Tuesday 28 May 2013

'Pot luck' planning

On the 23rd May a planning application was passed for a development of 61 houses in Llandovery, there was considerable opposition, one objection being that the Unitary Development Plan (UDP) only allowed for 32.

A last minute Addendum was added to the planning officer's report which limited the development to 32 houses until such time as the Local Development Plan (still in the process of examination and consideration) was adopted. This Addendum was accepted and approved along with the application.

Contrast that with an earlier decision (28th March) to allow 289 homes in Penybanc, Ammanford. Similar arguments had been put forward that the UDP only allowed for 150, but in this case, there was no similar limitation on the development and the argument that this was nearly double the number allowed under the UDP was dismissed.

Plaid Cymru's Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM has issued a strong statement accusing the planning department of inconsistency and calling on the Welsh Government to urgently intervene;

‘Potluck’ policies in county planning authority 
Plaid AM hits out at inconsistent approach to developments 
Plaid Cymru Assembly Member Rhodri Glyn Thomas has this week launched a resounding attack on county planners for their inconsistent approach to assessing planning applications – calling for the intervention of the Welsh government as a matter of urgency. 
Rhodri’s statement comes a result of county planners curtailing a proposed development of 61 properties in Llandovery on the basis that the authority’s Unitary Development Plan (UDP) only permits 32 properties to be built at the site. This decision comes just weeks after 289 properties were approved on a Penybanc site that almost doubled the maximum UDP limit of one hundred and fifty. 
Branding the inconsistent approach as “astonishing”, the Plaid Cymru politician said developers and communities face ‘potluck’ when it comes to what policies are used to assess planning applications. 
The Carmarthen East & Dinefwr AM said:
“I said last week that planning policies aren’t worth the paper their written on. Little did I know that just a few days later my comments would be strengthened by this astonishing action by the planning authority. 
“My opposition to the Penybanc development is well documented – as is my deep disappointment at the total disregard for local opinion, planning policy and the Welsh language. 
“But the inconsistencies in the assessment process leaves developers and communities in a potluck situation when it comes to what policies are used to assess applications. 
“A planning authority cannot be allowed to use a policy to curtail a development on one site, but disregard that same policy to approve a development almost double the size the policy permits on another site. 
“I will be writing to the Minister and seeking the intervention of the Welsh government as a matter of urgency. Moving the goalposts completely undermines the planning process and is something no Carmarthenshire resident should have to put up with”.
(Full article here

Monday 27 May 2013

Are you healthier and wealthier?...probably not.

It's that time of year again when the council tells us that we are healthier, wealthier and wiser through the endless pages of the Annual Report and Improvement Plan. In reality, you probably feel roughly the same as you did last year, as you will next year too. Much of it is aspirational nonsense. All councils have to publish these documents which measure performance against targets and who can come up with the most ridiculous jargon and the most grateful looking pensioners. It will now go through scrutiny committees where hopefully, it will be scrutinized.

This is a self-evaluation exercise so only a couple of independent reports are incorporated, one is the schools inspectorate, Estyn, which found that in Carmarthenshire, 'the proportion of schools requiring follow-up activity after an inspection is high in comparison with other authorities'. 
The Wales Audit Office evaluation of the Report and Plan depends on the authorities being 'genuine, honest, objective, unbiased, fair, balanced and proportionate', in summary it concluded that Carmarthenshire's reporting was 'generally fair and balanced. Although focused mainly on positive achievements...', In plain speaking, it's a load of old spin.

Carmarthenshire certainly makes the most of the opportunity, publishing a ten page summary for the public (later in the year), a lengthy 75 page report to council and a whopping 218 page supporting technical annex. We can look forward to the best bits forming a selection of council press releases over the next few weeks.

One Key Priority of course is delivering value for money and 'directing our resources to the top priority front line services on which many local people depend'. With those local people in mind, the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee are still waiting for a report defining any possible savings in the Civic and Ceremonial and the Communications budgets. Corporate limos, civic lunches, the Carmarthenshire News, and for that matter, senior officer pay, never seem to appear in the 'efficiency savings' programme.

The spin and propaganda also extends into the pay packets of all 9500 staff every month, with the inclusion of a newsletter, complete with a message to the troops from the Chief Executive, (cost unknown).

