Wednesday 7 December 2011

Towy Community Church and Full Council Meeting

As usual I went to Carmarthen this morning to observe December's full council meeting. There were several items under discussion and assorted exchanges, more of which I will mention on a later post. The main event of course was the decision on the £270,000 loan to the Towy Community Church.

Before I begin I must point out that I have no issue with anyone's community spirit, nor anyone's religious beliefs, what I have issue with is the degree of involvement by this local authority.

You may have read posts here and elsewhere on some of the rather searching questions this whole project has raised, you may have also read the Wales on Sunday and  Private Eye articles. Perhaps at this point I should mention that the head of this church contacted me last week to express, er, disquiet shall we say about what had been written on the blogs and was keen to meet with me to dispel any 'misconceptions'. I assumed the concern was surely based on the well publicised link between the church and the Mercy Ministries. I asked him what his concerns were and I was somewhat surprised that it had nothing to do with that, it was the perception that that they had 'influenced' the Council that was troubling the Pastor. I declined a meeting but pointed out that what had been written was already in the public domain.

Back to today's meeting and unsurprisingly, the item on the church was exempt. There then followed a very unusual decision (unusual for Carmarthenshire anyway), the exemption was overturned as there had been 'rumours' in the press, and the matter was to be discussed in public. Now one would think this was an ideal opportunity to ask some very searching questions as, with the addition of this loan, the council funding, in it's various forms, was now over the £1.3 million mark. How wrong could you be! With the Pastor himself present to dispel any worries this was clearly stage management at it's best.

First off though was Cllr Caiach who tactfully proposed that due to the financial climate etc and the financial risks to taxpayers money, the council's involvement, at the very least, should be mothballed.
It also became quite clear that there had been considerable officer time (and therefore money) spent on this venture already, meeting it's leaders and management board and securing grants etc
One or two others questioned the wisdom of the council's investment but the atmosphere then gave way to complete support and I could almost hear the rattle of tambourines.

Not one person asked about the Mercy Ministries.

Executive Board member Cllr Pam Palmer actually said that she couldn't understand how anyone could possibly be opposed to this venture (glaring at Cllr Caiach) and even the Chief Executive gave a little speech. He mentioned that at 3% interest, this was a good return 'they wouldn't find that anywhere else', he also mentioned that there were those  who hadn't had faith in his vision for the cinema in Carmarthen (and one in England apparently) were all proved wrong as they had both been a roaring success, other projects, which hadn't been quite as successful weren't mentioned. I won't go into that now though. Neither did he correct any of the councillors who understated the financial commitment of the council. This was all tied in with the bowling alley idea which had been scotched for the St Catherine's Walk development and of course this was the opportunity to have one. In fact, according to several councillors, who I am sure are completely in touch with the leisure preferences of Carmarthenshire teenagers, this bowling alley is every child's dream. (as long as they're flush enough to afford a few rounds of bowling and can negotiate a couple of roundabouts and a busy dual carriageway to get there)

The exempt report for today's meeting is of course no longer exempt, and I would like to point out a couple of things as precious little was pointed out today. The original bank loan was for £730,000, this didn't happen and all the church could get was £300,000. They needed £570,000 as they had managed to do some 'value engineering' (?) and reduce the amount required (at this point the Chief Executive used the word 'merely' £570,000). Now I had asked the Pastor last week via email what the assets were that the bank loan was secured on, he replied, and I quote,
"The bank loan will be secured on the equipment and fittings that will be installed into the building (eg bowling alley, kitchens, counters, furniture etc)"
Even in my financial ignorance I found this a little odd - the exempt report however says differently - the bank loan is secured one of the 99 year leases provided by the Council. In fact the bank and the Lottery fund have 1st and 2nd charges on the lease which leaves the Council in 3rd place for a payback if it all goes pop. They'be lucky to get the money back. The councillors were advised to accept this risk. In addition, the council had to accept a 'variation' in the Authority's Treasury Management Policy to allow the loan to run over 15 years as opposed to the usual three year limit.

If that wasn't sufficient 'bending over backwards', the planning permission was also now 'varied' on the pretext that 'flexibility' was necessary to please the bank. Along with the Bowling Alley, Debt Counselling etc "other assembly and leisure or non-residential institutional uses are to be permitted" This answers one of the questions asked today as to whether they were actually planning on building a church - or maybe a non-residential Mercy Ministry?

