Monday, 14 May 2012

Wales Audit Office and the Council

Back in January I asked the Wales Audit Office to investigate the council's involvement with the evangelical Towy Community Church Excel project in Johnstown, Carmarthen to the tune of £1.4m. Concerns have been raised on this blog, and others, for the past couple of years. So I'll not repeat it all again. There have also been critical articles in Wales on Sunday and Private Eye with the local MP also calling into question certain aspects of the 'partnership', and of course there was the council meeting in December where the loan was approved. A couple of weeks ago BBC Dragon's Eye also aired concerns - you may remember that no one was available for comment, apart from the Chief Executive just to say he couldn't comment - it being close to an election and all that, although commenting on the controversial Stradey Development, Furnace School, the Grillo site and the industrial dispute with the binmen was different, apparently.

Anyway, I digress, as you may imagine the response from the WAO was as expected, everything is fine - what were you all worrying about? Not that I'm questioning the independence of the WAO but the response reads as if it had been penned by County Hall itself. The letter also warns against publication, twice; I can't think why not, there is nothing in it of a 'sensitive' nature, all of the information is already in the public domain and it does not reveal anyone's details. As the letter is five pages long I am unable to publish it anyway but if anyone would like a copy, please email me.

I am aware of course that the remit of the WAO is quite narrow, focussing on proper procedures and compliance with the law, rather than the more ethical questions which have risen, although 'looking after our money' is their watchword, which, I imagine, includes not taking unnecessary risks with it either. 

Anyway, let's have a look at the response. It starts with a brief background, emphasising that a bowling alley is a 'priority for the residents of Carmarthen', and confirms that from 2009 the Council 'chose to deal exclusively with the church'. This was when presumably, the links to the 'Mercy Ministries' were evident as was the intention of the church to establish one in Carmarthen - the 'seed that never grew' according to the Pastor.

The letter then outlines the legal requirements which enabled the council to pursue this 'opportunity' (odd choice of word for the WAO). Perhaps we should remind ourselves here that this evangelical church is run from a small office above a sweet shop in Carmarthen.
The WAO list some of the grants, including the £280,000 from the council in May 2011 and appear satisfied that the various requirements over the disposal of the land such as State Aid/Procurement considerations were met after the council sought external legal advice, (at unknown cost). Similarly the WAO concludes that the risks concerning the loan in December were conveyed to the Executive Board and the Council but that "the council took the view that the project was at an advanced stage and that it was a risk they should accept", if I remember rightly they had little choice given the, er, zealous nature of the council meeting, and the project had yet to get off the ground let alone be in an 'advanced stage'. The risk, you may remember, is that the council has very little security on the loan, being third in line after the bank and the lottery. Basically, the WAO have been told that all the various criteria for the numerous grants, the loan and the land deal have been met, and that is as far as they are going with it. As for meeting some of the grant criteria, I'm still as puzzled as I was earlier this year;
"amongst the whole funding package was £25,000 from the Rural Develoment Plan - which is EU money aimed at improving access to services and regenerating rural/agricultural areas of Wales - in this case the fund specifically paid for 'one and a half bowling lanes' in the urban area of Johnstown, Carmarthen. Another grant was £25,000 from the council's 'sustainable Communities Tourism Fund' - set up to "develop and safeguard local legends, history, culture, art and language to inform visitors of the county's distinctiveness, and also to maintain the character of Carmarthenshire for it's residents" Hmm.

As for the planning permission the WAO deny that it is 'flexible' as stated in the report to the council in December but then go on to state that it is in fact 'flexible', with regards to D1 - D2 Use Classes, which, of course includes use as a 'place of worship or religious instruction'.
The whole tone of the response is dismissive.
The last paragraph is particularly abrasive given my real concerns after Meryl Gravell's disturbing public statement that the 'partnership' with the evangelical project would hopefully ease the pressure on the Social Care budget and described it as "the biggest social enterprise in Carmarthenshire. That's what we need more of in the future"
The WAO said;
"You suggest that the Council's interest in facilitating this project is in some ways 'off-loading' some aspects of it's social care responsibilities. I am unclear as to how this could be viewed as such, for example, the council has no legal duty to provide a furniture recycling warehouse etc....This does not therefore appear to be an issue.
I hope you find this response helpful, although I have to conclude that I can see no reason to take any further audit action on the issues that you raise at this point under the powers that we have. Can I also remind you that this response is strictly private and confidential"

So there you go, most of the boxes have been ticked as far as the WAO are concerned, and for some reason I don't think it will be long before those of us who are raising concerns about this large investment of Carmarthenshire taxpayers' money in an evangelical church, particularly given the severe cuts promised for elderly care and childrens' services, are referred to as an 'unfortunate example of a small group of people' intent on harming the council and the church (it was 'harming the council and the club' in a recent Western Mail article over the finances relating to the other great council 'not costing the taxpayer a penny' venture, Parc Y Scarlets)
As for the WAO, perhaps they should rethink their remit, as well as their investigating procedures. The long and expensive saga over the Stradey/Parc y Scarlets development is notable for the absence of the WAO.


Anonymous said...

The Wales Audit Office seem so terrified of upsetting their client (who after all pays them and helps keep them in employment) that they continually ignore the Audit Commission Act 1998 regarding Value For Money, specifically ensuring the audited body has made proper arrangements for securing Economy, Efficiency and Effectiveness in the use of its resources. The Act and guidance read very well - however this is the same as the tailors enthusing about the fabric used in the Emporer's New Clothes. Look beyond the publications and the assurances provided by the Auditor, and you will see a scared and trembly organisation, too unsure of itself and its work to voice any criticism, capable of producing well written (although meaningless) reports to justify its own existence, and sufficiently complimentary of the audited bodies to ensure their continued reappointment. It dismays me the hope that the public have in this toothless body, the hope with which they report issues, and their bewilderment when they receive the standard responses of all being OK as everything was done legally and procedurally correctly. This must be why jacqui, you percive their remit to be so narrow. Its not - but they interpret it that way to wriggle out of their responsibilities. Examples such as the Llanelli Rugby Football Club - CCC's decision to invest in them in Nov 2008 when the company was in breach of company law, witholding the publication of their accounts to avoid publicising the club's own auditors' Going Concern qualification (now back in their accounts). Turning a blind eye to the unlawful spending of monies in libel actions. And now doing their best, and a pretty good fob-off job to the untrained eye, to justify the exessive and reckless spending on this Church.

Peter A Tully said...

Everyone else is wrong and you are always right!
Why don't you give your time to helping a good cause and stop moaning.

Tessa said...

@Peter A Tully - I think you have maybe stumbled in here by mistake. Were you perhaps looking to comment on "Viz"?