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COUNCIL IN CRISIS: A view from the floor

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Last Friday’s meeting: Cllr Jacob Williams and Cllr Michael Llewellyn-Evans are poised for action

Last Friday’s meeting: Cllr Jacob Williams and Cllr Michael Llewellyn-Evans are poised for action

IT’S BEEN a week since Friday’s extraordinary council meeting and the disgusted reaction from the public and media has been monumental. The events that unfolded at County Hall, witnessed by so many, have drawn criticism: from national political heavyweights, to senior figures in the Welsh media. It’s quite pleasing to know that, for a change, every person in Pembrokeshire and their dog seems to be aware of what went on, and that’s owed to the absolutely brilliant new live-webcasting facility, which, given the subject matter, was a must-watch episode.

The meeting was arranged primarily to consider the damning public interest report issued on January 30th by the Wales Audit Office, which the statutory framework required to be held within a month of its publication. The meeting was unrelated to the ongoing police investigation into the report’s conclusions, which is being conducted by Gloucestershire Constabulary, and had no bearing on it either. In his report, Mr Anthony Barrett, assistant auditor general for Wales, found that the decision made in September 2011 by six senior councillors of the authority’s Senior Staff Committee to allow the highest paid officers the option to exit their pension scheme and receive cash sums in lieu of their pension contributions, was unlawful for a number of reasons.

The meeting started at 10am, opening with Mr Barrett’s brief presentation of his report, an outline of his four recommendations, and what was required of the council at the meeting. Because of the nature of the report and the fact that Mr Barrett recommended the tax-dodge scheme be scrapped, the chamber was purposely and unusually devoid of any senior officers, apart from Mr Laurence Harding, the Monitoring Officer: the only senior officer ineligible to take up the scheme, as he is in semi-retirement.

There might not have been any other senior officers on the scene, but to make up for the chief executive and his directors’ absence the council’s top external barrister was parachuted in from London. Mr Tim Kerr QC, an expert of UK renown in local government matters, among others, had been drafted by ‘the council’ to defend the scheme as soon as the auditor started making noises last year, and, using his legal advice, the council was unsuccessful in convincing Mr Barrett that there was nothing serious for him report on. The very inclusion of Mr Kerr – whose name rhymes with car – and his legitimacy at such a meeting was challenged right at the start by Cllr. Mike Evans. Mr Harding responded that Mr Kerr’s role was to advise the council on issues relating to the public interest report and also to advise on ‘possible disciplinary action’ in relation to the subsequent motion on the agenda to suspend the chief executive – more on that later.

As he was instructed by senior officers of the council to defend the scheme enshrined in their contracts, council-watchers will have been forgiven for expecting Mr Kerr to come out with an all-guns-blazing approach to debunk Mr Barrett’s report, line-by-line, in an attempt to persuade councillors to go against his recommendations. What he actually said, in calm and rather hushed tones, was that the Wales Audit Office and the council “had a very different understanding of the law,” but it was his advice that the council accepted Mr Barrett’s four recommendations.

They were: (1) to scrap the scheme and cease future payments (2) to address ‘procedural weaknesses’ if an attempt is made to reintroduce the scheme in future (3) to make sure any potential future payments are in accordance with the decision being made that no additional cost accrues to the authority, and (4) to make an appropriate disclosure in the council’s financial accounts before re-approving them.

Mr Kerr said the council should vote to accept these four recommendations: “…not because it is intrinsically unlawful for a local authority to adopt a pay policy which allows a senior officer to opt out of the Local Government Pension Scheme and receive the equivalent of the employer’s contributions as part of salary instead, not because there was any wrongdoing on behalf of the council members of the Senior Staff Committee; and not because it was wrong for any senior officer to attend that meeting.”

