Sunday 30 August 2015

The five Year Rule - build and never be damned ??

In these difficult times, the "5 year rule" which all levels of government tend to adhere to becomes especially important. This is the rule that decrees that as most electoral cycles are around 5 years, if you think can get away with something for  at least 5 years, it will not seriously affect your reputation or political prospects of re-election. It gives time for civil servants and others involved in a dodgy plan or decision  to cover their tracks or retire gracefully out of reach of any embarrassing fall out.

Following on my last post, this gives the great sell off strategy of my local authority magnificent impetus as those involved may well feel that the repercussions will never catch up with them.

For instance, large plots of land around our out of town retail parks are now planned to be sold off  for whatever money we can get .No strategic environmental or economic plans relating to the area have been released. Expressions of interest have been requested, how widely and with what information I don't know.The local town traders in Llanelli are concerned that more out of town retail will affect their already precarious business trading. Perhaps the Plaid leadership of the  Council will listen to that argument and think instead of housing or a business park, not any more sensible as  the housing market slows and falls and existing local business parks are not fully used.

All of the council's senior officers and all of the Councillors know that Llanelli is in great part a low lying town with horrendous sewage and drainage problems. The town escapes twice daily flooding from the sea by the automatic closure of tide locks, mechanical flap valves which cover the mouths of all rivers and streams flowing into the sea. They also know that we have a sewage system which overflows and dumps untreated sewage into the sea hundreds of times a year. This is due to massive volumes of rainwater which fall on the town, 3 times that of nearby Swansea. Followers of earlier 5 year rules  allowed much of the ground water drainage to run directly into the sewage system knowing they would never be fingered for it. Huge tracks of land were drained and reclaimed from the sea with no idea of the environmental changes to come in the future.

Welsh Water/Dwr Cymru, our local water company, continually try to improve the situation only to find that the Council Planning Committee, devotees of short termism, ignore their efforts and give planning permission for more and more homes to overwhelm any improvements to the sewage system. By the time the sewage floods your garden or gives you hepatitis as you swim in the sea, the culprits will be long gone. All of this land proposed for sale around Parc Trostre is probably needed just to soak up groundwater. WWDC ask our planners to stop urban creep, stop concreting off areas around the town and repeatedly state that their planned improvements are not to facilitate new development.

The planning committee, however, realise that by the time permission is given, stuff is built and the consequences obvious, they will have escaped blame, as our current council leader, Emlyn Dole once said to me as I begged him and the Plaid planning committee members to not allow building in my ward on a flood plain which the hydrology report showed would worsen flooding to surrounding existing homes, "I am insulted, Sian, that you suggest that I am in any way liable". And he was visibly angry that I suggested such a thing.

The members of the planning committee also know that there is an issue called global warming and that the local sea level is likely to rise by at least a metre and probably more in next 50 years. Under the 5 year rule, new builds can be put on islands of raised land and by the time the surrounding areas are flooded the decision makers will have moved on.

The existing retail parks were built without regard to all these problems, the neighboring areas have flooding , sewage even back flows up shop toilets [especially the ladies in Tesco's - that's why its sometimes closed, sisters, and we are asked to use the disabled loo].

You see now that the Plaid/Independent Executive Members can sell off this land with a "clear" conscience, No-one, perhaps, will have mentioned the flooding and drainage problems in the area. The environmental impact assessments and hydrology reports will not likely be done before sale. The developers will produce them for the planning department, perhaps  months later. By then its too late, the land has been sold as development land and all the planning officers can do is ask the new owners to mitigate the damage that they possibly had no idea about. Well over 5 years before any "come back" on the elected politicians, and that retribution also depends on someone being able to front up the money to actually sue the planning committee, not likely in impoverished Llanelli..

So we are left with the only real sanction, the political fall out when the electorate realise what their representatives have done. but will the voters still be there to vote for them.? The scenario in southern Llanelli and Burry Port is that the sea will rise, the tide locks will continue to do their work until one or even both of the following scenarios changes the planning outlook:

A. Sudden Catastrophe.

In 1896 a hurricane produced a 3 metre tidal surge which, hit Llanelli , like a Tsunami, washed away the railway embankment and breached the flood defenses at Machynys and Pwll., flooding the ground floor of over 500 houses to a depth of 5 feet. There are over 4 times the number of homes in this area now, and other buildings too, many of them new builds of recent decades, some even bungalows for the elderly. The town was flooded up  to the steps of the Thomas Arms in 1896, a huge area including the whole town centre.

The incident occurred in daylight but before people had set out for work and most people were able to get up to their upper floors and wait for boats to rescue them.  When I first brought up this incident as an argument for not building on the reclaimed land of south Llanelli I  was told that it had a one in a thousand year probability and could be ignored as highly unlikely, more recently I've been told its more likely to be one in 100 years. The planing committee  clearly believe that it won't be in the next 5 years.

