Tuesday 1 November 2011

Alarm Bells - Little Richard versus Cliff Richard

More on this week's meeting of Carmarthenshire's Executive Board meeting.

As Caebrwyn has pointed out, the board considered two "exempt" reports at the end of the meeting, meaning that the public (all one of them) were asked to leave so that two reports on the Towy Community Church bowling alley project and the former Technium site at Dafen in Llanelli could be approved in secret.

The Towy Community Church project is worth looking at in some detail, because alarm bells should be ringing in County Hall about something which could swallow up huge amounts of taxpayers' money.

The church itself is an evangelical grouping run by a married couple, Mark and Nicola Bennett, and it has hugely ambitious plans for not just a 10 pin bowling alley, but also a conference centre, a cafe, a furniture recycling centre, a food bank, a debt counselling service, a performing arts venue for teenagers and a service aimed at helping what evangelicals might describe as "fallen women" (see the link here).

There is no reason to question the group's sincerity, and depending on your point of view, at least some of these activities could be of benefit to local people. Of course, we already have a national network called Citizen's Advice run by volunteers to help with things like debt counselling, and there are many charities involved in helping women who are the victims of violence and abuse, or struggling to escape from prostitution and drug and alcohol dependency. Why does Carmarthen need more of these? Why don't church members simply go and join existing charities and contribute that way? After all, pooling resources is usually much more effective than creating more splinter groups.

The answer would presumably be that they want their services to reflect their own particular ethos, and being evangelicals, they almost certainly also see this as a way of getting new recruits.

Which brings us to the bowling alley. When you think about bowling alleys, the image conjured up is usually 1950s America, with lots of chrome, burgers, popcorn, bottles of Budweiser and rock 'n' roll. Somehow, it's hard to see the church approving the sale of alcohol or playing Little Richard's hits. Cliff Richard, perhaps.

So how does a bowling alley fit in with the church's "vision"? Who are the potential customers? Given that the site in Johnstown is quite a long way out of the town centre, and that bowling alleys are not cheap, it is unlikely to become a mecca for teenagers negotiating the dual carriageways and roundabouts on foot. And would they really want to spend a wholesome evening sipping fruit juices, listening to gospel rock and reading evangelical pamphlets? Much the same probably applies to the bulk of the rest of the town's sinful citizens.

Apart from its two full-time directors, Mr and Mrs Bennett, does the church have any experience or expertise in running a huge, multi-million pound project? Is it going to employ someone who does? Questions, questions, and very few answers.

Let's look at some of the numbers.

The bowling alley is just one phase of this ambitious project, and is budgeted to come in at £2.25 million. Where is this money coming from given that the church itself had managed, according to the county council's report earlier this year, to raise just £17,000 towards the cost?

The Lottery has weighed in with a grant of just under £800,000 (£798,202 to be precise). Now here's a funny thing. When councillors were given sight of the numbers earlier this year, they were told by the Chief Executive that the Lottery grant was £500,000. Somehow, £300,000 appear to have gone astray somewhere.

In addition to the Lottery, the council had also approved grants totalling £104,000, with a further £300,000 from the Wales Community Facilities and Activities Fund, plus £68,000 pending from the Wales Rural Development Plan.

One of the commercial banks bailed out a couple of years back with taxpayers' money had advanced loans to the church approaching £750,000, leaving a shortfall of £280,000 which Carmarthenshire agreed to fill. Strangely, the shortfall was almost equal to the missing £300,000 from the Lottery grant.

In addition to the grants and other council funding, the county council also agreed to lease the former St Ivel creamery to the church on a peppercorn lease for 99 years. The value of the site, purchased just a couple of years previously by the council as a "strategic investment", was put at £750,000.

As things stood in May, therefore, the council's contribution to the project was well in excess of £1 million.

All of this information was declared exempt on the grounds that disclosure might damage the council's own financial interests. Let's test that claim.

There are five main parties to this agreement: the church itself with an equity stake of just £17,000 (rather less than 1% of the project cost); the county council; the Welsh Government through its grants; the Lottery and the bank, with the bank being the sole truly commercial operation involved.

As anyone who has tried to borrow money from a bank will know, a loan of £750,000 will come with a lot of strings attached. It will have to be secured on assets, and given that the church appears to have no significant assets (it does not even own a church building), an important question has to be: what is the security for these loans? Surely not the council-owned building? Or is the council acting as guarantor? If the project goes belly up after all the cash has been spent, who will pick up the pieces?

Also, as anyone will know, no bank will advance sums of this kind without conducting exhaustive enquiries into every aspect of the project and its funding. No stone will have been left unturned, and every last dot and comma of the council's commitment will have been disclosed to the bank.

In other words, we can take it as read that all of the parties to the agreement will have had full sight of all of the numbers. The only one which hasn't is the sixth party, which is you, me and the rest of the taxpaying public.

Against that background, it is hard to see how the public interest test could have been applied to exempt this information from publication.

Almost certainly the same applies to the Technium site in Llanelli, which the council is proposing to lease or purchase from the Welsh Government. Unless there is some hitherto undisclosed private sector operator involved, this transaction would appear to be taking place between two arms of government with public money. Again, the public interest test does not appear to have been applied correctly.

The fact that both of these projects (the bowling alley and Technium) have come back to the Executive Board suggests that there have been significant new developments which require decisions taken at the most senior level. It is a fair bet that in the case of the bowling alley, the reason could well be that the council is being asked to deepen its commitment.


caebrwyn said...

It would be interesting to know whether the Executive Board approved yesterday's capital loan and if so, the conditions attached. It is (I would think) be likely to go before full council so let's hope, as there is public money again involved, that is not discussed 'in camera'.
On the subject of exempt reports I notice the next Environment Scrutiny meeting has an exempt item; Cwm Environmental (there is no further detail) - as this is a subsidiary company, 'wholly owned' by Carmarthenshire Council one would think this may be subject to a favourable public interest test and not be exempt.

Cneifiwr said...

We can but hope, but I would be willing to bet that there will be no public discussion. Since the full council agreed last time to delegate the matter to a member of the Executive Board, it may even turn out that the councillors will not be consulted again.

If they are, let's hope that one or two of them ask some searching questions.

Photon said...

Sounds ver interesting, Cneifiwr and, as always, wonderfully written.

As to information, I'd have to see what, if any, responses have been issued so far. But, and I hate to sound like I'm dropping the gauntlet here, if you think the public interest test hasn't been properly applied, you can take the matter to the Information Tribunal. There are reasonable amounts of case information abvailable on which to judge the merits of any potential new case.

Cneifiwr said...

Thanks for the advice, Photon. Time to take a deep breath and start writing.

croesbleddyn said...

Do we know what links the Towy Community Church has with Carms County Council? Is there, for instance, a powerful officer (or his/her family) who is also a member of the congregation of this church?

Cneifiwr said...

Croesbleddyn, none that we know of, although one, ahem, very senior officer is known to be an active member of a similar group called "The Living Word" in Carmarthen. You just missed a prayer meeting, but I am sure there will be another one before long.


Anonymous said...

Cyngor Sir Gar have a colourful history of doling moniees out to all and sundry without checking credentials or the viability of a project. Let's see - Garnant Golf Club, National Botanic Garden of Wales (which receives no subsidy from any other unitary authority despite the "National" moniker; the ill fated media technium which meant that Coleg Gelli Aur was sold for a song to a crook (although a browse through his business interests on companies House wesbite would have sounded the alarm to any idiot). He was also given £100,000s public grant money and left the place in the pitiful state it now is. Can you think of any others?