Saturday, 13 October 2012

Kings of their castles

Marchons, marchons!
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!

(Pic :
In the old feudal system, an overlord would grant tenures to a vassal in exchange for loyalty or service, known as a fiefdom. The lord handed this responsibility would become the dominant power within that fiefdom, a system that's only slightly modified today.

Wales is divided into 22 fiefdoms, each with their own feudal baron(ess). That's before you include all the petty fiefdoms : the charities, the third sector bodies, the quangos, the local health boards, the housing associations, the community organisations....

Nobody elects them. Yet they, and other unelected officers, hold real power. Sometimes they command budgets – part or wholly public money – running into tens, if not hundreds, of millions of pounds.

Your elected councillor holds a rubber stamp, and is generally told where and when to stamp it. They do so because what the baron says usually goes.Yessir massa. AMs, MPs, and MEPs have slightly more sway. The Welsh Government generally act on advice they're given by experts and civil servants.

The barons are usually amongst the highest-paid people in government full stop. Sometimes, they might have control over how much they - or relatives/friends who just so happen to be working alongside them - get paid.

We don't know how or why they get the jobs, just that they're (presumably) worth the large salaries because they're (presumably) good at said jobs. That's why, for example, Welsh local authorities, are such bastions of transparency, efficiency and good practice.

You won't notice a good feudal baron. They'll handle public money wisely, they won't try to make a name for themselves by being controversial and they won't upstage the elected (or uncontested) representatives of the little people.

If you do notice them, then it's usually because something's gone horribly wrong.

Once certain actions or motivations cross certain lines, you no longer have a faceless feudal baron. You have a dictator.

Now people might think that a dictatorship is something that happens to entire countries. That isn't necessarily true. "Dictator" just means someone wielding power in an unrestrained manner, whilst being answerable to nobody but themselves – a local authority chief executive for example.

You can elect dictators. You can even have dictators with a friendly face and a benevolent attitude to their people and property. But is a dictator of an entire country, any worse than little dictators in their fiefdoms?

You can have strong dictators, who wield absolute power. You can also have weak dictators, who manipulate events, procedures and political scenarios like a chess grand master.

In many respects, the weak dictators are more dangerous. They have a plausible deniability in what they say or do – a constitution for example. They can argue that anything they do is "constitutional", though usually the constitution is beyond anyone's understanding, and changes depending on the situation. They'll use this to entangle opponents in points of order or due processes.

But both strong and weak dictators display the same characteristics.

They, in a position of power and responsibility, don't like criticism, and might try to silence those who do criticise them – even elected representatives. The sneakier ones do it through the courts.

They'll sometimes hide behind "good works", or "awards" as an appeal to authority.

They have wide spheres of influence. They'll have plenty of sock puppets - people acting as a legitimate, public-facing front - while they control things behind the scenes.

They'll be paranoid. There'll be heightened security around them, or their workplace – police, security guards – and they'll use them if they decide it's necessary. They'll only trust those people similar to themselves, whether they're from the same political party, or run similar regimes. They'll form cliques, societies and associations to lock everyone else out.

They might make excessive use of propaganda, or lean on journalists and publications to report things a certain way. They might even have influence in how the news is reported. They could use money to do this, or they could simply use force of will. That could mean running/owning a newspaper, or counting journalists within their inner circles.

They'll have a high opinion of themselves, awarding themselves grand titles, fancy cars and carry themselves in a certain manner.

They'll be overtly concerned about their public appearance. They want to control how things are presented, or how much people can know. They'll have disproportionately large PR departments.

They have a resolute belief that they are always in the right. They'll turn every tiny bit of good news into a magnificent achievement, and they'll call catastrophic failures mere setbacks, or just won't accept any blame at all. They can do no wrong, and they'll always promise jam tomorrow.

It all starts the same way. It starts with political banter and petty insults. It starts with politicians being censured for asking the inconvenient questions. It starts with white lies. It starts with posters being defaced, or placards being ripped out of front gardens.

