Tuesday 29 January 2019

Wellness Village costs; spend, spend, spend!

Update 31st January;

I was surprised to discover that the firm of solicitors, engaged and instructed by the council for their own 'internal review', are Acuity Legal, exactly the same solicitors who represented, and continue to act for Mr James in his pursuit of money from me. Can't imagine they're going to upset one of their clients, can you?

Mr James has had legal bills in excess of £24,000 with this firm, let's just hope the council don't pay them by mistake, a 'mix-up' of invoices perhaps?....that wouldn't do would it? Lets hope the Wales Audit Office keep an eye on that particular trail of paperwork...

* * *

In case anyone was wondering how much public money has been spent so far on the 'Wellness Village', the luxury private spa development at the Delta Lake swamp, then we now have a few figures, well, what they're prepared to tell us about anyway.
The project is mired in scandal, from rigged tenders to allegations of personal enrichment. Five investigations are underway and no one will touch Mr James' 'legacy to the county' with a barge pole.

My Freedom of Information requests to the council have revealed that the total spend, up to the end of 2018 is an astonishing £2.2 million.

The council paid Arup a staggering £234,250 for reports for the planning application and paid itself £30,500 for the planning fees. The total costs associated with the planning application are around £340,000. That's without the costs associated with the farcical planning committee meeting earlier this month and the no doubt generous expenses for the man from Arup.

An earlier request (see 2017 blog post here) showed £750,000 on ground prep work and the latest FOI shows £481,239 was spent on design work for phase 1.
The council have spent £47,000, at least, on external legal advice.
A separate FOI, for general council expenditure on consultants turned up another £35k+ relating to the City Deal office, £3780 of that was for a Bath based PR consultant specialising in 'making words better'...

As you can see from both FOIs here (2017), and here (today's), some of these costs are shared, or hope to be shared, with the Welsh Government and other 'partners'.
All public cash.
The City Deal funding has yet to be committed and is all on hold due to the ongoing investigations. The flawed Business Case for the Wellness Village has not even been approved yet, unsurprisingly, and, due to the investigations surrounding the project, it's all on hold as well.
So far, not a brick has been laid and the pear-shaped planning approval is subject to Welsh Government call-in requests and a u-turn from NRW.

Given that next Monday the Exec Board will outline £9.3m in budget cuts, a rise in Council tax of 4.89%, council rents up by 2.4%,  job losses and a budget shortfall of £2.7m, it makes you wonder who has been dishing out the Wellness cash with such liberal abandon...and exactly whose pockets have been lined with silver...it's criminal, and out of control.
Are our councillors, and the Plaid led administration aware of this massive waste of money? Or have they all been dazzled and duped by the Emperor's New Clothes...?
Also on the agenda is £40m worth of new borrowing for the rapidly sinking Wellness Village, this figure is now likely to be a lot higher, if it goes ahead, perhaps over £200m. The council's debt is already £400m.
Just in case they do need to 'go it alone', God forbid, they've just engaged the services of an 'independent financial market consultant'. I bet they don't come cheap.

And what of the 'Accountable Officer', our soon to be retiring chief executive Mark James? As I've also said, (here and elsewhere) he needs to be investigated over all this, preferably by the police.
Without wishing to repeat myself he has been part of these dodgy deals from the start, he has his own undeclared private business interests and is an all round dishonest, manipulative individual. He's left a trail of taxpayer draining vanity projects from Boston to Llanelli and is not averse to siphoning off public money to boost the Mark James coffers.
He should be locked up, and, for goodness sake, someone hurry up and take the chequebook off him before he bankrupts Carmarthenshire.

Further recent FOIs include the Wellness Village Collaboration Agreement with Sterling's proposals and, while I'm here, an earlier unrelated request for credit card spending details.

Please search the blog for background and recent posts concerning the Wellness project and City Deal. And mentions in Private Eye...

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Private Eye; Mark James....Down the pan

With two recent mentions in Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs, Mark James scores a hatrick in the latest edition with an honourable third. That's without Mr James' numerous previous appearances which can all be found on this blog. And Plaid Cymru must be bursting with pride with Emlyn's new found fame...  

