Friday 7 November 2014

Carmarthenshire : The Rot Laid Bare

The eagerly-anticipated Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) report into the governance arrangements, culture and practices at Carmarthenshire Council (CCC) has been published (pdf).

Jonathan Edwards MP and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (both Plaid, Carms E. & Dinefwr) issued a joint statement. The Western Mail describe the report as "damning", while the Carmarthen Journal put a slightly positive spin on it.

Meanwhile, as you might expect, the Carmarthenshire blogosphere are keen to give their own views. The full list of recommendations is available on Carmarthenshire Planning – as well as Jacqui's thoughts on the report itself. Y Cneifiwr provided an extensive account of the report, adding his scepticism whether things can change due to the political leadership, and Pat Racher from West Wales News Review calls for CCC's councillors to "wake up and take control of the wheel".

The report's 39 recommendations can be summarised as :
  • CCC should implement an immediate managerial "cultural change programme" to promote transparency and openness.
  • CCC should review its media and public engagement protocols, and promote/support the use of social media by councillors.
  • CCC should hold an annual register of interests (published on its website).
  • The Local Service Board (LSB) should consider broadcasting its meetings and update its website regularly.
  • CCC should introduce a new constitution and provide guides for councillors and the public.
  • The new constitution should :
    • allow councillors to ask supplementary questions
    • relax requirements for signatories for motions
    • should not allow motions to be referred to another committee or the Executive Board
    • place greater prominence on the role of Chair
  • CCC should promote the opportunity for the public to table questions at council meetings, have an online petition system, review its approach to the public gallery and commit to continuing council meeting broadcasts.
  • CCC should publish the Executive Board's forward work programme, consider broadcasting Executive Board meetings, allow non-executive members to remain for exempt items and allow non-executive members to be present for decision meetings.
  • Executive Board members should only attend scrutiny committee sessions when invited, and their role should be confined to presenting policy and reports.
  • CCC should revise its "call-in" procedures.

Culture, Leadership & Values

The report hints at a "leadership clique" that - directly or indirectly -
placed barriers on moves towards openness and transparency.
(Pic : Carmarthenshire Planning)
CCC has a clear commitment to openness and transparency as a result of several internal and external reviews, and this was praised.

However, the report says there were several "behavioural, cultural and procedural barriers to achieving the Council's ambition", and rebuilding relationships will take some time. For starters, the change will have to be councillor-led with officers only offering support.

Interviewees spoke of "internal tensions" between councillors, and a lack of trust was said to be a key theme, partly due to the fact wards, Assembly and UK Parliament seats in the authority are hotly contested meaning the political groups are often at each others throats.

CCC's constitution has contributed to problems, with limited opportunities to "call-in" decisions and ask supplementary questions as well as restrictions on tabling motions. It's said the constitution "is neither conductive to nor encourages challenge from within the council".

In terms of the relationship between the Executive Board (Cabinet) and officers, it's described as "constructive and positive". But it's implied the Executive Board are distrustful of non-executive members and non-executive members were equally hostile to officers, with the role of officers and Executive Board members "becoming confused".

This suggests a "ruling clique", and many responses focused on the role of the Chief Executive, Mark James – who has a much higher profile and role in council affairs than he should, resulting in media attention focusing on unelected officers as opposed to the elected Executive Board. There's a culture of defensiveness, where CCC, "doesn't deal with negativity well", and was "deemed to react....aggressively to challenge, particularly from the media".

Relations with the Media & Public Engagement

"Do you agree or disagree that you can influence decisions in your local authority?"
(Pic : National Survey for Wales)
In case you didn't know, CCC "invests significant resources into public relations". Despite this, there's a "strained relationship" between CCC and the local media, with concerns that press releases were one-sided, politically-motivated and backed by threats to withdraw advertising from certain publications.

There are "a number of local bloggers with a particular interest in the business of the authority" with a "disproportionate interest in the activities and perceived influence of bloggers in Carmarthenshire" amongst interviewees – mostly as a result of the libel trial and its outcome. The report says things like social media can be a double edged sword as it's a tool for engagement, but also the accuracy of reporting is likely to fall short of mainstream media standards.

In terms of wider public engagement, Carmarthenshire residents are amongst the least likely in Wales to say they can influence the authority's decisions and "do not feel empowered" – Bridgend doesn't do much better, by the way.

The Council's Workings

There were concerns about senior officer appointments, especially appointment of senior officers on an interim basis. The current management team is described as "stable", but several senior officers are seeking severance agreements, and this "upheaval" is described as "unprecedented in a Welsh local government context".

Although there was praise for councillor training, the report said it wasn't "member led or designed", with mixed attendance levels at training sessions because they're inconveniently timed. There were also concerns that the Business Management Group was an "unconstitutional decision-making forum" which didn't take minutes and excluded non-executive members.

Council Meetings

Although recent reforms have been praised, the council's constitution
placed unnecessary restrictions on the public and councillors.
(Pic : The Telegraph)
CCC were the first local authority in Wales to record council meetings, and the review team were impressed by the in-depth discussions the council had on various reports. However, the procedural rules within the constitution are not user friendly, though CCC has committed to adopting the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors' "modular constitution" (pdf).