Then it becomes scaremongering, or accusing others of scaremongering. Then they create strawmen threats that never existed, vowing to step in and provide strong leadership during tough times.

Then it snowballs further. It becomes arrests for filming meetings. It becomes false accusations, court cases, fines, jail sentences for wanting nothing more that the truth.

It leads to overriding the "authority" of the elected representatives, and taking powers for themselves - drip by drip, week by week, year by year. Their authority becomes increasingly unquestionable and resolute.

Then - perhaps most damning of it all - it becomes a bad government.

It usually ends the same way too. All the little people who helped them – whether it's for personal gain, or a sniff at power – are standing alongside them in front of the proverbial firing squad. It might take one term, it might take decades, but it usually does happen at some point.

These people have always been in the background, waiting for the right time, building up decades of experience, manipulating events or climbing greasy ladders. Or maybe they've simply been in the job too long and it's gone to their head.

We've created, and tolerate, a political system that allows these people to not only remain in place, but thrive. It keeps a leash on them and it gives them solid boundaries - granted. But what it doesn't give us all, is the freedom to challenge or to choose them.

It's a price we pay for delegating tough decisions to others. It's supposed to prevent us ending up in a situation like the United States, where common sense and rationality is sometimes sacrificed in the name of democracy. When it works well, it works well. When it's broken, we all suffer for it.

As a system, it's a wall not unlike another famous wall. You could also consider it a threat to our liberty - our right to know who is in charge of what, what they do, and our freedom to criticise, analyse or simply know the truth and come to our own conclusions.

I don't care who does it. It could be Mr Sargeant. It could be Mr Jones or Mr Cameron. It could be Ms Wood one day, who knows?

But somebody please, tear down this wall.


BBC Wales' current affairs programme, Week In, Week Out has an episode relating to a long-running planning dispute in Carmarthenshire to be shown on Tuesday (16th October) at 10:35pm. It'll include interviews with the Public Services Obundsman, Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (Plaid, Carmarthen East & Dinefwr) and the chair of a public inquiry into the case.

"Trisha and Eddie moved to Carmarthenshire in 2003 for a bit of the good life. They were going to start a cattery and animal sanctuary on a small holding. But those plans went up in smoke when they discovered that their neighbours were running a haulage business without planning permission.

They complained to Carmarthenshire council in 2004 but the authority failed to stop the lorries. In fact, they denied the couple’s claims and even accused them of faking evidence.

But now the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales has vindicated Mrs Breckman and her partner Mr Roberts with a damning report on how Carmarthenshire council handled their complaints. The authority has been found guilty of maladministration.


  1. A very good post. The only hope I see is somehow to mobilise public opinion and get them to see what is being done in their name and with their money. Failing that a truly mammoth scandal which forces the government to get off the fence.

    The only reason they intervened in Angelsey, I suspect, was because Labour was not involved in running the show.

  2. Thanks for the comments.

    Cneifiwr - The Week In, Week Out investigation might be the beginning of the end. I wouldn't be surprised - if the accusations are strong enough - that Carmarthenshire Planning Department ends up put into "special measures".

    I think both you and Caerbrwyn and raised before, that one reason Carl Sargeant can't intervene, is because it's the unelected officers and (by and large) not the councillors that are the problem. I don't think the Welsh Government can ignore things much longer though.

  3. maybe Welsh authorities think they cannot be seen as they're a long way from London.
    Over 20 years ago my father, a retired architect drew up some plans for a house owned by my mothers friend in Wales near a castle (plenty around so hope thats OK) . The org. had a quiet word with her, nothing wrong with the plans (my dad had actually worked for Prince Charles' estate amongst other clients) BUT If you go to this certain architect then we're sure the plans will sail through, cannot say the same if you continue to use this architect - nothing officially was heard from them - my dad advised R she should carry on with building work as as they had not replied within the statutory period then planning was assumed. Unfortunately R was just rather fed up and decided to move instead.
    The rumour that the architects wife was related to someone "on the council" was just a rumour I'm sure :)

  4. Excellent post Owen! The behaviour you describe is also typical of a Corporate Psychopath.

  5. Brilliant post! I agree it's typical of a Corporate Psychopath, and someone who suffers from the Hubris Syndrome. There has been a lot written about the Corporate Psychopath and unfortunately many end up as Chief Executives. They can hide for so long, but in the end they fall, as their behaviour becomes somewhat threatening and dangerous to democracy. I cannot imagine why Carl Sargeant is continuing to 'turn a blind eye', it must be something personal?

