As with everything else associated with the City Deal it is difficult to pick fact from fiction. To start with, the phrase ‘in principle’ suggests that agreement is conditional on something else, what that condition is remains unclear, is it UK Government agreement? Or agreement from councils who will ‘reap’ less than others in business rates?
Secondly, the actual purpose of retaining 50% of the rates is to try and offset the massive interest payments on the money each council will have to borrow. It is not some big future cash windfall to directly benefit residents as the statement suggests but will disappear into a bottomless pit. Carmarthenshire Council alone already has a debt of £388m, and rising, costing around £18m per year in interest.
The City Deal looks to be well behind schedule. Since the Deal was signed in March 2017 the four councils have failed to agree a Joint Working Agreement. This JWA will underpin the governance arrangements of a Joint Committee which will oversee the Deal. At the moment there is a shadow Joint Committee which, as it is not a legal entity until it’s backed up by a JWA, cannot do anything.
One of the only objective, and critical, reports to see the light of day was the report to Neath Port Talbot councillors last October (see previous post here). It became evident that the 70-page draft JWA was being scrapped and a new one commissioned. Pembrokeshire also expressed serious doubts.
I asked Carmarthenshire Council, via Freedom of Information, for a copy of the scrapped report. This was refused under legal professional privilege (‘advice’ privilege as opposed to ‘litigation’ privilege). I appealed to the Information Commissioner on the grounds that the council were wrongly extending LPP to cover a draft report.
The ICO issued a decision notice last week upholding the council’s decision, as the drafting was still ‘ongoing’, this was despite the £millions involved, the thousands of people who will be affected by the Deal, the requirement for transparency and the fact that the draft JWA (which, incidentally, had been made available to Neath Port Talbot councillors on request) I was asking for had been abandoned.
The full ICO decision notice can be read here, an interesting read, for what it’s worth.
Meanwhile, another draft JWA was commissioned and it was hoped to be agreed and presented to councillors ‘before Christmas’. This then moved to ‘March’. There is still no sign of it and the leader of Swansea Council now says it will be approved ‘within the coming months’.
Further signs of delay and disagreement concern the Economic Strategy Board. This will, as I understand it, representing the interests of the private investors and to ‘raise awareness in the business community’. An advertisement for a Chair for the Board went out last December and so far there has been no announcement of Board membership, let alone the appointment of a Chair.
Back in January of this year a tender went out, led by Carmarthenshire Council, to appoint an events management company to plug the City Deal across the region, “to deliver high quality engagement events starting in early 2018 for an initial 1 year contract (with possibility of a 1 year extension)… …develop a series of networking/engagement events working with the City Deal Regional Office and eleven City Deal projects, to attract and engage with a range of diverse audiences raising the profile of the City Deal and the opportunities it presents for the region.”
A couple of weeks ago, two months after the closing date for the tender, and despite receiving a number of “high quality bids”, it was cancelled with the notice stating that “we will not be appointing a contractor at present”. Any costs for this failed exercise will be borne by the bidders.”. An incredible waste of time and money all round.
One of the projects in Carmarthenshire, which I have mentioned once or twice, is the Wellness Village. The planning application has gone in, the ground prep is underway and a couple of million have already been spent. This is despite no Joint Committee, nor JWA being in place. Yr Egin, the new S4C and ‘cultural’ centre in Carmarthen has already been built and still hoping, presumably, for £3m from the Deal after a bid for EU cash was turned down.
Part of the City Deal involves contributions from the two health boards, Hywel Dda and Abertawe Bro Morgannwg. Hywel Dda is running a deficit of £69m this year and, as has been widely reported, planning major changes to our local hospitals, including building a big new one somewhere on the Pembs/Carms border. It would be beyond the pale for Hywel Dda to invest NHS cash into the Wellness Village, the premise for which is private luxury health tourism, at the expense of frontline NHS services.
Carmarthenshire Council is the lead administrative local authority for the City Deal and it’s chief executive is the lead chief executive for the Deal. Enough said. Rumours have circulated over the last few months that the other councils have been kept in the dark…with that scenario, what hope is there that our own councillors will ever be fully and accurately briefed, let alone council taxpayers.
There is not a glimmer, so far, of where the £637m of private funding is coming from, if it’s coming from anywhere. I also suspect that the job creation figures are wildly exaggerated. If an economic boost should materialise, then I doubt this will be felt in the extensive rural areas of west Wales.
The City Deal Regional Office appears to be on the payroll of Carmarthenshire Council so I sent a few questions their way. The questions, and responses can be seen in full below but provide little substance. And as for the response to question 6, with the involvement of private investment, I have little faith that anything will be transparent.
There has been nothing yet to suggest that the City Deal is anything more than one big PFI scheme which will leave council taxpayers beholden to private investors for years to come. With big private companies such as Carillion, and now Capita, on the rocks, an objective approach to future risk to the public purse is critical.
As for the ‘Wellness Village’, this has all the hallmarks of a County Hall vanity project, jobs for the boys and contracts and deals for the usual suspects. And don’t forget, ‘lead chief executive’ Mark James has his own business and property interests which he didn’t bother to declare…and a track record which hardly inspires trust. Whatever the case, I hope our councillors keep a beady eye on progress and developments, cut through the spin and always remember that this ‘exciting’ and ‘once in a generation’ Deal may not be all as it seems.
One Carmarthenshire resident tweeted this morning that the City Deal “is a scandal of epic proportions, there seems to be lots of stuff for non-elected people spending money they don’t have on stuff no “real” people want”.
Sums it up pretty well.
City Deal Regional Office Qs & As
1. Current status of the Joint Working Agreement and governance and accountability structure.
The Joint Working Agreement is currently being finalised. We expect it to go to all four regional councils for approval by the early summer.
2. Why have several projects commenced, including the Wellness Village, without a JWA in place?
Apart from site preparation works, no work has started on the Village. Subject to planning consents and the approval of the City Deal business case, work is earmarked to start on site towards the end of 2018.
3. Membership and governance arrangements of the Joint Committee
The Joint Committee will be made up of the leaders and chief executives of the four regional councils, as well as non-voting, co-opted members from Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board, Hywel Dda University Health Board, Swansea University and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.
4. Membership and governance of the Economic Strategy Board. An advertisement for an ESB Chair went out in December 2017 – who was appointed, when was the individual appointed, and who made the appointment.
The ESB chair has not yet been appointed.
5. Current status with regards to private investment for each City Deal project, the companies/private investors currently involved and the level of financial commitment secured so far.
Subject to what we have said in response to question two about the need for business case approvals for City Deal projects from the UK and Welsh Governments, we are working towards our target of £637m from the private sector. There is no suggestion or indication that the money will not be forthcoming.
6. What specific measures will the City Deal partners and the Joint Committee take to ensure full public transparency and accountability?
Usual rules regarding public access to meetings will apply to Joint Committee. Minutes from Joint Committee meetings will be published online.
Update 30th April; It has been reported over the past day or two that, 5 months after the ‘advert’ went out, a ‘preferred’ Chair for the ESB (see post below) has been selected. The appointment of US businessman, Mr Edward Tomp, a director of Valero oil based in Pembrokeshire is conditional on the four councils agreeing to the Joint Working Agreement, currently in its umpteenth ‘fluffy’ draft and most recently rejected by Neath Port Talbot council (see later post, which I hope Mr Tomp will read and inwardly digest…)