Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The Public Questions...and the 'best interests of the people of Carmarthenshire' - updated

Update 10th September;
I asked Plaid Cymru AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas for a reaction to the reply I received yesterday from Mark James deputy leader Cllr Jenkins (Plaid). Mr Thomas' comments in June that 'serious questions' were 'inevitable' had formed part of my question to Cllr Jenkins.
He replied promptly and disagrees with the claim made yesterday by the deputy leader that the deal was in the best interests of the people of Carmarthenshire;

"I maintain my position that taxpayers should get the best possible return on the sale of any assets, and I don’t personally believe that getting the equivalent of 25% for an asset is the best return the council could have achieved."
That said, when the decision has been scrutinised by the Wales Audit Office, I'm not in a position to disagree that the sale wasn't ‘above board’ as it were.
With local government funding being cut to the bone, I sincerely hope that any sale of public assets in the future gets a better return for the taxpayer than the deal in question."
Rhodri Glyn Thomas

Although I can understand that Mr Thomas is not in a position to disagree with the Wales Audit Office, I can disagree with them and as a footnote to this, I firmly believe they got this one badly wrong. The whole thing stank and bordered on fraud, as outlined below.


There were three public questions at today's full council meeting, one from me and two others, the first for ten years. I was there, but the two other questioners were unable to be present. Their questions concerned the plight of elderly vulnerable people in Carmarthen and also the lack of provision for teaching Welsh to children who have recently arrived in the area.

Unbelievably, the Chair, Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths (Plaid) chose, undoubtedly 'in conjunction' with the chief executive, not to read the other two out at all. They will receive a written response in due course.

He claimed that the constitution "expects that the questioner will be there", this is not strictly true as the constitution also gives him the choice to read the question out. A response could have been given and the matter aired.

After all, the very same constitution describes the council as a "forum for the debate of matters of concern to the local community" and that it should "support the active involvement of citizens in the process of local authority decision-making". What a joke.

This was a missed opportunity, and makes public questions pointless unless you are able to take time off work, or other commitments, and goes to the very heart of the 'culture change' which was so desperately needed, and which clearly hasn't happened.

As I was there, I was able to pose my question (sent in ten days ago), which was;
“Plaid Cymru AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas stated in June that “serious questions” will “inevitably” be asked over the decision to shortchange Carmarthenshire residents over the sale of a council asset and pay off a £274,000 loan on behalf of a private company, Scarlets Regional Ltd.   
The club ended up with £650,000 and the taxpayer £200,000 from the deal.   
Documents disclosed by the Council under the Freedom of Information Act revealed there was disagreement among officers within the authority over the deductions but their objections were overruled by a senior officer.   
Given that many other private businesses in Carmarthenshire are struggling to stay afloat and pay off their loans, will the executive board member agree that the decision was not in the best interests of the people of Carmarthenshire and finally ask those serious questions?”

I had, of course, predicted what the response would be, but it was even worse than expected. In fact, I do not think that Cllr Dai Jenkins (Plaid) himself believed what had been written for him to read out. Surely not.

He responded by saying that the District Valuer had been responsible for the split and that the Wales Audit Office had ok'd the deal. I was well aware of the WAO's view as I had made the complaint to them.
The District Valuer's role, although involved in negotiations between the parties, was to determine the final split, after the deductions.
His response had nothing to do with the 'allowable expenses' I'd referred to in my question.

The unexpected remark was that this deal WAS in the best interests of the people of Carmarthenshire and that he wouldn't be asking any 'serious' questions. It doesn't bear thinking about. Not sure what his colleague Rhodri Glyn Thomas (here he is in the Western Mail a few weeks ago) will make of it all either.

I know I have written about this many times but given my question, and the response, today I think I need to make it clear exactly why I believe this was a very, very dodgy deal. And I know I wasn't the only person in that Chamber today who feels the same.

Cllr Sian Caiach had tried unsuccessfully to obtain the details of the deductions in 2013. Eventually, Cllr Jeff Edmunds (Lab), who was, at the time, the Executive Board Member for Finance, decided to give Cllr Caiach the details, against the wishes of the chief executive. This was to his credit.

I then made a FOI request for correspondence between the parties leading up to the deal. This was initially refused. I appealed the refusal, the decision was reversed and I was given the information. This reversal happened to coincide with the chief executive's enforced absence during the criminal investigation last year.

I believe the disclosure was a deliberate move to exonerate (rightly) the (now retired) Director of Resources and the Head of Corporate Property, who had been delegated to finalise the deal, from blame.

The full FOI response can be seen here, and shows that the two officers were determined to secure a good deal for the taxpayer and to try and stop the 'allowable expenses' to pay off the loan. They also argued against thousands of pounds worth of other 'allowable expenses', eventually in vain.

The Head of Corporate Property's submission to the District Valuer. HDD are Henry Davidson developers to whom the Scarlets owed the loan.

The view of the Council's director of Resources

The final email shows that despite their efforts, and despite being delegated to finalise the deal, they were overruled by the chief executive.

The day before the deal

So today, according to Cllr Jenkins, deputy leader of the council, and of course your chief executive, £200,000 to the council and £650,000 to Scarlets Regional Ltd was in the best interests of the people of Carmarthenshire. I find that staggering. As I said, I do not believe Cllr Jenkins wrote the reply today, but I think I know who did. It was disappointing that he was happy to read it out.

In simple terms, the council sold off your land and paid off a loan for a private you think they'd do that for your struggling business? I suggest you ask.

The Western Mail have published a comprehensive report this afternoon; Council deputy leader denies that taxpayers were 'shortchanged' over Scarlets land deal

I got back from Carmarthen just in time to catch the end of the meeting and the Chair joking with a councillor that "as long as you praise the council, I'll allow you to carry on". It may have been meant as a joke but it says it all really.

The meeting has now been archived and 'public questions' starts at 00:38:16.


Anonymous said...

I agree the Wales Audit Office have got this one wrong, this now leaves this process open to be used again.
(allowable allowances is a mystery to me)

I also think questions submitted by people who cannot be present should be read out. When you take into account the process the questioners have had to go through to get to this point, the Chair should use common sense and allow a proxy to speak.

I feel that having to be in the council chamber to ask a question can be very intimidating and only particularly strong people such as yourself will do this. (The constitution will have to be changed if it is the case you have to be present)

You can see on the webcast how Councillor Caiach was treated by the Chair for asking questions of information and interestingly how the officer could not remember what the letters P.C.C. stood for in the documents being put before the council. As no others came to the rescue, you wonder if any of them knew or in fact had read the papers.

I got the impression the Chair is a man trying hard but has little patience and was just interested in getting the job done before 1pm. (This time limit should be extended)

I think the Chair forgets there is a viewing public who expect councillors to ask questions, to make sure they understand what is written in the documents.

Anonymous said...

The way to go after this one is to remember that the council is in a position of trustee of the land/property for the council taxpayer. Each and every councillor is a trustee.
So why was there a breach of trust in short changing the council taxpayer and public, after all the professional advice from the Council's own officers was 50/50 was more appropriate. One wouldn't argue if the councillors voted for a 40/60 split but a 25/75 is not what bone would expect from a trustee. Would each councillor sell their back garden on that basis?