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, 

4 comments:

  1. The Boston Stadium also cost the taxpayer millions, Mark James's handiwork at its inception was outlined in a damning auditors report in 2007. Newspaper article here: http://www.bostonstandard.co.uk/news/prsa-errors-will-not-be-repeated-1-1106951

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well well well;t am I surprised ? NO. This has to be the biggest of Mark James many misdeeds which by comparison makes which seems to minimize the action the council have been persuaded by Mark James to take in placing a charge on the Caebryn property of Mrs.Jacqui Thomson. I was living in
    Stickney Nr Boston when James was messing their finances up which I did not know about. If he quits here it is unlikely
    the council will recoup the millions he has cost the ratepayers here. Of course his next move should be at Her Majesty's pleasure.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Keep up the good work Sian. No wonder they wanted to silence @caebrwyn whose blog and tenacity in trying to dig out the Carmarthenshire CC dirty secrets and deals frightened them. But from what I can see however much information is revealed concerning officers and certain Cllrs the Welsh Government will continue to turn a blind eye. Thanks for putting this out into the public domain look forward to part2.

    ReplyDelete

Thank you for your comment which will be display once it has been moderated.