Tuesday 28 February 2012

Towy Community Church - who is telling the truth?

Caebrwyn has once again unearthed another piece of interesting information about the Towy Community Church bowling alley saga, which you can read here. It contains a link to a blog run by yet another evangelical organisation called Stewardship in which Towy Community Church's pastor, Mr Mark Bennett, sets out his version of the story as to how the church came to "acquire" the Johnstown creamery site.

The author of the piece, Ruth Leigh, begins with an acknowledgement that, "Massive press coverage of a church and its activities isn’t always a particularly good thing."

I wonder why?

Just in case anyone decides to do a bit of historical editing, here is the interesting bit. The highlighting is my own:

Rewinding nine years, Senior Leader Mark Bennett recalls planting the church in Johnstown. “We stepped out in faith,” he explains. “We didn’t have a penny in our bank account, but we had a heart for connecting with our community.” The town was affluent but had pockets of poverty. TCC began to engage with the community’s practical needs by running a debt centre, a Christmas hamper scheme and a centre for performing arts for young people.

All this needed sound support. Mark already had a longstanding relationship with Stewardship. “They’d helped us with insurance and building projects at our previous church. I would often ring for advice.” When the church decided to set up a Trust, Stewardship was the obvious place to go. “We have received fantastic pearls of wisdom from Stewardship,” recalls Mark. “They have been a key part of our endeavours over the years, always generous with their time and advice.”

TCC was aware that Johnstown had a long-held desire for a bowling alley, so after prayerful consideration, they took the bold step of applying for funding to build an alley for the use of the entire community. Mark had already spotted an old factory site which he thought would make the ideal base for community projects. The church had an excellent relationship with Carmarthenshire County Council, so Mark approached them to discuss his idea. The Council bought the 2.7 acre site and in a remarkable act of generosity transferred it to the church free of charge.

Back in December 2011, the county council's chief executive gave councillors a rather different version of this story. He said that originally the council had wanted to have a bowling alley as a part of its St Catherine's Walk development in Carmarthen, but that negotiations with the interested party had fallen through.

He did not give us any dates or details, but it must have been very soon after that that another interested party popped up, apparently expressing an interest in the Johnstown site. On the strength of those discussions, the council had purchased the former creamery, only to see negotiations fall through for a second time. It was at that point that Towy Community Church arrived on the scene.

Mr Bennett, it seems, saw things rather differently, with the church taking the lead, and the council generously coughing up the necessary funds.

Needless to say, only one of these versions can be correct. Which is it? The chief executive, who has throughout taken the lead in this project, has some serious questions to answer. Here are just a few:

  • What was the identity of the mysterious interested party which engaged in talks with the council to convert the former St Ivel site into a bowling alley?
  • Why did the council go ahead and purchase the site without, apparently, securing a contractually binding agreement with that interested party?
  • Did the council follow all of the relevant rules and guidelines when it decided to purchase the site?
  • Was the approval of councillors sought for the purchase, or was this a delegated decision?
  • Did the council first approach Towy Community Church, or did the church go to the council with proposals for the site?
  • At what point was it agreed that the church should take over the site?
Of course, this is not the first time that there have been inconsistencies between statements made by the church and the council. The history of the project is littered with them.

Bearing in mind the audit trail of other troubled projects, including the Princess Royal Sports Arena and Parc y Scarlets, the Wales Audit Office would be well advised to take a very close look at the way in which public money has been thrown into what the church calls Project Xcel.


Anonymous said...

This just gets worse!

lesleyw said...

I think this article is dated July 2010 so it had certainly all been organised considerably before the December 2011 you quote.be

Cneifiwr said...

Yes, you're right. The Stewardship blogpost is from July 2010, and the council meeting at which Mark James gave his account was in December 2011. The council bought the site in Johnstown back in early 2007. If I remember right, the council paid £835,000 for the creamery, and it has since written that down to £750,000. In the meantime, it has been paying between £50,000 and £60,000 a year in rates, etc., so the total cost of the purchase is now well over £1 million.