* * *

As mentioned above, the last Private Eye article related to the Wellness Dream, slowly sinking into the Delta Lakes swamp. 

Mark James, and the currently suspended Marc Clement, have been the two key players of the project, and in it from the start, with Kent Neurosciences/Sterling and the Dickmann clan. The suspended Uni vice chancellor, Richard Davies recently alleged that it was Franz Dickmann who offered another Uni official shares, a discounted house and a job.

The secretive manner by which the council, aka Mr James, appointed KNS, then Sterling, makes one wonder why he was so determined that Mr Dickmann signed on the dotted line... 

The 'exclusivity agreement' in 2016 with KNS didn't suddenly pop up overnight. Mr James, along with dutiful former council leader Meryl Gravell, and Prof Marc Clement, who, until late 2015 had been a director of KNS, engineered the deal. Meetings with the company had been held in private and the deal signed and sealed before it got anywhere near a councillor. Apart from Meryl, but she doesn't count.

The deal wasn't renewed in 2017 and KNS subsequently dissolved and, Sterling, with net liabilities of £137,000 were, unbelievably, signed up by Mr James and co in 2018. Sterling, and Kent Neurosciences were, essentially, the same outfit. There were no other bidders. A 'robust procurement exercise' it most definitely wasn't...

Meryl Gravell was made a director of Sterling, until they were ditched, and it wasn't, with respect, for her business acumen. Who made her a director is anyone's guess but, given her undying loyalty to Mr James, she would have been, shall we say, a useful influence on the Board..

Mark and Meryl...
Who knows, perhaps it was the inability of bickering Swansea Uni officials to keep any alleged cosy arrangements or sharp practice under their hats that actually blew the deal as far as our Mr James was concerned.  
The misleading nonsense, and outright lies he told councillors at December's meeting made him look like a desperate, cornered rat.

Mr James should be suspended immediately whilst the various investigations, including the UK Government, are carried out. Despite still being the City Deal 'Accountable Officer', neither he, nor the Accountable body, the council, can even lead the Joint Committee's own internal investigation of the Wellness scandal given their conflicts of interest. 
In fact, due to the Wellness scandal, the whole City Deal is now under investigation.

Incidentally, I have asked the Wales Audit Office for the details of the scope of their investigation into the council's decision making relating to the project. The council have already commissioned their own external lawyers, at unknown cost, instructed, no doubt, to save Mr James' bacon.

His retirement was announced at a very opportune moment, the net is closing in. He should be personally investigated, preferable by the police, and not just over the Wellness deal, and his finances and tax affairs need to be forensically dissected.

As for the secret report on the unlawful libel indemnity mentioned in the Eye article, this featured in the December edition here. The secrecy continues... and six months after the CRWG meeting I am still in the process of trying to obtain both the officer's report, and the minutes.  .   

In the meantime, I have asked Ms Rees Jones, as the senior legal officer, whether Mr James will be repaying the illegal payments, both the libel indemnity and the pension tax avoidance scam, totalling around £60,000 back to the council before he leaves. I've yet to receive a response. (update; it was a 'no')

I've also asked the Wales Audit Office, as it is they who made the unlawful findings and issued the two public interest reports back in 2014, whether they will insist that the money is repaid. I reminded them that it was they who insisted that former Pembrokeshire CEO Bryn Parry Jones paid back his unlawful pension scam cash before he went.

I have mentioned all this on the blog many times, not least of all in my previous post, Mark James retires - the end of a tyrant. The illegal indemnity, and all it entails, is one of those issues which will not go away, retirement or not... 

For background to all this please, as ever, search this blog. 

Thursday 10 January 2019

Mark James retires...the end of a tyrant

Well, well, Mr James, in a glowing statement from the council, which can only have been written by himself, has announced his retirement, though not until June.

Timing, of course, is everything and with his vision of Wellness crumbling around his ears, and the investigators approaching his office door, retirement must seem a better option than forced gardening leave, or police bail. The net is closing and rumour has it he was told to go.

