Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Pitfalls of a Council's Constitution.

We have heard a lot about proceedings at Carmarthenshire County Council by Y Cneifiwr and Caebrwyn and how senior officers and the ruling administration use them quite effectively to limit what can be discussed. A council's constitution is full of such 'blocking devices,' as I found out at a full meeting on Wrecsam Council last Monday night.

I had submitted a motion to the Full Council nearly two weeks before calling for a certain Standing Order of the Council to be changed, suspended or deleted, this would have allowed broadcasting and transmitting in council meetings or in particular an effort to legalise the use of Twitter. Both myself and several journalists had fallen foul of this particular Standing Order by tweeting from council meetings and had led to the new look Daily Post mounting an openness and transparency campaign  It was therefore all very timely to bring a motion to help that campaign along.

All was hunky dory up to the night of the meeting when an amendment to our motion was name or party had signed the motion and no one seemed to know who had written it (including members of the ruling coalition!). The amendment although a step in the right direction was a little more than a 'fudge' but at least it promised a report to the May AGM...I think they said May 2013! I subsequently moved the motion followed by a short speech outlining how silly a prohibition on social media was in this day and age.

Once the motion had been moved and seconded up popped Labour Councillor Malcolm King the Lead Member for Corporate Governance who apparently was the owner of the amendment. Instead of proposing his amendment Councillor King, went on to call on the council's legal officer to comment on the motion. What happened next was that my motion was ruled out because it contravened another Standing Order.
This Standing Order said that any motion to change or delete a Standing Order moved by anyone other than the Executive or a Committee could not be considered at the meeting in which it was moved; so my motion would have to have been heard in the next Full Council. But no, none of that; Councillor King moved his amendment, seconded by the Council Leader Neil Rogers (obviously taking my motion rather seriously!).
A number of speakers (from the administration and the Lib Dems) then spoke against my motion, before I was invited to sum up. Knowing which way the wind was blowing and that a step in the right direction was better than nothing I withdrew my motion under protest and agreed to support the amendment which was passed unanimously.

Since the meeting I have had time to reflect on what went on (it was quite surreal at the time) and have asked myself two questions, one, why was I not told in the nearly two weeks between submission and debate that the motion was not correct or acceptable. Secondly, how can one accept an amendment to a motion which does not comply with Standing Orders? And further how can a vote be allowed, surely what went on is wrong in law!

I don't know the answers to the questions at the moment, I will have to await my meeting with the Chief Executive.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Don't read all about it... more jobs go with Trinity Mirror cuts

One story about job cuts you probably won't read in the Daily Post today is about redundancies at the Daily Post.
 Our regional paper is part of the Trinity Mirror empire, which runs the Daily Mirror, Sunday People and Western Mail as well as most of our weekly papers, including Wales on Sunday.
 For many years the bottom line has been all-important to its bosses with constant cutting back on the people who make the papers worth reading - the journalists.
 The Western Mail will lose 16 jobs and the Daily Post will also lose posts as it re-locates some work back to Liverpool. Content, we're told, will now be non-local... which stupid executive thought that would help to sell local papers?
 The last thing people want when they buy their local paper is to find out what's happening hundreds of miles away.
 The Daily Post has built up an solid track record recently of local patch reporters who know a good story and a campaigning attitude that challenges the authorities, whether it be Betsi Cadwaladr health board, the Welsh Government or secretive local councils.
 We need a healthy independent media to challenge and scrutinise and tell a balanced story about what's happening in our communities. That's not going to be happening very soon as the big corporations look to squeeze the last penny of profit from newspapers.
 If the mainstream press fails us, it's time for an online alternative.

PS If you want an idea of how out of touch the bean counters have become, the new posts in Liverpool will be for "community content curators" rather than journalists. 

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

£3.24million for Singleton Neonatal Unit

I have just come across this press release by the Welsh Government announcing a £3.24 million investment in the neonatal intensive care at Singleton Hospital at Swansea, one of three units serving the South and South West Wales. 

