Saturday, 10 June 2017

Another election, and probably another one soon.

This May I lost my county council seat. Luckily I had realised I had probably lost at the verification of votes the night before, so had time to think things over. I still held my Llanelli  Rural Council Seat and will be seen joining the local chain gangs as vice chair of the that council this year and as chair the following year. The Rural Council selects its chairs on seniority and I've been a member since 2001. I was vice chair before but resigned when both the Clerk and some other councillors objected to my autistic child being my consort  after they started reading a book in a very boring WEA lecture. If there had been a spare book I would have taken it, I was asked me to change my consort but I decided to just pack it in. Now I've been around so long its my turn again. This time my mother is my consort and her right wing politics and embarrassing stories about my childhood will be far less likely to cause offence.

Losing my County Seat leaves me more time for other things, and completely free of any guilt from the actions of the assorted slime bags, ostriches,nice but dim, well meaning but ineffective and generally gutless former colleagues, most of whose company I honestly will not miss. Most importantly my ambition is to write up and finish researching a large pile of local issues which have been languishing around my home and computer. I hope to blog more frequently.

As to yesterday's election, after waiting up until the early hours of the morning to see results which were important to me in one way or another, I found the picture here from the post by my friend Gillian Anderson today in Aye Mac summed up my general viewpoint on the process also.

I'm getting older, and will be 60 later this year and recall my first political activity which was delivering election leaflets in the 2 elections of 1974, the first chapters in a slow, political car crash for Labour ending in the plague of 1979. I doubt this new government will live up to the "strong and stable" label.

I also cannot abolish the evil thought that Theresa May should grasp her only advantage in her probably short premiership and send in a brexit negotiating team containing at least half of her DUP new friends as I truly believe that after a few weeks of their company the EU would give us very favourable terms just to get rid of them!

I have always been a nationalist. During the 2014 Scottish Referendum I worked for Yes in Dundee where I used to live and work, and later spent some time in the neighboring  Perth and North Perthshire constituency where, unlike in Dundee, where the "Yes" vote was the largest percentage in Scotland, it clearly was not going so well .They had a 60% No vote in 2014. This SNP seat was clearly at risk in an election where INDYREF2 was the major issue and the Tories doing well. Shortly after 3.00 am and after 2 recounts and despite a 20% swing from the SNP to the Tories, the SNP's Pete Wishart, a man of notable courage and persistence, won the seat by 21 votes. I shall be playing nothing but my Runrig CD's in the car for weeks.
                                                                                 Siân Caiach,

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Mystery of the Car Park - the Scarlets needed money and thanks to the council they got it

From previous blogs you will recall the high level of financial support from Carmarthenshire County Council for their pet project - The Scarlets Rugby Club and their even more amazing generosity to Nottingham based Leasing Company Henry Davidsons' Developments to whom the council gave away the Eastgate Llanelli, our Town Center Development after throwing millions of public money into the project. Then, remarkably, they managed to support both of their pet money pits in one single project - the Parc Y Scarlets Overflow Car Park Sale.

Ongoing development in 2016 when a hotel was being added to the Sessile Oak Pub on the left. Parc Y Scarlets  in distance. . 
Such is the web of mutual support in Carmarthenshire County Council that one pet project just has to help out another. The Eastgate has struggled to let out all of its shop units, the prices being pretty steep for Llanelli and anecdotally the management of the complex seem to prefer "national" businesses to local enterprises. However, the Scarlets were clearly an exception, were offered and occupied 2 East Gate units, a shop and a cafe, to promote the club, encourage visitors to the town centre and of course to make them some money.

Somehow the Scarlets ran up a shop fitting bill of nearly £300k with Eastgate Developers and leasing agents Henry Davidson Developments. I'm waiting for former Council Leader Meryl Gravell's memoirs to find out how this fine English firm got its claws into her.

Anyway, in order to pay off this debt the Scarlets and Carmarthenshire Council decided to sell a car park lease and split the profits, Due to the unfortunate fact that the Scarlets' new stadium has not managed to pack in thousands of new fans into the increased seating area provided, the overflow carpark was no longer needed but more cash was. However, the scandal was that although the Scarlets had been given the lease to the Car park for free, they got the lion's share of the proceeds as it was sold to Marsten's to build the Sessile Oak pub. The pub chain wanted to put up a hotel too, but it was originally declined by CCC to protect the hotel at the Eastgate. Now a hotel has been built on the car park as well, an unexplained u turn in that planning decision..

The ordinary county councillors generally treated like mushrooms, {kept in the dark and fed on manure} were told that the Authority would share the sale profits after the "usual disbursements" . The land registry showed that the car park lease was sold for £850k and CCC accounts showed that CCC got £200k. It turned out that after fees, valuation and paying off the Scarlet's debt to HDD, only £400k was left to be split, The usual disbursements in Carmarthenshire as you can see, are not exactly what one may expect. Following this heroic bailout the whole Scarlets' shop and cafe project folded, Was it ever a commercial proposition?

One sad issue of the whole case is when I pressed the Council's Executive Board member for resources and finance for an explanation of how half of £850k became £200k he told me the truth about where the money had gone. When I walked into his office to hear the explanation he was actually on the phone to chief executive Mark James who, even at the last minute, was trying to talk him out of spilling the beans. The same Jeff Edmunds, as leader of the Labour Group was later rejected out of hand by the Independents as a suitable coalition partner, presumably as he wasn't trusted to cover their backs,suspected of an unfortunate tendency to tell the truth.

The Scarlets have been under public scrutiny because of resentment by local residents of the huge amounts of public money spent on them , Like the car park deal there are other examples of County Council Executive financial decisions without scrutiny or clear explanation. More recently Llanelli House has benefited from a sudden and unexpected handout from the public purse of over £300k to fill an unexplained gap in their budget. Many more questionable hand outs have probably slipped under the radar.

How does a firm or institution qualify for the gravy train in Carmarthenshire? There seems to be a process which firmly encourages blindly throwing more of our money at pet projects that fail to make money as predicted in their original fantasy business plans and then desperately ask for more.

Is it just simply that failure to bail out these lame ducks will expose the original detail of the decisions to support them as flawed?

How many public bodies have the general motto" Never admit mistakes, never say sorry and hope you never get found out"? Quite a lot, I suspect.

Siân Caiach


Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Guest Post - Ray Jones - his take on the Scarlets' funding issues

Ray Jones is a longtime community activist and one of the original "Stradey 9" who formed the Strady Residents Action Group - SRAG to oppose the building of a large residential development on the C2 flood plain at Stradey Park.

Ray "Duncan" Jones

 Ray writes:

Carmarthenshire Council have admitted spending over £25 million on the Parc- y-Scarlets Stadium. This does not include a loan of £2,6 million at an initial interest rate of 7%, later reduced to 3.5% and interest only, with full repayment of the capital sum in 2023.

The Council also made a contribution of £5.16 million from its reserves, and also funded a supposed 106 payment [usually used to fund local infrastructure of a new development] of £5.56 million to act as the club's contribution to the stadium. This loan was paid back, often in arrears, by Taylor Wimpey. The sum was based on the original 450 homes planned and after protests this was reduced to 355 so the developers may have ended up paying over the odds.

