Saturday 21 November 2020

News in brief - School closure scrutiny slashed, and an Ombudsman report - updated

Update below

With Scrutiny Committees slowly reappearing on the council calendar, Monday's meeting of the Education and Children Scrutiny Committee will, in fact, be discussing the reduction of scrutiny from proposed school closures. The council avoids the word 'closure' and uses less controversial terms such as reorganisation, merger, 'reviewing provision' and 'discontinue'.

Up to now, each stage of the democratic process to close schools has gone to the scrutiny committee, providing a useful mechanism to determine the best outcome for the area as well as an additional level of challenge. If the new move is implemented, the Scrutiny Committee will only be involved in the initial stage, the Exec Board and full council, will approve the process from thereon in.

The argument put forward is to save time as the pandemic has stalled plans to implement the council's Modernising Education Programme (MEP). However, as we have seen before, the outcome of the 'official' closure consultations is largely ignored by the council, particularly any comments which oppose the council's plans, it's all a done deal, so removing any scrutiny, however feeble, is not the best way forward. There's precious little in Carmarthenshire anyway. 

It will be interesting to see if a scrutiny committee actually votes to deprive itself from its ability to scrutinise. (Update 25th November....they did)

A couple of years ago the Welsh Government decided that there should be a presumption against the closure of rural schools. My own experience was that the closure of Llanwrda School a few years ago didn't just remove a vibrant centre of excellent primary education but it ripped the heart out of the community. 

There is also the detrimental effect on the Welsh language to consider, when my children left Llanwrda school at 11 years of age they were fully bilingual, there is no better 'immersion' than a village school. I doubt very much if this would have happened to the same degree had they travelled further afield to a much larger school.
There are very few small village primary schools left in the county and Monday's agenda includes another two up for closure, Blaenau, near Ammanford, and Mynyddygarreg, near Kidwelly. As they are part of the MEP, closure has been on the cards for a number of years. This fact alone, as we saw with Llanwrda, means numbers inevitably decline as parents sent their kids elsewhere to avoid an unsettling break in their primary education.

Small schools (and big schools) are struggling financially and these two have budget deficits and are now well under capacity. They are now, to use the council's favourite word, 'unsustainable'. The argument for closure is therefore strong. But, as I said above, the benefits to the community, the kids, and the language are equally strong, and, in some ways, immeasurable.

In other news, a new finding against Carmarthenshire Council appears in the latest 'Casebook' (page 29) from the Ombudsman. The complaint goes back to 2016/17 and relates to Childrens Social Services. The Ombudsman, in a brief, anonymised summary issued in June 2020, found that the support offered to a foster carer, when the behaviour of a child placed in her care became increasingly challenging, was insufficient and, significantly, the council failed to fully follow child protection procedures.

The challenging behaviour culminated in an incident (unspecified) after the carer had clearly flagged the difficult behaviour with the council. However, the council failed to arrange for additional visits and the social worker failed to document all the sessions with the carer anyway. 
Alongside this was the fact that during all this the carer broke up with her partner, and the Ombudsman found that the council failed to either reassess the placement or consider whether further support was necessary.
The council were told to apologise to the foster carer and learn lessons. 
Let's hope they have.

* * * * *

Update  25th November

A few snippets...

The annual revenue budget makes a brief appearance on the Exec Board agenda for Monday 30th November. With many of last year's cuts yet to be implemented, and, due to Covid, the finances generally far worse, loss of income etc, there is at least another £16m to be cut, or 'saved' over the next three years. That's without the unknown madness of brexit.

Another expense for the revenue budget is the interest payments for the City Deal. The agreement with the Welsh Government to keep any future business rates from developments, such as the Wellness Shed, will not touch the sides of the interest payments which they will need to borrow. 
"there are likely to be additional funding requirements in respect of the City Deal projects. These include both interest costs (as it is forecast they will exceed the business rates retention deal agreed with WG) and additional staffing costs" 
The council is already paying £18m a year on their current debt.

It looks like the council will be flogging off as many of its 152 buildings it can if they are now not being used, whilst continuing to spend a fortune on it's crumbling non-eco friendly offices it bought at Parc Dewi Sant.

Meanwhile the council has submitted a planning application (listed building) to itself to 'remodel' bits of County Hall, Carmarthen. An open plan office, plus 'breakout' space will be created, a suite of Executive Offices will adorn the first floor, complete with redecoration and new carpets, and the whole building will be rewired.
The cost has not been disclosed, but at least it's an opportunity to see what's under those lumpy carpets...

Incidentally, and also worth a mention is a separate 'Covid Impact' report which states that the planning department is now under "immense strain" as "early indications would suggest that a great level of unlawful activity has occurred during the pandemic". 

All councils face a bleak time ahead, but only Carmarthenshire ensured they preserved their very own slush fund.