  6. As I understand it, the Welsh Governments intervention in Anglesey was because their councillors were in such disarray the council couldn't function. I think we have a similar problem with our councillors in Carmarthenshire; they are being dictated to by an unelected officer who commands they 'do as they are told' and woe betide any councillor who dares ask questions on behalf of their constituents. Surely this means an 'out of control' council not functioning as it should for the benefit of the council tax payer. I think the spotlight must now be on Carl Sargeant to explain to us in Carmarthenshire his reasons for ignoring the obvious.

  7. Thanks for the additional comments.

    Ty - That sort of thing doesn't surprise me. I wouldn't be surprised if it were "standard practice" across Wales, and indeed, across the UK.

    Anon 00:45, Anon 09:09 - Corporate Psychopath might be an exaggeration, but yeah, it does look like it meets the criteria for that, not that I'm an armchair psychiatrist. No names mentioned - in Carmarthenshire or elsewhere.

    I don't think it's the people themselves, rather the role. They're in the job until they resign, retire or a vote of no confidence as far as I can tell. Obviously with so little incentive to actually be good at their job, they might take forward really crap policies with very little oversight. There's a case for term-limits for Chief Executives. However, if they want political control, they should do the decent thing and stand for election - but they know that councillors lack any real control over proceedings.

    Anon 09:31 & Anon 09:09 - Being dictated to by officers is how local government works in Wales and the UK (with a few exceptions). To date, the Welsh Government have only intervened, AFAIK, in Independent-led/run councils (Anglesey, Pembrokeshire and Blaenau Gwent). The Wales Audit Office is a different matter, but they're technically independent of the Welsh Government.

    The situation in Carmarthenshire is becoming so serious now, as I noted earlier, the planning department at least is looking at special measures, and it'll become increasingly hard for Carl Sargeant to justify NOT intervening. I suspect there are other clangers coming too, it gets worse week by week.

    One of the biggest problems in modern Welsh politics is that (not wanting to single Labour out for special treatment) all the people in the political machine are very chummy with each other, and reluctant to call each other out when they screw up.

  8. How about abolishing the post of Chief Exectutive and have the role performed by either the leader of the council or a directly elected Mayor. That would put the power directly under democratic control. If we handed it to the leader of the council I would want to see elections held under PR so the council actually reflects the will of the voters. We could do the same for all other senior officers.

    The idea of an appointed civil service class holding power behind the scenes is a relic of the British constitution and one we should leave behind in Wales.

  9. Absolutely correct in all facets of your post. This is something that I have been on about for years!!

    There is no need for 22 - money gouging - authorities, we were better off with the old 7 county councils. The more agencies, the less talent we get, its spread too thinly.

    We continue to be in a period of 'austerity' and its no wonder with the amount of money being spent on 'senseless' political projects. The complete failure of Objective One monies to resurrect our economic mobility in Wales, was a case in point, and a disgrace. It shows that not only have we too much government, but we have poor governance.

    Thats what you get when a government is established with less than 17% of the electorate voting for them - and they tell us they have a mandate!!

  10. Thanks for the extra comments.

    Welsh Agenda - I'll be looking into local government reform and independence next spring. Directly-elected mayors are going to be one of the things in it, for the very reasons you state.