The new Stadium site was council owned and part developed for retail, the rest for the Scarlets.
Grants were given for their new training barn, £700,000 and the athletic track at the new stadium was supported to the tune of £750,000. The 150 year stadium ground lease with no rental payment unless there is considerable profit on ticket sales {never has been} is worth an estimated £5 million. So essentially free and eventually part of it sold on to finance other projects.

Deliottes were commissioned in 2007 to assess the Scarlet's business plan at the cost of £200,000. Deloittes assessed that the business plan was unlikely to succeed but the council still proceeded. The Scarlets agreed to set up an annual  "sink fund" for repairs of £25,000 but were allowed to default on it.

Later the Scarlets sold the lease on one of their car parks to Marsden's who built a pub and a hotel on the site and plan a "drive through" food and drink sales unit for the future. The Sale was for over £800,000 but the council, originally promised half the money, only got £200,000. Did that deficit include the almost £300,000 used to refit the Scarlet's shop and Cafe at the Llanelli  Eastgate, now both closed down?

Carms County Council were said to be paying £20,000 p.a. to employ a liason officer for them to keep in touch with the Scarlets.

The Council argued that the Scarlet Brand would bring both Pemberton and Trostre Retail Parks loads of business, They play at home 16 times a year - 11 home games in the Pro 12 and 4 in Europe. What happens the rest of the year?

Morrison's Supermarket paid the council around £25 million for their site but CCC paid a lot, some millions, to stabilise that site. Sold commercially the stadium site may have been worth £14-16 million. The Councillors were told the project would not cost the public a penny as it would be funded by the sale of this council land for retail and the Scarlets would be able to use the profit from the sale of land at Stradey Park to pay off their debts. This was then a figure of £9 million. Now it is more despite the money spent on them by the Council and selling the Stradey Park site for well over £9 million.     

Parc y Strade development : 355 homes mainly on a flood plain and elevated above ground level and  so increasing the risk of local flooding
  How much revenue has been lost with the Scarlets being given free rent and earning hundreds of thousands of pounds as the Council pay for the use of their facilities over very many years and the rental charges paid by all who use those same facilities?

Finally consider the the fairness in Carmarthen Town FC getting a grant of over £165.000 over 10 years and now applying for more, £150,000 for an all weather surface and Llanelli FC, "the Reds" who only owed £23,000 in debt being left to the mercy of being bankrupted and given a massive relegation [down 4 divisions to Welsh league division 3]. It could have been 8 if the Welsh FA had not stepped in.They then had to pay for their own signage and other local clubs, cricket, Tennis and Squash clubs face the same scenario. 

Ray "Duncan" Jones

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

St Illtyd's Way - can Carmarthenshire County Council turn back the Sea?

We may all know the tale of  King Canute who failed to turn back the sea. Less well known is the Celtic Saint Illtyd who was quite a religious superstar in his day, he had the sea under control. He is commemorated in many place names and also in St Illtyd's Way, a 64 mile long footpath for hikers which incidentally passes my home. The Way travels from Pembrey Country Park through Rural East Carmarthenshire via Mynydd y Gwair to Margam Country Park in Neath Port Talbot.

St Illtyd's church, Pembrey. Carmarthenshire, originally on the coast but now surrounded by homes built on reclaimed land.
St Illtyd was very popular. Setting up his HQ religious commune and college at what is now known as in English as Llantwit Major- Llanilltud Fawr in Welsh. Not surprisingly, as he specialised in coastal settlements, the sea became a problem here. As the community's sea walls failed repeatedly God had the solution. He instructed Illtyd to wave his crozier at the naughty sea which was permanently frightened away. Things were simpler in the 5th Century. It was a miracle.

Now the Sea can really get in the way in Carmarthenshire's coastal city deal.

Grant grabbing and permission to borrow was seen by many local government civil servants and councillors as a fine way of increasing council incomes. The trouble was making up the projects to fit the applications tended to leave a few white elephants hanging around, some quite expensive both financially and politically ,Much of the spending seems to have little in the way of tangible results for the local populations. Hence the deaf ears in much of Wales to the argument of the vital need for EU funding to continue.

Now there's a different game in town,, the City Deals. Here in Carmarthenshire the Council is the lead body in the Wellness ARCH Project AKA Wellness and Wellbeing Neuro/Life Science village and a few other similar descriptions. Here is one official description from a press release:

What is a Wellness and Life Science Village?
This project is a first for the country and brings together health, science and enterprise to regenerate the area and also help people live healthier lives for longer.
The project concept was derived last year from work undertaken by under ARCH alongside Carmarthenshire Council. ARCH (A Regional Collaboration for Health) is a partnership between Swansea University and ABMU and Hywel Dda health boards. By coming together the three organisations are aiming to transform the way healthcare is delivered in South West Wales. ARCH brings together the health service and innovation and research to find a new way of meeting the challenges the NHS faces.
The village could see lifestyle and leisure facilities, primary and community-based healthcare and specialist residential care integrated with university research and education space. There will also be business facilities to encourage economic growth.
A feasibility study, funded by the Welsh Government, is currently being carried out for the scheme at Delta Lakes. The site, adjacent to the coastline, has been chosen as the perfect place to deliver the project, which is expected to create 1,000 jobs.

Llanelli is a low lying town where most of South Llanelli has been reclaimed from the sea over the past 2 centuries. With global temperatures expected to raise by at least 2-4 C by 2100  and tide lines to rise by 4-6 metres building on land already requiring tide locks to stop the sea coming in twice a day seems a little short sighted?  Delta lakes, looking at the research by Climate Central, may well be permanently under water  before the end of the century and at risk of tidal surges producing floods  prior to going under. It is clearly in a potential danger area. Why throw money at a site which may only last a few decades?
Speaking back in 2015 Professor Ian Hall, head of Earth and Oceanic Science at Cardiff University said:
"It is clear that as the rate and total amount of Sea level rise increases in the coming years the impact of this change will be increasingly felt".
"Our Coastlines and the communities living on them will become increasingly vulnerable. In Wales, adapting to future sea levels will require a combination of increased flood protection for certain high value coastal assets but an acceptance that abandonment and relocation is inevitable for some"
There is no sign on the plans I've seen of extensive flood protection being part of this construction.You can make almost any building flood proof to a certain level but it is expensive and the projected builds look rather open and decorative rather than a fortress against the sea. Why build in an area of risk knowing the possible consequences?
This is an aerial view  of the site as it is now prior to building and you will see that it is flat, very near the sea and even has standing water on areas which are not the actual lakes, It probably has not been built on historically since industrial times because its suitability was thought far from ideal. With global warming accelerating it may now be even less suitable. Could the County Council, financially liable for project delivery, end up with an expensive case of trench foot? Perhaps that Crozier is at hand somewhere?
As the press release says:

'Nothing of this scale has been tried in Wales before'

An Artist's Impression

                                                                                                         Siân Caiach

Saturday, 1 April 2017

A Better Future? - looking ahead to the Council Elections

Council elections are often seen as the poor relations of bigger political conflicts. Not as sexy as  UK general elections or even Assembly Elections and bereft of the binary force of a democratic yes/no referendum. They should be selections of suitable representative individuals but are complicated by party preferences and the often bizarre wranglings and eccentricities of the more local levels of politics.

