Monday, 27 February 2012

The Council, the church...and more on 'exempt items'

I, and others, are still pondering about the peculiar generosity shown by the Council to the evangelical 'bowling alley' project led by the Towy Community Church (many previous posts, including here).

I wrote to the Wales Audit Office in mid-January asking them to investigate the whole matter, I had an acknowledgement, and I am now waiting patiently for a response.

We have all been led to believe that the church are charged a 'peppercorn' rent for the land, which may be true, and may be 10p or £10 a year, we don't know. I was interested therefore to read this quote from the head of the church in 2010 from an advice site for church organisations, "The Council bought the 2.7 acre site and in a remarkable act of generosity transferred it to the church free of charge" Remarkable indeed. And maybe the council had the church in mind when it bought the land, (worth £750,000) ...again...who knows? I am sure the multitude of other small churches, chapels and affiliated community groups in the county, many in crumbling and leaky premises will be, quite rightly, expecting similar remarkable acts.

You may remember last December's full council meeting and the exempt item concerning the £280,000 loan to the church which saw the exemption lifted to 'dispel rumours circulating in the press'. This was a rare occurence indeed and appeared to be a bit of a PR move prompted by our more religiously fervent officers and Members of the council. The issue of 'exempt items' reminded me of an editorial from the Carmarthen Journal from March 2007 when an equally controversial matter was being discussed, that of the Parc Y Scarlets 'won't cost the taxpayers a penny' stadium in Llanelli.

Oh, and here it is...

"Visits to County Hall Carmarthen always provide plenty of material for debate.
Last Friday's meeting of the full council was no exception.
The shiny suit and clean shoes had been donned all because the council had what they described as an 'exempt item' on the agenda.
To translate; an exempt item' is where the council uses the Local Government Act to kick the press and public out of the meeting and hold a session in camera - in secret.
For sometime now, the usual sequence of events has seen the chairman of the day simply refer to the agenda item being exempt. The press and any members of the public have then meekly moved out of the chamber.
Friday was a little different. I'd objected in writing to the secret session (to discuss the proposed new Scarlets stadium at Pemberton) and been told, very courteously, that my arguments didn't hold water.
What happened next was unusual in that two councillors - John Jenkins and Neil Baker - stood up to argue that the item should be discussed in public as there would be no confidential information in the planned discussion.
But council officers disagreed and, after a vote by councillors, the press and public were told to leave the meeting.
Officers said that, although most of the figures under discussion were already in the public domain, allowing them to be heard again could influence quotes for building work.
Councillor Jenkins provided the Quote of the Day when he made reference to the fact there was no one in the public gallery for the full council meeting.
"I fail to see why this report cannot be heard in public. If we chuck the public out for the juicy bits, that's why they don't come to our meetings."
Is this very important to you, dear reader? Well, only when you consider that meekly accepting council 'exempt items' (no matter what the topic) will no longer be on the agenda in this newsroom"
(March 2007, Carmarthen Journal)

Well, 'exempt items' appear to depend on the subject matter perhaps.... one exempt item from last year dealing with the 'transfer of toilets to community councils' seemed to require extreme secrecy.

In fact the most recent Executive Board meeting had an exempt item to discuss, ironically, the accountability and transparency of senior officers pay, (so urgent and secret it didn't even appear on the agenda). Incidentally, concerns were expressed about the lack of guidance from the Welsh Government on the new requirement, under the Localism Bill to produce an annual 'Pay Policy Statement' by the end of March.....the WAG guidance, I note, can actually be found here.


Robert Lloyd said...

I can remember writing that little sketch above. Nothing much has changed in four years . . .

Cneifiwr said...

A pity there aren't more people in the media these days to challenge all these exemptions.