Tuesday, 15 January 2019

A Banquet of Consequences - first course for Carmarthenshire County Council.

"Sooner or later, we all sit down to a banquet of consequences" -Robert Louis Stephenson.

Quite a banquet of consequences should be served soon at Carmarthenshire County Council. Sitting in the Carmarthenshire County Council Planning meeting on January 10th my companion drew my attention to a text on her phone. Mr Mark James, the CEO, was retiring, it said.

I then had to make a presentation of my objections to the current plans for the Llanelli Wellness and Life Sciences project at Delta lakes. I felt I should say that although I had only known Mr James as an arrogant, control freak with a degree of malice , I wished him well. The chair of committee became agitated and interrupted me, presumably to point out that the resignation of  Mr James was not a planning  consideration.

In fact , without Mr James we would not have been discussing the merits of the plans at all. This was on of his "babies" , the revitalisation of the economy of Llanelli by the building of a huge industrial estate themed on life sciences. private healthcare services and a couple of previously promised developments, a new care home to replace one shut down by the council, and a new leisure centre to replace the ageing, existing one in the town centre.

My main objection was related to the actual site and the effect on the traffic pollution in my ward, with air pollution already at dangerous levels but not enough to get CCC to do anything about it other than monitor it. They cant afford a single "No Idling" sign in Sandy road, gridlocked twice a day and spewing emissions into my community in a heavily populated residential area, but have already borrowed £200 million to finance this apparently dodgy scheme  before approval by the City Deal overseers. Even my own County Councillor, Cllr Penny Edwards [Labour] voted for this scheme on the day, rather than get on the wrong side of Mr James.

Badger faced sheep 


The suspension of Swansea Academics involved in the Delta Lakes Scheme and investigations are about to start from the Wales Audit Office, Auditor General and the UK City Deal Authorities, did not dampen the enthusiasm from the sheep-like planning committee for this project. As the case was already "called in" they could not pass it but only say they were minded to do so.

 Earlier, in correspondence, Planning chair Alun Lenny reminded me the outcome in the case of Stradey Park, a planning application on a flood plain also called in by the the Welsh Government and subsequently passed. It was allowed to pass by the Welsh Government when Taylor Wimpey  threatened the Welsh Government with a multi-million pound civil case and minister Jane Davidson capitulated despite the plans being against WG policies.

None of the developers of the Wellness project are going to do that, and CCC is unlikely to threaten the Welsh Government with using the £200 million they have borrowed to build this palace of wellness, to sue our own Government.

 Even though, in the planning  meeting, addressing the councillors, I pointed out the major problems with the scheme and even  informed  them that the planning officer who presented it on the day had, for some reason, withheld important negative information from  them  (in a letter from Natural Resources Wales of 9th January) the sheep approved the scheme.It made no difference,

  I intend to find out on whose authority that information was suppressed. Only a severely edited quote of the letter was given to the committee suggesting NRW were now "on side" when the truth was they were "minded to object". I could not find this letter on the list of documents CCC deposited online,and was tipped off by another source. How much other information has the planning committee been "spared" so not to confuse then into the "wrong" decisions?

The failure of CCC to produce a business plan suitable to be released to the councillors was not mentioned..After a fantasy "fly through" presentation of a plan whose funding is in doubt, where "partners"  have fled, some are under investigation ,and basic planning considerations have been ignored, it made no difference to the councillors present. The three planning committee members who stayed home and sent their apologies may well have had done so to avoid the issue.

We do not know the full facts as to the reasons for Mr James' retirement, he's going in June, allegedly. The decision on the planning permission is on hold due to representations from myself and others to the Assembly on planning grounds. which at least the Welsh Government feel should be looked at.

Was the postponement of the "Dream" swamp project the last straw for Mr James? No doubt we will find out. Now his power is waning, some may be looking at other strange happenings at Carmarthenshire County Council. The Banquet may have many courses.

