Friday, 9 April 2021

CPS decision - open email to Police Commissioner

 

After having had some time to digest the CPS response to the investigation I am finding it more an more incredulous that no charges were brought. And, for that matter, why our politicians aren't raising a stink.

The revised police statement was crucial. There was evidence that these people were due to pocket millions of pounds in bribes from a development funded by public money. What is there not to understand. If a benefit claimant pockets an extra £60 in housing benefit that they know they shouldn't have, they're hauled before the magistrates or at least named and shamed on a council website, who are, apparently, 'protecting the public purse'.

There's been precious little of that at County Hall.

For a serious crime such as large scale fraud, which this was, it should make no difference if one of them is unfit to stand trial, as long as the evidence is there to implicate the rest of them. Which it was. 

Including the former CEO of the council, Mark James.

However, I'm clearly in no position to influence the CPS, but senior politicians are, or are able, at the very least, to call for a public inquiry.

Mark James, whilst CEO, spent roughly three years arranging a personal deal to receive millions of pounds in bribes from a company he was appointing, directly, through an obviously rigged tender.

As I said, this crooked, criminal arrangement went on from 2016 and influenced every aspect of the development, and the City Deal until it broke down, and until James hurriedly left the council in June 2019. It was signed, sealed and just about to be delivered, and maybe some of it already had.

The 'arrangement' was for the loot to be funnelled into offshore blind trusts.

So, do we sweep all this under the carpet? Do we wait until Clement and co decide to go to employment tribunals and for the evidence to trickle out? Given that they're all doing very well thank you elsewhere, I don't think they'll bother, it would be damaging. We'll see. 

Of course, Mark James, who is currently conning the residents of Century Wharf, appears to have got off scot free. Again.

If we choose to believe that no one else in the council was aware of what was going on, and James certainly had a knack of silencing anyone who got a little curious, then now is the time to act. It's time he's finally exposed as the crook he is.

He has form. From Boston, to the curious case of the £5000 in the envelope, to his bung to a private company, to tax avoidance, pilfering the public purse, to silencing whistleblowers, to lying to the council and the courts, using council staff and resources for his own private use, failing to declare his interests etc etc. And that is just what we know about.

All this went on for seventeen years, but pales into insignificance to the con he had planned for the Wellness village and the City Deal. We also know what many of the other key City Deal figures thought about him.

Going back seventeen years is clearly impractical, but for the three or for years before he left the authority it would be a relatively simple matter. 

As has been set out on this blog, and from this criminal investigation the truth has again been revealed, James is a liar and a crook. But, without support from politicians and Welsh Government, those he has wronged, or conned, including the taxpayer, will be left with a very grim legacy.

I have emailed the councillors of Carmarthenshire to make sure they know exactly what went on.

I have also emailed the current police commissioner, Plaid Cymru's Dafydd Llywelyn, as reproduced in full below;

To; Police and Crime Commissioner, Dyfed Powys Police

Dear Mr Llywelyn

I am sure you are aware of the recent decision by the CPS not to charge several suspects following the Wellness village bribery investigation by Tarian, the regional organised crime unit.

You may also be aware that the police revised their own statement shortly afterwards which said that there had been evidence of potential criminal acts.

I am sure that it is in your remit, as the current PCC, to ask the CPS to review their decision and indeed charge the suspects, one of which is the former chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council, Mark James.

Whatever the reasoning behind the CPS decision it cannot be right that the individuals involved had accepted, and stood to personally gain bribes of millions of pounds in public cash and equity from the developers of the project. This was fraud, and had been years in the planning.

The tender for the project, the central issue in the investigation, was, to put it bluntly, rigged by Mark James. Not only did he stand to gain a substantial amount himself, he jeopardised the integrity of the council and the entire City Deal.

The fact that this is a Plaid run council and you are a Plaid Cymru PCC should, I trust, not be an issue.
I look forward to you early reply to this email, and details of how this matter can be taken forward with urgency by either yourself or your successor.

Your sincerely

Jacqui Thompson

It's perhaps worth remembering what the previous Police Commissioner, Christopher Salmon said about the County Hall regime in 2016. He didn't name names, but everyone knew who he was talking about.  
"Carmarthenshire County Council. Wales’ answer to a Sicilian cartel. It’s everywhere you look (thankfully only in Carmarthenshire – so far as I can tell). It extracts vast amounts of money from residents which it showers on favourites, hoards property, bullies opponents, co-opts friends and answers to no one, least of all local councillors."

Thursday, 4 March 2021

Mark James - off the hook again?...Updated with revised statement from the police, and one from Swansea University

Update 9th March

Statement issued today from Swansea University on the internal investigation and police inquiry. 

Here's an extract, with my emphasis. And as we know, the "number of others" includes Mark James.

"Marc Clement was dismissed for having a serious conflict of interest which he failed to declare to the university. Along with a number of others, Marc Clement personally stood to receive significant amounts of money through a substantial equity share in the Sterling Health company, which would have part-owned the Wellness Village venture, as well as employment in the company. The share Marc Clement expected to receive was substantially larger than the university – his employer - was due to receive as a partner in the venture. Marc Clement admitted to expecting to receive this substantial equity share during the investigation. 

The university was satisfied at the time that the correct course of action was to dismiss Marc Clement for this significant undeclared financial interest, which he had admitted to, and is still entirely satisfied this was the correct course of action. Whilst the CPS may have decided it is not in the public interest to prosecute this case, the evidence compiled by the university will obviously come out during the employment tribunal, which will take place in the public domain, should the individuals still wish to proceed."

Link to press release here


Update 8th March

The police have issued a revised statement this afternoon;

There was evidence of potential criminal offending identified and secured against individuals and companies subject to this enquiry and this was submitted as part of the file of evidence to the CPS who subsequently made their decision that it was not in the public interest to proceed with any prosecutions"

That's a big change in tone, it's very significant, and as I said below, I believe the police had plenty of evidence. We know exactly who the 'individuals' are, and we know the 'companies' were Sterling Health and it's assorted sister outfits.

In light of the revised police statement the BBC have asked the CPS if their decision not to proceed was because of a lack of sufficient evidence or on different grounds.

Whatever happens now, it'll all come out, eventually.

*****

The fraud and bribery investigation into the Wellness Village seems to be over. 
The CPS have reviewed the file submitted by Tarian, the organised crime squad, and have said that there was insufficient evidence of criminal conduct and concluded that it was not in the public interest to proceed with the case. A case, it has to be said, which would have taken several years. 

They found that the "correct procurement guidelines were followed and overseen by specialist law firms". 
More on one of those specialist law firms further on.

I have of course written numerous blogpost about all this, and followed every development since 2016. 

I have also come to a very different conclusion to the CPS. 

I also understand that the police did too.

For all the details, please take a look at some recent blog posts including Wellness Scandal - How did it happen?, Tangled webs, Wellness scandal - Swansea Uni sticking to its guns.

The investigation centred around the council’s tender for the Wellness Village development in Llanelli, which became a City Deal project. The suspects in the case were in line to gain millions from the deal.

