Sunday, 26 March 2017

Dumped in a ditch? A messy end and as yet no explanation.

The whole saga of Carmarthenshire County Council's cunning plan to indemnify senior officers so that they could sue local residents for libel at public expense is long and complicated. All levels of government in the UK  are forbidden to sue citizens for libel The motivation for the councillors, the Independent/Labour coalition who first put this rule into the council's Constitution, and then used it against a blogger, is unclear, I don't believe any of them  realised the probable consequences of using public funds to try to silence local critics, Although senior officers may be willing to act as a proxy for the Council,as in this case, it is unlikely to be taken up by other Councils at present. All that has been proved here is that you can spend a quarter of a million pounds of public money on lawyers and still not stop a person blogging. The lady in question still has access to a computer and internet. Our chief executive has reported her to the police for still blogging, It seems unlikely that she will be prosecuted for doing so, but has been contacted by the police and interviewed under caution.

All this started with a comment by our chief executive on the Madaxeman blog which in his email to all councillors Mr James claimed had been a statement posted at the request of several members i.e. Councillors. It certainly was posted after help with composition from the CCC press office and Legal Department. I replied to Mr James and every County Councillor pointing out that much of what he had said about the filming of Council meetings in Wales was factually untrue, other councils and public bodies already did do, others were planning trials etc. An unintended consequence of my email was that in disclosure to Mrs Thompson's lawyers before the libel trial was the evidence that my emails were being monitored and tracked. I did not find this out until much later when contacted by Mrs Thompson with a mystery document bearing my name and largely redacted. By the details of the email trail and the help of a friend I was able to find which email had been tracked and on what date. It was my reply to Mark James to his statement on the blog. I have no doubt that he had ordered the monitoring of my emails and also had no intention of ever telling me I was under surveillance. I suppose that if a Council is largely run by officers, with little scrutiny of them. it is only a matter of time before their contempt for the Councillors is so great that the privacy and human rights of the elected members becomes subservient to the general welfare of the ruling clique? No explanation has ever been given to me and no apology received.

A threat by Mark James in full council that I should expect a complaint against me from the IT officer who monitored my emails came to nothing but caused me a great deal of wonderment as to what on earth. as an IT security officer he could complain about me? Was he coerced to work on my case and blamed me for it?,Did the monotony of my ward problems and endless routine notifications cause him psychological harm? If he had gone "over the line" and snooping on Councillors really isn't his business and he shouldn't have done it - how is it my problem to have accidentally come across evidence this was going on? Unnecessary speculation, as the poor man never did complain.

Subsequently, in court, Mr James said that he had no formal instruction from Councillors to make the statement on the blog. He may never even have had informal instruction - a nod and a wink- to do so.  Was it really all just Mark's idea??

Although Mark James is a very able and persuasive man the people officially in charge of the Council are of course the Councillors, specifically the ruling executive board, The decision to fund the libel action by the chief executive was made in secret and the councillors present probably thought no-one would ever get access to the minutes of their discussion and that their part in all this would be secret forever. However, undoubtedly their actions or perhaps inaction brought about this whole affair. The full minutes of the meeting were released after the Welsh Government's Wales Audit Office investigated. The WAO  found the payments to Mr James were unlawful.

Our senior Councillors do not seem to have agreed with this judgement. Quite recently Cllr Emlyn Dole reminded me in writing that the WAO findings have never been "tested in court", implying that they may not be correct. He sang a different song as Plaid Cymru Leader of the Opposition. I gather that Mr James closely assists the major political groups in the negotiation of coalitions. I wonder if selective amnesia was in the mix for Plaid's leadership deal?

 Until the exempt document was released we were ignorant of the sentiments expressed in January 2012 that it would be a shame if Mr James had to pay for his own libel defence and that a leading barrister had already been engaged to suggest a cunning plan - a counter claim  by Mr James which could be financed under the Council's constitution. The reputation of the Chief Executive had to be defended. This, presumably is why a modest out of court settlement payment offer to Jacqui Thompson was made and then withdrawn.. It mentions that there may be little likelihood of recovering costs from someone with a low income in the meeting  and very definitely Mr James stated that any damages will be paid to the Council. No mention of the option to change his mind later, no negative consideration of the large amount of money it would likely cost, which is also mentioned. Clearly he was worth it.

