Thursday, 13 December 2018

Full Council - Wellness Village, and the Emperor's New Clothes


Previous post; The Wellness Village - The end? and Sterling ditched

Rather than provide endless updates on my previous post I thought I'd better write a new one. Especially as both the chief executive, Mark James, and council leader Emlyn Dole plumbed new depths in backpeddling, dishonesty, and a mutual state of denial at yesterday's meeting.

Further to November's meeting, Labour opposition leader Cllr Rob James had again placed several questions on the agenda related to the Wellness Village. As questions have to be submitted seven days in advance, they pre-date the most recent events.

Given these recent events, ie the total collapse of the project, Mark James decided to give a statement during the Chair's Announcements. With his Wellness vision drifting into oblivion, and in it up to his neck, this was simply a personal damage-limitation, blame-deflecting exercise.

Chief executive, and monitoring officer, Linda Rees Jones
He appears to have entered a twilight world were everything is fine, the signed and sealed contract between the council, Swanea Uni and Sterling wasn't really a contract, nothing had been agreed, the health boards were still excited, as was Trinity St David's Uni, the council had only spent a bit of money on ground prep and reports (and, it seems, three years worth of external legal advice)....the council were going to go it alone...etc etc, there was nothing to see here, move along...
He also mentioned that the Wales Audit Office were now involved, though not because they though anything was wrong, oh no, but because they'd been 'invited'. Really.

Naturally, no one is allowed to question the chief executive.
Think 'Emperor's New Clothes', King Cnut, or even our old friend Pinocchio.

Incidentally the council expenditure up until August 2017 was £564,427. As it is now December 2018, I have made a FOI request for the up-to-date figures. The health boards have already refused to commit funds.

Later in the meeting Cllr Rob James ask Emlyn Dole his questions on the Wellness village. Cllr James said that at a City Deal business launch event last week Emlyn Dole denied a claim from a local business that Vinci Plc, based in France, had already been chosen as a constructor for the project, this denial was despite Vinci Plc being named in several documents. Cllr Dole again denied the claim.  Amid gasps from the chamber Cllr James called him a liar, and subsequently, and rightly so, refused to retract the accusation. He also called for Dole's resignation.

Cllr Rob James
As I said in my previous post, Vinci Plc feature in the Contract Award Notice for the 'Collaboration Agreement' on the Sell2Wales website, the Collaboration Agreement itself, and also features on the Sterling Health website as part of the consortium which were to deliver the project. I have made a further FOI request for a copy of the now defunct Collaboration Agreement.
It wasn't just Vinci which the council had lined up via Sterling, but everything from the architects to the creche. None of them were local businesses. It was a stitch-up.


The Dickmanns, as Kent Neurosciences, with Vinci Plc, at the private hospital site in Kent
Cllr Rob James also asked about the decision to end the collaboration, was any notice given? Was it a unilateral decision by the council? The 'Chair' hastily intervened (no doubt after a nudge from Mark James) and wouldn't allow him to ask this as it wasn't the question he'd submitted. Pity, you'd think that Cllr Dole would have chosen to answer it anyway....though clearly it wasn't in the script he'd been given.

Cllr Dole also chose not to elaborate as to why the whole thing has collapsed, why the UK government had stepped in, and why Swansea Uni had jumped ship. In fact he failed to explain anything at all other than ramble on about the project from a script obviously cobbled together by the chief executive. In a classic attempt to avoid scrutiny he accused Cllr James of sniping. In another classic attempt to avoid giving honest and open responses, he resorted to sniping at Cllr James.

Cllr Dole
The exchanges can be seen on the archived webcast.

To seasoned observers the actions of the chief executive, and Emlyn Dole, yesterday were nothing out of the ordinary. Evasiveness, dishonesty, denial and attack are as predictable as night follows day. What appeared to be a total collapse of a very expensive three year project was no such thing... The chief executive's total compliance and involvement in some very dodgy dealings never happened... The Wales Audit Office were only there for tea and biscuits...

In fact, since the pension and libel indemnity scandals the WAO, particularly the local team, have kept remarkably quiet, perhaps reluctant to bite the hand that feeds. Mr James has clearly regained control over their remit, and their access to county hall secrets.

In my opinion, there needs to be a thorough police investigation. All electronic communications and phone records between Mark James, Marc Clement and Sterling should be seized for a start and a full forensic audit, to a criminal standard carried out, starting in his county hall office.  Questioning him under oath is a waste of time, he wouldn't tell the truth no matter how high the stack of bibles. Mark James is, if nothing else, an expert in cover-up, and in manipulating those around him, through threats, promises or whatever it takes. He delegates liability, but never delegates authority.

As for Emlyn Dole, this was probably a good time to have been honest and realistic about the situation, instead of being defensive and arrogant, and repeating what the chief executive had said parrot-fashion. As for him being irritated by Cllr James for asking difficult questions, this is something that Plaid might remember doing once...when they were in opposition.

Ironically, in between the chief executive's plan to waste further millions and plunge the county into an abyss of unmanageable debt for generations to come, and the leader's obsequious agreement, a separate agenda item saw secondary school pupils give constructive, well argued, excellent presentations of their views on the assorted budget cuts to frontline services being proposed for next year.

But, after all, who needs learning disability services, mental health services, or school counsellors for vulnerable children, when you can have this.....

Wellness Village, artists impression (Arup)
For further background, please search this blog.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

The Wellness Village - The end? - Updated - Sterling ditched


Update 12th December;
The Wales Audit Office are now carrying out a 'review' (investigation) of the council's role in all this.

Update 11th December;
The Llanelli Herald reports that Swansea University are no longer working on the Wellness Village. With Sterling now ditched, the contract (see pic below) signed between the council, Sterling and the University is now dissolved. Hywel Dda health board has also confirmed, again, that they have made no financial commitment to the scheme.
Mark James' 'key partners' are dropping like flies... As I said in April, a scandal in the making.
Report here.

Update 7th December; 
Sterling Health have now been ditched. Wales Online has a report here.
Both Emlyn Dole and Mark James are now talking utter b******s to try and stave off an investigation;

Dole; "The collaboration agreement [with Sterling Health] was simply an agreement to work together to develop the various aspects of the Delta Lakes project and draw up a development agreement for its delivery."That development agreement has not been agreed and the county council has concluded that the project can be better delivered in another way.“No public funding has been committed to the partners, no companies have been established, no shares allocated and no directors appointed."There is no liability on the county council whatsoever at this point.” 
The council wouldn't say how much it has spent on the Wellbeing Village to date. 
Its chief executive Mark James, added: “The council and its partners remain fully committed to develop the Life Science and Wellbeing Village."The council will now finalise the business plan to develop the Village with key partners including the Hywel Dda Health Board and the two universities [Swansea and Trinity St David]".

What an utter mess. These statements (issued at 5.03pm on a Friday, of course) beggar belief. Sterling's website, the council, and numerous press releases all confirm the 'landmark deal' had been signed and sealed. The council even 'partnered' with them in their previous incarnation as Kent Neurosciences.

Laughing all the way to the bank....

As I said, the council have already wasted millions on the project. A FOI back in August 2017 put the figure at over £2m between the Welsh Government and the council, 18 months of further expenditure has passed since then, and as we know, the project required £127m of private sector funding. The two health boards have no money to invest, and have in fact refused to fund it, and Swansea Uni and Trinity St David's (of which Mark James happens to be a director) are equally shaky. Let alone the matter of the current suspensions.

Financial institutions won't touch this with a bargepole.

Sterling's appointment was a corker to say the least; a company with a £137k deficit and zero income, and, as I have pointed out before, the family members were all set to cash in with their own little enterprises in this project, James Dickmann with Medparc and Phyllis Holt-Dickmann with the private creche. (for more, please see below or search this blog).

The responsibility for Sterling's appointment (the one bidder) was, as I said below, ultimately down to Mark James.

