west*wales*news*review

West Wales News Review — analysis with a sustainability slant

Archive for the tag “Carmarthenshire County Council”

Rubbishing Alternative Facts

Announcing the closure of the Llangadog recycling centre, operated by All Waste Services, Carmarthenshire County Council’s busy press office stated “Alternative arrangements are being made to provide recycling banks for residents at Llandovery Rugby Club”.

Not alternative at all, according to the rugby club, which has issued a sternly worded statement as follows:

“When CCC [Carmarthenshire County Council] approached the Rugby Club seeking an additional location for recycling skips in the Llandovery area the Club’s Directors asked whether it had anything to do with the future of the service available in Llangadog and we were assured by CCC officers that there was a need for additional facilities in Llandovery and the approach had nothing to do with the facility in Llangadog.

“The Club was willing to accommodate the request as it meant additional facilities for Llandovery and surrounding area.

“The Club was not aware that the Llangadog facility was closing until a press release was issued by CCC. We were not consulted on the wording of the press release issued by CCC which can be interpreted as implying that the new unit at the Rugby Club replaces the Llangadog facility.”

Llandovery Rugby Club’s statement also makes clear that cans, glass and paper will be the only materials recycled there, and urges the county council to “identify, at the earliest opportunity, adequate recycling facilities for the communities around Llandovery”.

The council’s unfortunate press release highlights the dangers of reporting to cast the best possible light upon events.

In this case, the rugby club saw not illumination but a mirage.

Alternative facts? A less polite term may come to mind.

 

Advertisements

Scarlets Plunge Deeper into Debt

Directors Remain Optimistic

The disappointing financial repercussions of the Scarlets’ super-sized stadium at Trostre, Llanelli, threaten the capability of Scarlets Regional Ltd to continue as a going concern, in the view of auditors Broomfield & Alexander.

The accounts for the year to June 30th 2016 show a pre-tax loss of more than £1.5 million, 50% greater than the previous year’s loss of just over £1 million.

The directors have invested in players, and the Scarlets have played pretty well in the current season. They stand 5th in the Pro 12 at the time of writing, below Leinster, Ospreys, Munster and Ulster – but 5th is not 1st, and there is still a way to go.

Broomfield & Alexander point out that, at the end of June 2016, the company’s net current liabilities exceeded assets by £2.718 million. In their view, this indicated “the existence of a material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt about the company’s ability to continue as a going concern”.

The auditors also question the £9.394 million value of the stadium as reported in the accounts, the implication being that the valuation is too high and may be impossible to realise if Scarlets Regional runs out of money. The stadium, which opened in November 2008, cost £23 million to build.

Despite the Scarlets playing lively rugby, the average gate for Pro 12 home matches in 2015-16 was 7,353, including the 4,000 or so season ticket holders, although the stadium can seat 14,870. The wide expanses of empty seats show that the claim ‘build it and customers will come’, a refrain which has been heard inside Carmarthenshire County Council, is wide of the mark.

The Scarlets owe the county council £2.614 million, which is due for repayment in 2023. Total equity in the rugby company continues to fall and at June 30th 2016 was down to £2.640 million, against £3.826 million a year earlier and £4.169 million the year before that. The county council’s investment on behalf of the people of Carmarthenshire is looking uncertain, despite the fact that a top notch rugby side brings non-financial benefits such as sporting confidence and local pride.

The board of directors, who have dug deep into their pockets to keep the rugby region going, remain optimistic, according to the accounts. Chairman Nigel Short, of Penderyn Distillery, wrote of the board’s determination to “continue to invest in development of talent”, although this had led and could well lead again to the business making a loss.

The directors “have a reasonable expectation that the company has adequate resources to continue in operation for the foreseeable future”, they report in the accounts.

Those resources are likely to include more of their own money. Perhaps a lot more.

Approval for ‘detrimental’ industrial-style building in Ffairfach back garden

A planning decision last week was quite disturbing, I thought. It may well be correct, in a technical sense, but still disturbing. This was a case of the applicants’ rights trumping those of neighbours , especially the elderly lady next door. There are, we know, unscrupulous builders who target the elderly and fleece them. This is a different sort of case, in which the loss of amenity imposed on a long-standing resident was judged less important than the right of the applicants to construct a 50-square metre industrial building, 3.76 metres to the roof line, with grey steel-clad walls three metres high and nine metres long, right along the boundary with their neighbour’s garden.

Adverse impact on neighbours is a legitimate planning issue, but the weight accorded to it varies hugely. In this case, the impact on neighbours was disregarded. The planning officer argued that there were some commercial buildings nearby, that some people had double garages – but these points are irrelevant to the siting of this particular industrial-style building (which is entirely for domestic use, the planning officer stressed).

