Thursday, 26 January 2012

Towy Community Church back in the news

Golwg, the Welsh weekly current affairs magazine, recently ran an article looking at the controversy over the church's plans for a bowling alley, auditorium (a new word for church), etc. in one of Carmarthen's industrial estates.

The article, which is not available online, gives a balanced account of the saga so far, with a couple of interesting new nuggets of information.

The pastor, Mr Mark Bennett, told the magazine that the project would create 17 new jobs, of which 10 would be in the bowling alley. Phase One of the project, he said, would involve the construction of the bowling alley, a furniture recycling centre and a food bank.

One of those interviewed for the article, Cllr Siân Caiach, pointed out that £2 million of public funds seemed a rather high price to pay for something which would create an estimated 17 jobs in total.

Another oddity is that, according to the church and some councillors, both the food bank and the furniture recycling centre have been in operation for some time. Why are we providing funding to house services which, we are told, are already running successfully?

The council also confirmed to Golwg that the disused creamery which would house the bowling alley, etc. had been purchased in the spring of 2007 for £850,000. It is now valued at £750,000 and is, according to the council, costing us around £60,000 a year. So far, then, this strategic investment has cost us around £350,000 with no benefit whatsoever, and the building itself is to be leased to the church on a peppercorn rent for 99 years, which means that the taxpayers of Carmarthenshire are actually taking a loss of £1.1 million, not including the grants and subsidised loans we are giving the church. Grants given by the county council currently stand, if the council's reports are to be believed, at £384,000, with a further £270,000 or £300,000 (take your pick) lent at 3% over 15 years.

The £384,000 in grants includes contributions from all sorts of piggy banks administered by the council, including its waste management company CWM Environmental, and EU funds earmarked for rural development. Quite how the concrete wasteland of Johnstown's industrial estates can be regarded as rural is another matter.

As always with the Towy Community Church project, the figures quoted are all over the place. Wendy Walters, the council's head of Economic Development, told Golwg that the church was being loaned £300,000 by the council. Councillors were told back in December that the "commercial" loan was £270,000.

Either way, the council's contribution to the project so far totals £1.75 million (the building, plus the cost of ownership of the building so far, plus the grants and loan).

The history of how the council came to own the building is also interesting. Chief Executive Mark James told councillors in December that the council had originally hoped to have a bowling alley as part of the St. Catherine's Walk development in the town centre. That had fallen through. Discussions had then begun with another party for a bowling alley on the Johnstown creamery site. On the strength of those discussions, the council had (recklessly - not the chief exec's word, Ed.) bought the factory, only to see the project break down for a second time.

In other words, the council always had the creamery earmarked for development as a bowling alley and it was always determined, by hook or by crook, that the project would go ahead in some shape or form. This exposes claims made by some senior councillors, including Pam Palmer, that the deal with Towy Community Church was a good one because it would save the taxpayer money as complete claptrap.

At least on the question of what security the church's bank is getting for a further loan of £300,000, Mr Bennett is now singing from the same hymn sheet as the council. Previously he had said the inventory of the bowling alley would be the security, whereas now he has told Golwg that it is the 99 year lease on the building itself.

In line with the Christian principle that the first shall be last, Carmarthenshire County Council has generously agreed to rank itself last in the order of creditors in the event that the bowling alley goes bust, despite being by far the largest contributor to the scheme. The bank, of course, will have first bite of the cherry, despite having the smallest stake, while the Lottery, etc. will all stand ahead of the council to pick up anything that is left over.

Anyone who naively believed that the officers and senior councillors of the county council had a duty of care to protect taxpayers' money was therefore sadly deluded.

The Golwg article goes onto give us a couple more interesting insights. The pastor told the magazine that the church has 150 members. In other words, this multi-million pound project (Phases One and Two will cost over £5 million we have previously been told) is being run by a church founded and run by a husband and wife team with just 150 members. That may explain why the banks, once said to be willing to loan £750,000, started to get nervous.

Another mystery concerns the church's own contribution to the project. Here you can pick from almost any number you like. In May the council's chief executive presented councillors with a report stating that the church had raised £17,000 towards the project. In December they were told that the contribution had shot up to £388,540. And now Mr Bennett has told the magazine that the church's members have raised £270,000 towards the project.

Finally, for anyone who thinks that the council will not have to fork out again, Golwg has some worrying news.

Phase Two of the project will mean applying for more grants, Mr Bennett said, but the church would not be asking for anything like as much as for Phase One.

Given that the church's own projections show that the cost of Phase 2 will be higher than Phase 1 and will bring the total project cost to around £5 million, you have to wonder where the money will be coming from.

1 comment:

Jac o' the North said...

When it's not your money you can afford to be cavalier with figures. In this instance it applies to both lender / donor and recipient - a recipe for disaster. (As I'm trying to show on my blog with AWEMA, the Malik family business.)