Siân Caiach,

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

My Request to the Welsh government minister to "Call In" the planning application for the Welllness Project

I have been asked to put this letter on my blog. Applications can be called in by Government Planning Ministers for examination by their planning experts if they contradict planning policy Wales as I believe this one does under TAN 15 and TAN 5. It may also be argued that it is lacking in other areas which have already been pointed out in correspondence between Carms CC and Natural Resources Wales. I feel the application is being rushed and the Committee members not fully informed. Of course this could end up as just a political battle between the "ruling" Plaid//Independent coalition and the Labour opposition but I hope that all parties search their consciences and at least wait for full information and the results of the investigations planned and current, of the issue at UK, Welsh Government, Wales Audit Office and Swansea University. This is not party political, but it may end up as a huge waste of public money.

 Re Carmarthenshire County Council’s Planning Application s/36948 to be determined 10th Jan  
To Welsh Government Planning Minister Julie James AM
7th Jan 2019
Dear Minister,
I wish to request a call -in of Carmarthenshire County Council’s planning application S/ 36948. I have several planning concerns. As you will be aware the Delta Lakes /Wellness /Neurosciences was part of the Swansea City Bay Deal but has stumbled on several issues such as the lack of any private investors, a flawed business case which has never been seen by the public and the suspension of 2 Swansea University academics involved with attempting to fund a project , possibly Improperly with a Welsh Government grant related to this site.
I am a member of Llanelli Flood Forum and am aware of the flooding problems we have had locally both recently and historically. Although only part of this site is in C type flood plains, the access roads are affected both by recent flooding and/or DAM maps predicted risk of flooding. I have pointed this out to the County Council but cannot see any mention in their planning information.
The site and its surroundings was severely flooded historically in 1896, and there have been 2 other incidents in the last century. In 1896 an Atlantic hurricane caused a 10 foot tidal surge. This hit the site and overwhelmed the sea defences. The site is being raised but I concerned that this will simply displace water to surrounding residences. However, as the Dafen Lake is now tidal, [poor maintenance has led to this]. the sea already comes in under the rusted sluice gate now stuck in an open position. In the planning document it seems the lake is thought to still be fresh water with a controlled release. I believe TAN 15 instructs no building on C type floodplains except on;y necessary infrastructure . The planning documents suggest they are looking to build on the flood plain areas.
Natural Resources Wales has been having correspondence with the Council during the past year and have been unhappy with several matters and these are made clear in the relevant documents filed under s/36948 The documents released with the application make vague statements about NRW’s advice and conditions which they may impose on the planning application. I suspect that NRW have been given insufficient responses and poor or no information on some topics.. The information given to the councillors is insufficient. They appear to be asked to make decisions on unknown NRW conditions to yet be decided.
Welsh Water /Dwr Cymru are already developing a site on the margins of the Wellness area. Due to the severe sewage pollution of the Loughor Estuary a major £96 million “Rainscape” project to remove surface water from the whole of South Llanelli is under construction. The new pumping station will transfer tons of surface water from South Llanelli into the lake, especially after heavy rains, but the scheme does not come on line until 2020. This effect on the hydrology of the site is not mentioned . There is also an adjacent sewage pumping station that has an outfall into the site.
DCWW has had correspondence with the council and it suggests that they need significant extra funding from CCC to make requested changes to the site and need careful staging to be able to support the development. This is not mentioned in the meeting documents online. When I visited the new attenuation tanks and pumps with the Flood Forum, DCWW staff mentioned that they believed that there was quite a lot of copper in the lake water. The lake was made by filling up a commercial dock with landfill, content of which was not documented. Copper works were nearby. The Council has not recently tested water or soil for contamination according to the reports. I dispute the CCC assertion that pollution is not a problem. How do they know?
NRW seemed unhappy in their correspondence about poor assessment of wildlife such as otters and birds. No mention of this is in the meeting documents. Proper assessments were being requested. Where are they?
I represent the Hengoed Ward which contains the Sandy Roundabout and am very unhappy about the suggestions for improvement of the current awful situation after the increase in traffic caused by the new housing developments and expansion of local schools and sixth form college. This roundabout is where the Wellness Centre western access road meets the A484 and there is no clarity on how the current gridlocked traffic will be dealt with. My residents already suffer damgerously high levels of air pollution. Widening road access on the roundabout cannot improve the gridlock caused in great part by traffic lights further on these roads, which are narrow residential roads and cannot be widened. The pollution will only be worsened by more traffic unless the flow can be improved along the length of the A484. The traffic plans are not practical. I therefore dispute the findings of the Council’s public protection statement on air quality.
Although the business case , thought to be flawed, is not a direct planning concern, its absence provides poor background guidance for the project for the councillors to make an informed judgement on the project.
With the UK Government, Welsh government, Swansea University and the Wales Audit office all investigating various questionable aspects of the Wellness Project, why is it being rushed to determination with the planning committee having incomplete and perhaps misleading information?
Does the Council leader think that if he starts building the various bodies will not look at the details and let the project proceed? I ask that you instruct your own planning department to check the validity and propriety of this application .
 Siân Caiach
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Monday, 7 January 2019