The applicants previously had permission from the local authority to put the building, far more appropriately, on the other side of their garden – but it would have been on top of a water main, a fact evidently not known to the planning department when approval was given.

The report is in the Carmarthenshire Herald, September 30, p.8

It will be big, steel-framed and steel profile-clad above concrete block walls, but it won’t be in an industrial or commercial location.

It will be in a back garden in Ffairfach, Llandeilo, to the distress of next door neighbour Mrs Annie Dorothy Jones.

Mr OEW James and Mrs HM James, of 5 Heol Myrddin, already had permission for a garage-cum-store, 9 metres long, 5.5 metres wide and 3.76 metres to the roof ridge, but on the other side of their garden, where it would still have been evident to neighbours but probably not so dominant.

Water main problem

Unfortunately the planning permission ignored the fact that the steel-roofed garage would be built over a water main, and so construction could not carry on.

Mr and Mrs James put in another application, to build the garage/store on the other side of their garden, right behind their semi-detached house and alongside the back garden of Mrs Jones next door in no.7. Even so, it still fell foul of the rule forbidding development for four metres either side of a water main.

Dŵr Cymru came to the rescue with a letter to Mr and Mrs James, which planning officer Graham Noakes reported to Carmarthenshire County Council’s planning committee on Tuesday (September 27). The letter, said Mr Noakes, agreed that the garage could go up only 3.5 metres from the water main. The cladding over the steel frame might be a trifle closer, the committee heard, but the steel columns on the nearest side would be 3.5 metres from the main.

Next-door garden overshadowed

For Mrs Jones next door, the permission means a nine-metre-long wall, three metres high to the eaves, adjoining the eastern side of her garden, shading it, overshadowing it, and not providing an aesthetically pleasing outlook. She engaged planning consultants JCR Planning of Cross Hands to present her case.

Craig Jones of JCR Planning, also representing another neighbour, had submitted a nine-page report, pointing out that the new building would be on the flood plain, and rain water would not be able to run off fast enough. The structure would be right on the boundary with Mrs’ Jones’s garden, and overbearing, wrote Mr Jones, “because the existing hedgerow/wall has already been removed”.

The building would be detrimental to the residential area, detrimental to the amenity enjoyed by neighbours, and not in accordance with the Local Development Plan, claimed Mr Jones, because it does not conform with or enhance the character and appearance of the site, does not use appropriate materials, has a big impact on neighbours, and does not provide for adequate disposal of surface water, a particular problem because of its flood-plain location.

Detrimental to neighbours

Despite this catalogue of reasoned objections, Mr Noakes recommended approval and the majority of the committee agreed. Cllr Anthony Jones (Labour, Llandybie) and Cllr Kevin Madge (Labour, Garnant) both felt sympathy for neighbours, though. “This is detrimental to the neighbours, no doubt,” said Cllr Madge. Cllr Anthony Jones was concerned at the large area of the building – almost 50 square metres – and asked why it had to be so big.

Why indeed? To store a caravan, the committee was told. No one commented that caravans are designed to cope with outdoor conditions.

Craig Jones of JCR Planning had already pointed out that the footprint of the garage/store was “bigger than the house”, and also wondered why the building’s roller shutter door would be three metres high. “The excessive height of the proposed structure suggests a storage use for ‘items’ other than domestic”, Mr Jones had written in his report.

‘Well-known failings of current enforcement procedures’

He was not happy with a proposed planning condition to limit the use of the garage/store to domestic purposes only, stating that “The Local Authority’s reliance on a condition that seeks to prevent a future use will of course be dogged by the well-known failings of current enforcement procedures. Any incremental development away from domestic use will be difficult to monitor and enforce.”

This barbed comment led planning officer Mr Noakes to reply that “The stated lack of faith in the Authority’s Planning Enforcement Section is disappointing, particularly as the objector’s agent is one of the agents who regularly corresponds with the Authority, including an interaction with the enforcement officers”.

Mr Noakes had concluded that “the proposed garage is of a scale and design that is acceptable in a residential setting and will not have a significantly detrimental effect upon the amenity of the occupiers of the neighbouring dwellings”. Natural Resources Wales were not concerned about flooding risk, he said, leading him to advise the committee to approve the plan.

PDR

 

 

Seven candidates contest county council seat in Cilycwm

See also the Carmarthenshire Herald, September 2nd 2016, p.4

Seven candidates are competing hard to replace the late Tom Theophilus as county councillor for Cilycwm, in north-east Carmarthenshire.  The hotly contested by-election is on September 22, and the winner will have just seven months in post before campaigning starts all over again for the full council elections on May 4 2017.

