The standard reaction of Carmarthenshire County Council to any criticism is to dismiss the critics as a small and unrepresentative minority. In the case of the Towy Community Church bowling alley, the list of critics now includes MP Jonathan Edwards, Unison, sections of the press (although not the James Journal), the BBC and many ordinary people who are aghast at this use of public money and the outsourcing of council activities to an evangelical group.
In a switch of PR tactics, it seems that County Hall's Ministry of Spin has taken to branding the bloggers as extremists. Extremist what, though? As almost nobody, no matter how loopy, thinks that their views are extreme, judgement is probably best left to you, dear reader.
Both Cneifiwr and Caebrwyn (who carries an excellent write-up on this story here) have been sounding alarm bells about this project for a long time. As the Western Mail points out in its latest piece, the church's statement of core values says that it believes in the literal truth of the Bible, and that those who reject Christ face eternal conscious punishment.
In its response to criticism, the church emphasises that it wants to help needy people, but can't help adding that it is "passionate about being good news to our communities". And that is the core of the problem when religious groups such as this become involved in social work, because while good deeds are fine, what matters most is persuading others (in this case the weak and vulnerable) to believe what you believe. Put crudely, it's all about winning new recruits.
If that were not the case, the church would be persuading its members to volunteer to work and raise funds for the Citizens Advice Bureau, rather than promoting its own brand of religious debt counselling.
In these times of rapidly rising food and fuel costs, when pay, pensions and benefits are nowhere near keeping up with the cost of living, helping struggling families and individuals to get to grips with their debt problems is more important than ever before, and yet Carmarthenshire is cutting its aid to Citizens Advice by £32,000 over the next three years.
No doubt the council would say that there is no link between the funding for Towy Community Church project and its cuts to CAB, but £32,000 is a drop in the ocean compared with the financial backing the council is giving to the church, and the net result is that CAB will have to cut its services just as the church starts providing a service in a format which the national umbrella organisation for debt counselling, Advice UK, finds inappropriate and unacceptable.
In response to concerns that the church might discriminate against people with different beliefs, on the grounds of sexual orientation, lifestyle, etc., it told the Western Mail that it has a policy in place to make sure this won't happen.
At the same time, however, Towy Community Church is an active member of a number of organisations, including the Evangelical Alliance and Gweini, which campaign against all sorts of things that most of us associate with an open and tolerant society. The Alliance's website contains lots of useful advice on how to discriminate against people you don't like while staying within the law. For example, it gives advice on how to make sure that groups you dislike can't hire church halls (this may come in useful for Towy Community Church's "auditorium" and adjacent church hall). It also approvingly cites a case in which a man who was working as a volunteer for a church in return for board and lodging was thrown out when church elders suspected that he was an active homosexual. Fortunately this had a happy ending, with the church proving that as a volunteer, the man did not enjoy employment rights, while the man himself ended up homeless.
It's good to see that the Alliance and the evangelicals are moving with the times and have ditched all that sentimental nonsense contained in the Sermon on the Mount. A pity that the Equalities Act 2010 is a bit of a headache, but fortunately Towy Community Church has found a partner in Carmarthenshire County Council which doesn't seem to be too bothered about such things.
The Western Mail has done its sums and come up with a total of £1.4 million in grants and loans from the council, the Welsh Government and the Big Lottery Fund (£1.1 million of that total is in grants). Not counted in that figure is the value of the premises themselves, which are being gifted to the church on a 99-year lease at a peppercorn rent.
The total value of publicly funded aid for Phase 1 of the project is actually in excess of £2 million, and the church's own contribution is decidedly modest. In mid 2011 councillors were told that the church was putting in £17,000, although by the end of that year the figure had leapt to £388,000. As noted at the time, it is not at all clear how that figure was arrived at, and the church and the council also put widely different values on unpaid work which had, it was claimed, been carried out by volunteers.
The Welsh Government says that its funding does not "cover the debt counselling service", although it is reasonable to ask how the government can be so sure. After all, the funds will be used to convert the former creamery building into a centre which will be home to a range of activities, including the bowling alley and the debt counselling service. It is a chicken and egg story, in other words.
The project is scheduled to be rolled out in two phases, with Phase 2 including a 500 or 600 seat auditorium (the church and the council can't quite agree on this point). Both are adamant that the auditorium is not a church, although it will be used for church services and comes with a church hall attached.
The council also dishonestly claimed in a recent press release that the two phases of the project were not linked, although in the agreement which was presented to councillors, the church will be given 5 years to complete Phase 2 from the end of Phase 1. That sounds like linkage, doesn't it?
And since we are in the land of chickens and eggs, it is reasonable to point out that Phase 2 could not happen without Phase 1.
Here is the architect's description of the project.
At a recent council meeting the Chief Executive told councillors in response to a question about a different "third sector" organisation, that the council did not normally carry out due diligence in such cases because it relied on central government having done its work.
As we know from the Awema case, that could prove to be a very risky thing to do.
Awema received more than £7 million in public funds, and Phase 1 of the Towy Church project is receiving more than £2 million from the public purse and the Lottery. And that is just for starters, of course. Before the project had even got underway, the church had to go back to the council at the end of 2011 for more money, with the council's top brass telling councillors that the church needed a loan because it had successfully reduced its need for bank loans. Yes, really. And most of the councillors failed to spot the contradiction.
If the Welsh Government wants to demonstrate that it has learned something from the Awema scandal, it should call a halt to the project now and undertake a proper audit of the scheme. Here are just a few questions which they might like to think about:
- Why are there so many discrepancies between what the council and church have said about the project? There are significant discrepancies in the financial information given as well as which activities are covered, and when they will be launched.
- Has the council complied with the requirements of the 2010 Equalities Act and received answers from the church to show that it has in place more than just paper policies to prevent discrimination?
- The church has made changes to its legal status and financial reporting which mean that none of its accounts are now available for public inspection. It said it did this on legal advice, but as a recipient of so much public money, it is reasonable to expect the church to be fully transparent. It is currently anything but.
- What exactly are the counselling and therapy rooms to be used for? Will the church give categorical assurances that it will not revive plans for a Mercy Ministries hostel or similar "counselling" sessions in Carmarthen?
- Why does the church insist on providing its own debt counselling service when there is an established service operated by the CAB which could do with more volunteers and financial support?
- The Big Lottery Fund says that it will only fund projects which show a commitment to providing a bilingual service in the form of bilingual websites, etc, and it recently rejected an application from one of the papurau bro on these grounds. To what extent does the church meet these conditions? Currently only information in English is available.
- The church and the council need to act to dispel public suspicions of inappropriate links between the two organisations. All councillors and senior officers should be required to declare any interests they have in the church, including membership or attendance at church services and events as well as any financial interests.
- Finally, what independent monitoring is in place to safeguard the public interest? The church has appointed its own panel, but is that really adequate?
In extremis, Y Cneifiwr.