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Neath Port Talbot council’s cabinet will meet tomorrow (Wed) to discuss the latest developments in the City Deal. The report can be seen here and, for those of us used to observing Carmarthenshire council, it is remarkable for two reasons.Firstly, it is an honest, realistic and sensible appraisal, paving the way for constructive debate at cabinet and full council level. Whilst I’m sure not everything in the NPT garden is rosy, the report, and it’s not the first, is a stark contrast to Carmarthenshire, who’s councillors, and public, have been drip fed misinformation, lies, secrecy, shady deals, sham reports, legal threats and car crash debates. And not just over the City Deal and wellness scandal of course.

Secondly, but perhaps in the grand scheme of things, more importantly, it states that NPT are amending their projects and are on the verge of pulling out of the whole shebang.

The report agrees with and endorses the findings and significance of the two reports which were not controlled by Carmarthenshire, or Mr James’ own lawyers, ie the UK/WG review and the Pembs-led governance report, both of which I have covered here.

“Under the JWA, the Councils agreed that they shall conduct their relationship in accordance with the following principles and others: Being open and trusting in their dealings with each other; embracing a commitment to transparency; complying with statutory access provisions; paying the utmost respect of the standing and reputation of one another; making all decisions reasonably and in good faith; and procuring that Elected Members and officers act in the best interests of the City Deal.

Recent events and both reviews raise concerns whether these principles have been adhered to…”

This, incidentally, reflects the comments made by the Chair of the ABM Health board, who Mark James is now threatening with legal action for defamation, with your money.

The report goes on to point out that despite the Deal being trumpeted as a £1.3bn opportunity, in actual fact it boils down to £16m per year, divided between four councils, roughly £4m apiece. Not insignificant but, with some tweaking of their own projects, an affordable, manageable sum available in their own capital budget. They could do it themselves without the scandals and without having to subsidise Mark James’ vanity project in the Delta Lakes swamp.

The report requests permission to give the twelve month notice required to exit from the Deal if things don’t progress, very rapidly, over the next couple of months, and underlines (literally underlines) that  There is a clear basis for doing so in our opinion.”

Given that the Joint Working Agreement between the four councils took eighteen months and dozens of drafts to complete, with several elements still subject to disagreement, and now needs to be rejigged to accommodate the recommendations on the governance reports, it’s likely to take ages and more legal bills.
Aside from that, the Wellness project is sunk, or at least back to square one, and the Swansea Uni investigations, now involving the police, could take months, or years.

“As a Council, if we cannot see a return in the short term (say, a further six months) and in the form of business case approvals then exiting these arrangements may be the only logical course of action. For the avoidance of doubt, “approvals” means precisely that. It does not mean “in principle”; subject to “further review” or other caveats or conditionality which in reality would represent many more months of inconclusive dialogue. In these circumstances, what would be gained by continuing?”

It will also be interesting to see what Pembrokeshire Council do next given that they have just one project, tied in with the Port Authority, and are also subsidising the soon to be disappearing Mark James and his scandal-riddled Wellness dream.

Which brings me back to the first point.

Compare and contrast the recent farcical ‘debate’ at Carmarthenshire full council last week, with the NPT report and its honesty and clarity towards elected members.
It’s a tale of two councils.

As I pointed out in my last post, The death of democracy, the seventeen year dictatorship of Mark James has reduced most councillors, apart from a hardy few, most notably at the moment, Cllr Rob James, to a ridiculous collection of inward looking idiots, terrified of upsetting Mr James. As this week’s excellent Cadno piece from the Carmarthenshire Herald (see below) points out, they couldn’t even ‘endorse’ the reports, for fear of being critical of the golden goose.

It’s worse than that though, as they believe the nonsense themselves. This has nothing to do with politics, but has everything to do with failing to recognising that even the basic tenets of the Nolan principles have been trashed, by their own chief executive, and failing to recognise a scandal-ridden project when it’s presented to them on a plate.

Prize pillock of the week had to be Cllr Giles Morgan (Ind) who’s rambling, self-absorbed attack on Rob James also included an accusation that Pembrokeshire Council acted ‘unprofessionally’ for the unbelievable crime of releasing the damning internal governance report to its own councillors. Rob James hit back wondering what on earth was wrong with that and at least Pembrokeshire Council had respect for its councillors. He also said that the culture in Carmarthenshire Council was sometimes “absolutely disgusting”.

That would never happen in Carms, the report would have either been buried (literally perhaps), or, eventually been released months later accompanied by spin and an ‘officer’s report’ explaining why it was all completely wrong.

Public and government confidence in the City Deal has taken a hit – not because of questions from the press, or Rob James, or anyone else, but because of the behaviour and arrogance of Mark James, and his associates, and he should be held to account. Preferably by the police.

Incidentally, another quirk of Mark James’ seventeen year chairmanship of full council meetings was not to allow discussion on items ‘not on the agenda’, or speeches which didn’t address the Motion under debate.

Unless, of course, it suited him.

This was the case on Wednesday, all engineered to attack Rob James the current fly in the chief executive’s ointment. The ‘debate’ was a car crash led by Emlyn Dole, and overseen with silent, smug approval by Mark James.
Mission complete.

Over to Cadno:

Cadno and the old swimming hole

Cadno, being a beast himself, is all at ease with nature red in tooth and claw. Even the dumbest beast of the field is, however, able to distinguish between certain propositions.
Rabbits have it easiest of all. Eat. Go. Doe. Sow. 