In Carmarthenshire County Council the Councillors have limited but certainly some influence on the Council. Many functions are seemingly administered by the local government civil servants, the "officers", with little or no input from elected members. This is probably acceptable as long as the services provided are excellent and responsive to the needs of our population but the lack of habitual and real oversight by elected members could be a recipe for disaster.

One of the first cuts Carmarthenshire County Council made in the early days of austerity was to reduce the number of meeting of Scrutiny Committees where Councillors supposedly examine the working and efficiency of their departments. I have long been a member of the Health and Social Care Committee. I have never successfully put an item on the agenda despite asking the committee chairs. My committee  is seemingly run by officers without any real consultation of issues either among Councillors,service users or front line staff. If it happens, they hide it well.

 The delay in building a fully funded £7million care home in Llanelli agreed years ago, apparently is just to help fund a"Wellness" project at Delta Lakes, part of the Swansea City Deal. It shows a great willingness to sacrifice the well-being of ordinary people - specifically those stuck in hospital for want of a care home or convalescent bed to go to - in order to promote what may well become a vanity project which fails to deliver the massive private investment needed in the current financial outlook. The County Council is liable for returning funds if the project fails. I have asked the CCC finance director how much we are risking and will update this blog if when he replies to me. What worries me is that Social Care Senior Officers and the Plaid /Indy Council leadership must have known exactly why the Llanelli Care Home Project had been shelved and will surely now remain "on ice" while the new Wellness Project is developed,and hopefully not for the whole 15-20 years it may take.
[ To be even handed I should mention that it is quite possible that the Labour Group knew too but if they did they are damn good actors !]

The impressive entrance to  Carmarthenshire County Hall is surrounded  by relief sculptures  presumably depicting the functions of local government.This one, the lowest one on the right, is a cascade of money passing from hand to hand accumulating in the lowest palm. The symbolism surely depends on the true identity of the  last recipient of the loot!
The future of this Council, and all others, depends on the quality and talent of the elected members and the commitment of the whole organisation to deliver as much as will be possible for our communities under the economic and political  circumstances we all face. There is very little mention in the election literature I've seen of the actual problems we need to address. There is much more mention of the problems of the National Health Service [most of which, other than bed blocking is not related to Councils] for example, rather than the huge problems delivering social care and public housing [largely to do with County Councils]. Most people realise that councils cannot magically producean jobs and prosperity, but the do want a better environment and better services.

The Election on May 4th will be examined nationally as to how well the parties do, but in fact the real result depends on how well the Councillors deliver for their residents over the next 5 years. Chose well!

Siân Caiach

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Dumped in a ditch? A messy end and as yet no explanation.

The whole saga of Carmarthenshire County Council's cunning plan to indemnify senior officers so that they could sue local residents for libel at public expense is long and complicated. All levels of government in the UK  are forbidden to sue citizens for libel The motivation for the councillors, the Independent/Labour coalition who first put this rule into the council's Constitution, and then used it against a blogger, is unclear, I don't believe any of them  realised the probable consequences of using public funds to try to silence local critics, Although senior officers may be willing to act as a proxy for the Council,as in this case, it is unlikely to be taken up by other Councils at present. All that has been proved here is that you can spend a quarter of a million pounds of public money on lawyers and still not stop a person blogging. The lady in question still has access to a computer and internet. Our chief executive has reported her to the police for still blogging, It seems unlikely that she will be prosecuted for doing so, but has been contacted by the police and interviewed under caution.

All this started with a comment by our chief executive on the Madaxeman blog which in his email to all councillors Mr James claimed had been a statement posted at the request of several members i.e. Councillors. It certainly was posted after help with composition from the CCC press office and Legal Department. I replied to Mr James and every County Councillor pointing out that much of what he had said about the filming of Council meetings in Wales was factually untrue, other councils and public bodies already did do, others were planning trials etc. An unintended consequence of my email was that in disclosure to Mrs Thompson's lawyers before the libel trial was the evidence that my emails were being monitored and tracked. I did not find this out until much later when contacted by Mrs Thompson with a mystery document bearing my name and largely redacted. By the details of the email trail and the help of a friend I was able to find which email had been tracked and on what date. It was my reply to Mark James to his statement on the blog. I have no doubt that he had ordered the monitoring of my emails and also had no intention of ever telling me I was under surveillance. I suppose that if a Council is largely run by officers, with little scrutiny of them. it is only a matter of time before their contempt for the Councillors is so great that the privacy and human rights of the elected members becomes subservient to the general welfare of the ruling clique? No explanation has ever been given to me and no apology received.

A threat by Mark James in full council that I should expect a complaint against me from the IT officer who monitored my emails came to nothing but caused me a great deal of wonderment as to what on earth. as an IT security officer he could complain about me? Was he coerced to work on my case and blamed me for it?,Did the monotony of my ward problems and endless routine notifications cause him psychological harm? If he had gone "over the line" and snooping on Councillors really isn't his business and he shouldn't have done it - how is it my problem to have accidentally come across evidence this was going on? Unnecessary speculation, as the poor man never did complain.

Subsequently, in court, Mr James said that he had no formal instruction from Councillors to make the statement on the blog. He may never even have had informal instruction - a nod and a wink- to do so.  Was it really all just Mark's idea??

Although Mark James is a very able and persuasive man the people officially in charge of the Council are of course the Councillors, specifically the ruling executive board, The decision to fund the libel action by the chief executive was made in secret and the councillors present probably thought no-one would ever get access to the minutes of their discussion and that their part in all this would be secret forever. However, undoubtedly their actions or perhaps inaction brought about this whole affair. The full minutes of the meeting were released after the Welsh Government's Wales Audit Office investigated. The WAO  found the payments to Mr James were unlawful.

Our senior Councillors do not seem to have agreed with this judgement. Quite recently Cllr Emlyn Dole reminded me in writing that the WAO findings have never been "tested in court", implying that they may not be correct. He sang a different song as Plaid Cymru Leader of the Opposition. I gather that Mr James closely assists the major political groups in the negotiation of coalitions. I wonder if selective amnesia was in the mix for Plaid's leadership deal?

 Until the exempt document was released we were ignorant of the sentiments expressed in January 2012 that it would be a shame if Mr James had to pay for his own libel defence and that a leading barrister had already been engaged to suggest a cunning plan - a counter claim  by Mr James which could be financed under the Council's constitution. The reputation of the Chief Executive had to be defended. This, presumably is why a modest out of court settlement payment offer to Jacqui Thompson was made and then withdrawn.. It mentions that there may be little likelihood of recovering costs from someone with a low income in the meeting  and very definitely Mr James stated that any damages will be paid to the Council. No mention of the option to change his mind later, no negative consideration of the large amount of money it would likely cost, which is also mentioned. Clearly he was worth it.

Now, I accept the libel case award of Mr James Damages is legal,even if the funding was unlawful, and he had every right in law to pursue those damages he was awarded. The fact that the legal fees for  this case were paid for by public finds and that Mr James apparently first promised to return  the damages to the Council to help repay the legal bill and then decided to keep the money is probably also legal as he didn't sign anything. Promising he definitely would do so -is just a statement recorded in the minutes of that January 2012  meeting by the Head of our Legal Department and verified by the then Leader of Council, Meryl Gravell. Perhaps both ladies made a mistake in hearing exactly what he said?

