Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The Christmas spirit - December Council meeting

(Cllr Caiach has issued a statement in response to Cllr Madge's press release published yesterday, 13th Dec - updates below)

Well the webcast didn't get off to a great start this morning and technical difficulties meant it didn't start working until the Scarlets had finished their presentation and the councillors had asked their questions, over an hour and a half into the meeting. Inexplicably, everyone was looking a bit cross and ruffled when the broadcast finally resumed.

Although it was a typical PR exercise I understand the mood was more subdued than usual with the representatives from Scarlets Regional Ltd being a little more realistic about the less-than-rosy financial prospects for the club.  Even some of the more staunch defenders of the council's involvement with the club were a little quiet. Perhaps there's something of a mood change.

According to tweets, Cllr Caiach managed to ask when the club would be repaying the £2.4m loan back to the council. Further tweets suggest that she didn't get an answer. Her request to see the mysteriously elusive legal opinion over the EU State Aid rules was met with the usual reprimand from Linda Rees Jones.

Also according to tweets from @SWGuardian, when the inevitable tributes to the Scarlets and the world of rugby did get going, they were cut short as there were 'events' happening that afternoon. The events turned out to be Christmas mince pies in the Chair's Parlour, but judging by the tone of the meeting this may have descended into a food fight.

There was much agreement, as I predicted over the Charter to end pay-day loans with lots of heartwarming claptrap from Cllrs Pam Palmer and Jane 'think of the children' Tremlett. Of course we all agree with the sentiment but comments that those in central government were 'out of touch' with the rest of us rang a bit hollow as it is quite clear that at least half those in the Chamber are too.

Interestingly Cllr Darren Price asked why the Plaid motion for a no-eviction policy over the bedroom tax had gone straight to the Executive Board (where it was rejected). As it was a matter of policy, surely he, or others proposing the motion should have at least been able to make representations in a politically balanced meeting.

Linda Rees Jones, acting Head of Law reassured the councillor that, procedurally, all was above board.... The Executive Board had responsibility for 'operational' policy, the rest of the councillors only had a say in 'strategic or overarching policy', and this motion referred to an 'operational' decision. Ah, that explains it. In fact the various interpretations of the constitution, as applied by the head of law and the Chief Executive's department are quite often brought into play....

There was not, unless we missed it, any reference to the unlawful payments, but there was reference to the Marston's car park deal and that very strange, peculiarly uneven 'split', between the council (£200k) and the Scarlets (£600k) and those 'Allowable expenses' which included £280,000 to fit out the Scarlets' Red Room restaurant in Eastgate.

Right at the end of the meeting the Leader Kevin Madge accused Cllr Caiach of making inaccurate comments to the press, in that he was responsible for the decision and calling for his resignation. No he wasn't responsible, he said, it was nowt to do with him! was the head of corporate property and Cllr Jeff Edmunds. Apparently the council's internal auditors were happy with it (well they would be wouldn't they?) He got very shirty and demanded that Cllr Caiach bring evidence to back up her claim.

Cllr Caiach was not daunted and reminded Cllr Madge, with passion, that with leadership comes responsibility and in this case, a duty to inform. Well said Sian.

It was left to the Director of Resources, Roger Jones to try and shift the blame elsewhere entirely and he said that it was the 'independent valuers' who had decided on the split, in fact he said that the Head of Corporate Property, who was delegated to finalise the lease details in consultation with Cllr Jeff Edmunds, the Exec Member for Finance, had disagreed with the valuation office. Who exactly these 'independent valuers' are and whether it is some sort of government office as Mr Jones appeared to suggest, we don't know.

What came over on the webcast was that the reaction of Kevin Madge and the Director of Resources suggested that indeed there was something very odd about this split, and no one was going to put their hand up to it. Exactly who pushed for the Scarlets to have such a large proportion of the proceeds remains to be seen.

(The webcast is now on archive, click on 01:53:39 to see this discussion)

One other spat was worth a mention if only for the reaction of Cllr Pam Palmer, leader of the Independent Group. Cllr Emlyn Dole (Plaid) accused the Independent Group of being nothing less than a full blown whipped up political party, something they deny of course. He added that everyone else was at a disadvantage because the group had no written manifesto or stated aims.