WELLNESS - THE PLANNING APPLICATION

WHY THE RUSH?
Carmarthenshire County Council are trying to rush through planning permission for the Wellness centre on January 10th. It is perfectly legal for County Councils to give themselves planning permission on land that they themselves own. Naturally, it is pretty much a “shoo in”.
The Llanelli Wellness Centre project has lost its City Deal Support after it was exposed as not fulfilling the economic conditions for such a deal, primarily it had no private investment partners with money to put on the table. The UK and Welsh Government are investigating.

The  theoretically " Plaid Controlled" Carmarthenshire County Council has decided to present the planning application for approval by its own councillors on Jan 10th without publishing the business plan or even important details of the advice in correspondence from National Resources Wales who may not yet have fully approved the site plans.


Llanelli Floods 1981

BUSINESS CASE HAS VANISHED
The business case for this huge project was written by Swansea Academic Professor Marc Clement, has not been released to the ordinary councillors or this planning committee, never mind the public. The Wales Audit Office and Auditor General are supposed to be investigating the Delta Lakes Wellness project decision process. Why then press on before a decision is reached by the WAO as to the propriety of the project planning itself?

Looking at the documents many planning assessments of the site have apparently not yet been completed or even started.Some "findings" by the public protection team seem based on opinion rather than facts.

OTHER INFORMATION MISSING
For example, NRW have not yet decided on the flood consequences on this tidal lake site adjacent to the estuary, which includes flood plains. The Council has yet to complete or even start basic safety tests, for instance actually testing the lake water and soils for current levels of pollution. NRW were not entirely satisfied with the wildlife protection and more data needs to be submitted by the Council. Could they have consulted NRW and not waited for the result?

The Council has decided to ignore the fact that access roads are in flood plains and although outside the site, are important issues to be addressed.

COUNCILLORS TO FILL IN BLANKS?
NRW wish, according to Council documents to impose planning conditions on the site, but these are not spelt out in the information to councillors. How can they decide without the full facts?

MY PERSONAL THEORY
The Council are seriously short of money to build, I believe they have already borrowed £200 million to build the site but are still short of full funding as they thought they would get UK and WG funding via the city deal. Council leader Emlyn Dole now believes the investment can be funded by the rents and business rates from the buildings yet to be constructed.

I believe the rush the planning is to facilitate a perfectly legal but morally questionable "funding" strategy. After outline planning permission the site would still be a tidal swamp but it will be argued that it is now worth £millions more as a development site and this "fake" money will be put on the balance sheet as “investment”. But is not real money, you can’t buy anything with it. At best it is an asset to offer as collateral for more borrowing.

The councillors will have little time to read the documents and extreme pressure to rescue this project despite all of its obvious flaws. Otherwise they will lose credibility and its been made clear to the councillors that this is the only plan on the table for “jobs” in Llanelli . However, with no business plan its not even clear what the jobs will be?