I may never get an answer as to what really happened and what motivated all this. In the end filming and streaming of meetings has not led to disaster. Despite the case against Mrs Thompson the number of local bloggers has increased and many residents may have a deeper insight into the workings of our local government. I have asked Mr James to explain his change of  mind and perhaps he will. The damage to the Council's credibility is already done, and there have been a lot of other casualties along the way. If truth is the daughter of time I hope we don't have to wait too long?

Siân Caiach

New Zealand Wiltshire horn Sheep  - they remind me of some people I know.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

A Glitch for People First

Politics is a long game and marked with twists, turns and unexpected consequences. People First had a bit of a twist recently when the name of our party, People First, was accidentally removed from the official list of parties held by the electoral commission. The fault was ours, but not deliberate. Our treasurer had been seriously ill last year with several hospital admissions for treatments. During one of these admissions the routine request for the £25 annual party nomination fee was sent by email and missed, as similarly was the reminder. As a result the party name was de-registered and we only discovered it when a candidate submitted his nomination paper for checking.

People First, a small party with a small membership run on a shoestring by unpaid volunteers, has to deal with just as much bureaucracy as National Parties with paid staff is, one part of which is to maintain registration with the electoral commission. Its not been a problem up to now but we did not have a fail safe to allow for sudden illness and missing deadlines. It has been a good lesson, if a little embarrassing.

On contacting the Electoral commission and explaining matters they instructed us to reapply but they pointed out that the process takes 30 days which is too long to allow our members to stand under the party banner with nominations closing on the 4th of April.They advised us to stand as Independents and re-register promtly. By the election date of May 4th we should be back on the register and obviously will not let this happen again! The good news is that our treasurer has made a good recovery from a life threatening illness.

 It means that the name People First/ Gwerin Gyntaf  will not be used on the ballot paper. However. it can still be used on all the election literature and we can still use the name generally, but will have to be described as "Independent" on the actual polling forms

Of course we are all independents anyway, We chose to stand as People First / Gwerin Gyntaf  to distinguish ourselves from the Carmarthenshire "Affiliated Independent Party", which almost all people standing as "Independents" here join at County level, and to explain how truly independent we are. {check out Bell's Principles on pages of this website}

Since Carmarthenshire County Council was formed in 1999 the Affiliated Independent Party has constantly been in "power" either leading the Council or in coalition.They have the structure of standard political parties including imposing "whips" on votes. When in coalition with bigger parties they still get half the seats on the Executive Board as the "junior partner" which effectively means that they have had more power than they deserve and can block many of the ambitions of their coalition partners. The title "Independent" gave them a degree of immunity from blame as in the minds of the public they are still often regarded as being independent in thought and deed when largely they do not act as such. They are a political party in all but  official party name.

 We registered as a party properly with the Electoral Commission in 2012 and think we have acted  more independently than the affiliated Independents. Their triumphs include the Scarlet's generous funding, selling off Llanelli town centre, the Pembrey Country Park debacle and a string of uncomfortable planning issues.Their general policy of "Build it and they will Come" continues with support of the Swansea City Deal at Delta Lakes. Its not been too successful to date but they clearly have no other ideas.

Its ironic that just for this election we have to use the "Independent " label just in the polling booth. I would like to emphasise that despite our temporary label we have had nothing to do with the  Affiliated independents mentioned above.

 Our political opponents are already suggesting that we were de-registered for some unspecified wilful wrongdoing. I'm afraid the boring truth is that is was simply an accidental failure to pay a £25 annual registration fee

Siân Caiach

Monday, 13 March 2017

Giving away Llanelli - Why did they give away our town centre?

Councillor Meryl Gravell has been in charge of either the whole of Carmarthenshire County Council or its Regeneration/development wing for the Council's entire life - nearly 18 years, She is generous to her friends and especially Nottingham based developers Henry Davidson Developments, So generous that she gave away the town centre where I live to them, Llanelli.

It is current wisdom, at least to Mrs Gravell, is that the way to stimulate the Carmarthenshire Economy is to build things. Although building things clearly gives jobs to planners, builders and all the relevant construction trades one would think that after things had been built these jobs would tail off. So apparently, you then have to build more things. The master plan was clearly to abandon buildings on the West side of Llanelli and rebuild them on the East side. Few new jobs, local tradespeople not invited and small businesses often disadvantaged.

Then next project planned is to build in South Llanelli in the beautiful former heavy industrial area, Delta Lakes where private health provision is apparently sadly lacking. In order to fund this project  £7 million set aside for a new care home for Llanelli has sat in the Carmarthenshire County coffers or 6 years while many elderly people are stuck in local hospitals due to lack of social care.One asks has anyone done the geological survey of what lies beneath Delta Lakes? One of our out of town retail sites took absolutely masses of concrete and allegedly £19 million to stabilise. I don't think you can do that with lake land.

First came the out of town retail parks with free parking and often lower rents which attracted much business from a town centre with very limited free parking
The Scarlet's Rugby Stadium, moved from the West to the East side of town and doubled in size. Unfortunately the ticket sales did not double as there was not a huge increase in punters to fill the seats.

The old Theatre, Theatre Elli which also doubled as a Cinema was also replaced by new buildings on the East Side, with similar capacity to the old ones. Town centre large stores like Marks and Spencer's and Tesco relocated to the bigger out of town units to the East as did many other chains and the process continues. The Eastgate was supposed to attract shoppers back to town and didn't.

Out of Town. Llanelli's Parc Trostre where parking is free.

 Then next plan is to build in South Llanelli amongst the beautiful Delta Lakes where private health providers, a gym and university research buildings will provide jobs over a 20 year project build. The funding of this ARCH project looks pretty dodgy to me  If there's a capital shortfall, how much of a hit does the County take as the lead  organisation? Where is the £120 million from private investment coming from? What possible return other than subsidy from the public purse can Meryl promise them?

At least the sewage outfalls into this post industrial water feature might be finally dealt with, or the decorative fountains shown in the plans may be rather challenging!!

The truth hurts, People have spent too long and been stressed waiting to escape from hospital and instead the Council is using their money. promised to  build a care home, to back a vanity project. which may never get off the ground.

In Llanelli the County Council has a habit of not only bending over backwards to favour developers but also a disturbing habit of giving away everything to them. The cost free 150 year lease to the Scarlets on their new stadium for example.

The Eastgate project in Llanelli town centre is our best example of Council :Policy to feed the .Rich at our expense.  A leasing company from Nottingham, Henry Davidson Developments, turns up mysteriously. Its a private company with no experience o building town centres and is given the Eastgate Project to build and run. The County Council buy the buildings on the site, demolish them, prepare the ground and agree to pay £5 million in rent for the offices over 20 years. They refit the offices at Council Expense and move in staff from offices we already own. and didn't need to pay rent for.

We showered this project with public money and gave away the site to the nice developers, HDD. The project was described by HDD as a £20 million build. Given the free town centre development land , indulgent planning permission and site  preparation as well as financial support it could certainly have cost that much in public money and public assets.