Returning to the Pastor's email correspondence, he described the Mercy Ministry idea as a 'seed' that had not grown, I for one hope it doesn't. The sudden 'missing link' from the church's website was explained as just something the web designers had done. MP, Jonathan Edwards has expressed concern about this, I hope he continues to investigate.

The figures given by the Church to the council in May also differ markedly from those given seven months later - the total contribution by the church in May when they had the £280,000 grant was £17,000, this has now increased to nearly £390,000 in fundraising, revenue and 'volunteer time'.

The concerns I have are with the council, their support over this is inexplicable, some might say a miracle. This church, has a very small congregation and, like other evangelical organisations of this nature, a very specific and fundamentalist set of beliefs. One can only wonder whether a similar venture proposed by, for example, a mainstream Muslim organisation or for that matter a mainstream Christian establishment would have such support. I am certainly not against any project which aims to help the community, there are many, including church groups, already in existence, and already running furniture recycling centres and food banks which struggle for funding and may be lucky enough to get a grant for a couple of thousand if they're lucky. As I have said, I have no issue with anyone's personal beliefs, nor anyone's community spirit - what I do have issue with is a local authority, with it's budget apparently stretched to the limit and having to consider closing care homes again etc etc, embarking on a financial venture with absolutely no guarantee of success.


Although this is turning into a rather lengthy post, as promised, here, in brief, is the rest of the meeting.
I won't bore you with a repeat of the entry ritual, other than there was another lady there who was mystified by the whole procedure and pointed out to staff that she had never encountered anything like this anywhere else, including the Welsh Assembly, she was told they'd had "er...a bit of trouble". She assumed there had been a problem with belligerent youths or violent protestors, or even a threat to national security which had passed her by to warrant all this. I explained.
Anyway, on to the public gallery (there is a strange smell in the building which intensifies as you approach the Chamber, I can't quite define it but it's like a mixture of old cigars and boiled cabbage). The meeting started with the usual round of announcements of new granddaughters (never any grandsons it seems) etc and the signing off of the last meeting's incorrect minutes. Cllr Pam Palmer leapt to her feet (sort of) at some point to remind the 'minute taker' that it was not just her and Meryl who had made cakes for some event or other but Cllr Stephens had made some too - God forbid that that vital fact wasn't included in the next minutes!

Continuing with their parallel universe, and prior to sherry and mince pies in the Mayor's parlour there was something of a Christmas spirit pervading the Chamber with little anecdotes here and there, with my own local member, Cllr Theophilus even regaling everyone with how he'd got a speeding ticket in Cross Hands one morning. Hilarious. The Christmas theme continued with several references to Dickens, (presumably triggered by the impending excitement of sherry and mince pies in the Mayor's Parlour after the meeting) the low point of which was probably the deputy leader, Cllr Kevin Madge in one of his blustery speeches calling Cllr Caiach 'Scrooge' (if you remember she was one of several objectors to the new plans for Furnace school) I think Mr Sully, the Director of Education may have shifted uncomfortably at this point recalling his odd letter mentioned here asking a resident to withdraw their objection - it would be like the planning department asking a resident to withdraw an objection to a planning application, not really proper procedure eh?)

One of the main items under 'discussion' was the new 'Compact' from the Welsh Government to encourage shared services and to create a regional tier of committees and boards to oversee it all. Not such a bad idea perhaps to save money as long as we don't just have yet another level of beauracracy. Cllr Gravell took centre stage on this one assuring everyone that as both she and the Chief Executive were highly influential within the Welsh Government (and I lost track of the number of Boards and Committees they sat on), so Carmarthenshire had nothing to fear. In fact, between them it sounded like they were running Wales. Concerns were raised that such moves could mean loss of local democracy and accountability, the Leader and Chief Executive, clearly leading the field in such matters gave reassurance that with their influential expertise they could defend the local authority against such undemocratic centralisation. You future in their hands.
The £20,000 grant to the Scarlets came up again. Recently approved by the Executive Board, it didn't need to be ratified by full council, but came up in the report. Cllr Caiach wanted reassurance (multiple frowns from the usual suspects) that this grant, meant for charitable purposes, did not breach European law as it had been given to a private company. She didn't really get an answer. A few others pointed out that exactly the same amount had been slashed off the schools' music budget so while the Scarlet's now had a project manager to draw funds for the Stadium, the kids didn't have any music lessons. There we are, such is the importance of sustaining the Stadium.

