Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The Cage Bars are made of Plasticine

Western democracies have not turned out quite as their founders imagined. None were expected to be bound by universal adult suffrage. In each region and nation where they developed the various assemblies and parliaments were formed by the social elites of the time.  Structures were expanded by demands for extending the vote and increasing the powers. The old aristocratic orders declined but money still ruled. Politicians and votes could still be bought, although the mechanisms were more subtle.Governments became deeply influenced by multinational, financially dominant organisations. Conflicts engineered not to preserve the lives and livelihoods of local populations, but for economic and political strategy. Not only the old fashioned military type of conflict still plague these mature democracies but also equally immoral campaigns against individual interest groups,economic, currency and geopolitical targets.

Are we ordinary people helpless in the face of all this? Our governments can't even balance their own books but ask for endless "austerity", generally a term describing taking as much as possible away from the poorest in society, the easy targets. Benefits reform is removing income from the least well off and compounding their misery is the shrinking of local government, the services on which they most depend, not only cutting health, social care and education facilities but also depriving communities of libraries, parks and even repairs to roads and pavements. However, UK money can be found in its billions for vanity projects such as high speed rail links, new nuclear weapons and bombing Iraq.

So the penny pinching is officially just to reduce the deficit, the rate at which the National Debt grows, and not by enough to make a significant difference. The National Debt was never meant to be paid back in full, but constantly borrowed with, theoretically, only the interest to pay back. However, it was never meant to become hopelessly out of control either! Naturally, this does not bode well if the debt is increasing relentlessly and the country struggling to pay the interest. However, so is almost everyone else's national debt in the Western World, particularly in countries who bailed out their banks. The usual economic remedy is to wait for inflation to devalue the debt but this doesn't look likely any time soon.

The future looks like endless cuts, job losses, a low wage economy and grinding poverty for the vulnerable. Good Public Services are usually the bedrock of a prosperous economy but have apparently become an unnecessary luxury in this bankrupt one. Worryingly, there is no pretense that things will ever get better, evidenced by the governments at all levels selling off assets and not mothballing anything for future use when the economy really recovers. The cuts are clearly permanent. We are just told we need "less government" and more self reliance.

Are the less prosperous majority really condemned to endless, permanent reductions to our welfare state and standard of living while the economy crawls along like a slug? The answer is "Yes" as long as your politicians play the big money game. The major parties all espouse the analysis of cutting public spending and public jobs which is supposed to make things better by cutting the government's outgoings. Theoretically tax income will not be affected as the private sector would take on all the former public sector workers at around the same pay. In fact the cuts almost never produce the "savings" forecast and the private sector hasn't taken up the slack but used the opportunity to pay poverty wages to desperate people who then need benefits from the state just to survive. So its a lose - lose scenario but our governments still advocate it.

Why should we continue with an economic policy which isn't working?  Why should our councils, national governments and central government carry on punishing those with modest means, devastating health and social care provision and letting our basic infrastructure rot? It only continues because no-one is prepared to point out that both the Chancellor and the Shadow Chancellor have no clothes. It will all end in tears and no-one in power has the guts to say so. This isn't about Europe or immigration or the threat of Isis or how fast we cut or how much we borrow. The problem is arithmetical. The sums don't add up, the cuts are inadequate to produce enough savings and the economy too sluggish to respond with growth in wages big enough. If it isn't going to work, why bother with more pain for no gain?

There is no easy way out of this crisis but by accepting this strategy, we prolong it .Every day we agree to make or take the cuts is another day when we lose a little bit more of the welfare state and appear content  with our government's management of the situation. In a few months we will go into a General Election election where there is little choice as every major political party will have an unconvincing variation of the same flawed theme.

It is time to say "No". The world will not end, the country will not collapse and it is time to look at the other solutions, not behind closed doors but in an open and honest debate. What is the use of Democracy if the representatives abandon their voters and join the broad coalition of deceit  and misinformation fed from above by all Party Leaders? Even official oppositions have all become the mouthpieces of the Great Institutions of State, Public and Private. Where is the honesty, transparency and openness in a state where the politician lie about their true intentions and the likely outcomes of their decisions?

As UK budgets are handed down to the lower level of our currently compliant local authorities your local representatives will all have the opportunity to say "no " to the cuts they are asked to make on behalf of the UK government. However, the cuts to your services, to local council jobs and local facilities have already been accepted by the Council Leaders. Only which cuts to make first is the topic of discussion. If you do care, find time to contact your local Councillor and see if they have any answers other than going with the flow?.

Here in Carmarthenshire our "consultation" is a list of carefully crafted questions by which you are invited to chose between preferences on selected cuts . As the budget is practicality finalised  its a manipulated exercise only, the question of whether or not we should accept the cuts from the Welsh Government doesn't even feature.

  The cuts are generally accepted  by the party politicians as necessary to "save" the  UK economy. Councillors are encouraged to believe that there is no other option We need to suffer to keep the Bankers, the UK Government and the Multinationals above water. In Carmartheshire many staff have already been warned that they are likely to lose their posts in the cuts, even before the decisions are officially confirmed by the Councillors. Such is the confidence of our local government civil servants that there will be no rebellion, just the usual rubber stamp.

