Wednesday 14 November 2018

November meeting, and some Sterling questions...

(Later post 26th November, 'A wellness hiccup' here)

A few words about today's meeting.

As the whole meeting can be viewed on the archived webcast I'll focus on the questions from Cllr Rob James (Lab), and the responses from council leader Emlyn Dole (Plaid), as detailed in my previous post.

The responses from Emlyn Dole were predictable, shed no light on some of the stranger aspects of the collaboration with Sterling, offered no reassurance that the taxpayers' were not at risk, failed to mention the word 'accountability', and he confirmed Plaid's commitment to setting up lots of arms-length companies. And, indeed, Rob James was attacked, as I said he would be, for jeopardising the future prosperity of Mark James Inc. the children of the county.
Mark James himself didn't speak, there was no need, having had a week to primp and prime Emlyn and to prepare the answers. Cllr Dole didn't let his boss down. As I've mentioned before, Mr James never delegates authority, only liability.

The questions are in bold.

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?

Cllr Dole started by criticising Labour's Rob James for 'undermining democracy' by 'sharing his questions' and corresponding with a Journal reporter prior to the meeting. Presumably the journalist had already read the questions published on the council website last week anyway. And presumably he's allowed to ask questions, even in Carmarthenshire...

Whatever the case, this cardinal sin was the same as Plaid's own Cllr Alun Lenny sharing a copy of his Motion over the libel damages in December 2016 to a reporter, this was also prior to the meeting. (The Motion was blocked by the chief executive).
Mind you, I don't suppose Emlyn approved of Cllr Lenny's actions, he didn't get to become leader by criticising Mark James, no siree!

The upshot of this is, in my opinion, that no councillor should be afraid to discuss questions, motions, policy or whatever, with the local press. Not even in Carmarthenshire.

As for answering the question, it turned out, as I thought, that despite '34 viewings' of the tender (whatever that may mean), Sterling was the only bidder. It wasn't clear whether the other 33 decided not to touch it with a barge pole, or were mysteriously put off from bidding, the council has had problems with tenders before...

Anyway, according to Cllr Dole there was then a robust Competitive Tendering process with the, erm, one bidder.

Rob James' supplementary question referred to the fact that Sterling was virtually the same company as Kent Neurosciences Ltd, see my post here. In April 2016 the council had entered a 12 month exclusivity agreement with KNS to develop the village but this had not been renewed and the company was dissolved, with a deficit of £128k, a couple of months later. Then KNS popped back up again as Sterling, and away to go!

KNS were behind a private hospital in Kent which opened in 2014 but by 2016 required a £20m refinancing deal due to heavy losses. Most of the original directors had, by that time, moved on.

He asked whether or not the council leadership were concerned about any of this, and added that none of it appeared either fair nor transparent.

Emlyn Dole, clearly having learned from the master, completely avoided the issue at hand and went on the attack. He accused Cllr James of trying to undermine the process and attacking their ambition. He then drifted into a robot like trance listing all the exciting things which would be part of this Wellness extravaganza. Followed by a round of applause from the Plaid ranks. Curiously, the words 'private health care', and 'luxury spa' had slipped his mind.

Rob James moved on to his second question.

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

Another curious thing about Sterling is the number of sister companies it has, Sterling Operating, Sterling International, Sterling Property, Sterling Holdings, etc. Emlyn Dole was careful just to identify one.

Another curious thing was that former leader, Meryl Gravell was, in July, made a Director of two of them. This was Cllr James area of interest.

With some smug satisfaction Cllr Dole listed the Directors, which did not include Dear Meryl. What he failed to add was that although she had resigned from Sterling Health Security Holdings Ltd (which was the one he had carefully identified) last week, she is still, as of today, listed as a director of Sterling Health Security Operating Ltd.

The latest accounts for Sterling Health Security Holdings Ltd show a net liability of £137,822 in the red, it requires a loan from the directors to continue as a going concern. There are four sister companies altogether which will ensure that it becomes very difficult to follow the public money.

So Cllr Dole was being very economical with the truth. Furthermore, he failed to explain why she was/is a director at all. Maybe he's developed another u-turn and become an adoring fan.

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?

Cllr Dole resorted to spin by saying that this was not a cost, oh no, this was an investment! The council would be contributing their £32m with the leisure centre and land value (planning permission still undecided). There was no mention of the borrowing (and the interest payable) which will be required for the upfront costs, estimated, I understand, to be at least £55m. The private investment couldn't be determined until the investors had been secured, through 'due diligence', of course...

Rob James' supplementary question asked how Sterling, currently £137k in the red, were going to come up with £127m.

Cllr Dole then wandered into the world of global networks, stakeholders and new Corporate Vehicles to enable public/private investment, liability and risk assessments and local governance requirements. Careful to avoid the toxic term 'PFI'.

None of which reassured anyone that the taxpayers' wouldn't be picking up a big bill if, and when, things go pear-shaped, and when the originators of this project have long gone.
Neither does it address the question as to what, exactly, the mysterious global investors hope to get as a return, unless they're doing it out of the kindness of their hearts of course.

