Thursday 13 June 2019

Council to blow another £600,000 on the Wellness Shed

At the last Executive Board meeting (June 3rd) attended by former CEO Mark James the final item on the agenda was that old chestnut, the Wellness Village. Naturally, despite the scandals and the screaming calls for transparency, it was discussed behind closed doors. The secrecy was hardly surprising given that they nodded through the 'officer recommendation' to take the project to the next stage (and there are more stages..) and blow another £600,000 on 'design development' for the Sauna-by-the-swamp.

The rest of the discussion was, in smoke and mirrors councilspeak, "to acknowledge the process milestones and commissioning requirements for the alternative scenarios and the impact on completion dates" which roughly translates as cash still had to be found from somewhere (apparently this includes an unsuspecting Scottish university, firmly in their sights, and a new shedload of borrowing) and the whole thing will be mightily delayed and may miss out on the first round of City Deal funding anyway.

Whether ARUP plc will have the pleasure of this £600,000 commission isn't known, or maybe Ffynnon Consultancy or Building and Estate Solutions will get a little look-in somewhere...who knows. Whatever the case, half a million has already been spent on design development and well over £300,000 on the planning application, currently the subject of a Welsh government stop notice, although, with recent activity on the site, this may be about to be lifted. Over £200,000 has been spent on legal costs, including the notorious Acuity Law report. That's just from last year. In the previous financial year over a million was spent on design, development, and of course the inevitable 'Masterplanning'...

Thanks to the toxic conduct of Mr James, Carmarthenshire Council is firmly, and permanently in the Governance dog-house, the 'partners' have scarpered (and so has Mr James), the councils are at loggerheads, and the whole project remains mired in scandal, and under police investigation. And given his involvement, I hope Mr James' peaceful retirement is soon disturbed by a knock on the door from plod. However, to scrap it now would be to lose face, so, no matter what the final cost, or whether they have to 'go it alone', it will continue. For now.

In my view, the best outcome for everyone, including the rest of the county, crying out for investment, would be for the council to count its losses and go back to its original intention to build a leisure centre and a care home for Llanelli; not a private luxury spa, lining a handful of pockets, providing a few menial local jobs, and too expensive for anyone other than retired chief executives to use, commuting from Kuwait...with their pockets duly lined.

It is, of course a matter of priorities. Here are a couple of examples. At Wednesday's full council meeting a Labour councillor tried to raise the serious financial problems and lack of resources faced by his, and other, local primary schools, he was silenced as this dose of reality was spoiling the cosy feel-good presentation of the 'visionary' Corporate Plan.
All schools are struggling.

And at a scrutiny meeting on Monday the subject of public toilets arose. After 'offloading' as many facilities it could in 2013 (also in ridiculous secrecy) due to 'financial pressures', recent consultations attracted over 700 responses, including a plea for more Changing Places Facilities for profoundly disabled children and adults, and their carers. It turns out that there are only two in the whole county and both are privately run.

In general, the lack of public toilets is, arguably, a far more important issue to the 185,000 residents and the couple of million tourists than pouring cash into a failing, scandal-ridden vanity project, however, the councillors were told that there was absolutely no money in the budget to build more toilets, so 'creative solutions' had to be found...

As toilet provision, giving independence and dignity, is non-statutory, the council are fond of repeating that they are not obliged to provide facilities.

As it happens, they're not obliged to provide a luxury spa and private health care vanity project either, but they've just found another £600,000 in the budget for that!

Wednesday 5 June 2019

City Deal - Carmarthenshire Council stripped of governance and audit role

Following the scathing UK government and Pembrokeshire-led internal governance reports on the City Deal, Carmarthenshire Council has now been stripped of the entire democratic governance and audit function.
These functions will be taken over by Swansea and Pembrokeshire Councils respectively.
This is a damning indictment of Mark James' role as 'principal advisor' and 'responsible officer' and the end of Linda Rees Jones' role as City Deal Monitoring Officer. The toxic culture of governance and democracy, Mark James-style has been, predictably, rejected and, short of his arrest, it's a fitting end to his seventeen year regime.

This week's Carmarthenshire Herald has a good write up of last week's Joint Committee meeting of the Swansea City Deal. Following those damning governance reports, of which Mark James was the prime suspect, Carmarthenshire is being squeezed out of the game. Apparently a bid was made to move the Regional Office from Carmarthen to Swansea Council but it seems Emlyn Dole threatened to pull Carmarthenshire out of the entire Deal if that went ahead.