The sprawling Cilycwm ward covers almost 50 square miles but has an electorate of only about 1,160 people, of whom between 40% and 50% are Welsh speakers. At the last election in 2012 the turnout was nudging 60%.

The ward has not a single open school, the last two – Llansadwrn and Llanwrda – closing in 2016, illustrating the withdrawal of public services from rural areas. Public services are apparently not ‘sustainable’, but their removal threatens the whole fabric of rural life. The seven candidates are all up for the challenge.

Plaid quick off the mark – Dafydd Owen Tomos

Plaid Cymru was quickly out of the blocks, selecting farmer Dafydd Owen Tomos of Penyfedw, Cilycwm, one of the directors of Cilycwm Community Association and former clerk to Cilycwm Community Council.

xxxxx

Dafydd Owen Tomos

“I’m standing to be the next councillor for the communities of Cilycwm, Llansadwrn and Llanwrda as I believe I have the experience, the commitment and the passion to advance the needs of the area, and deliver tangible benefits to the residents of north Carmarthenshire,” he said, adding that in the past residents have “too often been ignored”. His priorities include faster broadband speeds and better mobile network coverage.

Conservatives back listening sportsman – Steven Andrew Holmes

The Welsh Conservatives have Steven Andrew Holmes, a keen runner and secretary of the Sarn Helen Running and Cycling clubs, from Nant y Llyn, Ffarmers. Steven, whose professional background is in hotel management, including at the London Hilton, and also as a health and fitness consultant, grew up in Northern Ireland, which he says has much in common with rural West Wales.

Steven Holmes

Steven Andrew Holmes

Aiming to be an approachable and effective bridge between local people and County Hall, “with a good listening ear”, Steven’s priorities include better access to healthcare and other public services, and infrastructure improvements such as broadband, mobile network coverage and transport, to aid rural businesses to invest for the future.

Social care critical for Labour – Maria Rose Carroll

Labour’s candidate is Maria Rose Carroll, whose daughter runs Llanwrda’s shop in the village centre. Maria, who has lived in Llanwrda for 12 years, trained as a nurse and was a council member of the Royal College of Nursing, and also a manager in the NHS responsible for a £300 million acute care budget. “We must engage the community in decision making,” she said. Maria is anxious to protect public services, and in particular to speed up and enhance the home care provided to elderly people so they do not have to languish unnecessarily in hospital, and to improve rural road safety and school transport.

Maria said she is appalled at the financial cuts to local government, and the lack of high-quality local jobs to keep young people in the area. She favours a National investment Bank to support business and entrepreneurship.

LibDems choose agriculture specialist – Catherine Nakielny

The Liberal Democrats are backing agricultural adviser Dr Catherine Nakielny, who lives at Blaennant, Talley. Catherine’s profile on the AgriPlan Cymru consultancy website says she is a technical specialist in sheep production, providing consultations to individual producers and to Innovis Ltd. She gives presentations, has delivered a winter forage cost calculator, and is engaged in estimating the reduction in methane emissions from genetic improvement of the Welsh national flock. Previously she was breeding programme manager at Innovis Ltd, Aberystwyth.

Whistle-blowing blogger represents People First – Jacqui Thompson

Llanwrda blogger and community councillor Jacqui Thompson, of Cae Brwyn, Hafod Bridge, is standing for People First – Fighting for the Community.  Jacqui Thompson is no fan of the leadership style of county council chief executive Mark James. The two have an acrimonious history, the most recent chapter this year when Mr James asked Dyfed-Powys Police to investigate her for harassment and perverting the course of justice. The investigations have been dropped for lack of evidence. Jacqui Thompson’s blog, often critical of the council, has been both a finalist and a winner in the Wales Blog Awards.

xxxxx

Jacqui Thompson

“A long-time community campaigner, I am a strong, independent, determined voice, standing up for the best interests of local people. As a county councillor I will be easy to contact and hold surgeries. Most of all, I’ll listen to your concerns, be your champion and not take no for an answer,” is among her messages to voters.

Two independents joined the fray – farmer Thomas Arwel Davies, former chair and current vice-chair of Cilycwm Community Council, of Berrisbrooke Farm, Porthyrhyd, and barrister and Herald columnist Matthew Graham Paul, whose base is Penlan Farm, Siloh, Llandovery. Mr Paul has previously stood for election to Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, representing Welsh Conservatives.

Farming Independent seeks affordable housing for local people – Thomas Arwel Davies

Policy priorities for Thomas Arwel Davies – always called Arwel — include rural housing, road safety, and the planning system.