You’ll recall that former CEO Mark James was particularly insistent that Kent based company Sterling Health were signed up to develop the £200m project. This was despite the company having no proven track record, £137k in debt and a previous development which required a £30m bail out. 

He was so keen he signed them up twice, once in their earlier incarnation as Kent Neurosciences.
By 2017 he was telling them what to put in their tender submission.


As the whole shady deal began to fall apart, Swansea University pulled out as partners, eventually sacking Professor Marc Clement and vice-chancellor Richard Davies, amongst others, for gross misconduct over their involvement in the Wellness Village. It was at the point when the Uni staff were suspended that James made his move to 'retire' from the council. 

Details and allegations began to emerge that Frank Dickmann, the Director of Sterling Health, had been offering jobs, homes and shares to various individuals.

As I said, Mr James was, inexplicably, very determined to appoint Mr Dickmann.

It also emerged, late in 2019, that James, Clement, Davies and Dickmann were planning to develop a private medical school in Kuwait. This arrangement was also referred to the police. James was a trustee, and never declared it to the council.

With the police investigation underway, Sterling now ditched, and the shit heading for the fan, Mark James brought in a law firm to ‘review’ the council’s (his) role in the Wellness tender, in other words, to provide himself with some sort of defence, paid for by the council, should things take a nasty turn. This is the law firm I mentioned earlier in this post.
To ensure he got the result he needed he brought in Acuity Law who, remarkably, just happened to be his very own personal solicitors. It was staggering that no one at the council dared to even try stopping him.

Meanwhile, the arrogant and dishonest manner in which Mark James was running the Swansea Bay City Deal was giving grave cause for concern, in fact, he nearly collapsed the whole £1.3bn deal. Two damning reports were published, Mark James’ role was 'deleted' (he’d hastily announced his retirement by then), Carmarthenshire Council was stripped of key roles and Linda Rees Jones was removed as City Deal Monitoring Officer.

James left the council in June 2019, pocketing his cash from his previous rap sheet of illegal legal costs and a pension tax avoidance scam, for which he’d also been investigated by the police in 2014. 

Then, like now, he got away with being caught with his hand in the till.

                                                     
                                                                       Mark James

A few weeks later, in July 2019 the news broke that eight addresses had been raided by the police and computers seized. The addresses included the home of Mark James, former leader Meryl Gravell, and deleted data was seized from County Hall. An address in Kent was also raided.

A treasure trove of evidence was seized.

Early in 2020 eight suspects were interviewed by the police, including Mark James who was arrested, but not charged. 

Which, in this long sorry saga brings us up to today’s announcement by the CPS. 

As I have said, and exposed throughout this blog, Mark James is a thoroughly arrogant and dishonest individual and capable of anything to further his own interests, including criminal behaviour. 
The case might have been dropped, but he knows he's guilty, which is something.

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

The budget, libel indemnities and pantomimes

Budget - with updates and the school closure consultation row

Update 3rd March - Budget meeting - Another Plaid U-turn with the council tax rise capped at 3.45%. The Labour alternative budget proposed that £500k be taken from the £1.5m contingency fund, savings made on employee travel expenses and £100k cut from consultancy costs. This was to prevent some damaging cuts to social care, more spend on roads and to cap the council tax rise to 2.9%. After the usual squabbling, the predictable outcome (in that it happens every year) was that the alternative budget was rejected by Plaid and the Independent group.

Update 1st March - After facing the potential for legal challenge (not because they 'listened' to anyone's concerns), Plaid have u-turned and extended the school consultations (see below) until the end of the summer term.

Update 18th Feb - as predicted, by deferring and dodging, the council bean counters have managed to find nearly a million quid down the back of the corporate sofa for Exec Board members to play with at next Monday's meeting...
Useful no doubt for Plaid given that Exec Board member Cefin Campbell just happens to be standing for the Senedd in the May elections. 
The public consultation only ran for two and a half weeks as opposed to the usual six and attracted a paltry 75 responses, including such remarks as "A complete joke", and "Way too complicated to understand. Maybe that's what you want!".
Anyway, we'll see what happens on Monday....

.....and the result was...Update 22nd Feburary...a reduction in the council tax rise from 4.5% to 3.95%, some cash to clean gulleys and roads (in view of recent flooding), some cash for education, and £75k for trading standards. 

Bear in mind though that the council have had nearly ALL their covid expenditure/losses reimbursed by Welsh Government AND a very healthy increase in the money they receive from government every year.
 
It's also worth noting that Emlyn Dole, CEO Wendy Walters, Director of Finance Chris Moore, head of legal Linda Rees Jones are still happy risk millions of pounds of your money should a member of the public speak out of turn and, erm, need to be sued...by preserving the Mark James Slush Fund in the Council's Constitution. (see main post below)

The final budget figures will be decided by full council on the 3rd March and includes pressing ahead, at enormous expense, with the sauna-in-the-swamp, the Wellness Village, or Pentre Awel as it's now known, currently the subject of a complex police investigation.

It is also worth noting that the council intends to borrow another £100m by 2023/24, this will take the current level of debt from a staggering £433m to an eye-watering £533m, over half a billion quid, and an equally unaffordable increase in the level of interest payments, currently around £19m per year.

The Exec Board also decided to extend the school consultations referred to below until at least next week, claiming it was down to a change in Welsh Government guidance. It was, no doubt, actually down to the public backlash and the potential for legal challenge regarding the holding of a consultation during a pandemic.

Update 13th February;
As you can see from the updates below, Labour’s attempt at the council meeting on Wednesday to pause the Mynyddygarreg and Blaenau school closure consultations were defeated by the Plaid/Independent ruling majority.

Plaid councillors ignored impassioned pleas from parents to halt the process during the pandemic. The messages were relayed by Labour members who argued that families had enough to deal with at the moment without having to fight to try and keep their village schools, often the heart of a local community.

The Plaid amendment, as I said below, was designed to give the impression that they were following orders and official policy from Welsh Government.

It now seems that this wasn’t entirely true.

This blog has seen an email from Welsh Government which confirms that local authorities have the power to pause/suspend/extend public consultations for months, if they wish, and if circumstances dictate to maximise the ability to respond. 
A global pandemic is a very strong circumstance.

Elsewhere in the UK similar calls to halt consultations during the pandemic are being reported, from LDPs to budgets.

Councils could face legal challenge if they fail to take into account how the restrictions caused by the pandemic have impacted the publics' ability to have their say. Particularly on a clearly emotive and controversial subject such as this.

It looks to me that Plaid are certainly following in the footsteps of the notorious Meryl Gravell and are refusing to listen to their communities, for fear of appearing 'weak'. Helped along, as ever, by some highly questionable, and deliberately misleading, internal legal advice.

Update 10th Feb;
Rather predictably Plaid Cymru put an amendment forward which pretty much negated Rob James' motion to halt the consultations. 
This isn't allowed...but it went forward anyway, and the amendment was, basically, passing the buck and insisting they were merely following orders from Welsh Government. 
After much discussion, including powerful and emotional messages from parents and those affected by closures, the Plaid/Independent coalition ignored the pleas and approved the amendment to carry on with the consultation, regardless of the pandemic. 43 voted for, 14 against, and 6 abstentions.
Cllr Lenny's question, later in the agenda was withdrawn.