Everything that has happened, with Meryl, Clement, Sterling etc has been with his full knowledge and on his instruction.

And his sidekick Emlyn Dole? Mark James has led him like a lamb to the slaughter. What an idiot.

I could see there was something seriously wrong with all this over two years ago, it was a con and millions have already been siphoned off, and I've written and warned about it ever since. I'm just a blogger, so why on earth has it gone this far?

The two governments must start the 'rapid investigation' without delay, and in fact, what really needs to happen now, before the shredders get going, is a criminal investigation, starting in Mark James' office at County Hall, Carmarthen.

If he gets away with this one, after everything else, there's no bloody hope.

* * *

Update 6th December; The UK and Welsh Governments have announced a 'rapid independent review' of the City Deal, covering 'due diligence and governance'. About time too. The UK and Welsh Governments were expected to announce the release of City Deal cash in early December. It seems like they've had second thoughts. Good.
Maybe they've finally got round to reading this blog...

BBC report here and The Carmarthenshire Herald report here.

* * * 

Last Monday, the 26th November, I was the first to suggest there was a connection between the four suspensions at Swansea University and the proposed private health care 'Wellness Village' at Delta Lakes, Llanelli.
It now seems I was was right. Although, aside from the Daily Mail article the details are still not clear.

Following the Executive Board meeting on Monday (3rd December) where the Wellness village business case was up for approval, in private session, the council published a press release late yesterday afternoon.

They have approved it 'in principle' but, given the 'events' in Swansea, put in on hold. In fact they've had a couple of days to spin the blame entirely on those 'events in Swansea'. This might have been the catalyst, and the allegations are clearly serious, but not the whole story.

Buried within the council spin, there are a few key points.
The project has been put on hold, indefinitely it seems, whilst 'reassurances' are sought that due legal process has been followed and public funds properly protected.

This suggests, of course, that both of these elements have already been gravely compromised.

Council officers have also been asked to look for 'alternative' sources of funding, if this refers to both public and private funding it suggests that the City Deal money is now unlikely, as is anything from Swansea Uni, and that the appointment of Sterling as the 'private' sector partners could well be reversed.

Presumably the 'alternative' would be to rummage down the back of a sofa.

According to the press release, an independent assessment will be undertaken to iron out all these nasty little creases. I would suggest that the whole project is dead in the water, or in this case, the swamp. Llanelli will now be lucky if it even gets the new leisure centre.

Recent posts on this blog have detailed the tangled web of companies, directors, boards, ex-councillors, chief officer, missing tenders and potential conflicts of interest but at the heart of all this are the three main drivers, Mark James, Marc Clement and Meryl Gravell.

They go back a long way. Meryl was heavily involved with Clement with the failed Technium projects and more recently with the ARCH project. ARCH, 'A Regional Collaboration for Health', was a partner organisation for the Wellness Village, heavily influenced by the American based Global Wellness Institute, but were refused Welsh Government funding early in 2017.
ARCH is still significant although the project delivery team is now managed and hosted by the council.
Meryl then appeared as a director of Sterling only to suddenly resign from one of the companies in November.
As we know, Marc Clement was a director of Kent Neurosciences, which then became Sterling. He resigned from another company, Vardiola Ltd on the weekend of his suspension.

Then we have Mark James. Meryl Gravell was, always has been, and still is, directly under his instruction, rather like poor Emlyn. The relationship between Clement and Mark James, (the latter now the lead chief executive and the accountable officer for the whole city deal), is also close, both have been the key players from the start in this whole, decidedly un-transparent saga.

The strange tender process and appointment of Sterling was also down to Mark James, and Clement.

Millions have already been spent on this project without a brick being laid, not even an exciting Wellness brick.

As I said, this is a tangled web, all of which has been covered in past posts going back a few years, and no doubt more will emerge in due course but failures in governance, legal process and protecting the public purse have all the hallmarks of Mark James and the toxic culture of County Hall. And this is the lead authority for the City Deal...

The BBC reports that the Labour leader of the opposition, Cllr Rob James has called for the Wales Audit Office to step in and investigate, "Considering the strong working relationship between officers at Carmarthenshire council and those in Swansea University, I will be writing to the Wales Audit Office to ask for their participation in investigating the paper trail for the last few years". 
Cllr James has also submitted more questions for next week's full council meeting.

The suspensions at Swansea are only the start. Mark James, when not making his regular appearances in Private Eye, has a track record of failed vanity projects; a rap sheet of dipping his hand into the public purse, not protecting it, he has misled and lied to his employers and the courts, and failed to declare business and financial interests.
He, and Meryl, are in it up to their necks, but Meryl can be quietly put out to grass. And Emlyn? He has been negligent and weak to say the least.

I am sure more revelations will emerge, including the 'events in Swansea', but I look forward to the immediate suspension of Mr James and an urgent independent investigation into his role in the Wellness scam. If anything is to be saved from this sorry mess, his removal is crucial.


Please search this blog for further background and comment.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Cadno and the light of truth - from The Carmarthenshire Herald


Here's this week's 'Cadno' opinion piece, from the Carmarthenshire Herald;


Cadno and the light of truth

Superheroes.
They fly through the air. They are faster than a speeding bullet. Saving the world from aliens, supervillains and the undead, superheroes do a stand-up job for humanity. 
What of Carmarthenshire’s own superhero. 
By day, he’s an ever-so-humble Chief Executive but in his leisure hours out come the tights and embarrassing Lycra as Mark James becomes CeeBeeBees Man. Out and about on his bike (saddle an optional extra), Marky Mark pedals the highways and byways of Carmarthenshire on his wonder bike seeking out rights to wrong. Or something like that. 
His special power?  
Blowing huge sums of public money on white elephants and telling everyone they’re a success. 
So far, Cadno admits, this column has been knockabout raillery aimed at mocking the beloved Mark Vincent James’s high opinion of himself. He does not need to be placed on a pedestal. In his mind, he is already on one. 
More worryingly, there are increasing signs that Emlyn Dole is rapidly falling into the role of sidekick. On his roller skates, as CBeebies Man prowls the county looking for a project to pour a few million quid into, is Deflecting Dole. CBeebies Man’s human shield, who protects his master with his super sarcasm power. 
Carmarthenshire has long had a reputation for being a council in thrall to its Chief Executive. It is as though the political executive of the Council is an extension of its highest paid employee. The correct arrangement is the other way round, of course: the administration putting into action the political will of the Council. 
The current political executive does several things well. Cadno does not agree with it in all things, but on several big issues it has hit the nail head on.
Housing, in particular, could be a lasting monument to this current administration. Despite that and other solid achievements, Cadno agrees that services should be brought back in-house and not remain notionally outsourced to arm’s length companies. Cadno’s only exception would be house building for pretty obvious reasons connected with local government finance and borrowing rules. He does not know why Deflecting Dole is so wedded to the idea of outsourcing in the teeth of his own party’s policies against it. Perhaps it’s because Labour in Llanelli is prepared to stand for its self-interest against its party’s national policies that Emlyn Dole wants to match its contrariness and inconsistency with his own. 
What worries Cadno most of all about the Great Deflector is his point-blank refusal to deal with questions about the financial structure of the Great Swamp Thing at Delta Lakes. 
Not least the fact that, as things stand, the whole shebang is the ultimate out-sourcing project, representing the construction of a private healthcare facility for the benefit of private investors who will be shielded from risk by the public purse. If the private sector of the Wellness and Life Science Village is commercially viable, it should not need a leg up from the public sector to work. If it needs public sector money to seed it and prop it up, it is not commercially viable. Not now. Not ever. 
The Deflector is quite right to pour scorn on some of the outrage expressed by the opposition, especially by someone daft enough to reveal he’d prepared his follow-up questions in advance (Jesus wept!), however, he has to accept that there are some pretty big questions that remain unanswered about all things swampy. It is as though Cllr Dole is acting as a mouthpiece for the project and, perhaps, for the man who has backed the vanity project from the start. 
Here’s the big ask, though: ‘Show me the money!’
There is supposed to be a huge amount of private money coming into the Wellness Swamp.
Where the hell is it? 
It’s no use saying, negotiations are ongoing. It’s like Brexit. You’ve had years. Bloody Edwina Hart was still in Government when the whole thing started floating in the tide at Llanelli like a stray turd.
Where is the money? What guarantees or sureties does the Council have for its arrival and when will it get here? 
The above questions do not undermine the potential for the project – however unlikely it is – to deliver on its promises. They stand apart as proper scrutiny of what, at times, appears a process made deliberately opaque to thwart the exercise of proper control by councillors of major decisions. It’s pathetic, readers. 
Emlyn Dole, the Great Deflector, can roll his eyes like a bad Eisteddfod comedian all he wants. Straight questions deserve straight answers.  
The truth, Cadno strongly suspects, is that there is no private money. At least, not yet. Moreover, Cadno is dubious about the origins of such money as might arrive and the sort of strings to which it might come attached.
If there is no clarity on the provenance and amount of private investment, those sceptical of the project are entitled to remain sceptical. 
You have only to consider CeeBeeBees Man’s extraordinary track record on major capital projects to give enough cause for scepticism. Add that to the Maidstone misadventures of directors tied to the only firm that tendered for the project partner’s role. Tie that into an apparent ‘suck it and see’ approach to here, when and how much private money is actually devoted to being sunk into the swamp and there is more than enough reason to raise sensible questions. 
There is another, potentially more sinister, explanation for the Great Deflector’s wish to avoid tricky questions. 
Cadno has read enough superhero comics to know that it is entirely possible that CBeebies Man, far from being our Lycra-clad saviour, is a supervillain who has hypnotised the hapless Emlyn Dole into being his unwitting stooge. Inside, the real Emlyn is struggling to break out and tell the world the truth, but CBeebies Man’s just too powerful. 
In many ways, that possibility is more attractive than what Cadno suspects the reality is.
Poor Emlyn is simply blinded by the light shining from CBeebies Man’s spoke-shave end.
* * *

