Thursday 8 November 2018

Agenda for full council, some 'Wellness' questions, and more. Updated with this week's 'Cadno'

(10th November update; For the Carmarthenshire Herald's 'Cadno', please scroll down)

Next week's full council meeting features several interesting questions concerning the 'Wellness Village' and, more specifically, the partnership between the council and Sterling Health. The latest craze for setting up arms-length companies also comes under the spotlight. It should be interesting.

The questions, listed below in bold, are pretty self-explanatory and are from opposition leader Cllr Rob James (Lab) to Plaid's Emlyn Dole, (the comment or link in italics are mine);

Could the Leader of Council please give a brief overview on the process that was undertaken in choosing a private sector partner for the Wellness Village, outlining how many organisations took part in the Competitive Dialogue process and the reason Sterling Health was chosen?

It seems that as well as Sterling Health being a reincarnation of the now-dissolved Kent Neurosciences (which were the original partners) they were the only bidders for the contract. It is not known whether any other organisations actually tried to tender, maybe Emlyn will tell us.
Wellness Village 'Private partners - something oddly familiar? 

Could the Leader of Council highlight who the Directors are behind the Joint Venture Partner and what experience they bring to the project?

I'm thinking here of one recent, and inexplicable addition to Sterling's directors, Meryl Gravell... her notable achievements as leader of Carms Council included calling protesters campaigning against closure of their local A & E 'rabble'; calling the workforce lazy; and when the council were busy closing all the little schools, accused councillors of 'displaying weakness' for listening to parents' concerns. For more, please search this blog.
She was also known, in some quarters, as Mark James' cash cow, keeping him in the manner to which he's become accustomed, unlawful payments included.

The Collaboration Agreement for the projects on Delta Lakes with Swansea University and Sterling Health is said to cost £200 million, please could the Leader of Council detail how each partner will be expected to contribute to this cost?

Yes please, do tell us. The last set of ever-changing figures I saw showed a £127m contribution from the private sector, it will be interesting to know the details... Hopefully we will also be told exactly how much the council will be borrowing, with it's current tally of debt already at £400m.

Could the Leader of Council outline how much this Authority has paid in consultancy fees since May 2015, including those connected with projects relating to the Swansea Bay City Deal?

Funnily enough I've recently made a Freedom of Information request for consultancy fees, currently awaiting a response. By August 2017 the council had already spent £564k on 'Wellness Village' reports. That will have gone up sharply in the last twelve months. 

Earlier this year, the governance and management structures of Cwm Environmental Limited, were changed to a Teckal company.  Could the Leader of Council please indicate what impact, if any, these changes have had on pay and conditions of the employees?

Could the Leader of Council please provide information on the remuneration package attached to the new Operations Director post of Delta Wellbeing Limited?

This Authority has established several companies in the last eighteen months that has resulted in reduced oversight for services that ordinarily are carried out by the Council; Councillors and the public being unaware of what is happening in these companies; and public finances in connection with public sector ventures being questioned.  Will the Leader of Council, therefore, pledge to halt the continuing outsourcing of services to teckal companies and promise not to create any new companies, including any relating to the City Deal, for the remainder of this term?

For some background to the arms-length outsourcing ventures (and of course the whole Wellness/City Deal thing) there have been numerous mentions on this blog, if you wish to search. My previous post, Mark James and the 'Sicilian Cartel', also gives a viewpoint.

As I am writing this, the responses, no doubt, are being dreamed up by the chief executive, for Emlyn to deliver, so I hope there's a few follow-up questions being lined up.
Whether related to the arrival of these questions on the chief executive's desk or not, the council/City Deal PR machine has been in overdrive again, this week the fanfare's been out for the exciting and amazing prospect of a new leisure centre, or the 'Wellness Hub' in the Wellness thing. Presumably this is to attract public support, with far less emphasis, funnily enough, on the private health care, the 'Wellness Hotel' and the holisitc therapy pods...

We can safely predict that the answers will be used as an opportunity for further spin and half truths, and anyone who suggests that this may not be the best thing since sliced bread will be accused of jeopardising the future prosperity of Mark James and Co the little children of Carmarthenshire.

In actual fact, after two years of nothing but PR puffery, this whole business is screaming for some proper scrutiny. Especially with Mr James CBE in charge.

