Monday, 11 February 2019

County Council's Mysterious Generosity to Rich Man

Our governments at all levels are trusted to spend the public's money in the public’s interest. Of course MPs. AMs and councillors are all human and mistakes are made. But what happens when our elected leaders get deliberately involved with secretly and unlawfully gifting away our money to the wealthy, which is very questionable? Who polices public spending?

This also begs the question “Who is in charge?” How much of Wales is run by unelected public servants rather than elected representatives?

The Wales Audit Office is the official protector of the public purse and will investigate public bodies if a complaint is made. However even if a public body is found to have misused public money unlawfully, in Wales very little may be done about it.
Carmarthenshire County Hall
Take Carmarthenshire County Council. Should Carmarthenshire County Executive Board Councillors have bankrolled their CEO Mark James with a “secret pay rise” and his legal fees for a libel action against a local blogger. {total of both “grants” I believe to be around £80,000}. These decisions were made in private meetings in the presence of Mark James, although he was the beneficiary. There is a statement that he is a wealthy man and would not need to keep any libel damages he might be awarded, they would go to the council. When damages were given, he changed his mind and has been paid £250 per month by Mrs Thompson, who will be in debt to him for years to come and will lose her house if she doesn’t pay. 
Mr Mark James- due to retire in June

None of the councillors who gave Mark James the money have been disciplined. They are protected by the CCC Legal Officer, Linda Rees Jones, who despite the Wales Audit Office ruling that these payments were unlawful, states that she holds the firm opinion that the WAO are wrong.

In a similar case in Pembrokeshire the CEO was obliged to return a secret salary raise similar to the Carms scheme from his retirement package. He had to retire when his Councillors had a vote of no confidence in him over the pension scam. To date, the CCC Head of Legal has not produced her legal argument as to why she has come to the opinion that the Wales Audit Office was wrong, but dismissed the idea of Mr James repaying anything.

Mark James is due to retire in June and may well take his ill gotten gains with him unless the Wales Audit Office takes action. Why wealthy people like Mr James, working in the public sector, with pay packages bigger than our First Minister, want to milk the public purse for even more is mysterious. Mr James also has other sources of private income. This is not theft as it was all approved by elected Executive Board Councillors, even if they did it secretly and concealed their decisions from the rest of the councillors.

Eventually the unlawful payments were exposed. Council leadership changed to Plaid Cymru, the only party group not involved in the initial scams. However, even though Plaid had been rightly critical in opposition, they decided not to take any action or even publicly discuss the problem. Whether it was fear of Mr James or love of their new salary grades, or both, is not clear.

What is clear is the inability of Welsh Government to stop gross this abuse of the public purse.

Now, if the behaviour of a welsh local council is found to threaten the well being of individual residents or groups, the Welsh Government can put that Council in “special measures”, where the councillors are all only paid basic salary and the problem “turned around” after thorough assessment and independent advice. This can happen for example in cases of Education departments failing or poor standards in Social Services where individuals may be in danger of suffering harm from the poor performance of a council. Giving away money to senior officers does not make the grade. Carmarthenshire have taken advantage of the Welsh Government’s seemingly relaxed position on money management.

Do we have a weak, national government which tolerates unlawful use of money in major public authorities? Neither the beneficiary of the improperly allocated funds. in this case, Chief Executive Mark James, nor the Executive Board Councillors who used their authority to give him the money, got into trouble for it. Carmarthenshire County Council have subsequently used their own legal department to dispute the opinion of the WAO.

Allowing senior local government civil servants to convince their councillors to unlawfully pay them even more than their already generous salaries is ridiculous. If Assembly Members awarded Senior Assembly Civil Servants secret pay rises and financed their libel court cases for them, would they get away with it too?

 Siân Caiach, 

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Sosban Closes - The Ghost Plaza lonelier than ever

On February 3rd 2019 the sophisticated Llanelli Restaurant Sosban closed its doors permanently. The Restaurant had been set up with support from Carmarthenshire County Council, and with funding from other sources including EU grants.Personally, I never had a meal there. I never got further than reading the Menu Prices at the door, which were a little out of my league.

I have blogged on the original origin of the restaurant, as heavily public funded project. See:-

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

The Pump House Ghost Plaza . Llanelli's unloved gift from the EU.

The old pump house was converted into a fine dining restaurant by a company called Bendigo 9-10 which was fronted by 2 former professional rugby players The company has, according to Companies House a net worth of £669.8 k and assets worth £1.1 million  and debts of £ 1.1 million. Some of this debt appears to be to the Welsh Government and some to HSBC, for various borrowings. It was particularly popular on Sunday lunchtimes where a more reasonably priced meal was available. I gather that those who dined last Sunday had no inkling of the impending closure.

I am not surprised, these currently uncertain times and falling standards of living , that fine dining may have been, in an out of town former industrial site, difficult to keep going. Perhaps more information may be revealed on the specific reasons for the folding of the business in future press reports. 

It now adds to the ghostly atmosphere of the adjacent Pump House Plaza, which no-one ever seemed to use.

Personally I suspect it may just have been a high end Restaurant in a less than ideal location on the outskirts of an economically depressed, post industrial town. As living standards slowly drop, the luxuries are first to go.

This project was to feed a fine dining niche market. Whether there was ever much evidence of the demand for this service is not clear. A few locals were regular customers, but the majority of the local population just could not afford it. A posh restaurant was not what Llanelli needed most  but someone had the bright idea to give it a go. The financial problems are yet to be revealed. It survived for a few years but how much of that was just due to public funding and mortgaging the building?

 This company folding may show that there just are not enough wealthy diners locally to sustain production of excellent luxury food, especially at a less than ideal out of town location.

The mystery of exactly why the Plaza was built there remains, but it seems it did not help the restaurant survive.

 Siân Caiach
Sosban Restaurant Llanelli., viewed from the Pump House Plaza.