Caebrwyn began raising questions about this project two years ago; this blog has taken several critical looks at it over the last year, and so we can both feel some satisfaction that at last people are sitting up and taking notice.
The programme itself added little to what the two blogs have been saying for so long, but within the 15 minutes allotted to the item, it did a good job of summarising the story so far. The main thrust of the criticism from the various speakers who took part, was that this use of public money is difficult to justify at a time when other services are being cut. That criticism is certainly valid, but the affair raises much wider questions about how local government is operating, the influence of powerful lobbies and the weakness of institutions which are supposed to act to protect the interests of the public.
The Towy Community Church affair is not an isolated incident in Carmarthenshire, but rather a symptom of local government failure, and few of those involved emerge from this story with any credit.
Both Caebrwyn and the author of this blog submitted information to the Wales Audit Office in relation to the planned bowling alley, etc. some months ago, and apart from acknowledgements and a standard reply saying they would look into the matter, nothing has happened to date. In the light of what was said on last night's programme, the WAO now needs to sit up and take this unfolding scandal seriously, because whatever happens, it is crystal clear that the County Council has already committed significant amounts of public money which can never be recovered.
Here are some of the questions which need to be answered for starters:
- What exactly were the circumstances surrounding the council's purchase of the St Ivel creamery in Johnstown? There are two conflicting versions from the chief executive of the council and the church itself. Did the council use public money to buy the building for the church, or did it purchase the site, as the chief executive has previously claimed, for another interested party which subsequently pulled out of discussions? Only one of these versions can be true, and either way we are looking at a scandalous misuse of public money.
- If the council purchased the building on the strength of negotiations with another interested party, why was the site bought apparently without a binding contractual commitment from that unnamed party?
- The cost to the taxpayer of the purchase of the creamery site is now almost certainly in excess of £1 million (purchase price plus fees plus business rates and security/maintenance). What has the council spent on the site to date?
- From the footage shown in the programme last night, the site looked derelict, and yet according to Towy Community Church and the council, a significant amount of work has been carried out on the exterior and interior of the building by church volunteers. In December last year, the council stated that the value of that work was £119,000; a month before that the chief executive claimed the figure was £200,000. An independent assessment needs to be carried out.
- The church's own financial contribution to the project is also shrouded in some mystery. In May 2011 it was said to be £17,000; in December that figure had leaped to £388,000. For a church with 150 members, that is impressive. Again, an independent audit is needed.
- What involvement have the Evangelical Alliance and Gweini, its offspring organisation specialising in local government, had in this project, both with the county council, the Welsh Government and the Big Lottery Fund?
- Are there any conflicts of interest among senior councillors and officers of the council in the form of membership either of Towy Community Church or other bodies with links to it?
- The WAO also needs to establish whether the council has followed all of the required legal and regulatory processes. There are certainly question marks over the use of EU rural development funds to help finance the bowling alley, and it is also clear that the council did not meet the requirements of the 2010 Equalities Act which stipulates that equalities impact assessments need to be carried out in such projects.
- When councillors approved the latest funding package in December 2011, much was made of the church's claims that the project involved a furniture recycling centre, a foodbank and a debt counselling service. What has never been clear is whether any of these services is already operating, when they were launched and how many people have been helped. And is help provided without strings attached, or do they involve commitments by those seeking help to the church? Is prayer an element in the debt counselling service, for example?
One of the most important roles of our elected representatives is to question and where necessary challenge the actions of the executive and senior officers. In this, they have failed spectacularly. One councillor told me that when the project came up for review in closed sessions, the chief executive had been a forceful and eloquent advocate of the scheme. Any concerns had been brushed aside.
At the only meeting to be held in public, when the public interest exemption was lifted in December 2011, Cllr Siân Caiach was the only elected representative to question the wisdom of proceeding with the project, although it was clear that a couple of Plaid councillors had their own reservations. Almost all of those who spoke supported the proposal, which was approved by an overwhelming majority despite evidence which should have caused them to pause. The meeting also followed a very negative press report in Wales on Sunday exposing links between the church and Mercy Ministries. This was ignored.
Both Siân Caiach and the Unison representative, Mark Evans, expressed concerns about the outsourcing of parts of the council's social care services to evangelical organisations, both in terms of ethical considerations and the impact on jobs. From comments made by council leader, Meryl Gravell, and others, it is clear that outsourcing to the voluntary sector is on their agenda, although councillors have never discussed whether this should be council policy.
The Wales Audit Office has also repeatedly failed to perform its role in ensuring that councils such as Carmarthenshire are discharging their duties in accordance with the public interest. One other current test of that is to ask whether they are actively monitoring the escalating costs involved in the chief executive's libel actions; it would seem not.
When invited to take part in the programme, Carl Sargeant, the Local Government Minister in Cardiff, once again retreated behind the walls of his Trappist monastery. In fact, as we saw, nobody from the council or the Welsh Government was willing to say anything at all about the Towy church project.
The public has also once again been let down by the local press which has failed to report on the more controversial aspects of the affair or carry out any investigative reporting of its own. While readers of Wales on Sunday were told about Mercy Ministries, readers of the Carmarthen Journal were left in blissful ignorance of what had been happening on their doorsteps. In fact, the paper was a key supporter of the Christmas toy box scheme run by the council in collaboration with Towy Community Church and similar organisations.
Earlier this week Jonathan Edwards, the Plaid MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr wrote a powerful piece for the Morning Star (here) highlighting the extent to which cronyism, quangos and clientism have damaged civil society in Wales at a national level. What he said applies in large part to local government as well.
The Conservative AM, Angela Burns, also drew a parallel with the AWEMA scandal.
If the Council and Towy Community Church want to put their case and deal with the criticism, both will need to open up their books and discover the merits of transparency and warts-and-all honesty. In the case of Carmarthenshire County Council, at least, nobody should hold their breath.