THERE have been many sad cases placed before judges at Llanelli Magistrates’ Court over the years. Judges are a tough breed and emotions don’t get in the way of their decision making and for good reason. The outcome of any case would depend on the individual’s propensity for favouring the underdog, a sucker for a sob story, the judges’ make up being one of a kind and sympathetic nature, a big heart or a possible bent for leniency. As we know from history, that does not happen and judgements are based on the evidence, the facts and the argument between prosecution and defence or one person’s story as opposed to another’s.
That is all well and good if all of the facts have been presented and all of the facts can be verified as true. It should be the same for any investigation into a public office and its officials. No stone should be left unturned if the public are to have faith in the people whom they pay to serve them and take charge of budgets of billions of pounds and decision making on the very fabric of society in order to provide us all with a level playing field and a fair shot at life.
So it is that we find ourselves awaiting the outcome of an audit of Carmarthenshire County Council’s planning department and in a court in Llanelli the outcome of a case for or against the eviction of two elderly people in Maesybont. The two are inextricably linked.
Patricia Breckman and her partner Eddie moved to Carmarthenshire with the dream of owning a countryside cottage where they could settle and build a small cattery business. They found the property of their dreams in Maesybont, a pretty and modest cottage down a small lane surrounded by open countryside with a neighbouring farm. Their dream soon turned into a nightmare as they made a fatal error, which would have consequences spanning over a decade. Their error? To complain about a breach of planning laws by their neighbour Andrew Thomas of Blaenpant Farm.
The couple did not move in and instantly complain nor were they aware that previous occupants had suffered nightmare proportions of problems from the same neighbours resulting in their selling off the cottage to a chain of unsuspecting buyers. Yes there are stipulations that one must declare any issues with neighbours when selling a property but the fact is that this was not the case and the couple inherited all that trouble.
One complaint became another as the farmer began to ramp up his illegal activity running a haulage business from the farm and quarrying and transporting huge rocks across fields in lorries, harassing and threatening the couple, blocking the windows of the cottage with lorries and driving loose horses down the cottage drive at the couple. All this when all the couple wanted was someone to investigate their complaint made via Carmarthenshire County Council’s own planning department, the very same one being audited in 2021. Extraordinarily, it was Patricia Breckman who was arrested.
The case is clear for any judge or any audit into a department, which dealt with this case. Two elderly people who honestly and diligently reported a breach of planning laws to a local authority planning department were ignored and resulted instead in the couple being persecuted by their neighbours with the compliance of the county council. Why the council took the side of the Thomas family who were quarrying and running a haulage business without permission, is not clear. The Breckmans were bullied, their access road obstructed and narrowed, their windows blocked by the neighbours using lorries, and terrible noise nuisance.
The Breckmans say that they have lost their entire life savings and are left with an unsaleable home and can look forward only to destitution. All they wanted was a quiet retirement owning and running a cattery. They have not only had to face ‘neighbours from Hell’ but a council who were according to Mrs Breckman unwilling to enforce their rights, supporting their neighbours who were flaunting planning laws instead.
Leader of Plaid Cymru Adam Price said: “There are cases where a citizen is comprehensively failed by institutions, which are there to protect the public interest. Indeed, I would go as far as saying that this is one of the worse cases of nonfeasance, the neglect of a public body to carry out its basic duties that I have seen during my time in public life.”
Adam Price MS also wrote to the Plaid Cymru Leader of Carmarthenshire County Council, Emlyn Dole to ask the council to consider an ‘independent review’ and an ex gratia payment to Patricia Breckman. The council rejected this claiming that they would lose the benefit of their insurance cover but this appears not to be the case were it to have been an independent review as opposed to a ‘legal review’.
Subsequently Mrs Breckman claimed that councillors and officers were told that the insurers had barred them from discussing the case with her or with each other.
Zurich sent a letter to Mrs Breckman in April 2021, which stated: We can confirm again, that there is no evidence within our file of papers that Zurich have told anyone within Carmarthenshire County Council that we will not allow them to grant an ex gratia payment. The Council will need to make its own decision on the appropriateness of such a payment. Indeed, the Council have never asked us to comment on any potential ex gratia payment as they are aware that such a payment would fall outside the scope of their insurance cover. There is also no evidence that we have told anyone within the Council that they are not allowed to discuss you, or your case with anyone. All the Council consulted us on was the “legal review”. What we have said, is that the Council are free to take any action they deem necessary in relation to their ongoing dispute with you, but if the matter were to be legally reviewed again, they would lose the benefit of their insurance cover for this particular claim. The reason for that being that the Council would be in breach of their insurance contract, which gives Zurich full control of claims.