In a separate article the Herald reports that Cllr Rob James, the Labour leader of the opposition has written to Emlyn Dole to ask whether the recent news concerning the suspensions at Swansea University will have an impact on the Wellness project at Delta Lakes given that the Vice Chancellor, and Prof Marc Clement are both closely involved and have influential roles within the City Deal. As of the paper going to press last Thursday, there'd been no response.

In my view they should have been suspended from these roles immediately. When Mark James went on 'gardening leave' during the criminal investigation in 2014 he was also removed from his various roles within Welsh Government, of which there were four. 

As I've mentioned once or twice before, the powers that be should be taking a much closer look at Mark James himself, he is not to be trusted with a child's piggy bank, never mind £1.3bn.

Later post; The Wellness Village - the end?

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Mark James - back in Private Eye


This week's Private Eye, with Mark James CBE back in the Rotten Borough's column, and featuring a cameo performance from his faithful sidekick, Rev Emlyn Dole.





You may recall that the cat was let out of the bag here.
Readers who have been following this blog over the past few months will be aware of my own struggle to have the officer's report to CRWG concerning unlawful libel indemnities, and the minutes of the meeting, made publicly available. I have now had to go to the Information Commissioner. The ongoing secrecy is quite simply, ridiculous.

Incidentally, Mark James' prestigious 'Shit of the Year' award from Private Eye formed part of his failed complaint to the police for 'harassment', the complaint was against me, of course, and not the well-resourced team at Private Eye. 
Mr James is not only a bully but a coward too.

My most recent post on the CRWG documents can be found here, and Cllr Rob James video on the subject, here
For further background, including Mr James' numerous previous appearances in Private Eye, please use the searchbox on the right.

Monday, 26 November 2018

A Wellness hiccup? - Updated


Later post 6th Dec; The Wellness Village - the end?

Update 30th November; 
According to a report in the Daily Mail the suspensions at Swansea Uni do indeed relate to Mark James' Wellness Village. According to the newspaper, the Vice Chancellor and Prof Marc Clement, and two others were suspended over 'conflicts of interest' and the purchase of shares  by an 'unnamed individual'. According to the Mail, that individual was making 'key decisions' about the project, so may well refer to the appointments to the City Deal board as detailed in my main post below, published on Monday. If this is the case then presumably they should be suspended from the Board immediately.



'There were concerns of an ‘inappropriate conflict of interest’ whereby the employee could profit from public money invested in the project, despite making key decisions about it, a source said....Swansea University’s registrar later obtained emails in which the shares were discussed and began an investigation'  (Daily Mail)

In other words it is alleged that certain individuals were prepared to personally profit from public money over this development, (which has already cost millions of pounds of public cash), and the City Deal.

After researching and writing about this tangled web of familiar names and private business interests for over two years, I am quite certain that it all stinks and the whole project should be shelved.

Whatever the case for the Uni professors, the spotlight should now be on the City Deal 'Accountable Officer', Mark James. And before he claims it is 'nothing to do with him, guv', it should be remembered that he has something of a track record in failing to declare his own private interests and he has been involved with all the key players, including our friends from Sterling/Kent Neurosciences right from the start. I've said all along that with his extended rap sheet, he was the wrong man for the job.

I look forward to his imminent suspension.

For more on all this, the Wellness Village and the City Deal, please search this blog.

Update 29th November;
WalesOnline reports today that Swansea Uni's Prof Marc Clement 'vehemently denies wrongdoing' and has instructed lawyers to act on his behalf. The Uni, meanwhile, is sticking to its guns.
 * * *

News reports today reveal that the Vice-chancellor of Swansea University, Prof Richard Davies, and Prof Marc Clement have been suspended (on full pay), along with two other employees, whilst an internal investigation continues. The university are not releasing further details at the moment only to say that the investigation does not concern "the academic performance of the university or its financial wellbeing".

Whatever the case, for those following the Swansea Bay City Deal saga this is interesting news. Both of them are key players, particularly Prof Clement, and both are part of the 'ARCH' project and both were very recently appointed to influential positions within the exclusive SBCD club; Richard Davies as a non-voting member of the Joint Committee and Marc Clement to the Economic Strategy Board as the representative of higher education.

We can only speculate as to the reason for the investigation and there has been no suggestion, of course, that there is a connection with the City Deal, but regardless of the reason, the suspension of two of its high profile figures is undoubtedly significant.

Llanelli born Prof Clement has had something of a controversial past, and several interesting news stories pop up on google, including his leading role in the disastrous Technium project.
He is also a director of several companies, the latest venture being Vardiola Ltd set up in February this year with fellow Swansea academic Georgios Dimitropoulos.
Listed on Companies House as providing 'hotels and similar accommodation', Prof Clement resigned from Vardiola Ltd on Saturday. (Update; the company is now in the process of voluntary dissolution)
Funnily enough, Mark James is also in the property business. And also a director of Trinity St David Uni.

With regards to the City Deal, and more particularly, Mark James' private healthcare Wellness Shed down at the Great Swamp, Marc Clement was a director of Kent Neurosciences, resigning shortly before the Exec Board, behind closed doors, signed a 12 month 'exclusivity deal' with the company to develop the Village in May 2016.

As I have set out in detail here, the deal was not renewed and company dissolved last year, only to re-emerge as Sterling Health, with the Dickmann clan still at the helm, and landed the council's contract to develop the Village. Kent Neurosciences had been behind the development of a private hospital in Maidstone, Kent which required a £20m bail-out.

Questions about the council's appointment of Sterling Health were brought up at the last full council meeting, Mark James' Emlyn Dole's responses were evasive and hostile. Carmarthenshire Council is the lead authority for the City Deal, and Mark James is the chief officer...