The Democratic Services Committee also meets on Monday when the annual recommendations of the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales will doubtless be approved. This means a pay increase of £150 for each councillor, taking the allowance up to £14,368 plus expenses. 'Senior' councillors also have the same rise, taking useless Emlyn Dole's pay up to £49,975, deputy leader Mair Stephens to £35,320 and the other Exec Board members to £30,773.

On the upside, the virtual nature of all these meetings means that many more than usual are available for public viewing, should you be so inclined, and you can see even more of how officials still run the show with dutiful councillors nodding everything through.  
I guess it's a marginal improvement than being locked up for trying to film one on your mobile phone...

Friday 13 November 2020

Council to give £100,000 to the evangelical bowling alley - to build a church

Followers of this blog might recall a controversy several years ago when our council gifted £1.4m in land, lease and buildings, and a £270k loan to the Towy Community Church Ltd. The church opened a bowling alley, Xcel Bowl, and runs various community facilities, food bank etc from the site in Johnstown, Carmarthen. The next phase of the project includes a 600 seat auditorium to be used as a church.

The controversy initially kicked-off because the church also intended to open a branch of the Mercy Ministry, another evangelical outfit which saves 'fallen' women, and had troubling links to using exorcism to 'cure' eating disorders, homosexuality etc. Also, the proposed debt counselling service based its advice on inviting people, often very vulnerable people, to pray. 

Despite the community work, some questioned whether an organisation which, on its old website, included a 'Statement of Faith' which refers to “the eternal conscious bliss of the believer and the eternal conscious punishment of those who reject Christ”, was an appropriate recipient of so much public money. And a bit tough on the 'Little Skittles' toddler section...

The curious generosity shown to the church was, let's be honest, explained by the fact that former chief executive, and all round crook, Mark James, was also of the same evangelical Christian persuasion, and devout believer of the literal truth of the bible, albeit as a member of another evangelical church in the bible-belt of Carmarthen. James even invited his mate, the then pastor to address full council when they approved the loan.

In fact the council didn't even bother to do its own Equalities Risk Assessment, then again, we already knew that Mark James broke out in hives at the mention of the Rainbow Flag.
The church even formed part of the council's 'Team around the family' initiative for vulnerable children.

A freedom of information request to the council for correspondence between County Hall and the church was refused. I appealed to the ICO but the council came back with copious quantities of fire and brimstone about the terrible Mrs Thompson and the correspondence was never released. I can't imagine why it was such a secret...

In 2015 the whole Exec Board, plus Mr James, visited the site and blessed the church with £20,000 for a new boiler, and kindly arranged for some niggling planning breaches to be rubber stamped, thus avoiding an irritating visit from planning enforcement. 

Exec Board Member for social care Jane Tremlett waxed lyrical about the whole thing. It was particularly poignant as two weeks previously she'd voted to slash £18,000 funding from a school for autistic children. Carmarthenshire Herald's columnist Cadno also wrote a good piece at the time.

Back in 2012 when the funding, etc was first  approved a 'council spokesman' said “Religious organisations are eligible to apply for council funding to carry out work in the community, but funding cannot be used for the promotion of religious activity.”

Of course the church does work in the community, and I'm not knocking them for that, but they also promote religious activity, 'evangelise', throughout everything they do, including the community work, and often with very vulnerable people, with the aim, of course, to bring as many into the fold as possible. They're also building a church.
After all, as the church quotes on its website, "People cannot make up for their sin through self-improvement and being good - only by trusting in Jesus and God's offer of forgiveness". 
As for the jobs which were 'created' as part of the original funding criteria, the wider congregation appear to have filled most, if not all of the posts. 

As with most businesses and charities, the Towy Church has taken a hit with Covid, it's running late submitting accounts to the Charity Commission, and has gone to the council again for help. And with the threat that one of Mr James' visions, God's own bowling alley, might close permanently, and the Phase 2 Church might be in doubt, the council, led by the Reverend Dole, appear to be coming up trumps. The item, which is publicly available, is on the agenda for Monday's (16th Nov) Executive Board meeting.

The council are offering not just a £50,000 grant but an additional £50,000 to be added to the original loan. This is not an award from the general Covid pot, which applies to everyone else, this is coming from council reserves. The church have already had Covid grants.
Praise the Lord!

I suppose, with those fervent prayers for forgiveness at the start of every full council meeting, our councillors might well be afraid of eternal conscious damnation.

My issue is not with religion, or the many Gods people worship, it's the bankrolling of any church sects and faith groups with Carmarthenshire's public money. There are numerous groups and charities which do excellent community work, and who do not have an agenda, and do not benefit from such local government largesse. But this is the crazy world of Carmarthenshire council, and as many believe, Church and State should be kept well apart.

There are too many previous blogposts to link to here, please use the searchbox for more background, and also have a search through the many posts on Cneifiwr's blog.