This could lead to an expensive white elephant which could impoverish the area for decades as the local Government Debt was dealt with .If it is such a good idea where is the business case? Why not wait for WAO to decide if the project was properly considered or not?


WHAT CAN ANYONE DO?
The planning application is s/36948 to be determined on 10th January.
The planning minister at Welsh government is Julie James https://beta.gov.wales/julie-james-am or Correspondence.Julie.James@gov.wales
At any time before the application is decided anybody can email  to ask the minister to "call in" an application on planning grounds.If they agree the application may be delayed to allow investigation.

Siân Caiach,

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Carmarthenshire County Council- The Honey Trap. the threats, the lies.

"THERE IS NOTHING THE POLITICAL ESTABLISHMENT WILL NOT DO, NO LIE THEY WILL NOT TELL,TO HOLD THEIR PRESTIGE AND POWER AND YOUR EXPENSE."

You may recognise this quote from Donald Trump's presidential campaign .Its strength is that it resonates with people who believe they have no power, that their governments are corrupted .They believe they are being fed constant misinformation, their political leaders are out for themselves, and their own interests and basic needs ignored.

In Carmarthenshire you could delete the word "political" from the quote above. Once your County Councillors are elected, generally politics flies out the window. It is refreshing to see the present Labour Group Leader, Rob James, challenging the actions of the County Council where the motives and likely results are extremely questionable, Even barefaced lies used to be accepted without question to keep the status quo. Perhaps the little extras "good" councillors could collect, the titles and extra money that went with them, were an incentive?

"MEN ARE SO SIMPLE OF MIND , AND SO MUCH DOMINATED BY THEIR IMMEDIATE NEEDS, THAT A DECEITFUL MAN WILL ALWAYS FIND PLENTY WHO ARE READY TO BE DECEIVED"       Machiavelli

Carmarthenshire County Council, I believe, has been run for the best part of 2 decades by senior Council Officers without proper control and input from the elected members. People like myself who stood up and pointed out the obvious flaws in the proposed vanity schemes and dubious projects were attacked not only by the local government civil servants whose ideas they were, but dozens of other councillors who did not want to rock the boat. Whether this was due to ambition or fear or both, the officers were, technically, supported by almost all elected members who voted for their daft schemes which often seem to end up largely paid for by the public and profits and benefits went to the favoured few.

 How did the "Scam" work

People usually stand for councils at the request of political parties or independent groups.They are selected for loyalty to the party.They need some finance for leaflets and posters and the main political parties provide this, making the successful councillors indebted to the parties for their help and financial support. Particularly well behaved are usually those who crave office and position. Many AM's and MP's were previously councillors.

The parties organise their members into a group and they are expected to act as a team and all vote the same way, sometimes irrespective of the interests of their own voters. As council matters are not reported widely in the local press people are generally ignorant of how their councillors vote. You can usually vote for your party and against the interests of your ward, town or village and still not effect your chances of re-election.

Add to this "councillor training sessions" led by council officers rather than experienced councillors.Of course the council officers should be there to provide any extra information or updates, but in my experience there is little practical advice and examples related to helping the people we represent. The general message is "this is the way things are done" and if you follow the rules, no harm will come to you.

The Leader of the Pack?

The top elected councillor, the Council Leader, is actually where the buck stops.If the pack leader is eating out the CEO's hand, democratic control has disappeared. It is not difficult for senior government civil servants to, in reality, have a free hand. In Carmarthenshire, officers can use the weakness of committee chairs to total control the council committee agendas. As the leader is responsible, in theory, for everything the Council does, a Chief Executive who has powerful influence over the Leader who has in theory, full power and the CEO no accountability, as"in theory, the elected Leader makes the decisions and carries the can.

 Councillors often are given chair positions as "sweeties" eg. to reward years of party loyalty and may know little about the administration and the subject of their committee. It comes with a considerable salary increase. Not a problem in Carmarthenshire where the Agendas are packed with presentations of how well the council is doing, community projects not particularly relevant and the approval of policies not even mentioned before being put on the agenda. You could be on a committee for years and learn very little about what is actually going on behind the comic book presentations and cheery statements.

