Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Best of All Possible Worlds

Apologies to those of you who could not see the bottom part of this post. There was a formatting problem which I hope has now been cured.


Caebrwyn has taken a look at the agenda for the upcoming meeting of Carmarthenshire's "Community" Scrutiny Committee, which covers the council's regeneration and leisure activities. The agenda comes with a small truckload of documentation, much of which is stuffed with figures, and if the committee did what it says on the tin, there would be enough work here to keep them going until the next council elections.

Before we get too excited, however, it is worth remembering that in Carmarthenshire reality and what it says on the tin are often worlds apart. And just in case the Committee gets too big for its boots, the recently amended constitution removed what few teeth were left to the council's various scrutiny committees.

Let's just pick a few areas at random, beginning with the leisure and sports centres.

Llanelli residents might be dismayed to hear that their lesiure centre is on course to lose £769,000 this year (this excludes the Fusion fitness club). They might be even more surprised to hear that the Carmarthen Leisure Centre is heading for a loss of £901,000 this year.

By a fluke of arithmetic, the Carmarthen centre is costing us as much as the centres in Newcastle Emlyn, St Clears, the Gwendraeth Sports Centre, Coedcae Sports Hall, Amman Valley Swimming Pool, Brynaman Swimming Pool, Llandovery Swimming Pool and the Bro Myrddin and Dinefwr bowling centres put together.

That's quite an achievement, and worthy of a bit of scrutiny.

Garnant Golf Course (now under private management) is down to cost us £89,000.

There are lots of big numbers under the Regeneration headings, but no explanations. "Marketing Tourism Development" at £531,000 might repay a look, as might the bland sounding "Support Services Economic Development", costing us £841,000.

Under a very badly formatted report on Capital Budget Monitoring lots of exciting projects make an appearance, including our old friend Towy Community Church bowling alley (£280,000 - target date for completion: ongoing). That's before we hit all of the major regeneration projects in Llanelli, Ammanford and Cross Hands.

The real blockbuster, however, is the report entitled "Annual Report 2011-12 and Improvement Plan 2012-13)". Unlike most of the other reports up for scrutiny, this one contains lots of words (and therefore spin).

The introduction gives us a flavour of what is to come, with pictures of the chief executive (man in suit with big grin) and Council Leader Kevin Madge. Kev is demoted to second fiddle under Mr James, and due to an unfortunate publishing gremlin, he looks like Coco the Clown. Let's hope that was not deliberate.

Anyone wishing to read on will need a strong stomach. Before we can get very much further, up pops a quote from the Wales Audit Office, that well known fearless body which is supposed to safeguard the public interest. "Extensive and detailed.....generally fair and balanced.....thorough and honest" is what they said in their rave review of last year's annual report, apparently. Pity about the word "generally". As for honest, we'll see about that in a moment.

On and on we go. Someone has learned how to use Clipart, because little cut 'n' paste pictures pop up to help us. "Key Improvement Objective Priorities" has a picture of a key, just in case we were struggling with the concept of a key.

Next we have a pie chart showing, allegedly, how satisfied we are with our council. 82% were satsfied, and only 7% were dissatisfied, and Carmarthenshire believes it is above the average.for England as well as Wales. We are not told what questions were asked. An 82% rating is not bad, though, and is probably on a par with the ratings enjoyed by Vladimir Putin and President Assad.

Unfortunately, the report, admits, comparative data is a bit thin on the ground. Otherwise we would probably have been told that our council is best and most loved in the world.

Caebrwyn also fished out some interesting new statistics from the Welsh Government's Data Unit:

After 8 years (and £££s) of the Modernising Education Programme, only 25% of Carmarthenshire schools are deemed 'fit for purpose' - only a 1% increase since last year.

Welsh local authority comparison data published today shows Carmarthenshire 3rd from bottom for road maintenance, 2nd from bottom for reviewing Care Plans, 3rd from bottom for adult carer assessment. Also in the 'red band' for failing to provide residential stability for children in care and for failing to provide SEN statements within the 26 week target.

Perhaps we are just pathetically grateful for anything.

Page after page after page of claims and questionable statistics follow. In every single one of a string of strategic "Outcome Areas", including helping people to live independent lives, helping local businesses to thrive, ensuring that children enjoy the best possible health, contributing to climate change mitigation and effective asset management, the Council scored a bull's eye and was awarded bonus points.

In some areas where the council's record is particularly bad, it produces sweeping statements with little or no evidence, such as,"The Welsh Language Partnership has continued to improve during 2011/12 and the provision of Welsh medium services and opportunities covers all areas of the county". It depends what you mean by "cover".

Just so that we all get the message, the report goes into big, bold bright red type to scream,

Carmarthenshire has a stronger and
more prosperous economy

In case you missed that, the report shouts the same message a bit further down the page for a second time. If you don't believe that, you are probably in the 7% of malcontents.

Perhaps the Scrutiny Committee is better placed to decide whether all of these claims and statistics are true, but for most ordinary mortals it is impossible to verify what we are being told. There are, however, one or two statements which are quite easy to check.

Here's one:

The decision by the Council to take a lease on the former Technium site at Dafen is paying dividends with around 16,000 sq.ft of first class office space being let to businesses operating within the knowledge economy, creating high quality sustainable employment opportunities. 

The Beacon website (Beacon being the rebranded name for Technium) shows that currently 8,500 square feet of space has been let to businesses, with a further 4,000 square feet being occupied by Coleg Sir Gar and various other public agencies.

Let's hope the Scrutiny Committee finds time to check out all of the other "facts".

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