On another note, during a discussion about reducing excessive noise levels, and random use of fireworks, which cause anxiety and distress to animals and people, veteran Plaid Cymru councillor Colin Evans spoke in support of the motion. At one point he wandered around his living room revealing a large shotgun hanging on his wall. Boom.

Update 8th Feb;
The question over school closures will feature in Wednesday's (10th) full council meeting. Labour leader Cllr Rob James is calling for a halt to the consultations, until the start of the September term, whilst we are in the midst of the pandemic. He is also calling for clarity over the future plans for school closures. There will be a vote on this Motion.

Not to be outdone, Plaid Cllr Alun Lenny is asking Plaid Exec Member for schools, Glynog Davies whether or not he believes there is a future for small rural schools in the county, and, the clincher, how many were closed between 2004 and 2015, when the new Plaid administration took over.

There are a couple of points worth noting in this loaded question. I'm sure Cllr Davies will believe there is certainly a future, but, he will say, it needs to be rationalised, right-sized and reviewed, blah blah. Secondly, many small schools were closed between 2004 and 2015, I can't remember how many and with pre-2015 agendas and minutes now removed from the council website it's difficult to know. 

However, despite Labour being in and out of coalition in this period, it was the independents, under Meryl Gravell who pushed the closures forward, at one point admonishing councillors as 'weak' for daring to listen to campaigners, parents and the like. 
It was all part of an unhealthy regime no one wants to return to, apart from Plaid Cymru perhaps...

* * *

The council’s latest budget consultation is currently circulating in cyberspace with the response deadline for next Tuesday. This time it’s all been a bit rushed, the fault of the Welsh Labour government, or the UK government, or pandemics and brexit, anything other than Carmarthenshire Council of course. 

They did have time, however, to put a couple of patronising videos together, including one explaining the difference between the revenue and the capital budget, though not one to explain why they were in £432m in debt, costing £20m a year in interest, due to rise exponentially as Emlyn Dole ploughs on relentlessly with the Wellness Fantasy.

Filling in the survey requires extensive deciphering of the proposals, sifting through the mystifying assortment of rationalisations, remodelling, right-sizing and reviewing, collectively known as 'cuts'. Then you are asked to give your view, on all of it....or none of it, because you’ve probably given up by now.

Budgets are always an opportunity to score a few points, from both sides of the divide. Previously, keen observers and bloggers could spot the few, obviously unpopular red herrings popped into the ‘proposals’ which would be miraculously, and loudly dropped by the Exec Board in a press release a week before the Council approved the budget. 

Pretending they were going to close the respite centres for profoundly disabled children came up a few years running, a particularly cruel game. They could then claim to have ‘listened’, despite the obvious fact that it was all staged.

This year’s syrupy nonsense was the 'massive' reduction in the council tax rise of slightly less than half a percent, from 4.9 to 4.48. This magnanimous proposal was stage managed for Emlyn who then proceeded to say, in the inevitable press release,  "The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked personal and financial havoc on our county, and the good people of Carmarthenshire have paid a huge price...I propose reducing the proposed Council Tax increase to 4.48 per cent to give the people of Carmarthenshire the support that they so rightly deserve"
Big help Emlyn. 

In Rhondda Cynon Taf the increase is 2.65%, Bridgend 3.9% and Neath Port Talbot 3.75%.
As for Covid related costs, the Welsh Government has reimbursed this council £18m, around 96%, so far.
Meanwhile, Carmarthenshire's council/social housing rents will increase by 1.5%.

Of course Emlyn 'two barns' Dole has experienced less in the way of financial havoc, boosting his monthly £4120.83 with penny pinching claims for fuel, and hosting punters from across a Covid riddled UK to bathe in his luxury hot tub. Ewww.
Emlyn’s involvement in the Mark James Wellness scandal has yet to be determined. And the roles of James' seconds in command, Wendy Walters and Linda Rees Jones come to that.
Such a tangled web.

Incidentally, calls from the Llanelli Chamber of Commerce for local firms to be given the chance to operate the site, rather than one big company have been deflected by Dole who said the tender process is about to start (he means 'start again' given that the last tender process is still being investigated by the organised crime squad) and commercial confidentiality must be observed. In other words, sod off. 

Despite £12.5m of proposed cuts on the horizon for the next couple of years, over a million quid is being spent sprucing up County Hall, including new carpets, (they did get very lumpy during the James regime) and a new ‘head of regeneration’ is being appointed at £96k per annum. This unnecessary example of a non-job for the boys/girls is just about covered by slashing a proposed £100k from the children and educational psychology service.

The Labour opposition are busy needling Emlyn and co over the million quid to be ‘saved’, vaguely, from schools. Many of which are struggling with finances. As I mentioned back in November, two are up for closure, including Mynyddygarreg near Kidwelly, a proposal which is drawing considerable opposition, and calls to extend the consultation period. It's seen as little unfair to consult when people are somewhat distracted by a global pandemic. More cash is set to be ‘saved’, and jobs lost, by, for instance, centralising school kitchens.

One problem is the language of smoke and mirrors adopted so seamlessly by Plaid, and officers alike. It was sad and pathetic to see Plaid Executive Member Dai Jenkins tell Labour Leader Rob James, unconvincingly, that no they weren’t closing schools, they were, erm, ‘rationalising’ them. What nonsense.
The Director of Education, Gareth Morgans, took the award for ridiculous corporate crapspeak though by admitting they were looking at the ‘primary school footprint’ and ‘investing in a system that’s probably more sustainable in the future’. Cuts and closures are fine as long as you can shoe horn in the word ‘sustainable’. And ‘footprint’. At £130,000 a year, he should be an expert at that.

Anyway the annual budget saga will run its course over the next few weeks.


Unlawful libel indemnities

One huge potential price for the good people of Carmarthenshire which bothers neither Emlyn nor the Director of Corporate Services, Chris Moore is preserving the ability to sue the public if they say something out of turn. As I mentioned here, last October the unlawful clause was merely shifted from one part of the constitution to another.

As I have also mentioned Mark James (currently under police investigation), Legal Linda, and Emlyn Dole have insisted that this power was not only lawful but quite necessary. Desperate to defend the indefensible. Ms Rees Jones had told me this repeatedly and pleaded with the Auditor General to give his blessing to reinstatement. Emlyn even wanted the provision to be extended to cover himself. The Auditor General was having none of it. Neither was I.

The Executive now has the power to use public money, unlawfully, to sue on behalf of a senior officer. Interestingly the ‘new clause’ mentions the libel indemnity provision without specifying if it is for making a claim or defending one. The latter is allowed under certain circumstances, the former is not. Anyone can sue, of course, but with their own money, not the taxpayers'.
The 2014 Audit Wales Public Interest Report which found the indemnity for Mark James' counterclaim unlawful can be found here.

