Before I begin I must point out that I have no issue with anyone's community spirit, nor anyone's religious beliefs, what I have issue with is the degree of involvement by this local authority.
You may have read posts here and elsewhere on some of the rather searching questions this whole project has raised, you may have also read the Wales on Sunday and Private Eye articles. Perhaps at this point I should mention that the head of this church contacted me last week to express, er, disquiet shall we say about what had been written on the blogs and was keen to meet with me to dispel any 'misconceptions'. I assumed the concern was surely based on the well publicised link between the church and the Mercy Ministries. I asked him what his concerns were and I was somewhat surprised that it had nothing to do with that, it was the perception that that they had 'influenced' the Council that was troubling the Pastor. I declined a meeting but pointed out that what had been written was already in the public domain.
Back to today's meeting and unsurprisingly, the item on the church was exempt. There then followed a very unusual decision (unusual for Carmarthenshire anyway), the exemption was overturned as there had been 'rumours' in the press, and the matter was to be discussed in public. Now one would think this was an ideal opportunity to ask some very searching questions as, with the addition of this loan, the council funding, in it's various forms, was now over the £1.3 million mark. How wrong could you be! With the Pastor himself present to dispel any worries this was clearly stage management at it's best.
First off though was Cllr Caiach who tactfully proposed that due to the financial climate etc and the financial risks to taxpayers money, the council's involvement, at the very least, should be mothballed.
It also became quite clear that there had been considerable officer time (and therefore money) spent on this venture already, meeting it's leaders and management board and securing grants etc
One or two others questioned the wisdom of the council's investment but the atmosphere then gave way to complete support and I could almost hear the rattle of tambourines.
Not one person asked about the Mercy Ministries.
Executive Board member Cllr Pam Palmer actually said that she couldn't understand how anyone could possibly be opposed to this venture (glaring at Cllr Caiach) and even the Chief Executive gave a little speech. He mentioned that at 3% interest, this was a good return 'they wouldn't find that anywhere else', he also mentioned that there were those who hadn't had faith in his vision for the cinema in Carmarthen (and one in England apparently) were all proved wrong as they had both been a roaring success, other projects, which hadn't been quite as successful weren't mentioned. I won't go into that now though. Neither did he correct any of the councillors who understated the financial commitment of the council. This was all tied in with the bowling alley idea which had been scotched for the St Catherine's Walk development and of course this was the opportunity to have one. In fact, according to several councillors, who I am sure are completely in touch with the leisure preferences of Carmarthenshire teenagers, this bowling alley is every child's dream. (as long as they're flush enough to afford a few rounds of bowling and can negotiate a couple of roundabouts and a busy dual carriageway to get there)
The exempt report for today's meeting is of course no longer exempt, and I would like to point out a couple of things as precious little was pointed out today. The original bank loan was for £730,000, this didn't happen and all the church could get was £300,000. They needed £570,000 as they had managed to do some 'value engineering' (?) and reduce the amount required (at this point the Chief Executive used the word 'merely' £570,000). Now I had asked the Pastor last week via email what the assets were that the bank loan was secured on, he replied, and I quote,
"The bank loan will be secured on the equipment and fittings that will be installed into the building (eg bowling alley, kitchens, counters, furniture etc)"
Even in my financial ignorance I found this a little odd - the exempt report however says differently - the bank loan is secured one of the 99 year leases provided by the Council. In fact the bank and the Lottery fund have 1st and 2nd charges on the lease which leaves the Council in 3rd place for a payback if it all goes pop. They'be lucky to get the money back. The councillors were advised to accept this risk. In addition, the council had to accept a 'variation' in the Authority's Treasury Management Policy to allow the loan to run over 15 years as opposed to the usual three year limit.
If that wasn't sufficient 'bending over backwards', the planning permission was also now 'varied' on the pretext that 'flexibility' was necessary to please the bank. Along with the Bowling Alley, Debt Counselling etc "other assembly and leisure or non-residential institutional uses are to be permitted" This answers one of the questions asked today as to whether they were actually planning on building a church - or maybe a non-residential Mercy Ministry?
Returning to the Pastor's email correspondence, he described the Mercy Ministry idea as a 'seed' that had not grown, I for one hope it doesn't. The sudden 'missing link' from the church's website was explained as just something the web designers had done. MP, Jonathan Edwards has expressed concern about this, I hope he continues to investigate.
