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Leader’s updated response to WAO Report

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Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 13.45.44ON MONDAY (Feb 1) Carmarthenshire County Council’s Executive Board received the report of the Wales Audit Office on the Council’s governance arrangements.

Executive Board members were gratified, it is fair to say predictably, by the positive tenor of the report, particularly with regard to the progress the Council is making towards improving its openness and transparency.

After the meeting, The Herald asked Council Leader Emlyn Dole for his personal response to the report’s content, its recommendations, and what it said about the progress Carmarthenshire County Council has made.

Noting that much had been made about the shift in the Council’s approach to both governance and culture by Plaid Cymru’s press release responding to the WAO report, we asked to what extent Plaid inherited an improving situation and to what extent it had seized the initiative and gone further than Labour might have with the same WLGA report which prompted the announcement of the 39 Steps for improvement piloted by Cllr Dole.

The Council Leader told us: “Yes, you’re absolutely correct the WLGA report was commissioned by the previous administration. The obvious question to ask is what might have been the motivation behind that request.

“As Leader of the Opposition, I regularly called for far greater openness and transparency and I recognised that this could not be achieved without a significant cultural change on the part of the administration. There was definitely a perception that the Authority was being led by officers and in turn this raised the question about the extent to which Executive Board members had a hold on and an understanding of their portfolios.”

Reflecting on the previous administration, Emlyn Dole told us: “Quite frankly there appeared to be a complete lack of leadership under the Labour led administration of the time. The Labour portfolio holders seemed to be completely out of their depth and that was one of the concerns that I was raising.

“When I took over as Leader of the Plaid Group I was determined to offer a constructive and positive opposition and I believe that the decision to commission an independent report on governance was made more as a response to our opposition than out of the goodness of Kevin Madge’s heart.

“I am absolutely certain that he would have been advised at the time that the political pressure being applied by an effective opposition made the commissioning of that report a political imperative.”

But was the situation improving?

Cllr Dole’s answer was unequivocal: “Did we inherit an improving situation in May 2015? No we didn’t. “The Council seemed to be in disarray with no coherent political leadership with no clear sense of direction. This Corporate Assessment is set in the present tense. It is an assessment based on the performance of the current Administration, not the previous one.”

Pointing to the Report’s findings, Cllr Dole told us: “I would point out two things: The recommendations of the cross party committee which considered the WLGA Report came before full Council for implementation under this Administration and just to quote from the Corporate Assessment Report:

  1. Increasingly collective leadership is supporting a revised vision for Carmarthenshire and sustaining a culture of improvement.
  2. The Council’s current administration was formed in May 2015 and is providing strong and coherent leadership and direction.
  3. The new Executive Board and the refreshed Corporate Management Team work well together. Relationships between members and officers are constructive and Executive Board Members challenge officers well within a ‘no blame’ culture. The Executive Board is clearly the owner of the Council’s revised vision, and Executive Board Members are actively involved in setting priorities, business planning and identifying areas for cost reductions.

“You’ll notice the references to both owning and revised vision. Both are relevant in the context of your first question. As to any reference to the past Administration, the following is the most pertinent point and again I quote:

‘The Executive Board has a strong ‘team’ ethos and new Executive Board Members are being mentored and supported by those with more experience.’

Cllr Dole said: “That comment is much appreciated.”

We asked Emlyn Dole about how officers were responding to those areas for improvement identified in the WAO report. He told us: “Officers are currently preparing an action plan that will address the six areas for proposed improvement within the WAO report. These actions will then cascade into the Annual Improvement Plan which will then be closely monitored by Executive Board.”

On whether there was any area of improvement upon which he was personally focused, Cllr Dole responded: “The Corporate Strategy which sets out the long term priorities for the Council as well as the Improvement Plan which is to drive continuous improvement across all that we do.

“As regards the Council’s ICT infrastructure, four work streams have been established which will inform the Business Case for improving the Councils ICT infrastructure. They will be looking at: server infrastructure and disaster recovery arrangements; voice and data networks; access to services – including desktop and mobile/agile working platforms; the applications we use.”

