Thursday, 25 June 2015

Different Perceptions of Austerity - a tale of two marches

It is interesting that two people can look at the same picture and see radically different things. Our perceptions are not static, our backgrounds are diverse and morally we are grounded in different soils.

I went on a demonstration in Swansea against Austerity/Public Sector Cuts recently. [June 13th] In torrential rain 7 hundred people walked to Castle Square. Although everyone was against "the cuts" there was little agreement in regard of what exactly to do about them, or possible realistic solutions.

We are one of the richest countries in the world on paper, but also one of the most indebted. Much of the picture is distorted both by politics and fantastical interpretations of economics. Yes, much money is wasted on ridiculous vanity projects and plain basic mistakes in budgeting and procurement. When times were good we were reckless and although the circumstances have changed, our attitude to spending hasn't (on the national scale, at least.)

The National UK Government, Welsh Government, Health Serice and Local Governments have clearly failed somewhere in basic financial management. The mistakes seem to be generally unrecognised, but what may have started as simple mistakes have become much more toxic. Those mistakes have been covered up and repeated. The public rightly suspect that we are not addressing the problems, both economically and in management. The financial crisis is no excuse to not become efficient. The problem is that the "cuts culture" is now so ingrained that the term "efficiency savings" actually has become a euphemism for cuts, not a way of avoiding them.

A week later [June 20th] we were on a much larger march in London on the same theme. Thankfully, very little rain compared to the downpour in Swansea. A quarter of a million people walking through the city of London to Parliament Square. Unfortunately the square wasn't big enough to take the numbers and I along with many others had to make do with a big screen and a terrible sound system to hear the end of march speeches.

Again, no-one liked what was going on in the country but still a serious lack of consensus on what to do about it. A variety of speakers said how bad things are and/or will worsen under the Tories and how we had to stand together and show our rage at the unjust situation. If we shouted loud enough the Conservative government might rethink thier policies, presumably. Could the Labour party do anything about it? Could some sort of popular uprising be the answer? Again, no consensus, only the desperate insistence that we must do something.

I honestly cannot blame the protesters for this, you understand. Our education system does not exactly train people for government restructuring. What is frustrating is that all that energy and passion and need should go to waste. Our political system is so remote and unresponsive to the people that I despair. A UK government is elected for 5 years and there is no way to change their opinions or even to effectively influence your own local representatives on the issues that arise.

In a system such as this, electing a new figurehead or even an entirely new party will not be enough. They are a part of the system themselves, and though Labour or the Lib Dems may well be the lesser of several evils, I would gently suggest that we deserve better than that. The thing we must change is how we are governed, not just by whom.

Siân Caiach,

Monday, 8 June 2015

Grillo Site - The Once and Future Flood Plain

Some years ago I had the experience of trying to oppose a development at Stradey Park. It was on a C2 flood plain (the worst sort, for those not fluent in environmental classifications). Suddenly the Environment Agency reclassified the flood plain as a C1 (the still bad but slightly less bad kind) and Carmarthenshire County Council Planning Committee decided to pass the application, provided the flooding could be prevented by raising the site. Then, suddenly, the flood plain returned to a C2 again, actually now bigger and more hazardous than originally. These sort of things happen when a huge amounts of money is involved, a sort of special governmental magic.

Today I find myself looking over the Grillo Site in Burry Port with a sense of deja vu. It was partially covered by a C2 flood plain, Then it wasn't. In fact it's now newly classified as a grade A - highly unlikely to flood. But still the land around on and aound the Grillo site has to be built up to prevent flooding. What is going on with the Welsh environment these days?

Wading through the documentation you will find that although the site isn't a flood plain now, it is going to be one sometime soon. Houses are supposed to last 100 years and although the chances of the old chemical factory site flooding tomorrow are apparently zilch, the chances of it flooding sometime in the next 100 years are very high. Why?

Because the sea level is rising and in 100 years time is conservatively predicted to be over a metre higher in the estuary than it is now. If global warming continues to cause massive ice melts and extreme weather events and the area still has its heavy rainfall, the new houses will have to be over 7 metres above sea level to be guaranteed to stay dry at all times in the next 100 years. I suspect that part will not be covered by the estate agents.

