Sunday 29 May 2016

The Wellness Project (again), and other news

As I mentioned a while back, far from becoming open and transparent our best council in Wales appears to be retreating into secrecy like never before, see Exempt reports - flourishing in County Hall. Last week's Executive Board meeting considered two exempt reports, one of which considered the 'very, very exciting' Wellness and Life Science Village project for Delta Lakes, Llanelli.

This project, which is supposed to include a new leisure centre somewhere amongst the private clinics, hotel, conferencing and 'high spec business suites' is led by the council in conjunction with the Welsh Government, and the health board and university 'ARCH' Board, upon which Meryl conveniently sits - numerous jargon filled press releases can be found on google.

As the chief executive said a few months ago, none of the plans, costs nor details have to go before council so it was with kind benevolence that the exempt report appeared before the executive board muppets last week. This is in case the whole thing go pear shaped and the executive board can then be blamed for wielding their 'democratic' rubber stamp.

The minutes for this report are unusually lengthy, a press release in itself in fact. It seems that along with presentations from Swansea University and project managers ARUP, representatives from Kent Neurosciences Ltd also addressed the Board. Although the directors are professionals in the field, this is still a private company, based in Kent, and I was unable to find a website. The company, which due to its size, is exempt under company law from having to provide audited accounts, had approached the council and were seeking an 'exclusivity agreement' with the council which, essentially means that the council agree to deal solely with KNS Ltd.

The representatives then left the meeting and it seems that the stage management continued and Board were further encouraged to sign on the dotted line, undoubtedly by Mark "it won't cost the taxpayers a penny" James.

The council have already earmarked over £6m towards the leisure centre but it is very likely that the total commitment will be far greater, and clearly includes the land itself.

As a council led project, that commitment appears to have already been made, and private partners selected with no proper democratic involvement or a shred of scrutiny.
What the strain on the local NHS budget will be is anyone's guess.

As I said here, Wellness Centre and other news, warning bells should be ringing as this has all the same hallmarks as those other 'pioneering' projects, the Parc Y Scarlets stadium and, let's not forget, the PRSA stadium in Boston. All of which, thanks to the head of the 'Sicilian cartel', which moved itself from Boston to Carmarthenshire, has cost the taxpayers a bloody fortune.

One of the auditors' findings in Boston was that there had been no proper reference to councillors when the initial decisions were taken by Mr James. A criticism in Carmarthenshire was that the financial viability projections for the stadium had been based on thin air and spin.
Let's not let that happen again.

(Update 10th June: Interesting article in this week's Carmarthenshire Herald by Pat Racher relating to KNS and linked companies, the story is on her blog here; Loss-making private hospital link to planned Llanelli Wellness Centre)

The other exempt item on the agenda was 'National Botanic Garden of Wales Task and Finish Group'. This turned out to be a Welsh Government 'Board of experts' set up to formulate an action plan for the gardens.

The garden, which is in Carmarthenshire, has struggled financially since it's inception and, as directors have come and gone, arguments have rumbled on as to whether it should be run on a scientific or a more commercial basis. Council funding has now decreased to £30,000 a year but this was decided during the tenure of the previous director, Dr Rosie Plummer. She clearly didn't press the right buttons in County Hall and this became evident with comments (scroll down) made after her departure.

The extreme secrecy around the report is a bit of a mystery as it seems that following an invitation from the Welsh Government, Meryl was to be appointed as Chair of the Task and Finish group and this required approval from her senior colleagues.
I wouldn't trust Meryl to manage the future of a small window box, never mind a National Garden. Or a chair.

Also featuring at last week's meeting was a sour little grumble about the Wales Audit Office. Clearly miffed over his recent spat with the organisation the chief executive joined in the mutual moan to complain that despite requests for constructive advice where the authority had been found to have 'weaknesses', this had been ignored.

The message that came across was that as they are paying the WAO a substantial amount in fees, what were they doing criticising the best council in Wales? The Chief executive wondered whether anyone else did any better than the council with "some of the financial things".

By "some of the financial things" I presume he's excluding his unlawful payments, questionable grants, the Coastal Scheme scandal, the Supporting People grant failures, peculiar payments to the Scarlets, 'irregularities' at the Country Parks, etc etc.

The could always ditch the Wales Audit Office of course and appoint their own auditors who would appreciate the levels of creative accounting to which the council attain.

Lastly, in what is becoming an annual occurrence, I made enquiries with Ms Rees Jones, head of legal, when (or if) the suspended unlawful indemnity clause would finally be removed from the constitution.

You may recall, that after the WLGA identified the toxic culture in County Hall, a cross-party group was set up to mangle the findings. This group was to meet periodically to consider changes to the constitution, but I was informed that the group has not met since the final mangle last May (2015) and, anyway, Ms Rees Jones does not consider the clause to be unlawful, and neither, obviously, does her boss and beneficiary of the illegal clause, despite the 'legal position' being 'clarified' long ago.
Then again you may also recall that internal legal advice was once described as "cavalier at best, and incompetent at worst".

So, unlike other clauses and paragraphs which come and go, this one, although currently impotent, will probably stay for the foreseeable future, a small but very hot potato continuing to burn a ridiculous hole in the constitution.


Martin Milan said...

That is an awfully telling buy of constitution, protecting as it does only Mark James. Why are other officers undeserving if the same protection?

It clearly appears to be an attempt to attach some form of credibility to the most incredible of behaviour...

caebrwyn said...

@Martin Milan
To be clear, the clause also appears (also suspended) under the delegated powers of the chief executive: he has, or had, the power to use council funds to instigate defamation proceedings himself on behalf of council officers.
Interestingly though one of the justifications for unlawfully funding the counterclaim was that it was for Mark James, and not a more junior officer. Anyone of lower rank than Mr James CBE would have been told to clear off, or fund it themselves.

Anonymous said...

There is no democracy in Carmarthen and the welsh government allows councillors to continue being Officer led.