So HDD were gifted the whole Eastgate estate:- car park, shops, offices, a hotel, a bus station and a cinema.

HDD sold it on to a property investment firm called Ignis for  around £16 million.. Ignis sold it later to Standard Life Investments. At the beginning of March 2017 Standard Life and Aberdeen Asset Management announced a merger to form the largest property management company in the UK with a book value of £11 billion.

 In Llanelli the high price of unit rentals in the Eastgate mean that the retail area has never been fully let.  Millions of public money spent to eventually give away the Eastgate to a huge conglomerate which will exercise control over our new town development solely for the purpose of their own profit. Councillor Meryl Gravell, the Council Leader who formulated and agreed the deal for the Eastgate project has a lot to answer for.

How can we trust her with the Swansea City Bay Region "City Deal"ARCH project at Delta Lakes? So far all she had done is stopped the building of a much needed care home just to support the project. Which lucky company is going to get the 40 acre site to sell on for profit when we, the public,  have given away ownership of the land and borrowed heavily to pay for  the building and infrastructure? Do we let another part of Llanelli be donated to the rich by this generous lady? We get the debt and higher council tax,  Meryl's mates get our money and the profits. Its been done before!

 Siân Caiach,

Monday, 13 February 2017

Plaid's Poison Chalice -The Leadership of Carmarthenshire County Council

New Dawn in the Garden of Wales or just Old Hat?
As Plaid Cymru in Carmarthenshire launch their campaign for the 2017 May elections you would believe that they have turned around a dodgy council and have an exemplary record of governance.The Truth is not so glossy. Privately some Plaid Cymru Councillors admit that they are hamstrung by the Coalition agreement in which they gave the much smaller Affiliated Independent Group equal power in numbers on the Council's Executive and therefore in decision making.The AI group have been the driving force in every administration since the Council was formed, Although Emlyn Dole has the title of Leader, and the  Leader's large salary, he clearly does not have the power. Neither did the Labour party who "led " the previous administration. The affiliated independents somehow manage to retain their power and continue to gift public money, land and opportunity to their "friends", The local equivalent of a Sicilian Cartel, as it has been described.

It was an AI led executive board that decided to fund a libel action against local blogger Jacqui Thompson. A "Labour led" executive board then endorsed the policy and a Plaid one has changed its previous stance to also support this project. Mrs Thompson  has recently received a letter giving her a court date to recover libel damages owned to Carmarthenshire County Council's Chief Executive Mr Mark James. The only way she can produce the damages is by the sale of her half of the family home in Llanwrda. This is all perfectly legal. Mr James has been  financed in a libel action by the Council and was awarded the damages in the high court after being criticised in Mrs Thompson's blog.

The Council's Monitoring Officer, Linda Rees Jones has apparently told the major Council Political Groups that any Councillor who attempts to interfere with the process of Mr James extracting his damages, eg. by suggesting he takes the payment in modest instalments instead of forcing the sale of her home, risks that such action would be contempt of court. However, I am sceptical of this advice as Mr James clearly undertook to donate any damages to the Council to cover his legal costs, which the Council have already paid in full.

As an elected member of said Council I feel I have an interest in not making a family homeless in order just to provide funds more quickly for this council. I have asked Mr James whether or not he intends to give the money to the Council as promised and he has declined to reply. I shall therefore assume that the undertakings listed in the minutes of the Executive board meeting of 23rd January 2012 stand, and the money from  the damages is being collected to give back to the Council. If this is not the plan then Mr Mark James has questions to answer about his own integrity.

 I have yet to meet a local voter who holds that the Thompson family should lose their home
in order to recover a debt to the Council immediately rather than in instalments.

All this results from the  decision of the County Council's Executive Board to fund Mr James to fight this libel action .A further charge of £190,000 for legal costs has been put on Mrs Thompson's half of the house by the County Council. Both sums cannot be recovered, There is still a mortgage to pay on the property and it has an agricultural tie.,The judge in this second case firmly advised the Council to not spend further public money on the project of extracting cash from someone who does not have it. Mr James still seems to want his pound of flesh and is stubbornly not revealing whether or not his deal with his sponsors, the Council, still holds.

 Mr James has priority on any proceeds from the sale and he has, in theory, the legal right to apply to make the family homeless, just as the County Council could well be forced to re-home them at considerable expense,

Many councils have rather negative blog posts written about them. I've done a good few personally and its hardly something out of the ordinary. Usually, if someone objects to what is written the blogger will remove it, especially on the threat of legal action. Unfortunately Mr James did not read Mrs Thompson's blog .Only when it was examined retrospectively after Mrs Thompson started a case against the Council initiated by Mr James' comments on another blog, were the libellous mentions of "Pinocchio" and "slush fund" noted.

Mr James has been perfectly legally awarded damages on the grounds of persecution by Mrs Thompson. Councillor Emlyn Dole has reminded me of this and also that although the Wales Audit Office considered the funding of Mr James' case against her "unlawful", he does not agree with this WAO judgement, as it has not been tested in a court of law. In opposition he did not have these doubts. As Council leader, he has changed his mind.

In Carmarthenshire County Council there seems a general policy that decisions are not open to variation or interpretation despite events or new information. The Council is governed by the decrees of the Executive board and even these are often secret. The discreet extra pension payments to Mark James are a case in point. Only being stopped on the instruction of the WAO and would still be being paid if an eagle eyed member of the public had not spotted an unexplained increase in the already generous salary of our chief executive and reported it. The AI/Labour exec board of the time knew all about it and didn't even tell their own back benchers. The minutes of that meeting were deliberately misleading to hide that action.

 All Governments are said to be a balance of legitimacy and coercion. We accept a government of any sort, monarchy, democracy, dictatorship etc. because we believe it is socially appropriate and legitimate. The coercion is various rules, laws, threats and punishments .Many governments find it useful to inflict exemplary discipline on dissidents as an attempt to discourage others. In this case it was  originally Labour and Independent Councillors who decided to punish a blogger who dared to ask for filming of public meetings, using a quarter of a million pounds of public money just to save face. Are they ashamed? Of course not, this is Carmarthenshire and they believe they were completely justified.

 Pity poor Emlyn Dole who has to play the well scripted end game of this sad saga  in return for his "leadership" of Carmarthenshire Council Council. His motivation is not clear. I honestly don't know.

 Plaid have the largest number of County Councillors in Carmarthenshire, but somehow numerical advantage has only been used to support another party and the status quo.

However, as County Council Elections often relate to the position of the National Parties and not the performance of individual Councillors and Leaders, Plaid may still end up the largest group. Tragically they may take this result as an endorsement on how well they have "run" the council and remain the puppets of others.

Siân Caiach

Carmarthenshire Council Leader  Emlyn Dole,
Did he read the coalition agreement before signing it?
Following a letter from Councillor Dole clarifying the facts I have removed a sentence from  the blog above. Councillor Dole wishes it to be known that neither he or his wife have ever applied for any public funding as rumoured. His retrospective planning permission did pass with support from the Affiliated Independents, but he wishes to make it clear that he has never attempted to fix any planning committee's decision.                                                                                                               

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

How Carmarthenshire County Council funded a Rugby Region - Part 4 Writing the blank cheque

County Councils in theory are run by the elected members, the Councillors. However, this body of Councillors are often easily persuaded. In the last 9 years I've been a member of this Council the strategy is usually "There is a terrible problem" with whatever, for which there is only one solution "We need to give public money to elaborate and expensive project X"

This is usually not only the Council's money but free grants of public land, support for other grant aid or favourable loans, sympathetic planing permission, infrastructure added for free at the Council's expense and a promise of a massive boost in jobs/services/low cost housing which never quite materialises.