However he did accept that there were procedural issues outstanding, and the council failed to conduct an Equalities Impact Assessment, which would be required if such an avenue was pursued again in future, before concluding that the council “was not bound to sue its chief executive for the monies paid as he would be likely to have a defence of ‘change of position,’” before citing an early 1990s legal case to ward off any members who’d dare to think of clawing back the chief executive’s and another unnamed officer’s unlawful payments.

Mr Kerr did then go on to explain why he disagreed with Mr Barrett, line-by-line, but this was not in a particularly adversarial style, and seemed rather a moot point, given his advice to accept the four recommendations as-is. As Cllr. Mike Stoddart put it: “we haven’t done anything wrong, but we won’t do it again.”

What readers may not be aware of is that Cllr. Stoddart and I had taken part in a long-running chain of emails to the council’s legal department and Monitoring Officer in the days leading up to the meeting, challenging the decision that had been made to actively deny councillors their rights to see Mr Kerr’s full written advice which we thought had been provided last autumn.

Looking relaxed: IPPG members at the meeting

Looking relaxed: IPPG members at the meeting

Sheer bloody-minded resistance

All councillors were copied into the emails, in which the unmovable official line – or “sheer bloody-minded resistance”, as Mike puts it – held that councillors did have a ‘need-to-know’ the written legal advice, but that it “has been designated as Legally privileged as it contains information relating to another council and information that relates to possible formal legal action,” and “The right to legal privilege has not been waived.”

Our need to know the information, we were told, would be satisfied by Mr Kerr’s presence at the meeting, where “all Members will be able to ask counsel for clarification of advice received,” as well as a nine-page letter (included in the agenda report) sent to the WAO by the council, which was based on the QC’s ‘privileged’ full written advice.

This, clearly, wasn’t good enough, so the emails continued – and despite numerous attempts to point out our rights were being trampled over, and requests for the decision to be revisited, we were cast aside and provided with nothing more.

It wasn’t until Friday’s meeting when asked by Cllr. Michael Williams did we realise that Mr Kerr had actually provided two sets of written advice/opinion, in September and November 2013. These were both provided to Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire County Council after they had sought joint advice into the legality of their identical schemes, to keep costs down. How thoughtful! Cllr. Williams continued his line of inquiry, and there were gasps when our QC – paid for by you – revealed that, between them, these two sets of advice amounted to over 40 pages.

Following these revelations, members were on a roll. I asked the chairman if he would agree to a vote to allow members access to the advice, and he agreed – though obviously our rights to see the legal advice existed regardless of whether the vote had succeeded or failed. In the event, no vote was taken, or necessary, because Mr Kerr quite helpfully confirmed what right-thinking councillors and the public had thought all along – that he, as the provider of the written advice, was the one who could use ‘legal privilege’ to deny access to it by any person other than his instructing client, as he was bound by client confidentiality; but that the advice, once in the possession of the council, was the council’s to do with what it liked. Mr Kerr said: “it is not unknown for elected members to be shown confidential, privileged legal advice, provided by someone such as myself, in writing, under strict conditions of confidentiality,” and that was just what we wanted – and expected – to hear.

It might not come as a surprise that, in this case, the legal view of a top QC easily outweighed those of lowly councillors, but I would be doing a disservice to the public purse-string holders if I didn’t point out that I haven’t invoiced the authority for a single one of my numerous emails, though I can’t comment on Cllr. Stoddart because he has, among others, a law degree.

Where’s the legal advice

Mr Harding agreed during the meeting – confirmed numerous times on camera – to allow councillors access to Mr Kerr’s written advice, but as it was jointly sought and contains information relating to another authority, the bits relating to our Towy-side counterparts would need to be redacted beforehand. There is still some element of dispute over this arrangement, and that we weren’t allowed it before the meeting as requested, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction, albeit costly and long overdue.

