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Controversial council boss to step down

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THE CONTROVERSIAL Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, Mark James, is to retire.

Mr James, who has served the council for 17 years, will retire later this year when he turns 60.

He has spent over 40 years in local government, taking up post in Carmarthenshire in March 2002 and previously serving as Chief Executive at Boston Borough Council. He has also worked in Westminster and Barnet in London.
He received the CBE in the Queen’s 2012 New Year Honours.

Carmarthenshire County Council will now begin the process to recruit a new Chief Executive before Mr James leaves in June.

“It has been an honour and privilege to lead a great team of officers at Carmarthenshire over the last 17 years,” he said.

“The Council has delivered so much over that time including the development and regeneration of Carmarthen Town Centre, Eastgate and Y Ffwrnes Theatre in Llanelli town centre, Machynys, Parc y Scarlets, Pemberton, Burry Port Harbour and Xcel Bowl.

“We have delivered new care homes, £250m of new schools all over the county including Bro Dinefwr and QE High, a new leisure centre in Carmarthen, business and retail parks in Cross Hands, invested £220m modernising our 9000 homes and became the first in Wales to build new council homes since the 1980s, and so much more.
“I have been delighted to be part of this exciting regeneration of our County. I want to pay tribute to the many Councillors who have helped to shape this programme of development and to thank them for their support and confidence.”

He added: “Having been a Chief Executive for over 23 years, it is now time to hand over the reins. Whilst it is a rewarding and satisfying job, it is also highly demanding and all-consuming. I wish my successor all the very best and know that the fantastic team of officers at the Council will continue to deliver first class services and developments for Carmarthenshire.”

Cllr Emlyn Dole, Leader of the Council, said: “Mark has been a great leader and ambassador for Carmarthenshire. He has delivered so much in his time as Chief Executive and we will miss him enormously.

“I thank him for his tireless dedication to the County and for his unstinting and selfless work to regenerate Carmarthenshire. We owe him a huge thanks and gratitude for all he has done over the past 17 years.”

Cllr Mair Stephens, Deputy Leader of the Council, added: “Mark has truly been Mr Carmarthenshire. Over the years he has shown how much he cares for Carmarthenshire – whether that be just recently personally visiting and supporting residents and businesses in the communities affected by floods, or working tirelessly to secure millions of pounds to transform our schools and towns and create employment for local people.

“His guidance and dedication is something we have come to rely on. He will be a hard act to follow, but we wish him all the very best. He leaves with our enormous thanks for a job very well done.”

While Mr James’ tenure and achievements have been praised by the Council’s leadership and by himself, his time as CEO has been dogged by controversy, particularly over his apparent penchant for large building projects.

Parc y Scarlets has offered no return to the Council on its eight-figure investment while the value of the asset secured by its investment has declined to the point where any capital receipt would be less than the sum advanced by the Council. Many other developments launched with hugely optimistic predictions of their economic worth have imploded or failed to achieve anything like the economic impact predicted.

The Beacon Centre is almost wholly occupied by council-backed entities instead of acting as an incubator for new business; the Eastgate Centre has proved an unattractive centre for retail business; it is only after denuding Llanelli Town Centre by approving out of town developments in the past that the current administration is taking belated steps to rectify the massive misjudgement which left west Wales’ largest town centre a business and retail desert.

The development of part of the retail park at Cross Hands was highlighted as a questionable use of huge sums of public money, while funding which should have been directed to an independent social services project was misused to support the Council’s own social services budget.

Even schools which have been built were left with difficulties arising from entirely foreseeable problems with drainage and traffic.

The Xcel bowl, or as it has become known ‘God’s Bowling Alley’ is operated by a controversial evangelical group and has required repeated propping up by the local authority. In one budget, in which support for learning disabled students was cut, the Xcel Bowl received a massive discretionary grant.

A tax avoidance scheme entered into by Mr James with the connivance of a supine Executive Board was ruled unlawful by the Wales Audit Office.

Ever since that point, and the events related below, the Council has treated the Wales Audit Office with disdain and attempted to rubbish its findings where they embarrass the authority.

However, Mr James’ tenure has been most marked by the County Council’s support of him in a libel action against local blogger Jacqui Thompson. Mr James was on the point of settling a case for libel brought against him by Ms Thompson before the then County Council proceeded to offer him an unlawful indemnity in relation to his costs.