The "Leader" of the Council reads from a well rehearsed script and promises all the goodies but never mentions the real cost. This is of course not only the squandering of public money, but the reputation of the Council by the deceptive nature of the "Sell", Many councillors have been through this farce many times and appear unconcerned at the dishonesty and the usual loss of public land, regional funding gifts and arranging grants etc which could have financed grassroots local projects rather than our "friends",

The Scarlets' board had made friends with influential locals and not only within the Council. Llanelli AM Helen Mary Jones was, she said. won over by a display of desperation and weeping in her office by Huw Evans [Club Chair owed £millions by  the club in outstanding loans] and chief executive Stuart Gallagher. Overwhelmed by their plight she instructed Neil Baker,the Plaid Group Leader on the County Council to use the Whip to fully back the project,The Plaid members voted unanimously for the deal - the only political group to do so. The was despite the efforts of the local Llanelli.Plaid Cymru members who did not support the massive "investment" into a club who could play rugby with distinction but whose financial management was far from championship level.

In the manner of timeshare salesmen, Council Chief Executive Mark James  and Finance Director Roger Jones and others arranged a series of meetings selling the wonderful shiny new stadium to the elected councillors. The new stadium was going to bring millions to the area, save Rugby as a sport, put Llanelli on the map and make the councillors members of  the bestest ever council in Wales. If they didn't back the scheme Llanelli, the Scarlets and the whole local economy would die.

 The local community in the area was about to lose not only the benefits of a stadium local businesses depended on, their close association with the club and public access to  green open space. They would gain 450 houses and would get nothing from the deal. The section 106 funds would go to the new stadium miles away as a community asset for all Llanelli, They could not understand why the stadium could not be upgraded on site. The area was already prone to floods, traffic problems were already serious and would be unsuitable normally for housing development. The out of town stadium was no solution to local needs but this project was driven by money alone, and the likely major beneficiaries were not members of the local community.

  The move away was mainly motivated by the need to make money for Mr Evans and others who wanted the money they had invested in the Scarlets to return  to their own pockets,In order to spread the wealth smaller parcels of land around the site were bought up by mysterious investors in the expectation of sharing in the bonanza. The 106 deal had already privately been agreed in correspondence with the County chief executive and the fact that the Scarlets had no money to put into the Stadium until the site was developed was overcome by the offer of a £5.56 million loan from the County on interest only terms, so that they were "making their own contribution" to the build in theory but in practice had not put in a penny.

The Stradey Residents prepared and sent documents to every councillor. The Independent auditor described the Club's business case as "challenging" but Council leader Mrs Meryl Gravell and the senior council officers reassured the elected members that everything would be fine and any spanner in the works would spell disaster for Llanelli, whose entire future depended on the scheme,

More money slipped away. A further £2,6 milliom was loaned, A similar amount was gifted as a grant.The club blamed the local residents who had asked for the public access practice pitches to be retained as a village green [refused] and had insisted on the preservation of a public right of way through the site [achieved].

  evidence that they were not unrelated to the Scarlets.                                                                                                           

It looks like the Scarlets' Chairman may have speculated in the hope of extra little profit on the side. Two parcels of land were bought by a company in which he had an interest.

 The development land of the Stradey Park site as a whole was said to be worth £22m in 2008 but a Barclays loan was needed to support the club's cash flow and the degree of capitalisation of the site is unknown.

BBC report November 2007:
Artist's impression of new stadium at Pemberton
An artist's impression of the Scarlets' proposed stadium

Councillors in Carmarthenshire have agreed to lend the Scarlets £2.6m to help pay for a new £23.1m stadium.
The rugby club said delays and the cost of fighting two public inquiries had left it with a £5m shortfall.
Council leader Meryl Gravell assured members the loan would have no impact on services or council tax.

Other problems soon arose when the Directors of the Club, who promised in the funding meeting to cover any further losses,did not do so.

 The cost of building the Stadium was eventually £27m, the free ground lease to the club for 150yrs is valued at £5m. Ground preparation cost around £5m as the whole site- a boggy old rubbish dump with underlying mine shafts required heroic quantities of concrete to be pumped into it.

In Llanelli the project was not popular, the bad feeling was not against the club specifically but against the Club Executives who appeared to be the only beneficiaries of all this public money and the County Councillors who had supported the financial deal.

Such was the feeling  against the Indy/Labour Coalition that had promoted the new stadium deal that Plaid returned its best ever Council election results  in Llanelli in 2008. Both Labour County Councillors for the Stradey area Eryl Morgan and Keith Price Davies, lost their seats to Plaid. Neither supported the move and Eryl actually had the guts to vote against the financial package in Council while Keith went out for lunch and  "forgot" to come back to vote.

Here is a contribution to the Scrum V rugby forum on the subject, informed by land registry documents.

"Part of the land, covering the ground itself, is owned by the rugby club. But two sections of the la

nd are owned by a property company wholly owned by Scarlets chairman Huw Evans, and another section is owned by a company whose ultimate ownership is disguised by company registrations in the Isle of Man and the British Virgin Islands.

One Land Registry document shows part of the land covered by the club's planning application was bought by Stirling Property Management Ltd for £90,000 in October 2000. Another piece of land was bought by the company for £135,000 in May 2002.

All 100 shares in Stirling Property Management Ltd, whose registered office is in Cheltenham, are, according to the current information held by Companies House, owned by Mr Evans, 57, who lives in Cheltenham.

 The other company,Tollington, is registered in the Isle of Man, whose companies registrar holds a document showing that the firm has two shareholders - Scarlett Investment Holdings Ltd and Scarlett Nominees Ltd - both registered in the British Virgin Islands, a well-known tax haven. Registering companies in the British Virgin Islands enables those involved to keep their identities secret."
Barclays may have required some of the site capital as collateral. It is not clear yet how much of the the expected profit the club will eventually realise. However, the local County Council had not forgotten their "investment" and would continue to donate generously to the project, both in money and planning permission.
Siân Caiach

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The Scarlets - How Carmarthenshire County Council funded a Rugby Region - part 3

Much of Llanelli town is low lying. Many people do not realise how low. Many areas of South Llanelli are functionally below sea level and are utterly dependent on the man made tide locks, huge flap valves which stop the sea water coming in during the highest cycles of the tide. Twice a day these flaps shut and open at the mouths of every river and stream. They confine the rivers behind them which causes occasional back-flow flooding. Many of these rivers are hidden in culverts before going out into the estuary in the town area. This stops unwelcome visits from the sea flooding the town twice daily Some of these water ways have been built over. The major town river,the Lliedi, along with other local watercourses, had its course diverted in the 19th century to facilitate industrial development. Its exact route under the town centre buildings is not known.