B. Planned retreat.

Currently the coastal plan for low lying areas of Llanelli and Burry Port is "Hold the Line" i.e. keep the flood defenses and tide locks as is. However, all the environmental experts agree that at some point the rivers will be "locked" in for too long and start to back flood frequently. This will create the need to re-engineer the defenses and actively pump out each of the rivers and streams over the sea walls to prevent flooding, expensive and requiring frequent checks and maintenance.

 The consensus is that this will not be "economic" and most or all of the areas currently protected by tide locks will eventually be abandoned. Ironically, every bit of urban creep or new development reduces natural water storage in this area speeds up the process and brings closer the day when the retreat will be forced on Llanelli. Again, covered by the 5 year rule and the belief that no one will bother to sue the Councillors who made the decisions. Even if they do the Council will  use public money to defend their actions  so they feel protected. Maybe they think the area is "doomed" anyway and accelerating matters is neither here nor there as it will take more than 5 years to deteriorate enough for action to be considered.

My question is this. Even if the Councillors on the planning committee who make these decisions are confident that they are untouchable as regards personal consequences, are they really content to risk the premature sacrifice of the comfort and safety of thousands of local people by recklessly approving development in these areas?

 Siân Caiach,

Sunday 16 August 2015

Selling off Public Property - the plan to impoverish us all.

Selling off the family silver is generally thought of as the last desperate and irrevocable financial gambit of a once prosperous enterprise. Now, I suspect, many of the Local Authorities in Wales, without consultation or explanation, are selling off as much public land, buildings and other assets as they can get away with. Easy money with a probable disturbing political motive.

In right-wing policy councils such as Carmarthenshire, there is doubtless a sinister motive. The Tory ambition is one of "Smaller Government", i.e. strip public services that do not benefit the wealthy as thoroughly as possible and sell it to the " public" as a necessary step.

The definition of Public here is not what you may think,
Is it the first to respond to advertising which does not seem to be very public, or the highest "public bidder in a secret auction that few are invited to. The ambitiously most open and transparent council in Wales is often unclear on the issue on how buyers are found,who decides on what to sell and may not mention the prices under commercial sensitivity.

 The damage will be permanent this time, as no chance will be left to rebuild and expand local government and services when assets are sold off a rock bottom prices to become private property that future councils will most likely be largely unable to buy back. If the economy is recovering, why no caution in selling off assets which could be used to good effect in future, more prosperous times?

A privatisation which seems to be permanent, political and swings the balance of control in the future. Our Councillors are selling off public assets, property of the people, in order to destroy any options for rebuilding services and using these public assets for the public good.

"How Sad!" they cry, "that we must sell off our land and buildings for so little!" But these sales are often sweetened with promises of facilitating grants and planning permission, so the public loses even more. "There is no money and we must strip every asset in order to fund our plans" they weep. But look carefully at who benefits from these sales and those tears begin to take on a very crocodilian appearance.

If we are in a long depression economically, should we be selling off our family silver as a first and not last desperate action? Should we sell it off at all? Should not what is disposed of be discussed seriously, with full information and in public rather than secretly, shadily? And how about sales to questionable organisations and individuals? Surely the only advantage of secret negotiations and sales is that the senior Councillors can, in effect, chose the buyers and vet them. Recent press stories suggests the vetting, if any, is far from strictly  in the public interest.

Times of economic unrest call for careful deliberation, caution, and defensive decisions. Yet time and time again Carmarthenshire County Council not only puts all their eggs in one basket, they proceed to hurl the basket down sheer cliff faces of nonsensical fiscal planning, each time hoping that at the base of the cliff they will magically find a basket of golden goose eggs and not what we are usually left with: a broken, sloppy mess.

We are seeing a "Fire Sale" of public assets. Often the details are obscured under a "commercial confidentiality" excuse or that if the buyers were aware of the prices paid they would pay even less. When their mistakes lead to public services being eviscerated, there is no excuse for this kind of cowardly backroom dealing. Some are obscured by being just hidden and only forensic examination of accounts can find their shadows. By the time the public or even backbench councillors like myself hear about it, the deal is often done, We rely on leaks and tip-offs rather than our own Public Authority to find out what is actually going on, which is increasingly difficult when those who dare to speak out of turn suddenly find that their work environment has turned incredibly hostile in what our legal advisers would like us to assure you is a total coincidence.*

Carmarthenshire has the declared ambition to be the most open and transparent council in Wales. A wonderful ambition but currently a sick joke. Unless, of course, the other Welsh Councils are even worse!

Councillor Sian Caiach

*I cannot stress enough on this blog that the CCC have never and would never unjustly persecute any whistle blowers, detractors or critics of their work. Carmerthenshire County Council has never done anything wrong, even and perhaps especially in those cases where third party government investigators have found that they have done something wrong. The Council Leaders, both Executive Councillors and Chief Officer, are lovely, professional people who treat their colleagues in only the most polite manner at all times, are not at all petty or cliquish, and would never stalk the blogs of their critics looking for the tiniest hint of insult in order to make overblown legal cases in an attempt to silence  the irritating citizen journalists,