 Democracy is only as good as the quality of representation in the system. The Old Parties are stuck in collective team strategy dictated from above. Political Parties do not encourage dissent. They prevent free speech, use internal disciplinary procedures to enforce compliance and play a team game even when the outcome of the game is clearly going to be a disastrous loss. Modern politics needs a different stance, based on frequent contact and consultation with the voters. Representatives should constantly inform their electorate honestly and selflessly as to what is going on.

I personally abandoned the party system as I saw it as outdated, often perverse and increasingly unfit for the challenges facing us. I helped form People First/Gwerin Gyntaf to give true independents who wish to stand for public office a label and a brand distinct from the discredited  "Independent" label. "Independent" has been often used by those who are not truly independent and/or have personal self interest to the fore.

Bell's Principles, which we all espouse, are excellent pledges for quality political representation. They are not easy and ensure that you work harder than most politicians. Democracy should be about delivering the best for the people and nothing else.

Sian Caiach
People First County Councillor. Carmarthenshire.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Technical Terms - discharges of Untreated Sewage are not pollution.

Its official. On December 12th in Carmarthenshire County Hall at the monthly full council meeting the representatives of the local water company- Welsh Water -Dwr Cymru  explained to us Councillors that we were wrong to be upset about numerous spills of untreated sewage into our local estuary. Its not pollution, its not harmful and it definitely has been proven that its not  killing  off the cockles and destroying our local shellfish industry. Neither is there a problem with the current prosecution of the UK  in the European Court for alleged breach of the EU Urban Waste Water Directive.  It is merely an evidence collecting exercise. The UK cannot possibly be guilty as it has many other similarly badly performing urban sewage treatment units, the problem is those pesky Europeans demanding ridiculous standards of water quality.

Sometimes, in smaller, less public meetings,  Welsh Water officers are a little more frank, admitting that there is a problem and there just isn't enough money to put it right. The filming of this meeting meant that openness  and transparency went out the window. Just a PR exercise. The planned improvements will successfully put everything right and the Council can build as many houses as we like because there isn't a problem with the sewage. 

We've heard it all before. And now we've heard it again. In North Wales at Llyn Padarn the same company, WWDC have admitted causing algal blooms by discharging sewage into the lake. Again, they are adamant that the decline of the lakes's rare fish is merely coincidental. We have the algal blooms too in our estuary. These can eat up all the oxygen from the water killing fish and cockles alike but apparently not in waters where WWDC discharge. Its a mystery as to what can be causing havoc in these ecosystems.

Another coincidence is that the lake and the estuary are both bodies of water which discharge slowly, the sewage discharges and algae hanging around for a long time. 

I wonder if WWDC is just waiting for a successful vote to leave at the probable EU exit referendum as a solution to these "unreasonable" EU environmental standards? Just in case, even though the prosecution is not really happening, they still plan digging up much of central Llanelli and Burry Port to improve sewage drainage which will cause quite considerable disruption to both towns. Otherwise, there is nothing to worry about.

Carmarthenshire County council have been recently severely criticised for their lack of honesty, openness and transparency. Dwr Cymru this month reassured the councillors that they are not alone in having plenty to hide.

The start of the Dwr Cymru Welsh Water presentation can be found at the link below :-
My question and subsequent reply can be found here:-

Monday, 1 December 2014

When 10 people failed to "phone a friend"

Carmarthenshire County Council has received a very critical report from the Welsh Local Government Association, a report commissioned by them, from an organisation of which they are members and in which their leading Councillors have held office.

The reaction has been for Council to agree to set up a group of Councillors, selected by the various political groups, to look at the report and re-write the constitution which has been previously altered to prevent internal criticism of the ruling clique. No-one has taken responsibility for the sad state of affairs, no admission of wrongdoing and no resignations. The senior civil servants are leaving like rats from a sinking ship. The Councillors responsible are weathering the storm, hoping that by the next council election in 2017 the electors will have forgotten the scandal and vote for them again.

The issues which prompted the investigation were 2 unlawful payments to the chief executive which were picked up by the Wales Audit Office.

In the first case it was unlawfully giving money to the chief executive to pay his legal fees in a libel case against a blogger. He won, using the finest legal team and paying nothing himself, and got awarded £25,000 damages. His costs may have been over £40,000. We ordinary Councillors were told that the Executive had found a useful way of getting round the pesky law that stops all levels of government suing critics for libel. They had a legal opinion apparently, saying it was o.k. to fund an officer of the council in libel cases, in this case a proxy for the council as a whole .Not only the executive, but all the group leaders, including Plaid as well as Labour and the  right wing "Affiliated Independents" were all for it. No -one likes criticism apparently.

The problem was that no senior Councillor had seemingly checked the legal opinion by a Mr Goudie, which did not say what was claimed, quite the opposite in fact. We were lied to. A proper consultation, even of just all the other Councillors, with full access to all the documents would have
stopped this charade.

