Monday 16 December 2013

Why Cllr. Kevin Madge should resign over the Scarlets car park land sale deal

I would like to first make it clear that I am asking Kevin Madge to resign as Leader of Carmarthenshire County Council because of his responsibility over the decision to sell an overflow car park, leased to the Scarlets rent free, providing considerable funds for the club. The Leader is expected, like all councillors, to always display openness and accountability. Although informed of the deal, he chose not to disclose the details. The sale of public assets to benefit a private company should surely be discussed openly?
I understand that the council, under EU regulations, is only allowed to give private companies, active in the EU, the equivalent of 200,000 Euros or £169,000 over every 3 years, and one off grant of 50% to build, for example a stadium like Parc Y Scarlets. So as I understand it, any informal grants, as the “allowable expense” may well be, or other financial help has to be less than this amount per three years.
We appear to have financed the Scarlets beyond the limits of this law. In this desperate economic situation we are reducing services and asking hundreds our own council staff to leave their jobs and, I believe, giving away too much money to the rugby club.
It is a matter of record that in July 2012 the council executive board, headed by Mr Madge, instructed an officer, Jonathan Fearn to take sole charge of the sale and consult Cllr Jeff Edmunds, executive board member for finance. Prior to that time it was planned that the car park would be an out of town shopping area, not a pub, but that deal fell through and the land lease was later sold on to Marstons.
The area was sold for £850,000 according to the land registry. The Council’s accounts showed they got £200,000 and the fate of the rest of the money was not disclosed to ordinary councillors like myself, and then refused under the Freedom Of Information Act.
Jonathan Fearn told me by email that following “normal negotiation and the agreement of allowable costs, the remaining proceeds were shared equally between the club and the council”.
Now Cllr Madge tells us that an independent District Valuer assessed the value of the land and advised as to how the remaining proceeds of the sale could be divided.
Cllr Edmunds asked to see me when I had asked him for information, and told me that he wished to be open and transparent and give me the full facts about the sale. Indeed the costs of the sale were very high. The original deal involving a retail use, he told me, had been suggested by developers Henry Davidson Ltd, the owners of the Llanelli Eastgate Centre. They had asked the Scarlets to take up some units in Eastgate to set up their shop and café bar. The developers loaned them, I was told, £280,000 to fit up the shop units and start this new business venture. As the Scarlets needed to pay this back, Cllr Edmunds and Mr Fearn were persuaded to call this £280,000 an “allowable expense” of the car park sale.
Other payments deducted from the £850,000 were around £50,000 for architects and agents fees, £70,000 for compensation to the club for the car park lease, a £30,000 finder’s fee to the Scarlets for finding a buyer and in the end, I was told, more than half the “official “proceeds of £420,000. The Scarlets got £220,000, the council £200,000.
I have no objection to the sale of unused council land to provide money for the people of Carmarthenshire and council services. However, as the Scarlets had not ever paid a penny of rent for this lease the split seems very generous. They have had around £600,000.
They may be entitled to compensation for the lease and a finder’s fee and a profit share but do they really qualify for over half the profit plus the cost of setting up their private shop and café bar??
Councillor Edmunds informed me that he had told the Leader of the result of the decision delegated by the executive, but was not aware that the information had been passed on. This means that the other executive board Councillors, who recently granted the club more financial support by reducing the interest on the Scarlet’s loan from the council, may not have known that a grant already given from the sale may have exceeded the whole 3 year quota under the EU rules.
I find it disturbing that the legal explanation of how we can give all this money to the Scarlets is never disclosed. I suspect all may not be in order.
I thank Councillor Jeff Edmunds profoundly for being open and honest about where this particular sale money went and why. I think he has acted bravely and with integrity. He was under considerable pressure not to talk about this sale.
It is Councillor Madge as Council Leader who has ultimate responsibility for the County Council. If he or the Executive Board he leads, instructs an officer to take over the Councillors’ responsibility for a major financial matter he is still responsible for that decision. Cllr Madge has not denied that he did not inform other councillors about the money from the sale and he has not made it clear why State Aid Law does not apply to the Scarlets.
Cllr Madge says he is “extremely proud” to be associated with what has happened and there is no need to consider resigning. I disagree.

Cllr Sian Caiach
Hengoed Ward

Saturday 1 June 2013

The secret's out!