They, the P & R Committee, are also still waiting for information as to how much is spent on consultants by each council department. An all-Wales report (not just Carmarthenshire) by the Wales Audit Office in February revealed that seriously inadequate management of consultancy procurement and monitoring procedures was not giving value for money for the taxpayer, or 'Better use of Resources' to use one of Carmarthenshire's catchphrases. It turns out that, for example, if a civil engineering company does consultancy as well as building work, current methods of financial reporting make it impossible to tell how much is spent on each service.

As for those local people; luncheon clubs, libraries, day centres, museums, village schools, youth clubs etc are all in the firing line. Charges have increased for parking, leisure centres, care services, council tax etc and anything else the council can legally prise cash out of you for. However the locals, if they're local to Carmarthen anyway, can now go ten-pin bowling, with prayers included, thanks to £1.4m given to Towy Community Church Ltd.

Another Key Priority comes under the heading 'Building a Better Council'; several sub-headings, embedded strategies and pie charts later, we get to 'Core Value B1; Openness, trust, honesty and integrity' where we find a mention of Freedom of Information Requests.

Carmarthenshire council has, the report says, 'one of the highest and increasing number of Freedom of Information requests in Wales', 886 last year, (and they're not all from me, in case you were wondering) This, they say, "may suggest that some of our public information sources could be improved further, or that we have a more engaged and interested community". With regards to the former, it brings back memories of my very closely supervised and unwelcome visit to view the dusty ledgers of the Register of Members' Interests. Something almost all other local authorities manage to publish quite easily online. And many others publish spending details. As for the latter, a heightened interest from the community, I hope they're right.

As an example of their 'openness' there's a link to the 'Senior Management Team Pay Statement' which is so out of date it Meryl Gravell is still queen.

With only two employees (compared to the 'team of twenty' in the PR department) its hardly surprising that the council failed to respond to 80 requests within the statutory 20 day limit, one of the reasons given for this,  which should come as no surprise, is the length of time taken to "obtain approval to release information".

Another questionable boast in the Report concerns the 'review' of the council's constitution, with a view to 'achieving efficiencies and streamlining decision making processes' by amending, amongst other things, the Standing Orders. I'm not sure what the efficiencies are but the streamlining must be referring to the reduction of minority voices, limiting debate, particularly if it's a controversial topic, and generally giving further control over agenda items, questions, motions and petitions to a senior officer.
'Streamlining' is not the word I'd have used but then again, I'm not a spin doctor. There have also been times when puzzled observers have wondered just which version of the Constitution is the current favourite.

So, given a few examples, the reality is somewhat different from the corporate image of the 'best council in Wales'. We all know that by now though. Please note however, I don't want to detract from the hardworking frontline staff and the majority of the workforce who keep the machine ticking over.

I suppose in times past, numerous meetings, seminars and buffets were by held by local government officials to determine how the performance of councils could be measured. The tortured evolution has resulted, in Carmarthenshire anyway, into an unwieldy and unreadable (and undoubtedly expensive and time consuming) load of old tosh and a glib, patronising summary for public consumption. There has to be a better way.

The whole thing can of course be seen on the council website, if you're so inclined.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Midweek news bulletin

As Cneifiwr reported earlier in the week, Welsh Minister Carl Sargeant has refused to call-in the 289 home development in Penybanc, double the number allowed under the current Development Plan. He appears to be continuing his ministerial 'non-intervention policy' as he did when in charge of Local Government. Well, as far as Carmarthenshire Council are concerned anyway.

Plaid AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas reacted angrily and said that "the decision by the Welsh Government shows that planning policies are not worth the paper they’re written on. It looks as though planning authorities are free to ignore development limits whenever they want.” 

One complaint brought by the objectors was that they had been reassured by planning officers that no decision would be made at the committee meeting, though this is denied. The South Wales Guardian opinion reminds council leader Kevin Madge that he promised to order the council's monitoring officer to investigate whether there had been any breach of procedure.

Rather like his calls for a public inquiry into the Ammanford police station PFI scandal, everyone's still waiting....

There is growing discontent in the nearby town of Llandovery. As I have mentioned, the most important and largest community asset, Pantycelyn  secondary school is now closing, thanks to our county council (and with no thanks to the local county councillors who failed to raise a murmur), to be replaced by the new superschool 14 miles away in Ffairfach, Llandeilo.