Looking back, I was wrong to assume anything was above board. I knew that the Exec Board were not renowned for their intellectual rigor and should not have thought that they had seen and understood, or even read Mr Goudie's legal report. I genuinely assumed, however, that the  County Council Officers would not go to the High Court ,spending huge sums of public money to punish a blogger if it was not legal, however immoral I might judge it to be. I should not have accepted that the reactionary Council leadership had found a legal way to prosecute pesky citizen journalists, as they claimed.  The convenient "loophole" in the law turned out to be unlawful.  I had wrongly believed that an official arm of government would always act within basic standards of decency and legality.  The Councillors, not the officers, are of course the ones liable. But in reality why should they fear any retribution, when the Labour Welsh Government has shown no clear desire to criticise  a Labour led council, one of "their own".

In the second case, it was clear that the Executive Board simply concealed unlawful payments made to our well paid Chief Executive when HMRC rule changes affected his pension contributions. Did our Council Executive Members really independently notice these rules had changed and rush to financially aid our highest paid employee financially inconvenienced by the tax system? None of them have given any explanation, but the suspicion is that it is more likely that the gentleman concerned would have initiated a request for the  payment deal he got. The ongoing secrecy is clearly the responsibility of the Councillors on the Executive Board and may originally have been not only due to the dodgy legality but also the likely political backlash if anyone found out. They must have known that even some of their their own group Councillors  would not countenance giving public money away in this circumstance, never mind their voters. No one else was told as no one else was trusted to keep mum about giving public money away to a rich employee in questionable circumstances. The continued secrecy condemns them all.

 So they hid the transaction. The minutes of their meeting do not record the decision to make these compensatory payments to the CEO. It's time someone did own up as to what actually happened and who was actually behind the decision to  promote and accept the scheme? The fact that an identical unlawful payment fiasco happened in adjacent Pembrokeshire County Council can surely not be co-incidental?. Again, no  apologies and no repercussions for the politicians involved as the Welsh Government appears to want to protect them rather than expose the issue further.

There has been a lot of discussion on possible introduction of  a "recall"  for higher ranks of  UK politicians, where a local petition could  result in a new election, where the incumbent has to stand again, but there is, as yet, no democratic way of voters getting rid of County Councillors before the next election in 2017. The  Council Executive Board members, who are paid significantly more than ordinary rank and file Councillors, clearly wish to carry on as well rewarded as before, with little acknowledgement of any problems brought up by these issues and absolutely no explanation of why and how they occurred.

I truly believe that if the Councillors who supported the unlawful payments had consulted with anyone outside their own inner circle, they would have acted differently.The  elected Leadership of our Council look like they have behaved deceitfully and wrongfully and refuse to say what really went on. What is so terrible about the truth of what happened?

As it is, we know unlawful payments were made on the authority of Carmarthenshire's leading Councillors. Neither the Welsh Government nor the major political groups on the Council appear seriously concerned enough to consistently condemn their actions and  press to seek explanations.  Many of the public have lost confidence in the whole Council, and don't understand the ongoing secrecy about what actually happened. Why is there no attempt of a truthful account of the decisions? If the WLGA investigators were told the truth, it isn't in their report. The leading players are not talking and we are encouraged by the WLGA assessors to change our culture, regain trust in each other and move on. With the same bums in the same seats and no openness or transparency about the mistakes, I don't think we're going far ! If only one of them had phoned a friend.....

Sian Caiach

Monday, 24 November 2014

The Revelations of Consultation

The lack of real consultation in modern politics is one thing I truly despise. However, consultation is never predictable, often very informative and sometimes throws light on a subject from a different angle. This is a brief summary of the first political consultation I have made, and the enlightenment it provided.

As a member of a community council, Llanelli Rural Council, I have given support, on a case by case basis,to  one of the Council's  2 major political groups. This one is a formal coalition between Plaid Cymru and the Affiliated Independents, the closet Tory group who at County Level used to keep Meryl Gravell in power. The other group, the Labour party, have never constructively sought my opinon or support although they occasionally ask me if i'm supporting the other group without making any effort to persuade me of their noble intent on the particular subject concerned.

There has been over the years a ding dong between the 2 groups. There are 21 council members,  and the recent situation of the Plaid/Indy [Closet Tory] leadership was initiated when 2 labour councillors, lets call them X and Y , personal friends, defected to the Closet tories from Labour after a bust up which included accusations of theft against a relative of X by a senior labour councillor. After the 2012 Council elections Labour had control {lab 11 plaid/indy 9 and me}. The defection of X and Y reversed the situation giving the Affiliated independents and Plaid Coalition control.

Just recently, X and Y had a major disagreement, apparently after X had spread a rumour about a relative of Y. The 2 feuding Councillors had some sort of physical fight in a council Indy/Plaid group pre-meeting, and following this Y returned to the Labour Party. Numbers now were Labour 10, Plaid/Indy 10 and me.

Subsequently a complaint of assault was made to the police and the Leader of the Council made a statement to the police about the incident which he had witnessed. No charges followed.  However,Councillor X and other members of the Affiliated Independents severely criticised their group leader for giving this statement .The leader then resigned from the group, to become an unaffiliated independent within the Rural Council.   A new election of Council Leader was now required.

Talking things through with some one else usually helps anyone with a problem. My consultation with my supporters and ordinary voters did help me and not only with this problem. After 2 or 3 phone calls I realised that it was going to be a slow process. Mainly my fault, as it turned out. Few people knew much about the Rural Council, its composition and functions. I should be putting this information out to everyone. They knew even less about the political composition. In my Ward at the last election 3 political groups, People first, Plaid Cymru and Labour were neck and neck with the affiliated Independents a poor 4th. We ended up with one Labour and one People First  as our 2 County Councillors and One Labour, one People First and 2 Plaid as our 4 Community members.