L to R; Phillipa Holt-Dickmann, Mark James, Prof Richard Davies, Emlyn Dole, Franz Dickmann and Prof Marc Clement

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Legal Professional Privilege, County Hall style


Since the end of July, the 27th to be precise, I have been trying to obtain documents concerning officers' libel indemnities discussed at the CRWG meeting held on that date.

To recap, the Labour opposition leader Cllr Rob James tabled a Motion for the Constitution Review Working Group (CRWG) for the purpose of completely removing the suspended libel clause from the council's constitution.

Despite the cross-party CRWG being set up to improve governance and transparency following the pension and libel indemnity scandals, and the equally damning governance audit by the WLGA, the agendas and minutes are not published and the meetings are held in private.

The group, which is not properly constituted (conveniently), is overseen, and advised by Mark James and Monitoring Officer Linda Rees Jones, the former to blame for the scandals, and the toxic culture in the first place and the latter his personal legal rubber stamp.

With the Motion arriving on the chief executive's desk several days prior to the meeting, Ms Rees Jones was tasked with writing a report to accompany Cllr Rob James' Motion.

Not only does Mark James have a conflict of interest with this issue but so does Ms Rees Jones; as a witness for Mark James in the libel trial, her witness statement concerned itself with the 'legality' of the libel indemnity clause, the slush fund.
As I said here, neither of them should be advising councillors on these matters.

At the meeting, with Emlyn Dole in the Chair and Ms Rees Jones on hand to impart her master's voice, (Mark James had kept away, pulling the strings from afar, delegating liability again and not wishing to get his hands any dirtier than they already are, if that's possible), things took an unexpected turn.

Instead of a unanimous and sensible decision to immediately remove the unlawful clauses, which would also have removed the potential for a massive financial risk, it was resolved, by a majority vote, to write to the WAO to 'clarify the legal position' with a view to reinstate the clause.
I understand that at least one senior Plaid councillor wanted to know if Members too could be provided with libel indemnities if they so desired....

I published an outline of what transpired at the meeting on this blog but not the details and documents, as I did not have that information. This blog post was classed as a 'leak' and tempers flared accordingly.
See also here.

Since then I have asked the council, and the Wales Audit Office, for a copy of the letter that CRWG resolved to send, and which would have been written by Mark James and signed by Ms Rees Jones.

Nearly four months have now passed and no letter has been written. The clause remains suspended, but is still there, and the issue is once again being shovelled under those lumpy carpets of the Presidential Suite.

I'm not sure what 'writing to the WAO' would have achieved anyway, I understand that their legal position remains the same.

What is interesting though, as an issue of governance, is the nature of CRWG Resolutions. How soon after the meeting, and a formal Resolution no less, did someone say, ahh, let's not bother, let's not open that can of worms. I have asked Ms Rees Jones to clarify the nature of a CRWG resolution, is it binding? Or is it not?
She is refusing to tell me.

Anyway, I also asked for her report to the CRWG meeting and this, as you can see here, was refused under legal professional (advice) privilege. I have now made a complaint to the ICO and I await their response. As I have said, her conflict of interest is obvious.

My arguments against the use of legal professional privilege; and for the overriding public interest to disclose, include the fact that this whole issue arose from a WAO report, published IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST, and also the fact that the substantive legal advice has already been published, back in 2014, on the council website, when Mark James and the then Exec Board were expensively defending the indefensible. The council waived its claim to legal privilege at that point.

In addition, the implications of publicly funding libel actions for senior officers is very much in the public interest, across the UK.
This is not an issue which is just of interest to some members of the public, it is in the public interest that the information is released. There is a significant difference between the two. Public money should not be used for this purpose anywhere, and legislation prevents it, unless you are Mark James.

To bring you bang up to date, I recently asked for the 'Minutes' of the CRWG meeting.

The 20 day limit came and went last Friday the 9th November. After a couple of prompts, including a final nudge yesterday, the response duly arrived about an hour later. I am certain that the delay is down to the fact that it is Mr James who is actually providing the response.

The response, which is published in full at the end of this post, was a refusal. The Minutes (or 'Action Notes') are being withheld under Legal Advice Privilege, just like Ms Rees Jones' report, because, so it says, the minutes refer to the report.

What?!
This, as before, is utter nonsense. It also has the potential to prevent the disclosure of anything written by a council solicitor to elected members, if it suits the agenda of Mark James.

It is totally absurd that the minutes from a meeting of a few cross-party councillors will not be shared with the rest of the elected members. The discussion at the meeting referred to a paragraph in the council's constitution, not anything commercially or personally sensitive. The Constitution is an important, publicly available document and there is an inherent requirement for full transparency.

I will, of course, ask for an internal review etc etc but the secrecy over this is inexplicable, bonkers really. Mr James is quite accustomed to flouting the law, undertakings, the truth etc but playing fast and loose with Legal Professional Privilege to this extent, widening its scope to prevent public debate on a controversial subject, is a relatively new venture. He continues to change the rules to protect his own back.

I don't know what the ICO will say, but I will take this refusal, and the refusal to disclose the officer's report, as far as I can, if necessary

It is absolutely remarkable that anyone at that council is continuing to pander to Mr James over this. With the authority facing £28m cuts over the next three years, does anyone, other than him, think it right that potentially, a cool million or two should be spent on massaging his fragile ego?
The cash he took last time, and the thousands spent fruitlessly fighting with the WAO, would have been better spent on vital services. Not that he cares a jot.

One of the reasons that it is in Mr James' interest for the clause to remain 'suspended' is that any change to the constitution, reinstatement or removal, will have to be decided, eventually, by full council, in the full glare of publicity. If it's removed, he's lost the argument and he'll have a bloody nose, if there is any attempt to reinstate, he's definitely lost the plot.

As I have mentioned above, this is all very much in the public interest. I personally will never let the matter drop until the clause is removed and this disreputable and dishonest chief executive brought to account, whether he's at the council, moved on elsewhere, or retired, with, or preferably without, a massive pay out.
That's a promise.



The Freedom of Information response;

Dear Mrs Thompson,

I refer to your request for information, which was received on 5th October, 2018 and has been dealt with under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.  Please accept my apologies for the delay in providing this response.

The specific information you requested was as follows:

"1. Thank you for your reply dated 20th September. Could you please tell me if the letter to the Wales Audit Office regarding unlawful libel indemnities has been sent yet? If so then could you please provide me with a copy.

2. I would also be grateful for a copy of the minutes from the CRWG meeting held on the 27th July."

In response to the first part of your request, the Council does not hold this information.

With regard to the second part of your request, this information is held.

However, the substantive content of the action notes is information relating to a report which is subject to legal professional privilege. We therefore believe that the content of the notes is itself privileged, as it is information relating to a communication between a legal professional and a client.
In responding to you on previous requests, I have set out our position and the relevant case law regarding legal professional privilege and the Freedom of Information Act.  For ease of reference, I will revisit this here.

A determination by the Information Tribunal, in Bellamy v the Information Commissioner and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (EA/2005/0023, 4th April, 2006), provides a clear definition of legal professional privilege:

“a set of rules or principles which are designed to protect the confidentiality of legal or legally related communications and exchanges between the client and his, her or its lawyers, as well as exchanges which contain or refer to legal advice which might be imparted to the client, and even exchanges between the clients and [third] parties if such communications or exchanges come into being for the purposes of preparing for litigation.”

The Bellamy decision also defined two types of privilege, namely litigation and advice privilege.  I believe in this case that the report is subject to advice privilege, which applies where no litigation is in progress or being contemplated.  This would include confidential communications between the legal professional and the client, for the main purpose of seeking or giving legal advice.  A report which in which a lawyer provides advice is by definition, legal advice, as are notes which refer to or discuss that information.

