Sunday 7 June 2015

Betting with Public Money.

I am grateful to our local rugby team the Scarlets for two things. The first is the entertainment I have enjoyed for years watching them play, although only on TV since they moved to their new stadium, Parc Y Scarlets, built largely from public funds. Also secondly, for drawing me into politics. Not a function of the team but due to the local disruption to my area caused by the sale of the ground and surrounding green areas and the deep anger of local people, enraged by the huge amounts of their money spent by the County Council to support this chronically insolvent club.

Carmarthenshire County Council is well known for never having a "plan B" and resorted to throwing good money after bad in a vain attempt to turn around the fortunes of this ailing pet project. However, the saga has now caused Labour to lose control of Carmartheshire Council. Honesty, transparency and openness cannot be tolerated. The new Labour leader, Jeff Edmunds, had exposed the details of a deal on of one of the Scarlets Car Parks. The lease was given to the club for free and they never paid any rent on it. Instead of a promised 50/50 split in the proceeds of over £800,000, the council took only £200,000 and the Scarlets most of the rest, allowing them to  pay off a huge £280,000 debt from proceeds which should have gone to the public purse, Labour's former partners the Affiliated Independents rejected the Labour Groups' choice of leader when their democratic vote chose Jeff Edmunds, a clearly unreliable choice with his history of telling the truth to the public. Incidentally, the car park was created for them by the council, but never needed as the club has the same average attendances at the new Park y Scarlets as it did at the much smaller, more economical and historically significant Stradey Park.

The Affiliated independents' immediate choice of Plaid as their new coalition partners begs the question as it whether their new bedfellows are more "trustworthy." On paper Plaid are dedicated to openness, honesty and accountability. One paper however, we haven't seen, is the actual coalition agreement.

Plaid were the only party in 2007 to vote unanimously for the financial deal for the Scarlets but that was probably on misleading information, especially the amazingly overconfident forecasts from the club management. The sensible information was in a boring documrent few councillors probably bothered reading. or perhaps the  Deloittes report was lost in translation, "Extremely challenging" means "don't touch it with a barge pole" in English financial speak but probably something completely different in both plain english and welsh.

 To be fair,  members of the other two political groups voted in large numbers for the agreement with only 5 of 74 councillors voting against and a number staying way completely or failing to come back from lunch for the vote. According to the Club, the worst possible scenario was a "break even" situation and perhaps they were believed rather than a specialist accountancy firm.

The current Scarlet's accounts show that the debt, which was never cleared as promised, still remains and that there was a substantial trading loss last year. We are still in recession in all practicality in West Wales and the financial challenge for the club is still extreme.

One almost begins to suspect that the people who stand to benefit from a  dodgy deal are not the ones most suited to speak on its likely financial results, but that is high-level economic knowledge that simple councillors cannot be expected to understand. Neither should those with grandiose plans to expand Carmarthen town with no compelling economic or demographic argument be believed without critical assessment, especialy when public money may be spent in very large amounts.

 Yes, we may have a dreadful shortage of affordable one bedroomed flats in llanelli  and small modest homes for our youngsters to buy or rent at low cost accross the county, But do we need hundreds of larger homes that our own residents are not likely to afford far away from shops and other facilities and too expensive for most people to buy, even if they are supposedly "starter homes" at a fractional  discount?

In the coming week [Tuesday 9th June 2015] the County Council will decide whether or not to fund a very expensive piece of road in Carmarthen  leading to the proposed mega housing project.  Public money, some perhaps to be borrowed, may be used to facilitate massive private house building [up to 1200 units] with a huge potential impact of thousands of incomers to the town if it's successful.  It is proposed to be an exempt item, to be discussed in private and the decision made without public scrutiny. however, the general plans are well known and have been publicised already. CCC just doesn't want to discuss it publically in real time, under public scrutiny.

This proposal does not, as I see it, have issues so private that the details should not be make public prior to discussion, or that the deliberation should not be open and filmed. The Scarlets' funding was at least discussed in a  public meeting. This project is in theory as "challenging" as the Scarlets new stadium and any benefits could take a long time to materialise, if ever, in the present economic situation, The exempt item status, which prevents release of the documentation to the public also prevents detailed and meaningful consultation by councillors with our electorates,

 The Welsh Local Government Association review criticised CCC for over use of the "exempt item" gambit and Plaid should discuss this major public investment openly, though I will not be holding my breath. If they really want to change their minds about discussing the road in secret  they should also delay the item so that the public can grasp the issues and we can all appreciate the real mood of the County.

  2007 is a long way past, but it seems that convincing the CCC councillors that housing developments are not magical money-generating golden geese may take a few more years yet !

Sian Caiach

1 comment:

  1. Unusually this meeting is not on a Wednesday but a Tuesday, 9th June. The original post had the Wednesday 10th date. Please note the correction.


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