As for future challenges that might be raised by partnership/ collaborative projects or Welsh Government policies, Cllr Dole took a positive view: “The Report praises the collaboration agenda followed by the County Council. My thoughts on any collaboration are focused around improved services and efficiency. If any collaboration we undertake achieves better and improved services and delivers efficiencies as well, then that seems to be a smarter way of working and follows the national guidance on effective service delivery. Any collaborative programme that threatens in any way the resilience of this Council would not be one that would appeal in any way and because of that would be resisted.”

We asked to what extent Cllr Dole’s view had changed on officers’ discharge of their duties since he began working more closely with them. Responding with good humour, Emlyn Dole told our reporter: “Well, the implication of your question is that my present view of senior officers’ abilities to discharge their duties is a different one to what it might have been. I’m afraid that this perception must arise from an over inflated view of the role and reach of the political opposition!”

He continued: “Apart from a monthly liaison meeting with senior officers and a monthly meeting of Group Leaders the opposition are no closer to senior officers than ordinary councilors are, other than through their statutory duties in regard to scrutiny and quasi-judicial roles.

“The view in administration is a totally different one, in that it is at the cutting edge, where applied policy meets corporate operation. Apart from the obvious scrutiny role and ongoing member development training – it is then, and only then that you really get to appreciate and understand the role and responsibilities of senior officers to be able to make an informed judgment about their ability to discharge their duties effectively.”

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Warning of serious disruption on M4 and M5 today due to fuel prices protest

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POLICE have warned of “serious disruption” to drivers using the M4 and M5 on Monday 4 July due to a planned protest.

Protesters intend to block the Prince of Wales Bridge from 7am until 7pm as part of a nationwide campaign against rising fuel prices.

The protest is due to start at the M4 Magor services at junction 23A eastbound and the Clevedon Interchange at junction 20 of the M5 westbound.

It is also expected to cause disruption to the M48 Severn Bridge and the M32.

Drivers are being urged to avoid the area or plan alternative routes.

Bristol Airport has issued a warning urging travellers to allow extra time if heading to or from the airport.

Police said additional officers will be brought in to ensure the protest is carried out legally.

Drivers have been advised by Gwent Police to work from home where possible and avoid the area between 7am and 7pm, with protestors planning to block parts of the road between M4 Magor services, junction 23A eastbound, and Junction 20 of the M4 between those hours.

Chief Superintendent Tom Harding said: “Gwent Police, and Avon and Somerset Police, are working jointly with neighbouring police forces and partner agencies to ensure emergency and critical services continue and to reduce disruption to both road users and local communities, however we are preparing for serious disruption throughout the day.

“I would encourage drivers to reconsider their journey, consider working from home and avoid the area where possible.

“The right to protest under UK law must be balanced with the rights of the wider community who may be affected. We have additional officers and support in place on Monday to ensure the protest is carried out in accordance with the law.”

The planned protest is thought to have been organised by the Facebook group Fuel Price Stand Against Tax, and has attracted both criticism and support online.

The latest travel disruption comes following the closure of the Severn Bridge for a second consecutive weekend, as well as the Severn Tunnel rain line which will be out of use until July 10 due to essential work. Motorists will be unable to cross the M48 Severn Bridge until 6am on Monday as it is undergoing essential work for eight months.

The bridge was first shut last weekend as painstaking work to repair and replace corroded suspension cables began. Traffic on the bridge is likely to be very heavy on Monday due to the fuel protest.

Police have told protesters banners must be tightly secured to vehicles and nobody should be walking around on the bridge during the demonstration. Protesters will stay inside their vehicles or stand beside them.

An organiser said: “We will now only be doing it on the Prince of Wales Bridge. We have to keep in mind everyone’s safety and if we block the bridge totally and there is an emergency there would be hell. Yes it means only one bridge but [due to the amount of traffic caused] there will still be a massive impact.”

Two weeks ago one of the initial M4 bridge protest organisers Ashley Fowler said : “We’re all car enthusiasts and we have all been worried about fuel prices and when I saw the post about blocking the bridges we began talking about it. Then people started asking me to make an event so we could update each other.

“I made the event because I run a car club in Cardiff which I started on social media during the pandemic lockdowns to help people’s mental health. When we can we go out to car parks and just meet up and have a chat but during the pandemic we weren’t able to do it so I made the group.

