No candidates for rural west Wales council

By Richard Youle   |   Local democracy reporter   |
Tuesday 12th April 2022 10:01 am
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Llanpumsaint
Llanpumsaint in rural north Carmarthenshire (Google Maps )

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A rural council in Carmarthenshire which was rapped for its accounting practices doesn’t appear to have any candidates at next month’s local Government elections, with some retiring councillors said to be pondering “the pointlessness of it all”.

Llanpumsaint Community Council’s clerk Phil Jones claimed a critical report by Audit Wales and the subsequent fallout was the cause.

Mr Jones said the absence of any nominations for the 5 May election, including any of the six serving councillors, was raised by a member of the public at a meeting this month.

“The member of the public sincerely thanked the councillors for their commitment to the community,” said Mr Jones.

Some of them, he said, had served for around 40 years.

“The reasons given by some of the councillors for retiring from community service was that they had reached the end of their tether, disillusionment and the pointlessness of it all,” he said.

The elected body has an annual budget of around £8,000, which goes on street lights, energy and insurance costs, the village park, local causes and the clerk’s wages, among other things. Its six annual meetings are held in Welsh, with a translation service provided.

Mr Jones said: “I’ve lived in the community for over 60 years and I can remember some of the characters from my childhood being involved in the community council.

“I’ve read minutes going back to the beginning of the last century. I read about the construction of a wall, and the changing of a timber bridge to a more substantial structure.

“I’ve been clerk for 10 years – the purpose was to allow a traditional way of Welsh life to continue. I enjoyed sitting in the meetings and taking the minutes.”

The quiet village north of Carmarthen found itself in the spotlight last autumn when public spending watchdog Audit Wales published a report criticising its community council for not preparing accounts on time and then failing to co-operate.

According to Audit Wales, the community council clerk said he was innumerate and didn’t see the purpose of preparing accounts for audit work given the small size of the body he worked for.

Audit Wales said the clerk had not initially realised that he would be the responsible officer for submitting audit returns, and that he had used his own accountant. When advised this was not appropriate, said the report, “he decided that he would simply not prepare accounts”.

It said the clerk obstructed the audit from April 2018 to the end of 2020 by not supplying the necessary documents and explanation, while “providing extensive but irrelevant adverse commentary on audit requirements”.

It left the community council with a £3,456 bill because of all the extra work generated.

The report said no misappropriation had been identified – and the community council stressed that no money was missing. In a response at the time, the community council claimed the problems occurred because Audit Wales didn’t accept “fully audited accounts” drawn up by an independent accountant.

It added: “This dispute has rolled on for a long time and we have tried on many occasions to come to an understanding, but unfortunately we have not been successful.”

Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service last week, Mr Jones said he was “weak” at the financial side of his role, which was why he had used his accountant. He claimed he hadn’t received an explanation as to why this approach was wrong.

Mr Jones alleged that he and the council chairman had been “intimidated” by Audit Wales during its investigation, and that further “humiliation” came when the community council had to hold a public meeting within a month of the report being published.

“People came along and asked what was going on,” said Mr Jones. “It felt toxic. It was unfair for those councillors to be criticised in a meeting.”

Asked for a response, a spokeswoman for Audit Wales said its role was to assure the public that strong governance arrangements of public money were in place, and that public money was being well managed.

“Our annual audits of Llanpumsaint Community Council identified a number of areas for improvement and these are detailed in the annual external audit reports provided and the subsequent public interest report,” she said. “It is vital that where areas of weakness are identified through an audit, that they are acted on so that communities in Wales get the assurance and service they deserve.”

Carmarthenshire Council can now intervene to ensure the community council continues to function after the election. A spokeswoman for the authority said it was following the relevant process and would make information available in due course.

Lyn Cadwallader, chief executive of One Voice Wales, which represents town and community councils, said “principal” councils like Carmarthenshire had reserve powers and could appoint temporary community councillors pending a further election.

Asked what would happen if no-one stood at that election, Mr Cadwallader said Carmarthenshire Council would continue to hold ballots until Llanpumsaint community councillors were elected.

“Then that community council can be formally constituted,” he said.

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