On that note the meeting moved on to the Towy Community Church, and I've already said my bit about that.


A watcher said...

Please tell me that the council haven't signed a fix rate loan at 3% for 15 years. If they have they must be complete idiots.

caebrwyn said...

It was a variable rate, small consolation I know.

towy71 said...

Even with a variable rate it still makes them look idiotic

Anonymous said...

How closely are WAG looking at the issue of quite so much public money being given to a church project. I am not an expert in this sort of thing but surely the land would have been more use as light industrial and in any case who said that a bowling alley was actually required ? As a parent I would have second thoughts before I exposed my kids to any activity operated by a religious organisation such as an unusual church type outfit.

Jim Stewart said...

Dear Caebryn,

I have been reading your blogs on Towy Community Church, in which you have stated quite clearly that you have no issue with anyone’s religious beliefs. Of course churches that provide public services, which will be the case with Towy Community Church, now have legal protection against discrimination on the grounds of such beliefs. Despite what you say, however, you then go on to make statements about Towy Community Church that are both inaccurate and defamatory. This may simply be because you are uninformed - religious illiteracy being a problem in today’s society - or perhaps because your writing masks a negative attitude towards some faith groups.

Firstly, you claim that Towy Community Church is US backed. This is untrue but, by saying this, you seem to suggest that the church is a foreign import and somehow not authentic or deserving of the attention of the local authority.

The pastor is in fact a native Welsh speaker, born and bred in Carmarthenshire, as are members of his congregation.

His church, Towy Community Church, is a member of good standing of the Evangelical Alliance, an umbrella organisation established in 1846 and that represents the UK’s 1-2 million evangelicals.

Evangelicalism is not foreign to Wales, and there have been Welsh evangelicals in Wales since the start of the movement in the 1700s. There are some 600 million evangelicals found throughout the world in all the Christian denominations and traditions and a 2009 ‘Week In Week Out’ broadcast stated that there were now more evangelicals in Wales than there were Anglicans.

The current evangelical emphasis on social justice and community, seen through initiatives such as Street Pastors, foodbanks, night shelters and debt advice centres – none of which, incidentally, originated from America - is simply carrying on a rich tradition started by evangelicals from bygone days such as William Booth, William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, Gladstone and Shaftesbury.

Evangelical Alliance is unequivocally a mainstream organisation with a seat on the First Minister’s Faith Communities Forum, the Welsh Government official mechanism for engaging with Wales’ faith groups.

Churches can be easy targets and, by saying in your blog that Towy Community Church is US-backed, fundamentalist and not mainstream, you casts aspersions as to the church’s Welsh credentials and worthiness to work with the local authority.

Best wishes,

Jim Stewart
Evangelical Alliance Wales

Dic said...

When you look around the world and think of all the conflicts, it is hard to find one in which religion is not a key factor. And for every Martin Luther King, the evangelicals have produced rather more bigoted zealots. In Africa, evangelicals are playing a leading role in the persecution of gay men and women; in America a surgeon who carried out legal abortions was shot dead by another evangelical Christian. There is sadly no shortage of examples of the lives wrecked and destroyed by evangelical groups.

By the way, Gladstone was a High Church Anglican, not an evangelical.

The sinister thing is that having got rid of the ridiculous law of Blasphemous Libel, we are now saddled with a law intended to protect people from the sort of persecution practised by so many religious groups, but which the fundamentalists are trying to turn into a weapon to silence anyone who disagrees with them.

Many of the evangelical churches in Carmarthenshire are clear that anyone who does not sign up to their beliefs will burn in hell; but it seems that you want to hedge your bets and have us all punished on earth as well. Just in case.

caebrwyn said...

@Jim Stewart

Thank you for your comment. I think you have made your point as I have made mine. I assume you are the 'ex-journalist/broadcaster with a position on the Towy Community Church management board? Please correct me if I'm mistaken.

As far as being US backed, I was referring to the many similarites of faith and the direct link which, until very recently, was to be found on the Towy Church website to the US founded Mercy Ministries. If you believe I have wrongly inferred a financial link to any overseas organisations, and if this is not the case, then I stand corrected.

As for the rest of my comments and blogposts, which concern the involvement of the County Council, I, as a resident and taxpayer of Carmarthenshire have every right to question decisions made by them.


Mrs Angry said...

I would like to ask Mr Stewart to share his views on the Mercy Ministries, as I am sure we would all be very interested in what he has to say.

Anonymous said...