Mrs Breckman also claims that the narrative was changed by the council from an ‘independent review’ to a ‘legal review’ in order to scupper any possibility of a payment.
On the 28/05/2021 the council wrote to Mrs Breckman to say: Any legal review of the case would result in the council losing the benefit of their insurance cover for this particular claim.
Mrs Breckman is now hoping that the Audit Wales report into the planning department will include her case.
We have written to Audit Wales, the Leader of Carmarthenshire County Council Emlyn Dole, Adam Price MS, and Cefin Campbell MS.
A spokesperson for Audit Wales said: “We have completed our work and will be publishing our report on our website on the 11th August 2021.
“Carmarthenshire County Council’s Executive Board announced yesterday that our report will be presented to the Council’s Governance and Audit Committee on 24th September 2021. For your interest and ease of reference, the agenda and recording of the Council’s Executive Board meeting held yesterday can be found here (see 4.1 for the question and answer in relation to our Planning Services Review). Agenda for Executive Board on Monday, 26th July, 2021, 10.00 am (gov.wales).
“In regard to the case of Mrs Patricia Breckman, we did not include this (or any other specific cases) in our review. We are however currently considering the issues that she has raised with us against our statutory duties. Once we have done this we will be responding directly to her.
“I hope this helps clarify the position.”
A spokesperson for Adam Price MS replied: “Adam Price has corresponded at length with Mrs Breckman over several years and attempted to support and advise her to the best of his ability. He has previously asked Carmarthenshire Council to consider an ex-gratia payment to Mrs Breckman to enable her to keep her home.
“Over the Christmas period and at the request of the Council Leader, Adam Price MS’s office sent terms of reference of what a review of Mrs Breckman’s case would look like, in order to secure a fair outcome for all.
“In May this year, Adam Price further wrote to the Council Leader urging him to deal with this matter with the utmost urgency by putting Mrs Breckman’s case before the Council’s Executive Board at the earliest possible opportunity.
“No one should have to face the anxiety of losing their home and Mr Price and his office will continue to do everything within their power to prevent Mrs Breckman’s situation from coming to that.
“With regard to the report of Audit Wales, Mr Price has not been privy to the scope of their review, its contents nor the findings of its report.”
We contacted Audit Wales, Cllr Emlyn Dole and Cefin Campbell MS for comment.
Editorial: I well remember covering this story in depth over the years. It eventually made the BBC and the couple received an unreserved apology from the Police and Crime Commissioner at the time, Christopher Salmon who went on to liken the council to a ‘Sicilian Cartel’.
The Breckman case is just one incident, which has made local and national press, Private Eye and BBC news. The Welsh Audit Office may also wish to look at the case of the two barns in Pontyates owned by the partner of the council leader, which made the headlines.
Councillor Emlyn Dole’s partner, Gwenda Owen, received permission to partially convert stone barns (Pictured above) at Capel Ifan Farm in Pontyberem. But an investigation by planning officers found “substantial demolition of the original building”.
There is also the case of Andrew Redman which made the Horse & Hound when the council ordered him to remove a mobile horse shelter from his land. As anyone who wanders the lanes of Carmarthenshire knows, a lot of fields look like shanty towns with ramshackle buildings, lorries, abandoned cars or else huge supersheds, which dominate the landscape.
Mrs Breckman and her Partner Eddie have spent years battling their claim with the council alleging that the planning department allowed her neighbour to breach planning conditions and operate a haulage business at the neighbouring farm and quarry on a site of special scientific interest.
The story has at its root the claim by the then CEO Mark James that this was a ‘neighbour’s dispute’, which Mrs Breckman challenged producing documented evidence including video footage showing the industrial operation at her neighbour’s farm, clearly, she claimed in breach of planning regulations and laws protecting the countryside and something Patricia Breckman maintains the council planning department turned a ‘blind eye’ to.
Mrs Breckman and her partner Eddie await the decision of the judge in Llanelli with bags packed in case of an eviction order. The council could still intervene and conduct an ‘independent review’ and make the ex gratia payment allowing the Breckmans to keep their home. Mrs Breckman also has the opportunity of taking legal action against the council. This she says is something she predicted would happen. She said: “They (the council) know we don’t have that kind of money. They are prepared to wait until we give up or just die rather than doing the right thing.”
When concluding their investigation and report into the planning department at Carmarthenshire County Council Audit Wales would do well to consider all of the facts and one imagines place this particular case at the front and centre of that document and subsequent findings.