationships and tensions have, in part, been affected by the Council’s constitutional arrangements, some of which have been an impediment to legitimate challenge and scrutiny; opportunity for call-in is limited, members are unable to ask supplementary questions in Council and members’ opportunities to table pertinent Motions on Notice are restricted. Internal member-officer and executive-opposition relations have inevitably been affected and frustrated by the absence of constitutional ‘pressure-valves’ which are present in other authorities, which promote and facilitate challenge and democratic debate.” (paragraph 3.33)

The council’s senior employees run the show:

“The overwhelming feedback from internal and external stakeholders is that within Carmarthenshire the allocation of roles between senior managers and elected Executive Board members has become confused.

“The prominence and role of the Chief Executive was a feature of many of the contributions from internal and external interviewees as well as a number of public submissions. Inevitably, the Chief Executive’s personal profile is the focus of much public scrutiny given the high-profile High Court Case with a local blogger and the nature of the recent Wales Audit [Office] Public Interest Reports. Notwithstanding these matters, the Chief Executive has played a prominent and significant role in internal and external Council affairs during recent years and his personal leadership-style has influenced the authority’s approach to business. The perception has been that the Chief Executive and senior officers have dominated some of the decisions of the Executive Board to the extent that the balance of governance has become disjointed and the Council is widely perceived to be officer-led. In such a context it is therefore somewhat inevitable that political and media challenge has been focussed on officers rather than elected Executive Board Members.” (paragraphs 3.36 and 3.37)

Gagged by Complacence

By agreeing to damaging changes in the constitution, councillors have collaborated in their own silencing, a case of the quest for an easy life overcoming the determination to represent their communities and to challenge each other and the officers. The report points out that:

“The Council’s constitution is neither conducive to nor encourages challenge from within the council, and as such perpetuates the perception of the council’s defensiveness. Specific constitutional provisions are considered in more detail in subsequent sections of this report, but a range of mechanisms providing for legitimate debate and challenge in other authorities are either not present or are not widely promoted in Carmarthenshire. There was also the perception that the constitution was deliberately used on occasion to deflect and diffuse debate and disagreement, such as the rejection of or referral of Notices on Motion on executive functions or contentious policy matters.” (paragraph 3.46)

Webcasting of council meetings, a development of which the WLGA thoroughly approves, has shown the democratic deficits only too clearly:

“Many members expressed general disappointment and dissatisfaction about the Council meeting as a forum for debate and the focus of local democracy in Carmarthenshire. Many members articulated a vision of repositioning the Council meeting as the crucible for local democratic debate and the focus of public engagement with the local democratic process; a ‘constructive and creative’ forum for debate. It was however described as ‘stage-managed’, with debate stifled and dominated by the rehearsal of historic debates prompted by the discussion of Scrutiny Committee minutes during Council.”

“It is the view of the Review Team that rather than promoting debate, democratic empowerment and public engagement, the Council’s constitution currently constrains and curtails opportunities and powers for members to contribute to debate and influence the agenda.”(paragraphs 4.8 and 4.9, my emphasis)

Uninformative Minutes and Secret Sessions

The minutes published after meetings are usually records of decisions taken, omitting the salient points of debate. This is not good enough, the review notes:

 “Whilst the primary role of minutes is to record with clarity the decisions taken, given the Council’s aspiration for openness and transparency, the Review Team believes that the Council could look at other councils’ approaches to minute taking and when a decision has been a matter of contention there is scope to record the arguments presented for and against a decision.” (paragraph 4.32)

Bald minutes combined with secret sessions to consider confidential ‘exempt’ matters mean that the 64 councillors who are not among the 10 on the Executive Board are kept in the dark too often:

“The Review Team were surprised that non-executive members are expected to leave Executive Board Meetings along with members of the press and public during the discussion of exempt items. The Review Team subsequently conducted a survey of other council approaches, and of the 17 that responded only five others adopted a similar approach, although one noted the approach was under review and another noted that Exempt items are ‘rare’. Similarly the Review Team was informed that members did not receive copies of Exempt reports. Given non-executive members are not always fully aware of the nature of detail of the matters being considered nor the implications of all decisions at Executive Board Meetings, there is little scope to scrutinise or call-in such decisions.” (paragraph 5.11)

The business of local government, and the policies setting the priorities for that business, are boring for too many of us, a great policy yawn, but that yawn suffocates political engagement, and the extent of political disinterest means that clever people can hoodwink us a great deal of the time.