    Anon 9:22 - Wales isn't overgoverned, in my opinion. It's under-democratised. I don't see how swapping 22 fiefdoms for 7 will change anything. The thought of the old Mid Glamorgan CC ever making a comeback fills me with nothing but dread. Though I agree on how money, in particular EU funds have been spent. I'll be posting about "Communities First" later this week.

    Believe it or not, I understand the concerns about devolution and the Assembly. If you think the only people who feel let down by devolution are True Wales and those who want to scrap it, think again.

    Ultimately though, the failures with regard devolution are political, and not institutional. If you scrapped the Assembly tomorrow, you'll have ~360 redundancies and you'ld save around £300million. That money wouldn't make a dent in the NHS (budget = £6billion), or education (budget = £2billion). The people employed currently by the Welsh Government would still be there.

    Off the top of my head, I can only think of 8 MP's who are better than their constituency AM equivalents. I can think of 15 constituency AM's who are better than their MP's and at least 9 list AM's who could go toe-to-toe with any MP.

    1. Whilst I supported 'True Wales' and campaigned, I and many others are not in fact contemplating losing the assembly. In fact it is there and will stay; so lets all try to make it a better institution than it is currently.

      My post on over governance; takes in the point that we have too many levels - Europe - Parliament - Assembly - Local Authorities and Community Councils. Its silly.

      Gwent CC was head n shoulders above this crowd in Torfaen. The main point is that we are a nation of just over three million, and we have 22 sets of duplication, with talent too thinly spread.

  11. WOW! What a superb post!

  12. It's always important to be more clear about Objective One, whilst still agreeing that overall it was a failure. It only ever amounted to about £150m per year of new money for Wales, and the Treasury decided not to match fund it, meaning half the intended value of European funds was lost. The EU always sends officials to Wales to check how the money has been spent and as far as I know they don't think there has been a problem. Wales' GDP has stagnated or not grown very quickly during the Objective One period, but the reasons for that are bigger than how £150m per year has been spent or mis-spent.

    We can however still point to other regions where the money was spent better.

    Sorry to distract from the topic, but wanted to clarify Anon 09:22's post.

    Yet again this is a superb analysis by Owen that demonstrates the lethargy in the local government civil service in parts of Wales. Will Carl Sargeant clear any of this up? I welcome the way he presents himself as a guy who is not afraid to tell it like it is- he could finally crack the nut when it comes to Wales' ultra-conservative local government establishment. But how much of it is just posturing?

    1. It was Billions not Millions. This is accepted throughout Wales - not the government - has being a missed opportunity!!

    2. It was £3 billion over 14 years. So £150m per year, roughly. Less than 2% of annual public spending in Wales.

      I still maintain European funding could have been better spent, but it was not the difference between success and failure that some people suggest.

      Treasury match funding would have been a game changer, doubling the value of the funds. As things happened, match funding had to be found from other Assembly budgets.

  13. Thank for the comment, Anon.

    When you take a look at how EU funds are currently being spent, there's a few things that stand out. Firstly, quite a lot of it is spent on "improving skills" and universities. I don't think we've seen any significant improvement there except at the bottom end.

    Secondly, there are loads of projects benefiting from the money - spreading it thinly with no sense of scale. There seems to be an awful lot of duplication too, with some local authorities operating separate, but similar schemes.

    And thirdly (transport projects aside), there seems to be little spent on actually improving infrastructure or concrete economic development, only abstract things like "skills" I mentioned above.

    The WG handle the management of the funds well enough, and I'm aware they've won awards for it, but are they using it wisely? Or funding pet projects/whoever has the best lobbying ability? Are EU guidelines too strict? What's Cornwall getting right that we aren't?

    On Carl Sargeant, as raised by Y Cneifiwr further up, he might be reluctant to intervene in a Labour-influenced council. The evidence is stacked so high now though, he has to intervene - at least in CCC's planning department - or he'll look negligent and more questions will be asked. He should want to avoid this spotlight, because I imagine there are worse things to come.

  14. Note now the increase of the legal apparatus. Justine Thornton is one of those who has been appointed - you may know her as the wife of Ed Miliband?