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

2 comments:

  1. Once again you show only too well that Carmarthen County Council see themselves unaccountable to no one. They are a public service financed by the Taxpayers of this Country.Cherry picking what suits and ignoring the advice and protocol from Cardiff Bay.As you so ably state anyone who dare challenge their decisions are threatened with legal action or as can be evidenced by viewing the webcast spoken to as a naughty child who should be seen and certainly not heard.

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  2. You seem to be a rather rare specimen amongst Carmarthenshire County Councillors, although I accept there may be one or two others. You demonstrate courage, integrity and a sense of public duty.

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