Disinterest means that if our councillors are asleep at the wheel, we may not notice until it’s too late. The WLGA’s report means that now, we have no excuse for ignorance about the weaknesses of governance in Carmarthenshire.

The report

Carmarthenshire Peer Review

Pat Dodd Racher

Loose Language, Harsh Words and Wasted Money

Worrying issues from today’s meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council:

  1. There are 74 councillors, but only 56 were present to vote. One in every four stayed away, some unavoidably due to illness, but surely there is no plague sweeping through the county, sufficiently contagious to incapacitate one member in four?
  2. The issue of the indemnity granted to chief executive Mark James, to defend himself against a libel action by a local blogger and to mount a counter-action of his own, prompted the said chief executive to launch a blast against the blogger and against a councillor who had been prepared to give evidence on the blogger’s behalf. The blogger had waged a “vindictive defamation campaign” to which he had every right to respond, insisted the chief. The blogger had no right of reply, and although one would have expected the councillor concerned, Cllr Sian Caiach (PeopleFirst, Hengoed), to have been allowed to counter the accusation of supporting a blogger against the wishes of the chief executive, council chairman Cllr Daff Davies (Ind, Llansteffan) metaphorically stamped on her fingers and made her sit down.

How did we arrive at such a state of affairs? Councillors’ apparently declining participation rates in local government deliberations, and an apparently increasing tendency for council staff to devote time and resources to oppose and deter critics? How marked are these two possible/probable trends, and are they linked?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but do feel that coverage and scrutiny of local government have weakened immeasurably because of the decline of local media, in no small part due to the advance of the internet, where resides the advertising which used to bankroll local papers (but which has also created the space for bloggers to blog). While the Establishment has always been powerful, the local media used to provide more of a counter-balance than it can afford to do nowadays. Bloggers do their best, but the lone blogger has to explore the legal labyrinth unaided, and without the benefit of second opinions, while in the days of strong local newspapers and proper training, reporters would have to learn about the law, and thereby could often work on firmer ground.

Today, the council (or the three in four who turned up) have at least accepted that their constitution should not at present allow public money to be used to indemnify individual officers. The power to offer indemnity, based on Part 1 of Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, the ‘carte blanche’ clause allowing councils to do, in effect, anything they like, is not to be reinstated (but neither is it definitively abolished from the constitution). Lesley Griffiths, the Welsh Government’s minister for local government and government business, had told Carmarthenshire County Council in a letter dated May 6th that interpretation of the impact of the 2006 Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) Order prohibiting indemnities, on the ‘yes you can’ provisions of Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, would have to be a matter for the courts.

Councillors were presented with a report from Roger Jones, the retiring head of resources, and head of administration and law and monitoring officer, Linda Rees-Jones, that the original decision to allow Mark James an indemnity had been in accordance with Welsh Government guidance, but faced with First Minister Carwyn Jones’ opposite view expressed yesterday, they opted to kick the contentious matter as far into the long grass as possible, hoping it would lose itself amidst the undergrowth. They voted to merely ‘note’ the officers’ report, i.e. neither to agree nor disagree with it. An amendment from Plaid Cymru councillor Emlyn Dole (Llannon) to accept the verdict of the Wales Audit Office that the indemnity was unlawful, was lost by 24 votes to 31 with one abstention.

As for seeking clarification in the courts, there seemed no appetite for that expensive course of action in any part of the council chamber. The price of arguing with the Wales Audit Office is already thought to be in the range £50,000 to £70,000, when the council is crying poverty and cutting services.

A simpler answer, to my non-legal mind, would be for the Welsh Government to revise the 2006 Order, to make it clear that in respect of indemnities, Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 is disapplied.

Clearer drafting of the Order would have saved many, many thousands of £s of public money which would have been far better spent on public services.

 

Pat Dodd Racher

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