The Herald surmises that the Rev 'two barns' Dole was emboldened by Mr James' recent instructions that the council could build the Wellness Village themselves, and burden the taxpayer for future generations, without all that pesky scrutiny of course.... Incidentally, the Wellness Village was discussed at Monday's Exec Board, behind closed doors, despite the wider calls for urgent transparency, and the catalogue of scandal. A plan B perhaps? It would be a foolhardy investor indeed who put their cash into a scandal-ridden project with no planning permission and a police investigation hanging over it. Or maybe they've bought some magic beans and are hoping for the best...

There was no mention at the Exec Board meeting of the £109,000 overspend on legal bills for the Wellness dream, a tidy sum which might have helped one or two of those struggling primary schools they were talking about, but anyway, no doubt Mr James' personal solicitors Acuity Law have done quite nicely out of it thank you.
Acuity Legal (now Acuity Law), who threatened to sue elected members
Anyway, last week's Joint Committee decided, in the end, that the Regional Office will be centred at the Beacon, Llanelli but with pop-up offices in the other counties.

However, as I said above, thanks to Mr James, the 'responsible officer' for governance, Carmarthenshire has been stripped of its responsibility for governance and audit.

The Herald, in it's inimitable way, mentions that Mark James has been absent from the last couple of City Deal meetings, (chickened out and hid, in fact) and last week, he missed, sadly, the 'ringing endorsement' of the shocking governance reports by the chair of ABMU health board (now Swansea Bay UHB) Andrew Davies. With Mr James own attack on one of the partners a couple of weeks ago and the legal spat between him and Andrew Davies (see here, and my update in the comment section), to say he's unpopular with other partners would be an understatement.

As the Herald says, "It's no secret that a number of other City Deal partners have had little time for the departing Carmarthenshire CEO".

With the axing of his role of Lead Chief Executive, if Mr James wasn't conveniently retiring, he'd have been sacked. And he knew it.
Mind you, as Jac o'the North points out today, rather than take up some innocent retirement pastime like counting his money or evicting bloggers, he has a fully-conditioned Emlyn Dole, and protegé Wendy Walters waiting in the wings....and, with his newly formed consultancy company all ready and waiting, one wonders if Mr James malign influence is far from over and will continue for many years to come...

Putting aside Mr James' arrogance, dishonesty and general poor character for a moment, its worth remembering how we got to where we are. I say we because the City Deal is supposed to benefit the entire region. The disastrous Wellness scandal did have one silver lining, and that was to force something of a rethink of funding such pocket-lining vanity projects. There is now talk of an improved transport network, which is perhaps, a start. Once the current mess has been untangled.

The scandals and allegations over the past few months (all on this blog) are all related to the Wellness project and Franz Dickmann of Sterling Health in one way or another. Added to that we have the Kuwait venture. All involve Mark James. All linked, and all suggesting self-interest (share offers, job roles, discounted houses, etc) rather than public good. The Swansea Uni allegations are hotly denied, although grievance letters from Prof Marc Clement and Vice Chancellor Richard Davies have recently been thrown out by, it is understood, the independent QC brought in to investigate the allegations.
Furthermore, both South Wales and Dyfed Powys Police forces have been investigating since March.

The scandals surrounding the Wellness Village, Sterling etc continues with yet another suspension at Swansea Uni last week. Reported by the Western Mail, though not online, Dr Gerry Ronan, a former director of the commercial spin-off company Swansea Innovations Ltd has, it is understood, been suspended over allegations relating to the Wellness project and email correspondence to former Economy Minister and AM Edwina Hart and the Wales EU funding office, and for revealing information to others, no further details are available yet.

As I have mentioned many times, in my opinion Mark James' involvement goes a lot deeper than a few casual lies to the council and the City Deal board. His priority, as we have seen over the years, is, well, none other than Mark James, a keen advocate of self-promotion, personal enrichment and tax avoidance, and as for 'democratic governance', the warning signs have been there all along.

There is only one reason why Mr James was so insistent that Dickmann's companies, Kent Neurosciences and then Sterling Health were signed up by the council to develop the project, even with bail outs, company dissolutions, debts and no proven track record....I don't need to spell it out surely? He was even plugging the virtues of Sterling when his own officers were having serious doubts about the outfit. Eventually, they were ditched.

To cap it all, Sterling, Mr James and the suspended Uni employees were all involved in the shady Kuwaiti venture, something Mr James didn't bother to declare as a registered interest despite this private enterprise potentially exposing Carmarthenshire Council to financial risk. He has also omitted to declare his own long-running private business interests.

I am of the view, and I'm not alone, that Mr James' behaviour in relation to the City Deal has been dishonest, arrogant, manipulative and secretive; reflecting his management of the council. I am also of the view that he should be criminally investigated.
And, as I have made clear in previous posts, that investigation should not just be confined to his role in the Wellness scandal.

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