I wrote to the Audit Office back in November about this shifting, sinister clause, and had a reply earlier this week, reproduced in full below (with my emphasis). 
Despite the very careful wording it is clear that the AG has not changed his view. Far from it. If the council interpret the clause as a green light to sue (which is the intention), there will be trouble.

Whether any of them would be daft enough to sue, Mark James style, again, is doubtful and it’s remarkable that head of legal Linda Rees Jones, who has been spouting deliberately misleading and illegal ‘advice’, to councillors and courts for years, is still in post. Mark James left her to it, of course, and ran off with the loot.

Dear Mrs Thompson,

The Auditor General, Adrian Crompton, has asked me to thank you for your email of 10 November 2020 concerning Carmarthenshire Council’s inclusion of provision in its constitution in respect of indemnities for libel actions. We appreciate you drawing this to our attention.

We have given this situation careful consideration and note that the new provision in 3.1 of the constitution does not explicitly concern indemnities for officers making claims or counterclaims for libel. While, in isolation, the provision could be read as enabling the indemnification of an officer making such a claim or counterclaim (as opposed to indemnification for defence of libel claims), such an interpretation would, in our view, not be correct. We consider that the Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) (Wales) Order 2006 still renders providing indemnity for making a claim or counterclaim for libel unlawful.

Please note that it is not within our functions to provide you with legal advice. The views above do not constitute legal advice, and you should not seek to rely on them as such advice.

The Auditor General has already written to the Council requesting that it informs him of any intention to indemnify an officer making a claim or counterclaim for libel. He has reminded the Council of his power to apply for judicial review in respect of a decision which could reasonably be believed to have an effect on the accounts of the Council. I and other members of the audit team are also keeping the situation under review.

Yours sincerely,

Ann-Marie Harkin

Cyfarwyddwr || Director

          Audit Wales 

 

Pantomime

I was amused to see that the council are asking for views over a name change for The Miners Theatre in Ammanford. With little else, clearly, to occupy their minds they want it to be one word, like the other two theatres, the Lyric, or Ffwrnes so are suggesting 'Glowyr', which means miners.

My amusement was not with that, but because it reminded me of a public vote some years back to pick a name (out of a shortlist) for Ffwrnes. It emerged, after the new name was announced, that it was not the actual vote winner but, in fact, the one preferred by county hall.

As a diligent blogger I recounted this silly farce, suggesting that the Council top brass should put on a pantomime at the said theatre. I politely suggested that Meryl Gravell would make an ideal Widow Twanky, and Mark James would be perfect as Pinocchio, and hoped, as Returning Officer he would take the results of a vote a little more seriously.

Moving forward a year or so and Mark James was suddenly offended, and dear old Pinocchio appeared in his libel counterclaim.

His lawyers claimed that my remark had the innuendo meaning that he was untrustworthy in his role as election Retuning Officer and couldn’t be trusted to give out the correct result.

Unfortunately that blogpost had to be consigned to legally enforced oblivion.

Although I can’t comment, legally, on his integrity as returning officer, I can vouch for the fact he’s a dishonest crook and a born liar.

Saturday, 2 January 2021

Wellness scandal - how did it happen?

I know I have cover the events concerning the tender for the Wellness village many times but, looking back, it's one of those things, and there have been quite a few, which makes one think, wtf, how did that happen? Or, more to the point, how on earth was it allowed to happen? 

The project has gone from one bizarre 'artists impression' back in 2018,


 
to another. The latest 'vision', now rebranded as Pentre Awel, resembles somewhere one might stay at Her Majesty's Pleasure. Surrounded by a toxic swamp.




Back in May 2016, the Executive Board were treated, behind closed doors, to a presentation on the project. Mark James, along with his mate from Swansea Uni Marc Clement, and Franz Dickmann led the show. Dickmann, at that point, was a director of Kent Neuroscience Ltd (KNS). Clement had resigned as a director the previous year.

The Exec Board was of course, like putty in their hands, and easily dazzled. It was a piece of cake, and the minutes from the meeting state that they were told the company had "a proven track record for similar developments within the health, medicine and wellness sector".

What they omitted to say, and a brief check would have shown this up, was that this "track record" was the development of a private hospital in Kent which now required a £20m bail out with the Dickmanns' hastily shedding their directorships.

The purpose of the meeting was for the council, ie Mark James, to 'arrange' a cosy twelve month 'exclusivity agreement' for KNS to develop the £200m Wellness Village, no questions asked. And certainly no tender.

During the following twelve months, KNS eventually and inevitably, given their history, dissolved and so the agreement quietly fizzled out. It seemed to everyone, apart from Mark James, that a new developer would have to be found. That, of course, was not part of Mr James plan, nor, might I suggest, part of his end of the deal with Dickmann and Clement. 

There were now vested interests, the Dickmann clan would be running and profiting from everything from the Creche to the consultancy (James Dickmann's MedParc), he had, allegedly, been offering 'inducements', jobs, shares and property. Clement was lining himself up to run the Wellness hotel. Mark James, as we know, was already quietly and heavily moonlighting in the property management business.
There was also a neat little sideline for them all brewing away in Kuwait
All for personal gain, and all with the help of City Deal and Council cash. 

Lo and behold in 2018, and £137,000 in debt, Sterling Health Security Holdings Ltd were announced as the 'new' partners. There had been, apparently, some sort of tender but oddly they were the only bidders. The tender process was overseen by Mark James, who made sure it ran according to his plan.



 
It was immediately apparent that this was the same outfit. The Dickmanns. Now with Mr James' pet puppet Cllr Meryl Gravell on the Board. The Dickmanns were also insisting that Vinci Construction were to build the project. It was all sewn up, promises had been made and clearly had to be kept.

Mark and Meryl

And to be honest there wasn't a proper tender process in sight.

Anyone who raised doubt as to the validity of the process, or due diligence, or whether it was all a bit corrupt was immediately shot down in flames by both Mark James and loyal Emlyn. Anyone who raised a concern was accused of jeopardizing the future of Carmarthenshire, in reality it was jeopardizing the size of a few wallets.

All was going swimmingly. Unfortunately, with the involvement of the City Deal, this little arrangement went wider than the closed shop of the council run by Mark James. He, and they, were rumbled. He soon announced his resignation.

Not only were other partners incredulous and horrified with his 'leadership' of the City Deal, but, by the end of 2018, with the diligent persistence of others at Swansea University, (and this blog) the Wellness scam and all those involved in the tangled web, were finally exposed. The police raided several homes including County Hall, in July 2019, eight suspects were interviewed earlier this year (we know who they are), and the CPS are now involved.

Let's hope 2021 bring a result.




* * * *


With the New Year Honours list announced I am reminded of a distinctly unworthy recipient of an award back in 2012, namely Mr Mark James and his CBE. Who decided to nominate him remains a mystery, possibly his adoring fan and co-conspirator former Councillor Meryl Gravell, who knows. The honour of being made the Rotten Borough's Shit of the Year 2016 by Private Eye was far more fitting.
 