After that was out of the way, ‘debate’ commenced over Mr Barrett’s report, and the way members had wilfully been kept in the dark by officers over the written legal advice. There were a number of excellent contributions, particularly from Cllrs. Bob Kilmister and Mike Evans

 Brian Hall doesn’t like “bullying”

Cllr. Brian Hall sought to attribute the public furore over the pension payments scandal to the future political ambitions of the council’s second-youngest upstart, Cllr. Paul Miller; the leader of the council’s Labour group and the party’s parliamentary candidate for next year’s general election. Irony doesn’t come much funnier than Cllr. Hall’s claim that others had shown “cowardly and bullying” behaviour, either!

After council voted to accept the auditor’s four recommendations, Mr Barrett and his team left. You might have expected our learned QC to follow them out the door, but he stuck to his brief, and his seat, for the discussion of the next and final item on the agenda. This was the vote tabled by Cllr. Paul Miller, signed by nine councillors, myself included, that the chief executive should be suspended on full pay pending an investigation.

Immediately as the chairman moved on to this item, up stepped Crymych councillor and ruling party devotee, Keith Lewis, to introduce the dirtiest trick the council chamber has probably seen to date. It had all the classic hallmarks of a cooked-up ploy, though what Cllr. Lewis lacks in subtlety, he more than makes up in enthusiastic loyalty to his ‘independent’ party’s cause.

Cllr. Lewis told the chamber that he was very concerned that, prior to the meeting, he had been approached – as had all councillors – by two of the county’s newspapers who were canvassing councillors’ views on whether or not they supported calls for the council’s chief executive, Bryn Parry-Jones, to resign. Cllr. Lewis said he’d indicated his support for Mr Parry-Jones not to resign, and he now regretted these comments as he feared they constituted a predetermination of the issue. He said because he was a good boy, he didn’t want to risk breaching the code of conduct by staying in the room and voting, because the code requires councillors to have an open mind before a vote, so he was going to declare a prejudicial interest, and leave the meeting.

As he exited stage left, minus crocheted collars and frilly cuffs, this prearranged stunt had all the flourish you might expect of a west Wales touring production of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Mr Kerr was wheeled in to assist at this point, just as if he was a councillor or an officer of the authority, to say that on the previous day, he had been “shown some photocopies of press cuttings” in which comments from some councillors, he felt, may have prejudged the matter by indicating their support for the growing calls for the chief executive to resign.

Control of the meeting: : Council Chairman Cllr. A Williams, Monitoring Officer  Laurence Harding and council barrister Tim Kerr QC look over press cuttings

Control of the meeting: : Council Chairman Cllr. A Williams, Monitoring Officer
Laurence Harding and council barrister Tim Kerr QC look over press cuttings

Who showed the QC the press cuttings?

All I can say is that Mr Kerr QC must be entirely forthright, because a curious Cllr. Tessa Hodgson pointed out that ‘being shown’ these cuttings meant that somebody must have shown them to him. Mr Kerr corrected himself. The day before the meeting he had been picked up by the chairman’s limousine from Port Talbot railway station. He said it was there, in the back seat of his chauffeured charabanc, that he found an envelope with his name on, waiting for him.

Mr Kerr’s envelope – which he said was white, and not brown as some might like you to believe – was stuffed with documents including the agenda for the council meeting and the cuttings of press articles in which it had been suggested to him a number of councillors’ comments had indicated a predetermination.

After further prodding from Cllr. Mike Evans, sitting to my left in the chamber, it was revealed that the envelope and its contents had been prepared for Mr Kerr by Mr Harding, the authority’s Monitoring Officer, a statutory position of utmost neutrality, which: “has the specific duty to ensure that the Council, its Officers, and its Elected Councillors, maintain the highest standards of conduct in all they do.”

Cllr. Evans said this arrangement seemed very much a case of “here you are guv, you might want to have a look at this,” and at different times Mr Harding said that he had read the articles himself and that they had been brought to his attention by someone else.