To add insult to injury, the town's small but perfectly formed museum unceremoniously shut it's doors the other day causing panicked resident to scramble for their artefacts before the rest were bundled into a container and plonked round the back. The historians and volunteers who have been running the museum for sixteen years had a bit of a shock. The Town Council have now promised to find a temporary home for all the exhibits as soon as they can.

The future of the museum and Heritage Centre, which was subsidised by the county council, was subject of a consultation last year. Funded by a £9965 grant and run by the Llandovery Partnership, a group formed from local business and other interested parties, including the County and Town Council and the National Park, none of the three options put forward proposed closure, despite the fact that the grant was awarded to;

"achieve a Centre that will Showcase and celebrate the rich heritage of Llandovery and the surrounding area, provide a comprehensive tourist information service for the Brecon Beacons National Park and Carmarthenshire and be a competitive attraction which will attract a range of audiences and encourage repeat visitors, residents as well as tourists."

With that in mind, the alternative use for the Heritage Centre has been met with some disbelief. Somebody, or some organisation, has convinced the Partnership that what Llandovery really really needs is a business-hub, or hot-desk centre which is what it will now become.

Llandovery is not the next Wall Street, the main event of the week is the livestock market and even those in the cut and thrust of rural business have heard of smartphones. And as for tourists, there's now one less reason to stop and browse round the town. Perhaps they'll suddenly need a hot-desk.

Let's also hope, if there's a sudden need for a comfort break, the public toilets are still there. Rumours are circulating that the council contractors Danfo are considering leaving town....

Lastly, Carmarthenshire Council were very pleased with the viewing figures of the council meeting webcast last week (and available to watch at your leisure here). Press releases have been in abundance just to remind everyone how inspired they were to come up with this wonderful idea all on their own....

In fact they've broken records, with 551 fascinated viewers tuning in and had the 'highest figures for any authority in the UK for its first webcast' Who'd have thought it eh? I'll make sure I promote the next one too.

Tuesday 21 May 2013

WLGA...one of life's mysteries.

The article in the Western Mail about senior council officers' pay, which, as you saw from my last post, starred Carmarthenshire Council as top of the bill, featured the usual defence from the Chief Executive of the WLGA (Welsh Local Government Association), Mr Steve Thomas who is brought out every time anyone picks on the weighty pay packets of our public sector officers. 

The WLGA is one of those organisations in which the average person, including me, as I am very average, can see no practical purpose whatsoever. I'm sure Mr Thomas would disagree, but with its "primary purposes to promote better local government and its reputation and to support authorities in the development of policies and priorities which will improve public services and democracy" evidence is thin on the ground that this is any more than a talking shop, much concerned, it would appear, with reputation.

As Mr Thomas was so defensive in the newspaper about executive pay I wondered what the staff, and other costs were for the WLGA itself. I could find nothing on their website at all. The English equivalent however, the LGA has a dedicated page to 'Public Information' listing pay, contracts, expenses etc. All the usual.

I emailed the WLGA to enquire where I might find such information as I would have thought it would all be within the Publication Scheme under the FOIA. Although it was not a FOI request. I received a response this morning from Mr Thomas who has kindly directed me to the WLGA accounts, squirrelled away in the website. I'll not provide a link....see how long it takes you to find it. I appreciate his quick response though.

Mr Thomas helpfully tells me that his salary is £146,751 (including pension etc) and the five directors earn between £65k and £85k per year. So far so good. But Mr Thomas then goes on to tell me that as the WLGA is not a statutory body (it is 'autonomous' and part of the LGA, a Quango I believe) it doesn't come under FOI legislation, so they're not obliged to tell us anything. But, according to Mr Thomas they seek to 'embody this in their work'. This is far from evident on their website. Of course, our very own Meryl Gravell and Kevin Madge are Chairs/Deputy Chairs of the WLGA Council. In fact, Member Services account for £92k of its expenditure.

Despite not being 'Statutory', the WLGA are consulted on public issues such as health care, education, electoral boundaries, city regions, housing etc and even, I discovered, the filming of council meetings, and a myriad of matters in their various sub-committees, Advisory Groups, subsidiary companies and those dreaded Task and Finish Groups.

I am somewhat surprised by this, even small Community Councils are subject to the FOIA, so why on earth is a large organisation, with staff costs of £4m and in receipt of £8m of Welsh Government grants, and £2m worth of subscriptions from Welsh public bodies, not under the same legislation?