He was made a CBE a couple of weeks before ensuring he was illegally bankrolled by Ms Gravell and the Exec Board, to bring his tactical counterclaim, and scupper a settlement which was on the verge of completion. At that meeting, in which he remained, illegally, he promised, in writing, to hand over any damages back to the council should he win.

As you know, my use of the term slush fund, which it was, and my description of Mr James as Pinocchio, a liar, which he was, and is, earned him £25,000 in damages.

Anyway, as he enforced the court Order, ultimately gaining a suspended order for sale, the costs rose to around £46,000 plus 8% interest, which I am now struggling to pay at £165 a month.

At the Order for sale hearing, early in 2017, the fact that he had breached the written undertaking, to his employers, and the taxpayers, to hand over any damages back to the council became apparent. It could go in the nearest gutter if he so chose. It was going back in his pocket rather than yours. The judge was far from impressed.

Although it was the Labour/Independent administration in power during the original trial etc, by 2015, Plaid Cymru were now in the hot seat. They had, of course, been thoroughly opposed to the whole thing when in opposition. But things had changed, hadn't they, 'two barns' Emlyn?

The news that Mr James had reneged on his promise to hand over the damages brought comments from both Labour and Plaid politicians, not that Mr James gave a rats a**e. Nia Griffith, Labour MP for Llanelli spoke about 'moral obligations' and 'doing the honourable thing'.

Jonathan Edwards, the Plaid MP (currently sitting as an independent) gave an interesting comment, given where we are today. 
He said "A new Plaid Cymru administration would never follow Labour and allow such an event to stain the name of Carmarthenshire again"

Of course, as I have pointed out, Plaid Cymru have made sure the door is left wide open to do exactly the same thing again. 

The unlawful clause which allowed the illegal funding for criminal mastermind Mr James has, via the appalling, shameless, and deliberately misleading advice from head of legal Linda Rees Jones, merely been moved from one section of the constitution to the other. 
This ongoing nonsense, unique to this council, is simply to avoid the stark fact that she and Mr James were wrong and acted illegally.

Yet another wtf' moment.

Given the Auditor General's rejections of the council's arguments for reinstating the clause, I have written to him about their decision to do exactly that, back in November, and await a reply.

If Adam Price wants to lead a Plaid Cymru Welsh Government in May, he needs to rein in this Plaid run council.

Monday, 28 December 2020

Carmarthenshire Council and the Picton problem

After the death of George Floyd earlier this year, the BLM movement, and the subsequent controversy over statues, most notably the toppling of Colston into the murky depths of the Bristol dockside, Carms council pondered over what to do about the Picton Memorial, Carmarthen, and Picton's portrait hanging in the old courthouse.
The pondering only occurred because there was a petition to rename the monuments with over 14,000 signatures.



Sir Thomas Picton was a soldier who met his end at the battle of Waterloo.
Unfortunately he was also deeply involved in the lucrative slave trade and in 1797 became the brutal and corrupt Governor of Trinidad, if that wasn’t bad enough, he also approved the illegal torture of a 14 year old girl called Louisa Calderon, and was accused of executing at least dozen slaves. 
Further details of the horrors he meted out were uncovered by civil rights campaigner Khafra Kambon, and featured in this BBC article from 2007.



Detecting some, erm, heavily polarised online opinions over the issue, the council thought it safer to consult the public, who could then blame each other rather than our illustrious exec board. They could call it democracy.
The 14,000 name petition was ignored.

Cardiff Council, on the other hand, voted to remove his statue from Cardiff City Hall's 'Welsh heroes' gallery in July.

Public opinion was hotly divided, with the ‘where does it end?’ pro-Picton camp, led by such, er, luminaries as Neil Hamilton, winning the day against, well, those seeking eternal justice for victims of Picton, the ‘snowflakes’, apparently. So it seems that both the memorial and portrait are here to stay. After all the man was, apparently, a war hero, as well as a serial abuser and torturer of little girls.

The Plaid Cymru Exec Board decided after much pontification-via-zoom, and the useful passage of time since the initial furore, to just add QR codes and ‘information boards’ so that curious observers could find out the truth about Mr Picton for themselves, if they could be bothered, or could get online.
It’s a bit like keeping a memorial to Jimmy Savile because he was once a popular tv presenter and fundraiser, with the ghastly truth only available down the other end of a wobbly phone line or a faded sign.

And why Picton's portrait should still grace a building once dedicated to handing out ‘justice’, rather than being binned, is a mystery.



Anyway, I daresay the issue of cold hard cash played its part, an info board and QR codes will cost around £5000, demolishing the huge obelisk would have added at least a nought, probably two.

Rededicating could have posed even more dilemmas, the obvious choice, I would have thought, would be in memory of Louisa Calderon and the unfortunate souls of Trinidad. But no doubt Emlyn would prefer a more recent hero of his, Mr Mark James CBE, not quite a Sir, and maybe not a CBE for much longer, but close enough for Emlyn...The problem is that it would require an even bigger info board and QR thing to explain that Mr James is in fact, also a bully, also corrupt, and a liar and a crook to boot. And of course, Mr James is very much alive, and currently conning the unsuspecting folk of Century Wharf from the safety of his Carmarthen residence.

In all seriousness, removing or rededicating the memorial would not be 'changing or erasing history', it would be recognising the fact that Picton was a cruel bully and doesn't exactly deserve veneration. Politics has nothing to do with it.

Just as well he's not alive today, they'd probably make him Leader of the Council.
 
Anyway that’s the end of Carmarthen's Picton saga, for now, after all, historical accuracy and truth is not something Carms Council readily signs up for. 

So it’s a happy new year from me, I will ensure that 2021 brings justice, truth, and accountability.

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Century Wharf - Mark James’ take-over bid

As a follow on post from 'Tangled webs', yet again we see that one of the police suspects, currently languishing under criminal investigation from the Wellness scandal, has lost no time in adding to his growing business portfolio with yet another company appearing on Companies House on Tuesday.

As we know, just before Mark James, former CEO of Carmarthenshire Council, and Private Eye’s Shit of the Year 2016, hurriedly ‘retired’ he set up his own lucrative consultancy company, which clearly needed no online presence, due, no doubt to all those useful contacts garnered at County Hall, and such a wealth of inside knowledge of City Deal plans, etc, from the corridors of power.

Not one to bother his then employers, the council, with such trifles as declaring business interests, he failed to register his directorship of the three Century Wharf Right To Manage Companies, his building services company, his property portfolio (including Caebrwyn's humble abode), or his dodgy venture into Kuwait with his equally disgraced mates, Marc Clement and co, so recently booted out of Swansea Uni.

One will never know how much in the way of public resources went into Mr James' private interests. After all, he unashamedly funnelled thousands of pounds of public money into his private vendettas.

His shady business dealings in Century Wharf may have gone undetected if it wasn’t for pesky residents complaining to the press back in 2017 about the unpleasant activities of Airbnb guests, and his management of the Right To Manage (RTM) company, which included claims to legal advice which were never disclosed, claims to ministerial 'contacts', and veiled legal threats to those who questioned his actions. 