When asked, he was unwilling to give their name because that was confidential. It was apparent that the stage-management of this shameless spectacle was going somewhat awry soon after Cllr. Lewis took his cue, but the plot-twist took a trenchant turn when it was revealed that Mr Kerr – if he was tasked to do so or not – had some pre-prepared work on the topic up his sleeve, ready to be shared with the sitting ducks.

Whether this prior-preparation was his own idea, or that of somebody else’s, we don’t know, but, having sifted through the newspaper cuttings, he said he had come up with a list of ten councillors whose remarks, he felt, indicated a closed mind and predetermination which stymied their participation in the meeting. Oh, and, of course, it was entirely up to councillors to choose for themselves to declare an interest and leave the meeting, or stay on and take the risk.

In clear view of the webcam, brandishing a photocopy of the newspaper cuttings during this performance was none other than cabinet member and deputy leader, Cllr. Rob Lewis. Readers unfamiliar with the Martletwy mastermind will recall that he was the ‘brains’ behind the ruling independent party’s election strategy going into both the 2008 and 2012 polls, and the serial author of his so-called ‘independent’ colleagues’ election literature, using council equipment, in clear breach of the councillors’ code of conduct. Ever curious, the council took a unanimous vote allowing Mr Kerr to read out the names of the ten councillors on his list, which were: Mike Stoddart, Viv Stoddart, Rod Bowen, Myles Pepper, Tessa Hodgson, me, Michael Williams, Rhys Sinnett, Guy Woodham and Paul Miller.

What was more the remarkable about the list was that it contained only the names of councillors who had indicated support for the chief executive to resign, and not those who had said he shouldn’t resign, who, using the same logic, would surely have been equally as guilty of predetermining the issue at hand.

Cllr. Keith Lewis played a part in this stunt. His speech and exit from the chamber, it appears obvious to me at least, was designed to mount pressure on those councillors who’d spoken out on behalf of their constituents in support of the chief executive’s resignation, to recuse themselves from the vote. All of which, apart from Cllr. Myles Pepper, were members from the opposition benches.

The second part of the theory being that if all those opposition members had left the chamber to join Cllr. Lewis in the corridor because of predetermination, the ruling party would have more than enough votes in the bag to overcome any rebels from among their own, and the vote to suspend the chief executive would fail.

If that was the theory, it didn’t work as planned, because following Cllr. Lewis’ principled departure, the opposition benches remained put. Some time later, Cllr. Lewis came sheepishly back, where he found a much livelier chamber than the one he had left, with riled opposition councillors asking questions of the QC and the Monitoring Officer, decrying the filthy tricks that had been engaged, before deciding whether they should leave the room themselves, or stay and risk a brush with the Ombudsman.

Cllr. Lewis’ buttocks had hardly re-imprinted themselves on his still-warm leatherette swivel chair, before he got back onto his feet and reeled off almost the exact same speech he’d given minutes earlier, though this time when he left the chamber, he was ultimately followed by all but seven opposition members – regardless of whether their names had been singled out – in disgust at the calculated and politically-motivated ambush that had ensued.

The meeting came to an abrupt end as Cllr. Baker – a co-signatory to the agenda item for the chief executive to be suspended – withdrew the motion, but not before he and Cllr. Evans spoke out against the dirty tricks, which Cllr. Evans described as ‘reprehensible,’ for many reasons including the apparent compromise of officers’ neutrality that had been evident in the events that had unfolded.

This stunt has raised all sorts of questions that aren’t going to go away easily. BBC Wales cameras and reporters remained throughout, and when watching their Friday evening bulletin I noticed the council leader, Cllr. Jamie Adams, was recorded following the meeting explaining that a number of councillors had “naïvely” predetermined the issue and left the chamber, so there was no vote on the suspension of the chief executive.

Whilst this ambush might have stopped us from representing our constituents’ views, it has certainly not changed them – indeed, it will only serve to strengthen them, and raise greater awareness of the disgusting antics of Pembrokeshire County Council, and the filthy politics espoused by some at the Kremlin on Cleddau.

