Coastal (Creating Opportunities And Skills Team Alliance) is a collaborative venture between six local authorities, from Bridgend in the east to Ceredigion in the west, set up to promote "vocational guidance, employment, skills training and lifelong learning" for people with disabilities, long-term physical or mental illness, young people moving from long-term care into adulthood and those with substance misuse problems.
The organisation's business plan (here) says it aims to "comprehensively identify need in the participant group and to link these with the needs of the local economy and labour market, in order to develop bespoke training and educational packages for participants, [which] will be of great benefit in addressing the needs of both groups, by providing individuals with the appropriate skills required to match the needs of the labour market."
The Business Plan, published in October 2008, was asking for £24.7 million from its local authorities and "delivery service agents", with a further £27 million coming from European Structural Funds. This funding would take it through an initial period of 4.5 years.
Almost all of the target client group will be surviving on benefits, and back in 2008 Coastal said that the average annual benefit (excluding Council Tax benefit and housing benefit) was £5,500.
The financial justification for the project was to reduce the benefits bill by getting people back into full-time paid employment:
"If the number of individuals projected to enter employment as a result of engagement with the project, i.e. 2,870, were to enter sustainable employment and remain so for more than 12 months, the annual saving on benefit cost to the Treasury would be @ £15,785,000. (N.B. This cost does not take into account additional cost elements such as Housing and Council Tax Benefits.) Such a saving would mean that the project could become cost neutral in two years."
That was a very big "if", as we shall see.
Overall, the Business Plan said that Coastal would aim to help "an estimated" 9,000 people, with 5,400 of those gaining a qualification.
Those were the targets in October 2008. The costs can be cut and diced in a variety of ways, but one measure is to work out the cost of getting 2,870 people into full-time employment through Coastal. Over 4.5 years, that initial target worked out at £17,770 per individual.
If we spread the costs over the estimated 9,000 people expected to receive help, the cost per person works out at £5,666 over 4.5 years, or slightly more than the cost of one year of benefit payments. The annual cost works out at £1,260 per person.
In October 2011 a firm of consultants, Wavehill, was engaged to evaluate the results to date (report here). The goalposts had shifted somewhat since 2008, with a significant reduction in proposed targets:
Target group 8,500 9,000
Sustainable employment 1,000 2,870
Gaining a qualification 6,500 5,400
"Positive outcomes" 8,100 8,570
Three years in, and the target which was the initial financial justification for the project had been reduced from 32% of participants gaining full-time employment to 11.8%. The ambition of becoming cost neutral had clearly been missed by a mile.
Getting people with serious long-term disabilities and mental health problems into full-time paid employment was always going to be very difficult, hence the shift of emphasis to the much easier targets of qualifications and positive outcomes.
No doubt Coastal has defined what constitutes qualifications and positive outcomes somewhere.
By the end of June 2011, Coastal had provided support to just 2,194 people. In other words, it was way off its original target of 9,000.
Even worse, the number of participants gaining full-time employment was just 37 (1.68%) or 31 (1.4% of those supported), depending on which bit of the Wavehill report you believe. Pointing out the obvious, consultants Wavehill noted,
"Clearly, at the current rate of progress, far fewer participants will achieve employment outcomes than anticipated when the COASTAL project was planned."
The number of participants gaining a qualification by June 2011 was just 114, or 2% of the target of 5,400, while those achieving "other positive outcomes" was just 23% of the original target (according to Wavehill, although the numbers do not add up).
Apparently things were going rather better in Carmarthenshire, where the first Coastal newsletter in July 2012 claimed that 89% of participants had achieved a positive outcome. Strangely, the Carmarthenshire team did not provide any numbers for people finding a job or gaining a qualification.
The problem with all this, Wavehill noted, was that the terms of the ESF contract (to get people into employment) were not being met, and there was a serious risk that European funding would be lost. One of the key recommendations was to consider whether a chunk of the participants unlikely ever to find a job should be taken out of the project and allocated to social care.