Now, I accept the libel case award of Mr James Damages is legal,even if the funding was unlawful, and he had every right in law to pursue those damages he was awarded. The fact that the legal fees for  this case were paid for by public finds and that Mr James apparently first promised to return  the damages to the Council to help repay the legal bill and then decided to keep the money is probably also legal as he didn't sign anything. Promising he definitely would do so -is just a statement recorded in the minutes of that January 2012  meeting by the Head of our Legal Department and verified by the then Leader of Council, Meryl Gravell. Perhaps both ladies made a mistake in hearing exactly what he said?

I may never get an answer as to what really happened and what motivated all this. In the end filming and streaming of meetings has not led to disaster. Despite the case against Mrs Thompson the number of local bloggers has increased and many residents may have a deeper insight into the workings of our local government. I have asked Mr James to explain his change of  mind and perhaps he will. The damage to the Council's credibility is already done, and there have been a lot of other casualties along the way. If truth is the daughter of time I hope we don't have to wait too long?

Siân Caiach

New Zealand Wiltshire horn Sheep  - they remind me of some people I know.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

A Glitch for People First

Politics is a long game and marked with twists, turns and unexpected consequences. People First had a bit of a twist recently when the name of our party, People First, was accidentally removed from the official list of parties held by the electoral commission. The fault was ours, but not deliberate. Our treasurer had been seriously ill last year with several hospital admissions for treatments. During one of these admissions the routine request for the £25 annual party nomination fee was sent by email and missed, as similarly was the reminder. As a result the party name was de-registered and we only discovered it when a candidate submitted his nomination paper for checking.

People First, a small party with a small membership run on a shoestring by unpaid volunteers, has to deal with just as much bureaucracy as National Parties with paid staff is, one part of which is to maintain registration with the electoral commission. Its not been a problem up to now but we did not have a fail safe to allow for sudden illness and missing deadlines. It has been a good lesson, if a little embarrassing.

On contacting the Electoral commission and explaining matters they instructed us to reapply but they pointed out that the process takes 30 days which is too long to allow our members to stand under the party banner with nominations closing on the 4th of April.They advised us to stand as Independents and re-register promtly. By the election date of May 4th we should be back on the register and obviously will not let this happen again! The good news is that our treasurer has made a good recovery from a life threatening illness.

 It means that the name People First/ Gwerin Gyntaf  will not be used on the ballot paper. However. it can still be used on all the election literature and we can still use the name generally, but will have to be described as "Independent" on the actual polling forms

Of course we are all independents anyway, We chose to stand as People First / Gwerin Gyntaf  to distinguish ourselves from the Carmarthenshire "Affiliated Independent Party", which almost all people standing as "Independents" here join at County level, and to explain how truly independent we are. {check out Bell's Principles on pages of this website}

Since Carmarthenshire County Council was formed in 1999 the Affiliated Independent Party has constantly been in "power" either leading the Council or in coalition.They have the structure of standard political parties including imposing "whips" on votes. When in coalition with bigger parties they still get half the seats on the Executive Board as the "junior partner" which effectively means that they have had more power than they deserve and can block many of the ambitions of their coalition partners. The title "Independent" gave them a degree of immunity from blame as in the minds of the public they are still often regarded as being independent in thought and deed when largely they do not act as such. They are a political party in all but  official party name.

 We registered as a party properly with the Electoral Commission in 2012 and think we have acted  more independently than the affiliated Independents. Their triumphs include the Scarlet's generous funding, selling off Llanelli town centre, the Pembrey Country Park debacle and a string of uncomfortable planning issues.Their general policy of "Build it and they will Come" continues with support of the Swansea City Deal at Delta Lakes. Its not been too successful to date but they clearly have no other ideas.

Its ironic that just for this election we have to use the "Independent " label just in the polling booth. I would like to emphasise that despite our temporary label we have had nothing to do with the  Affiliated independents mentioned above.

 Our political opponents are already suggesting that we were de-registered for some unspecified wilful wrongdoing. I'm afraid the boring truth is that is was simply an accidental failure to pay a £25 annual registration fee

Siân Caiach

Monday, 13 March 2017

Giving away Llanelli - Why did they give away our town centre?

Councillor Meryl Gravell has been in charge of either the whole of Carmarthenshire County Council or its Regeneration/development wing for the Council's entire life - nearly 18 years, She is generous to her friends and especially Nottingham based developers Henry Davidson Developments, So generous that she gave away the town centre where I live to them, Llanelli.