If you’re a predator, things are a bit more complex. There’s the whole prey identification, stalking, patience, concealment, waiting for the right opportunity, pursuit, capture and ripping the throat out thing to deal with before concealing the food from other greedy sods who want to cash in on your hard work. 

All of that, to Cadno, appears a considerably more complex proposition that asking councillors to endorse a report which has already been endorsed by the Joint City Deal Board six days before. Such a proposition appears to be beyond members of Carmarthenshire County Council. 

We only have to look back at the loud hosannas which greeted the Acuity Legal report prepared by the CEO’s personal solicitors and the WAO report. These were triumphs for the Council. They vindicated the whole – umm – procurement process. We could rejoice that box-tickers had ticked the right boxes and that the box-tickers appointed to check how well the box-tickers had ticked those boxes had themselves ticked the right box for the Council. 

Of course, now we know that the WAO review trumpeted by the Council was no more than an outline review the WAO had planned for some time, the gilt has come a little off that gingerbread. Whereas the clean bill of health given by Acuity Legal provided valuable insight into the way Carmarthenshire County Council’s officers went about not telling other City Deal partners about their concerns regarding the Council’s private sector partners in the Wellness Village. Carmarthenshire County Council even presented its business case to the Joint City Deal Board for approval weeks after it had concluded Sterling Health were in a position to deliver jack shit. 

As Cadno observed when Acuity Legal’s report was published, its content was notable because of what it inadvertently revealed about the Council’s internal processes and the lengths its officers were prepared to go to reveal less than the whole truth to the Council’s valued partners in the City Deal. 

The Council was sure to sing its own praises loud and clear. 

It is not so keen, however, to discuss those reports published after those two reports which dealt only with how well officers followed the procurement rules. 

The UK and Welsh Government pointed out with some force that the governance of the City Deal was a mess. It said there was a lack of transparency and lack of trust. It noted that some business cases were poor. The Pembrokeshire report was less restrained. 

So, readers, when St Giles of Swiss Valley pings one at the Welsh Government and its UK counterpart for not divvying up the dosh tout-de-bloody-suite – as he did on Wednesday – it suggests that he has failed one of the key tests for any councillor expressing an opinion on a complex topic. Namely, try reading stuff first. He might then conclude that with tens of millions of pounds of public money at stake abject failures in governance, scrutiny, and planning might give any public body pause. Similarly, if Carmarthenshire’s officers rescued the City Deal – as Giles Morgan claimed – given what has been revealed about the Deal’s governance, it might be time to reflect that throwing a drowning man a life preserver made of concrete is not really progress. But let’s pass by Giles’ outrage at everything and everyone he wants to score a cheap point against. 

Let’s go back to the beginning. The motion asked councillors to endorse the reports prepared on behalf of the City Deal Board by consultants that were not appointed by Carmarthenshire County Council and by Pembrokeshire County Council working with officers of all the other local authorities involved. That included officers from Carmarthenshire. 

What those reports say is not important for the purposes of this article. Besides, what they say has been reported previously in this newspaper and many others. 

Here is what is important: the Council was being asked to endorse them.
‘Endorse (verb with an object). To declare one’s public approval or support of [object]’ – at least according to the OED. 

So, the Council was being asked to publicly approve the reports and their call for a revision of governance structures and the webcasting of meetings. 

This was surely uncontroversial stuff. 

Well, not quite. You see, criticism of the governance structures would impliedly be a criticism of the Sacred Cow that has become the leadership of Mark James CeeBeebies. 

And, loyally, semantically, obnoxiously, Emlyn Dole was having none of it. It was not the Council’s place to publicly approve the reports. It was a matter for the Board. Webcasting was the responsibility of Neath Port Talbot Council. Nothing was Carmarthenshire’s responsibility. Giving every impression of a man who cannot see a belt without hitting below it, Emlyn swung a few predictable low blows at the Labour leader. 

This is what it has come to, readers. If you accept the logic underpinning Emlyn Dole’s words, the Council is unable to express its opinion on anything if anyone else is involved. 

Unless it’s the Health Board. Or the Welsh Government. Or the UK Government. Or any subject the Great Deflector thinks won’t bounce back on him. However, Emlyn Dole did no more than reflect the complete self-absorption of councillors with the Wellness scheme and very little else outside it – a view expressed trenchantly some months ago by the leader of Neath Port Talbot Council, Rob Jones. 

They were not being asked to consider the Wellness Project, but the City Deal. However, what Chair Mansel Davies allowed them to discuss was none of that malarkey.
It was ‘Chew on Rob James Day’ and Mansel wasn’t going to let anybody who wanted a go on the ride to miss out. 

It was entertaining for all the wrong reasons. This was car crash council: members were unable to debate the real issues and focused on personal abuse and score-settling. Andre McPherson’s observation that councillors were not in the schoolyard would have been unnecessary if the Chair was controlling the debate adequately. Or at all.

In a debate in which councillors could have simply said: ‘Well, yes, we agree mistakes have been made but let’s look forward and not back’, they collectively jumped into a shallow pool of wet bullshit and went for a paddle. Giles Morgan practised his butterfly. 

There was a massive £1.4bn pound elephant in the Council Chamber. Sadly, too many councillors were intent on protecting the Golden Calf in the CEO’s seat.