Monday, 25 January 2010

What "Lettergate" tells us about Anglesey County Council


The background to David Bowles apocalyptic letter to all Ynys Môn councillors has now been widely reported (here for example) and the allegations can best be described as a storm in a teacup.

Of far more interest is the fact that Bowles' letter proves that Anglesey County Council is still actively at war with itself: Councillors against Officers. This comes just months after a damning Corporate Governance report by the Auditor General for Wales and severe warnings form Welsh Assembly local government minister, Dr Brian Gibbons, that unless things improve the council will be taken over and run from Cardiff.

David Bowles has been a controversial figure (there are questions regarding his departure as Chairman of the United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust for instance) but he also appears to be a man of great personal integrity. Whilst Bowles was Chief Executive of Lincolnshire County Council from 1999 to 2004 the then Leader of that Council, Jim Speechley was jailed for 18 months after being convicted of misconduct in public office. It was Bowles who called in the police when Speechley tried to influence the route of a new bypass in a bid to increase the value of the land he owned. For this Bowles was named Private Eye magazine's "2004 Man of Year" - but also effectively hounded out of office. We must also remember that he is an outsider who had never set foot in Anglesey before October last year - yet we are still seeing the same patterns of behaviour by certain Councillors which were first criticised by the Welsh Audit Office over a year ago in January 2009.

Its an absolute disgrace that at a time of absolute economic havoc on the island with over 3,000 jobs having been lost in a very short period of time and the decommissioning of the only other major private sector employer, Wylfa power station, only months away, some of Anglesey's Councillors are content to expend their time and energy pursuing pathetic little vendettas. Anglesey needs and deserves better than this.

There needs to be far greater scrutiny of our Councillors. They collectively control a budget of almost £170 million and are responsible for, among other things, the education of our children, health and social care issues, planning, leisure facilities, our island environment and so on.  However during the last local council elections in 2008 seven of the 40 Councillors (i.e. almost 20%) were returned to office unopposed. This is surely not good for democracy. 

Furthermore, with the exception of Labour and Plaid Cymru councillors, they do not divide along party political lines but instead sit in opaque factions with names such as:

  • Original Independents (Annibynol Gwreiddiol)
  • Menai
  • Anglesey Forward
  • and a couple of 'Unaffiliateds'

What policies each of these groups actually stand for is a mystery to virtually all voters - which makes the decision of who to vote for especially difficult.

The Council is in financial crisis having to find £2.1 million in cuts this year (necessitating a 2% cut in the critical Education budget causing the closure of several local schools) whilst at the same time raising Council Tax levels by 15% over three years. Yet some of our Councillors appear complacent and wholly engrossed in factional infighting - in other words they are fiddling whilst Môn burns. Come the next local council elections in May 2012 the Druid hopes that Anglesey residents will take the opportunity to permanently eject those Councillors who are clearly not taking their responsibilities seriously.


For those who have the stomach to bear it, a timeline of the whole sorry affair is set out below:

Timeline of Crisis at Anglesey County Council

January 20, 2010: Anglesey County Council Managing Director, David Bowles, sends a letter to all councillors stating:

The council "has been bedevilled by personality driven, petty parochial vindictive factional infighting. This is a disgraceful example of an attempt to use an officer as the meat in the middle of the sandwich of personality driven infighting; even worse those involved see nothing wrong with dragging an officer's personal and private life into these matters … I did consider marking this letter Private and Confidential but decided against it on the basis that it would get leaked anyway. I regret having to write to all Members in these terms rather than just the few but that is a consequence of how the few conduct themselves … Those few who put their petty spiteful factional infighting above the interests of the island have no place on this council...".

It transpires certain councillors had been questioning his housing arrangement prompting the above furious reaction.

December 29, 2009: David Bowles reports "Significant progress has already been made in a number of areas which will help move the authority forward, improve relationships, self regulation and reputation." He eats these words one month later.

October 2009: David Bowles appointed new interim Managing Director of Anglesey County Council by Welsh Assembly Local Government Minister, Dr Brian Gibbons.

July 21, 2009:  Welsh Assembly Local Government Minister, Dr Brian Gibbons, meets with senior Anglesey County Council councillors and officials to discuss the damning Auditor General’s report.  He announces that a "Recovery Board" will now be set up to oversee the council’s operations and oversee the implement over 18 months of a seven-point plan drawn up by the Wales Audit Office. If this is not done he warns that the Welsh Assembly could impose sanctions including direct rule from Cardiff.

June 2009:  A corporate governance report on Anglesey County Council by Jeremy Colman, Auditor General for Wales, is released. In it he says the council has a history of “not being properly run” and was dogged by poor behaviour by a small number of councillors. It also adds all these issues had been left largely unaddressed since the council was established in 1996 – despite a number of previous external reviews.

June 20, 2009: Following a FOI request the contents of former Council Leader Phil Fowlie's letter of December 18, 2008, to the Welsh Auditor Office are revealed. This prompts nine members of the County Council corporate management team to respond with their own letter to executive members and the WAO's Mr Morris, describing the allegations as “demonstrably false”. Further they state that far from wanting the executive to fail, any failure of the executive would have been “our failure”. They say the executive had not let senior officers know their expectations. They deny claims the Human Resources department was failing over staff sickness and said the council had secured a substantial reduction in absences. Furthermore they absolutely deny the “Graigwen” allegations.