I daresay someone will tell me, but for now, it remains a mystery.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Chart-topping Carmarthenshire Council

Today's Wales on Sunday reports on the '56 Welsh Council employees taking home six figure salaries' .

Carmarthenshire Council, making cuts of £16m over the next three years, tops the chart. (and apparently there's no magic money tree either).

L to R; CEOs of Carmarthenshire, Cardiff and Pembrokeshire.
(Pic source; Wales on Sunday)

Earlier post from the 10th May; Town Hall Tycoons

Update 21st May; The Chief Executive of Cardiff Council (pictured in centre) announced his resignation today and revealed his new job with accountancy firm, Pricewaterhouse Coopers.

Saturday 18 May 2013

'Public statements' - a vexatious action under FoI?

Further to A vexatious request? (May 3rd), and just in case anyone is still following the lengthy saga of my Freedom of Information request for correspondence between Carmarthenshire Council and the Towy Community Church, the very latest instalment is now available. I asked for this information back in June 2012.

As predicted, the council's second 'internal review' has upheld the fresh decision, (issued after the ICO upheld my complaint), that the request, (or the requestor, I'm not sure which, given their reasoning), is vexatious. It all seems to coincide with new guidance published by the ICO on Thursday which whilst clarifying that only the request itself can be deemed vexatious, the council can incorporate a multitude of other factors including motive, as well as their own perception of the requestor, to add strength to their argument.

Clearly the council have embraced every possible interpretation, and have even included 'public statements' I have made (though they haven't specified exactly what they're referring to) as a reason to refuse on this basis. It must follow then that should a newspaper write a critical report following an FoI response, further requests could be refused on the basis of their 'public statements'.

This latest, full response from the legal department, which includes the council's application of the Information Commissioner v Devon CC and Dransfield [2012] UKUT 440 (AAC), can be read HERE.
(The full history of the request is here)

Given the highly controversial £1.4m financial commitment made by the council to the organisation and the bowling alley project, the information is still very much in the public interest, and as phase two of the project gets underway, all the more reason for the information to be made public.

I now have the option of going back yet again to the Information Commissioner.

Also in the public interest is the subject of my most recent request which is for minutes of meetings of the Business Management Group. As I have previously mentioned (please use the search box on the right), the group is made up of party elite and senior officers and it's remit is, apparently, to 'advise' the Executive Board.

Although not technically a decision making body, it's advice and recommendations have never been known to be rejected.

The meetings are not published and the group does not feature anywhere in either the Management nor Political Structure of the council. They do, however, appear to produce Minutes. The publication of these minutes will perhaps go some way to open up the decision making process and show the level and content of discussion prior to the recommendations which are, without any known exception, approved.

Another interesting aspect to this group is that any small groups or unaffiliated/truly independent councillors are not included. The 'Independent' group is included of course as it has all the hallmarks of a political party, believe it or not.

A couple of years ago Cllr Sian Caiach challenged the lack of representation of small groups within the BMG. The Acting Head of Legal dismissed concerns that "human rights" (she used inverted commas) were being infringed and it was just (to paraphrase) tough luck that if you didn't have a large enough group, you weren't represented.

Cllr Caiach responded and reminded the officer that the group not only used public funds but it's membership was discriminatory against small groups and individuals who actually represented thousands of constituents. She also wondered at what point did a group have to be large enough for the legal department to recognise it had human rights. As far as I know there was no response.

Anyway, the twenty days has now passed for the council to issue a response to my request for the minutes. Apparently they will be in a position to do so by the end of next week. I'll wait and see their response.
The request can be read here.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Carmarthenshire webcast begins...and other news

BBC article which includes a bit about me; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-west-wales-22529784
I have also recorded a piece for the BBC, it might be on the Wales news later. (Have just watched it and for some reason my contribution was not included)


Well, for those of you who missed the webcast, it should be available on archive later on, after some editing maybe. If you enjoy prayer, pomp and mutual backslapping, it'll be just your thing. However, it was the AGM and future meetings may be a little more interesting.

Technically the live streaming was very well done (by @Public_i) As for the cast...? Well, Kevin Madge's Leader's report is probably best forgotten. Incidentally, there was much waffle at the start about declarations of interest and making sure Cllrs spoke up, went out, verbally declared etc - usually they just pass a form round, which went missing on one occasion.