Under Section 42 of the Act, a public authority may refuse to provide information where a claim to legal professional privilege could be maintained.  In view of the above, I believe this exemption is therefore engaged.

However, the Section 42 exemption is qualified and subject to a public interest test.  In doing so, I must make a distinction between what is genuinely in the public interest and what may merely be of interest to a member of members of the public.

I accept that there are public interest factors which favour disclosure in this case, namely transparency and furthering public knowledge in relation to a matter which has been subject to some publicity in the past.

However, there is an inherent public interest in maintaining this exemption, which will always be strong due to the importance of the principle behind legal professional privilege, which is to protect the privacy of communications between client and lawyer to ensure access to full and frank legal advice, which in turn is fundamental to the administration of justice.

I am not persuaded on this occasion that this is outweighed by the factors favouring disclosure set out above.  Accordingly, I believe the exemption should be maintained and the information withheld from disclosure.
                                                                                     
As I am refusing to provide the requested information, please therefore consider this email to be a formal notice of refusal under Section 17 of the Act.

John Tillman
Rheolwr Llywodraethu Gwybodaeth a Chwynion
Adfywio a Pholisi
Adran y Prif Weithredwr
Cyngor Sir Gaerfyrddin

Information Governance & Complaints Manager
Regeneration & Policy
Chief Executive’s Department
Carmarthenshire County Council

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

November meeting, and some Sterling questions...


(Later post 26th November, 'A wellness hiccup' here)

A few words about today's meeting.

As the whole meeting can be viewed on the archived webcast I'll focus on the questions from Cllr Rob James (Lab), and the responses from council leader Emlyn Dole (Plaid), as detailed in my previous post.

The responses from Emlyn Dole were predictable, shed no light on some of the stranger aspects of the collaboration with Sterling, offered no reassurance that the taxpayers' were not at risk, failed to mention the word 'accountability', and he confirmed Plaid's commitment to setting up lots of arms-length companies. And, indeed, Rob James was attacked, as I said he would be, for jeopardising the future prosperity of Mark James Inc. the children of the county.
Mark James himself didn't speak, there was no need, having had a week to primp and prime Emlyn and to prepare the answers. Cllr Dole didn't let his boss down. As I've mentioned before, Mr James never delegates authority, only liability.

The questions are in bold.

Could the Leader of Council please give a brief overview on the process that was undertaken in choosing a private sector partner for the Wellness Village, outlining how many organisations took part in the Competitive Dialogue process and the reason Sterling Health was chosen?

Cllr Dole started by criticising Labour's Rob James for 'undermining democracy' by 'sharing his questions' and corresponding with a Journal reporter prior to the meeting. Presumably the journalist had already read the questions published on the council website last week anyway. And presumably he's allowed to ask questions, even in Carmarthenshire...

Whatever the case, this cardinal sin was the same as Plaid's own Cllr Alun Lenny sharing a copy of his Motion over the libel damages in December 2016 to a reporter, this was also prior to the meeting. (The Motion was blocked by the chief executive).
Mind you, I don't suppose Emlyn approved of Cllr Lenny's actions, he didn't get to become leader by criticising Mark James, no siree!

The upshot of this is, in my opinion, that no councillor should be afraid to discuss questions, motions, policy or whatever, with the local press. Not even in Carmarthenshire.

As for answering the question, it turned out, as I thought, that despite '34 viewings' of the tender (whatever that may mean), Sterling was the only bidder. It wasn't clear whether the other 33 decided not to touch it with a barge pole, or were mysteriously put off from bidding, the council has had problems with tenders before...

Anyway, according to Cllr Dole there was then a robust Competitive Tendering process with the, erm, one bidder.

Rob James' supplementary question referred to the fact that Sterling was virtually the same company as Kent Neurosciences Ltd, see my post here. In April 2016 the council had entered a 12 month exclusivity agreement with KNS to develop the village but this had not been renewed and the company was dissolved, with a deficit of £128k, a couple of months later. Then KNS popped back up again as Sterling, and away to go!

KNS were behind a private hospital in Kent which opened in 2014 but by 2016 required a £20m refinancing deal due to heavy losses. Most of the original directors had, by that time, moved on.

He asked whether or not the council leadership were concerned about any of this, and added that none of it appeared either fair nor transparent.

Emlyn Dole, clearly having learned from the master, completely avoided the issue at hand and went on the attack. He accused Cllr James of trying to undermine the process and attacking their ambition. He then drifted into a robot like trance listing all the exciting things which would be part of this Wellness extravaganza. Followed by a round of applause from the Plaid ranks. Curiously, the words 'private health care', and 'luxury spa' had slipped his mind.

Rob James moved on to his second question.

Could the Leader of Council highlight who the Directors are behind the Joint Venture Partner and what experience they bring to the project?

Another curious thing about Sterling is the number of sister companies it has, Sterling Operating, Sterling International, Sterling Property, Sterling Holdings, etc. Emlyn Dole was careful just to identify one.

Another curious thing was that former leader, Meryl Gravell was, in July, made a Director of two of them. This was Cllr James area of interest.

With some smug satisfaction Cllr Dole listed the Directors, which did not include Dear Meryl. What he failed to add was that although she had resigned from Sterling Health Security Holdings Ltd (which was the one he had carefully identified) last week, she is still, as of today, listed as a director of Sterling Health Security Operating Ltd.

The latest accounts for Sterling Health Security Holdings Ltd show a net liability of £137,822 in the red, it requires a loan from the directors to continue as a going concern. There are four sister companies altogether which will ensure that it becomes very difficult to follow the public money.

So Cllr Dole was being very economical with the truth. Furthermore, he failed to explain why she was/is a director at all. Maybe he's developed another u-turn and become an adoring fan.

The Collaboration Agreement for the projects on Delta Lakes with Swansea University and Sterling Health is said to cost £200 million, please could the Leader of Council detail how each partner will be expected to contribute to this cost?

Cllr Dole resorted to spin by saying that this was not a cost, oh no, this was an investment! The council would be contributing their £32m with the leisure centre and land value (planning permission still undecided). There was no mention of the borrowing (and the interest payable) which will be required for the upfront costs, estimated, I understand, to be at least £55m. The private investment couldn't be determined until the investors had been secured, through 'due diligence', of course...

Rob James' supplementary question asked how Sterling, currently £137k in the red, were going to come up with £127m.

Cllr Dole then wandered into the world of global networks, stakeholders and new Corporate Vehicles to enable public/private investment, liability and risk assessments and local governance requirements. Careful to avoid the toxic term 'PFI'.

None of which reassured anyone that the taxpayers' wouldn't be picking up a big bill if, and when, things go pear-shaped, and when the originators of this project have long gone.
Neither does it address the question as to what, exactly, the mysterious global investors hope to get as a return, unless they're doing it out of the kindness of their hearts of course.

Not sure that Cllr Dole was convinced by what he was saying either.

Could the Leader of Council outline how much this Authority has paid in consultancy fees since May 2015, including those connected with projects relating to the Swansea Bay City Deal?

Rather than give a figure, Cllr Dole went on the attack, it would be a huge ask for council directors to know how much they'd spent on consultants! Fancy asking such a thing. And as for the City Deal, that would also involve other councils and the Welsh Government! He again accused Cllr James of not wanting the Wellness Thing and in so many words, scuppering the process, presumably by asking awkward questions...

Rob James replied stating that the Plaid leadership clearly didn't like scrutiny. Would they promise, he asked, not to spend any more on consultants? "No", said Cllr Dole.

Scrutiny, of course, was what this was all about.

In fact, through my own research, I found that the council had already spent £564k on 'Wellness Village' reports by August 2017. That figure will have gone up sharply in the last twelve months.