Covert Surveillance of People First Councillor

Like all Carmarthenshire County Counillors I was routinely issued with a council laptop and email address on being elected. The purpose appeared to be so I could use it for communications related my council work. However, it is now clear to me that anything I wrote , received or sent from this account could be and some were, accessed by council officers without informing me or the other recipients whose privacy was deliberately violated.

A couple of weeks ago I was shown a document which Carmarthenshire County Council had released under a document search to someone else. The “Attendence Note Form” showed that the Council's IT security officer, had read and logged my emails in September 2011. The “name of client” was blank.

In many councils the elected members “run the show” and as an opposition councillor, I should , if t this was the case, suspect one of my senior elected colleagues in the ruling group of instructing an officer to snoop on me. However, Carmarthenshire appears to be an officer run council. Senior elected councillors with titles and extra salaries, which in other authorities indicate decision making power, show little sign of actually being in charge.
And what is the email so serious that it has to be monitored by the administration? Some of you will remember that our Chief Executive Officer, Mark James CBE, posted a statement on a blog criticising another blogger's attempts to get our major council meetings filmed. After this he emailed the same statement to all councillors. I replied to him, disagreeing with his statement. Someone in 2011 had to find out who had received copies of my negative reply.

The answer was I copied my reply to Mr James to quite a lot of people, all of my fellow councillors, an assembly member, a local town councillor and the blogger herself. Who was so desperate to know that that they invaded my privacy without giving me notice or reason?

Although I have submitted a Data Protection Act request to find out how often and by whom my council emails are read and monitored by my supposed employees, the Carmarthenshire local government civil servants there is as yet no reply. The report form applied only to one email but I would be surprised if it were the only email monitored and also if I was the only Carmarthenshire councillor snooped on.

There are various reasons why employers can legally read your emails, Why were my theoretical employees reading mine? As a council employee I would be informed if my emails were legally monitored but as their employer they have no right to pry. Also, the privacy of those who contact me and whom I contact is clearly being compromised by my own officers. I've asked our monitoring officer to explain to me how and why this can happen?

Local councillors are the first tier of democracy, elected by the people in the hope they will truly represent the people. People First Councillors accept Bell's Principles and therefore value consultation with constituents as much as is possible and practical and a secure “councillor email account” is required by all councillors. No email is ever completely secure but emails to councillors should surely have some privilege and not be secretly opened and read by the staff?

Our senior local government civil servants in Wales are paid by us to hold positions of trust in our councils. In Carmarthenshire we pay them more than anywhere else in Wales. I expect a very full explanation of what has been going on and why?

Councillor Sian Caiach People First

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Least Worst Option


Democracy in Britain is not a free choice. The candidates are limited by custom and opportunity. Experience tells us that even the most idealistic and dedicated elected representative is often effectively controlled, sidelined and silenced by the establishment. Political parties, civil servants, powerful interest groups and, too often, self interest and ambition prevail over the welfare of the individual voter and their community. No wonder that voting is so often a minority pastime.

In England the United Kingdom Independence Party has become that least worst option for a quarter of voters in the English Shires. UKIP has chosen popular scapegoats to attack. The ills of the economy, they say, are due to the mad ravages of the European Union, foreigners who march forward relentlessly to impose a United states of Europe on an unsuspecting continent. The lack of housing, decent schools and weekly rubbish collection in your neighbourhood, they claim, is a result of your council spending wildly on the immigrants from all over the world who flock here to take our benefits and council houses. Importantly, UKIP can promise to represent your wishes and your community without the impressive record of disappointment and failure of the others on your ballot paper.

In Wales the council elections in Anglesey show another aspect of democracy. Problems in that council led to Welsh government commissioners being brought in to run the council. The problem was assumed to be due to the council being run by Independent Councillors who were unable to provide “stability”.The election was intended to produce “real” political party councillors who apparently could be trusted to run a council. Despite changing the ward boundaries, having multi-member wards and reducing the number of councillors, the Independent councillors still came out tops and promptly formed a coalition with the tiny group of Labour councillors to run the show. Another example of the least worst option for some voters not being the standard fare of the old, failed political parties.

In Anglesey overall, UKIP came "4th" with over 7%, Conservatives 5th  and Liberals 6th, both with a little over 5%.. The Old Guard has a credibility problem. Perhaps they should look at Bell's Principles for inspiration on how it should be done?