The 2 candidates for Council Leader were a Meryl Independent, the new coalition group leader and the Labour Group leader. The former was known to a few of my voters as they have a taxi/bus business but the labour Councillor, from a distant ward was not so well known . From my point of view, I 'd known  the Independent candidate for longer, they were socially more pleasant, but a right wing person who had asked me to "go easy" with one of their friends, a County Executive board  member whose lack of action in dealing with the local sewage pollution I didn't approve of. I didn't take the advice but was disturbed that it was offered. The Labour candidate appears to be a party loyalist without strong personal opinions, for example, defending the Labour Welsh Government approval for downgrading of our local hospital to me using the glass "half full" rather than "half empty" analogy. I suspect that if our government was of a different colour, this person's opinion would change also, to match the party line.

I soon wished I had provided those I consulted with a bulky background document. My responses included the shock of Plaid supporters that their members were in coalition with Meryl's Indys. Clearly this does not feature in the local Plaid literature. Several people were most shocked  by the fight and some suggested both X and Y should resign immediately.  Some had heard of the fight and wanted to know if Y's fingers really had been broken? { I didn't think so } Others were disturbed by the perceived disloyalty of X and their supporters in forcing the resignation of the Leader.

In all honesty, I had been tempted to support one of the candidates as a "least worst" option, someone I could work with. However, the more people I consulted, the more searching questions about the circumstances I received. Talking about it changed my view. Not only was it clear to most that neither side deserved my support, with some people quite seriously concerned about the moral standards of their local elected members. I also realised that perhaps I was being sucked into a political bubble. I was surprised but not deeply shocked that X and Y had had a violent disagreement. My voters were more shocked than surprised. Subsequent developments led them to question the integrity  of the council in general. I had, perhaps, hoped that local community Councillors were not so affected by the current cynicism and distrust in more prominent politicians. In fact, familiarity with the characters was producing  not sympathy, but severe condemnation.

Being committed to consult, by Bell's principles, is not only a way to make decisions informed by your electorate, but also ,in this case, a window into how people really regard their politicians. It also showed me the lack of information available to the public about the political composition of their councils. It even informed me that few of my constituents didn't actually  know who were their ward Councillors, I suppose I was lucky no-one asked me for I.D.!

I abstained, but gained a great deal of insight getting to that decision.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

How a disastrously bad council spawned a very good idea.

In 2009  I left Plaid Cymru. I'd been a member for 32 years but the straight jacket of the political party was intolerable. I then became an independent member of Carmathenshre County Council but there was a problem. The term "Independent" had, as in many councils, been thoroughly debased.  Carmarthenhsire "Independents" had long before formed a fully fledged political organisation which was a right wing political party in all but name. That name is the "Affiliated Independents".  The problem was that they were referred to generally as "Independents" and I was in danger of being tarred with the same brush and there was a lot of tar hanging around.

I joined a search together another Councillor, ex Labour Independent Arthur Davies to find a new label and a different and a way of working to promote and provide proper representative democracy. I left Plaid because the party was interfering with my ability to represent the people of my ward. I had only been a County Councillor since May 2008 and a Community Councillor for some 6 years before that. Suddenly, at county level, I found conflict between what my people needed and the often differing priorities of my political party . "Point Scoring" and team play, rigid group policy given priority over common sense practicality and compromise on one day, yet  the group leadership could support an issue apparently in conflict with national party policy the next. As in many "democratic " institutions, personal ambition, dominant personalities and the expectation that if elected on the "ticket" you are a team player primarily, meant that group discipline hampered any project not approved of by the group's leaders. Parties' noble aims and policies on the leaflets, delivery not guaranteed.

Arthur's experience was similar in many ways. Standing as a Labour candidate he was already suspended from the local party before he was elected. He was guilty of personally putting out a second leaflet in his ward, to address new issues.The local party had strictly instructed that one leaflet only was enough. He had subsequently used the name "People First" to brand his open community meetings.

Arthur and I didn't and still don't agree on many  political issues but that is not important. We have always agreed that representing the people is the most important thing. Representatives must be instructed by the needs of their electorate. We found Bell's Principles [listed on this website] as clear and reasoned guidance for the truly independent people's representatives we wanted to be. They are not always easy to follow but the end result is the intrinsically selfless and open democratic representatives we need.

My community, for example, may clearly decide to have or do something that personally I would not want ,but I must support them, its their choice. There is no party handbook and all issues must be dealt with by the best consultation processes you can provide. There are emergency, on the spot decisions, you must make but do so in the knowledge of what your constituency as a whole, or the people likely to be effected, would likely want, combined your own insight and experience. In practice, major issues do not suddenly appear and we must consult as fully and widely as resources allow.We must not be influenced by political dogma, political personalities or personal preference. Its not perfect, its often not simple but surely it must be better?