Mark James remained silent throughout this 'debate' but I suspect that he has already started compiling one of his 'dossiers' with Cllr James name on the cover, and marked an entry in his little black book, especially after the CRWG libel indemnity episode back in the summer. He must be so proud of Emlyn, he's like a well-trained poodle.

The remainder of Cllr James' questions concerned the recent spate of arms-length companies set up by the administration. Essentially the concern is with the lack of democratic oversight, the future job security, and terms and conditions for employees and the secrecy cloaked in 'commercial sensitivity'.

Cllr Dole confirmed that Mark James Plaid's agenda to set up even more arms-length companies would continue, It was NOT 'outsourcing' at all and he blamed the Labour Welsh Government for making such 'innovations' necessary. He may have a point but Plaid have supported Labour's budget in the Senedd since 2016.

Funnily enough, back in March 2015, with just one arms-length company (Cwm Environmental) in existence, and just before Plaid took 'power', this was what they had to say about 'arms length' companies;

"The obsession of the Labour council with effectively outsourcing services and removing democratic oversight inevitably reduces the operational control the council has over our public services."

How the tables turn in politics.

I am not a fan of Labour, or Plaid, or any of them really, but I am a fan of scrutiny and transparency. Whether it's Rob James, or Sian Caiach and a few others before him, someone has to have the bottle, whatever their motivation, to ask 'awkward' questions in Carmarthenshire. Emlyn Dole's response, a mixture of belligerence and evasiveness is disappointing, and worse still, uncannily similar to Meryl Gravell.

Update 18th November; The agenda for Thursday's (22nd) meeting of the Swansea Bay City Rollers (the Joint Committee) has been published and, no less than three items, including Yr Egin and the Wellness Village will be heard behind closed doors; no doubt citing 'commercial sensitivity', which will be the order of the day as far as access to information is concerned.

The council hope to push the planning application through for itself at an Extraordinary Planning Committee meeting in January.

(For further posts about the Wellness project and the City Deal, please use the searchbox on the right.)

* * *

Before I go, and with the Wellness spending extravaganza well underway and little clarity on how much has been spent setting up the latest raft of arms-length companies, it's worth mentioning that the latest budget proposals will be on the agenda for Monday's Exec Board meeting. The full list, here, will then go out for consultation.

The current proposals are to cut £28m over three years and include closing more primary schools and charging for post-16 transport, withdrawing funding support for vulnerable young people attending a town centre youth project, three Welsh Language medium youth clubs, specialist provision for Harmful Sexual Behaviour and county youth club provision. Council tax will increase 4.89%.

As I've said, it's not clear just how much has been, and will be, siphoned off into the Delta Lakes swamp. Sacking the chief executive, or securing his well-deserved detention at Her Majesty's Pleasure would save £200k a year, but sadly that's not in the proposals, although I may suggest this in my consultation response.
The cost of senior management continues to rise and according to the accounts, all directors had pay increases last year, of varying amounts, and the number of other employees upwards of £90k, went from nine to fourteen.

One of the proposals being put forward is to reduce full council meetings from monthly to quarterly, ie from eleven, to three or four a year. As the saving will be a mere £7000 I find it unlikely that this will be supported but, you never know.

In some ways, given that this council is so officer-led, full council meetings are almost superfluous, as are most of the 74 councillors. They are regarded as a minor irritant and a necessary evil by the chief executive. They do not make 'decisions', they accept, by and large, the recommendations presented to them by officers and nod them through accordingly.
This reduction is almost certainly Mark' James' idea, it will suit him just fine, and perhaps give him more time to spend on his private affairs....

The level of democracy, and democratic debate in Carmarthenshire is dire, and always has been but it's all we've got, and as @mjmilan put it rather well on Twitter;

"@caebrwyn @CarmsCouncil You absolutely must not drop to quarterly full council meetings, lest the last faint whiff of accountability on the carcass of democracy in your town be lost forever..."

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Agenda for full council, some 'Wellness' questions, and more. Updated with this week's 'Cadno'


(10th November update; For the Carmarthenshire Herald's 'Cadno', please scroll down)


Next week's full council meeting features several interesting questions concerning the 'Wellness Village' and, more specifically, the partnership between the council and Sterling Health. The latest craze for setting up arms-length companies also comes under the spotlight. It should be interesting.

The questions, listed below in bold, are pretty self-explanatory and are from opposition leader Cllr Rob James (Lab) to Plaid's Emlyn Dole, (the comment or link in italics are mine);

Could the Leader of Council please give a brief overview on the process that was undertaken in choosing a private sector partner for the Wellness Village, outlining how many organisations took part in the Competitive Dialogue process and the reason Sterling Health was chosen?

It seems that as well as Sterling Health being a reincarnation of the now-dissolved Kent Neurosciences (which were the original partners) they were the only bidders for the contract. It is not known whether any other organisations actually tried to tender, maybe Emlyn will tell us.
Wellness Village 'Private partners - something oddly familiar? 

Could the Leader of Council highlight who the Directors are behind the Joint Venture Partner and what experience they bring to the project?

I'm thinking here of one recent, and inexplicable addition to Sterling's directors, Meryl Gravell... her notable achievements as leader of Carms Council included calling protesters campaigning against closure of their local A & E 'rabble'; calling the workforce lazy; and when the council were busy closing all the little schools, accused councillors of 'displaying weakness' for listening to parents' concerns. For more, please search this blog.
She was also known, in some quarters, as Mark James' cash cow, keeping him in the manner to which he's become accustomed, unlawful payments included.

The Collaboration Agreement for the projects on Delta Lakes with Swansea University and Sterling Health is said to cost £200 million, please could the Leader of Council detail how each partner will be expected to contribute to this cost?

Yes please, do tell us. The last set of ever-changing figures I saw showed a £127m contribution from the private sector, it will be interesting to know the details... Hopefully we will also be told exactly how much the council will be borrowing, with it's current tally of debt already at £400m.

Could the Leader of Council outline how much this Authority has paid in consultancy fees since May 2015, including those connected with projects relating to the Swansea Bay City Deal?

Funnily enough I've recently made a Freedom of Information request for consultancy fees, currently awaiting a response. By August 2017 the council had already spent £564k on 'Wellness Village' reports. That will have gone up sharply in the last twelve months. 

Earlier this year, the governance and management structures of Cwm Environmental Limited, were changed to a Teckal company.  Could the Leader of Council please indicate what impact, if any, these changes have had on pay and conditions of the employees?

Could the Leader of Council please provide information on the remuneration package attached to the new Operations Director post of Delta Wellbeing Limited?

This Authority has established several companies in the last eighteen months that has resulted in reduced oversight for services that ordinarily are carried out by the Council; Councillors and the public being unaware of what is happening in these companies; and public finances in connection with public sector ventures being questioned.  Will the Leader of Council, therefore, pledge to halt the continuing outsourcing of services to teckal companies and promise not to create any new companies, including any relating to the City Deal, for the remainder of this term?

For some background to the arms-length outsourcing ventures (and of course the whole Wellness/City Deal thing) there have been numerous mentions on this blog, if you wish to search. My previous post, Mark James and the 'Sicilian Cartel', also gives a viewpoint.

As I am writing this, the responses, no doubt, are being dreamed up by the chief executive, for Emlyn to deliver, so I hope there's a few follow-up questions being lined up.
Whether related to the arrival of these questions on the chief executive's desk or not, the council/City Deal PR machine has been in overdrive again, this week the fanfare's been out for the exciting and amazing prospect of a new leisure centre, or the 'Wellness Hub' in the Wellness thing. Presumably this is to attract public support, with far less emphasis, funnily enough, on the private health care, the 'Wellness Hotel' and the holisitc therapy pods...

We can safely predict that the answers will be used as an opportunity for further spin and half truths, and anyone who suggests that this may not be the best thing since sliced bread will be accused of jeopardising the future prosperity of Mark James and Co the little children of Carmarthenshire.