More recently it emerged that Mr James had ensured his mates from far flung Llangennech enjoyed their share of the fruits of Century Wharf.

All of which should sound very familiar to his long-suffering former subjects of Carmarthenshire.

The latest addition to Mr James’ business portfolio, registered on December 8th, is CW Estates Management Company Ltd.

After the recent row over forged signatures on EWS1 forms. All blame for failed due diligence checks into the company commissioned to inspect the complex for combustible materials was placed squarely on Warwick Estates, who run Century Wharf on behalf of the RTM. As a result Warwick seem to have been given notice that their contract was being terminated.

Due diligence from the Chair of the RTM didn’t seem to have been an issue, funny that, especially given Mark James experience with forged documents.

Not one to miss an opportunity for personal gain, Mr James’ new venture, CW Estates Management, is the replacement vehicle for Warwick Estates. His co-directors, as you can see from Companies House, are Owein Mattey (still listed as Warwick Estates manager) and the Century Wharf RTM finance manager, Ryan Howells.  
 
Presumably James will have to relinquish his position on the RTM, at some point, as this would, of course, create a direct conflict of interest.

His dictatorship at County Hall appears to have moved seamlessly to Cardiff Bay. And will no doubt will create lucrative opportunities for his consultancy, his other business interests, including his building inspection company, and his friends.

Of course, as he is no longer employed by the council he can do as he likes, he even has £165 a month pocket money from me to help him along, which apparently he puts in the nearest gutter.

Unfortunately, from his lengthy reign at County Hall, he also has a track record any self-respecting mafia boss would aspire to. I may have mentioned this before, as a warning to unsuspecting residents and colleagues of Century Wharf in particular, but its a fact worth repeating. 

In fact, it was a former Police Commissioner who described County Hall as a Sicilian cartel; "it extracts vast amounts of money from residents which it showers on favourites, hoards property, bullies opponents, co-opts friends and answers to no one, least of all local councillors."

Mr James doesn’t take kindly to criticism, he even set up his own illegal slush fund, with public money, to deal with awkward customers. Neither does he like people ‘going to the press’, he called Century Wharf residents who did just that and criticised his management of the RTM, ‘a cancer’. 

He doesn’t like the press, (or bloggers) or anyone who calls him out for what he is, an arrogant, vindictive and thoroughly dishonest individual. God help anyone in Century Wharf who opposes him now.

He made a career out of trying to silence the local press in Carmarthenshire, even resorting to blackmail. 
As for democracy, he spent his seventeen years at County Hall stamping it out. And his legacy continues.
The only role council leaders had was to polish Mr James' CBE.

So don’t expect a friendly ‘suggestion box’ to be installed in the Century Wharf concierge office.

After creating numerous white elephants around the county, which inevitably became propped up by the taxpayer, he then tried to put his unpleasant, and fateful stamp on the Swansea Bay City Deal. 

The City Deal, however, was a bigger fish than Carmarthenshire Council and various ‘partners’ soon saw him for what he was, an arrogant, compulsive liar. And some said as much. In fact it was his management, erm, technique which nearly scuppered the whole billion pound deal. Carmarthenshire council were stripped of various roles and the investigators called in. 

The tender process for the Wellness village, manipulated and twisted by Mr James, to a pliant audience of dimwitted and fearful Councillors was the final nail in his coffin. 

And it was this, covered extensively on this blog, and the allegations that he and his friends from Swansea Uni were attempting to line their own pockets, that led to the police raiding his home and seizing his computers in July 2019, and so, not for the first time, did he become a criminal suspect. And, at the time of writing, he most definitely still is. 

I also hear that his arrogance got the better of him earlier this year, but more of that in due course.

Personally speaking I wouldn’t let him any where near a child’s piggy bank, let alone manage a multi million pound complex of luxury apartments. There’s only one pocket Mr James wants to line, and that’s his own.

Be warned!

Mark James, Century Wharf


Friday, 4 December 2020

The leaked £191,000 costs report - redacted, five years on

I've been quietly battling, since February, to get the Executive Board report, now nearly five years old, which recommended that the council pursue me for £191,000 in legal defence costs from the libel case. 

The report also considered pursuing me for the unlawful indemnity counterclaim costs which they decided, at the time, to leave well alone. I wonder why... 

At a subsequent court hearing the council got a charge on my home for the full £191,000. The judge was surprised that they were pursuing it and said he applied it 'reluctantly'.

Mark James was already in the process of getting a legal charge, instalments, and a suspended order for sale for his damages and enforcement costs, totalling around £46,000. You may recall his comments about stuffing the money in the gutter. And the judge's shock that he'd lied to the council about handing over any damages.

My FOI request for this elderly report earlier this year followed a meeting with Plaid Cymru's Adam Price AS in January. Mr Price promised to write to Plaid leader Emlyn Dole asking him to consider removing the charge as the threat of it hanging over us was crippling, financially and emotionally. 

Cllr Dole flatly and belligerently refused and reminded Mr Price that they could come after me for the money 'at any time'. Charming. I asked Mr Price to write again to Mr Dole but heard no more. Perhaps he doesn't want to rock election boats...

They knew damn well at the time, in 2016, that I definitely had no means, nor assets to ever pay it. 
This was never about getting money back, it was purely vindictive, and all about punishment, and led by Mark James.

Anyway back to this report. 

I was eventually sent a copy. Confusingly it had been refused under FOI but disclosed under data protection. The problem was that as it had been considered in private, in 2016, (despite my calls at the time for it to be heard in public and for me to be able to make representations) it was heavily redacted. The whole thread of the FOI, and the redacted report can be seen on the What Do They Know site.

Unsurprisingly the only bits left, pretty much, was the damning nonsense said about me and a few choice quotes from Tugenhat's judgement. Even from the remnants left in, it was easy to tell this wasn't an 'objective' report. Not surprising given the influence of Mark James and his legal disciple, and report author Linda Rees Jones.





Under data protection they had not only removed Mark James' name (unnecessary, but understood), but the internal and legal advice which they'd included in the report. I didn't know they could use the legal privilege exemption under data protection but apparently they can.

I duly took the matter to the Information Commissioner (ICO). My argument for the redaction to be removed from all of it (apart from Mr James' precious name) was that the report was reaching its fifth birthday, the matter had already been decided by a County Court judgement and, more to the point, the full document had been leaked to the press after it was discussed in 2016.

The first I heard that they had decided to go after me for £191,000 was via a phone call from a reporter from the Carmarthen Journal who had a copy in front of him. It was a few days after the 2016 meeting. I was in shock. 

He read out a couple of bits but I didn't see the full document, nor, given the awful news, did I quite absorb all he was saying. I also found out that Emlyn Dole had already had a little chat with him and issued a statement, before I even knew what had happened. 
I had been told to wait until all 74 councillors had been informed and the minutes published. No councillors were informed, and the minutes not published until a few days later.

Emlyn Dole was the leaker, on orders from Mark James, who went on to win Private Eye's Shit of the Year award for 2016.

The Information Commissioner got back to me a few weeks ago. They had decided that the council had to 'revisit' the way they handled the request. Not exactly pushing the boat out.