So there isn't a flood plain now, but there will definitely be one later, and a particularly bad one at that. When exactly this will occur depends on the speed of global warming. The sites will all be built up and the reports admit that this is likely to cause some flooding in other neighbouring areas as water is displaced away from the new buildings, much like the way a bathtub will be at the perfect level of fullness but will overflow once someone climbs in. Interestingly, the decontamination plans for the Grillo Chemical factory site do not appear to take the future flooding and raising of the land into consideration.

I'm Councillor for the Llanelli Ward of Hengoed, immediately to the east of this development site. All of the lower lying land in my area was reclaimed from the sea many years ago in Victorian times. All of our streams and rivers are already "tide locked" to prevent flooding. When the tide comes in a huge flap valve closes over the mouth of every watercourse to prevent the sea coming in and stop the river flowing out. If the tide is high, the flap stays closed longer and we occasionally get back flooding from the rivers, especially after heavy rain, producing a high water table. In some areas the water is just perculating upwards from the soil, in other places streams and rivers are flooding over their banks and/or drains are just unable to cope as the watercourses are effectively blocked twice daily by the tide.

The general policy from Welsh Government is "hold the line" and probably there won't be either the will or money to actively preserve the low land in Llanelli by installing a massive active pumping system to pump the rivers out over significantly higher sea defences. Already some unpopulated areas upstream are deliberately being returned to tidal marshes to try to mitigate floods - an option not available for a town built to the water's edge.

Llanelli has thousands of homes on the low lying flat areas already below sea level. Some are new ones being constructed as I write this. The proposed elevated homes on the Grillo site are safe for a hundred years, we are told, but then considering the age of your average councillor, perhaps they're simply not thinking that far ahead anyway. They certainly don't seem to be thinking that if the sea is going to rise over a metre at Burry Port, its probably going to rise just as much off neighbouring Llanelli.

Cllr Sian Caiach

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Betting with Public Money.

I am grateful to our local rugby team the Scarlets for two things. The first is the entertainment I have enjoyed for years watching them play, although only on TV since they moved to their new stadium, Parc Y Scarlets, built largely from public funds. Also secondly, for drawing me into politics. Not a function of the team but due to the local disruption to my area caused by the sale of the ground and surrounding green areas and the deep anger of local people, enraged by the huge amounts of their money spent by the County Council to support this chronically insolvent club.

Carmarthenshire County Council is well known for never having a "plan B" and resorted to throwing good money after bad in a vain attempt to turn around the fortunes of this ailing pet project. However, the saga has now caused Labour to lose control of Carmartheshire Council. Honesty, transparency and openness cannot be tolerated. The new Labour leader, Jeff Edmunds, had exposed the details of a deal on of one of the Scarlets Car Parks. The lease was given to the club for free and they never paid any rent on it. Instead of a promised 50/50 split in the proceeds of over £800,000, the council took only £200,000 and the Scarlets most of the rest, allowing them to  pay off a huge £280,000 debt from proceeds which should have gone to the public purse, Labour's former partners the Affiliated Independents rejected the Labour Groups' choice of leader when their democratic vote chose Jeff Edmunds, a clearly unreliable choice with his history of telling the truth to the public. Incidentally, the car park was created for them by the council, but never needed as the club has the same average attendances at the new Park y Scarlets as it did at the much smaller, more economical and historically significant Stradey Park.

The Affiliated independents' immediate choice of Plaid as their new coalition partners begs the question as it whether their new bedfellows are more "trustworthy." On paper Plaid are dedicated to openness, honesty and accountability. One paper however, we haven't seen, is the actual coalition agreement.

Plaid were the only party in 2007 to vote unanimously for the financial deal for the Scarlets but that was probably on misleading information, especially the amazingly overconfident forecasts from the club management. The sensible information was in a boring documrent few councillors probably bothered reading. or perhaps the  Deloittes report was lost in translation, "Extremely challenging" means "don't touch it with a barge pole" in English financial speak but probably something completely different in both plain english and welsh.