He may enter the revolving door of local government and reappear somewhere as a highly paid consultant, although I would imagine he's accumulated sufficient wealth, in one way or another, over the past 17 years to retire in luxury. Quite what his golden handshake will be we'll have to see, though I suspect this little calculation was decided some time ago. Anything over £100k (which it will be) is supposed to have approval from councillors, supposed to.

My 'tribute' to Mr James reads somewhat differently. I'll not go back 17 years but you'll recall that his days in Boston, including the allegations of bullying and dishonesty, set the scene for Carmarthenshire.
One of his first ports of call here was the local press, announcing exactly how things would be done now he was in charge, he certainly lived up to that.
Things went downhill from then on. He destroyed democracy, bullied his opponents, helped his friends, and always selected a pliant and weak Leader to do his bidding. Some may even recall the curious incident of the £5000 in an envelope...

As schools and care homes closed, the council press office flourished as, somewhat ironically it turned out, reputation, not truth or transparency, was his number one priority.
With the mindset of a vindictive and vicious control freak, a largely submissive set of councillors, and a legal department he could call his own, he has been able to do as he wished, help out his mates, and take what he wanted. He is a thief and a fraud and will leave the taxpayer forking out for his follies.

There is, as far as I am concerned, much in the way of unfinished business. The seeking of justice and accountability does not recognise the limits of retirement, and personally I'm unlikely to forget Mr James as he has his name on the deeds of my home, and a monthly Standing Order from my bank account.

What really rocketed Mr James to Private Eye-style infamy was his instigation of my arrest for filming a meeting, the libel indemnity and pension tax avoidance scandals. He has repaid neither. When his pension scam buddy CEO Bryn Parry Jones left Pembrokeshire Council the Wales Audit Office deducted his ill-gotten gains from his exit package. They must do the same with Mr James, including the unlawful libel indemnity.

But what about the unlawful libel indemnity? This goes back to 2008 when Mr James in a control freak moment extraordinaire, decided that public money could be used to threaten, silence and sue critics, both the press and the public. This was against the law. It also had all the hallmarks of a slush fund. He has threatened to sue members of the public and councillors ever since, but not, of course, the likes of Private Eye.

Mr James dislike of transparency led to the incident in June 2011. It equates with his theory that anyone who questions his authority, and therefore that of the council, must be a troublemaker and must be dealt with accordingly.

The subsequent libel case, and the counterclaim against me has been widely documented. The judgements will be preserved on dusty shelves, well, online actually, for generations to come. Mr James victory parade was, however, short lived as the WAO finally found its teeth and decided his indemnity was unlawful. And so were the infamous libel clauses, still locked in a suspended stalemate.

This brings us almost to the present day, where Mr James, aided and abetted by Linda Rees Jones and the pliant Emlyn, continues to protect his slush fund. Last year attempts were made to reinstate the suspended clauses. That particular battle is ongoing, earning Mr James another slot in a recent Rotten Boroughs column.

One particularly awful revelation was made in court in 2017 when Mr James was trying to force the sale of my home. In 2012 Mr James had undertaken, in writing, to pay any damages over to the council if he won. This was to sweeten the crooked deal for the blank cheque to countersue. In the 2017 court hearing it was revealed that he'd 'changed his mind', he was keeping it, and could stuff it in the gutter if he chose. Not only had he told a massive lie, this was also a massive breach of trust to his employers but again, nothing happened, apart from another appearance in Private Eye.
This is also unfinished business.

He has gone on to lie to the press about offers to settle then make liberal use of council computers for his own private purposes. A FOI request revealed that eight other employees had been disciplined for the same offence, but not him. He had also tracked councillors emails, and failed to declare his extensive private business and property interests.

The crowning achievement for Mark James CBE was surely his Rotten Boroughs Shit of the Year award 2016. It was richly deserved and is the accolade of a lifetime for which he will never be forgotten.
Mr James used this as part of his failed complaint against me to the police, yet made not a murmur to Private Eye.

This blog has tracked numerous issues but essentially, the faults of this council lay squarely at his office door. From covered-up scandals, to the appalling treatment of whistleblowers, from failed vanity projects to the destruction of democracy, Mr James is guilty.
Regular readers will know that I am not the only one to take this view. And if the 100+ comments on the council's own Facebook post are anything to go by, there are more than I thought....!

