Thursday 19 January 2017

Allowances, Penny-Pinching and City Deals - updated

Update 26th January - City Deal

With depressing predictability, all but two councillors (one against and one abstention) voted to plunge the council into unknown debt and unknown deals with private companies, including private health care, for the next fifteen years.
Clearly dazzled by the chief executive's presentation and the presence of other members of the 'Pitch Team', including the CEO of Pembrokeshire, Ian Westley, and Prof Marc Clement from Swansea Uni, formerly a director of Kent Neuroscience Ltd, (the company with which the council have entered an exclusivity agreement to develop the site), and the liberal deployment of some very impressive buzzwords ('Ideas harvesting' was one of my favourites), and some highly subjective statistics and figures, this was always going to sail through.
With the clear threat that Carmarthenshire would descend into medieval oblivion if they didn't agree, the questions nearly all began with glowing tributes and grateful thanks, robust scrutiny didn't come into it.
The chief executive, and the others, responded to the polite enquiries (Will there be buses to the wellness village? asked Kevin Madge) with more buzzwords and b******s until it was Cllr Caiach's turn to ask a few questions. Her questions were a little more searching and concerned the interest payable on the loans, the equity in any future assets, the suitability of the land and the fate of those currently trading from the site. At this point Mr James' mask slipped and he was reduced to snarling. I can just imagine his peptalk to the 'Team' prior to the meeting, something along the lines of  'there might be one awkward one, but don't worry, the rest'll be a walk-over'  ...and indeed they were.
If you fancy a game of bullshit bingo, or want to watch Meryl talk dreamily of sea air and wellness, the archived webcast will soon be available.

Update 24th January - City Deal

After watching the webcast of Monday's presentation of the City Deal, the Wellness Village etc to the Exec Board, by the Chief Executive, I would hope that councillors will have some very searching questions ready for tomorrow's full council.
It appears that the four constituent councils will be borrowing the money up front in the hope that it'll get fed back from central government, as I said below, Carmarthenshire is already in debt to the tune of £376m, how much more can be sustained?
There was a couple of oblique references to 'the developer' in relation to the Wellness Village, but who it was and what arrangements/deals are already in place was not defined.
There was reference to the setting up of a separate team to carry this thing through, how much will this cost the authority? Will it be a case of jobs for the boys?

Cllr Pam Palmer couldn't resist pre-empting criticism or even questioning, by saying that there are people probably blogging about all this already. Yes Pam. We all have a right to criticise but more importantly, proper scrutiny is vital, not something she can either tolerate nor understand.
Meryl seemed a little miffed that the very, very excited chief executive was so overcome he forgot to allow her to introduce the presentation.

The presentation, which will be repeated tomorrow (Wed 2pm) was full of hyperbole, scaremongering and more 'buzzwords' than you can shake a stick at. The scaremongering, which was delivered with several dramatic pauses to give the assembled Executive Board members time to gasp in horror, was that productivity had been in decline since 1999 and, without the City Deal, it would take until 2030 to reach the level achieved in 2010, or something like that, sounded like complete nonsense, as it all did.

We heard many councillors speak at length last week, from both sides, over the Welsh/English language issue and Llangennech school, I hope to hear the same attention paid to this, before the county is plunged into a twenty year arrangement with assorted, and possibly short term, private investors, it's saddled with a massive debt, and the auditors are called in.


No doubt, after the election in May, there will be the usual unseemly scramble, back room deals, and vows of loyalty to the chief executive in the pursuit of special responsibility allowances, now known as senior salaries. Carmarthenshire councillors are allowed eighteen such positions by the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales (IRPW).

They range from £22,000 per annum for committee chairs, to £48,000 for the leader of the council. Plus expenses. The make-up of the council might change in May but the scramble will undoubtedly still happen.

Last year, when the final IRPW report went to the Executive Board, and in her usual were-all-in-it-together form, an indignant Cllr Pam Palmer (£32,250) grumbled that they were all worth far more, and the Panel's shock-horror recommendations that some Executive Board members should take a meagre 10% cut needed to be "banged on the head".

The Democratic Services Committee (not webcast, so not allowed to be filmed) were recently tasked with conveying its thoughts on the draft IRPW report for the 2017/18 municipal year, to start in May.

Not content with just eighteen senior salaries they wanted to extend the coveted rewards to the committee vice chairs as well. No sign of belts being tightened there then.

As sound justification to extend the quota of senior salaries has to be put to the IRPW, it's unlikely to get very far. It's pretty difficult to justify the ones they've already got.
Disappointing that it was even considered though.

Although a £100 rise in the basic allowance of £13,300 is recommended by the IRPW it states that there'll be no rise in senior salaries. But as the basic allowance forms part of the senior salary, they will receive the extra hundred quid anyway.