Tuesday 3 November 2020

Tangled webs

As we wait for news from the police and CPS over the council's Wellness scandal, we'll take a look at how some of the key players, some of whom were sacked or suspended for gross misconduct from Swansea Uni, are faring. And former CEO Mark James while we're at it.

As we know Mark James' new company, Ffynnon Consultancy, turned quite a modest profit this year, quite remarkable given its infancy and total lack of online presence. Currently embroiled in the forged signature scandal at Century Wharf, it looks like Warwick Estates, who manage the complex on behalf of the Right To Manage (RTM) company, have been given the push. 

Who will replace Warwick estates? Well the Chair of the RTM, Mr James, already has a vehicle in place, Building Estate Solutions Today Ltd (BEST Ltd) of which he is a co-director with Steve Corner. It is understood that BEST Ltd is already touting for business across various sites down the Bay. (Update - see later post Century Wharf - Mark James' take-over bid - Mark James formed yet another company in December 2020, CW Estates Management which has, as of March 1st 2021, taken over from Warwick. He is still a director of the RTM, and it is the RTM who just happen to have appointed CW Estates Management, his own company. Fancy that!)
Marc Clement, sacked along with Swansea Uni vice-chancellor Richard Davies, is never more than a stone's throw from Mr James and it is rumoured that a director of a firm of surveyors, believed to have moved on site also happens to be a director of another company, Ellamel Holdings Ltd, along with none other than Marc Clement.

We also know that Mark James' friends in Llangennech, ERS Ltd, happen to be contracted by the RTM to provide telephone services to Century Wharf. An associated company of ERS Ltd is Hydro Industries Ltd. Robert Lovering, David Pickering (of rugby fame) and Wayne Preece are, or were (like the rest of them, they change directorships more often than their socks), the directors at Hydro and were 'introduced' to the 'bounties' of the City Deal by Marc Clement and Mark James before the wellness s**t hit the fan.

Another former employee of Swansea Uni, and council project manager for the Wellness Village, Bjorn Rodde, who resigned after suspension, managed very quickly to get gainful employment with the very same Hydro Ltd and is now Chief Operating Officer at St Joseph's private hospital in Newport. It is understood that both Marc Clement and Franz Dickmann (remember him?) have been involved with the hospital, which, incidentally only avoided collapse earlier this year through an anonymous donation and being 'repackaged' by the Administrators.

Steven Poole, meanwhile, also sacked for gross misconduct, is now a Director of newly formed Sirius Genesis Ltd, and various sister companies, alongside assorted academics and, at Sirius Genesis Beta Ltd, which deals in the leasing of intellectual property, our old friend Marc Clement. Mr Poole is also involved in companies with Ruth Clement, including Llwyn Country House Ltd, currently in liquidation.

Marc Clement, along with Llanelli businessman Kevin Smith (not associated with Swansea Uni), formed a 'financial intermediary' company, Alpha Life Science Advisory Ltd earlier this year, with a base in Guernsey.  Clement resigned from the appointment a couple of weeks later. The company has now changed its name to Alpha Advisory Board Ltd, and Mr Smith, and Guernsey based company JTC are the remaining directors.

Kevin Smith, who was a former director of Sterling Health, Dickmann's company, runs another company, Cambrian Ventures Ltd. The only other company of this name appears to be trading in Singapore, whether its the same one I don't know. However, Cambrian Ventures Ltd is also a shareholder in another newly formed company called Skin Logistics Ltd, specialising in the world of Botox. 
One of the directors of Skin Logistics is...Marc Clement.

Kevin Smith was, along with Marc Clement, a director of Respiratory Innovation Wales. The intention was to set up shop at the Wellness Village until Swansea Uni raised serious concerns and a Welsh Government grant was pulled. It is understood that Ifan Evans, the Welsh Government City Deal official had more than a passing acquaintance with some of the key players. 

Both Smith and Clement resigned from the company. RIW has now re-established itself and with its base at the Beacon Centre (the City Deal HQ) Llanelli, appears to be involved in the Wellness Village, or Pentre Awel as its now known. 

Marc Clement was a director of Kent Neurosciences Ltd, (KNS), Dickmann's company, resigning in 2015. In 2016 Mark James brought KNS Ltd in, exclusively (no tender), to develop the Wellness Village. This was despite the fact that Dickmann, and his son James Dickmann, had recently been involved with the development of a private hospital in Kent, and had just resigned from the Board leaving the hospital requiring an urgent £20m bailout.

That little agreement quietly fizzled out and KNS dissolved. It re-emerged as Sterling (along with several variant sister companies) and in 2018 was trumpeted by Mark James as the new developers of the £200m Wellness Village, as if no one would notice it was the same company

There were, as you can imagine, no other bidders to spoil Mark and Marc's plan...Sterling, at this point, were £137k in debt.. The whole Dickmann family was lined up to profit from the Village, even the planned creche.