He should have been sacked, or locked up out of harms way, long ago, not allowed to avoid censure and retire.

After two years of litigation and a public trial, after more years of court hearings, and all the nonsense with the police, the statements Mr James has provided, courtesy of the taxpayer, and the threats, have shown to me that he is nothing more than a vindictive liar, a bully, a perjurer, a perverter of the course of justice and a thief.

He will not be missed. Good riddance.

...is that Emlyn Dole on the end of his nose?

Monday 7 January 2019

The Wellness planning application - updated

Update 18th January

In an interesting twist to the Wellness scandal allegations have been made by the suspended vice chancellor of Swansea Uni that Franz Dickmann offered equity in Sterling, a discounted house and a job to a now resigned senior official at the Uni. This begs the question as to why Mark James and co were so keen to ensure that Mr Dickmann and his company secured the exclusive right to develop the project. Not just once, as Kent Neurosciences in 2016, but again in 2018 as Sterling. They were, curiously, the only bidder.
Incidentally, Mr James' 'retirement' cuts short his tenure as Accountable Officer and Chair of the Project Board for the City Deal by three months. Interesting.
Something stinks and it's coming from County Hall. I hope the Wales Audit Office dig deep, with no fear nor favour. Better still, the police should step in now.
WalesOnline report here.

Update 10th January

I ventured down to the council chamber today to hear the planning committee decide on the Wellness Village. Sian Caiach and I had objected and Sian read out her objection. As the news about the chief executive's retirement had already filtered through, to my phone, Sian took the opportunity to wish the 'arrogant control freak' her warmest wishes...you can see it here.
(15th Jan; Sian has written a blog post here)

Of course the planning committee couldn't actually decide anything as the Welsh Government may well call it in and decide it for themselves, and so they should. They did, however, approve it 'in principle', but after two years hard sell and a two hour planning officers report, complete with yet another fly-through video, it was a very predictable, disappointing, and thoughtless outcome. There was even a man from Arup expensively brought in to respond to the objectors (me and Sian). It was farcical. You can watch the whole thing on the webcast if you wish.

What couldn't be 'considered' however was the fact that there are numerous investigations ongoing, the business case was flawed, (and currently invisible), the City Deal is sinking into the swamp along with the Wellness dream, and Mark James is in the frame.
You might have thought that all that was a vital component of any discussion. But no, not in Carmarthenshire.

We'll have to wait and see what happens next, but, meanwhile, I think there's a blogpost to write about our retiring chief executive....

* * *

The wellness swamp planning application is due to be decided by the council's planning committee on Thursday (10th Jan). With Mark James and Sidekick Emlyn maintaining their public denial that the wellness dream is sinking fast, the business case is flawed, and the partners have evaporated into the delta lakes mist, the charade looks set to continue.

The council is the applicant and Arup is the agent. There are currently 57 documents attached to the application with numerous technical reports extending to thousands of pages. Arup's bill must be astronomical.
Half of the statutory consultees are various departments of the council itself, such as highways and public protection and the report to the committee is itself 93 pages, and reads more like an estate agents blurb than an objective report. Two years worth of Wellness village spin and lies will ensure that the minds of the committee are completely closed to anything other than blind approval and they will be told that anything other than material planning considerations are irrelevant.

Let's just hope that the recent revelations haven't passed them by.

Basically, if you throw enough taxpayers' money at it you can build on contaminated land, and partial flood plains with inadequate sewage facilities. You can pile on several metres of topsoil and hope that the pilings and foundations don't disturb the toxic pollutants lurking below, and you just pray that nothing unpleasant seeps into the designated protected waters through the rickety sluice gate. Or when they do, it'll be someone else's problem by then.
There are, quite possibly, even more sordid secrets buried under the delta lakes swamp than the carpets of the Presidential Suite.
You can also commission an expensive environmental Appropriate Assessment recording potential significant effects, only to be told by NRW that the wording is wrong and should conclude, (if that is the case), that there is 'no adverse effect'. Quite a 'significant' difference.