Cllr Pam Palmer was furious - "puerile tripe" she growled, they were independent and, (and this was a blinder) "we work together independently". She added that some of "her members" actually voted "other ways"; it has to be said that the only time she, or anyone else could remember this rare event was over the care home closures three years ago. "I'm not a closet tory" she spat, for good measure.

Cllr Caiach, a dictionary definition independent suggested that Pam and her 'political party' might like to peruse the Seven Principles of Public Life and let her know at the next meeting how many of them felt they could honestly sign up to it. Blood vessels on the independent benches were at bursting point.

Things had become very heated several times and tempers were flaring. The Chair had to remind everyone that the whole world was watching and the council was looking ridiculous......

The Deputy Chief Executive, D Gilbert who was sitting in for the absent Mr James looked mightily relieved when it was all over and, clearly forgetting his mike was still on shared his relief with the Chair..."it was all going so well, then...."
Aren't we lucky to have two Assistant Chiefs and a Deputy Chief to step into the breach if needed....

Anyway, the meeting, or part of it anyway, should be archived at some point so you can view and form your own opinions on the proceedings.

Mince pies and Christmas drinks in the Chair's Parlour, County Hall

Update 13th December;
Cllr Madge has issued a press release to the Carmarthen Journal, Llanelli Star and all councillors following the the Scarlets/Marstons 'allowable expenses' row seen in the Chamber on Wednesday. He launches an attack on Cllr Caiach who has called for his resignation over the matter.

Predictably the statement has all the polish and spin of the council press office but the mysterious identity of the 'independent valuers' is now resolved and we know it was the District Valuers office.

The question remains why the Executive Board Member for Finance felt it necessary to disclose the details of the split despite council officers' refusing to do so, and why the officer who was delegated to finalise the 'split', the Head of Corporate Property, felt it equally necessary to make representations disagreeing with the District Valuer's decision.

Update 14th December;
Cllr Sian Caiach has issued the following statement in response to Cllr Madge's press release (Please see link in 13th December update);

"I would like to first make it clear that I am asking Kevin Madge to resign as Leader of Carmarthenshire County Council because of his responsibility over the decision to sell an overflow car park, leased  to the Scarlets rent free,  providing considerable funds for the club. The Leader is expected, like all councillors, to always display openness and accountability. Although informed of the deal, he chose not to disclose the details. The sale of public assets to benefit a private company should surely be discussed openly?

I understand that the council, under EU regulations, is only allowed to give private companies, active in the EU, the equivalent of 200,000 Euros or £169,000 over every 3 years, and one off grant of 50% to build, for example a stadium like Parc Y Scarlets. So as I understand it, any informal grants, as the “allowable expense” may well be, or other financial help has to be less than this amount per three years.

We appear to have financed the Scarlets beyond the limits of this law. In this desperate economic situation we are reducing services and asking hundreds our own council staff to leave their jobs and, I believe, giving away too much money to the rugby club.

It is a matter of record that in July 2012 the council executive board, headed by Mr Madge, instructed  an officer, Jonathan Fearn to take sole charge of the sale and consult Cllr Jeff Edmunds, executive board member for finance.  Prior to that time it was planned that the car park would be an out of town shopping area, not a pub, but that deal fell through and the land lease was later sold on to Marstons.

The area was sold for £850,000 according to the land registry. The Council’s accounts showed they got £200,000 and the fate of the rest of the money was not disclosed to ordinary councillors like myself, and then refused under the Freedom Of Information Act.

Jonathan Fearn told me by email that following “normal negotiation and the agreement of allowable costs, the remaining proceeds were shared equally between the club and the council”.

Now Cllr Madge tells us that an independent District Valuer assessed the value of the land and advised  as to how the remaining proceeds of the sale could be divided.

Cllr Edmunds asked to see me when I had asked him for information, and told me that he wished to be open and transparent and give me the full facts about the sale. Indeed the costs of the sale were very high. The original deal involving a retail use, he told me, had been suggested by developers Henry Davidson Ltd, the owners of the Llanelli Eastgate Centre. They had asked the Scarlets to take up some units in Eastgate to set up their shop and café bar. The developers loaned them, I was told, £280,000 to fit up the shop units and start this new business venture.  As the Scarlets needed to pay this back, Cllr Edmunds and Mr Fearn were persuaded to call this £280,000 an “allowable expense” of the car park sale.