At one point the Chair indicated to Pam Palmer (Ind leader) that it was her turn to speak, she was surprised as she hadn't asked to speak; "but it's in the script" said the Chair. Oh dear.

The only chink in the usual spin was the Plaid leader's reply which brought up Labour's failure to support the Living Wage for it's 'cherished' employees and the recent embarrassing ombudsman reports. Anyway, I don't know why I'm telling you this, force of habit I guess.


Failing any last minute problems, it looks like the long awaited webcasting pilot will actually start today at 11am, so far there's no link, or mention on the council website but the page can be found here; http://www.carmarthenshire.public-i.tv/core/
(update; with 45 minutes until the meeting starts, the council have just put a link on the website)

For a few brief hours yesterday the Council homepage featured news of two 'focus' group meetings, arranged for next week to chew over a light buffet and the council propaganda rag, the Carmarthenshire News. At some point the article was unceremoniously squirreled away to a remote corner of the website just in case, I presume, anyone decided to go. The Carmarthenshire News now enjoys joint contributions from various taxpayer funded services such as the police and the health board. Masterminded by the press squad  at County Hall, it has been the subject of recent FoI's to try and get to the bottom of the finances, or, 'creative accounting', to quote local politicians.

One meeting will be held at the new state-of the-art £10m Strategic Co-ordination Centre Police HQ in Carmarthen, which has finally found a purpose. The other at, (no not Parc Y Scarlets this time), The Furnace Theatre, Llanelli. (As an aside, you may remember when residents of Carmarthenshire, asked to vote for a name for the new theatre, chose The Stepney Centre, but the council had other ideas and chose the name which came second in the poll, all of which was revealed through a FoI). 

Anyway, if you would like to offer some 'feedback', or make other useful suggestions as to where exactly you would like to place your copy of the Carmarthenshire News, you will need to email your 'expression of interest', after you've located the article on the website. You haven't got much time either. Good luck with that.

With the propaganda rag dominating the homepage, I can only imagine that the preparations for today's webcast of the AGM were so frantic that the press office had clean forgotten to mention it, not even a tweet. I suppose last minute wardrobe issues and getting the make-up right is keeping everyone busy, I expect the ladies are preoccupied too.

So, we look forward to an enthusiastic announcement this morning. But just in case there's isn't, (and depending on the council getting it's act together), it's due to start at 11am.


One more thing I'd like to mention is the defeat by Labour in the Assembly of Rhodri Glyn Thomas' (Plaid) amendment to the Local Democracy Bill. This was a modest but important attempt to open up council meetings to members of the public and allow the free use of social media in an attempt to "..put a stop to the stories across Wales of local people being stopped from commenting publicly on these public matters."
Why on earth the amendment wasn't passed unanimously, and without question, I have no idea.

Friday 10 May 2013

Town Hall Tycoons

The annual Town Hall Rich list was published today by the Taxpayers' Alliance. Carmarthenshire earns a special mention as having twelve employees earning over £100,000, the highest in Wales and two more than last year. The list also includes a mystery salary of £157,500 which doesn't appear on the Council accounts, the accounts themselves record an employee leaving last year within this salary range with a pay off of £126,000. Whether the two are connected I couldn't say, but despite the fact that all employees earning over £150,000 are required to be named, this entry remains anonymous. By my calculations, the combined remuneration of thirty senior council employees comes in at over £3m. Carmarthenshire also topped the BBC league table a couple of weeks ago for having the highest paid senior officer in Wales.

I can't really comment at the moment on whether we're getting good value for money here in Carmarthenshire, but the issue of whether this is all a bit much, particularly for a county with a population of 180,000 gets brought up every year. And every year the respective Leaders rush to the defence of their senior officers, for years it was Meryl Gravell (Ind) who has now passed the baton of unswerving loyalty onto Kevin Madge (Lab).
Local Assembly Member Rhodri Glyn Thomas (Plaid) is trying to amend the Local Democracy Bill to; "..take senior pay out of the hands of council officers and put it under the remit of an all-Wales independent remuneration body. Plaid Cymru are also seeking to abolish extra payments for returning officers at local elections.."
Seems a good idea to me.