It is current wisdom, at least to Mrs Gravell, is that the way to stimulate the Carmarthenshire Economy is to build things. Although building things clearly gives jobs to planners, builders and all the relevant construction trades one would think that after things had been built these jobs would tail off. So apparently, you then have to build more things. The master plan was clearly to abandon buildings on the West side of Llanelli and rebuild them on the East side. Few new jobs, local tradespeople not invited and small businesses often disadvantaged.

Then next project planned is to build in South Llanelli in the beautiful former heavy industrial area, Delta Lakes where private health provision is apparently sadly lacking. In order to fund this project  £7 million set aside for a new care home for Llanelli has sat in the Carmarthenshire County coffers or 6 years while many elderly people are stuck in local hospitals due to lack of social care.One asks has anyone done the geological survey of what lies beneath Delta Lakes? One of our out of town retail sites took absolutely masses of concrete and allegedly £19 million to stabilise. I don't think you can do that with lake land.

First came the out of town retail parks with free parking and often lower rents which attracted much business from a town centre with very limited free parking
The Scarlet's Rugby Stadium, moved from the West to the East side of town and doubled in size. Unfortunately the ticket sales did not double as there was not a huge increase in punters to fill the seats.

The old Theatre, Theatre Elli which also doubled as a Cinema was also replaced by new buildings on the East Side, with similar capacity to the old ones. Town centre large stores like Marks and Spencer's and Tesco relocated to the bigger out of town units to the East as did many other chains and the process continues. The Eastgate was supposed to attract shoppers back to town and didn't.

Out of Town. Llanelli's Parc Trostre where parking is free.

 Then next plan is to build in South Llanelli amongst the beautiful Delta Lakes where private health providers, a gym and university research buildings will provide jobs over a 20 year project build. The funding of this ARCH project looks pretty dodgy to me  If there's a capital shortfall, how much of a hit does the County take as the lead  organisation? Where is the £120 million from private investment coming from? What possible return other than subsidy from the public purse can Meryl promise them?

At least the sewage outfalls into this post industrial water feature might be finally dealt with, or the decorative fountains shown in the plans may be rather challenging!!

The truth hurts, People have spent too long and been stressed waiting to escape from hospital and instead the Council is using their money. promised to  build a care home, to back a vanity project. which may never get off the ground.

In Llanelli the County Council has a habit of not only bending over backwards to favour developers but also a disturbing habit of giving away everything to them. The cost free 150 year lease to the Scarlets on their new stadium for example.

The Eastgate project in Llanelli town centre is our best example of Council :Policy to feed the .Rich at our expense.  A leasing company from Nottingham, Henry Davidson Developments, turns up mysteriously. Its a private company with no experience o building town centres and is given the Eastgate Project to build and run. The County Council buy the buildings on the site, demolish them, prepare the ground and agree to pay £5 million in rent for the offices over 20 years. They refit the offices at Council Expense and move in staff from offices we already own. and didn't need to pay rent for.

We showered this project with public money and gave away the site to the nice developers, HDD. The project was described by HDD as a £20 million build. Given the free town centre development land , indulgent planning permission and site  preparation as well as financial support it could certainly have cost that much in public money and public assets.

So HDD were gifted the whole Eastgate estate:- car park, shops, offices, a hotel, a bus station and a cinema.

HDD sold it on to a property investment firm called Ignis for  around £16 million.. Ignis sold it later to Standard Life Investments. At the beginning of March 2017 Standard Life and Aberdeen Asset Management announced a merger to form the largest property management company in the UK with a book value of £11 billion.

 In Llanelli the high price of unit rentals in the Eastgate mean that the retail area has never been fully let.  Millions of public money spent to eventually give away the Eastgate to a huge conglomerate which will exercise control over our new town development solely for the purpose of their own profit. Councillor Meryl Gravell, the Council Leader who formulated and agreed the deal for the Eastgate project has a lot to answer for.

How can we trust her with the Swansea City Bay Region "City Deal"ARCH project at Delta Lakes? So far all she had done is stopped the building of a much needed care home just to support the project. Which lucky company is going to get the 40 acre site to sell on for profit when we, the public,  have given away ownership of the land and borrowed heavily to pay for  the building and infrastructure? Do we let another part of Llanelli be donated to the rich by this generous lady? We get the debt and higher council tax,  Meryl's mates get our money and the profits. Its been done before!

 Siân Caiach,