At that point, Mr James promised to reimburse the Council if he was successful and withdrew his settlement offer.
His victory in the proceedings, widely criticised in the national press, was followed by an apparently determined personal campaign against Jacqui Thompson coordinated from County Hall.

At a hearing in 2017, in which it was pointed out Mr James had undertaken to repay the Council for its indemnity, he recanted and said, through his lawyer, that he could throw the money in the gutter if he wanted.

Mr James’ vigorous promotion of the City Deal and the Delta Lakes project has led him into difficult waters in which his sure-footedness appears to have deserted him.

Whether the Delta Lakes project goes ahead or not, Carmarthenshire will be counting the cost of Mark James CBE for years to come.

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Llanelli becomes a Covid-19 ‘health protection zone’

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RESIDENTS in a large part of Llanelli are being put under new local restrictions in a ‘health protection zone’ following a rapid increase in Covid-19 cases in the area.

The town is seeing a concentrated spread of cases compared with other parts of Carmarthenshire – in the last seven days, 85 positive cases have been identified in Llanelli (151.6 per 100,000 of the population) compared to 24 cases in the rest of Carmarthenshire (18.1 per 100,000 of the population).*

Public Health Wales officials are expecting numbers to continue rising over the coming week.

Carmarthenshire County Council and Hywel Dda University Health Board have worked with the Welsh Government and Public Health Wales to agree the temporary restrictions at sub-county level to try and halt the spread of the virus.

As of 6pm on Saturday September 26, 2020, residents living in defined parts of Llanelli will not be able to visit anyone else’s home, or accept visitors into their home, unless they have a ‘reasonable excuse’ such as providing care for a vulnerable person.

They should not arrange to meet indoors with anyone who they don’t live with, and travel in and out of the ‘health protection zone’ will also be limited – people should not leave the area or travel into the area unless it is essential. Travelling in and out of the zone for a holiday is not considered a reasonable excuse.

People are being asked to wear face coverings anywhere where they cannot maintain a two-metre distance from other people, including collecting children from school, in addition to the rules which already require them to wear a face covering in indoor spaces like shops and on public transport.

All indoor and outdoor visits to residential care homes have also been suspended.

Students may still travel into and out of the ‘health protection zone’ to go to school or college.

People living in the defined area of Llanelli must work from home, and employers must take all reasonable steps to support staff to do so.

Indoor public spaces such as leisure centres should only be used by people living in the defined area.

Shops will remain open, but people living outside the defined area of Llanelli should avoid travelling to visit them and shop in their own locality wherever possible.

The specific wards covered in the defined area of Llanelli are:

  • Bigyn
  • Bynea
  • Dafen
  • Elli
  • Felinfoel
  • Glanymor
  • Hendy
  • Hengoed
  • Llangennech
  • Lliedi
  • Llwynhendy
  • Tyisha
  • Swiss Valley

Although the pattern of increased positive cases is overwhelmingly concentrated in the Llanelli area where the restrictions have been strengthened, the whole of Carmarthenshire has now been put on alert, with a warning that the tighter restrictions may be extended if cases continue to spread.

Everyone – including those in the defined areas of Llanelli – is being urged to follow the national guidance around social distancing, good hygiene, self-isolation, testing and face coverings.

Leader of Carmarthenshire County Council, Cllr Emlyn Dole, said: “It is worrying to see how sharply the number of positive cases has risen in the Llanelli area, and action has had to be taken to help stop the spread and break the chain of infections concentrated in this area to prevent a whole county lockdown.

“We must all do the right thing, follow the advice and protect each other. In parts of Llanelli, we’re asking people and businesses to make even greater sacrifices – we fully appreciate the impact this will have, but there is no other way. We must stop the spread.”

A mobile testing unit has been set up in Llanelli to manage the increased demand by local residents who have any of the Covid-19 symptoms – either a high temperature, a change or loss to taste or smell or a new continuous cough.

Reporting of positive cases in the town is fully expected to rise during the next two weeks with the increase in more targeted testing. But this is a positive indicator that cases are being identified and control measures put in place.