Updated 19th May; The Western Mail reports on public sector executive pay and the chart topping fat-cattery of Carmarthenshire Council. http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/more-50-welsh-council-bosses-3867881

Briefly onto the subject of webcasting and the promised pilot look set to begin with next week's AGM (Wednesday 15th May, 10am). Nothing controversial for the first outing; the Leader's tribute, allocation of Committee Chairs etc  Members have been trained, apparently, on what not to wear (stripes, zig zags, fancy dress), how to appear awake, and of course what not to say. For the majority that won't be a problem as they don't say anything anyway.
Still, we'll wait and see.
The agenda also includes, in CAPITAL letters, (and after two years of wrestling with it all);




Carmarthenshire Council will of have, of course, and for the very first time, a recording of everything that is said. And so will we..well, for twelve meetings anyway.
My judgement, for now, is reserved.

Here's Cneifiwr's post on the subject; Lights, camera...action!

Friday 3 May 2013

A vexatious request...?

Update 7th May
The ICO have informed me that I have no other option other than to go through the complaint procedure yet again, so I have asked the council to review their response that my request is a vexatious. If, when the review is complete, I still find their response unsatisfactory, I will then make a further complaint to the ICO.

My request for an internal review is here, (you'll have to scroll down the page, it is near the end of the thread).

Further to my blog post in March, 'Complaint to Information Commissioner upheld', The council have now issued a fresh response to my request.

My request, which was originally made in June 2012, was for correspondence between the Council and the Towy Community Church concerning the Excel bowling alley/church project.

The council refused the original request under the cost/time limits, claiming it would exceed 18 hours to retrieve the information.

The Information Commissioner (ICO) eventually decided that it could in fact be answered within the time limit and ordered the council to issue a fresh response within 35 days. The full ICO decision notice can be read here

The fresh response from the Council is another refusal under Section 14 (1), Vexatious Requests. The full response and thread of the request can be seen here but here is the relevant extract;

“Issue a fresh response under the FOIA that does not rely on Section 12 (1).”

In light of the ICO’s findings, we have therefore reconsidered your request. We find that there are other grounds for refusing to comply with the request, which are set out below.

Under Section 14 (1) of the FOIA, a public authority is not obliged to comply with a request which is vexatious.

Having referred to the ICO’s guidance (version 5, June 2012) and relevant case law (Information Commissioner v. Devon CC & Dransfield [2012] UKUT 440 (AAC)) we are of the view that the request is indeed vexatious.

We feel that it would impose a significant burden on the Council, as documented in the ICO’s decision notice (reference FS50461626).

Furthermore, we are of the opinion that the request does not in fact have any serious purpose or value in terms of the objective public interest in the information sought.

Section 14 (1) has the effect of an absolute exemption in such circumstances.

Please therefore consider this email to be a formal notice of refusal, in accordance with Section 17 of the Act.

For the time being, I shall have to assume that the council are being sincere in stating that it is the request which is vexatious, and not the requestor. However, given that I am aware that the council consider the number of requests I have made as 'high', I am not certain the refusal relates solely to the request. The request itself concerns a controversial topic.

I also find it puzzling that the request was not classed as vexatious in the council's original refusal notice, why now and not then?

The 'points' of vexatiousness ( "manifestly unjustified, inappropriate or improper use of" the FOIA procedures) used by the council in this refusal are that it will still pose a burden on the authority to supply the information, and, whether there was a 'serious reason' behind the the motive of the request.

To take the first point, I believed from the start that the request should not have involved the degree of retrieval the council made out, however I recognise that I will probably not be able to prove my 'mountain out of a molehill' argument. For the record, I have always been aware of the correct use of FoI and have tried to keep my requests focussed and reasonable.

The second point turns on the motive and the public interest in disclosure of the information requested. I believe the public interest argument is clearly made out and therefore the motive should not come into the equation. Indeed, there was no 'other' motive.

I am not going to go over all the numerous issues which have arisen concerning this 'partnership' between the council and the Towy Community Church, they can be found by searching this blog, or Cneifiwr's, or for a comprehensive summary see my guest post on Secular Wales from last November. There have also been several critical press stories including the BBC Wales Dragon's Eye programme, Private Eye and Wales on Sunday.

There is also a continuing public interest in the growth of evangelical organisations delivering council services, food banks and debt counselling. Community spirited organisations should be commended but there is an underlying concern that evangelical groups are taking advantage of the increasingly vulnerable sectors of society to proselytise and 'spread the faith' and this is being embraced by central and local government through the 'Big Society' agenda.

