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?