Any investment in neonatal intensive care wherever it is must be welcomed and a similar investment in the neonatal intensive care unit at Glan Clwyd and the Maelor would be equally welcomed rather than the badly costed, flawed proposal to transfer the service to Arrowe Park on the Wirral.

We can only wish for a quality Neonatal Unit like Singleton's with 12 to 18 high dependency cots in North Wales, which is considerably more than what Arrowe Park intend to provide if and when the Health Board transfers the service. 

I wonder how easy it was for the Health Minister to make the following statement knowing full well that one of HER Health Boards was hell bent on dismantling a similar service in HER constituency?

“Investing in neonatal care is vital if we are to provide consistent and sustainable high-quality care for sick babies in Wales. 
“The Welsh Government has been working with all health boards and the neonatal network to address the pressures on the network over the past six months. Improvements have been made to the service in Wales, such as the introduction of a cot locator system and a neonatal transport service in north and south Wales. 
“The £3.241 million I am announcing today will provide a safe, sustainable and high quality service to support babies and their families in the Abertawe Bro Morgannwg Health Board area.”
Seriously ill babies in Wales should not be the subject of a post code lottery and should have access to the best service wherever they live. Lesley Griffiths should provide a similar level of investment to all Level 3 Neonatal Intensive Care Units in Wales and not seek to export services to a country that does not share the values that we hold dear in Wales; a National Health Service not a privatised health service based on market competition that hospitals like Arrowe Park will soon become.

UNISON Elections.

The position of Chair of UNISON's North Wales Health Branch is subject of a contest this year with the current Chairperson being challenged. With all the proposed changes going on in the 18,000 strong Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, it is without doubt a demanding and challenging role requiring a person of exceptional qualities to work closely with all stakeholders. One of the candidates for the role clearly hasn't thought through the job description and describes her intention in her CV to:
"Work closely with our Labour AM's" 
Clearly the candidate is totally unaware that the only North Wales AM's that are fighting hard to protect health services are the 8 non Labour Assembly Members that she has no intention of working closely with!

With the honourable exception of Ann Jones AM the other North Wales Labour AM's have remained remarkably silent on the crisis facing the health services in North Wales.

Let's hope UNISON Health Branch members across North Wales re-elect their current Chairperson, staff deserve to be represented by some who is inclusive and not someone who follows narrow partisan doctrine.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Wrecsam Council makes Rotten Boroughs!

Am I right in thinking that Wrecsam Council are the first of Wales's 22 Local Authorities to make the pages of Private Eye in 2013, thus beating Wales's pariah council Carmarthenshire for this illustrious honour?

This will not be the last contribution as the Labour led coalition struggle to convince people that they are up to the job of running a council.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

More on Labour's U-turn...

We have previously highlighted the Labour government's complete U-turn on the shortfall of 10% in Council tax benefit here and here, but no one has asked the question why the change of heart from less than a month ago when I had the following twitter conversation with the Local Government Minister Carl Sergeant; where he was absolutely adamant there was no cash available to make up for the shortfall:

Was it a genuine conscientious concern about the poorest and most vulnerable in our society or was it more to do with internal Welsh Labour party polling which showed that, rather than blaming the Con Dems in London the people of Wales were actually blaming the Welsh Labour Government for the shambles that the Council Tax benefit saga had become.

Whilst we in Plaid Cymru welcome the u-turn (something that Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM has campaigned on for months), we must also use our role to scrutinise the Government to ascertain exactly how many more 'million pound slush funds' the government has to prop up its popularity.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Nolan Show - The Worst of Unionism!

Plaid pressure forces Labour U-turn on Council Tax Benefits

In a week where many people have lost their jobs or face an uncertain future at high street chains like Blockbuster, Jessops and HMV, this help for those on benefits will be very welcome. It's a shame it took Labour so long...

