Monday 16 February 2009

It's his fault, or hers, or theirs, or...

Proposals by Carmarthenshire County Council to re-organise secondary education in the Dinefwr/ Gwendraeth area of the county are something of a hot potato currently. The Council have produced 8 options for the 5 schools concerned, and held a series of consultation meetings to discuss them. The Plaid group on the county council have responded by holding their own series of meetings in the affected areas, which I have chaired. They were extremely well-attended, and a wide range of views have been expressed.

What I still don't fully understand, however, is why the Council have produced the particular range of options when alternative approaches could have been considered – or why they are pushing the change through at such a breakneck speed. At its simplest, the public are being given two very different stories.

The Council's Executive Board and senior officers are insistent that they are doing what 'the Assembly' (there's a complete lack of understanding about the distinction between the Assembly and the Assembly Government, but that's another question) has told them to do, in a series of documents which have been published. But when asked a question by Nerys Evans AM, the Minister replied that the detail of such proposals is entirely a matter for the county council. Can both of these stories possibly be correct?

What is entirely unclear at present is what advice and direction is being given to the Council (and presumably to other county councils across Wales) in meetings between council officials and WAG officials. What we do know for certain is that WAG officials sat as members of the county council's working group which drew up the proposals. On that basis, I can quite understand why the Council might feel that they have at least the tacit agreement – and maybe even the guidance and direction – of WAG for what they are proposing.

At a full Council meeting last Wednesday, the Chief Executive reported to councillors that he had been at a meeting with WAG officials the previous day. I didn't note his precise words, but the gist of what I heard him telling councillors was that WAG officials said that the process was being driven by the Minister, that the plans produced by Carmarthenshire were an example of what they wanted to see, that they hoped that similar plans would be produced by other councils across Wales, and that they hoped that Carmarthenshire would be an early implementer.

Most alarming to me was the suggestion that WAG officials had stated that there would be extra money available for the first councils to produce their plans – and nothing for the slowest. I am significantly underwhelmed by the suggestion that any government would allocate funds for investment in an area as important as education in response to rushed plans on a 'first come first served' basis rather than on a rational analysis and prioritisation of need.

I have absolutely no reason to doubt the word of the Chief Executive. I believe that he was honestly relaying to councillors what he understood that he was being told in his meeting with WAG officials. But I simply cannot understand why there is such a difference between what the Minister says in the Assembly and what her officials are apparently telling councils. I cannot help but wonder whether she even knows what is being said in her name. A state of blissful ignorance on the part of the Minister is about the only explanation that allows me to reconcile the different stories.

The one thing of which I am absolutely certain is that there is a serious democratic deficit here. AMs are being told that there's no point lobbying or questioning the Minister, because the detail is entirely a matter for the council. At the same time, councillors are being told that there's no point trying to change what the council is proposing because they are simply complying with the wishes of the Minister.

These statements simply cannot both be correct - but in the meantime, whoever is to blame, the Council and WAG are rushing ahead with a set of proposals which are in direct contradiction to the language policies of both bodies. And our democratically elected representatives seem powerless to stop the steamroller.


Anonymous said...

Given that there are Plaid ministers sitting in the same cabinet as Jane Hutt, surely it shouldn't be too difficult to get some straight answers these questions? Or am i being naive?

John Dixon said...


It shouldn't be too difficult, but that doesn't mean that it isn't.