You can also enter a state of complete denial that there are investigations ongoing into the City Deal, the wellness village itself and the council's own decision making capabilities. Rumour also has it that the police are taking a cursory glance at the whole farcical scandal.

Mr James will also hope that the dutiful members of the planning committee, as they nod through his multi million pound luxury spa, will also forget that in three week's time they will be voting through £28m frontline cuts for the next three years. They may also forget that the authority is currently forking out £18m a year in interest payments on what they've already borrowed.

Committee members, on the other hand, could recall what Mr James told them a few weeks ago at full council, quite simply a pack of lies, and remember not to trust a word he says. It's a con. They could, in the face of accusations of scuppering the future of Carmarthenshire, be brave and bear in mind that it's the future size of Mr James' wallet that's really at stake...

The council can argue that planning permission will increase the value of the land, but this is a very specific, let alone expensive, development so the value is tempered by demand, and at this point in time, there is no demand, no investors, let alone necessity. If the council use it as collateral, it will plunge the county into untold debt, and risk, for generations to come.

The planning issues are one thing, the shambolic and scandalous way in which this project has been promoted is quite another. If you take everything else away; from the track record of the unstoppable tyrant Mr James to the sycophantic parroting from dour Mr Dole; from the fanciful job projections to the siphoning off of public funds, the process and Mr James' appointment of Sterling alone should be enough to raise an eyebrow of even the most loyal committee members....
Before the committee vote this through, without even a glance at the still unpublished flawed business plan, and before the Wales Audit Office get into gear, the Welsh Government should call it in.

And if this deeply bizarre project goes ahead? Well, when you're driving over worsening potholes, or your kids haven't got enough textbooks, or teachers, or you're waiting twelve hours in A & E to have a splinter removed from your eye, just remember that Mr James will be right behind you, in his Wellness Healing Pod, surrounded by Wellness crystals, gently warmed by the blood, sweat and tears of the taxpayers of Carmarthenshire...

Update 8th Jan;
I have asked the Welsh Government to 'call-in' the application and have also submitted an objection to the council on similar grounds.
Here's my call-in request;

To; Julie James AM, Cabinet Member for Housing and Local Government
Dear Minister, 
I would like to request that planning application S/36948 for a Wellness and Life Science Village at Delta Lakes, Llanelli is called-in and determined by Welsh Ministers. 
The applicant is Carmarthenshire County Council and the application is due to be decided by the council's Planning Committee on Thursday, 10th January.
I believe that the proposal conflicts with national planning policy and raises issues of wider significance. 
1. The proposal is partly on a flood plain, as are the access roads to the site. This conflicts with TAN 15. 
2. The proposed site is adjacent to protected designated waters and insufficient evidence has been submitted to show how pollutants and effluent from the site will be prevented from entering this sensitive marine environment. 
3. The Appropriate Assessment and concerns about otter, vole and bird habitats have not been resolved or agreed with Natural Resources Wales. This is in conflict with TAN 5. The correspondence is ongoing and should the planning committee decide to approve the application it will be on unknown and untested conditions. 
4. The levels of contamination at the site, and the subsequent effects of piling and foundation work are unknown. Whilst desktop exercises have been carried out for the construction phase, the long term effects have not been examined nor mitigated in sufficient detail for the committee to make an informed decision. 
5. This is a project which forms part of the Swansea Bay City Deal. The City Deal is currently under review by the UK and Welsh Governments and leading decision makers in the City Deal are currently under investigation.
Carmarthenshire Council itself is also being investigated by the Wales Audit Office for its decision making processes in relation to this project.
It is therefore highly inappropriate for Carmarthenshire Council to make a decision on this planning application.
There should be no further decision making, nor expenditure, on this project until all investigations are satisfactorily concluded. 
If you require further clarification with regards to this call-in request, please email me.
I would be grateful for an acknowledgement of this call-in request.
Yours sincerely
Jacqui Thompson
Update 9th Jan;

This is the latest from the Welsh Government, dated yesterday, and addressed to the case officer for the application;

Please click to enlarge
In addition to those mentioned in my comment below, Nia Griffith MP and Joyce Watson AM have also made call-in requests.

Please search this blog for numerous previous posts.