Many councillors are dissatisfied with council meetings, and believe they should be the "crucible for local democratic debate" and "focus for public engagement", as opposed to the current stage-managing. Some also believe that meetings should be held at a time that's convenient for the public and should be as long as they need to be (there's a limit of 3 hours, and standing orders need to be suspended to go beyond that).

CCC were praised for starting to take questions on notice, but lack of supplementary questions was described as "peculiar" and "inconsistent with other local authorities".

The rules for motions on notice are described as "restrictive" by requiring seven signatures, while opposition councillors were concerned they couldn't table motions on controversial issues, as the scope of motions was often set out by senior officers.

Then there's the public gallery. CCC infamously take a register of details for people attending in the gallery "for fire safety purposes", which the review team said could be seen as "officious" and "deter people from attending". There was also the issue of members of the public filming meetings – which is allowed in England, but there are concerns that it could be "disruptive".

The issue of the Chief Executive "advising" the Chair was also raised, with varying policies across Wales. Some councils have a monitoring officer to provide constitutional advice, and the role of other officers is to advise on policy. In CCC's constitution the "Proper Officer" – who just so happens to be the Chief Executive – has a role in determining the validity of motions and questions. The review team believe this responsibility should be the Chair's.

The Executive Board & Scrutiny

Carmarthenshire's Executive Board are secretive, hold too much power and
the call-in processes for scrutiny committees were roundly criticised.
(Pic : Carmarthens Journal)
Some councils broadcast cabinet meetings, and although Carmarthenshire's Executive Board are starting to go "on the road", the review team believe online broadcasting should be extended to board meetings held at County Hall.

The Wales Audit Office say the issue of "exempt items" needs particular improvement, with some authorities said to be "working towards a more open approach" where fewer items are considered exempt.

The review team were "surprised" that non-executive members had to leave Executive Board meetings, along with the press and members of the public, during the discussion of "exempt items". Only 5 other councils do this, and of those, some are reconsidering the policy while others say exempt items are rare.

There were concerns over transparency of Executive Board decision meetings, with no opportunity to call-in decisions and seemingly sweeping powers to Executive Board members to approve spending – including the recent "Meryl's Millions" (c/o Y Cneifiwr). There were also concerns that decisions were rubber-stamped during the Executive Board meetings and the real discussions took place in behind closed door "pre-meetings".

Although there were said to be good examples of scrutiny work - and such work was often highly-regarded - there were also major worries.

The arrangements for Executive Board members attending committee meetings seems unclear, with some attending even if not invited, while others are unsure if they should attend at all. Best practice is for Executive Board members to only attend when invited so the relationship between the Board and committees doesn't become "cosy" and impact objective scrutiny.

Scrutiny committees also have the power to "call-in" decisions. However, CCC's call-in procedures are arranged in such a way it makes it very difficult to trigger one, which requires the approval of more than half of a committee's membership within a three day deadline. Other local authorities have more relaxed requirements and longer deadlines, while CCC's is described as "onerous".

Winds of Change?

#DaftArrest marked a turning point that's led to these proposals. Despite being
largely vindicated, "victory" - touch wood - is coming at a heavy price.
It didn't have to be like that.
(Pic : New Statesman)
The first step towards recovery is admitting you have a problem. In many ways the commitment to reform from CCC is admirable, so I won't be too snide.

As Jacqui Thompson said, although the language of the report was "professional and polite", when you read between the lines, the report paints a picture of a local authority that's no longer fit for purpose, stuck in a self-congratulatory bubble and keeps digging itself into holes.

It's a shame its taken court cases, legal injunctions and the full force of the Wales Audit Office to get things done, when Jacqui herself and others (up to and including councillors) have flagged up these issues and have been calling for the measures outlined in the report for the best part of a decade.

If this review had happened years ago, CCC really would be towards the top-performing local authorities in Wales. But there was a breakdown in trust due to the paranoid and excessively autocratic rule of Mark James, the Executive Board and other senior officers.

Ultimately, we're only here because of a domino effect caused by #DaftArrest (perhaps earlier), and because a handful of concerned citizens, politicians and whistleblowers kept picking away at the council's record in the face of legal threats, obfuscation and a distinct lack of action and concern from the Welsh Government.

If – and it's a big if – these changes are implemented then it'll be a (Pyrrhic) victory for long-standing "critics", and arguably the most significant thing the Welsh blogosphere has ever contributed to, as a reformed Carmarthenshire will likely be a model post-Williams Commission local authorities will work from.

Jacqui Thompson and others are vindicated. Although there's not much anyone can do about the libel verdict, if CCC are keen to pursue the reform agenda, they should admit the libel action was on behalf of CCC as a whole (which is unlawful), negotiate a token settlement with the Thompsons which would allow them to keep their home, and allow Mark James to move on to pastures new with a bit more dignity than his Pembrokeshire counterpart.

The libel cases, the bluster in the press and the defence of the indefensible – it wasn't worth it, was it?
The political leadership of Carmarthenshire Council now face a critical choice.

On one hand, there's a chance to create a "New Model Council", and after all the mistakes they've made, Kevin Madge et. al. can restore some pride and gain respect by leading the reforms, and perhaps even going above and beyond the recommendations in the report.

On the other hand, CCC can dismiss the recommendations or take a "pic n' mix" approach, which after the positive feedback from the WLGA will result in them losing friends and credibility pretty quickly, and put a return of Dyfed firmly back on the table.

Based on their track record so far, I think you all know which way this is going to go....


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