“I am particularly interested in understanding local housing needs, with the aim of ensuring that local people can afford to continue to live in their own communities,” said Arwel, who has lived in the ward for all of his 48 years.

xxxxx

Thomas Arwel Davies  

He calls rural roads “extremely hazardous” and would like dangerous bends to be improved. As for the planning system, he argues that there is “growing resentment” over planning applications, because of the “very many instances” in which decisions favoured by community councils are overruled “despite the wishes of the local council-tax payers”.

Independent will campaign for local state education – Matthew Graham Paul

Barrister Matthew Graham Paul deplores the closure of local schools, and in 2012 represented the Ysgol Pantycelyn Action Group free of charge in the High Court and the Court of Appeal to try to keep Llandovery’s Pantycelyn comprehensive school open. “Cilycwm residents have unreasonably long journeys to school. I will campaign for secondary education to return to Llandovery, so that we can once again have a local state secondary school,” he says, adding that it is in Cilycwm’s interests for Llandovery as a town to succeed, and to help achieve this, the county council should allow two hours free parking in the car park.

He would work to achieve a county council which responds to local needs. “Carmarthenshire County Council too often overlooks or ignores the north-east of the county,” he says. “Whichever party is nominally in charge of the council, its elected members have completely failed to change the council’s culture.” Matthew feels that his work as a barrister is an asset. “I understand how local government works and how to resolve problems effectively,” he said. “I spend my professional life helping people sort out their difficulties with local authorities, and I have assisted a substantial number of Cilycwm residents for no charge.”

He plans to campaign for micro-generation and the expansion of hydro, solar and small-scale wind power (not large industrial wind turbines). He wants taxpayers’ money spent more effectively, lower council tax, and every effort to avoid wasteful use of resources. Planning decisions should “sustain the viability of farms and rural business, and permit future generations to live and work where they were brought up”. He would work to meet the needs of older Cilycwm residents, in dealing with care home admissions and the services delivered to people in their homes.

“Above all”, he says, “I believe that a councillor should have an open-door policy, and I will respond quickly to constituents’ concerns. I will be an effective, approachable and independent representative for local residents.”

PDR

I do not yet have photographs of Maria Rose Carroll, Catherine Nakielny or Matthew Graham Paul

 

 

 

 

 

Central Procurement Plans Labelled “Absolute Abomination”

It is an “absolute abomination”, declared Cllr Pam Palmer.

The object of her ire is the innocently named Welsh Procurement Policy, which the Welsh Government has put out for consultation.

Cllr Palmer (Independent, Abergwili, and joint Deputy Leader) told other members of Carmarthenshire County Council’s Executive Board, meeting on Monday June 20th, that the policy, focused on a National Procurement Service (NPS), would raise procurement costs and could damage the council’s efforts to increase local employment.

Cllr Dai Jenkins (Plaid Cymru, Glanaman, joint Deputy Leader) was just as incandescent. The new policy could have an adverse impact on Carmarthenshire’s regeneration strategy, he said, stressing that “it will take freedom from local authorities and impose costs.”

The additional expense includes a levy of 0.45% on all spending on contracts awarded under the NPS, which has cost £5.9 million to set up.

The strongly-worded consultation response approved by the Executive Board was particularly damning about the prospect of central contracts which local authorities and public bodies would be obliged to accept.

“This proposal represents a major threat to our local economy in South West Wales and how we currently link up with SMEs (small and medium enterprises) who are often very well placed to provide a quality service at a competitive price in a highly sustainable way and often with opportunities to deliver genuine valued community benefits,” said the response document.

In contrast, centrally negotiated contracts could be more expensive. “There is evidence that framework prices in relation to consultancy under NPS are significantly more expensive than our existing contracts,” the response says. “A requirement to use NPS contracts is unacceptable and takes away the democratic role of unitary authorities and elected county councillors. Also the imposition of an additional 0.45% levy just adds to the unfairness in mandating that NPS contracts would have to be utilised.”

The Welsh Government’s big idea for central procurement is intended to increase fairness and transparency, and minimise the scope for local collusion between purchasers and sellers, but if the policy is brought in without major amendments, small businesses would be disadvantaged. In addition, public bodies would lose autonomy over which suppliers to select, while paying for the dubious privilege through the levy.

And any policy which privileges corporations large enough to take on central contracts is likely to damage small enterprises which may be very important in, and to, their own communities.

PDR

Wales’ Answer to a Sicilian Cartel? Where? Oh, Carmarthenshire!