I'm not against a basic, reasonable allowance and the sums are relative small compared to executive officer pay, and although modest, no doubt the extra £100 will come in handy. It'll cover the new executive-board-approved £48 grass collection charge I suppose...and it will help our councillors with those increased car parking charges....

So, as Members recommend themselves a £100 pay rise and grumble that there's not enough lucrative senior positions, in another scrutiny committee, and to put things into penny-pinching perspective, a proposal was put forward to stop a planned 30p increase in the price of meals on wheels. This proposal went to a vote and was, incredibly, defeated.

The final IRPW report will go to full council in a few weeks time and I daresay, by then, some of them will have remembered that there's an election in May...


Next Wednesday (25th) the council will be asked to give the Chief Executive and Leader delegated powers to sign off the various arrangements for the Swansea Bay City Deal (SBCD). Pembrokeshire, Swansea and Neath Port Talbot councils are also part of the deal.

This a £1.3bn package consisting of long term grants from central and devolved government, local authority, and health board borrowing, and private investment. Cardiff Council recently agreed to their city deal and other deals are in different stages of development across the UK. The Swansea City deal features, amongst other projects, the Llanelli Wellness Village which will feature private health care and involve a contribution from Carmarthenshire council of £32m.

This blog is concerned with Carmarthenshire and the report for the Executive Board can be found here. As usual it is couched in glorious, visionary, no-other-option terms, heavy on PR and low on detail.

Considering that the council 'needs' to charge pensioners an extra 30p for meals on wheels; has trouble running a small country park; an appalling track record in grant management, and a history of unlawful decision making, councillors should approach the deal with caution and an appropriate level of scrutiny before giving the CEO and Leader the power to sign off millions of pounds, or go headlong into la la land, if that is your view. The council is already £376m in debt.

Some might find it equally concerning that the SBCD has featured the, er, expertise of Meryl Gravell as a Member of the Board and the manoeuvrings of Mark James, lurking in the corridors of power.
Although perhaps confidence should be buoyed by the chief executive's recent national accolade...

A few points in the report should be of concern to councillors, not least of all the lack of detail about the various projects. The level of borrowing required by the council has not yet been calculated, nor have the terms and conditions. Governance and accountability arrangements appear to be still at the 'legal advice' stage and the long term financial commitment needs to be quantified. The aim appears to be to lock the council into the deal before the May local election.

As for transparency, the involvement of the private sector precludes openness from the start and in relation to the Wellness Village for example, the council have already gone behind closed doors and signed an exclusivity agreement with a private medical company from Kent, some background to the company can be found here.

A useful and simple general summary, including the pros and cons of the City Deal 'model', can be found here as Australia considers whether the concept will be suitable for them. The article concludes by saying "adopting the model without careful scrutiny and analysis feels more like taking a punt than backing a certainty"
At worst it could be one of the most disastrous PFI style deals in history. On a massive scale.


Anonymous said...

It should be of concern to councillors that Mr James is the author of a report which recommends granting delegated powers to Mr James.

The lack of detail is par for the course and follows the scenarios of his previous vanity projects e.g. the Princess Royal Sports Arena and Parc Y Scarlets – keeping councillors in the dark until it’s too late for them to do anything about it. For instance, the 12 month lock-out agreement granted to Kent Neuro Sciences immediately after they gave an in-camera presentation; also the waiver of contract procedure rules when Arup were appointed to produce the revised ‘master-plan’.

However, it’s reassuring to know that cllr Dole is also involved. I’m sure his expertise in gaining planning permission against all odds will be invaluable to these projects.

Unknown said...

A very good post and the embedded links are also well worth reading. It is interesting that so many similar national policies do the rounds of so many countries at similar times. I suppose that is one of the features of 'Globalisation'. Has the council spoken to any of their colleagues in other public bodies who have had experience of these kinds of PFI ventures? Perhaps some of the health trusts that are saddled with the cost of exorbitant interests rates and extortionate bankers fees for the next half century, necessitating swingeing cuts to essential NHS services, might like to list the benefits of such escapades. Answers on the back of a very small postcard.

Anonymous said...

Appalling conduct by councillors who are to blame for not even trying to keep this dreadful dictator in place.
Emlyn Dole useless.

Anonymous said...

When will the CEO of Carmarthen County Council realise that it IS the councillors that run the Council in the interest of the Electorate? To deny the right of said Councillors to request full and frank OPEN debate on matters of major importance is totally unacceptable and has NO place in a democracy.

Anonymous said...

Amended : Anon 12.23

When will the Councillors of Carmarthen County Council realise that it IS the they that run the Council in the interest of the Electorate? To deny themselves the right to request full and frank OPEN debate on matters of major importance is totally unacceptable and has NO place in a democracy.

Anonymous said...

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