 Plaid Cymru Leader Leanne Wood AM has welcomed a last minute U-turn from the Welsh Government on funding the gap in Council Tax Benefits.
 Ms Wood pointed to the sustained pressure that the First Minister has come under from Plaid Cymru since April last year when the party first called for action to protect pensioners and other claimants from cuts to Council Tax Benefits. 
While welcoming the climb-down from the government Leanne expressed disappointment that it had taken so long for the decision to be reached during which time many claimants in Wales would have been worried about facing the prospect in a cut to their household budget. 
Plaid Cymru Leader, Leanne Wood AM, said:
“This U turn from the government is a victory for all those who joined with Plaid Cymru to campaign against the cuts to Council Tax Benefits. It is welcome news that the First Minister has finally bowed to sustained pressure from Plaid Cymru and has agreed to fund the gap that would have caused the cuts.  Plaid Cymru has long argued that action should be taken to protect people, many of them pensioners, from these cuts.  Rhodri Glyn Thomas, who speaks for the Party of Wales on these matters, first called for action back in April last year, it is frankly inexplicable that the government had refused to listen to our calls until now.  It has been a very worrying time for the people across Wales who have been faced with the prospect of a cut to their household budget. 
“Last week I challenged the First Minister on this issue during Questions in the Senedd.  I reminded him of his promise to the Welsh electorate that he would stand up for them against the UK government’s cuts.  I warned him that by failing to fund the gap in Council Tax Benefit he was singularly failing in his one chance to live up to his word.  By failing to fund the gap in Council Tax Benefit he would be failing to protect a quarter of a million households in Wales from cuts. 
“As the SNP government has done in Scotland, a Plaid Cymru government would have planned from the start to fund this gap, thereby protecting people from the cut to Council Tax Benefit.  It is welcome news today that the government has finally decided to adopt our policy of funding the gap although it is disappointing that it took them so long to listen to our calls.  It must have seemed like a very long time indeed for many of the people who were facing these cuts in households where every single penny counts.”

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

D-Day for local health services on Friday

Friday will be D-Day for many of our local health services. On Friday morning, the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board will meet to decide whether to centralise and downgrade local health services in keeping with a model that the Cardiff Labour Government are looking to impose.

The services most directly affected by this downgrading will be several community hospitals, including Llangollen and Fflint. These are just two scheduled to close with the carrot of "enhanced home care" to replace them. There has been a trial of enhanced home care in the Rhyl and Prestatyn area and it was very popular with patients. But this was only affordable in a small area from the capital receipts from the sale of the Alexandra Hospital in Rhyl. If it was to be rolled out across the region, the health board would soon be bankrupt.

The other carrot are new health centres but there is little in the consultation to explain how these would be financed. The best guess is that the Welsh Government will fund them, despite a 41% cut in its own capital budget due to UK Government spending cuts. For a health board that is already £60 million in debt, there is little prospect of finding tens of millions to build new health centres - Llangollen's alone is estimated at £5m.

So the likelihood is that patients who would have used the community hospital will be transferred to nursing homes, which are also at capacity and struggling. With a growing elderly population, upgraded community hospitals should be an essential component of the local health service - not according to this flawed model.

Before moving on to the other major problem with the proposals - the moving of neonatal intensive care to Arrowe Park in England - let's consider why Betsi Cadwaladr and Hywel Dda (in Mid and West Wales) are having to impose a metropolitan model on a largely rural area.

Back in 2007, Plaid Cymru successfully halted Labour's plans to close and centralise NHS services. It did so by winning the political argument and campaigning at grassroots level. The One Wales agreement that same year had a commitment not to close community hospitals.

Once Labour took sole control of the Assembly Government in 2011, it reverted to type and went for local health services again. This time, the Health Minister Lesley Griffiths got the health boards to do Labour's dirty work.

The huge reaction against the proposals has been most clearly articulated around the community hospitals. In Flint  2,000 people marched against the closure plans. They, like other communities across the North, have seen that their Labour AM have been deafening in their silence. The good people of Flint decided to take their message to their AM, Sandy Mewies. Watch the video and watch a politician being skewered by the people.

