Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Anglesey's "Schofield-gate": raised in First Minister's Questions

The Ombudsman's decision to drop a controversial case against Cllr Elwyn Schofield, made by the Welsh Government's appointed troubleshooter to Anglesey Council, David Bowles, was raised today in Cardiff by Mark Isherwood AM during First Minister's Questions:

Question By Mark Isherwood AM :
"How do you respond to the Public Service Ombudsman for Wales decision at the end of last week to drop a case against Anglesey Councillor, Elwyn Schofield on grounds that the evidence was contradictory and largely uncorroborated. A case brought by the Welsh Government appointed former Interim Managing Director, who also produced a Terms of Engagement obliging council group leaders to sign which forced them to 'Publicly and Robustly' condemn this Councillor and other named Councillors, which led to, ultimately, the appointment of the Commissioners, the postponement of the local elections and the drastic boundary Changes."

Answer from Carwyn Jones, First Minister:
"Well [splutter, splutter]. I don't wish to comment on something that's been done by the Ombudsman or finding made by the Ombudsman, that's a matter for the Local Authority."

(Watch it for yourself here from about 20 minutes in).

Carwyn Jones sidesteps the question as he wasn't being asked to comment on the Ombudsman's decision, but on the judgement of the then most well paid civil servant in Wales, David Bowles, who had been sent in by the Welsh Government to solve Anglesey County Councils problems but ended up making them far, far worse. 

The issue was raised for a second time later on during Business Questions when Janet-Finch Saunders AM called on Carl Sargeant, the Welsh Minister for Local Government, to make a statement on the matter.

Had what happened on Ynys Môn under the direction of a Welsh Government Viceroy happened in any South Wales council it would have been a major scandal. Because it happened in Anglesey it has been largely ignored. That might be about to change.

Watch this space.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

++ Ombudsman drops case against Cllr Elwyn Schofield ++

The Public Services Ombudsman for Wales has dramatically decided to drop its case against Elwyn Schofield, the County Councillor for Llanerchymedd.

A section of the Terms of Enagagement: Coucillors were encouraged to publically
name and shame Cllr Schofield before the case was even submitted to the Ombudsman!

The case against him was put together by David Bowles, the Welsh Government appointed interim Managing Director to Anglesey County Council until last year. Not content with just referring Cllr Schofield to the Ombudsman, Mr Bowles also effectively ordered Councillors to "robustly name and shame" Cllr Schofield, eject him from their Groupings, and "take any and all opportunities to expose and marginalise" him as part of the controversial 'Terms of Engagement' he had drawn up to regulate councillor behaviour. It was the introduction of this disastrous document which caused an extraordinary and irreparable fissure amongst councillors, leading over time directly to the Welsh Government's decision to impose Commissioners on Ynys Môn, the unprecedented decision to postpone local elections here, and the outright attempt to 'rig' the local electoral boundaries on the Island.

A document from the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, dated 20th February 2012, which summarises their decision not to pursue the case against Mr Schofield any further says:
"The evidence obtained did not conclusively support the allegations in the complaint or completely exonerate Councillor Schofield of the allegations against him. The evidence in the main was contradictory and largely uncorroborated. In these circumstances the Ombudsman found that a referral to the Standards Committee or Adjudication Panel for Wales was not appropriate."
It is known that Mr Bowles, the most well paid Civil Servant in Wales at the time, spent a great deal of public money pursuing this case against Cllr Schofield — therefore for the Ombudsman's office to now say that the evidence was "contradictory and largely uncorroborated" and that pursuing it any further was "not appropriate" seriously calls into question the judgement of Mr Bowles and those in the Welsh Government who appointed him.

Considering the dramatic and unwelcome knock-on effects Mr Bowles decision making has had on our governance here in Ynys Môn it must surely be time for those within the Council who were party to the drafting of the Terms of Engagement to consider their positions. Likewise it is now also absolutely clear that the Welsh Government's interventions into Ynys Môn been both ruinously expensive and disastrously inept. Will they take any responsibility for the mess they have been more than partially responsible in creating?

Mr Bowles' full 'Terms of Engagement' are below:
Terms of Engagement

Monday, 20 February 2012

Elections denied, Anglesey hit by LARGEST Council Tax rise in entire United Kingdom

Today Anglesey's Commissioners and the Shadow Executive agreed to raise next year's Council tax by 4.5 percent. This means that while we are denied an election, the third POOREST county in the United Kingdom will be hit with the LARGEST council tax rise not just in Wales, but in the entire United Kingdom.

Council Tax rises from April this year

In fact a rise of 5 percent was supported by Labour and Plaid Cymru — it is only thanks to pressure from the Independents that it was eventually reduced down to a still massive 4.5 percent. In the council press release, Commissioner Byron Davies justified the rise by arguing it is necessary to safeguard the Island's three swimming pools and also spare public toilets from the axe.

However thats not the explanation for the this extraordinary rise. These are the real reasons:

  • The Commissioners have failed to deliver on £1.2 million worth of savings they were mandated to make this year. As a consequence of this, £600,000 has had to be covered by dipping into the council's bank account, £281,000 was judged to have been unachievable anyway, and the remaining £368,000 now needs to be found in addition to the further savings required next year. As £250,000 is roughly equivalent to one percentage point on Anglesey's council tax, this failure to deliver by the Commissioners has added an extra one and half percentage points to next year's bills.
  • The Commissioners, under direction from Cardiff, have further decided to spend an additional £1 million on 'strengthening' the 'Corporate Centre'. £300,000 of this will go on improving Children's services — something nobody will quibble with — however the remaining £600,000 (worth two and half percentage points on your council tax bill) will mostly be spent on hiring more HQ staff.
  • Despite the above additional costs being placed on Anglesey by Cardiff, Ynys Môn council this year received the second worse funding settlement from the Welsh Government — a cut of -1.2% compared to an average increase to other Welsh councils of 0.58%.
  • The Welsh Government has long complained that Ynys Môn has kept its Council Tax too low. In my view this has always been justified by the fact that Ynys Môn has long been officially the poorest place in the country. However, by sanctioning the largest council tax rise in the United Kingdom, the Commissioners have clearly shown that they are here not to do their best by the residents of Ynys Môn, but to best serve the interests of the Welsh Government in Cardiff.