In actual fact, after two years of nothing but PR puffery, this whole business is screaming for some proper scrutiny. Especially with Mr James CBE in charge.

We'll see.
* * *

Update 10th November; The 'Cadno' opinion piece from the Carmarthenshire Herald;

Cadno and the Monster

Coulrophobia is an ugly sort of neologism, readers.
It’s like the million and one made up names for conditions that seek to create distinct clinical definitions for the million and one shocks to which the flesh and psyche are equally heir. 
Among the popular tropes of modern horror fiction, stretching back to the nineteenth century, evil clowns have come out of the eerie twilight carnivals of Ray Bradbury in the mid-twentieth century to accelerate through schlock horror B movies of the 1960s to their apotheosis as Pennywise in Stephen King’s ‘It’ – or, perhaps more to the point, Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise in the TV series of the same name. 
There is a theory – there is always a theory – about why people – particularly children are afraid of clowns. 
If you think about it, most clown outfits distort natural features. The staring eyes, pale skin, large feet, make-up, outsize hands – the grotesquery of the clown’s appearance and behaviour - are close enough to ‘normal’ appearance to create a feeling of unease and discomfiture. 
It’s rather like Frankenstein’s feelings of revulsion for his creation – the similarity to human is close enough to draw attention to its defects of appearance so that Frankenstein cannot bear to set eyes upon it. The cues for humanity are both present and absent at the same time. There’s more than a hint of that in Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’. The simulacra – Replicants - are too inhumanly human to be allowed to endure, they remind the real humans of their mortality and imperfections. 
Which might be why Cadno is so worried about the Council’s attachment to building the great Wellness Thingy on a swamp. 
Look at the pictures – ooh, shiny!
Look at what it is claimed it will deliver – ooh, prosperity!
Look at what it is going to cost – ooh, umm… yes. 
Cadno will spell it out, readers. In order to fund its end of this project, the Council has to borrow money. It will do so at a much lower rate than you or I could perhaps obtain, but the Council will repay the principal and interest upon it to the institution from which it borrows. Or rather, the Council won’t. 
Council Tax payers will. Council Tax payers in Llanmiloe, Council Tax payers in Llandovery, Council Tax payers in Llanybydder. Bills will go up across Carmarthenshire to line the pockets of property speculators, private equity companies, and those of the merchant bankers with whom the Council will strike its Faustian deal. Carmarthenshire’s financial future mortgaged to support a speculative project which could end up pouring hundreds of millions into a swamp. 
Llanelli needs a new leisure centre. Of that, there is no doubt. But does it really need what has elsewhere been described as nothing more than a series of white elephants huddled around a stagnant pond? 
There’s the grotesquery, readers. 
The Wellness Monster looks enough like a leisure centre, but its defects repel. The hubris, the over-confidence, the cosying up to a development partner whose directors’ track records are less than stellar, and most of all the smirking presence of Mark James CeeBeeBees at the project’s heart. 
Mr James is, by all accounts, quite a clever fellow.
Cadno has it on good authority that when it comes to operating the old grease can to oil his way in and around of less biddable characters on the City Region Board, Marky Mark is quite the artist. 
But when you look at someone to guide a multi-million-pound project, does the person who delivered the ongoing financial black hole of Parc y Scarlets strike you like the best bet? 
It is at this point that Cadno would normally bung in a few insults at local politicians past and present. On this occasion, however, Cadno is going to say something surprising.
He thinks Rob James has this one almost exactly right. 
The original City Deal was a truly regional vision – expanding digital networking across South West Wales – bringing the disparate parts of the area together by better and smarter infrastructure linked to projects intended to embed better business structures to generate wealth. 
It was one heck of a vision. So much blue-sky piche, of course, but one heck of a vision. Now, what do we have? 
We can forget the connectivity, what the Deal has boiled down to – at least now the regional part of it has been quietly dropped – is no more than a network of random white elephants designed so that everyone gets to dip their beak.
It’s a sodding disgrace. 
Llanelli needs a new leisure centre. Does it need – god help us – a Wellness Hotel? Llanelli needs a new and properly-funded residential care home. Does it need the Bide-a-Wee supported housing complex for retired gentlefolk? Most importantly, if healthcare provision is so central to the Wellness Monster, why aren’t either Hywel Dda UHB or ABM-UHB putting their own money into it? 
Rob James has this spot on, readers. 
The money being blown on lunatic vanity projects, envisioned and designed by those who know responsibility for paying for the bloody things will not be their problem, could do some actual good. Improving rail links. A Metro system connecting Carmarthenshire with points east and south. Investment in digital infrastructure to actually spread economic benefits across the region. Efforts to do more than engage in the sort of Field of Dream economics beloved of people who look less at results than ‘leaving a legacy’.
If you build it readers, or so the aphorism goes, they will come. 
No, readers. Look at Parc y Scarlets: a half-empty concrete shed on match days. 
Readers, if you intend to deliver prosperity to the largest number of people over the widest area you look at regenerating or supporting small and medium-sized businesses that support long-term employment in return for lower investment risk. 
 The Council – the City Deal – is too wrapped up in the vision of the big and flashy to consider that in a region in which private enterprise is almost universally based around small and medium-sized businesses, it is better to create an environment in which they might thrive and survive, than in building a Frankenstein’s Monster of disparate parts adding up to a repellent and unnatural whole.
See also Cllr Rob James' video, Swansea Bay City Deal - A missed opportunity?

* * *

Elsewhere on the agenda there's a question on the £500k development fund trumpeted by Plaid last year as a pot to help out struggling schools. According to Cllr Morgan (Ind), it's main use seems to be related to 'efficiency savings' rather than direct help. Nothing is ever quite as it seems.
As for the SEN budget there's been a £800k overspend as schools struggle to cope with demand.

As an aside, a recent meeting of the Education Scrutiny Committee tried to get to grips with the 'Performance Monitoring Report for the period 1st April to 30th June 2018 (Quarter 1); progress against actions and measures in the New Corporate Strategy 2018-23 to deliver the 2018/19 Well-being Objectives' 

As the garbled Minutes below illustrate, there is clearly a problem with this type of report, and all Scrutiny meetings are stuffed with them;

"Concern was expressed that of the 27 measures reported, 20 have either not started or data is not collected for quarter 1 and 2 are not available.  Also the with regard to the 67 actions reported as being on target, it was pointed out that the targets dates are not until 2019/20.  The Head of Education Services explained that the term “on target” is historic and what is meant is that in relation to performance in quarter 1, officers do not perceive any challenges to meeting the targets;
Concern was expressed over the format of the report in that themes 11 and 13 appeared between themes 1 and 2.  Officers agreed to look at the formatting of future reports"

* * *

Finally, a quick mention about the Planning Committee next Thursday, only because I've taken a passing interest in the use of 'commercially sensitive' viability appraisals to reduce the level of affordable homes or community contributions by large developers.
An application for 48 homes in Llannon, by Pennant Homes is on the agenda, (incidentally the Council's own Local Development Plan recommended 38, but never mind)

I'm not against housing developments nor am I in favour of unreasonable demands on developers, but viability appraisals are being used more and more and councils, when faced with stark figures, are held over a barrel. The problems arise when the figures are calculated specifically to satisfy the requested reduction (I'm not suggesting that this is the case here at all), and as these reports are withheld as 'commercially sensitive', it is impossible for councillors to question the basis of the reduction.

In this case an unspecified amount of community contributions (S106 obligations) have been agreed, "on the basis of a viability report", the viability being compromised by the "necessary engineering to achieve a suitable highway gradient".
Out of 48 dwellings, only three will be 'affordable', far less than the usual 30%. And as this is in Cllr Emlyn Dole's ward I'm sure he won't want to send Plaid's affordable housing 'journey' off track...

The developers, Pennant Homes, are part of Coastal Housing, a housing association providing affordable accommodation and in receipt of government grant funding.