The figures given by the Church to the council in May also differ markedly from those given seven months later - the total contribution by the church in May when they had the £280,000 grant was £17,000, this has now increased to nearly £390,000 in fundraising, revenue and 'volunteer time'.
The concerns I have are with the council, their support over this is inexplicable, some might say a miracle. This church, has a very small congregation and, like other evangelical organisations of this nature, a very specific and fundamentalist set of beliefs. One can only wonder whether a similar venture proposed by, for example, a mainstream Muslim organisation or for that matter a mainstream Christian establishment would have such support. I am certainly not against any project which aims to help the community, there are many, including church groups, already in existence, and already running furniture recycling centres and food banks which struggle for funding and may be lucky enough to get a grant for a couple of thousand if they're lucky. As I have said, I have no issue with anyone's personal beliefs, nor anyone's community spirit - what I do have issue with is a local authority, with it's budget apparently stretched to the limit and having to consider closing care homes again etc etc, embarking on a financial venture with absolutely no guarantee of success.
Although this is turning into a rather lengthy post, as promised, here, in brief, is the rest of the meeting.
I won't bore you with a repeat of the entry ritual, other than there was another lady there who was mystified by the whole procedure and pointed out to staff that she had never encountered anything like this anywhere else, including the Welsh Assembly, she was told they'd had "er...a bit of trouble". She assumed there had been a problem with belligerent youths or violent protestors, or even a threat to national security which had passed her by to warrant all this. I explained.
Anyway, on to the public gallery (there is a strange smell in the building which intensifies as you approach the Chamber, I can't quite define it but it's like a mixture of old cigars and boiled cabbage). The meeting started with the usual round of announcements of new granddaughters (never any grandsons it seems) etc and the signing off of the last meeting's incorrect minutes. Cllr Pam Palmer leapt to her feet (sort of) at some point to remind the 'minute taker' that it was not just her and Meryl who had made cakes for some event or other but Cllr Stephens had made some too - God forbid that that vital fact wasn't included in the next minutes!
Continuing with their parallel universe, and prior to sherry and mince pies in the Mayor's parlour there was something of a Christmas spirit pervading the Chamber with little anecdotes here and there, with my own local member, Cllr Theophilus even regaling everyone with how he'd got a speeding ticket in Cross Hands one morning. Hilarious. The Christmas theme continued with several references to Dickens, (presumably triggered by the impending excitement of sherry and mince pies in the Mayor's Parlour after the meeting) the low point of which was probably the deputy leader, Cllr Kevin Madge in one of his blustery speeches calling Cllr Caiach 'Scrooge' (if you remember she was one of several objectors to the new plans for Furnace school) I think Mr Sully, the Director of Education may have shifted uncomfortably at this point recalling his odd letter mentioned here asking a resident to withdraw their objection - it would be like the planning department asking a resident to withdraw an objection to a planning application, not really proper procedure eh?)
One of the main items under 'discussion' was the new 'Compact' from the Welsh Government to encourage shared services and to create a regional tier of committees and boards to oversee it all. Not such a bad idea perhaps to save money as long as we don't just have yet another level of beauracracy. Cllr Gravell took centre stage on this one assuring everyone that as both she and the Chief Executive were highly influential within the Welsh Government (and I lost track of the number of Boards and Committees they sat on), so Carmarthenshire had nothing to fear. In fact, between them it sounded like they were running Wales. Concerns were raised that such moves could mean loss of local democracy and accountability, the Leader and Chief Executive, clearly leading the field in such matters gave reassurance that with their influential expertise they could defend the local authority against such undemocratic centralisation. You future in their hands.
The £20,000 grant to the Scarlets came up again. Recently approved by the Executive Board, it didn't need to be ratified by full council, but came up in the report. Cllr Caiach wanted reassurance (multiple frowns from the usual suspects) that this grant, meant for charitable purposes, did not breach European law as it had been given to a private company. She didn't really get an answer. A few others pointed out that exactly the same amount had been slashed off the schools' music budget so while the Scarlet's now had a project manager to draw funds for the Stadium, the kids didn't have any music lessons. There we are, such is the importance of sustaining the Stadium.
On that note the meeting moved on to the Towy Community Church, and I've already said my bit about that.