Furthermore, despite being more than partially responsible for the need for such a large rise, both the unaccountable Commissioners and Carl Sargeant, the Welsh Minister for Local Government, have strong-armed Councillors into acquiescing to the largest Council Tax rise in the UK by stressing that it would be an "acid test" of their political maturity (a lack of debate apparently shows maturity). The carrot of a partial return of powers (and special allowances) was also dangled before the shadow executive.

This budget will now go to a vote before the Full Council on March 6th. Despite opposition from Labour and Plaid who supported the original 5 percent rise, the Independents have done well to get it cut down to 4.5 percent — however they have shied away from provoking any further confrontation with the Commissioners and Cardiff. However, with completely new local boundaries being forced onto Anglesey next year specifically to get rid of Independent councillors, I wonder why they feel they have anything more to lose? They cannot be penalised any further by Cardiff — it would be better for their electoral chances next year if they returned to their traditional low tax roots and made a stand on behalf of Anglesey residents by voting against this rise on March 6th. These rises are not purely to safeguard services and facilities, therefore it surely cannot be right to impose the single largest council tax increase in the entire United Kingdom on its third poorest area.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Dafydd Elis-Thomas, Pylons, and the perils of Google Street View.

A very interesting 'Yr Byd ar Bedwar' on S4C this evening dealing with various aspects of the protests against wind turbines on Ynys Môn. At the end of the programme, Plaid Cymru leadership contender Dafydd Elis-Thomas was interviewed and dismissed concerns that giant wind turbines would destroy the landscape by saying that where he lived in Dyffryn Conwy he was surrounded by pylons.

Well, as Elis-Thomas's address is published on the Assembly election nomination papers, we can take a look at the actual view over his house:

Dafydd Elis-Thomas's house, nestled somewhere in the trees in the centre of this image

Bechod! Must be awful to be surrounded by so many pylons...

Friday, 10 February 2012

Ynys Môn Council wind turbine consultation - last chance to take part TODAY

If you have strong feelings either way about wind turbines on Ynys Môn, you still have until 5pm today to take part in the consultation on the subject behing held by Anglesey County Council.

All details are here. You don't have to use the consultation form provided, you can respond by simply emailing your thoughts to: planningpolicy@gwynedd.gov.uk

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Whither 'Energy Island' as 250 protest wind turbines (& other energy projects) outside Anglesey County Council

Over 250 Ynys Môn residents joined this afternoon's mass demonstration outside the Council offices to protest against the large number of planning applications which have been submitted on the Island for ‘monster’ wind turbines of up to 100 metres (330 ft) in height — the equivalent of almost four Marquis of Anglesey’s Columns stacked one on top of the other. The large turnout on a weekday furthermore proves that Ynys Môn residents are far more concerned about wind turbines than they are about Wylfa B.

The protesters sought to highlight Anglesey County Council’s lack of preparedness for dealing with these industrial-sized turbines and to encourage residents to participate in the council’s ongoing consultation on new planning guidelines for wind turbines. The demonstration was timed to coincide with the last meeting of the council’s Planning Committee before the end of the consultation on February 10th.

Peboc biomass protesters
Significantly, for the first time, members of all the major energy project protest groups on Anglesey joined forces. Wind Turbine protesters were joined by people from Bodffordd against the Anaerobic Digestion plant and also Llangefni residents protesting against the massive proposed Biomass plant at Peboc. This highlights the fact I have stressed before that Anglesey County Council has got itself into a real mess with its Energy Island strategy because the majority of energy projects actually coming to Ynys Môn:

  • are massively oversized — whether a 100m wind turbine or a 180,000 tonne biomass plant 
  • deliver no discernible green benefits considering the long distances the source materials need to travel (wood coming from Nova Scotia, Canada, in the case of the proposed Peboc plant; abattoir waste from Powys in the case of the Bodffordd AD plant)
  • ultimately provide relatively few low-skilled, manual jobs without a proper assessment of the overall net effect on jobs (wind turbines in particular will generate no jobs at all on Ynys Môn)
  • require the shipping into Anglesey of large amounts of unpleasant waste (the Peboc biomass plant alone estimates 78 daily deliveries of wood; 5 daily deliveries of tallow and vegetable oil, and 88 trips related to the shipping of pellets. Thats a helluva lot of HGVs everyday)
  • do not lead to Ynys Môn becoming a 'Centre of Excellence' in any of these technologies
  • potentially have a dubious effect on tourism and other businesses

A senior councillor candidly admitted to me today, "the council has been caught with its pants down with these turbines". I agree. Now, as today's joint protests prove, its time for a major rethink of both Anglesey's planning and Energy Island policies. Ynys Môn needs a coherent strategy which will both protect existing industries (such as tourism) whilst also leading to the Island becoming a Centre of Excellence for emerging renewables technologies (like the tidal schemes at the Skerries) — and not a dustbin for unwanted, over-large, under-employing and inappropriately sited energy projects.

UPDATE: Some remarkable photos of the protest have been posted by Glyn Davies, Ynys Môn's most celebrated landscape photographer. More on his blog here.

Photo: Glyn Davies