In this digital world a portion of my electorate are able to access me and me them, on line in various forms. Others prefer the community meeting or newsletter or all 3. It takes much more time, effort and modest sums of money, but is well worth it . There have always been good "constituency" politicians at all levels and of all colours who strive to give an excellent service in a similar way. Increasingly  politics has moved away from the people becoming stale, empty, regimented and discredited with concentration on party not people. I believe this is due to the historic prominence of old style parties, the career paths of politicians, and little reward for good grass roots community service within the parties. You are more valued as reliable vote fodder in a lobby than as a voice for your own people. Every election the choice for the voter is still primarily the least worst option. We strive to be the best option.

People First is registered as a political party because we needed the label. Without a "party" label  the ballot paper can only say "independent" [which in Carmarthenshire reads as "somewhat eccentric right wing political party"] or "no description".  We are more of a movement than a party but we do qualify as a party under the electoral commission  which means we can use the name. A party must have 3 posts, a convener or leader, a treasurer and a "designated officer". The most important elections person in People First is the designated officer, who will sign your electoral papers allowing you to use our name, logos and by-lines on the ballot paper in any election in Wales if you agree to follow Bell's Principles. Our only sanction we have is that if you don't follow the principles you will not be allowed to use the name to get elected next time. We have no formal membership, only supporters. We'll give you advice and as much help as we can. How you actually do things is up to you, the guidance of your electorate and your conscience. You have to think for yourself.

True, your chances of riches, glory, high status, titles and power are considerably less than a current standard political party career.  But if you fancy the challenges and rewards of turning a political system upside down and reclaiming democracy, the name is available.  Gwerin Gyntaf/ People First does mean what it says on the tin.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

How to play the end game?

The Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire Council wants to leave, but how to play the end game? Unlike most chief executives Mark James has been a prominent player in the county, courting publicity and appearing to run the show. Most Councillors were happy to go along with the flow until the Wales Audit Office started looking at the books and found 2 unlawful payments. Other matters are still under investigation. The man himself has applied for a severance deal.  Even more sad are the events which brought us here.

It may be that Mark James persuaded our council to adopt a policy of encouraging massive house building to forge a local economy based on enticing big builders to produce homes for mainly incomers: retirees, dormitory workers and holiday homes owners. For many years the housing market was a go-to moneymaker for people with enough money to invest in building, but like all unsustainable trends it peaked, and began to fall when we were hit by the recession, a fact that many Councillors have been reluctant to grasp. Understandably so, as it seems like an easy deal. Purchase land, pay for as many houses as can be crammed onto it to be built, spontaneously generate profit. There is no critical thought or decision involved, and possibly Councillors fell for "the homes equals jobs" scenario - constant building generates constant work and it would go on for ever.
The contributions to the council for these particular deals – section 106 payments – were quite substantial initially but now much, much lower. Many of the new homes became buy to lets – a possible problem for the future. Dangerously, the Council has vigorously defended its “right” to allow building homes on flood plains, despite Welsh Government policy. If you are unfamiliar with the term, as many Councillors seem to be, flood plains are areas of land that may well flood. And it is not only simple water that regularly threatens our area.The Executive board members for the Environment and their Scrutiny Chairs have disgracefully ignored for years the evidence that the Sewage system in Llanelli has been pouring raw excrement into the estuary, even on dry days, as it cannot deal with current toilet volumes. Every attempt by Welsh Water to try to improve the situation has been largely negated by new homes getting passed by council planning. An entire industry dependent on our cockle fishery has been devastated in order to build more homes.
Mark James repeatedly made the statement that the estuary water was “clean,” EVEN TOO CLEAN FOR COCKLES, encouraging more building and more pollution. Whether that was his idea or the leader’s doesn't matter. As a mere employee was Mr James   just “following orders.”? Where the water test results continued to come back as "poor" [full of bacteria], the council responded by stopping the tests, thus solving the problem entirely, assuming that, like a child playing peek-a-boo, they believe that things disappear when one can no longer see them.
Mr James has the perfect defense of “my bosses ordered me to do it.” I've asked Mr Madge, the responsible elected leader, to resign several times over these issues. He just laughs, apparently it’s a joke to him. 
Some of my Councillor colleagues now feel that almost any figure is worth it to get rid of the embarrassment of Mr James, He may be a useful scapegoat for them, after all. But I think the way the council has conducted itself as a whole needs to be considered. They have repeatedly shut down any criticism of their actions rather than do the sensible thing and actually respond to the concerns of the people they serve. Without Mr James would really we suddenly have a council full people who have a grip on the situation and not, as it sometimes appears now, a collection of nodding dogs led by the world’s worst strategic planners and investment advisers?. There is much work to do and the WLGA investigation due to published soon will advise changes to improve matters.
Mr James is a council employee answerable to the elected Councillors who represent the public. But it is the Leader of Council and Executive board, the members of the Ruling Group [Labour/affiliated Independents] who supposedly make all the major strategy and policy decisions. For whatever reason, it has appeared to the observant public that our chief executive has been in charge of the show, not Mrs Meryl Gravel in the past [up to 2012] and currently not Labour Council Leader Kevin Madge.
Mr James, as part of his job, may offer advice. It is the judgement of the Leader and executive to decide whether the advice is bad or good, whether they need to consult anyone else, and then to be open and transparent in explaining what has happened. Decisions were supported that were regarded by the Welsh Government as unlawful payments, and all Councillors are well aware of that. Many have done little,but staunchly refuse to consider the notion that they personally could possibly have done anything wrong.  Mr Madge at the same time as he was imposing cuts on others gave Mr James a large pay rise through the executive board, to compensate for new tax rules on pensions for the very rich. I suspect Mr Madge knew it would not be popular with the public and backbench Councillors, so it was kept secret. When it was discovered and found to be unlawful, Mr Madge declared the Welsh Government was mistaken. As all the Executive apparently approved the pay rise, Mr James is probably not personally responsible for that decision at all. A Council can reward its employees as it chooses. The pay rise was eventually spotted in our accounts, but never announced publicly at the time. Why the Executive felt that secretly pouring money into the already-wealthy man’s pockets during a severe economic crisis was a worthwhile idea I do not know, They have never explained, even now.
Like many locals, I feel that Mr James has arguably already been generously overpaid for his often questionable service. Even though the senior Councillors seemed largely in agreement with Mr James’ advice, I think it has often proved to be poor advice. I don’t wish to waste a penny more of public money on this issue. I suggest that Mr Madge gets some more sensible advice on a cheaper solution, as well as taking responsibility for the money he has wasted so far. However, I will not be holding my breath.
I have asked for clarification on many of the council’s dubious decisions before, and have received nothing but evasive answers at best. I have brought concerns from my constituents before them in council meetings and have been shut down repeatedly, sometimes by grown men screaming at me to be silent. Some Councillors still seem not willing to admit to any mistake. They are not even willing to entertain the suggestion. This has to stop.  Councillors themselves had the responsibility and were seriously found wanting.
So I congratulate Mr James, for after all, he has "won". He knew the situation.Under his guidance decisions were made which polluted our environment, did not  revive our economy, and seemed to many deeply unfair, with some people who complained being treated unjustly. Other decisions appear profitable to those perhaps in the right place, with the right connections and the right class. We may never know the complete truth. Mark is not being asked to give back the unlawful payments or even his CBE. His tenure may well be remembered by us as a time of loss. We lost more money than most of us will ever possess in our lifetimes, the well being and quality of life of countless local people was reduced. 
We also lost the integrity and dignity of one Welsh council.