We'll see.
* * *

Update 10th November; The 'Cadno' opinion piece from the Carmarthenshire Herald;

Cadno and the Monster

Coulrophobia is an ugly sort of neologism, readers.
It’s like the million and one made up names for conditions that seek to create distinct clinical definitions for the million and one shocks to which the flesh and psyche are equally heir. 
Among the popular tropes of modern horror fiction, stretching back to the nineteenth century, evil clowns have come out of the eerie twilight carnivals of Ray Bradbury in the mid-twentieth century to accelerate through schlock horror B movies of the 1960s to their apotheosis as Pennywise in Stephen King’s ‘It’ – or, perhaps more to the point, Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise in the TV series of the same name. 
There is a theory – there is always a theory – about why people – particularly children are afraid of clowns. 
If you think about it, most clown outfits distort natural features. The staring eyes, pale skin, large feet, make-up, outsize hands – the grotesquery of the clown’s appearance and behaviour - are close enough to ‘normal’ appearance to create a feeling of unease and discomfiture. 
It’s rather like Frankenstein’s feelings of revulsion for his creation – the similarity to human is close enough to draw attention to its defects of appearance so that Frankenstein cannot bear to set eyes upon it. The cues for humanity are both present and absent at the same time. There’s more than a hint of that in Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’. The simulacra – Replicants - are too inhumanly human to be allowed to endure, they remind the real humans of their mortality and imperfections. 
Which might be why Cadno is so worried about the Council’s attachment to building the great Wellness Thingy on a swamp. 
Look at the pictures – ooh, shiny!
Look at what it is claimed it will deliver – ooh, prosperity!
Look at what it is going to cost – ooh, umm… yes. 
Cadno will spell it out, readers. In order to fund its end of this project, the Council has to borrow money. It will do so at a much lower rate than you or I could perhaps obtain, but the Council will repay the principal and interest upon it to the institution from which it borrows. Or rather, the Council won’t. 
Council Tax payers will. Council Tax payers in Llanmiloe, Council Tax payers in Llandovery, Council Tax payers in Llanybydder. Bills will go up across Carmarthenshire to line the pockets of property speculators, private equity companies, and those of the merchant bankers with whom the Council will strike its Faustian deal. Carmarthenshire’s financial future mortgaged to support a speculative project which could end up pouring hundreds of millions into a swamp. 
Llanelli needs a new leisure centre. Of that, there is no doubt. But does it really need what has elsewhere been described as nothing more than a series of white elephants huddled around a stagnant pond? 
There’s the grotesquery, readers. 
The Wellness Monster looks enough like a leisure centre, but its defects repel. The hubris, the over-confidence, the cosying up to a development partner whose directors’ track records are less than stellar, and most of all the smirking presence of Mark James CeeBeeBees at the project’s heart. 
Mr James is, by all accounts, quite a clever fellow.
Cadno has it on good authority that when it comes to operating the old grease can to oil his way in and around of less biddable characters on the City Region Board, Marky Mark is quite the artist. 
But when you look at someone to guide a multi-million-pound project, does the person who delivered the ongoing financial black hole of Parc y Scarlets strike you like the best bet? 
It is at this point that Cadno would normally bung in a few insults at local politicians past and present. On this occasion, however, Cadno is going to say something surprising.
He thinks Rob James has this one almost exactly right. 
The original City Deal was a truly regional vision – expanding digital networking across South West Wales – bringing the disparate parts of the area together by better and smarter infrastructure linked to projects intended to embed better business structures to generate wealth. 
It was one heck of a vision. So much blue-sky piche, of course, but one heck of a vision. Now, what do we have? 
We can forget the connectivity, what the Deal has boiled down to – at least now the regional part of it has been quietly dropped – is no more than a network of random white elephants designed so that everyone gets to dip their beak.
It’s a sodding disgrace. 
Llanelli needs a new leisure centre. Does it need – god help us – a Wellness Hotel? Llanelli needs a new and properly-funded residential care home. Does it need the Bide-a-Wee supported housing complex for retired gentlefolk? Most importantly, if healthcare provision is so central to the Wellness Monster, why aren’t either Hywel Dda UHB or ABM-UHB putting their own money into it? 
Rob James has this spot on, readers. 
The money being blown on lunatic vanity projects, envisioned and designed by those who know responsibility for paying for the bloody things will not be their problem, could do some actual good. Improving rail links. A Metro system connecting Carmarthenshire with points east and south. Investment in digital infrastructure to actually spread economic benefits across the region. Efforts to do more than engage in the sort of Field of Dream economics beloved of people who look less at results than ‘leaving a legacy’.
If you build it readers, or so the aphorism goes, they will come. 
No, readers. Look at Parc y Scarlets: a half-empty concrete shed on match days. 
Readers, if you intend to deliver prosperity to the largest number of people over the widest area you look at regenerating or supporting small and medium-sized businesses that support long-term employment in return for lower investment risk. 
 The Council – the City Deal – is too wrapped up in the vision of the big and flashy to consider that in a region in which private enterprise is almost universally based around small and medium-sized businesses, it is better to create an environment in which they might thrive and survive, than in building a Frankenstein’s Monster of disparate parts adding up to a repellent and unnatural whole.
See also Cllr Rob James' video, Swansea Bay City Deal - A missed opportunity?