Eventually, with the sea level rising, the system will have to "go Dutch" and start pumping the rivers out to sea over the flood defences. Alternatively large areas of the town will have to be abandoned. This prospect has not dissuaded Carmarthenshire County Council Planning Committees from building extensively in these low lying areas.

Adding to this is the fact that the town receives  massive amounts of water, partly due to the high rainfall in the river catchment areas but also due to the geology of the escarpments above the town which have many artesian springs and natural underground reservoirs. Sink holes are not unknown and during my time as a councillor several large holes have appeared inconveniently and suddenly in my ward alone. The level of groundwater is understandably, often high. 

In October 1896, one hundred and twenty years ago, the tail end of an Atlantic hurricane gifted to the town of Llanelli a 10 foot tidal surge. Known as the "Great Storm" the sea flooded all of the low lying areas of Llanelli, having breached the sea defences at Pwll and Machynys and washed away the main road and the railway. A funnel shaped shallow estuary is ideal to accentuate a tidal surge and the flood water hit the town just as workers were waking to go to work. No human lives were lost but large numbers of cattle sheep and horses were swept away and 500 homes were seriously flooded as well as mines, factories and commercial premises. I have been assured NRW that the current flood defences will probably not take a 10ft tidal storm surge but still the Llanelli waterfront is utilised more and more for housing and other projects. Currently the Delta Lakes area is earmarked for a project containing a care home.

The Thomas Arms, Thomas Street, the highest point of the flood in 1896

But how did the Council and the Club deal with the flood risks? Money can be magical and make things disappear. In 2004 the Welsh Government DAM [Development Advice Map] for the Stradey Park devdelopment area showed a large portion of it was on a flood plain. 

In 2006 the flood plain had been conveniently removed in a report by the drainage and hydrology planning consultants Waterman Quadrant .

 In 2009 the flood plain was not just still there but extended on the DAM maps. Currently most of the site and its major access road is on a C2 flood plain. 

This WQ expert assessment in 2006 meant that the first formal considerations of planning at Stradey Park for the new housing estate to fund the Scarlets' new stadium were unhindered by flooding considerations as there was no apparent risk.

However since the "Great Storm" the area around the proposed new estate had been severely flooded twice, In the 1950's the sea visited  the Sandy Road area and in 1981 serious river flooding hit the area, flooding the surrounding homes in Iscoed and the ground near the old stadium, now part of the Stradey Park Housing Estate. History can be embarrassing, especially when in living memory, but the reassurance of the WQ report and the desperate need to sell the site for building overcame common sense,

Welsh Government DAM map 2004

Experts Waterman Quadrant report the flood plain has retreated. 2006 report for planning committee

Flood Plain still in Welsh Government's DAM map 2009

Iscoed Estate severe floods 1981
I suspect expert consultants can do wonders when paid to show development sites in their best light. In this case, the flood plain just magically disappears, then  embarrassingly reappears when further assessed by the environment agency in their regular updates. This is really concerning. Flooding is no joke and risks homes, livelihoods and even life itself. In order to fund a private sports club the welfare of this area and the future welfare of occupants of the new estate were low on the priorities. 

This project was seemingly driven by one thing, money. It seems to me that the inconvenient  truth about the unsuitability of Stradey Park for house building was dealt with by using extreme economy. Both Club and County Council knew of the history of these floods. Iscoed is a council estate .It continues to suffer floods affecting roads and gardens to the present day and now there are cases of buildings subsiding. At the time of the 1981 floods areas of Stradey Park, now built on, such as the practise pitches were also flooded.

At this point, 2006, it is clear that there was no plan B and the pressure was on to get the right decision through County Council to underwrite the project and fund the club.

In the next instalment - comedy and the cash cow

 Siân Caiach,

Monday, 9 January 2017

The Scarlets - How a County Council Funded a Rugby Region - part 2

In the first part I described the beginings of the plan to build a new stadium at Pemberton, Llanelli, moving the home of the Lanelli RFC / Scarlets to an out of town site and use the proceeds of the sale of the site of the club's existing stadium and surrounding grounds for a suitable developer to build a huge and profitable housing estate.

 Much of the site was, according to the Welsh Government Development Advice Maps issued to planning authorities by Welsh Government was at the time of these plans, a C2 flood plain. C2 is an undefended flood plain and should only be used for vital infrastructure eg. a sewage pumping station . It should not, according to Planning Policy Wales. be used for vulnerable developments such as housing as people, their homes and safety would be at risk. Within a few years the entire site was C2 as sea levels rose.

 However it may have been expected that fellow officers in the Planning department and their compliant elected councillors would overlook any planning guidance. A good price for the land to the Scarlets will take them out of debt and in personal correspondence between the Council's Chief executive and The Scarlet's major benefactor Huw Evans, it is confirmed that a generous 106 payment - usually used for local infrastructure related to the area of the  development itself,- will be invested instead in the stadium

The County Council senior officers seek to fund the project by developing an old landfill site for a retail park and by selling part of this look to fund the stadium. This site is also on a flood plain, needs considerable preparation and has a large number of mine shafts running underneath it.

 What could possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately, Planning Policy Wales, the rules laid down by the Welsh Government can be appealed by anyone asking the WG planning office to call in a planning application which is being recommended for approval but clearly breaches government guidelines. So the application was called in and initially the WAG minister complied and did so.

Help was needed to stop Welsh Government from preventing an estate being build on a dangerous flood plain. It materialised in the person of Peter Hain MP, the Right Honourable Secretary of State for Wales. He decided to write to the Welsh Assembly Minister for Environment,planning and Countryside pointing out how important this planning permission was for the Scarlets in no uncertain terms and is basically asking him to bend the rules in this case.  The letter is below, .

After reading this plea from a politician who clearly outranks him, Carwyn  obviously wanted to comply. He probably realised that it would look odd, even corrupt, if he just relaxed building regulations on just one flood plain for the convenience of a favoured rugby club. So he relaxed the regulations for the whole of Wales. Any planning authority could now use his letter of instruction to justify building on flood plains and the Environment Agency [now NRW] was told that they no longer had a duty to object to developments an flood plains. Instead they could mitigate the potential flood problems, even if the usual "mitigation" involved raising the land and took no  consideration of where the flood water would be displaced to. In order to protect the future of a severely financially challenged rugby club and suck up to the Secretary of state for Wales, Carwyn Jones allowed any planning authority in Wales to build on any old flood plain. Technical advice note 15 can be disregarded as his letter to every local authority in Wales below shows.

 The message is that he doesn't care about the environment or the safety of the existing local residents in these areas. The underhand actions of the political elites depend on escaping scrutiny and evading publicity. No wonder  Tony Blair said that he regretted the Freedom of Information Act.

However, it takes time to find the right documents and a degree of expertise and understanding to put the story together. Many of these underhand actions probably remain hidden from the public.

How can we be happy to be citizens of a country where the rules are suddenly changed quietly without public consultation or any sort of vote by an elected representative under pressure from a more senior politician who acts as a representative of a private sporting club? How we trust Carwyn Jones now with this record of him as a minister changing the  rules designed to protect the environment and assure the safety of the people of wales, I presume his motivation was to only to further his career but he has harmed his country without a thought to the protection of  people and the environment he was supposed to defend. Selflessness,openness and honesty were obviously not on his personal list of Nolan Principles.