This, as I understand it, is the tender that the police have been investigating.

                     Signing of the Wellness Deal 2018, L to R: Mrs Dickmann, Mark James, 
                     VC Richard Davies, Emlyn Dole, Franz Dickmann, Marc Clement 

Marc Clement meanwhile had formed another company, Vardiola Ltd with another Swansea academic Georgios Dimitropoulos and, by branching out into the hotel business, had his sights firmly set on running the Wellness Hotel. Ruth Clement, mentioned above, whose registered address was the same as Marc Clement's is a director of companies related to hotels and leisure. Two directors of one of those companies, Robert James Holland and Nigel Jenkins of Birturk Enterprises, are also directors of Ellamel Holdings Ltd, as also mentioned above, with Marc Clement.

Dimitropoulos was also a director of 4The Region which became the de facto PR company for the City Deal, without any formal tendering process.

Somewhere along the timeline, planned private medical schools in Swansea and Kuwait emerged, tied to both Swansea Uni and, through the city deal, to Carmarthenshire Council. Neither body were aware of the details which involved Marc Clement, the sacked vice chancellor Richard Davies and Mark James, as a trustee, and, of course, Franz Dickmann and Sterling Health. 

The allegations were again related to promises of personal gain. James made no mention of this role to the Council. Nor any other role for that matter. Emlyn Dole was either a complete fool or knew exactly what was going on.

As the whole mess went into meltdown, these companies, and along with the plans, all dissolved, nearly torpedoing the whole City Deal. 
If it wasn't for the diligence and persistence of Swansea University exposing what had happened and reporting matters to the authorities, it would have all drifted merrily along. And, dare I say, the persistence of a blogger or two played its part. 

Marc Clement is no stranger to controversy, see here, and here, and neither is Mark James. 

Mark James, as logged throughout this blog, was not averse to pocketing public funds, helping out his 'friends', tax avoidance, conflicts of interest, destroying his critics with his own slush fund, outright dishonesty; all driven by personal gain. From Boston to Carmarthenshire.
With supreme arrogance, he brought his own personal solicitors, Acuity Law, into the council in a miserable attempt to clear his tracks over the Wellness tender. 

He is now, as we know, a suspect.
However, we know that not only was Mr James' home raided by the police in July 2019, and that of former leader Meryl Gravell, but so was County Hall. The police were retrieving deleted data from the server room. 
The organised crime squad, Tarian, issued this statement earlier this year; "Eight people have been interviewed as suspects, all of whom remain under investigation. Further enquiries as part of this complex investigation are ongoing. Extensive examination of a significant number of seized documents and electronic equipment also continues."

A trip down the endless rabbit hole of Companies House shows there are many more connections, but the point is that this is a very small group of people in a very tangled web, with some currently under police investigation for bribery and fraud offences, the allegations of corruption have been tracked through this blog.
There is, of course, nothing illegal about setting up a company, and, alongside those suspected of fraud etc are perfectly legitimate businesses, business people and academics. 

The police, we were told, are investigating the tender for the Wellness Village and that it is a very complex investigation. There are many ways to hide evidence, and many ways to game it, and it is also likely to take a long time.

Given the snapshot above, you can see why.

Update 19th May 2021
After less than a year, Clement resigned his directorship of Sirius Generis Beta Ltd on March 19th 2021. Still playing fast and loose on Companies House, he formed yet another company on the 31st March, Cambrian Technologies Ltd of which he is the sole director.

One of Mark James' companies, CW Estates Ltd, took over from Warwick Estates to manage Century Wharf at the beginning of April. As he is still Chair of the Right To Manage Company, he has a direct conflict of interest. He is also a crook. They have been warned.

Update 23rd June 2021
Clement's latest company, Cambrian Technologies Ltd now has another director, none other than  Steven Poole (see also main post), also sacked from Swansea Uni for gross misconduct. (As of 30th June 2021 Poole resigned as director of Sirius Genesis...)

Clement is now also a director of Blue360, part of a group dealing in laser cosmetics. His old mate Llanelli-based Kevin Smith, formerly a director of Dickmann's Sterling Health and now, as Cambrian Ventures Ltd, joins the list of directors at Blue360....

Stop press...there's another one, Blue360 International Ltd incorporated on the 23rd June with 'Professor' Marc Clement listed as a director. There's no stopping the man, he can, at a price, iron out your wrinkles, remove unwanted hair and even zap airborne Covid.....allegedly.

In Mark James news,  the RTM and CW Estates Management, both of which are controlled by Mark James have contracted Ringley Group Ltd to provide the estate's operating systems, on a franchise basis.  I had heard some time ago that Ringley were being selected personally by James, with no say from anyone else, and with his track record, I wonder why....