 To be fair,  members of the other two political groups voted in large numbers for the agreement with only 5 of 74 councillors voting against and a number staying way completely or failing to come back from lunch for the vote. According to the Club, the worst possible scenario was a "break even" situation and perhaps they were believed rather than a specialist accountancy firm.

The current Scarlet's accounts show that the debt, which was never cleared as promised, still remains and that there was a substantial trading loss last year. We are still in recession in all practicality in West Wales and the financial challenge for the club is still extreme.

One almost begins to suspect that the people who stand to benefit from a  dodgy deal are not the ones most suited to speak on its likely financial results, but that is high-level economic knowledge that simple councillors cannot be expected to understand. Neither should those with grandiose plans to expand Carmarthen town with no compelling economic or demographic argument be believed without critical assessment, especialy when public money may be spent in very large amounts.

 Yes, we may have a dreadful shortage of affordable one bedroomed flats in llanelli  and small modest homes for our youngsters to buy or rent at low cost accross the county, But do we need hundreds of larger homes that our own residents are not likely to afford far away from shops and other facilities and too expensive for most people to buy, even if they are supposedly "starter homes" at a fractional  discount?

In the coming week [Tuesday 9th June 2015] the County Council will decide whether or not to fund a very expensive piece of road in Carmarthen  leading to the proposed mega housing project.  Public money, some perhaps to be borrowed, may be used to facilitate massive private house building [up to 1200 units] with a huge potential impact of thousands of incomers to the town if it's successful.  It is proposed to be an exempt item, to be discussed in private and the decision made without public scrutiny. however, the general plans are well known and have been publicised already. CCC just doesn't want to discuss it publically in real time, under public scrutiny.

This proposal does not, as I see it, have issues so private that the details should not be make public prior to discussion, or that the deliberation should not be open and filmed. The Scarlets' funding was at least discussed in a  public meeting. This project is in theory as "challenging" as the Scarlets new stadium and any benefits could take a long time to materialise, if ever, in the present economic situation, The exempt item status, which prevents release of the documentation to the public also prevents detailed and meaningful consultation by councillors with our electorates,

 The Welsh Local Government Association review criticised CCC for over use of the "exempt item" gambit and Plaid should discuss this major public investment openly, though I will not be holding my breath. If they really want to change their minds about discussing the road in secret  they should also delay the item so that the public can grasp the issues and we can all appreciate the real mood of the County.

  2007 is a long way past, but it seems that convincing the CCC councillors that housing developments are not magical money-generating golden geese may take a few more years yet !

Sian Caiach

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Comment Moderation

Up to this point we have always sought to ensure an open forum on this site, and though we moderate comments, we have only done so to remove spam or other automated "bot" comments containing links to scams or malicious software, something fairly common on any comment-enabled site.

Unfortunately, this must now change.

Recently I received an email threatening libel action against me, due to the comments on one of my posts that was not favourable towards the author of the email. The comment was not anonymous. I consulted with other bloggers, and considered the position. The person threatening me was associated with Carmarthenshire County Council, who have taken out libel actions against a blogger in the past, Although this action was subsequently ruled unlawful by the Wales Audit Office and has been suspended from our council constitution, a wealthy individual would not be covered by this precedent if they sued us as an individual. I have four children who rely on me financially and would not benefit from my being bankrupted. I don't own a house and have no funds to defend a legal action. People First is not a large, wealthy party. I feel I have little choice but to delete the comment in question.

I cannot promise that I will not be forced to do this again, though I would prefer it not happen at all. The use of libel cases and the threat of such is an increasing problem, with Jacqui Thompson of Carmarthenshire Planning Problems and More losing her case leaving the smell of blood (and money) in the water.

So long as I do not personally have absolute proof that a comment is not only accurate, but also would stand up in court against the finest barristers in the land, I cannot promise to keep every comment on the blog. However, I am prepared to give as much lee way as possible. When I receive threatening emails asking me to remove "whistleblower" comments, I will  inform the author of the nature and source of the complaint and my reasons for removing the comment if it is decided to do so.

However, as someone who lost their career due to whistleblowing  against greedy and self interested colleagues in the medical profession I have a big soft spot for whistleblowers. There are many ways of skinning a cat. If you have any information of this nature you would like to share I ask you to contact me with the details personally and confidentially at