The world's first food bank was the St. Mary's Food Bank Alliance in Arizona, begun in 1967.

caebrwyn said...

A few further thoughts. Perhaps I have missed the point, perhaps Councils enter partnerships like this all over the UK, if that is the case I think there's cause for concern. The Towy Church website, under it's Statements of Faith has this; "We believe in....the eternal conscious bliss of the believer and the eternal conscious punishment of those who reject Christ". Bit harsh, particularly if the Council is hoping that this project will ease the pressure on the Social Care budget.

I am also wondering if Mr Stewart has written a similar letter to Private Eye and Wales on Sunday?

The Pastor of the Towy Church, at the council meeting, stated "even as I'm sitting here two years later [since they started] there are no guarantees that this project will come off" Despite this the loan was approved, I can only think that there must be quite a high percentage of staunch believers in that council chamber.

Deryk Cundy said...

It is unfortunate that so many people hide behind the cloaks of institutions as if these institutions give greater credibility to their own views above others.

This is true of both secular and ecclesiastical organisations.

All evangelical churches as far as I am aware believe in freedom of the individual including all the people that have been referred to.

(This also includes the Baptist Church that Martin Luther King was a co-pastor of)

These freedoms include freedom of speech which is perhaps the most important right that we as human beings can aspire to.

To imply that it is illegal for someone to reasonably express their opinions or their right to praise God in their own way speaks volumes about that person's own beliefs and the organisation that they belong to.

Mrs Angry said...

Mr Stewart: you say in your comment that "churches that provide public services, which will be the case with Towy Community Church, now have legal protection against discrimination on the grounds of such beliefs". Fair enough, but will you confirm that any individuals either applying to receive such provision from Towy Community Church, or wishing to engage with such provision will not be discriminated against on the grounds of their beliefs, or sexual orientation? I am sure that such an assurance will be helpful.

Anonymous said...

my two pennies worth is if jim had been watching the blog for such a while, i would have thought that he would have mentioned if there were any concerns, he should have said so at the beginning. i would have thought that christian teaching does put right any wrongs straight away without offending his or her brother/sister. if someone is wrong, he or she must explain this. from what i can see, jim had been purposely delaying or withholding, almost like snaring.. (if there was any snaring going on).. if there was any incorrect info floating about, it could have been far better handled. and if jim is in a position, he did not point out anything... i too would have been concerned if money was issued whatever denomination was involved, and i believe caebrwyn has a right to mention, even if it wasn't to jim's liking. i do not see anything defamatory.. if a rada krishna temple was being built, it would be the same. then again, a christian denomination would be up in arms if money was spent on other projects they were interested in... you do not have to be christian to be a good neighbour. anyone could open a furniture recycle facility. i could do it, providing i had the means of storage but the council would make me liable for taxes. so me doing a good deed would mean financial penalties for helping out fellow man.. as for the foodbank, i would be bogged down by beurocracy even when my intentions would be good.. so, who is benefiting from food banks? the cost is astronomical. someone is getting money from it but i doubt very much if it is the volunteers..anon2

Anonymous said...

ask yourself who donates the food, where does it come from? the donators get any incentives to donate? would it be more efficent and cheaper if the people going to the foodbank were issued vouchers? most of them work the same way, money, space and storage.. and it will not be doing the lords work if someone is making money out of it.. why is it that organisations such as communities first organisation etc are involved in these schemes? for what purpose. if they were totally independent from a council or state control, fair play.. politics and religion do not mix most times.. then again, jesus treated the tax colector the same way as the sinner :-) if ccc are using a church to broaden their portfolio and viceversa, it augers no good :-( are the council using the bowling alley to potray tourist interests? therefore a church is being commercialised. i wouldnt like to say a bowling alley is a way of drawing in converts. will it be a christian bowling alley or a public bowling alley? the only choice people have for bowling is swansea. no idea who owns it etc, expensive and no idea who's pockets they are lining.. the last alley closer was the glen in llanelli. ammanford had one at one time until it got burnt down.. who owned these?.. it costs an awful lot to run the alley. and i'm ot talking about a couple of thousand a year.. one bit of info which is missing is how many lanes are being proposed in carmarthen?.. if there any doubts, it would be a good idea for jim to explain any link that was mentioned regarding mercy ministry.. and it would be good for any reader to check it out themselves by research. i find it suprising that an evangelical group gets involved with excorsism at all. a bit hard line for my liking. usually the pentescostal side are the hard liners... just a bit of common knowlege, evangelicals are the breakaway group formed out from the original catholic mainstream at the time. would a bowling alley truely benefit? people cannot afford it. i admit it is fun, but the fun gets taken out of it when people skint themselves to go there. would a cinema benefit? no, because there already is one in carmarthen. (unlike llanelli where the present cinema/theatre own future is uncertain due to the new cinema).. can people afford to go to the cinema at £7 a head? ).. the last multi million pound church i can think of from the top of my head is bridgend around 1996. as for the other schemes such as ammanford, elim church have had some grant to fund toddlers groups, maybe their plan is a bit too much to chew but who is involved with that? are they in conjunction with communities first? who are communities first? they have their agenda. and as communities first have caused some damage, i personally do not want anything to do with them anymore... (anon2)