Outgoing incumbent Christopher Salmon’s reflections, after defeat by Dafydd Llywelyn in the election for Dyfed Powys Police and Crime Commissioner, were gracious and contemplative, but his comments suggest that one county council, Carmarthenshire, was a painful thorn in his side.

Recounting the few aspects of the job he would not miss, Mr Salmon wrote that a certain county council was on the list:

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

This is from the man who was Police and Crime Commissioner for four years.

These words are, if anything, harsher than those which landed Llanwrda blogger Jacqui Thompson into terrible trouble with the county council, leading to a lost libel claim and a massive bill which she cannot pay because her no-win no-fee insurer revoked the policy after Mr Justice Tugendhat gave her the verbal equivalent of savage mauling.

Jacqui objected to the county council’s chief executive, Mark James, criticising her on the ‘Madaxeman’s’ blog for a “campaign of harassment, intimidation and defamation”.  Mr James said on the  blog that the “campaign” followed the planning committee’s refusal to allow them to “develop their land at Cae Brwyn near Llanwrda for housing”.

The use of the word “housing”, which to me suggests more than one dwelling, is emotive because, as I understand it, the application was for a forestry worker’s bungalow.

In response to Jacqui Thompson’s decision to accuse Mr James of libel – a decision which, in the light of later events, backfired disastrously – Mr James set about making a counter-claim, citing words such as “slush fund” and “Pinocchio” which had appeared in Jacqui’s blog. He was protected from financial loss by the indemnity granted to him by Carmarthenshire’s councillors – an indemnity which the Wales Audit Office concluded was unlawful.

Jacqui Thompson lost, Mark James won. The implication from the judgement is that the county council is a shining beacon of democratic accountability.

But in the view of the departing Police and Crime Commissioner, it is Wales’ answer to a Sicilian cartel.

PDR

Impossible Cuts: Carmarthenshire’s Schools Told to Slash Budgets

Are We Seeing the End of Effective State Education?

Time to speak up, loudly, if you want to protect education in Carmarthenshire’s state schools.

New proposals out for consultation appear to suggest that by 2019, the average annual cost per pupil across all the county’s schools could fall from about £4,060 to £3,362 – a cut of 17.2%.

What sort of education would this provide, when independent schools charge vastly more? Llandovery College’s day fees range from about £8,625 in Reception to £16,800 in Year 13. At St Michael’s, Llanelli, parents of Reception children pay about £4,962 and for parents of Year 13 students the annual cost is around £11,890. Before any extras.

How on earth are children in state-maintained  schools supposed to experience a broad and deep education when the amounts spent on them would be so paltry?

The county council’s executive board is consulting on a colossal cut in the budgets delegated to schools, which run their own finances. Schools are being asked to slash £18.28 million from their budgets over the three years to 2018-19, more than half of the £36.23 million total savings which the council is seeking.

Losing £18.28 million would be a 13.85% cut, from £109.844 million in 2015-16 to about £94.634 million by 2018-19. If schools also had to shoulder staff redundancy costs, at current estimates this would increase the cut to 14.4% — and it is more than possible that, given such huge savings to achieve, many more staff would be made redundant.

At the same time, numbers of pupils are expected to rise. Welsh Government forecasts indicate that between 2015 and 2019 the number of children aged between 0 and 15 in the county will rise by 3.3%. If this is accurately reflected in the numbers in maintained schools, the 27,055 pupils in January 2015 would increase to 27,948.

The proposals take account of future inflation, but only to a modest extent. The council expects general inflation to be 0.6% in 2016-17, 1.4% in 2017-18 and 1.8% in 2018-19. It is assumed that electricity and gas will rise by 3.0% a year, and that fuel costs will fall 12.5% in 2016-17 before rising by 3.0% in each of the two subsequent years. Pay inflation is calculated as 1.0% a year.

By even suggesting such a draconian cut in schools’ budgets, the county council seems to be implying that head teachers and their staffs are profligate spenders, but parents of my acquaintance know this is not true.

How can schools provide a better education with much less money per pupil? They can’t. Not even a monolingual education — and Carmarthenshire is a bilingual county, requiring teachers to be proficient in Welsh and English as well as in their specialist subjects.

Soon that could be, Carmarthenshire was a bilingual county.

Carmarthenshire was a county offering a good education.

It won’t be in future, unless school budgets are protected.

PDR

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.”

xxxxxx

‘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.

xxxxx

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.

xxxxxx

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).

 

xxxx

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

xxxxx

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.”

xxxxx

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

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.

xxxxxx

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.

xxxxxxxx

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.

xxxxxxxx

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.

xxxxxxx

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

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

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: