Monday 30 July 2012

Fog on the Towy and some Democratic Discharge

The recently published agreement between Carmarthenshire's ruling Labour and Independent groups claims that they will be "open and transparent in everything we do", a claim which seasoned observers of goings on in the County Gaol on the Towy would regard as a dramatic change of policy if true. Indeed, if anything, the powers-that-be are now rowing determinedly in the opposite direction.

One of the council's main shop windows for the public is its website, and this blog has moaned before about the tangled mess of dead-ends, broken links and vanishing data. Within the last few weeks, for example, information on the expense claims submitted by individual councillors has been taken down. Councillors' registers of interests have never been published on the website, but are kept under lock and key with inspection only by prior appointment. There was, however, once a link which at least told you of the existence of this sacred register. Not any more.

A determined citizen who has failed to locate any of this information may be feeling a little frustrated at this point. Surely, councils are obliged by law to make some or all of this information available, aren't they?

Oh, look, here's a promising link entitled "Code of Practice on Public Access to Information". Click, and oh dear, access denied.

Cneifiwr and several other public spirited citizens were therefore not brimming with optimism when they arrived at County Hall today to exercise their right to inspect the council's accounts.

We were ushered in by two very friendly and sympathetic members of staff who, it emerged, had been given strict instructions from on high not to let us leave with any meaningful information on any of the areas of interest we had been asked to list prior to our visit. Certainly no information was to be provided electronically, and some reports could not be made available full stop. The cost for others would be 15p per page.

On the table in front of us were two ring binders of service codes, cost centre codes and account numbers.

The service codes are the highest level category in this hierarchy, and some actually correspond to services you or I may recognise, such as "mobile libraries" or "commercial property". Others are so opaque that it is anybody's guess what lies behind them: "Director's Services", "Corporate Management", that sort of thing.

The numbers range from just a few thousands to hundreds of millions, and the same applies to the cost centre codes, where armchair auditors can expect to find a lot more opaque terms. One of these is "democratic recharge".

Our friendly officer explained that this was a recharge to reflect the time spent by senior officers and others in meetings and, ho-hum, stuff like that. Some of these meetings must be extremely long, because the recharges can run to many tens of thousands of pounds.

But that's not all.

Take that mysterious entry "Director's Services" again. At a guess, this had something to do with education, but there was nothing to indicate what this activity was all about. Costs were duly entered, and totted up, from memory, to about £260,000, only to be reversed down to the last penny by two items headed "Director's Recharge" and "Democratic Recharge". So the project, whatever it was, miraculously cost nothing at all.

On other areas of spending, the documents were commendably clear. If you want to know what services such as Day Care Centres for the Elderly, museums or libraries (mobile or otherwise) are costing, it's there in black and white. These are, of course, all areas that are up for the chop.

When it comes to activities which are closer to the hearts of the council's top brass, such as the propaganda sheet dished out under the title Carmarthenshire News or any of the pet "regeneration" projects, down comes the fog.

Carmarthenshire News is, claims the council, very nearly self-financing. How they arrive at that conclusion is another mystery. Costs for the rag are lumped in with various other items of expenditure under headings such as "Press" and "Direct Communications", but it was, we were told, impossible to break down the costs.

And surprise, surprise, the hefty entries for expenditure from the departments concerned are zeroed out by an elaborate web of recharges, democratic or otherwise. On one reading at one point in the accounts, Pravda even appears to be making a profit.

All I can tell you is that spending on direct communications and press amounted to £637,661 and 4 pence. This is not one of the areas earmarked for cuts.

The Welsh Government is on the warpath against council newspapers, we are told in the Western Mail. Let's just hope that when the boys from Cardiff come to County Hall in Carmarthen to ask about Carmarthenshire News, they are armed with a search warrant.

One old chestnut, the money guzzling golf club at Garnant (home of our beloved leader Kev), makes a surprise appearance, with net expenditure totalling £152,000 against a budgeted £89,600. Buried somewhere deep in another part of the accounts was also a lumpy sum for meals and refreshments at the same golf course.

The council is of course now paying a company to take this particular white elephant off our hands for a few years.

Loans to the National Botanic Gardens and the Scarlets in Llanelli also show up, and the figures match the sums reported in the press. No trace could be found, however, of the £20,000 grant recently given to Scarlets to help it to employ a top notch retired rugby player  management specialist to drum up more business for Parc y Scarlets as a venue for bar mitzvahs, gay weddings and sheepdog trials.

Another mysterious entry for "commercial loans" recorded interest income of just 1 pence. Possibly one of those loans to persons "known to the officers" a la Llangennech business park. Who knows?

Also completely absent was any reference to our latest upcoming attraction, the evangelical bowling alley. We know that this has received very nearly £1.5 million from County Hall in loans, grants, peppercorn leases, etc., but not a whisper appears in the accounts.

According to both the council and the church, the site at Johnstown is a hive of activity, with hundreds of thousands of pounds of work being carried out by volunteers. Nearby residents and passersby believe the volunteers may be oompa loompas, because from the outside nothing whatsoever appears to have happened.

There is more exciting news on this project too, with a contract having been awarded (here) to Pembrokeshire Design Ltd in Milford Haven. Phase II of the project will include counselling/therapy rooms and a "multi-purpose conference centre", an innovative new dictionary definition of "church".

So why not enjoy a spot of bowling before your exorcism therapy?

But that's enough projects for one day.

Interestingly, the School Meals Service broke even, with sales of £4.12 million running well ahead of the budget forecast. Only as recently as January the council was proposing to increase school dinner charges yet again to make them probably the most expensive in Wales. Fortunately someone remembered that an election was looming, so the plan was quietly dropped.

On our way out, our friendly officer said that very few people came to inspect the accounts nowadays, and that freedom of information requests had largely superseded this ancient democratic ritual. I think we can all understand why now.

Emerging blinking into the daylight, it was good to see that the VIP car park, empty when we arrived, was now filled once more with top of the range black BMWs and Mercedes. Kev, Pam, the rest of the Executive Board and assorted senior officers were back from their big day out in Ammanford.

With the cats once more in residence, it was time for the mice to leave.

If I can face it, more accounting news to come.


towy71 said...

My eyeballs are drooping from tedium, information overload and obfuscation, all smoke and mirrors. A strange mix of Dr. Strangelove and the Usual Suspects if you know what I mean ;-)

Anonymous said...

I was pleased and proud to be part of this small and cheerful team. As Cneifiwr explains, the biggest and most interesting finding was that we wouldn't be allowed to find anything out, and even if we did, these interdepartmental "recharges" render any findings pretty meaningless to the lay-person.