Yesterday I had a response from the council (my emphasis).
 
"I write with regard to your complaint to the Information Commissioner in respect of this matter which was received from the ICO on the 10th November.

In light of your complaint the content of the report you have requested has been compared to information published by the Council  to ascertain if, as you suggest it’s contents are already in the public domain.  We are satisfied that the content of the report has not been published by the
Council in another document or another form.

Your complaint however states that the Council ‘leaked’ the report at the time it was considered. We can find no evidence that this was the case. Please can you confirm when precisely it was ‘leaked’ and to whom. If the report (or its contents) have already appeared in the public domain, then
please confirm where and when.

The decision to redact some of the report in response to your request will then be revisited in light of the information that you provide."

Of course this is all game playing. Interesting that they could find 'no evidence' of a leak. After the Journal reported on the decision, with the document to hand, so did the BBC, and the Carmarthenshire Herald, it even made the front page. The Herald article examined the leak in detail. 

I also wrote about it on my blog. Given that Mark James was, at the time, using taxpayers' resources to rummage through my blog for his failed complaint to the police, it's surprising he missed it...


Carmarthenshire Herald April 2016

Of course, as the council already know, no one actually published the full report, only the Journal published figures which can only have come from the document. I will point this out to the council, as this ridiculous game, and play on words, continues. 

Interestingly their latest response makes no mention of the rationale behind withholding an old report on a matter which has already been decided in court, which was also part of my complaint to the ICO. It was in fact, Robert Edgecombe, the council's solicitor who applied all the redactions, and who represented the council in court. 
You might conclude that not only are they taking the p***, but they also have something to hide.

One thing is certain, I'll not drop any of this. And with former CEO Mark James; liar, thief and all round crook still under police investigation, the fight will go, regardless.

Thursday, 3 December 2020

The Burn family - Nia Griffith MP petitions parliament

Llanelli MP Nia Griffith (Lab) has petitioned parliament to call for an independent review into the way Dyfed Powys Police handled the case of the Burn family back in 2010. The family have been seeking justice ever since. For background, the case has been covered on this blog in the past, most recently in 2017 here and here. Former County Councillor Sian Caiach has also written extensively about the case. The Daily Express also published an article in 2017, here.

In 2010 Carina Burn, who was then nineteen, was taken from her parents, Robin and Julia after carers, contracted by the council, made allegations that Carina had conveyed to them that she was being abused by her parents. Carina is profoundly autistic, cannot speak and has very limited communication skills. Incidentally, shortly before the allegations were made, Julia had queried the disappearance of Carina's pocket money when her daughter was out with the carers.

The police found no evidence of abuse and eventually admitted that the allegations were fabricated. No action was taken against the carers. The allegations were further discredited by an expert witness who examined Carina's capacity, or lack of, to communicate.

However, despite no action being taken, Carina was not returned to her parents for six months. This was a traumatic experience for the family and left Carina profoundly distressed, tearful and frightened to leave her parents for a very long time.

Carina, aided by her legal team, won a civil claim against the various authorities for the contravention of her human rights, and her solicitor gave this damning comment at the time;

“This was a horrific case and Carina and her family were let down by every authority that should have been helping them, with devastating consequences… the family did their best to raise their concerns through appropriate channels but it was only through legal proceedings that the police, local authority and a psychiatrist engaged by the local authority all finally admitted their catastrophic failures.”

This has been a long uphill struggle for Carina's parents and, unsurprisingly, they feel that individuals within both the police and the council have attempted to brush the whole business under the carpet. The following petition put forward by MP Nia Griffith is now on the record and is the latest stage in their struggle for justice for Carina.

Hansard: December 2nd 2020

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab) 
Independent Review of Dyfed-Powys Police

My constituents and their daughter Carina were put through months and years of anguish on the basis of evidence collected against National Policing Improvement Agency guidance for which the police have never apologised, so I rise to present to the House the petition of Julia and Robin Burn.

The petition states:

The petition of Julia and Robin Burn,

Declares that, in 2010, in conducting their investigations into allegations made against the petitioners, Dyfed-Powys Police did not proceed in accordance with the appropriate National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) guidance; further declares that these allegations were later found to be groundless and without merit; further that this resulted in the petitioners’ mute autistic daughter being taken into local authority care for six months; and further that, after no further action was taken, no attempt was made to return her.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to instigate an independent review of Dyfed-Powys Police’s handling of this case.

And the petitioners remain, etc.

They now wait for a response.

Carina at home with her parents, November 2017

Saturday, 21 November 2020

News in brief - School closure scrutiny slashed, and an Ombudsman report - updated

Update below

With Scrutiny Committees slowly reappearing on the council calendar, Monday's meeting of the Education and Children Scrutiny Committee will, in fact, be discussing the reduction of scrutiny from proposed school closures. The council avoids the word 'closure' and uses less controversial terms such as reorganisation, merger, 'reviewing provision' and 'discontinue'.

Up to now, each stage of the democratic process to close schools has gone to the scrutiny committee, providing a useful mechanism to determine the best outcome for the area as well as an additional level of challenge. If the new move is implemented, the Scrutiny Committee will only be involved in the initial stage, the Exec Board and full council, will approve the process from thereon in.

The argument put forward is to save time as the pandemic has stalled plans to implement the council's Modernising Education Programme (MEP). However, as we have seen before, the outcome of the 'official' closure consultations is largely ignored by the council, particularly any comments which oppose the council's plans, it's all a done deal, so removing any scrutiny, however feeble, is not the best way forward. There's precious little in Carmarthenshire anyway. 

It will be interesting to see if a scrutiny committee actually votes to deprive itself from its ability to scrutinise. (Update 25th November....they did)

A couple of years ago the Welsh Government decided that there should be a presumption against the closure of rural schools. My own experience was that the closure of Llanwrda School a few years ago didn't just remove a vibrant centre of excellent primary education but it ripped the heart out of the community. 

There is also the detrimental effect on the Welsh language to consider, when my children left Llanwrda school at 11 years of age they were fully bilingual, there is no better 'immersion' than a village school. I doubt very much if this would have happened to the same degree had they travelled further afield to a much larger school.
 
There are very few small village primary schools left in the county and Monday's agenda includes another two up for closure, Blaenau, near Ammanford, and Mynyddygarreg, near Kidwelly. As they are part of the MEP, closure has been on the cards for a number of years. This fact alone, as we saw with Llanwrda, means numbers inevitably decline as parents sent their kids elsewhere to avoid an unsettling break in their primary education.

Small schools (and big schools) are struggling financially and these two have budget deficits and are now well under capacity. They are now, to use the council's favourite word, 'unsustainable'. The argument for closure is therefore strong. But, as I said above, the benefits to the community, the kids, and the language are equally strong, and, in some ways, immeasurable.

In other news, a new finding against Carmarthenshire Council appears in the latest 'Casebook' (page 29) from the Ombudsman. The complaint goes back to 2016/17 and relates to Childrens Social Services. The Ombudsman, in a brief, anonymised summary issued in June 2020, found that the support offered to a foster carer, when the behaviour of a child placed in her care became increasingly challenging, was insufficient and, significantly, the council failed to fully follow child protection procedures.