The other huge issue is moving neonatal intensive care from the North to Arrowe Park. This is a move opposed by clinicians in Betsi, the Royal College of Nursing, the British Medical Association as well as thousands of ordinary people. The only people seemingly in favour are a section of the health board. Why? Arrowe Park does not have a long history as a Level 3 Special Care Baby Unit, it has had some damning internal criticism and its ratio of nurses to babies compares unfavourably with both Glan Clwyd and Wrecsam.

The cost of caring for these very sick neonates under the terms of the contract drawn up between Betsi and Arrowe Park was an eye-watering £1240 a day - significantly higher than the £1024 it currently charges. The annual contract was estimated to cost £1.1m.

Such a move will probably endanger lives, cause huge hardship and stress for families with sick babies at Arrowe Park for a long period, de-skill existing staff and damage morale on the three SCBUs left in the North. The failure to recruit enough skilled doctors points to a failure of management at the highest level.

So on Friday morning we will see whether the proposals are approved. They may then be subject to a formal objection by the Community Health Council - a largely toothless watchdog. If that is the case, then the final decision rests with Wrecsam AM Lesley Griffiths, the Health Minister.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

More Liberal Democrat Hypocrisy.

Nothing that any Liberal Democrat does or says surprises me anymore (hardened by reading Peter Black blogs) but even I was astounded... and lost for words when I read a very recent tweet by Mark Williams the little known Liberal Democrat MP for Ceredigion who tweeted:

My Council Colleagues inform me that Ceredigion is considering a Council Tax Increase of 3% in the upcoming budget. What do you all think?
I replied to his blatant politically partisan tweet, that he had the gall to ask such a question when all local authorities in Wales are having to consider higher than average council tax settlements; exactly because Mark Williams and his Liberal Democrat colleagues in Westminster have enthusiastically supported the Tories' nasty agenda of villifying the poor and cutting benefits.

Believe it or not Mr Williams but Local Authorities like Ceredigion are having to step in to protect the poor and vulnerable because you have failed misreably to represent their interests.

Shame on you Mr Williams!

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Gatewen opens the floodgates on affordable housing

The decision by Wrecsam Council's planning committee to allow Morston Assets to reduce the number of affordable homes on the huge Gatewen Village site to just 5% opens the floodgates for every developer to try it on.
 The developer argued that the site was no longer viable because of the housing slump unless it was allowed to reduce the number of affordable housing from 20% (already below the normal 25% allocation) to 5%.
 A confidential viability study paid for the developer apparently backed up the proposal.
 The site has permission for 236 homes, so the number of affordable houses - available at 85% of market value - drops from 46 to just 11.
 Councillors voted without seeing the viability study and shockingly didn't ask to see it. Therefore on what basis could they assess whether the site was viable or not.
 If we assume the affordable houses were 2-bedroom houses or flats costing £100,000 on the open market, then the "affordability" element is just £15,000 per home. That £15,000 would normally be met by a housing grant but that has been cut by the Welsh Government.
 This element of the site amounts to under £500,000. Is that really the difference between the site - where five-bedroom houses are being sold for £250,000 - being profitable and unprofitable?
 Regardless of the hidden economics of this particular site, what the unquestioning councillors on the planning committee have done is open the floodgates for every developer to reduce their affordable houses quota.