This policy change was only made public to a group of civil servants, tame Associations and industry organisations. Nor even individual  AM.s or County Councillors. including elected members of Planning committees, are specifically informed. The copy list includes civil servants and private enterprise professional associations who can now harvest a development bonanza by building on all that cheap flat land next to rivers and the coast which was not previously thought safe to build on..  As far as I know this ministerial letter of instruction has never been rescinded.

Carwyn would of course, get his desired  promotion to the post of First Minister.

Part 3 soon!

 Siân Caiach,

Thursday, 5 January 2017

The Scarlets - how a County Council funded a Rugby Region - Part one

A lot of Carmarthenshire's County Councillors probably enter the chamber completely ignorant of any prior dubious dealings or failings of the Authority. I was lucky,  before my election as a County Councillor I was a local community councillor in the Hengoed Ward {which includes the Stradey area}.I was aware of some of the financial shenanigans and double dealing rife in the issue of the Scarlet's new stadium project.I watched in horror as our County Councillors were persuaded to give millions to the Scarlets Rugby club, ignoring independent financial advice and to the obvious detriment of my area and voters and impoverishing the council as a whole. And the fairy tale is more Brothers Grimm than Jackanory.

In 2002 an ambitious new Chief Executive Officer, Mark James, was appointed to Carmarthenshire County Council.  The Council then was controlled by a coalition between Plaid and the Affiliated Independents I was told that part of his interview pitch was the promise to build a new shiny stadium in Llanelli, just like a project he had started in Boston, Lincs, his previous post. Meryl Gravel the Council Leader and her executive board were all for it, apparently. And it wasn't going to cost the people of Carmarthenshire a penny, it was said. True,as it turned out, it was going to cost the local taxpayers millions.

The main aim of the plan was to bail out a seriously indebted club and put it back in the black. It was money ,primarily, which was the issue, not value for money. The guardians of the public purse were ready to act to "save" the Scarlets, by which they meant  not the team or its players but the financial fortunes of a group of business men who had lost millions in supporting the team.

Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act and the Sterling work of  local community activists, the background picture has gradually emerged and shows total control of the project by Council Officers and Llanelli RFC.

 Llanelli Rugby Club, as was, had acquired the ground occupied by the stadium and surrounding area very cheaply. It had been donated by the local Mansel Lewis family in the 1950'sfor the recreation of local people and was originally managed by the Athletics Association. The original stadium was built  largely from donations of materials and labour and many could still remember their older relatives helping with construction. The final capacity was 10,800 or so, Average gates were closer to 7,500.

A boggy area lying at the base of an artesian escarpment with many springs, it was deemed suitable for rugby pitches and was well used by the local community, not just for Rugby  The practise pitch area, outside the stadium was used locally as parkland, although when the club players or juniors were using a pitch it was vacated and often attracted a touchline audience . Children played, dogs were walked and the local Carnival utilised it too.

The original Stradey Park Stadium, now demolished

Naturally, in the elitist tradition of Carmarthenshire local government, it was not thought important enough an issue to consult local people or the town as a whole . There was no objection to renovating or upgrading the stadium site but to demolish it and build a stadium elsewhere had little support. It was not until the motivation became clear, the desire to sell the ground for housing to fund the new stadium and enrich the Scarlets financial backers, that anger grew. The land was clearly unsuitable for housing, was on a C2 flood plain and the build would also change the neighbourhood for the worse, increasing flood risk to the homes nearby, especially if the land was raised. The 450 houses originally planned were described as" a suburban slum".

Now the fairy stories emerged. The general line was that the Scarlets needed a state of the art stadium and there was no way of doing it other than to move it out of town, The Chief executive, Mark James and Director of Finance, Roger Jones sold the scheme to the Council political groups but were very economical with the truth.

From the documents I have been able to obtain the plans were made by discussion between Council Civil Servants and the club's management without councillors being involved. On 9th February 2004 Mark James attended a meeting with Llanelli RFC who confirmed their plans to form a public limited company. MJ confirmed that the "political groups" (the inverted commas are in the minutes, not mine) within CCC had been briefed on the proposals and unanimously supported the scheme. The commercial development of the out of town retail park at Pemberton was to fund the scheme. A project board was set up . Membership as follows:

For Carms County Council
Mark James,  Chief Executive
Roger Jones   Director of Resources /finance
Dave Gilbert   Director of Regeneration
Cyril Davies   Head of Corporate Property
Council officers John Tillman  [executive assistant] and Debbie William [press manager] also attended all later meetings I have records of.

For the Rugby Club:
Huigh Evans   Chairman LLanelli RFC
Stuart Gallagher, Chief Executive Llanelli RFC
Mike Bishop      Finance Directorate Llanelli RFC

Noticeably there is no involvement by Councillors. The reports back to them were probably not complete In the initial February meeting the cost of the stadium was estimated at £8-10 million.
 CCC had appointed a firm to assess the real costs of preparing the site and the build and start preliminary works etc and by June 2004 the costs had risen to £27m There was a £7m shortfall.

Rather than come clean with the representatives of the people MJ and RJ decided to prepare a report to convince the elected members that the club had the £7m covered, To quote from the minutes of the 29th June.

"MJ/RJ that is was essential that they be able to report to the elected members of the County Council that the shortfall could be covered by other sources of income, in order for members to have confidence to commit further sums of money to enable preliminary works to proceed.
A report was a requirement for progressing the project beyond the preliminary work already undertaken and would be made in September 2004. It would not be possible to seek the approval of Council for a proposal with a funding gap of £7 million."

"Huw Evans stated that the Scarlets wished to maximise return from the development of Stradey Park and that a contribution of £7m from this return would be difficult for the club."

"A discussion took place on this issue  as well as the position of the Chairman and Scarlet's shareholders. The division of the income from the proposed development of Stradey was looked at. RJ emphasised that CCC would seek to maximise grant funding and CD stressed that it may be possible to reduce some of the costs specified for the development, whilst also increasing income.IT was emphasised that any income from sponsorship, branding of the stadium etc had not been taken into account to cover development costs.

The conclusion was:-

Agreed that there was a basis to move forward, dependent on £7m being available from the Stradey re-development for residential use, to underwrite known costs at this stage.

 There follows a large block of redacted text under the heading  "Strradey Park",Too sensitive for FOIA, I presume.

wet conditions during the development at Stradey Park
It is not always clear from the minutes who is paying for what but CCC officers seem in control. The meeting ends with a statement  that the short list of planning consultants is 3 candiates, the news that CCC would be ready to enter into a legally binding contract in September and the submission of planning permission for the Stradey Park site is to discussed with the Head of Planning, Eifion Bowen. Inaccurate information had  by a third party. been provided to the press. DW was to put out an immediate press release regarding the Pemberton Site.

The pattern is now set, CCC officers are in control and trying to support the Llanelli RFC with as much help and money they can. Information released for both the public and the Councillors is to be carefully controlled.

"Success" now depends on selling Stradey Park, building houses on a flood plain with enough money left over to fill the £7 million pound black hole in the stadium budget and to pay off the club's debts.
Democracy, openness, public consultation and honesty have already flown the nest.

More to follow:

. Siân Caiach,