The challenging behaviour culminated in an incident (unspecified) after the carer had clearly flagged the difficult behaviour with the council. However, the council failed to arrange for additional visits and the social worker failed to document all the sessions with the carer anyway. 
Alongside this was the fact that during all this the carer broke up with her partner, and the Ombudsman found that the council failed to either reassess the placement or consider whether further support was necessary.
The council were told to apologise to the foster carer and learn lessons. 
Let's hope they have.

* * * * *

Update  25th November

A few snippets...

The annual revenue budget makes a brief appearance on the Exec Board agenda for Monday 30th November. With many of last year's cuts yet to be implemented, and, due to Covid, the finances generally far worse, loss of income etc, there is at least another £16m to be cut, or 'saved' over the next three years. That's without the unknown madness of brexit.

Another expense for the revenue budget is the interest payments for the City Deal. The agreement with the Welsh Government to keep any future business rates from developments, such as the Wellness Shed, will not touch the sides of the interest payments which they will need to borrow. 
"there are likely to be additional funding requirements in respect of the City Deal projects. These include both interest costs (as it is forecast they will exceed the business rates retention deal agreed with WG) and additional staffing costs" 
The council is already paying £18m a year on their current debt.

It looks like the council will be flogging off as many of its 152 buildings it can if they are now not being used, whilst continuing to spend a fortune on it's crumbling non-eco friendly offices it bought at Parc Dewi Sant.

Meanwhile the council has submitted a planning application (listed building) to itself to 'remodel' bits of County Hall, Carmarthen. An open plan office, plus 'breakout' space will be created, a suite of Executive Offices will adorn the first floor, complete with redecoration and new carpets, and the whole building will be rewired.
The cost has not been disclosed, but at least it's an opportunity to see what's under those lumpy carpets...

Incidentally, and also worth a mention is a separate 'Covid Impact' report which states that the planning department is now under "immense strain" as "early indications would suggest that a great level of unlawful activity has occurred during the pandemic". 

All councils face a bleak time ahead, but only Carmarthenshire ensured they preserved their very own slush fund.

The Democratic Services Committee also meets on Monday when the annual recommendations of the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales will doubtless be approved. This means a pay increase of £150 for each councillor, taking the allowance up to £14,368 plus expenses. 'Senior' councillors also have the same rise, taking useless Emlyn Dole's pay up to £49,975, deputy leader Mair Stephens to £35,320 and the other Exec Board members to £30,773.

On the upside, the virtual nature of all these meetings means that many more than usual are available for public viewing, should you be so inclined, and you can see even more of how officials still run the show with dutiful councillors nodding everything through.  
I guess it's a marginal improvement than being locked up for trying to film one on your mobile phone...

Friday, 13 November 2020

Council to give £100,000 to the evangelical bowling alley - to build a church

Followers of this blog might recall a controversy several years ago when our council gifted £1.4m in land, lease and buildings, and a £270k loan to the Towy Community Church Ltd. The church opened a bowling alley, Xcel Bowl, and runs various community facilities, food bank etc from the site in Johnstown, Carmarthen. The next phase of the project includes a 600 seat auditorium to be used as a church.

The controversy initially kicked-off because the church also intended to open a branch of the Mercy Ministry, another evangelical outfit which saves 'fallen' women, and had troubling links to using exorcism to 'cure' eating disorders, homosexuality etc. Also, the proposed debt counselling service based its advice on inviting people, often very vulnerable people, to pray. 

Despite the community work, some questioned whether an organisation which, on its old website, included a 'Statement of Faith' which refers to “the eternal conscious bliss of the believer and the eternal conscious punishment of those who reject Christ”, was an appropriate recipient of so much public money. And a bit tough on the 'Little Skittles' toddler section...

The curious generosity shown to the church was, let's be honest, explained by the fact that former chief executive, and all round crook, Mark James, was also of the same evangelical Christian persuasion, and devout believer of the literal truth of the bible, albeit as a member of another evangelical church in the bible-belt of Carmarthen. James even invited his mate, the then pastor to address full council when they approved the loan.

In fact the council didn't even bother to do its own Equalities Risk Assessment, then again, we already knew that Mark James broke out in hives at the mention of the Rainbow Flag.
The church even formed part of the council's 'Team around the family' initiative for vulnerable children.

A freedom of information request to the council for correspondence between County Hall and the church was refused. I appealed to the ICO but the council came back with copious quantities of fire and brimstone about the terrible Mrs Thompson and the correspondence was never released. I can't imagine why it was such a secret...

In 2015 the whole Exec Board, plus Mr James, visited the site and blessed the church with £20,000 for a new boiler, and kindly arranged for some niggling planning breaches to be rubber stamped, thus avoiding an irritating visit from planning enforcement. 

Exec Board Member for social care Jane Tremlett waxed lyrical about the whole thing. It was particularly poignant as two weeks previously she'd voted to slash £18,000 funding from a school for autistic children. Carmarthenshire Herald's columnist Cadno also wrote a good piece at the time.

Back in 2012 when the funding, etc was first  approved a 'council spokesman' said “Religious organisations are eligible to apply for council funding to carry out work in the community, but funding cannot be used for the promotion of religious activity.”

Of course the church does work in the community, and I'm not knocking them for that, but they also promote religious activity, 'evangelise', throughout everything they do, including the community work, and often with very vulnerable people, with the aim, of course, to bring as many into the fold as possible. They're also building a church.
  
After all, as the church quotes on its website, "People cannot make up for their sin through self-improvement and being good - only by trusting in Jesus and God's offer of forgiveness". 
As for the jobs which were 'created' as part of the original funding criteria, the wider congregation appear to have filled most, if not all of the posts. 

As with most businesses and charities, the Towy Church has taken a hit with Covid, it's running late submitting accounts to the Charity Commission, and has gone to the council again for help. And with the threat that one of Mr James' visions, God's own bowling alley, might close permanently, and the Phase 2 Church might be in doubt, the council, led by the Reverend Dole, appear to be coming up trumps. The item, which is publicly available, is on the agenda for Monday's (16th Nov) Executive Board meeting.

The council are offering not just a £50,000 grant but an additional £50,000 to be added to the original loan. This is not an award from the general Covid pot, which applies to everyone else, this is coming from council reserves. The church have already had Covid grants.
Praise the Lord!

I suppose, with those fervent prayers for forgiveness at the start of every full council meeting, our councillors might well be afraid of eternal conscious damnation.

My issue is not with religion, or the many Gods people worship, it's the bankrolling of any church sects and faith groups with Carmarthenshire's public money. There are numerous groups and charities which do excellent community work, and who do not have an agenda, and do not benefit from such local government largesse. But this is the crazy world of Carmarthenshire council, and as many believe, Church and State should be kept well apart.


There are too many previous blogposts to link to here, please use the searchbox for more background, and also have a search through the many posts on Cneifiwr's blog.