Cllr Sian Caiach

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Vultures Gather

In recent days the UK has got involved in another war.Very little information was generally distributed other than a horrific storybook narrative of good versus evil

If you look at the votes of MP's here in Carmarthenshire we have quite an interesting result:

Nia Griffith, representing Llanelli, [Labour] voted For the War

Simon Hart, representing Carmarthen West [Conservative] Abstained

Jonathan Edwards, representing Carmarthen East [Plaid Cymru] voted Against the War

If there was ever a need for open debate and general consultation it was surely on this issue. Did the people of Llanelli really want another foreign war in a region where the UK has failed to make a beneficial impact in the past? Were the people of Carmarthen East dead against the idea and the people of Carmarthen West undecided?

Representative democracy is a clumsy tool, especially when our representatives do not consult us. Naturally there are truly urgent decisions which need the MP to make an on-the-spot judgement. In this case, this was not urgent in the sense that we could not wait a few weeks for the issue to be properly debated and discussed. We marvel at the engagement of the Scots in their Independence referendum, but give the people of Wales no opportunity to engage. This issue could have filled church halls and generated real debate if the people were given the right to make a choice which may affect the nation as a whole and the fate of future generations.

Whatever your political leaning, the end result of a war is that a lot of people, our own armed forces, the enemy, innocent civilians, are going to die under our country's name. Have we become so callous that this is not even worth a day of debate with the common people?

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Our County

Posted by Stephen Bowen. As the chief executive, several directors and senior staff leave Carmarthenshire County Council, a poem of hope                                                

     Our County.

The time has come, for a change at the top,
for all to relish, and not to stop,

To realise the County’s dreams
and not to keep cutting , away at the seams,

to bring back fairness, and transparency,
to all those people who can see,

the lack of vision, and to improve the lot,
of everyone’s lives, and to stop the rot,

that’s settled in our towns  galore
to bring back more vibrance -as before

and to look to our future, and everyone’s plight
To revitalise Carmarthenshire, and to shine more bright

Stephen Royston Bowen

October 1st 2014

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Just keep washing your hands - European Court wants explanations!

The Loughor Estuary / Burry Inlet, the scenic sand banked estuary between South Carmarthenshire and North Gower [supposedly a highly protected EU Natura site] has been polluted by raw sewage since a new sewage treatment system was installed in 1997. Commissioned to be a improvement, a miscalculation meant that it quickly became overwhelmed and was forced raw sewage discharges of increasing volumes as the area built thousands more homes. In the recent tradition of devolved Welsh government on all levels, all problems were denied and accusations rebutted.The County Council's policy on development involved building homes on a grand scale in order to earn handsome s106 payments from the big developers, the Welsh Government and its employees, the Environment Agency, had to prove that Wales could run itself  and Welsh Water/Dwr Cymru didn't have the money and couldn't clear up the mess. All denied the problem. The Environment Agency initially allowed the discharge of raw sewage, especially after areas of Llanelli suffered back flow flooding of their homes. Now we have to pump it out if pressure builds, as gravity isn't fast enough.