Other payments deducted from the £850,000 were around £50,000 for architects and agents fees, £70,000 for compensation to the club  for the car park lease, a £30,000 finder’s  fee to the Scarlets  for finding a buyer and in the end, I was told, more than half the “official “proceeds of £420,000. The Scarlets got £220,000, the council £200,000.

I have no objection to the sale of unused council land to provide money for the people of Carmarthenshire and council services.  However, as the Scarlets had not ever paid a penny of rent for this lease the split seems very generous. They have had around £600,000.

They may be entitled to compensation for the lease and a finder’s fee and a profit share but do they really qualify for over half the profit plus the cost of setting up their private shop and café bar??

Councillor Edmunds informed me that he had told the Leader of the result of the decision delegated by the executive, but was not aware that the information had been passed on. This means that the other executive board Councillors, who recently granted the club more financial support by reducing the interest on the Scarlet’s loan from the council, may not have known that a grant already given from the sale may have exceeded the whole 3 year quota under the EU rules.

I find it disturbing that the legal explanation of how we can give all this money to the Scarlets is never disclosed.  I suspect all may not be in order.

I thank Councillor Jeff Edmunds profoundly for being open and honest about where this particular sale money went and why.  I think he has acted bravely and with integrity.  He was under considerable pressure not to talk about this sale.

It is Councillor Madge as Council Leader who has ultimate responsibility for the County Council. If he or the Executive Board he leads, instructs an officer to take over the Councillors’ responsibility for a major financial matter he is still responsible for that decision.  Cllr Madge has not denied that he did not inform other councillors about the money from the sale and he has not made it clear why State Aid Law does not apply to the Scarlets.

Cllr Madge says he is “extremely proud” to be associated with what has happened and there is no need to consider resigning.  I disagree.

Cllr Sian Caiach
Hengoed Ward


Anonymous said...

Love it !! it seems that they are becoming a bit rattled and probably realize that pigeons will at some point always come home to roost.

What was said about the unlawful payments ?

Caebrwyn said...

Anon 22,02
Thanks for your comment. As far as I know nothing at all was said about the unlawful payments.

Anonymous said...

Excellent report of proceedings and how any genuine independent person could have arrived at this split of funds from the sale to Marstons is beyond me.

Anonymous said...

If Cllrs Sian Caiach and Cllrs Bill Thomas are reading this blog, I just want to say, you are not only a credit to the electorate but to all employees in CCC, particularly to those who are still living in fear! Thank you!!!!!! Heres wishing you a Merry Xmas and a very Happy New Year!!!!!!

To others at the meeting (you know who you are) who paid lip service to whistle blowers ... shame on you!!!!

caebrwyn said...

Anon 12:52 Thanks for your comment. Yes indeed the subject of whistleblowing came up and both Cllrs raised their very grave concerns about the policy, and the inadequacy of protection of whistleblowers in Carmarthenshire Council.
Their comments and examples suggest that little has improved since the Ombudsman's damning report over the Delyth Jenkins case a couple of years ago.

Anonymous said...

I am sure there are many employees of Carmarthen council who are suffering, immensely,from the fear of exposing what they know to be wrong.There is nothing worse than having a young family to support and being unable to act as their conscience dictates for fear of reprisals.

Anonymous said...

Oh believe me Caebrwyn the despicable way Delyth was treated has sadly got a whole lot worse!

Absolutely, anon 15:14.

Delyth Jenkins said...

Nothing will change until Officers who behaved so appallingly are held to account. At the moment the message given out is that this kind of behaviour is acceptable. The Council needs to show zero tolerance. It is only then things will change. If anyone wishes to have just a 'taster' of the appalling way I was treated especially in the last 2 years of working for the Council by two Managers, (one has now been pensioned off, the other remains there), please visit the Compassion in Care website and read Breaking the Silence part 2, pages 34-44. If any of the Councillors wish to discuss this with me, please get in touch.

Anonymous said...

Shouldn't the Director of Social Services be doing something about this? Otherwise it looks as if these officers are being protected!