You might sit on a committee s and know little about the management of that department.   If you upset the officers, for instance asking too many probing questions, your party may be requested to remove you from that committee. {I only attended  2 planning meetings before Plaid , on request of a senior officer, took me off }

I was on the Health and Social Care Committee of Carmarthenshire Council for 9 years. I never got to put any item on the agenda and was always told that the "officers wrote the agenda", Chairs were just there to keep order in the meetings. There was a fair amount of pressure to go along with whatever was suggested, and it was extremely difficult  for councillors to make any significant changes to proposals, I don't recall any.


The seductive steps of Carmarthenshire County Hall



Leadership and the Chief Executive.

How is the Leader controlled? In Carmarthenshire the Leaders  are seemingly chosen by Mark James. He "helps" the groups to form the administration. Currently the Plaid Cymru group leader is the Leader of Council. He is Cllr Emlyn Dole. It was said that the Plaid Cymru Group, were advised by Mr Mark James, that in order to get his support for Plaid Council leadership they had to  replace their former leader, Peter Hughes Griffiths with Emlyn Dole, Mark James' choice. Peter is a man with a lot of political experience and probably, in my opinion, a lot more more integrity than Emlyn. Definitely not so easily led. Perhaps he had to go, but was compensated with a year as Council Chair with a salary increase and use of a chauffeured car for official visits.

 Subsequently, as Leader, Emlyn was embroiled in a planning scandal where historic barns on his wife's farm were demolished in violation of their planning application. They then had to apply for a change in the planning or face rebuilding the barns as they had been. In support of the  application for retrospective planning it looks like a forged  signature on a document was presented, claiming the barns were dangerously unstable. The man concerned did not hold the view expressed in it, and says he did not sign it. A forged document submitted to support a planning application its usually pretty serious . Not in Carmarthenshire where the officers have apparently decided to let the matter lie. The County Councillors backed the application by a very small margin, with even the local Plaid Councillor for the ares not supporting him.

 Emlyn, famously,  promised a more open and democratic council, and clearly did not deliver. I don't know what has locked him into decisions which looked dodgy to me from the start,such as  vicious persecution of the blogger Jacqui Thompson  to pay for legal costs incurred through court action approved and paid for by a previous administration. Now he is insisting that the flawed City Deal Delta Lakes Project should go ahead, as it becomes exposed more and more as a project promising much but likely to deliver little and not standing up well to analytical scrutiny . Maybe the 2 barns scandal was an elephant trap set to keep him on side?

Who can stop the Rot?

Most experienced Carmarthenshire councillors have been serving under the regime described above and are used to the coercion and lack of clarity and truth. They may never have even noticed that anything was wrong. Maybe they suspended disbelief ? Maybe they though all councils were run this way? Maybe they are personally implicated in this or that and feeling a bit uncomfortable. Maybe they lack courage. Who knows?

 Cllr Rob James is serving his first term on this County Councillor but does have experience of being a County Councillor in Neath Port Talbot , where things I suspect, are run differently. He has the guts to stand up to the establishment. In my last term on Carmarthenshire Council I was rather alone in bringing up issues, I felt like it was only me in opposition. I'm not politically a Labour Party supporter but I'm glad to see the leader of the opposition actually doing his job.

I think the only sensible action to be taken now is for the Welsh Government to take a close interest in the workings of Carmarthenshire County Council. Other Councils have seemingly been put into special measures for less. The elected councillors will not face the voters until 2021. Are the majority of them competent enough to be allowed to carry on? The Welsh Government are the only body with power to decide this issue, and act before an election date..

 Wales suffers from poor governance at many levels and much time and money seems to be spent on cover ups rather than the real job, getting the best deal possible for our people. Its about time there were consequences for failure because the real losers are the people. Even Carmarthenshire Councillors cannot fool all of the people, all of the time. Especially if they act like fools themselves.

 Siân Caiach