Not sure that Cllr Dole was convinced by what he was saying either.

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?

Rather than give a figure, Cllr Dole went on the attack, it would be a huge ask for council directors to know how much they'd spent on consultants! Fancy asking such a thing. And as for the City Deal, that would also involve other councils and the Welsh Government! He again accused Cllr James of not wanting the Wellness Thing and in so many words, scuppering the process, presumably by asking awkward questions...

Rob James replied stating that the Plaid leadership clearly didn't like scrutiny. Would they promise, he asked, not to spend any more on consultants? "No", said Cllr Dole.

Scrutiny, of course, was what this was all about.

In fact, through my own research, I found that the council had already spent £564k on 'Wellness Village' reports by August 2017. That figure will have gone up sharply in the last twelve months.

Mark James remained silent throughout this 'debate' but I suspect that he has already started compiling one of his 'dossiers' with Cllr James name on the cover, and marked an entry in his little black book, especially after the CRWG libel indemnity episode back in the summer. He must be so proud of Emlyn, he's like a well-trained poodle.

The remainder of Cllr James' questions concerned the recent spate of arms-length companies set up by the administration. Essentially the concern is with the lack of democratic oversight, the future job security, and terms and conditions for employees and the secrecy cloaked in 'commercial sensitivity'.

Cllr Dole confirmed that Mark James Plaid's agenda to set up even more arms-length companies would continue, It was NOT 'outsourcing' at all and he blamed the Labour Welsh Government for making such 'innovations' necessary. He may have a point but Plaid have supported Labour's budget in the Senedd since 2016.

Funnily enough, back in March 2015, with just one arms-length company (Cwm Environmental) in existence, and just before Plaid took 'power', this was what they had to say about 'arms length' companies;

"The obsession of the Labour council with effectively outsourcing services and removing democratic oversight inevitably reduces the operational control the council has over our public services."

How the tables turn in politics.

I am not a fan of Labour, or Plaid, or any of them really, but I am a fan of scrutiny and transparency. Whether it's Rob James, or Sian Caiach and a few others before him, someone has to have the bottle, whatever their motivation, to ask 'awkward' questions in Carmarthenshire. Emlyn Dole's response, a mixture of belligerence and evasiveness is disappointing, and worse still, uncannily similar to Meryl Gravell.

Update 18th November; The agenda for Thursday's (22nd) meeting of the Swansea Bay City Rollers (the Joint Committee) has been published and, no less than three items, including Yr Egin and the Wellness Village will be heard behind closed doors; no doubt citing 'commercial sensitivity', which will be the order of the day as far as access to information is concerned.

The council hope to push the planning application through for itself at an Extraordinary Planning Committee meeting in January.

(For further posts about the Wellness project and the City Deal, please use the searchbox on the right.)

* * *

Before I go, and with the Wellness spending extravaganza well underway and little clarity on how much has been spent setting up the latest raft of arms-length companies, it's worth mentioning that the latest budget proposals will be on the agenda for Monday's Exec Board meeting. The full list, here, will then go out for consultation.

The current proposals are to cut £28m over three years and include closing more primary schools and charging for post-16 transport, withdrawing funding support for vulnerable young people attending a town centre youth project, three Welsh Language medium youth clubs, specialist provision for Harmful Sexual Behaviour and county youth club provision. Council tax will increase 4.89%.

As I've said, it's not clear just how much has been, and will be, siphoned off into the Delta Lakes swamp. Sacking the chief executive, or securing his well-deserved detention at Her Majesty's Pleasure would save £200k a year, but sadly that's not in the proposals, although I may suggest this in my consultation response.
The cost of senior management continues to rise and according to the accounts, all directors had pay increases last year, of varying amounts, and the number of other employees upwards of £90k, went from nine to fourteen.

One of the proposals being put forward is to reduce full council meetings from monthly to quarterly, ie from eleven, to three or four a year. As the saving will be a mere £7000 I find it unlikely that this will be supported but, you never know.

In some ways, given that this council is so officer-led, full council meetings are almost superfluous, as are most of the 74 councillors. They are regarded as a minor irritant and a necessary evil by the chief executive. They do not make 'decisions', they accept, by and large, the recommendations presented to them by officers and nod them through accordingly.
This reduction is almost certainly Mark' James' idea, it will suit him just fine, and perhaps give him more time to spend on his private affairs....

The level of democracy, and democratic debate in Carmarthenshire is dire, and always has been but it's all we've got, and as @mjmilan put it rather well on Twitter;

"@caebrwyn @CarmsCouncil You absolutely must not drop to quarterly full council meetings, lest the last faint whiff of accountability on the carcass of democracy in your town be lost forever..."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Cllr Dole resorted to spin by saying that this was not a cost, oh no, this was an investment! The council would be contributing their £32m with the leisure centre and land value"
It is interesting that the land given to the Scarlets for their stadium was deemed as having little or no value. If the leisure centre costs £19m, then the land for the 'Wellness Centre'would be valued at about £13m. Quite a difference!