The cockles died, first in gradually increasing numbers but since 2005 in impressive mass death events every summer where countless animals try to rise from the poisoned sands to die with their bodies rotting in open shells. The sand banks appear to become shingle and the salt wind over the water carries the stench of death.

 Last month the infringement negotiations at the between the E.U. Commission and the UK government proceeded to a threat of prosecution of the UK at the European Court. Negotiations, investigations and hollow promises to correct the pollution by tweaking the system have led to a 2 month ultimatum. The problem is so bad that the raw sewage is now being discharged in normal weather, not just after heavy rains. The cockles continue to die every summer. What was a good commercial fishery throughout the year reduced to a poor crop for a few weeks only. Wales' only sustainable fishery was flushed away by greed and embarrassment.

The EU were not tipped off  by any of the agencies we pay to protect our environment. The County Council decided to stop testing their worst affected beaches in 2009, presumably not to frighten the tourists with the promise of a close encounter with human excrement? If a beach is not a "designated" bathing beach there is no obligation to test. Successive Welsh Environment Ministers have been fully informed, looked shocked and turned away. The water authority WW/DC has made plans for various AMP's [Asset Management Plans] to try to offload the sewage works and reduce bacteria in the water, none of which seem to perform to expectations. And still, until now, Carmarthenshire Council continue to authorise the building of new homes and play down the prospect of the Gower View with the summer whiff of death as, from a distance, the sandbanks turn to shingle and the  cocklers frantically sieve the remaining areas for living shellfish before the inevitable carnage hits the whole area.

The complaint to the EU was made by the chair of a local residents association and the cockle hand gatherers. Through years of denials and the fog of reports commissioned by the accused to try to prove the cockles die from e.g viruses, parasites, global warming, too much sex, unexplained mass suicide and anything that is not the product of regularly dumping human fertiliser in an estuary it takes 6 tides to clear.

Last week the cockles started dying......................and only the EU Commission seem to care!

Friday, 30 May 2014

Now wash your hands please

The UK Government has formally conceded to the EU Commission that the Burry Inlet, the estuary between the Llanelli and north Gower Coasts, is seriously polluted by sewage. In Brussels lengthy infringement proceedings are attempting negotiation to correct the situation but the lack of any money to actually treat all the sewage from Llanelli means that all on offer as yet is a few swales [shallow ponds] to hold back an amount of rainwater and hopefully reduce the number of sewage "spills" [discharges lasting longer that 12 hours and/or containing tons of sewage - little spills don't officially count].

Welsh Water/Dwr Cymru also concede that even if they had the money to treat all the sewage from the town, the Loughor river is heavily polluted and its effluent from the Amman valley would still wash over this beach. Due to its geographical location, they say, the water quality will never be good.

  Locals have been aware of this pollution  for many years and the cockles have got into the habit of a mass extinction event every summer. That's just a coincidence, according to the authorities. The Welsh Government's Environment Agency {now National Resources Wales}, Welsh Water and Carmarthenshire County Council have made numerous misleading statements to play down the fact that in one corner of the developed world the local agencies are happy to tolerate sieved, but not treated, human excrement regularly washing along our beaches. The Millenium Coastal Park has all of its beaches affected by the toilet residue to some extent, and the park's vsitor centre at Llanelli beach is next to one of their most polluted beaches.

After many years of denial, a warning sign is now in place. At the top right hand of a large sign is a small paragraph warning that the water quality may be "poor" after heavy rain and advising hand washing before eating. Too high up to catch the eye, in small letters and no where near the cafe or ice cream bar, few are likely to notice. Even if the sign is read, how many would know what the "poor water quality" actually means? The estuary takes 6 tides to flush out sewerage spills, heavy rain is frequent here and the sluggish sewers retain the ground water for some days. I'd advise wearing plastic gloves if you really don't want to touch someone else's used E. Coli in this corner of West Wales.

Llanelli Beach - Gower peninsular in background. May 2014

 Detail of sign above.

The Council's Public Protection Department feel that this notice is adequate to deal with the situation. No specific warning or testing is required under the council's statutory responsibilities. Although this is an improvement on no warning at all, and the years of lies and declarations that the water was clean, its clearly not adequate.

All Llanelli Beach users, please wash your hands, as the Welsh Government, Local authority and our Water Company have certainly washed their hands of any responsibility for this threat to your health and well being!

Councillor Sian Caiach

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Wales - cradle and grave of the welfare state?

Local government is under stress. Over the next few years funding will fall way. Less money will come from the Welsh Government whose decision to ring fence health and education spending will have consequences on funding other areas. and is itself, clearly not sustainable.
But why are we afflicted with poor public service management, desperately bad leadership and no "joined up thinking"?

How can Iceland, with roughly the same population as Swansea, provide an excellent health care service over larger distances and have one of the longest population life expectancy figure in the world?.

When I came back to wales from Scotland in December 1994 the hospital sector was obviously underfunded and under resourced. The Conservative government was generous at the time with NHS funding, money followed the patients and services improved. But then Tony Blair appeared, decided that public spending should be cut equally everywhere,and soon started the year on year "efficiency savings" which eventually reversed many of the gains of the previous decade. In order to make the cuts my local hospital lost its children's ward, a planned midwifery unit and eventually acute surgery and recently the A&E service was downgraded.