* * *

Elsewhere on the agenda there's a question on the £500k development fund trumpeted by Plaid last year as a pot to help out struggling schools. According to Cllr Morgan (Ind), it's main use seems to be related to 'efficiency savings' rather than direct help. Nothing is ever quite as it seems.
As for the SEN budget there's been a £800k overspend as schools struggle to cope with demand.

As an aside, a recent meeting of the Education Scrutiny Committee tried to get to grips with the 'Performance Monitoring Report for the period 1st April to 30th June 2018 (Quarter 1); progress against actions and measures in the New Corporate Strategy 2018-23 to deliver the 2018/19 Well-being Objectives' 

As the garbled Minutes below illustrate, there is clearly a problem with this type of report, and all Scrutiny meetings are stuffed with them;

"Concern was expressed that of the 27 measures reported, 20 have either not started or data is not collected for quarter 1 and 2 are not available.  Also the with regard to the 67 actions reported as being on target, it was pointed out that the targets dates are not until 2019/20.  The Head of Education Services explained that the term “on target” is historic and what is meant is that in relation to performance in quarter 1, officers do not perceive any challenges to meeting the targets;
Concern was expressed over the format of the report in that themes 11 and 13 appeared between themes 1 and 2.  Officers agreed to look at the formatting of future reports"

* * *

Finally, a quick mention about the Planning Committee next Thursday, only because I've taken a passing interest in the use of 'commercially sensitive' viability appraisals to reduce the level of affordable homes or community contributions by large developers.
An application for 48 homes in Llannon, by Pennant Homes is on the agenda, (incidentally the Council's own Local Development Plan recommended 38, but never mind)

I'm not against housing developments nor am I in favour of unreasonable demands on developers, but viability appraisals are being used more and more and councils, when faced with stark figures, are held over a barrel. The problems arise when the figures are calculated specifically to satisfy the requested reduction (I'm not suggesting that this is the case here at all), and as these reports are withheld as 'commercially sensitive', it is impossible for councillors to question the basis of the reduction.

In this case an unspecified amount of community contributions (S106 obligations) have been agreed, "on the basis of a viability report", the viability being compromised by the "necessary engineering to achieve a suitable highway gradient".
Out of 48 dwellings, only three will be 'affordable', far less than the usual 30%. And as this is in Cllr Emlyn Dole's ward I'm sure he won't want to send Plaid's affordable housing 'journey' off track...

The developers, Pennant Homes, are part of Coastal Housing, a housing association providing affordable accommodation and in receipt of government grant funding.

The officers report goes on to state that the "viability report is commercially sensitive, however it shows a developer return at a significantly lower level than would be normally acceptable, so further contributions would make the development commercially unviable."

The issue of viability appraisals across the UK has been a subject of investigation in the past by the Guardian newspaper, an editorial on the subject can be read here.  


Keanjo said...

The former Police Commissioner made some scathing remarks about the Council. Surely the WG should investigate.

caebrwyn said...

Thank you @Keanjo.

As a reminder, these were the scathing remarks from the former Police Commissioner;

"Carmarthenshire County Council. Wales’ answer to a Sicilian cartel. It’s everywhere you look (thankfully only in Carmarthenshire – so far as I can tell). It extracts vast amounts of money from residents which it showers on favourites, hordes property, bullies opponents, co-opts friends and answers to no one, least of all local councillors."

He was spot on.

Anonymous said...

It would seem that The Welsh Government has very little inclination to monitor ANY problems associated with the behaviour of many of the elected officers and unelected employees of Carmarthen County Council. This CEO led Council believes itself to be answerable to no one. The inaction by Cardiff Bay speaks volumes but it goes without saying that they must be held as complicit in supporting all that is wrong with this Council.

Sian Caiach said...

Jac o' the North's 2016 blog - social housing... mentions Coastal which appears to be a secretive and mysterious outfit even then. The question is why use these shady and perhaps dodgy organisations to build houses? The Burry port site is a steep wet hillside, next to my own ward in Llanelli, mostly green field and exactly the type of site we shouldn't build on in these days of increased winter rainfall, especially as the town of Burry Port is already prone to flooding and directly in the path of any run off. Add to this poor road access onto the heavily congested A484 just west of Llanelli and the traffic issues currently on the western approaches to Llanelli are likely to be worsened. My County Councillor, a labour member of the planning committee, is silent when asked "did the committee know" that 3 officers including the deputy chief executive were involved in the company. These homes may not even be for locals.When will it all end?