May 5, 2009: Former police superintendent, Cllr Clive McGregor, is appointed unopposed as the new Council Leader. He pledges to “steer a steady course through choppy waters” and said he hoped all 40 members could now work together to get the council through an investigation, adding “I don’t want Anglesey to continue to be disgraced in the media."

April 29, 2009: Anglesey Council Leader, Cllr Phil Fowlie, announces he is to step down on health grounds

April 8, 2009:  Council Chief Executive, Mr Derrick Jones, leaves his £120,000 a year position "by mutual consent".

March 25, 2009:  Council Opposition leader, John Chorlton, sends an open letter to all Anglesey county councillors claiming there is a "vendetta" to oust Chief Executive Derrick Jones. He claims Council Leader Phil Fowlie and Cllr Bob Parry told him they wanted to end Jones's contract at an upcoming extraordinary meeting of the full council. In his letter Chorlton says Derrick Jones is “the victim of a small group of councillors who are on a path of vendetta against those willing to stand up to them … This is my appeal to those councillors who are sitting on the fence and letting this happen. They have to use their vote now to stop this happening. I have spoken to them and they can give me no good reason why he should go.”

January 2009: The Welsh Audit Office "Annual Letter" on Anglesey County Council is published detailing an "erosion of trust" between executive members and ruling councillors. It said tensions between some executive members and corporate officers had seen a breakdown in communications at the top level:

Difficulties in relationships between some Executive Members and senior officers ... have prevented us from completing this work. This was partly because many councillors were unwilling to participate in planned workshops due to tensions between them and some senior officers. This has led us to the interim conclusion that the Council does not appear to have unified political and managerial leadership. We have come to this conclusion because:

  • the absence of unified leadership has the potential to cause reputational damage and deflect senior officer and member time away from providing the necessary corporate governance of the Council; and

  • there appears to have been an erosion of trust between some senior councillors and officers.
    This lack of unified leadership has become apparent during the preparation of this Annual Letter. During the drafting of the Letter the Appointed Auditor and Relationship Manager have had separate meetings with and comments from the Executive Members and the management team. The comments received from the Council Leader on behalf of the Executive Members are very critical of many of the actions of the corporate management team. This situation illustrates the erosion of trust and effective communication between some members and officers.

It further warns that the situation risked damaging the reputation of the local authority and recommended that the Auditor General, Jeremy Colman, should be brought in to inspect.

December 18, 2008: Council Leader Phil Fowlie sends a confidential letter to Alan Morris of the Welsh Audit Office alleging:

  • Officers wanted some, if not all the executive to fail
  • Officers dragged their heels over implementing the island’s school re-organisation programme
  • Officers failed to offer “any assistance” to the executive on governing Anglesey council
  • Officers failed to attempt to resolve a “serious issue with sickness” with council staff
  • The corporate management team displayed a lack of “honesty” and “integrity”, in the manner in which they handled the “Graigwen” issue.

The contents of this letter only became public in June 2009 following a Freedom Of Information (FOI) request. The essence of the matter seems to be that Chief Executive Derrick Jones is seen as being closer to the Opposition than the ruling Original Independent and Plaid Cymru coalition.

December 2008: Cllr McGregor writes a stinging letter to managing director Derrick Jones suggesting officers were covering up issues on Graigwen. The letter states:

"Graigwen is one of several issues highlighted by Price Waterhouse Coopers, where this authority has serious corporate governance issues. As a new councillor and executive member I have been dismayed by the obvious distrust shown to us by senior officers. It pains me greatly but doesn't surprise me given that the issues surrounding Graigwen have eroded whatever trust and confidence there might be between the ruling administration and certain members of the corporate management team. It may be that we require a police investigation into the issue as offences of malfeasance in public office would appear to be made out. It is only then that confidence in the Isle of Anglesey County Council would be apparent."

May 2008: Cllr Phil Fowlie becomes Council Leader as head of a coalition of Original Independents and Plaid Cymru after the May 2008 local elections.

August 2007: The Graigwen property in Amlwch is purchased in auction for £300,000 by Anglesey County Council. Bidding against the council officers was Cllr Elwyn Schofield, now the authority’s property portfolio holder, who at the time had not attended council meetings for months due to a long term illness. Questions are immediately asked as to why it was bought as the Council already has access to its other property and because Graigwen is built on solid rock and therefore not developable.

July 2007: At an executive meeting, council officers were sanctioned to take part in an auction to purchase a property in Amlwch, called "Graigwen", in order to give the council access to its own land behind the house. However at a later date it transpires that this meeting was technically incorrect as the wrong councillor chaired the meeting:  The then Council Leader, Cllr Gareth Winston Roberts, declared an interest in the decision as Graigwen is in his constituency of Amwlch, and brought in council chairman Cllr WJ Williams to chair the meeting, instead of deputy leader Cllr John Meirion Davies. Cllr Gareth Winston Roberts later admits that the deputy leader should have chaired the meeting in his place, not the chairman, who was meant to be politically neutral and not part of discussions on the executive committee. The controversial decision of who chaired the meeting later was cleared by the auditors Price Waterhouse Coopers, as they decided the mistake not to pass the decision to the deputy leader was only a technical breach, and the decision would have been the same whoever had sat in the chair.

November 2006: Derrick Jones appointed Managing Director of Anglesey County Council.

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