As Cllr. Tony Brinsden said before retiring from the chamber: “I made comments to the press, I stand by them 100%.”

Reproduced by kind permission. The original of this article is available on www.jacobwilliams.com

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Community

Consider the benefits of living in a community-led housing scheme

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NO one could have missed the Extinction Rebellion protests around the world in recent months, but a little-known low-impact eco-community in Pembrokeshire is also working hard to spread the sustainability message.

The Brithdir Mawr community grow their own food, generate their own electricity and provide low cost rented housing, as well as sharing ideas, resources and skills with people who want to learn more.

More than 100 people have lived there over the past quarter of a century and the current residents have an innovative way of living.

One such resident is Lea Trainer. He moved here a few months ago and feels the move has changed his family’s life for the better after he left his job as a project manager in London: “My wife Kirsty and children Brianna and Frankie have been here since June but the community has been around for more than 25 years. My wife brought the children here last year for an educational trip and they were texting me about birds and insect-spotting and I had a bit of an epiphany.

“Our life is incomparable to before. We now live a lower impact life and have reduced our footprint on the Earth. I’m learning all the time about nature, renewable energy. It’s fantastic to be part of a community contributing towards the development of a regenerative culture, farming using organic methods and preserving and increasing biodiversity.

Living at Brithdir Mawr has also brought personal benefits to Lea: “Now I can spend quality time with my children and my wife. I’ve already noticed a real difference in the children. They have really developed their personalities and freedom of expression. They know much more about nature and have really come out of their shells in the time that we’ve been here.”

“Each day is different here. We do all meet as a community at 11 for coffee and then again for dinner. Some people have part-time jobs, others will tend to the garden and our children are home-schooled. We have a community day each week where we do activities together, like apple-picking.”

Brithdir Mawr is being supported by the Wales Co-operative Centre, which has been supporting and championing the growth of co-operative and community-led housing since 2012. In April this year, it launched its Communities Creating Homes programme which aims to stimulate demand for community-led housing throughout Wales. The programme is funded by the Nationwide Foundation and Welsh Government.

With more than 30 schemes already in place across Wales, communities can be created for various purposes and shared visions. Where some schemes have been created to make housing more affordable for residents, others have been developed for people who want improved eco-friendly lifestyles.

Meanwhile, Brithdir Mawr community is planning for the future. It has been there for 25 years but wants to make sure it’ll be there for future generations and continue the message of sustainability by purchasing the lease for the 80-acre site. The residents have launched a crowdfunding campaign to try and raise funds to buy the land they live on and are hoping to raise £1million to purchase the site.

Go to www.crowdfunder.co.uk/save-brithdir-mawr for more information and how you can support Brithdir Mawr. Visit https://wales.coop/co-operative-community-led-housing/ for more information on community-led housing schemes and how they work.

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Firefighters tackle blaze at St Clears

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A FIRE broke out in a commercial garage at Lower St Clears this morning (Monday).

Firefighters were called to the fire in Bridge Street at around 8.18am. Crews from Carmarthen, Whitland, Tenby, Crymych and Pembroke Dock attended to tackle the blaze.

A spokesperson for the Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service, said: “Firefighters extinguished the fire using four breathing apparatus, two hose reel jets, two thermal imaging cameras and one safety jet. Two environmental kits and small gear were also used by crews during the incident.

“The police, ambulance service and Western Power were also in attendance. The fire service left the incident at 11.33am.”

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Haverfordwest man accused of robbing a teenage boy

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A HAVERFORDWEST man is to stand trial accused of trying to rob a 13-year-old boy.

Ry Robert Williams, aged 27, was before Judge Keith Thomas at Swansea Crown Court today via a video link with the city’s prison where he is being held on remand.

Williams, of Peregrine Close, denied attempting to rob the youth of an unspecified amount of money on July 5. Judge Thomas said on Friday (Nov 15) that his trial would begin on January 30 and Williams was further remanded in custody.

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