Labour AM backs Plaid campaign to scrap rent subsidy

Good to see Clwyd South Labour AM Ken Skates backing our campaign to scrap the Housing Revenue Account subsidy to the UK Treasury that means £11m a year of tenants' money from Wrecsam goes to help councils in England. That's one third of all the money Wrecsam raises from rent every year.
 All but one council in Wales also contributes to this pot and this amounts to £73m a year (Wrecsam is the biggest contributor for historical reasons).
 Mr Skates's support is long overdue - back in July 2011 Plaid was raising this matter in Westminster and getting no support from Labour. Jonathan Edwards MP (Plaid) also called for the system to be scrapped back in November 2010 again without gaining support from Labour.
 Here in Wrecsam, Plaid councillors were campaigning about the "great housing rip-off" back in March 2010 and in September 2010 David Cameron agreed the system was unfair.
 The system has been unfair for the past decade and successive Labour, Lib Dem and Tory ministers in the UK Treasury have done nothing to stop this inequality. During those  last 10 years more than £100m has gone from Wrecsam to prop up council spending in London and Manchester.
 That money could have transformed council housing in Wrecsam - funding improvements, renovations and repairs. It could also have enabled us to build new homes - especially pensioners' bungalows - to meet the huge demand for affordable housing. We know that private developers will not meet that demand.
  But Plaid raised this while Labour was still in power - almost three years ago. That was the time for Labour politicians to join our campaign and change the system, not issue press releases from the comfort of opposition.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The empire strikes back - Tory does Labour's dirty work

When you go into public life, one pre-requisite is a thick skin. When you make stupid decisions in public life, that thick skin is essential.

The current Labour-Tory-independent administration running Wrecsam Council will need to develop an awfully thick skin if the previous week's events are anything to go by.

First they met behind closed doors to approve a higher incremental scale for the most senior officers - at a time when the other 99% are facing pay freezes and redundancy. Anyone questioning the secret deal is met with thin-skinned criticism and accused of being "mischievous". An FOI request for the report is refused on the grounds that the matter is confidential, despite a requirement under the Localism Act to publish the top salary at the council.

It emerges eventually that the new pay scale will allow for an £8,000 a year rise for the chief executive. It is backed by the ruling Labour, Tory and Democratic Independent Group (DIG) coalition.

This combination of council arrogance and incompetence is replicated in a disgraceful decision to raise school bus fares by 54% in one fell swoop - from £5.50 a week to £8.50. It is again backed by Labour, Tory and DIGgers.

But ongoing criticism of both decisions by opposition councillors - including Plaid Cymru's Arfon Jones and independent group leader Dave Bithell - stirs the thin-skinned empire into responding. Apparently, according to the Tory lead member of the cabinet, critics are "cowards"for daring to question backroom deals. The real cowardice is using a Tory to front up a Labour group decision.

The thin-skinned empire patently can't handle any criticism and now chooses to lash out at both councillors and reporters who Twitter accounts of meetings. Never a good sign but that's what happens when you keep making stupid decisions that even your own group isn't happy with.

It's not been a great first six months for Wrecsam's new council, has it?

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Another Secret Deal.

Pay freezes for some but chief executive's pay to rise by £8,000 a year

A council chief executive's pay could rise by £8,000 a year after the Labour-run council approved a deal behind closed doors.

The new pay scale runs up to £125,000 a year for Wrexham Council's chief executive - an increase from the £117,000 maximum pay increment she can currently earn.

Plaid Cymru's Assembly Member Llyr Gruffydd, who campaigned for the figure to be released, said the increase was difficult to accept when other council staff faced year-on-year pay freezes. Mr Gruffydd, the Party of Wales AM for North Wales, said: "When I asked for details of this new pay scale, the council refused and Labour leader Neil Rogers accused me of being mischievous. He also stated 'No senior officers’ pay at this authority has been increased'.

 "It's clear now why the council was so keen to debate this behind closed doors. Labour and their Tory/Democratic Independent Group allies approved the £8,000 increase in pay increments. The council leader's comments about pay increases were misleading to say the least. With the bulk of council workers facing pay freezes, it's one rule for the top few earners and another for the rest."

Councillor David Bithell, Leader of Wrexham Independent Group who put an amendment to council not to accept the pay award, said: "We did not support any increases to senior officers' pay, especially when Wrexham council's workforce  have had a pay freeze for the last three years. It's not right and morally wrong. People in senior positions should set example to the rest of the workforce and refuse this rise."