Next week’s full council meeting features several interesting questions concerning the ‘Wellness Village’ and, more specifically, the partnership between the council and Sterling Health. The latest craze for setting up arms-length companies also comes under the spotlight. It should be interesting.The questions, listed below in bold, are pretty self-explanatory and are from opposition leader Cllr Rob James (Lab) to Plaid’s Emlyn Dole, (the comment or link in italics are mine);

Could the Leader of Council please give a brief overview on the process that was undertaken in choosing a private sector partner for the Wellness Village, outlining how many organisations took part in the Competitive Dialogue process and the reason Sterling Health was chosen?

It seems that as well as Sterling Health being a reincarnation of the now-dissolved Kent Neurosciences (which were the original partners) they were the only bidders for the contract. It is not known whether any other organisations actually tried to tender, maybe Emlyn will tell us.
Wellness Village ‘Private partners – something oddly familiar? 

Could the Leader of Council highlight who the Directors are behind the Joint Venture Partner and what experience they bring to the project?

I’m thinking here of one recent, and inexplicable addition to Sterling’s directors, Meryl Gravell… her notable achievements as leader of Carms Council included calling protesters campaigning against closure of their local A & E ‘rabble’; calling the workforce lazy; and when the council were busy closing all the little schools, accused councillors of ‘displaying weakness’ for listening to parents’ concerns. For more, please search this blog.
She was also known, in some quarters, as Mark James’ cash cow, keeping him in the manner to which he’s become accustomed, unlawful payments included.

The Collaboration Agreement for the projects on Delta Lakes with Swansea University and Sterling Health is said to cost £200 million, please could the Leader of Council detail how each partner will be expected to contribute to this cost?

Yes please, do tell us. The last set of ever-changing figures I saw showed a £127m contribution from the private sector, it will be interesting to know the details… Hopefully we will also be told exactly how much the council will be borrowing, with it’s current tally of debt already at £400m.

Could the Leader of Council outline how much this Authority has paid in consultancy fees since May 2015, including those connected with projects relating to the Swansea Bay City Deal?

Funnily enough I’ve recently made a Freedom of Information request for consultancy fees, currently awaiting a response. By August 2017 the council had already spent £564k on ‘Wellness Village’ reports. That will have gone up sharply in the last twelve months. 

Earlier this year, the governance and management structures of Cwm Environmental Limited, were changed to a Teckal company.  Could the Leader of Council please indicate what impact, if any, these changes have had on pay and conditions of the employees?

Could the Leader of Council please provide information on the remuneration package attached to the new Operations Director post of Delta Wellbeing Limited?

This Authority has established several companies in the last eighteen months that has resulted in reduced oversight for services that ordinarily are carried out by the Council; Councillors and the public being unaware of what is happening in these companies; and public finances in connection with public sector ventures being questioned.  Will the Leader of Council, therefore, pledge to halt the continuing outsourcing of services to teckal companies and promise not to create any new companies, including any relating to the City Deal, for the remainder of this term?

For some background to the arms-length outsourcing ventures (and of course the whole Wellness/City Deal thing) there have been numerous mentions on this blog, if you wish to search. My previous post, Mark James and the ‘Sicilian Cartel’, also gives a viewpoint.

As I am writing this, the responses, no doubt, are being dreamed up by the chief executive, for Emlyn to deliver, so I hope there’s a few follow-up questions being lined up.
Whether related to the arrival of these questions on the chief executive’s desk or not, the council/City Deal PR machine has been in overdrive again, this week the fanfare’s been out for the exciting and amazing prospect of a new leisure centre, or the ‘Wellness Hub’ in the Wellness thing. Presumably this is to attract public support, with far less emphasis, funnily enough, on the private health care, the Wellness Hotel and the holisitc therapy pods…

We can safely predict that the answers will be used as an opportunity for further spin and half truths, and anyone who suggests that this may not be the best thing since sliced bread will be accused of jeopardising the future prosperity of Mark James and Co the little children of Carmarthenshire.
In actual fact, after two years of nothing but PR puffery, this whole business is screaming for some proper scrutiny.

We’ll see.

Elsewhere on the agenda there’s a question on the £500k development fund trumpeted by Plaid last year as pot to help out struggling schools. According to Cllr Morgan (Ind), it’s main use seems to be related to ‘efficiency savings’ rather than direct help. Nothing is ever quite as it seems.
As for the SEN budget there’s been a £800k overspend as schools struggle to cope with demand.

As an aside, a recent meeting of the Education Scrutiny Committee tried to get to grips with the ‘Performance Monitoring Report for the period 1st April to 30th June 2018 (Quarter 1); progress against actions and measures in the New Corporate Strategy 2018-23 to deliver the 2018/19 Well-being Objectives’ 

As the garbled Minutes below illustrate, there is clearly a problem with this type of report, and all Scrutiny meetings are stuffed with them;

“Concern was expressed that of the 27 measures reported, 20 have either not started or data is not collected for quarter 1 and 2 are not available.  Also the with regard to the 67 actions reported as being on target, it was pointed out that the targets dates are not until 2019/20.  The Head of Education Services explained that the term “on target” is historic and what is meant is that in relation to performance in quarter 1, officers do not perceive any challenges to meeting the targets;
Concern was expressed over the format of the report in that themes 11 and 13 appeared between themes 1 and 2.  Officers agreed to look at the formatting of future reports”

Finally, a quick mention about the Planning Committee next Thursday, only because I’ve taken a passing interest in the use of ‘commercially sensitive’ viability appraisals to reduce the level of affordable homes or community contributions by large developers.
An application for 48 homes in Llannon, by Pennant Homes is on the agenda, (incidentally the Council’s own Local Development Plan recommended 38, but never mind)I’m not against housing developments nor am I in favour of unreasonable demands on developers, but viability appraisals are being used more and more and councils, when faced with stark figures, are held over a barrel. The problems arise when the figures are calculated specifically to satisfy the requested reduction (I’m not suggesting that this is the case here at all), and as these reports are withheld as ‘commercially sensitive’, it is impossible for councillors to question the basis of the reduction.

In this case an unspecified amount of community contributions (S106 obligations) have been agreed, “on the basis of a viability report”, the viability being compromised by the “necessary engineering to achieve a suitable highway gradient”.
Out of 48 dwellings, only three will be ‘affordable’, far less than the usual 30%. And as this is in Cllr Emlyn Dole’s ward I’m sure he won’t want to send Plaid’s affordable housing ‘journey’ off track…

The developers, Pennant Homes, are part of Coastal Housing, a housing association providing affordable accommodation and in receipt of government grant funding.

The officers report goes on to state that the “viability report is commercially sensitive, however it shows a developer return at a significantly lower level than would be normally acceptable, so further contributions would make the development commercially unviable.”

The issue of viability appraisals across the UK has been a subject of investigation in the past by the Guardian newspaper, an editorial on the subject can be read here.