Bringing us up to date
The Wavehill report takes us up to June 2011, and the project's initial enthusiasm for publishing targets and reports has cooled somewhat since then. In fact, there is no published data to show us how Coastal has been doing in the last two years.
The Wavehill report shows that there were concerns about whether Coastal would be able to retain its ESF funding, but nobody seems to have been worried about whether the £24.7 million pledged by the councils was safe. Since Coastal is run by the local authorities, perhaps they were right to take that for granted.
What the Wavehill report does not tell us is how much of the £51.7 million had been spent by June 2011, which was 2.5 years into the 4.5 year initial project duration. If spending was anything like on target, the project represents spectacularly poor value for money, given the results. In fact, based on the results, Coastal did not need a single penny of the ESF money, and it should have been able to survive on a fraction of the local authority funding pledged.
Assuming that Coastal was fully funded during the period and managed to get through all of its annual budgets, the cost of placing those 31 or 37 people in employment was either £926,000 or £776,000 per person.
The only way we could hope to get near the truth is if Coastal were to publish an annual statement of accounts, which it does not. The complex delivery model and set-up involving multiple local authorities and delivery agencies also means that there is plenty of scope for creative accounting hidden in a thicket of cross-charges.
Another job for the Wales Audit Office, perhaps.
The Client Experience
The reports we have looked at are all written in the weird and opaque language of management consultants and local authority-ese. To get an idea of what Coastal actually means to participants, you could try looking at some of the projects listed on the Coastal website (here).
You could try, but many of the links are broken.
So here are a couple of real-life examples, with names and some details changed to help protect their identities.
Ray is 53 years old and lives in sheltered housing. He has mental health issues and a low IQ. He has had jobs in the past, but has never been able to hold them down for very long. His most recent job was in a charity shop, but he resigned because he felt that he should be managing it, and the charity thought otherwise.
Ray was born in Wolverhampton, and has no family locally. He survives - just - on benefits, and for three or four days each week he says he eats porridge. He cannot afford a telephone, and has no access to the Internet.
Coastal has sent Ray on lots of courses. Some of the courses were entirely unsuited to Ray's abilities, but he did his best. Some were actually quite a bit of fun, such as a one day course in how to use a fire extinguisher.
Attending the courses probably went down as "positive outcomes", while the fire extinguisher certificate may have counted towards the qualifications statistics.
Two years after becoming involved with Coastal, Ray is still hoping to get a job.
Joan is 55 and has severe learning difficulties along with other physical problems. She suffers from epilepsy, and is often unable to leave home for several days at a time because of her health problems.
Coastal has also been arranging courses for Joan, but just as with Ray, some of the courses required literacy and cognitive skills she simply does not possess.
Joan's health problems mean that she is rarely able to complete courses.
Remember the "bespoke training and educational packages" which Coastal said it would develop for its participants? The nasty sting in the tail for people like Ray and Joan and other Coastal clients who find themselves on inappropriate courses is that non-attendance or dropping out mean that they are likely to be sanctioned (i.e. lose benefits).
Despite its record, Coastal seems set to carry on. The fact that it is still with us suggests that the review of funding Wavehill was so worried about back in October 2011 somehow passed off without too much trouble.
The initial four and a half years of the project was up in the middle of this year, but it seems that someone concluded that it had been so successful that it was given a further lease of life.
In Carmarthenshire the council and the European Regional Development Fund together put £2 million into the redevelopment of the Coleshill "Centre of Economic Inclusion" which re-opened in spring 2012. Now the council is proposing to unload the centre, which is the flagship of its part of the Coastal project, onto an unnamed social enterprise.
The tragedy for Wales is that European funds meant to regenerate and develop the Welsh economy have been frittered away by Carmarthenshire and other local authorities in a way which is not much different to what happened in Greece.
Meanwhile the tried and tested Remploy model which did provide employment to many people with disabilities in Wales has been butchered by the UK government which believes that there are more effective ways of getting people into work. Let's hope it wasn't thinking of Coastal.