Anonymous said...

a bowling alley is expensive at the best of times. recession or no recession, it is expensive, and not accesable to the 'run of the mill' folk.. it seems more expensive now due to this man made recession as people really do not have the money.

it will be a travesty if it becomes a failure. it would have it's usea in summertime for example during holidays. it could even bring in some tourists who happened to be staying in tenby/saundersfoot and may venture over for a couple of hours. in the evenings, it will be an occasional venue for other church groups to go and have an hours entertainment and fun. providing they get enough people interested to make a block booking so they can get a tiny concession..and the means of getting there.

if i was frequenting carmarthen on a particular day, it will not attract me as it is out of my way. it is not accessible.

logistically it is in an ideal situation but there are always losers in a site location..

ask around johnstown if their inhabitants can afford to go there? is it a johnstown regeneration plan or a regeneration plan by accident? there is always a winner and always a loser.. it is almost impossible to create a situation where everybody is equal.

no doubt some people will continue to go to use the bowling alley in swansea. if swansea and carmarthen are like for like distances apart, the may vistit just to see what it is like. swansea has other atractions after their hour of bowls, they may wish to go to see a film in the cinema or go for a pizza, all withing two minutes walk... and that is what carmarthen has not got. it may draw in some tourists but is the lyric open in the early afternoon? swansea cinema is.. people could go to carmarthen after their bowling and have a look around. pity the museum is less venue. all it would do is stop the carmarthen people from travelling to swansea to go bowling.. that makes a bit of sense on that level whoever owns it.

1 game consists of ten frames plus any extra. i can imagine that costs around £5 each and lasts about 40 mins. (20 mins if they are on their own) that could stretch to hour if people chat inbetween throws, but most like to get on with it... now, if it is £5 a game, somebody has to work for an hour and a half take home pay for that.. and if families are involved.. then again, rugby is the same. swansea football is more expensive at £34 for 90 mins plus travelling costs.. someone has to work 8 hours on minimum wage to be able to afford that.. people cannot afford to go healthy swimming never mind bowling sigh.. it cannot be a case of building a bowling alley to get the youth away from the pubs...some people cannot afford to go to the pub anymore as that has been evident for a number of years. but people do like socialising like people have been doing for decades, a drink and a dance and a chat. it's unfortunate some people do drink too much and get into some scrapes but i would say that does not happen so much as previous decades. if they can't take the drik, don't do it.. people turn to drink to help sort out lifes little problems, bowling could help a fraction, but expensive. an hour of bowling can cost £15, an hour of drinking and dancing and chatting a fiver.. then again if they are knocking back shots, i wont go into that. i basing it on a pint lol. and it will not suprise me if bowling costs more than what i mentioned..

Anonymous said...

a situation could be that carmarthen is in competition with it's neighbours llanelli and swansea.. why hasn't every town got a bowling alley? can people afford to travel from croshands twice a week? they would be spoilt for choice, either carmarthen or swansea...

it is not going to be cheap for the majority...and this is the important part, just exactly who is going to be accessing it? what proportion will it be who cannot afford it? i would be guessing roughly that over 75% will not be accessing it on a month basis.. maybe they would visit twice a year or once a year, or once every three months.

it is quite concerning that money is found to be lent out when other areas are being deprived, and this is what the issue seems to be.

it is a pity ccc do not build their own bowling alley, charge £2 a game and they would be packing the place in lol... why does it take a multi million pound company to get the contract to build when they pay the workers the least? i'm sure there are plenty of skilled builders and ccc can be liable for the litigation side? and a lot cheaper instead of lining the fat cats pockets all the time

if carlsberg only did councils..