Friday 9 December 2011

Towy Community Church - full steam ahead

In what was almost certainly a first in the history of Carmarthenshire, the county council decided to lift the exemption on the report it had prepared for councillors at its meeting on 7 December, and it also agreed to discuss the proposed loan of £270,000 to the church in open session. This unique concession to transparency was, we were told, because of recent press reports and "rumours".

The council had met on three previous occasions to discuss loans and grants to the church, and on each occasion the public was excluded from the meetings and the reports were not published.

All of which begs the question, why could information be made public at the meeting on 7 December when on legal advice, the same information could not be disclosed at earlier meetings? What had changed apart from public disquiet?

The obvious answer is that the public interest exemptions at previous meetings were wrongly applied, and the likelihood is that many of the other exemptions used by the council in recent years were also applied for no good reason other than that the chief executive and Executive Board did not want the public to see what was being done in their name and with their money.

To nobody's surprise, the proposed loan of £270,000 was voted through by a large majority of councillors, and the project is now well underway. It is unlikely, however, that we have heard the last of this, and there are now five areas of concern:

(i) The discrepancies between statements made by the council and the church and the financial structure of the project.
(ii) The church's links to other organisations with extremist or overtly right-wing political aims.
(iii) The extent to which the council intends to outsource social care to religious groups.
(iv) The likelihood that the tax payers of Carmarthenshire will find that they have not just subsidised a bowling alley, but have also helped pay for the building of a new fundamentalist church. 
(v) That in its eagerness to help the project, the council in the form of its senior officers and the Executive Board, has neglected its duty of care to ensure that the interests of the council and the residents of Carmarthenshire are protected. 

 There are so many glaring differences between what the church has said and what the councillors have been told, that it is hard to know where to begin. Here are just a couple.

Back in May councillors were told that the church had managed to raise £17,000 towards the £2 million plus project. Since then, the church's contribution has shot up to nearly £388,540. The report presented on 7 December states that volunteer time provided by the church's members is valued at £119,864 (a very precise figure), with a further capital investment of £191,000. In addition the church will make a revenue contribution of £78,000.

The contribution of unpaid volunteers to this figure is impressive. As the EB's report coyly notes elsewhere, "some enabling works have been undertaken by TCC to the interior and exterior of the property to reduce the scope and cost of the construction contract and to improve the building at no cost to the Council."

Only a month ago chief executive Mark James said that the church had saved itself more than £200,000 by carrying out some of the building work itself. Was an independent valuation of the work carried out? Why does the report now value the work at £119,000?

The church says that the bank loan of £300,000 is secured on the inventory of the bowling alley. The council says it is secured on the lease of the building.

Despite being the largest investor in the project, the council is ranked only third in the list of creditors, with both the bank and the Lottery having priority claims on whatever is left in the event of a collapse of the scheme. Indeed, the bank, which is contributing the least by a long way, would walk away with the building for the remainder of the 99-year lease.

The council argues that it had to agree to this in order to safeguard the project, because both the bank and the Lottery made funding conditional upon these terms. The councillors and the senior officers have a duty of care to the Council itself and to council tax payers, but it now seems clear that they have put the interests of the Council and the public below the interests of the church and the project.
It was obvious at the council meeting on 7 December that very few of the councillors actually understood the report or how much the council is actually giving the church. All but one of the councillors who spoke underestimated the extent of the council's contribution by a massive extent.

If we examine the reports produced by the Council, the total contribution so far is as follows:

Capital grant: £280,000
Other grants from council funds (including a £45,000 grant from CWM Environmental, the council's wholly-owned waste company) : £104,000 to £172,000*
Loan at 3%: £270,000
Building valued at £750,000 for 99 years.

* There is some uncertainty over whether the church has received a rural development grant of £68,000 in addition to the various other funds.

That adds up to £1,472,000 or £1,404,000, depending on the RDP grant.

Most councillors seemed to think that the total exposure was £560,000.

Normally the chief executive is very quick to correct councillors who make statements which contain factual inaccuracies, at least when it suits him. On Wednesday he sat silent.

Again, most of the councillors seemed to believe that the funding would support a furniture recycling project and a food bank in addition to the bowling alley. The chief executive neglected to point out that both the food bank and furniture recycling were existing schemes which are not dependent on the bowling alley project.

A couple of times Phase II of the Xcel project were mentioned, but the chief executive was quick to say that that was something else, and was a future project.

Phase II of the Xcel project will involve building a 600 seater auditorium, cafe and debt counselling centre. Under the terms of the church's agreement with the council, Phase II will have to complete within 5 years of Phase I (the bowling alley). It may be in the future, but it is not that far down the road, and there is a near certainty that the public purse will be raided yet again when the time comes.

The church's pastor, Mark Bennett, had been invited to address the councillors, and he gave them assurances that the entire project had been scoped carefully, that accountants, etc. had all been involved. He did, however, reveal that the church would be making use of Phase II of the project, and that the building would become the church's new home.

Without Phase I of the project, there could be no Phase II. What this means in plain terms is that the people of Carmarthenshire have made a huge contribution towards the cost of what will be a new church with a bowling alley attached. 

Nobody raised the sensitive subjects of the church's links to Mercy Ministries or other controversial organisations. Councillor Pam Palmer touched very briefly on this when she referred to rumours, by which she presumably meant facts she would rather not have aired.

To their credit, quite a few councillors did question the council's priorities at a time when services are being cut everywhere, including the scrapping of the schools' music budget of £20,000.

But it was clear that the chief executive and other top brass had decided a long time ago that they were going to have their bowling alley, come hell or high water. When their initial attempts to get a bowling alley incorporated into the St Catherine's Walk shopping centre development in Carmarthen failed, they entered into talks with a company to open a bowling alley in Johnstown. Before the agreement was signed and implemented, the council showed just how eager it was by buying up the empty St Ivel creamery. Unfortunately the company concerned thought better of the idea, and the deal collapsed.

This left the Council with an empty factory on its hands, which it is now paying Towy Community Church to take over. Quite some investment!


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