“Now we can’t meet up so much again because of the cost of fuel. I know some of them can’t drive so much because they need to feed their kids. It’s serious. People are getting really depressed about it. One of the boys in the group has actually sold his car due to fuel price rises.”

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Business

Ascona Group announces new Car and Truck wash facilities

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Charlie's Truck Wash

ASCONA GROUP, one of the UK’s fastest-growing forecourt operators, is pleased to announce two new vehicle washing partnerships as part of improvements to its unique roadside retail proposition across its forecourt estate.

As part of a new partnership with the American based PDQ Manufacturing, a leader for in-bay automatic vehicle washing facilities, Ascona Group will be the first in the UK to install the ‘Laserwash 360 Plus’, a touchless car wash system for its customers.

The partnership will initially expand the wash options at the Hinton Service Station, with a view to roll out the system to other sites under the Ascona Group’s brand, ‘Charlie’s Express Car Wash’ later this year. The partnership is a significant investment for Ascona and demonstrates its commitment to ever improving the experience for customers.

Ascona Group is also delighted to announce a strategic partnership with WashTec UK that will see Ascona introduce a ‘First of its Kind’ truck washing facility at the Tenby Road site on the A40 Eastbound in Carmarthenshire, which offers the very best technology available to HGV drivers.

The truck wash employs a fully ‘closed loop’ total water recycling system, the first of its kind in Wales, which recovers all water used within the wash process, filtering it for reuse with little or no water entering the mains drainage system. This system ensures Ascona not only has the best commercial wash in South Wales, but also offers customers one of the more environmentally friendly approaches in operation.

Commenting on the announcement, CEO Darren Briggs said: “From the very beginning, we knew that our sites must present our customers with a unique and compelling offer which is why we are constantly seeking new and innovative ways to improve our roadside retail facilities.

“These two new partnerships further demonstrate our focus on creating industry-leading propositions and we are really excited to be working with PDQ Manufacturing USA and WashTec UK. Together, we are keen to continue to build on the success of these new operations and we are actively reviewing multiple opportunities across the Ascona portfolio to roll out more units such as these.”

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Community

Nearly £50,000 of National Lottery funding for community groups in Carmarthenshire

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FIVE local community organisations across Carmarthenshire are celebrating after being awarded a share of £49,575 of funding from The National Lottery Community Fund over the past month.

One successful project was MolTân Makers who will use their £9,820 grant to provide metal working workshops for people wishing to improve their mental health and well-being. The group will reach out to mental health groups and the wider community and also allow people to reconnect with the community following the pandemic.

One participant with MolTân Makers explained, “ The course was professionally run by four hard-working people who helped us with one to one tuition when needed. They were so welcoming and adaptable to individual needs and allowed me to attend the course at different hours due to health reasons.

“They were great company and created an interesting and positive atmosphere to help people with mental and physical health problems feel included and understood and we all took home what we made in the course.”

The Hangout received £10,000 and will help young people improve their mental health and wellbeing through structured outdoor activity programmes. The project will build on a previous pilot project that led to more young people becoming re-engaged in school following the pandemic and continuing to volunteer with the group after the initial sessions finished.

The Alternative Learning Company in Llanelli were awarded £9,955 and will recycle plastic bottles to build full size greenhouses. They will propagate plants for growing schemes in local schools and communities. The project will reduce the levels of plastic sent to landfill or polluting open spaces, and give young people an understanding of the impact of climate change.

Newcastle Emlyn Town Council will build an outdoor structure in collaboration with the community, to mark Her Majesty the Queen’s Jubilee. This £10,000 grant will fund building and design materials, and a water harvesting kit.

Messy Projects will use their £9,800 grant to run the activities and events they missed due to the pandemic. Activities will include celebrating the Queens platinum jubilee, a BBQ, and a Bonfire party.

John Rose, Wales Director at The National Lottery Community Fund, said “These groups play a vital role in supporting their communities and these grants will allow them to continue being there for people in future. 

 ”National Lottery players raise more than £30 million each week for good causes across the UK and the projects funded over the past month show the crucial difference players make through their tickets. I look forward to following all of their progress.”  

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