The officers report goes on to state that the "viability report is commercially sensitive, however it shows a developer return at a significantly lower level than would be normally acceptable, so further contributions would make the development commercially unviable."

The issue of viability appraisals across the UK has been a subject of investigation in the past by the Guardian newspaper, an editorial on the subject can be read here.  

Monday, 5 November 2018

Mark James and his 'Sicilian cartel'


Interesting piece over on Jac O'the North's blog (see 'A little place in the west') about our chief executive Mark James CBE who, when not Commanding the British Empire is busy building his own little fiefdom in west Wales, and wider afield with the Swansea City Deal. Control has always been the order of the day for Mr James, from deciding the set up of political 'power' to ensuring total compliance with his distorted world view. That view, unfortunately, has no one but himself at the centre, with councillors kept in the dark and the taxpaying residents no more than a means to an end. Remember, this public servant has used you to unlawfully bankroll his private vendettas and, some might say, look after his friends.

Jac considers the recently established arms-length housing company, Cartrefi Croeso. If there was ever going to be any democratic oversight it evaporated when full control was delegated to Mr James. The council is the only shareholder which means that he has the power to act on their behalf, he can also appoint and dismiss the directors (currently two, both council directors) and decide when funding will be released. You can also forget freedom of information requests. He will be answerable to no one.
What he likes to make certain of, with everything, is that if anything goes wrong, which it will, it will be his underlings who take the flak.
Jac o'the North is not the first person to liken Mr James to a mafia don, you may also recall a similar sentiment from the former police commissioner.

The Wellness village vanity project is another case in point. The track record and 'rebirth' of the company appointed to develop the private healthcare project is curious to say the least and the appointment of Mr James' devoted number one fan, former council leader Meryl Gravell on the board of directors would be laughable if it wasn't so serious. The project, if it ever materialises will be of very little benefit to the people of Llanelli, apart from a few low paid jobs, and none at all to the rest of the county. On the other hand, a few short term investors and some overseas bank balances might do rather well.

What I find even more remarkable is that alongside all this, Mr James, part time council CEO and Cardiff property magnate, has his own private property management business, he's a co-director in a company which, amongst other things, boasts access to planning and legal advice, and he's also a landlord. When I asked the council, last year, whether all this featured on the Register of Officers' Interests, it seems he hadn't thought it was worth the bother.

The delegation of liability, whilst retaining control can backfire of course, which it did over the unlawful libel indemnity. Mr James was so concerned with trying to make sure that the Executive Board took the blame for his actions that he had the 2014 draft Court of Appeal slush fund judgement amended to mention this.
What he conveniently failed to add was the fact that he had deliberately misled the Executive Board and stayed in the meeting to ensure their total compliance, that latter point itself made his indemnity illegal, even without the fact that he'd broken the law. This behaviour from both him and the Monitoring Officer, Linda Rees Jones, continues to this day.

As for the arms-length companies, if that is a road this council wishes to go down then it should be remembered that it is the council who is the shareholder, delegation is something which should be carefully thought through.
With the council's blind blessing Mr James has, over the years, been given the authority to do just about anything he pleases, he has lied, bullied and manipulated his way to total power, attempting to emasculate the local press on the way, whilst always trying to ensure he is liable for nothing. He keeps dossiers on his 'enemies' but, as the saying goes, he keeps his 'friends' even closer.

When Mr James went on gardening leave in 2014 whilst Gloucestershire Police carried out their criminal 'investigation' a fair few thought, and secretly hoped, he wouldn't come back. He did of course, as if nothing had happened. In 2015 he announced he was leaving but the collective sigh of relief was shortlived when he changed his mind a couple of months later, due solely to the fact that there was going to be opposition to his half a million quid pay off.

I am of the view that he should be brought to account before he goes anywhere, he has pocketed tens of thousands of pounds of public cash which he shouldn't have (fraud, in any other walk of life), including tax avoidance; he's lied, outrageously, to his employers, and misled the courts and he's used the council as his own personal office space, and the legal department as his personal defence lawyers.

Jac o'the North concludes; "It is quite amazing how, in a Western democracy, the employee of a public body can take over that body and run it as if it were some private company he had created himself! Which would be bad enough, but neither the elected representatives of those that employ him, nor the superior level of government that should be holding him to account, are prepared to do anything!"
Nov 9th; Later post and follow-up from Jac o'th North here.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Full council and planted questions


After noticing a pointless question about tourism figures from a Plaid Cymru backbencher to the Plaid administration at last month's full council meeting, I see there are two more highly suspect, planted questions on the agenda for Wednesday's meeting. One question concerns the affordable housing 'journey' and the other relates to school performance. This is a worrying trend.

Spontaneity and topical debate was stopped a couple of years ago when the chief executive removed Any Other Business, and relegated all the committee minutes to the tail end of the agenda, just for 'noting'. Much of each meeting is now taken up with death-by-power point presentations, leaving little time for any serious debate. It is largely a sanitised, polite and dull affair.

There are usually a handful of tightly controlled 'Councillor Questions' and Motions covering issues which are often unrelated directly to the Council, and, as the administration has seven days to come up with an answer to any questions, not exactly cutting edge stuff. Public questions have dwindled to zero. The agenda is, of course, controlled by the chief executive, as is the council itself.
Full council meetings have become little more than a platform for propaganda, a showpiece of spin and half truths. 

This latest trend, where a Plaid councillor asks a Plaid Executive Board Member to 'explain' the 'wonderful success' of something-or-other, is such a blatant piece of propaganda as to be laughable.
Wikipedia informs me, reliably I'm sure, that in Australian politics, such questions are know as 'Dorothy Dixers'

Opposition questions can be equally staged of course, although last month a Labour councillor came up with an interesting supplementary. His question, on homelessness and affordable housing prompted a lengthy response from Emlyn Dole's sister-in-law, Exec Board Member Linda Evans who waxed lyrical over their achievements and commitment to accommodate those less fortunate than themselves. (perhaps Emlyn's got a couple of spare rooms at Pontyberem's very own Southfork..).

He then asked how many young people were currently holed up in unsatisfactory HMOs. Ah, there were some, she said, unavoidable, I'm afraid, er, something we're addressing, she faltered.
Mind you, she could always ask Mr James for advice, he knows a thing or two about trying to make people homeless..

As for the council's Scrutiny Committees as hotbeds of executive questioning, they were recently subject to a review by the Wales Audit Office which found that they were still officer-led; Executive Board members were not being held accountable and presentations from external bodies took up a disproportionate amount of time. They found little evidence that Scrutiny took forward either internal audit or Wales Audit Office reports; public engagement was minimal and the meetings are not webcast; some members wandered out before the end of the meetings and attendance at training sessions was low.

Of course Caebrwyn can think of lots of questions to put to full council, from plunging the county into terminal debt for Mr James' Wellness Dream, to wasteful complaints to the Ombudsman, to the latest nonsense over the unlawful libel indemnities. And everything in between.
Including a £3.9m black hole in the revenue budget.
Though I was one of the first, in over ten years, to ask a public question back in 2015. Essentially it concerned a bung to Scarlets Regional Ltd by the chief executive, contrary to the advice of his own Finance Director.

If political groups want to put out propaganda, which obviously they all do, and at any opportune moment, they have their own party machine and means to do it, and in Carmarthenshire, the current, and indeed previous administration, also have a well-resourced, and publicly funded press office who will happily oblige.
Whilst an element of political grandstanding and cross-party bickering at full council meetings is to be expected, full council meetings are not the place for these questions and take the already dire proceedings to a new low.
It would seem that the Plaid leadership are perhaps composing the 'questions' for their own councillors to read out. This is not what 'Councillor Questions' are for and are an abuse of the provision.

Perhaps it's time for the great Carmarthenshire public to get back down to County Hall ask a few questions ourselves.