To put it simply, the public interest in disclosing the correspondence between the organisations was clearly to shed some light how the 'partnership' was formed, how grants from the council met criteria, the issue of equalities, the 'flexible' planning permission and how the council came to bestow £1.4m on this organisation and announce that it was going to ease the burden on the Social Care budget.

Wednesday 1 May 2013

The Scarlets, The Reds, and the Council

A couple of weeks ago the Llanelli Reds, the town's troubled 114 year old football club was wound up by the high court over tax debts of £21,000. The club and fans are trying to find a way forward and save the club. According to the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire Council on Radio Carmarthenshire last Friday they hadn't been 'approached' for help and didn't know about the winding-up order until after it happened.

He also reminded listeners that the council had given the club £40,000 some years ago towards a new stand and anyway, the town council owned the ground, not the county council. But he did say their door was 'always open'.

Kevin Madge, Council Leader features in an article in today's Llanelli Star under the slightly misleading headline 'Carmarthenshire Council held meetings to try to save Llanelli AFC from winding up order', you might think this involved the club, but reading on, Cllr Madge makes it clear that these meetings were actually just between himself and the Chief Executive. He said they "weren't in a position to find a huge amount of money to bail them out." and that  "people will learn lessons from this about living within their means". Thanks for that Kev, now on £47,500 per year plus expenses.

Of course, this all sits in stark contrast to the situation a few miles away with the Parc Y Scarlets rugby stadium. Back in 2007, despite warnings from the accountants that it was a risky venture, the council embarked on the highly controversial stadium development when the club was £9m in the red. The actual figure are in dispute as it was a contorted process, somewhere between £18m and £40m, partly depending on the value of the land, which, according to the council was 'worthless', others put it at around £14m.

It's a long story which has been well covered over the years and the council's controversial ongoing financial commitment has attracted criticism. Taxpayers' concerns over the massive investment have always been rubbished by the council, only last year when further concerns arose over the clubs accounts, the council Chief Executive accused critics of wishing 'the club and the council harm'.

And bail outs were not a problem either, the interest on a £2.4m council loan was slashed a couple of years ago, costing the council £216,000 over a three year period and the maintenance fund 'waived' for a few years. The council continue to pump money into the venture all ways it can. It is one of the jewels in the council 'masterplan', or, to put it another way, an expensive white elephant which will not be allowed to fail. Another £20,000 was granted to the club last year to fund a new staff member...to attract funding...

The club's latest accounts have just been published and things don't look any better. As last year, the auditors warn that with the net loss of almost £1.3m, liabilities of £3.6m (£1.9m in 2011) and the need for further funding (which, incidentally, must be approved by the council) there is yet again an 'existence of material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt about the company's ability to continue as a going concern'.

The value of the stadium, for the purpose of the accounts has been put at £10.2m but the auditors warn that the material uncertainty referred to may cast doubt on this 'carrying value', and a requirement to adjust this to 'realisable value' would raise the figure for the club's liabilities significantly.

Early last year the club and the council commissioned a report which detailed the many millions that the stadium was bringing to Llanelli. Critics cast doubt over the figures, £16m per year, leaping to £32m by 2016 and branded the exercise as a PR move to back up the council's shaky investment. The figures would appear to be at odds with the clubs accounts, surely such a level of inward investment, if accurate, would at least reflect somewhere in the club's own bank balance.

The council continues to own the land which is leased to the club and part of this was sold to the Marstons pub chain last year. The club, in a letter supporting the brewer's planning application referred to it being owned by the club. An article earlier this year states that the land (part of the car park deemed superfluous to requirements) was bought from the Council. It would be interesting to know who did eventually get the money, the council or the club?

Before I attract the usual hostile comments about being anti-rugby, I'm not. I'm sure no one, including myself, wishes the Scarlets (or the Reds) anything but success, and the club's directors continue to invest heavily to keep it afloat.
It is the council's commitment which gives concern especially given the reassurance by the Chief Executive back in 2007 that “the council will have no ongoing liability for the running of the club in the stadium.”

As for 'bail outs', the poor Reds must be wondering where they went wrong....

Another question on last week's Radio Carmarthenshire 'interview' was whether the council felt confident with their investment in the Scarlets, the Chief Executive hurriedly changed his reply from 'fairly' to 'very' confident. I think he was right first time.