 Local community and political activity was focused on fighting the cuts rather than looking at a stable solution. Fair play, it was not realized that the cuts were a permanent feature and small hospitals were fair game for easy cuts.

Welsh Government may have made things worse by its policies.

I doubt if the new Assembly, made up of people with predominantly Council and Westminster backgrounds and outlooks realized how dire the situation was likely to be. No scent of recession, a limited pool of talent to take up ministers' posts and even possibly a lack of "decent help". One of the first class of AM's told me that Cardiff was a dumping ground for civil servants who couldn't "cut it" in London Ministry's and had been to sent to the Welsh Office, seen as a place where they could do little harm!

Targets in a health service already poorly funded lead to a culture of creative accounting of waiting lists, fantasy business cases and random cuts and new services, and poor cooperation between areas. The basic problems were denied and made worse by cutting back on services, many already barely adequate and some not even that. All through empty reassurance that all was well ,and in fact better for us. A basic survey of what we had in 1999 and measures to share the resources across Wales and use English services where needed, might have saved much misery, duplication and creative propaganda. Reorganizations never saved money, management bloomed , some front line services declined,  psychiatry withered and every department was said to be a "centre of excellence."

 I lost my NHS career in 2005 by whistle blowing on a private practice fraud in which consultants used their NHS time, drugs, diagnostics and equipment  for private patients without paying for it.

I was not thanked for my revelations [except by the Audit Commission who confirmed my suspicions of fraud] and treated appallingly by both management and my greedy colleagues. I've not been able to work for the NHS since.  However, I have much sympathy and respect for those who still try to give a good service in the NHS despite the uncertainties and lack of direction for the future.

Frankly I've found local government much the same, although on a different time loop. Years of plenty led to waste and dreadful planning as no-one saw the depression coming and assumed that public money was always increasing and close scrutiny unlikely. As cuts fell, the same culture of spin and defensive rebuttal and harsh treatment of whistle blowers. How do we deal with declining resources and prospects as lying our way out of it clearly isn't working.

There is one big thing that must change soon. Forget the spin, stop re-writing history and throw out the rhetoric of blame. Our problems are ours to solve. We are where we are and trying to gloss over the situation is wasted effort. Our Government must take responsibility, be truthful, and sit down and talk with all concerned because this is the biggest crisis we will ever see and the lives and likelihoods of the people who live here in Wales are more important than egos, politics and recriminations .

Sian Caiach
People First County Councillor for Hengoed Ward,
Llanelli, Carmarthenshire. 

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Carmarthenshire Scandals - explanations and theories

As a Carmarthenshire County Councillor the most difficult questions I am asked at the moment are about the unlawful payments made to our chief executive, the generous support he has from the majority of Councillors meaning that he is not even formally suspended, and the reasons he was allowed to get money he was not entitled to. The sums involved are well above the average wage in this area and summary dismissal is not an uncommon fate among the more humble council staff members, and for much lesser reasons.

Mr James is a confident and charming man who many Councillors still like and admire. He attended Labour and Independent Group Meetings on a regular basis. I'm sure he became a friend and confidant to many Councillors and I can see the conflict. "How can you rob this man of his livelihood?" one independent said to me. We've sacked many lesser staff for much less, and others may say he is the one who has robbed the public?

 I also believe that many executive Councillors were happy to let their departments be run by the senior local government civil servants without much scrutiny. If they didn't, I'm told they were encouraged to look at their roles as to indicate policy only, not to manage delivery. Meryl Gravell, [Affiliated independent] the council leader until May 2012 was particularly close to Mr James, and clearly devastated by now his absence, as well as being actually responsible for these decisions up until Kevin Madge [Labour] took over, the current leader. Suddenly we are all reminded that actually, legally, its the Councillors who run the Council and "they told me to do it" is a good defense for a council officer but not so for a council leader. Explaining why the majority of my fellow Councillors have decided to keep Mr James in post is really only speculation.

Personally, I can say I was unaware of the unlawful pension payments because no ordinary Councillors were ever informed that they were going on. As for the Libel indemnity, also found to be unlawful, I was fooled by the Executive board and Mark James assertion it was all legal, as I could not believe they would openly do anything likely to be illegal. I don't know whether the executive board saw the 2008 legal advice and if they did whether they understood it? Looking at it now, its clear that the action to use the Chief Executive as a proxy to counter sue a blogger was not in any way recommended  and would be open to challenge. Many Councillors chose to believe the opinion of Mr Kerr, a barrister employed by the Council, after the payment was found to be unlawful, who was paid well to give the opposite opinion. The only good thing out of all this is that it is now more clear that Councils are not allowed to sue or counter sue for libel, and any libel indemnity given to an officer for these purposes will be ruled as unlawful by the Welsh Audit Office.

So no apologies, no public money returned and presumably no action to be taken against Mark James unless criminal charges are proved or a severance deal is accepted. For the rest of our staff, the decision to terminate employment can be made on the balance of probabilities if they are thought to have done wrong. For Chief Executives in West Wales the rules are different.