Carmarthenshire Council have been in the news again following the publication of a damning judgement from the Family Court. The case centred around an 8 year old child and whether or not he should be returned to the care of his mother, the council and the appointed guardian were opposing the move. The council lost the case and came under heavy criticism over the quality of both their written and oral evidence.
Full council met last Wednesday for their monthly meeting and quietly nodded through the legal framework for the City Deal. Bearing in mind that the council is already Â£400m in debt, no one questioned the unknown level of borrowing which will required, or if it was affordable, or whether there were contingency plans should the mysterious investors go bust, or pull out; or, well, anything much at all really.As chief executive Mark James is leading the whole thing, with Emlyn Dole as the mouthpiece, rebellion, or anything more that a polite enquiry was always going to be unlikely and Mr James, along with the finance director, was given extended delegated power not to trouble the pretty heads of councillors with the finer details. To be honest I’d err on the side of caution when it comes to Mr James and documents… Linda Rees Jones, Carmarthenshire’s Monitoring Officer and the chief executive’s legal protector is also, we learn, the Monitoring Officer for the City Deal. You may recall that Carmarthenshire’s internal legal advice was once famously, and accurately described as ‘cavalier’ and ‘incompetent’. It most certainly still is.
What could possibly go wrong?
The Agreement now has to be approved by the other three councils; Swansea, Neath Port Talbot and Pembrokeshire. I hope their councillors take a slightly more ‘risk based’ approach to what is, essentially, a very expensive PFI scheme. After all, it was only two weeks ago that Emlyn Dole said that “services have now been cut to the bone, and now it is almost impossible to safeguard our frontline services”.
Meanwhile, down at the Delta Lakes swamp, the planning application (by Arup, on behalf of the council) for the Mark James ‘Wellness Village’, part of the City Deal, is not going quite according to plan with NRW threatening to object to the application unless their concerns are addressed. These concerns include “requirements for flood risk, protected species, designated sites, drainage and air quality and conditions on geoscience, landscape and pollution prevention.” Which covers just about everything.
The site, which is contaminated, partially on a flood plain and part of Llanelli’s creaking sewage system, is directly adjacent to several designated sites; Carmarthen Bay and Estuaries SAC, Burry Inlet Special Protection Area (SPA) and RAMSAR, Burry Inlet and Loughor Estuary Special Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI), Pyllau Machynys SSSI and Pwll Lagoon SSSI.
Nothing is insurmountable of course, if you throw enough taxpayers’ money at it, or, as in the case of the council’s usual preferred option, deny all and carry on regardless.
Another project, Yr Egin ‘cultural hub’ in Carmarthen is now complete, it is not known how much has been paid out by the council or if there are any ongoing costs. We do know though that they paid Â£110,000 per acre for 19 acres of land for the Carmarthen West Road to enable the development, and that S4C, the flagship tenant is having trouble tempting its staff relocate to the wild west.
It’s probably only a matter of time before the council starts renting office space…
Three and a half years ago Carmarthenshire councillors voted to go ‘paperless’ and have the reams of agendas, minutes and documents delivered electronically. iPads and software were duly purchased at considerable outlay and ongoing cost, and provided to all 74 councillors.A report to the quaintly titled Democratic Committee last Monday, see here, revealed that, after three and a half years, only four councillors had actually gone ‘paperless’. The rest, we assume, are either still working out how to turn their tablets on, given them to the grandkids or becoming Candy Crush experts. There had been ‘hiccups’, apparently.
I don’t think there are many outfits, in this day and age, public or private, which continue to use small forests of timber, buckets of ink and eye-watering postage costs to impart information to their organisation. Apart from Carmarthenshire Council.
Carmarthen West Development
As mentioned above the Council have been shelling out a small fortune to progress the Carms West development of 1200 homes and the associated Carms West Link Road. One application, for around 250 homes, originally submitted in 2013, was, despite numerous objections, approved in February 2017 (See my post here which gives further background) but this was conditional on the completion of a S106 agreement. Presumably that has now been agreed as the decision notice has now been released.
The developer, Carmarthen Promotions Ltd is, oddly, based in Norfolk with a Lord, no less, as one of the Directors. The last published accounts indicate a loss of Â£252,000 in 2016/17. What I find odd is that, according to Companies House, as of the 6th June this year the council now have a legal charge over the company on the land. The company already has a bank loan of Â£1.6m secured on the land.
The council’s legal charge, as far as I can make out, is security for a loan. If the council have given Carmarthen Promotions Ltd a loan it would be interesting to know why, how much, and on what terms. Incidentally, in 2016 the same directors set up another company, Carmarthen Promotions (North) Ltd which is also running at a loss.
It’s nearly that time of year again when the law allows you to take yourself down to County Hall and inspect the council’s accounts and “all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating thereto”, well, those that have escaped the Presidential Shredder anyway… The inspection period runs from the 5th July and the 1st August.
Unlike English councils, the requirement to publish monthly spending details over Â£500 doesn’t apply to Wales and this puts the interested public on the back foot. In Carmarthenshire we are left with trying to decipher generalised quarterly budget reports or going through tortuous freedom of information requests. With the growing profusion of arms-length companies and outsourced services even these avenues are becoming blocked.
So, if you have an area of interest, or even suspect there’s been some creative accounting or an unlawful payment or two, the details of how to exercise your right to inspect can be found here.