Saturday 14 December 2013

An independent valuation

In the 1970s world of Old Welsh Labour inhabited by Carmarthenshire County Council leader Kevin Madge, questionable land deals are punctuated by reminiscences of bopping the night away at Top Rank, and any woman who raises her voice in anger is, by definition, hysterical.

So when Cllr Siân Caiach accused him of being responsible for the bizarre deal cooked up by the council with the Scarlets, Henry Davidson and Marstons, Kev's response is that she was being hysterical.

The poor old readers of what is left of the Carmarthen Journal must be scratching their heads again as they read that Kevin Madge has set the record straight about a row which has been rumbling on for months, but which never got a mention in the paper until it was told to print a press release hot off the printer from County Hall. You can read the press release for yourselves here, but be warned that visitors to the Journal's new-look website are likely to find that their screens are invaded by all sorts of unwanted and unwelcome advertising.

Boiled down to its essentials, Kevin Madge's message is:

  • A deal to slash interest payments on a council loan to the Scarlets and the land deal, which saw the Scarlets walk off with £600,000 of the £850,000 proceeds, were in no way related. Cllr Caiach's question was whether the senior councillors who approved the deal on interest rates had been made aware of the Marstons deal. Kev has not answered the question.
  • The piece of land involved in the deal was of no use to the council or the Scarlets. Fair enough, but the council taxpayer surely has a right to expect that public assets will not be given away.
  • The decision to sell the land was delegated to the council's head of property in consultation with Cllr Jeff Edmunds, with the District Valuer being asked to advise on how the proceeds were split. That is the official line, but there is good reason to believe that someone else was calling the shots.
  • The reason why the Scarlets took out a lease on the Red Room in the Eastgate development was apparently to ease the concerns of Henry Davidson, which felt that the Marstons pub could undermine the Eastgate Centre. Oh really?
  • The new Marstons pub and the Red Room have created 193 full and part-time (and overwhelmingly low-paid) jobs. Great, but if the council gives away public assets to anyone who says they are going to open a pub or bar, there soon won't be any assets left to give away. And perhaps the two new ventures really do employ 193 people, but there must be a lot more more staff than customers at times.
  • Finally, Kevin Madge says that Cllr Caiach has said that he personally agreed the terms of the sale. The truth is that Cllr Edmunds told her that his boss was kept informed of what was being discussed.
What Cllr Madge's "clarification" amounts to is a smoke screen of evasiveness.

At last week's council meeting the Head of Resources, Roger Jones, told councillors that Jonathan Fearn, the head of property, had disagreed with the District Valuer's split of the proceeds.

Would the District Valuer really have awarded the Scarlets, who had not paid a penny for the lease, £600,000 of the £850,000 sales price, and awarded the club £280,000 in allowable expenses to set up the Red Room? If so, there is something deeply wrong with the District Valuer. If the claims are true, it surely undermines public trust in the valuation office.

If Mr Fearn was in the chamber, he was not given an opportunity to speak for himself, and he must be feeling very uncomfortable at having this albatross of a deal hung around his neck. By all accounts, Mr Fearn is a decent and scrupulously honest man, and it was his misfortune to be given the job of fronting the negotiations along with Cllr Jeff Edmunds, who would also seem to have deep reservations about what happened here.

The Wales Audit Office has been asked to investigate this very peculiar arrangement, and in the meantime a the council can expect a Freedom of Information request asking for disclosure of the report produced by the District Valuer.


caebrwyn said...

It was ironic that had Kevin Madge not brought the matter up himself on Wednesday nothing would have been said, he must have forgotten the golden rule of the Carms Council executive never to bring up a contentious issue in public...and especially in front of the cameras. Their job, along with those on the Top Table is to silence those that do.

By accusing Cllr Caiach he dug himself, and whoever engineered the deal, into a very public black hole.

The very fact that the £280,000 'allowable expenses' was kept under wraps until it was 'leaked' by Cllr Edmunds speaks volumes.

As you say, the disclosure of the DV report is essential and should be readily available due to the length of time which has passed since the deal was made.

And if Jonathan Fearn did disagree with the terms of the 'split', and we have no reason to doubt Roger Jones when he said so, then it would be helpful to everyone if those representations were also made available.

I wonder whether a few more councillors are now reflecting on just what exactly they've been nodding through the system over the past few years.

sian caiach said...

As recounted to me, the story was that the owners of the Eastgate, HDD, has originally offered to broker the sale of the carpark to a large out of town retail unit. The Scarlets were offered the units in the Eastgate in part to help fill the units as not enough traders had been prepared to come there.
The Scarlets were advanced £280,000 by HDD to fit out their units. The retail sale deal fell through and the outstanding debt to HDD was subsequently covered buy the car park sale to Marston's as an "allowable expense" due to the positive nature of that particular investment by the Scarlets in the town centre area.
No mention of compensating HDD for loss of business in town due to the new pub.
The District Valuer will presumably be able to tell us when the report is released.
My concern has been not only that Senior Councillors may not know how much the Scarlets are receiving in public funds but also the State Aid 3 year rule restricting donations from councils to £169,000 [200,000 euros] per 3 years.
Apparently, I am assured by council officers, this does not apply to the land sale or the loan interest as the council have a legal opinion to that effect. I think its about time they showed it to me or I will continue to be concerned about the legality

Anonymous said...

Given the recent doubts over the pension plan arrangements, if I was a council officer I might be wondering about the soundness of the legal opinion the council has been given wrt to the land sale!

Anonymous said...

I sometimes think you're walking a bit of a tightrope when you comment on the Journal. But in this case I think you've hit the nail on the head.

I would have far more respect for the Carmarthen Journal publishing that lengthy response if it had bothered to cover just a single sentence of this whole farce previously. Without the bloggers, county residents would be none the wiser of how public assets have been given away.

In saying that, the paper did run a piece this week on the exec board's decision to overturn the pension arrangements. Wonders never cease!

Anonymous said...

When will Kevin Madge realise it is he who is like an ostrich (not sitting in the sand as he put it during the meeting in Nov) burying his head in the sand, hoping it will all go away?