Chair of Hywel Dda University Health Board Maria Battle said: “Our local community has given us such tremendous support during the past few months. To protect the health of our people, including the most vulnerable, and to ensure our NHS resources are available to provide people with the care they need; we need the help of our Llanelli population and wider community now more than ever before. Whilst hospital admissions have not yet increased again for COVID cases, we have seen a sharp rise in positive cases in the community, and in time this is likely to have an impact on hospital admissions. The very best way we can support each other and those we love, is to follow local restrictions, minimise our contacts, practice good hygiene and self-isolate and book a test if we have any COVID-19 symptoms.”

Increased testing capacity for residents in Llanelli is available by appointment at the following locations:

  • Parc y Scarlets Car Park B, accessed via Trostre Retail Park, in Llanelli
  • The Ty’r Nant site (next to KFC), Trostre, Llanelli
  • The Carmarthen showground (signposted in both directions off the A40)

There should be no reason for Llanelli residents to travel excessive distances for a test, as there will be tests available in Llanelli and Carmarthen. Tests should be booked via the UK Portal. Any Llanelli residents experiencing difficulty booking a test locally via the UK portal can instead email covidenquiries.hdd@wales.nhs.uk or by calling 0300 333 2222.

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Tir Coed build outdoor classroom for Cross Hands Primary

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The local charity Tir Coed teamed up with Cross Hands Primary School to design and install a locally grown woodland shelter to enable primary school pupils to benefit from outdoor lessons-even when
the rain pours!

Last year Cross Hands Primary School received funding from Carmarthenshire is Kind for their intergenerational project. The project brought the schoolchildren together with older people in the community. Through intergenerational activities, everyone involved increases social connectedness, reduces social isolation, learns from one another and has a great time!

Before the lockdown, Tir Coed was contracted to lead a group mainly made up of parents from the school on a shelter-building course. The attendees would gain knowledge and skills and the children and the older people would be able to use the shelter, a third generation now included in this
fantastic project. The plans, however, had to change due to restrictions and in an effort to have it ready for the children when they returned to school, three intrepid Activity Leaders braved the wet August weather to build the beautiful shelter .

Studies have shown that being in the outdoors significantly reduces the risk of spreading the Corona Virus. With this addition to their already impressive outdoor area, it is hoped that more learning can
take place outside the classroom. Deputy Head, Emma Walters said, “It looks amazing! I am very impressed with the shelter and I cannot thank Tir Coed enough for organising this. Additional covered space in the outdoors will mean that we can take more learning into our lovely nature
area.”

If you would like to find out more about the work of Tir Coed or have a project you would like our help with you can contact Nancy, the Carmarthenshire Coordinator: carms@tircoed.org.uk

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Local sailor taking on virtual London marathon

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A local sailor based in the Falkland Islands will be taking on the Virtual London Marathon this October to raise money for SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity.

Curtis Bowen, 24, from Llanelli, South Wales, was due to take on the London Marathon for SSAFA this April, but following the Covid-19 outbreak and lockdown, the race was cancelled. 

Fortunately, the London Marathon team created the Virtual London Marathon in its place, allowing runners to take on the challenge virtually alongside thousands of other runners on the 4th October.

Curtis said: “It was a shame that the London Marathon couldn’t go ahead as planned in April, but I think it is amazing that I am still able to partake whilst being in the Falkland Islands. I’m the first person to ever run the London Marathon in the Falkland Islands.”  

Curtis is currently serving in the Royal Navy, as a Leading Supply Chain Logistician, and has served for four years. His Father also served in the Royal Navy for twenty-three years.

The live virtual event on Sunday 4th October will invite runners to run the London Marathon in their own way, joining up to 45,000 runners up and down the country – and across the world – in the virtual 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon, The 40th Race.

Curtis decided to raise money for SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity after being an avid supporter of the charity and being inspired by his Father, Andrew, who raised over £6,000 for SSAFA. 

I chose to run the London Marathon for SSAFA to challenge myself and raise awareness for a great cause. My younger brother sadly took his own life a couple of years ago and I know that SSAFA are there to support those struggling with their Mental Health. I want to raise as much money as I can to support those struggling within the Armed Forces community.”

“My Father was also supposed to be running the London Marathon this year, but will now be completing the challenge virtually, alongside my brother, Luke, 12,000km away in South Wales.”

If you would like to support Curtis, please visit https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Andrew-Bowen-London-marathon2020

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